My Five-Year-Old Child

As this year comes to a close, I reflect back on my continued quest to uncover behaviors and beliefs that have caused me unhappiness. I’ve examined in earnest my emotional behavior and my feelings, behavior and actions during all my relationships. After much painful and thorough introspection, I’ve had a huge revelation – those emotions are those of a five-year-old. And suddenly I’ve realized that my inner five-year-old child has been running my life.

A five-year-old child isn’t capable of thinking about anyone except herself. She’s not capable of considering anyone’s feelings but her own or the ramification of her actions. A five-year-old will often say or do anything so as not to anger or disappoint those from whom she receives love and approval.

My emotional five-year-old child has been most keenly evident in my personal relationships. Looking back not only on the most recent relationship, but also several of my previous relationships, I realize that I have manipulated my partners. Not at all out of malice, but completely in the way a five-year-old manipulates – out of fear. Fear that my partner would be angry, reject me, stop loving me, and leave me feeling alone and unloved. That’s when my little five-year-old would surface, doing anything she/I desperately could to feel secure and avoid that sting of rejection.

I’ve looked back into my childhood, hoping to uncover the source of that fear and feeling of rejection. I can think of two specific events very clearly having that awful, desperate feeling in the pit of my stomach.

For a span of a couple of years, my mom and I had a difficult relationship. I never felt it more keenly than one Mother’s Day back when I was about eleven years old. I’d done something to anger her, I can’t recall specifically what it was.  I remember being down in the basement with her – she was standing over the washing machine, cold and silent in her anger – and trying desperately to get some reassurance from her. I tried talking to her, reasoning with her and finally I cried out, “but I still love you,” hoping that she, even amidst the anger and frustration she felt at the moment, would reply in kind. I waited… but she said nothing. It was the one of the most painful rejections of my life. I felt, to my core, bad and unlovable.

The second incident happened when I was around twelve. One summer night, a group of my friends and I sneaked over to the forest preserve just past the high school, less than a mile from my house, without notifying our parents. We had pilfered a bottle of Southern Comfort, and  got ourselves thoroughly drunk drinking the sweet liquor straight out of the bottle. I had no idea of the passage of time and no idea of the time of night as I staggered home in the dark. Halfway home, a car pulled up next to me; it was my older brother Joe, who had been frantically driving around town looking for me. He loaded me into the car, and I have a vague recollection of him driving us around the dark parking lot in the nearby mall, waiting for me to sober up as he told me about the similar stupid things he’d done when he was my age. The next morning my mom greeted me with stoic coldness. A few hours later, I approached her on eggshells to ask if I could go up to the local swimming pool for the afternoon and, without even looking in my direction, she replied coldly, “Do what you want.” I’ll never forget the lurching, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach at her reply. I felt utterly rejected.

I’m not blaming my mom at all. I’m sure that in the midst of her emotions she just didn’t know how to manage them enough to reassure me that although she was furious with my actions, she still loved me. I know that my mom loves me completely, with her whole heart, and she always has, even in the midst of our struggles. But at the time, all I felt was the anger and rejection, and for some reason, I internalized that into, not that I’d DONE something bad, but that I WAS bad.

That feeling of shame and unworthiness stuck and has followed me my entire life, lurking in the shadows, waiting for any criticism, any failure, or any rejection to spring forth and punch me in the stomach, reinforcing my feelings of shame and unworthiness.

Coincidentally (or not), I recently watched a wonderful lecture by Brené Brown. In that lecture, she discussed the important difference between shame and guilt.  Guilt is I did something bad. Shame is I AM bad. It’s a distinction that has the capacity to make a huge difference in one’s life. With guilt, you realize you made a mistake, and you can choose the next time to do things differently. With shame, however, there is no redemption. You are bad, and no matter what anyone tells you, from your parents to your teachers to your friends to your significant others, you disregard that and go back to that belief that you are unworthy of love. Growing up, I was totally unable to make the distinction between guilt and shame, and I believe that’s where that little scared five-year-old surfaced. Now, however, I finally get the distinction between shame and guilt, and for the first time in my life, I realize that I’m not bad….I’m human. It’s like a weight is off my shoulders.

As I look back on this year, I’ve had ups and downs and many struggles, but I believe I’m moving forward. I take responsibility for the immature, fear-based behavior of my five-year-old in my most recent relationship but thankfully, I’m not overwhelmed with shame. I believe very strongly that our relationships serve as opportunities for learning and growth. I look at the huge lesson that I’ve learned, a revelation that has the potential  to change my life, not only in future relationships, but in all other aspects of my life as well.

My five-year-old? I’ll embrace her, I’ll nurture her, and reassure her that she is truly worthy of love and belonging. Then, I’m hopeful that she will no longer feel the need to act out and I can have healthier relationships with everyone in my life.