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.
5 thoughts on “My Five-Year-Old Child”
………..thanks for sharing. Many similarities in our childhood years. No one had a perfect childhood. If someone tells you that they probably are deep in denial. Some were better than others but we are what we are in spite of those years. After all our parents were just human also. Mine were products of a horribly abusive background and were lucky to have survived. That being the case I like to think of all we have accomplished in spite of the :not so perfect childhood.
Alise, you know I love you, and I love this! Your candor and humility – truly inspiring. Thank you for shining your light for all to see.
A profound discovery….
It’s trult amazing how an early incident can shape decades of living. Been there and continue to do that! But now for me, it’s always with the awareness of “oh here’s this thing, again!” And not letting the 5 year old run the show. Just saw “Lady Bird” a great movie that’s largely about a teenage girl and her mom. There’s a part in it that’s similar to the interaction you describe with your mom. It really resonated with me because cold silence was definitely my moms style as well and it was devastTing. I didn’t even have the where withall to beg my mom to talk to me. Just froze in the awful feeling of being banished from ever feeling her love again.
Anyway it’s great to come out in the other side of that and see things with new eyes. As a parent I’ve found my self giving Gabe the cold shoulder and remembering how that felt, am quick to stay connected even while bitching at him about how mad or disappointed I was in what he did. ANYTHING is better than that silent walll!
But at those times MY 5 year old or 15 year old is triggered. And I react the same way. It’s a process ever ongoing and I’m grateful for the forgiveness and resilience of all around me. We are all just muddling thru trying to be our best selves amidst all of the blunders. I’m so happy you’ve made this connection about the past, because I see you as insanely gifted and competent and with so much light to share with the world!
Gosh Kath thanks. I also was heartened to hear you had similar interactions. Sometimes we feel so alone, and this is why I put myself out there in my writing …to let others know that they aren’t alone