Sara had been doing primal therapy for few years to help her heal from her childhood as the only child of a single alcoholic parent. She had come a long way in healing the abandonment and neglect she’d felt as a little girl who’d sit next to her drunk unconscious mother. Sara said she felt terrified at those times as she never knew if her mother was dead or alive. She was too small to lift her intoxicated mother (her parents split up when she was 18 months) and too scared to wake her as it always resulted in a drunken outburst at Sara. She had to sit silently next to her mother for as long as she could before putting herself to bed. As a child, she felt confused, scared, and often humiliated and completely alone in this nightmare with her mother.
Sara first came to therapy because she wanted to work on her communication with others. On an almost daily basis she’d react to people and shut down in silent anger – it exhausted her. Growing up Sara learnt that people responded well to her attractive appearance and to her wit, so she survived by performing for others. Hiding her strength and developing a sweet, demure persona was the way Sara got love and attention. She was afraid to be herself because she believed that it would upset others like it did her mother. And if she did upset others, Sara felt reduced to nothingness and would lose herself.
Sara’s committed work in therapy allowed her to heal much of what had happened in her childhood, and recently she happily married her long-term partner and had a baby. About 12 months after the birth of her daughter Sara returned to sessions to help her deal with feelings of frustration that first surfaced during the birth of her daughter. These feelings of frustration continued to surface when she had some challenges breastfeeding and when her little girl sometimes pushed her away and hit or scratched her. Soon this frustration turned into anger and then rage when her daughter actively resisted her and wouldn’t go to sleep.
It’s important to say here that any parent can have angry feelings towards their child from time to time, this is normal.
But for Sara, it was the intensity of her feelings that scared her. She sometimes wanted to throw her baby daughter against the wall, and although she knew she’d never do this, Sara couldn’t understand why she got so angry with her at bedtime.
Sara was getting very distressed about her anger towards her daughter in their daily interactions, and she wanted to get to the bottom of it. This happened after a few sessions. Sara spoke about the bedtime routine and how she’d spend a long time laying with her daughter and not moving. This often meant being still in uncomfortable positions so as not to wake or disturb the little girl as she was falling asleep. If her daughter didn’t go to sleep which was often the case, Sara would become enraged and grab her and yell at her. But the little girl didn’t know what she’d done wrong.
On the night before one session when Sara was once again laying with her toddler in an uncomfortable position. Unable to move from fear of waking or disrupting the little girl she made a connection to her angry feelings. Sara said that she got a flash of herself as that 10-year-old girl and having to sit still and silent watching TV so as not to disturb or wake her intoxicated mother. She remembered that waking her drunken mother always resulted in an angry rage. And as Sara didn’t want to go to bed and be alone (or leave her mother knowing that she was drunk), she’d sit there watching TV. Silent, uncomfortable and full of her own unexpressed rage. This was very similar to what she was doing at night when she was putting her daughter to sleep.
The next day in the session Sara was able to allow herself to connect to the rage she’d felt towards her mother as that little girl. She felt her reoccurring hope that mum would take care of her (instead of the other way around), and her deep sense of abandonment, terror and confusion at never having her needs met by her mother. As Sara let herself express these feelings in the session, she started saying to mother “I don’t want to do this anymore, I can’t do this anymore”.
In this way, Sara was finally able to allow herself to say and do what she could never say or do as that little girl. She allowed herself to scream and rage and shake her mother in the session while yelling “I can’t do this anymore, I’m not doing this anymore”. Sara was also able to tell her mother in the session what she needed from her. She still found this hard to do as there was a part of her that still didn’t believe she was worthy of love and attention from her mother. Her depravation ran deep.
Under her frustration and rage, Sara connected to a terrible sense of not being able to meet her daughter’s needs, which she’d been trying so hard to do. This feeling helped her connect to the unresolved hopelessness and powerlessness she still carried for not being able to meet her mother’s needs and solve her mum’s upset and unhappiness. Sara believed that resolving her mother's anger and sadness would result in her finally getting the mother she'd always wanted. Focusing on the needs of others while denying her own had become her survival strategy.
Sara said that she somehow thought that if she held on, was still and quiet and good her mother would one day be the mother she’d always wanted. She was still holding on now as an adult, being still, quiet and good in life and with her daughter but it wasn’t working. Laying in silent discomfort as her daughter went to sleep instead of moving and doing what she needed to do to make herself feel comfortable was an unconscious re-experiencing of her childhood.
In the session Sara said “I don't mother myself very well because I mother others exceptionally well - over the top really in the hope that they will one day mother me, love me. How could you (Mum) not know what I needed? It's so simple. I just wanted to be close to you, but you managed my feelings without being clear of your own. You had your own agenda that wasn't about me and what I needed.”
By connecting to the rage, helplessness and hopelessness, she carried from her childhood experiences with her mother Sara began to feel a lot less angry at her daughter in the present. I encouraged Sara during her nightly interactions with her daughter to put her own comfort first. To move her body to make sure she was comfortable even if it meant moving the little girl. In this way, Sara was able to be comfortable and relaxed instead of uncomfortable and tense which her daughter sensed and reacted too.
After that last session which really helped Sara get to the bottom of her angry overreactions towards her daughter, she sent this email.
“Thank you for the last session in Feb, and the email you sent after was really helpful. The work we did in the session combined with your words has changed my relationship with my daughter and Mum a lot. I'm enjoying both of them so much more. Especially the suggestion to always be comfortable when putting my daughter to bed, and comfortable always!”
When Sara made the connection and felt her own unmet needs from childhood and the rage and pain that accompanied it, she became a lot less reactive in the present. She was also able to give her daughter what her daughter needed, instead of what she herself had needed, and this changed the whole dynamic.