The Profound and Long-lasting Effects of ‘Non-Events’ in Human Development and Relations
June 27, 2021 - 2 Comments
July 1, 2021
There is a tendency in the way we humans think that if something didn’t happen to us as we were growing up, that’s not as bad as something negative that happened to us. In this Field Note, I intend to show that such may not be the case, and in some very important ways. As you listen and/or read this Field Note, I think it is very likely you will find some resonances with what I share with you.
I am going to share a narrative dialogue between myself and a ‘composite’ person who is an assembly of my own experiences, as well as being based on my work with many clients over the years. The dialogue will carry certain themes that have become increasingly clear to me over time and speak, in my view, to the human condition that seems to have been around for as long as we humans have been around.
The themes about the human condition include: what it means to be human and become fully human, belonging, connection, relationship, love and intimacy, loneliness, isolation, and the longing for ‘knowing’ what really matters and how to connect with others in this realm. And of course, there is always the issue of our mortality.
These themes seem to be universal in that they show up in all people’s lives even if they show up in diverse forms, as people are shaped by their particular cultures of family and society. Cultures define the normativity of gender, sex, race, ethnicity, class, ability/disability, and so on. Nonetheless, to emphasize again, the universal themes are, in my professional and personal experience, very consistent across these sociocultural categories.
The composite person that I alluded to is Ashley, whom you can relate to either as male, female, both, or neither. In the following constructed and stylized dialogue, Ashley is a new client I am seeing today. Ashley is in many ways ‘typical’ of the many atypical clients that I see. Ashley has no overt major psychological issues of the sort to which diagnostic categories are attached within medicalized treatment protocols. Instead, I suggest that what you see are core issues that derive from being human.
Avraham: Good afternoon! Welcome and, I am wondering how it is for you being here at this moment…
Ashley: I am a little nervous and wondering how this is going to work.
Avraham: I usually ask people if they have anything they’d like to know about me, and/or how I work. Do you have any questions for me at this moment?
Ashley: Well, I read your webpage. That told me a lot and that is what encouraged me to contact you, along with the fact that my friend gave you a very good reference. So, I don’t really have any questions right now.
Avraham: Well, feel free to ask as time goes by if something occurs to you, and why don’t you just begin by sharing whatever you would like to share.
This is a very common beginning to sessions with my new clients. What is not conveyed through this text is the authentic tone that hopefully comes across when I speak: one of genuine warmth, interest, curiosity, and invitation. As well, I am often explicit about the fact that it is not necessary to tell me everything, or anything, and in particular anything that my client may not be comfortable sharing.
I really am beginning from the outset to let Ashley know that this is a space and place where she can be exactly howhe or she wants to be each and every moment.
Ashley: Well, really, I’m not sure where to begin. I really feel I have nothing to complain about. I have a good partner, many friends, good enough relationships with my family, a job that pays me well, and my health is good. So, I’m really not sure what is bothering me but something certainly has been and is. I just seem to be dissatisfied with so many areas of my life. I wonder why I’m not just happy with what I have. It took me a long time to decide to contact you even though I had seen your website and heard about you quite some time ago and I was sufficiently convinced that you would be a good person for me to see. I suppose what kept stopping me was my incessant wondering, ‘what’s wrong with me?’ I have everything that anybody could reasonably want, and yet I am often feeling dissatisfied and not infrequently quite unhappy.
Avraham: I hear clearly that you feel you have everything that anyone would want, and yet you are unhappy. I would really like to know where this idea came from: that you have everything that “anybody could reasonably want.” Please tell me where you learned this idea, why you might be inclined to believe it, and what convinces you at this time in your life that it is true, and perhaps not true. I will repeat your words just to underline them, “ I have everything that anybody could reasonably want…”
As you may have noticed I am saying in the most straight forward way, “Where did these ideas come from?” With this question, I am promoting and prompting that my client questions the veracity of their beliefs. As well, I am suggesting that perhaps my client might wonder about the ideas and their truth.
Ashley: Strange! When you say what you have just said and as you have said it, I realize that I have never, not for one second, ever questioned or doubted the truth of these ideas. How did I learn them? It has never even occurred to me that I learned them. For me they were true, just as true as the reality of me being here and alive, and you being here, and also alive. I suddenly feel a small space between me and these ideas, and in this small space, I feel an ever so slight sense of freedom that is, I realize, foreign to me. I also feel fear. If these are ideas are at least questionable, and perhaps untrue, or at least untrue for me, I wonder what else I ‘know’ that is not quite so solid or ‘true’ in my world.
As you can see, “the doors of perception” (a phrase from William Blake’s 1790-1793 poem, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell) are opening up, at least a bit in the moment.
Avraham: Hmmm… I would be interested to hear something about your memories of your childhood, particularly, the atmosphere at home, the relationship between your parents, your relationship with each of them, and anything that stands out to you with your siblings.
Ashley: Well, I had an older sister and a younger brother. I got along with both of them, I suppose. We didn’t fight too much. I remember that I often found my little brother annoying. He seemed to always be around and somehow wanting my attention. My older sister mostly ignored me. In fact, she seemed to ignore everybody. She was often in her room with the door closed.
Avraham: Tell me a bit about your parents.
Ashley: My mom drank a little too much. My Dad was at work, a lot. I don’t remember seeing them fight. In fact, I don’t have a lot of memory of them together at all.
Avraham: what I am understanding from what you are telling me is that you did not witness much, if any, contact and connection between your parents; nor did you experience such between either of them and yourself. And given what you have said about your brother and sister, your experience of and with them also seems fairly devoid of contact and connection. What I am noticing is not what you said but what you did not say.
I could of go on at great length here with this prototypical dialogue, but I think what I have highlighted with these small vignettes is the significant information about lack of contact, lack of connection, lack of emotional content, lack of validation and acknowledgement: to sum up, really a lot of lack. My understanding of this vignette, my own experience, and the many experiences with clients over the past decades is that the problem for most all of us is not what happened to us, which at times of course is horrifying, but perhaps more significantly is the lacuna, the large omission, of what we really wanted and most significantly, needed.
What I hear from many is that this omission in their life from the earliest days is not something that strikes them as an event of any significance, or even an event at all. I am increasingly convinced that most of what bothers most of us is omissions, gaps, and the recurring of such lacuna consistently and over time. And I believe if we dig deep enough this is true even for those who are very overtly abused. What we are talking about here is neglect, even what we might at times call benign neglect, but neglect all the same, or lack of, what is most needed by a growing child.
Consider this: You are talking to someone, and it is clear that their attention is not on you or what you are saying. Would that not bother you? The degree of the bothered feeling can be from small to large. However, often, being bothered only a little bit is more of an indication of the “defense skills” that have been developed by you to suppress the strong feelings of hurt and isolation.
As I have spoken about in previous fieldnotes paying attention to the small bits of experience does not, as we often insist, grow them bigger. Rather what it does is help us to see what is actually there. These feelings will not grow bigger than they actually are. Knowing the depth and breadth of them provides us a launch pad for helping these feelings, really ourselves, to transform, and for our arrested development to unfold towards becoming the potential human that we truly are.
In working with human beings, such as myself, you, and Ashley, my focus is mostly on lack of connection that was seeded from the earliest days. Such lack is what makes for what Mark Epstein calls ‘the trauma of everyday life.’ What didn’t happen is most difficult to identify, and constitutes the zone of the work we need to do.
For sure, in this story, Ashley was not physically or sexually abused and did not suffer the kinds of events that are easily and commonly seen and identified as damaging. The deeper truth is that Ashley suffers from lacks: lack of love, attention, affection, validation, encouragement, engagement, connection, and so on. I believe that to some extent most of us suffered from these lacks, and the effect is a great sense of being unsettled, dissatisfied, and often is accompanied by the development of habits that are in the service of soothing, that is, really of covering our pain.
This lack-experience indeed leads almost invariably to a person wondering, “What is wrong with me?Nothing terrible ever happened to me. I was not beaten or abused. Why am I so dissatisfied with my relationships, my work, and really with my life?” As I alluded to above, these questions are crucial starting points for growth towards the fulfillment of our becoming the fully human being that we truly are, which is not an absolute, but rather, a way of being that comes into being from moment to moment.
The central message in this Field Note is this: do your best to find what is missing in your life, more specifically in your inner world, and what has always been missing through investigating the initiation and habituated patterns of your reactive self-experiences to help you move towards the fulfillment of your authentic human beingness, increasingly and ongoingly.
Many thanks to Heesoon, my partner in all things, for her support and assistance with this Field Note.
Also, this is my last Field Note before my annual summer retreat/break, I wish to express gratitude and appreciation to all of you for your continued reading of my Field Notes. I wish you all a great summer!
And I look forward to sharing my next Field Note with you on October 1, 2021!