Et tu, New York Times?
A recent article claimed Yes, It’s Your Parents’ Fault. And the text which followed, regarding attachment theory (Bowlby, Ainsworth), was compromised by shame and fallacious conflation, set up for maximum spin from the outset by Kate Murphy’s misleading title. Thanks New York Times for perpetuating a victim mentality which will only confuse the issue, just in order to produce a clickbaity headline (which I will now consciously re-frame to clarify this point in an effort to fight fire with fire).
Because who doesn’t want to blame someone else for our own pain? Those caught in a cycle of trauma, experienced thanks to someone else’s actions, certainly will at some point. And having experienced psychological abuse myself as a child, and then later an abusive relationship (among other horrific encounters with assholes), I understand. I’m not giving my abusers any kind of pass. As an adoptee, I’m also a strong subscriber to attachment theory and after much study I do believe that unless altered in someway, our formative relationships establish a model which we use as a default for our relationships as adults.
But there are two major problems with this article.
Firstly that it falls squarely into the category of parent shaming. If your ‘early experiences were suboptimal’, so the article states, then your caregivers were surely ‘distracted, overbearing, dismissive, unreliable, absent or perhaps threatening’. Let’s just back up a minute. It couldn’t also be because few western governments provide so little parental leave, that they force us back to the grindstone to leave our children in the hands of strangers? Or that they stigmatize and otherwise restrict access to mental health support for everyone including new parents, instructing mothers/parents to be overjoyed at the birth of a new baby (or else, you know, social workers will be round to evaluate your competency as a mother)? Yes, this happened to me.
Not to mention that describing insecure attachment as ‘a flawed internal working model’ means inferring that half the population works in a somehow weak and an imperfect way. They–we–do not. In fact we work exactly how nature intended to promote our survival at that time. If we had securely attached to caregivers who were unable for whatever reason to provide a consistent emotional landscape, we would be dead… since we wouldn’t have sought to satisfy our emotional needs by other means. That it doesn’t work for us now is a different issue, not least because as adults we have the means to change what we do.
But to understand whether it is possible to improve our lot in life, we must also use the correct definition of fault. It is not the same as responsibility.
It wasn’t your parents’ fault. It was your parents’ responsibility.
That’s because the words fault and responsibility mean opposite things.
So what’s the difference?
Yesterday I watched Narnia, Prince Caspian with my kids (be warned: it’s a film which perpetuates C.S. Lewis’ own racism, and although Caspian–a person of colour–himself is the hero, he is played by a tanned white person). At one point a bear who has become savage, as opposed to a talking beast, attacks Lucy. Among the thinly disguised lessons one might find in such a children’s film, was the rather obvious,
You get treated like a dumb animal long enough, that’s what you become.
No one holds the bear responsible. No, the responsibility lies with the people who treated him like a dumb animal.
Similarly if you experience insecure attachment as a child, all other things being equal, your mind will default to attach insecurely as an adult. But we are not bears and all other things are not equal, because we do not live in a science lab. So although as children, our choices and reactions are not our responsibility, we become conscious adults and we can choose to take responsibility for our actions and emotions–both past and present. A bear, I’m presuming, is not likely to become conscious (unless it was blessed by Aslan at the dawn of time). I’ll repeat that, although it should be obvious. We do not remain children. We grow into adults which means that the majority of us1 have the ability to choose to take more conscious responsibility for our lives, and our actions past and present. Albeit within the constraints of a society which actively tries to prevent us.
Fault implies that you are the cause of a situation, that you have control over other peoples’ feelings and behaviour. It is therefore at odds with the concept of responsibility, which is about owning your–and only your–choice of actions and feelings in response to a situation.
For example, as a seven year old I was bullied into bullying someone else. At the time, I did this because my survival mechanism determined it was the best way to protect myself and it was not my responsibility. But it is now. As a conscious adult I can take responsibility for my past actions, and only by doing so can I change my present behaviour accordingly. It also allows for reparation (which is important for many reasons). Bullying someone may have been the way I survived then; it is not what I choose now. If I continue to blame my bullies in the past for my actions, I absolve myself of responsibility. I deny myself the possibility of being able to change. I eliminate the possibility of making reparations to those I harmed along the way.
Consciousness is the extraordinary gift which allows me to assume responsibility for my actions and emotions. I’m not saying that the climb into consciousness isn’t brutal and hard. But whilst I still attribute responsibility to my caregivers for their decisions, blaming them–faulting them–for the adult relationship choices that I make today, will keep me trapped as a victim of their actions forever.
1. “Some people are not able to consciously able to change themselves. The neuropsychiatric perspective suggests that in many cases of child trauma, especially neglect, or living in an environment of fear, that the emotional regulation systems e.g. hypertrophy of the amygdala (permanent), damage to the hippocampus (can be permanent), a dearth of mirror neurones and von economo neurones, the right brain working more than the left brain, poorer development of the frontal lobes (your consciousness), poorer connections between the frontal lobes and the limbic system, dorsal pathway dominance, fewer oxytocin receptors etc etc. The list goes on. This affects the ability to make lasting and enduring relationships, contain emotional dysregulation, empathise well, if at all, think consciously in many cases- especially if distressed, threatened or under stress, enjoy healthy attachments (as the reward centres don’t work as well), experience guilt, amongst other things. Whilst the majority of us can consciously change our thoughts / feelings / behaviours, some severely traumatised people can’t – they are simply unable, and have to work very hard through appropriate therapies, to hold down even the most basic of relationships.” – Dr N. Taylor, Consultant Psychiatrist