Some are put in the position of emotionally taking care of an adult early in their lives, at a time when they themselves need more than anything to have their own inner experience mirrored back to them. A template is formed which, until compassionately confronted with clear seeing, orients the way they see themselves and engage in close, intimate relationship.
In these early configurations, the little one’s sense of self becomes tangled up in the other’s moods, anxiety, dissatisfaction, and well-being. The job of the little one is shifted from unstructured play and discovery into attending to the unlived life of a caretaker, a task that is not designed for a young nervous system, nor for a tender little heart.
If we look carefully, we might see how this template continues to play out in our lives. In our phobias around having/ expressing needs, in fixation on whether we’ve disappointed someone and what that means about us as a person, in the shakiness around allowing another to matter. In the terror of relationship, on the one hand, and in the painful longing for it on the other. In the existential confusion about where we end and the other begins. In the ancient conclusion that caring for another requires a deeply rooted disavowal of our own psyche, body, and heart.
We come to see our own self-worth through the changing emotional states of those around us, on guard at all times: Have I disappointed someone? What can I do to make them feel better? Should I take more responsibility for the unfulfilled longing in their hearts? They are heartbroken, surely that is somehow traceable back to me, right? I’ve failed somehow, right? As a little one longing for any sort of empathic connection, we’d be willing to do just about anything to receive even a limited amount of holding.
Articulating, illuminating, and untangling the tentacles of this template can go a long way in healing chronic feelings of shame and unworthiness, where we begin to differentiate our worth as a person from the moods, suffering, struggle, and unlived life of others. The invitation is to withdraw the projection of our own worth from others and locate it inside ourselves. This withdrawal is a great act of kindness, both for ourselves and the world. And also for them.
For it is by way of this disentangling that we can love ourselves, and others, and act from the radical force of true compassion, not merely re-enact the old pathways of self-abandonment.