JENNIFER BALLERINI

Therapist Blog

Motherless Day



This is the week our culture celebrates moms — which is awesome! …unless you're among the 20% or so of people estranged from a family member (like your mom). Shame about having a dysfunctional relationship with a family member leads many people to suffer the pain of that disconnection in silence, especially on family-focused holidays like Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Dysfunction among family members is not rare — it's very common. And just as romantic relationships sometimes don't work out despite our best efforts, family relationships, too, can become so toxic the healthiest solution is to end the relationship.

Interestingly, while most of us would celebrate the ending of a toxic romantic relationship, there is a surprising (and enduring) cultural pressure around keeping parents and children together at all costs. Just as there once was a significant cultural taboo against divorce, our culture puts a premium on keeping blood relations in contact. Even after experiencing severe mistreatment, people who are estranged from family members often report being scolded to forgive and forget, that nothing is more important and family, as if their decision were a whim, or coming after years of a basically close and happy relationship with their family member. In fact, for those who choose to step back from dysfunctional family relationships, the decision is often a gradual, years-in-the-making, heart-rending process. Estranged people typically have endured histories of abuse, neglect, betrayal, abandonment, and criticism/contempt — and have gone through years of attempting to work through the conflict — before electing to disengage. Pressure to reunite with family members can feel very shaming. Most estranged children of toxic parents report that the most painful part of estrangement is not the loss of their family member, but the sense of judgment from others and the grief of never having the mother-father-sister-brother they needed.

If you are estranged, know you're not alone. Oprah Winfrey, Matthew McConaughey, Brie Larson, Aaron Rodgers, Adele, Mariah Carey, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Aniston, and members of a certain royal family (ahem) all have distanced themselves from toxic family relationships to take care of themselves. In fact, the emerging research suggests that, for most estranged people, leaving the dysfunctional family relationship was a good decision that created a sense of relief and peace. If you have a loved one who's estranged from a family member, be mindful of the shame they may feel around making this hard decision and avoid counseling them to repair things at all costs. As always, validate them and accompany them in their pain and affirm their right to take care of themselves.

If you'd like more information, here are a few helpful resources on family estrangement:

New York Times: When an Estranged Relative Dies, Some Face Grief, Regret and Relief

GOOP: How Do You Handle Being Estranged from Family?

Good Housekeeping: What Is Estrangement — And Should You Consider It?

Inc.: Estranged from Your Family? Here's Why You Should Stop Feeling Guilty

University of Cambridge: Hidden Voices: Family Estrangement in Adulthood Survey Results

The Greatest Love of All?

As an attachment-oriented psychologist, I've always understood and valued the importance of having safe and close relationships with cherished other people. Over the past few years, I've also come to understand the importance of the relationship we have with our selves. Every day I watch in awe as my clients find a voice inside them that is courageous, compassionate, and centered — clear about who they are and what they need, and capable of providing comfort to young parts of them that never got the care they needed. It moves me so much. Perhaps it's because I've experienced what a difference finding that voice has made in my own personal growth and relationships.

In any case, I'm not sure if Whitney Houston was totally right that loving yourself is the greatest love of all, but, you know, she's definitely on to something! And in a less power-ballad-y, more eloquent way, that's what this beautiful poem is about. I hope you enjoy it and that it helps you experience the joy of connecting with yourself in a loving way.


Love After Love
by Derek Walcott


The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each with a smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

This Is Your Brain on Attachment

One of my favorite things about EFT is how rooted in science it is. Gone are the days of psychology being seen as a squishy, not-quite-real science. One of the coolest experiments demonstrating the power of attachment on the brain is explained below. Neuroscientists asked women to brave an electric shock while in an MRI machine so they could observe their brains. In some scenarios, the women were alone, in some they were with strangers, and in others, their partners were with them. When those bonds were secure and loving, women actually experienced less pain and anxiety with the shock, demonstrating how critical attachment really is to the optimal functioning of our bodies and brains. Love is an “ancient, wired-in survival code,” indeed.

An Introduction to Attachment

attachment-style

Mary Ainsworth, one of the key figures in attachment theory, was the first person to determine that there are several distinct attachment styles. She determined this by developing an ingenious experiment called the “strange situation.” In this experiment, toddlers were systematically separated and reunited with their primary caregivers. Some children got upset when their parents left, but when their parents returned to the room, these children actively sought reconnection with their parents and were easily soothed by them. These children were labeled “securely attached.”

Other children were extremely distressed when their parent left, had difficulty being soothed and tended to display punishing behaviors toward the caregiver who had left them. These children had an insecure, “anxious” attachment style, a style typically resulting from an inconsistently available primary caregiver. For these kids, sometimes mom is responsive, sometimes she’s not — it’s unpredictable. Other children seemed to be unfazed by the separation from their parent, and actively avoided contact with their parent upon their return. These children were considered to have an insecure, “avoidant” attachment style, a style typically seen in children with parents who very often fail to respond to their children’s cues for needing closeness and comfort.

So, why does this matter? Because as adults, these styles continue with us into our intimate partner relationships. Those of us who may tend to get really distressed by disconnection and tend to pursue our partners in a critical or blaming way — we are demonstrating the grown-up version of the “anxious” toddler’s behavior. Those of us who tend to shut down and dismiss our needs for our intimate partners — we are the “avoidant” toddler. Pretty amazing, huh?

Here’s a video of the strange situation experiment in action, with examples of the different attachment styles: