Many of us have been doing the work of helping others for most of our lives. It often goes back to childhood – the whole sense of wanting to have a place, wanting to belong, to make a contribution, and wanting to be a member of a group. Some of us have very early feelings of being an alien, a stranger in a strange world – all of the feelings in childhood of wanting to belong. Perhaps we have come to this work from that place, where we have a sense of alienation, either as children, as adolescents, or even as adults. We may have a sense of not belonging, and a sense of not being successful.
The tenuousness of attachment is always part of it. Trusting other people often comes with the knowledge of betrayal, that someone can tell us one day they care about us and that we matter, and then the next day say, “I’m moving on. I have something else to do”. This message can come from a group of friends, or can be acted upon a child pre-puberty, where some people are picked for a team and others are not. We may be good at one sport and not another, or we might struggle with learning.
The sense of alienation we have, the sense of not belonging, is actually one part of belonging, but because of our alienation we aren’t able to merge with other people.
Each of us has parents who have somehow come to be together. Often we don’t come to understand our parents’ psychological reality until much later in our own life when we have developed a level of maturity. In order to really see our parents and their reality, we must see them as separate from, rather than as part of us. Then we can see that they had a life. Perhaps they had a separation. In that case we arrive at our own alienation without even knowing it.
If our parents are alienated from each other, their alienation affects their parenting style, because their attachment to their children is wrought, and we children might even have held our parents together, especially in the old days.
As children we have no words for the alienation we experience, but we grow into our brain so the alienation becomes part of our brain, and the idea of being connected or belonging somewhere is stressed. We grow up with an ability to be separate that is better than our ability to be attached. Trusting in another human being is always in question.
Many therapists, childcare workers, social workers, and other professional caregivers have a capacity for seeing the alienation in others. When we meet certain kids we may have an instant resonance, even though we have a determination to be separate – to not be dependant – because that’s what separation allows us to be.
While the connection part of attachment is important, the separation part of attachment is just as important. That’s what makes for a full personality. It makes for a person who is capable of taking care of others, because we can be separate. What we offer then is a true offer. We don’t have to act out our lives through the other. That is a gift. But as with every gift, we have to be aware that there is always a hook in the gift.
The lack of ability to be in relationship in a trusting way means that our relationships are always strained in the sense that we are ready to go any day. There is a part of us that says, “Okay, if you don’t want to be part of this relationship, you don’t want to be my friend, you don’t want to be around me, I’ll survive. I’ll go on.”
But whether we see it as a gift, or whether we see it as a flaw comes from our brain. Some of us are decimated by this: our relationships fail or we fail in relationship – it depends which side of the fence we are on and how we perceive it. If we go too far in that, or we don’t come to terms with that separation, then we are going to be alone and we are going to be immensely aware of our own aloneness, and that’s going to make us unhappy.
So, what do we learn about our work? We can come to every relationship with the knowledge that the other person is going to go about their business and at some point they will be ready to leave.
Their life is their own.
This distance is tolerable.
When we first meet the other person, if we are mindful of our own alienation we can consciously make a relationship with them, marked by a kind of intimacy and also distance, knowing that their life belongs to them.
Thus at the core of our work, we are illuminated by the separation in attachment.