That Esther Perel. She knows how to ask questions that get right to the heart of the matter. In a podcast of a couples therapy session, for example, she inquired of one of the partners, “Who taught you to live on crumbs?”
As more and more clients have brought into our therapy sessions horror stories of sexual and additional forms of abuse, and I’ve braced myself for the next hateful, violent act to appear in my newsfeed (such as the Pittsburgh mass shooting of Jewish congregants), I keep returning to Perel’s simple and searing question. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, at least when thinking about the emotional and relational realms of life, Who hasn’t been taught to live on crumbs in the U.S.?
I’m not planning to take you down some sugar-coated road of sentimental nonsense. I am going to suggest that nurturance—or more precisely, our frequent deprivation of it in this society—is a subject with significant political, sociocultural, and economic implications. In the poignant words of attachment scientist Louis Cozolino, "We are not the survival of the fittest; we are the survival of the nurtured."
What I witness day in and day out in my therapeutic work is the impact of relational trauma. I intensely desire to dispel the myth that trauma only includes time on a battlefield, near-fatal accidents, or violent abuse. I appreciate Ruth King’s description of trauma as
an experience of severe emotional shock that causes substantial and lasting damage to our psychological well-being. Trauma is experienced as being intensely overwhelmed by a perceived threat or actual harm. Trauma can be a single incident of devastating loss, violation, or injury, or a chronic atmosphere of fear and neglect.
One of the things we as a society continue to minimize or flat out ignore is the pervasiveness of neglect in our culture and the trauma it begets. Because we are mammals whose survival depends on reliable and available caretakers when we are young, many of us experienced some level of neglect and, so, of relational trauma. In other words, the emotional attunement of a caretaker to our young is critical to those children’s well-being and often is disregarded in a society that prioritizes competition and self-reliance over connection and belonging. What do I mean by attunement? My favorite definition comes from the University of New Mexico’s Center for Development and Disability: “Attunement is being aware of, and responsive to, another.” Sounds so simple doesn’t it?
Clients often express disbelief when I relate the symptoms associated with a significant relationship injury or loss (e.g., racing thoughts, rapid pulse, sweaty palms, numbing, and memory loss to name a few) to the PTSD symptoms commonly associated with veterans of war. To return to King’s point, if we experienced a relationship breach as a threat to our being, our body is going to react in kind, usually with some form of a fight, flight, or freeze response. We did not have to be hit to know trauma; it is enough to be unseen, unheard, and devalued by people that matter to us.
The relational trauma experienced by so many relates to Perel’s beautiful question, as most of the people I meet in and outside of my office have been taught to live on crumbs. Oftentimes, the helpers in this society have learned to give nurturance but not to receive it. Their stories frequently rest upon a trance of unworthiness and a sense that their value is only as significant as the external recognition they receive for their do-gooding. The heavily armored individuals I meet usually view nurturance as weak, “feminine,”* and of little to no worth. Underneath all that shielding, which often developed to protect them from harm, lies unacknowledged terror (of the vulnerability required to engage in holding others and being held) and grief (about not having received adequate nurturance or even knowing what nurturance feels like). In both of these cases, social conditioning—that is, lessons learned in relationships with others and the world—are the culprit. As such, and in the words of Bessel van der Kolk, “our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being.”
I therefore am arguing that in addition to the “doing” of voting and engaging in social activism, we also need the healing of nurturing relationships to generate positive social change. A most challenging aspect of this process is the painful reckoning required when we cannot go to the source of the harm for the healing.
For example, many of us yearn for unconditional acceptance—“I love you no matter what”—from a primary caregiver and do not receive it because our caregiver does not have the capacity to give such nurturance. If they could have attuned to us and met our emotional needs by now (when we’re in our 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond), they would have. To face such a truth is excruciating.
Cheryl Strayed offered one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve read about this reckoning in her Dear Sugar letter “The Empty Bowl.” As Strayed responded to the letter writer “Could Be Worse” about her abusive narcissistic father,
[Your dad] will be the empty bowl that you’ll have to fill again and again. What will you put inside? Our parents are the primal source. We make our own lives, but our origin stories are theirs. They go back with us to the beginning of time. There is absolutely no way around them. By cutting off ties with your father, you incited a revolution in your life…We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’d been before. Like we have to be.
It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place that you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them. That you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them. That you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them.
Our capacity to heal one another in adulthood often involves the seeking out of people who are capable of being aware of and responsive to us. We also have the capacity to heal ourselves through the kind of spiritual reparenting that Strayed so eloquently captured in her letter. Returning to a sense of wholeness by giving ourselves what we did not get in our prior relationships may precede the ability to seek connections with people who are able to attune to us. Transforming the narrative that we only deserve crumbs into one that authentically declares, “I matter,” shifts the field of whom we attract and whom we pursue.
Sylvia Boorstein has wonderful, concrete advice for cultivating self-nurturance. In this current moment, when far too many people face immediate danger, I feel compelled to underscore that the following advice is for when we are not under direct threat. We do not need to slow down and reflect when our lives are at risk—we need to survive, which involves actively fighting or fleeing the sources of the threat.
On the other hand, if our limbic systems are reacting as if there is a saber tooth tiger breathing down our necks but there actually isn’t, and if we are aware of how over-sized our fear is (both of these are big “ifs” that may require additional legwork), Boorstein’s wisdom can come to our aid:
Sweetheart, you are in pain.
Take a breath.
Let’s pay attention to what is happening, then we’ll figure out what to do.
In these four simple sentences she articulates how we can nurture ourselves and, in turn, others. We first acknowledge that we are suffering. There is no minimizing, neglecting, negating, or gas lighting our own experience. We name our pain. Period. This validation is a radical act in and of itself, especially for those from marginalized communities who have repeatedly received the message that our experiences do not matter.
Then we attune to the fear body and remind ourselves we are, in this moment, safe. Here, we can experience the relief and spaciousness that arises with letting down our guard—the connection associated with vulnerability. Only after validating our experience and making some space for it do we begin the inquiry process.
Crucially, we do not jump into fixing anything. We first observe—we pay attention—to what is happening right now. Having gathered information about our current situation within a welcoming, relaxed environment, we finally are ready to figure out what to do.
How radical to end her advice with what for so many of us is a habitual starting place—problem-solving. Boorstein encourages us to take the time to identify and explore what we are going through before doing anything about it. These are not selfish or unproductive practices. They are nurturing ones. If we are to become skillful at self-nurturance, it requires repeated, disciplined practice.
Can you imagine a world in which we took to heart that feverishly figuring out an action plan only makes sense when we are facing imminent danger? How much untapped creativity, empathy, and love might be expressed?
I will forever be grateful to my own therapist for looking me straight in the eye and declaring, “Connie, life is not a problem to be solved.” And it isn’t. Neither are relationships. Nor emotions. They are experiences to be lived and, of course, nurtured.
*Feminine is in quotes because evaluating as weak the qualities associated with femininity is straight out of the misogyny playbook.