BREAKTHROUGH is a therapy e-newsletter from the Office of Clinical Psychologist Georgina K. Smith, Ph.D.
We will be focusing on mental health issues and overall wellbeing, topical social issues, interviewing experts in the field of addiction, trauma, and more, and spreading the word about local and global community resources. With each edition we will also be featuring our BREAKTHROUGH Inspiration, an individual who will be telling their story of recovery, courage and hope. Thank you for reading and stay tuned!
In this edition:
– ‘The Power of Validation’
– Resource Corner
– Our featured BREAKTHROUGH Inspiration
The Power of Validation – Georgina K. Smith, Ph.D.
On Oprah’s final show, she made the following statement: “I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show, and all 30,000 had one thing in common: They all wanted validation. If I could reach through this television and sit on your sofa or sit on a stool in your kitchen right now, I would tell you that every single person you will ever meet shares that common desire. They want to know: ‘Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?’
Back in my graduate school days and a painstaking 225 page dissertation later, I lived and breathed this topic. I researched the effects of chronic invalidation of emotional experiences in childhood and it’s relation to later emotional dysregulation, impulsivity and self-harming behaviors in adulthood. How can being invalidated, unheard, misunderstood, subtly dismissed, and criticized be so harmful, as compared to verbal, physical and sexual abuse? Because as a child, we are not born knowing what we feel. We do not know that sad is sad and happy is happy. We have not yet developed a sense of self. We internalize that of what we see and experience. We learn from the parents or primary caregivers in our life, and then also from our social environment. If someone told you your entire life that the blue sky is red, you would think
that everyone telling you it was blue was wrong…and crazy. Your blue is red, that’s just the way it’s been.
Our attachment process begins with the parent’s gaze we hope we have to connect to as infants, the reflection of a smile, of a frown, of surprise, of concern. When parents or caregivers reflect what we feel as little ones, we learn to identify it, understand it, feel safe with it. Then with the learning of language we hear and give words to the weather of our internal landscapes, and we learn if our landscapes are ok. Therein can begin a long blissful summer or a relentless winter machine. When parents can tolerate and contain the emotions of their little ones, they are given a greater chance of then learning how to tolerate and regulate their own internal worlds as they develop and grow up in a chaotic world. When our feelings in childhood are not met with attunement and validation but rather they are chronically punished or invalidated, it is like saying water isn’t wet, or grass isn’t green. It is telling someone that their private, innermost experience is wrong. A young person does not yet have the tools to differentiate and say, “Wait a second, I’m ok, what I’m feeling is ok, this is clearly about them”. A child in an abusive home does not have the ability to say, “Hey guys, I’m not taking this abuse, so I’m gonna be moving out and paying rent down the street”. Children manifest resilient defenses and coping mechanisms to deal with whatever environment in which they find themselves, though these systems often backfire in adulthood. And with chronic emotional invalidation, their internal world begins to get distorted, and their emotional landscape may begin to look more like a fun house of mirrors that no longer reflects themselves as they truly are.
With the transition and individuation into adolescence and adulthood, if we have received a pretty decent amount of emotional reflection and validation along with some boundaries for our behaviors and a secure attachment base from which to explore the world, we are likely more equipped to develop a whole and regulated sense of self; a sense of self where as adults we will be greater able to self-validate and not depend on those outside of us to validate our experiences as we depended on as infants. We are more likely to feel differentiated and secure and recognize our capabilities as adults, versus connecting with the helplessness we embodied as infants. We may develop a greater ability to be okay with ourselves when someone else isn’t okay with us, without having to control others or make them feel something else in order for us to feel something else. That said, I must add a brief aside here and acknowledge that a child’s genetic temperament and resilience can also be a significant factor in how the dynamics of a family play out and take effect. There is no perfect parent, parenting book, nor is there only one reason or cause as to why we turn out how we do. The interplay of nature versus nurture is ever present.
Once we navigate the sometimes treacherous and often idealized, longed for launch into adulthood, is it then wrong to seek validation? Not at all. As Oprah stated, it is the common thread the majority of us share. We have a human need to feel heard, understood, seen. Validation, reflections, feedback can help us grow and help us identify how we are showing up in the world. The difference is that we cannot depend on the validation from others to be ok. If you experienced trauma growing up, if you feel empty or like you know nothing in your life but wells that are dry, you have to learn how to find places that are full, you have to learn to fill yourself up. Without this, you are creating a life of potential anxiety as it depends on all that is external to bring you buckets of water. We cannot control others and we cannot expect others to be responsible for navigating our own internal territory. Continuing to blame the past for our current circumstances can create stuckness and resentment. We are no longer that helpless child in those same circumstances. We can choose to do the healing work, to begin expressing, releasing, repairing, forgiving. We can re-learn new and adaptive ways of coping. We can ask for what we need and we can share our feelings, but how we cope with what we get is up to us. We are responsible for the choices we make. When we base our selves and our experiences on others, we run the risk of losing ourselves or becoming enmeshed, and enmeshment sometimes gets mistaken for love. Enmeshment equals wherever you go, I go; whatever happens to you happens to me; whatever I feel you have to feel, or else you don’t care. This is dangerous and brittle, therefore breakable. Enmeshment thereby equals reactivity, and when we live in a state of reactivity, we live outside reason.
So, the task at hand is to learn to differentiate. That is just a big word for learning how to maintain ourselves in relation to others. It is how we learn not to depend solely on validation from others. “[Differentiation] is the process by which we become more uniquely ourselves by maintaining ourselves in relationship with those we love” (Schnarch, 1997, p. 51). In his book, The Passionate Marriage, David Schnarch (1997) states that “differentiation always involves balancing two basic life forces: the drive for individuality and the drive for togetherness” (p. 55). When we are continually seeking a source to validate our childhood wounds, who we are, our sense of self, we end up fusing with another or desiring an escape from the other; we live through a ‘reflected sense of self’, our identity depending on relationships, leaving us prone to fragmenting when circumstances change in our lives. “We’ve reduced adults to infants and infants to a frail ghost of their resilience, reduced marriage to providing safety, security, and compensation for childhood disappointments. We remove our essential drives for autonomy and freedom”. (Schnarch, 1997, p. 43).
So as we reach adulthood, our job is to begin to reconcile the tales of our childhood that may have left us wounded; vague reminders of play ground scars and the penetrating whispers of generations. These attachments, these internalizations are tapes that have to be re-visited and re-recorded, thermostats that have to be re-calibrated, to reflect the capable adults we are in the now, not the wounded child we were then. Without awareness and attention and action that wounded part of us will continue to seek out what is familiar -even if damaging – in an unconscious effort to meet the needs that were never met. Healing and the journey into wholeness will permit healthy relationships to grow, as they will be based on the now, not on their residency in the void of your past. Validate who you are, every beautiful piece, in all of its glorious imperfection. Validate your existence, your experience, your efforts. This acknowledgement and affirmation allows for acceptance; it brings accountability, wholeness and authenticity. It allows a fighting ‘for’, not a fighting ‘against’. Acceptance in the face of adversity of ‘what is’ allows for change to ‘what can be’.
In conclusion, I will leave you with this….
Get conscious. Get intentional. Shut off your auto pilot and be deliberate. Listen to your inner voice, that inner dialogue. Make sure it’s yours, make sure it’s accountable, and make sure it’s kind.
– GEORGINA K. SMITH, PH.D.
Dr. Smith is a clinical psychologist based in Santa Monica, California. She specializes in treating trauma, addiction and eating disorders.
1. David Schnarch. (1997). Passionate marriage: Keeping love and intimacy alive in committed relationships.
This edition’s resource that I want to share with everyone is Connections in Recovery. The compassionate and skilled team at CiR connect individuals with a diverse number of resources: Interventions, treatment placement, case management, individualized aftercare programs, recovery companions, sober relocation, doctor, therapist and rehab referrals, and alternative sentencing options for those facing legal issues. If you are facing the overwhelming task of finding help for a loved one suffering with emotional or substance abuse issues or for yourself, CiR will guide you every step of the way, and they will help individualize the treatment plan to your specific needs clinically, financially and more. The CiR Team meet with professionals and facilities all over the country and focus on building and maintaining these relationships so they can match individuals with the best treatment options possible. For more information, you can visit their website at www.connectionsinrecovery.com.
In our next edition, we will be featuring To Write Love on Her Arms.
Jane’s Story (name changed for anonymity)
And now I welcome Jane, this edition’s Breakthrough Inspiration. We sat down with Jane and asked her about her journey…. how it was, what happened, and how it is now.
Here’s her story.
It all started when I was little with a sense of feeling that there weren’t really any rules or discipline. My parents were hippies, there was very little family structure. My father was an eccentric artist who grew marijuana and it was made available to me at a young age. He spoiled me and I learned that I got whatever I wanted, but what I really needed was a father. My family was privileged and I was pretty much raised by nannies. At age 5, my parents got divorced and my father moved back to the Philippines. I began to spend my time between the 2 countries and 2 parents, where with my father I had free rein and could do as I pleased, and back home in L.A. I was rebelling against my mother. My family owned an alcohol company and as young kids, we would dare each other to drink what was essentially rubbing alcohol. At age 13, one of my nannies introduced me to methamphetamine. In the beginning it was all about fun. I have been told since in AA that I was also seeking freedom from boredom. I wanted to feel something else.
At age 19 I moved out of my mother’s house in Los Angeles and moved in with my boyfriend. We decided to smoke heroin 4 days straight, and before I knew it what started as bingeing and partying, became constant. We needed it to not get sick. Before long, we were using cocaine and heroin daily, and our habit was costing us $500 per day. This went on for 2 years. I had my father’s credit card, and finally someone realized something wasn’t right. I ended up back in the Philippines where I was forced to be separated from my boyfriend and was detoxed at home. Given the torture of the detox, my father realized I needed rehab and found what he thought was a rehab in the mountains. It was a nut house, deep in the mountains of the Philippines where people were often left for years. There were cockroaches and we were simply medicated. After 2 weeks of hell, my cousin realized something wasn’t right and came and got me. During the time after, I discovered methamphetamine and it was the only thing that made me feel better. I also met someone and became pregnant.
I went home to L.A. to my mom and I just couldn’t stop. My mom had me put on methodone, and threatened to disown me if I had an abortion, which at the time was the most responsible option I could think of. After my parents’ divorce, my mom became a born again Christian, and she would engage rituals where she would cast demons out of me. Her religion scared me, and according to her beliefs, abortion was not an option. As I had nothing and nowhere to go, with the threat of being disowned, I had the baby. Thank God, my daughter turned out fine. And when she was born my mother legally adopted her. I relapsed and ended up going through a serious of rehabs. I went to Betty Ford, but I still could not stop using. I ended up checking myself into a state hospital when I was cut off, I had not other options left.
When my mother came to pick me up, she told me she had cancer. I took care of her for the next 4 months, and for those 4 months I stayed sober. I was surrounded by her morphine and fentanyl, but somehow I stayed sober, even though I didn’t know if that was what I really wanted. My daughter was 8 years old and every day I took the bus and I went and took care of my mom and my daughter. I changed my mom’s diapers. And when she finally passed away, I was robotic. I cared for everyone else and I cut off my grief. But in looking back, I can see that while my mom was sick, I was there, I was truly present for all of it. And part of that was a turning point for me. I saw something positive in my mother’s faith, a religion that up till then had scared me. She wasn’t scared to die. Her faith brought her such peace during these days. I realized somewhere inside that I could find my own faith and spirituality and that it could be a beautiful thing. After this my daughter was adopted my mother’s cousin, as I just had to do what was best for her, and I was not yet sure whether I could really give her what she needed, as I was still tentative about my sobriety, about my life. I wanted to do the right thing by my daughter, and at that point in my life it meant allowing the adoption.
After that I was sober for 4 and a half years. I tried to maintain a relationship with my daughter during this time, but my grandmother got in the way. She was an active alcoholic, and was very cruel and verbally abusive to me, telling me that I was ugly and that I would never get married. Despite all that, I became very successful. I build a career as a designer in the film industry and started making a lot of money. I had a staff, and things were going exceptionally well. Then one night at an industry party, I decided to have a glass of champagne. It was a celebration. It was just one drink. Eight months later I was shooting cocaine. I was overdosing and dying, and needed to be revived. I was in an ambulance at least twice per week. My behavior the rest of the time was induced by a complete cocaine psychosis. I would play hide and seek with my own drugs. I got a blood disease, I lost my memory. And at one point I shot up so much in my leg, that it became an abcess. I was taken to the hospital, and apparently it was worse than an abcess. The doctors had to discuss possible amputation. But in my cocaine psychosis, in my addiction, I remember that all I thought was ‘how long is this going to take, because I have to get home’. I have to get home to use. They ended up saving my leg, but my decompensation continued. I spent my mother’s inheritance, and I became spiritually dead. I had friends in AA who would come by and try to help me, but I wasn’t ready. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I was slowly killing myself and yet I didn’t want to die. I was living at my grandmother’s house at this point, and I was getting needles from the needle exchange, and I remember when I hit my bottom. I had a paper bag full of needles, but they were all clogged, none of them would work. So I filled the bathtub with warm water and I poured the bag of needles into the water, and I was sifting through them with my hands, shaking, crying, getting pricked. That vision stays with me. I was completely and utterly powerless.
A friend came over soon after this and told me they had found me a bed somewhere. I went. I only did outpatient and 2 weeks in I relapsed. And after that I just said, ‘keep me. I need to stay.’ It felt like an experiment with myself. I would only take it week my week. I thought I can try this, I have no more options, and if it doesn’t work, I can always go back to what I was doing. I gave myself that choice. And as each week went by, I simply did what I was told to do, and I started being of service. My anxiety was debilitating, and when I told the people around me, they would just say ‘breathe with me, right now’, so I did. I kept hearing ‘it will pass’, so I tried to trust it, go with it, and it did. I started to become more of a believer. I had been so stubborn up till now, I had thought that I knew better, but I surrendered. I surrendered to the process, and that’s when I allowed it to start working for me. A few little gems started rising up, I began to receive unemployment checks from my last job, I started cooking, I took people to AA meetings, I practiced gratitude daily, and things kept getting better. I started making $10/hour as a tech for a rehab, and I was grateful.
Then I met someone. And he was the one. I fell head over heels. He was also in recovery, and we were together for 3 years. But he was still fighting his disease, he relapsed a number of times, but I still practiced my program, I went to meetings. I started going to Al Anon. They told me that his using does not have to make you use. And then one day when I was working, I got the call. He had overdosed. He was dead. I was devastated. I was grief stricken, I couldn’t stop crying. And I went to New York and I buried him. I hit my emotional bottom in sobriety. But I came home and I kept going to meetings, I returned to work. I was scared of being alone, I had lost myself in a relationship with an alcoholic. I had to recreate myself and find myself again. So I went back to basics. I took it one day at a time, I got up went to work, went to meetings, and I cried and I spoke, and I trusted what I was once told, that this too shall pass. I began to trust that this was a new adventure. I began to trust my growing faith in divine intervention, and with time I realized that his passing was God’s will. I prayed every day, to the power that I knew was greater than me. And I began to feel my evolution. My life and recovery is ever changing, and I found my life and happiness in this feeling. All I can describe it as is a feeling, a kind of a spirituality, a daily practice of gratitude. I found power in nature, in the rooms of AA and in working the program. I saw people getting better.
Now I am 6 years clean and sober. Today I stay sober by finding strength and healing in letting go, staying in the moment, taking responsibility, showing up, being of service wherever I can, taking contrary action, practicing healthy boundaries, being good to myself and others, trusting in a power greater than me, listening, and working the 12 steps and practicing AA’s principles in my life.
I still pray daily. I am a sponsor in AA and I have my sponsees write gratitude lists every day and I encourage them to build a relationship with their higher power. I now have a successful career in treatment, where I worked my way up from being a tech. I practice yoga. I travel. I went back to school and received my chemical dependency counselor certification. I love what I do. And I developed a relationship with my family, my older sister and my nieces. We travel together, we spend holidays together. I wanted to be a good Aunt to her daughters. And I have a beautiful daughter who I see frequently, and as she turns 18, she has decided to this point not to drink or do drugs. I just helped her choose her dress for prom, it was a beautiful thing.
I committed to life. I chose life.