In the aftermath of leaving my role as a solo pastor, I began to focus my energies less on my theology and more on my psychological health. I was required by the presbytery to do a 5-day intensive psychotherapeutic retreat in Georgia in order to receive my four months of severance. This was a major turning point in my life. Every day I saw two therapists (a man and a woman) for an hour each, as well as a life coach who specialized in Myers-Briggs and FIRO-B workplace/career counseling. The most difficult work began when, on the second day, I underwent EMDR therapy, which is typically used for trauma patients with PTSD. The combination of lateral eye-movement and lateral touch-sensors is designed to create a portal into a repressed memory or archetypal image that is causing anxiety, depression or other harmful symptoms. Something about the sensors allows one to get in touch with that memory but with a certain distance so as not to be traumatized again.
The therapist calmly asked me what image I would like to call up, and the image that surfaced was of my mother, sitting on a couch, wrapped in a blanket, unable to stop crying. She wanted my attention and care, but I was unable to help her or soothe her pain. The therapist asked me if my mother has anything to say. Then, my mother suddenly turned to me with red eyes and sputtered: “Christopher, you have NO idea how good you have it!” I began hyperventilating as I spoke those words, which had become a kind of life mantra for me at the cellular level. The therapist stopped the exercise, and asked me if I wanted to go on. I said yes, but only if we never do that again. She then proceeded to help me replace that image with a positive one, and I chose an image of my mother, self-sufficient, sitting on the couch without a need for my care. In this way, she could just be my mother, and I could just be her child.
What I had landed upon was a goldmine of psychoanalytic insight: I was a “parentified child.” There are typically two varieties of parentification: instrumental, whereby the child (usually the eldest) takes care of the siblings and the household and perhaps even a sick parent; and emotional, whereby the child is used therapeutically for the needs of the parent. I was the latter type, functioning as my mother’s therapist. While instrumental parentification often happens because of unforeseen external stressors (natural disasters, loss of job, chronic illness) and is easier to forgive because of the need to survive, emotional parentification is more difficult because of the way it entangles one’s personality. It is not clear to me why my mother chose to use me this way, but I imagine that my father was not emotionally available in the way that she needed, and that these needs have their origin in her own upbringing (I should state at this point that I am dealing with my memories and images of my childhood, which are not factual history but simply my own fallible account. My parents have grown and changed, so what I write should not be taken as a static reality).
Furthermore, because both my parents came from alcoholic families, as the eldest son I was imbued with a sense of redemption from their failed childhoods. Whether it was intentional or not, the message I received was that, in order to secure my mother’s love, I had to be there for her emotionally. A child has no choice in such matter, and it certainly does not seem like such a great sacrifice to them at the time, because they have no sense of “self” to sacrifice at the time. The child forms their notion of what a “healthy” attachment is, which has damaging repercussions in how they go about forming relationships with others. But it is mostly destructive to their sense of self – having been narcissistically abused, they in turn learn to become narcissistic themselves, relying on other people for a sense of validation and worth, because they are constantly seeking that external infallible source of love/intimacy that they never received as children. In order to win such attention, they develop what is often referred to as a false self/false ego/reflected sense of self (vs. the healthier “solid sense of self” or true self). Having performed for my mother, I now felt the need to love and care for others, but always as a way to secure love. I had learned early on how to act maturely, but I was far from being mature.
It wasn’t until I had to deal with being alone, with no parental figures around, and now responsible for my own two children at the age of 30, that my inner world became unsustainable. I could not rely on the “borrowed functioning” of professors and pastoral supervisors who would give me that sense of validation I so desperately wanted. Now I was in a situation where I had to validate myself, to love myself, and it was unbearable to me.
Furthermore, I had been taught in my evangelical Christian community that loving one’s self was not allowed – only God is allowed to love us. But God had long since vanished, and I felt that I must have done something wrong to make that happen. Maybe it was going to seminary and being so full of ideas that I became “prideful”? Maybe I had looked at too much porn and God had had enough? It amazes me now to see just how much shame I had internalized, and that God was complicit in this shaming. But I had been on a steady diet of shame, since I didn’t know how good I had it. My mother was basically telling me, “I had a shitty childhood, and I’m trying so hard to give you a good one, and you’re ungrateful because you don’t know how much pain I went through. I’m so giving, so sacrificial!”
God and my mother had fused, which probably explains why, despite my progressive social views and politics, I had such an aversion to any attempts at using feminine imagery for God. Worship and adoration had become unbearable religious practices, because I could not help but see God as a needy deity, who had made this great sacrifice in Jesus Christ, and now demanded the utmost attention and love from me. And if I gave that attention and love, maybe, just maybe, God would love me back.
One day my therapist gave me permission to do the unthinkable. I kept framing the issue in terms of chasing God, trying to pursue God harder, to get God to love me, to speak, to say something for Christ’s sake! And he said, “Chris, what if you honestly just attempted to love yourself, without God?” This was akin to giving me permission to love myself without my mother, without the need to perform, without the need to receive a reflection from others. It was also, for me, the beginning of a journey into atheism. I felt God had abandoned me, so I would return the favor.
Next up, death of God theology and Winnicott’s “Good-Enough-Mother.”