Julia, fifty-three, grew up in an affluent household, the envy of all her friends, has a terrible sense of “not understanding what is wrong.” She describes not feeling comfortable in “her skin.” I wonder aloud that although her parents were financially successful, maybe they did not “get her,” meaning that they did not provide emotional resonance. In other words, maybe she was deprived of parents who could feel happy for her when she felt happy and sad for her when she felt sad. Maybe this kind of deprivation made her feel “at sea.” She responds to me with a quizzical look on her face. Eventually she says “how could that be, my parents loved me very much.” “I am sure they did” I respond, “ but the fact that they loved you does not mean that they were able to resonate with you. Maybe you really needed that sense of resonance to feel grounded. ” She looks at me confused.
Heinz Kohut, in his last lecture, given three days before he died, said that in his clinical experience, the worst suffering a child experiences is when he looks to his mother for understanding and his mother, without malicious intent, cannot provide that. As a result, the child feels unworthy of needing mirroring. As Kohut sees it, the subtle nature of this kind of deprivation causes the child to feel bad, ye, the child is not able to understand the underpinnings of his distress. To unpack the origins of the child’s distress, according to Kohut, takes a skilled clinician who can both empathize with the pain and provide an explanation for the historical roots.
Julia does not agree that she suffers from a childhood which deprived her of emotional sustenance. She believes that there is something very wrong with her constitution such that she can never feel anchored. We agree to disagree. Working with Julia’s history is a rich source of speculation; Julia and I agree about that. There is no way to absolutely “know” yet through speculation we can see what seems right to her. Our search for understanding continues. At the same time, I try to provide emotional resonance. Perhaps, in the future, this will help Julia understand her own experience; perhaps it will compensate for what she did not get for a child. Perhaps it will help her empathize with her friends and family. For now, it makes her confused.