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  • Writer's pictureAnnelisa MacBean

Emotional Autonomy

Some of us, when quite young, are put in the position of emotionally taking care of an adult at a time when we need more than anything to have our own inner experience mirrored back to us. A template is formed which, until compassionately met with clear seeing, organizes the way we see ourselves and dictates the ways we engage in close, intimate relationships.

In our early relational configurations, our sense of self becomes entangled with the moods of the emotionally disregulated adult or adults around us. Anxiety, unhappiness, and the hope for well-being organize around "the other." The job of the little one shifts from the discovery of self in unstructured play and exploration to attending to the unlived life of the caretaker(s), a task for which neither a young nervous system, nor a tender little heart are designed.

If we look carefully, we can often see clearly how this template continues to play out in our own adult lives. Most especially these early imprints become visible In our phobias around having / expressing needs, in fixation on whether we’ve disappointed someone and what that means about us as a person, in the shakiness around allowing another to matter. In the terror of relationship, on the one hand, and in the painful longing for it on the other. In the existential confusion about where we end and the other begins. In the ancient conclusion that caring for another requires a deeply rooted disavowal of our own psyche, body, and heart.

We come to see our own self-worth through the changing emotional states of those around us, on guard at all times: Have I disappointed someone? What can I do to make them feel better? Should I take more responsibility for the unfulfilled longing in their hearts? They are heartbroken, surely that is somehow traceable back to me, right? I’ve failed somehow, right? As a little one longing for any sort of empathic connection, we’d be willing to do just about anything to receive even a limited amount of holding.

Articulating, illuminating, and untangling the tentacles of our templates can go a long way to healing chronic feelings of shame and unworthiness, where we begin to differentiate our worth as a person from the moods, suffering, struggle, and unlived lives of others. The invitation is to withdraw the projection of our own worth from others and locate it inside ourselves. This withdrawal is a great act of kindness, both for ourselves, for the other, and for the world.

For it is by way of this disentangling that we can truly love who and what we are. We can appreciate our uniqueness, and the exquisite beauty of others being exactly as they are. Acts of care generated from a stance of emotional autonomy are authentic, and represent the radical force of true compassion. Such kindness is genuinely of the heart, not merely a re-enactment of the old habit of self-abandonment or self-sacrifice in the name of love.

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