Attention Deficit and Self Abuse

We are all suffering from attention deficit. And that deficit crushes our souls just as surely as aging kills our bodies.

I think a lot about attention. Specifically my attention and where I’m putting it; to what things, practices, or persons am I giving it? This practice of watching my attention has allowed me to become more sensitive to other people’s attention and where they seem to put it; how it gets moved around as an energetic resource. Brendan and I (as new parents since 2010) have been getting the pressure-cooker, crash-course version of how to give attention as we’ve learned to balance self care, child care, house care, and work care. It’s damn hard; you all know this.

Work care and child care are the least flexible, the most demanding of attention, the hardest to avoid, and it’s upon their altars where self care is usually sacrificed. Need to stay late at the office? Skip exercise and have a slice of pizza for dinner. Kid is sick and awake with a fever half the night? Drink extra coffee in the morning and push to get up anyway. These are the daily micro-manifestations of self abuse.

This practice is not the exclusive domain of new parents; obviously, non-parent people are just as guilty of burning their candles from both ends, so to speak. However, it IS an adult practice; you’ll rarely see a small child ignoring their body’s signals or “pushing through” anything without some serious reinforcement/coercion from the resident adult. Children aren’t born knowing how to abuse themselves.

Self abuse is a learned skill, an adaptation born from a deficit of attention; specifically, attention from the parents/teachers/local adults who were supposed to validate us and tell us we were worth their while. That we were seen and heard. That our experience had meaning and wasn’t simply an inconvenience. That we deserved their attention.

I know my mother loved me. And I also believe that when she gave birth to me in 1971 at the age of 21, she was totally unprepared for the challenges of motherhood. Raised on a farm by good, trustworthy people, she was easy pickings for the charismatic sociopath who was my biological father. Suffice to say, when he abused her in every way imaginable, she took it. Because that’s what her family taught her to do when they repeatedly told her their experience was more important than hers. That her body wasn’t hers. That her dreams were silly, her fears unfounded. That as the only girl on a farm, she was a burden.

She believed them because she loved them and their world was her world. But their lack of attention to her basic humanity, their inability to respect her for who she was, their refusal to give her the kind of attention she needed to flourish had profound and damaging effects on her. And, as a direct result, on me. Because how could she not pass on that level of self hatred and shame? How was she supposed to know what it looked like to give unconditional loving attention? To know what validation sounded like? What self love felt like?

How was she supposed to help me become a powerful, confident woman when she had no idea what that even meant?

My mother’s experience isn’t unique, of course; it’s a common human story. I, my sister, our grandmother, even our father; it’s our story. I suspect it’s a lot of your stories, too. We all come from lines of people who are told from birth that they don’t deserve regard in the ways they require.

Your skin isn’t a boundary to respect; your foreskins and hymens aren’t valuable. Your upset over being moved without consent can be minimized; how you feel is less important than our getting to the store. Your tears or screams aren’t a valid form of communication, but a silliness to be photographed, shared, and even laughed over. Don’t worry; you’re resilient and will adapt.

Is it any wonder we abuse ourselves and our children? With so few healthy models to follow and so much internalized shame to go around, this has reached epidemic proportions. It’s our water; the air we breathe; the reality we experience. We are the unwilling recipients of attention deficit disorder and it’s killing us.

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