Recently I’ve been thinking about the importance of stand-ins, for those of us who didn’t get what we needed from our parents (which…let’s be real…is probably all of us, amirite?!). From an attachment standpoint, this can be crucial. If we had a primary caregiver that – for their own reasons – could not meet our needs themselves, those needs can be met elsewhere. Babies, kids, and even adults (just all humans, in general) are adaptable in this way.
My mom had a lot going on when I was born. It’s safe to say she just couldn’t be bothered with me all that much at the time. And while my dad was sort of absent, and some of my other relatives were not necessarily healthy people, I did have a grandma that nurtured me. I can look back on my life and see people dotted throughout my history who functioned as stand-ins for the parents I needed, but didn’t have. These people provided healing experiences for me, and filled in the gaps in my memories and emotions. Healing experiences came in various ways. A teacher who listened to me when I otherwise felt ignored. A babysitter who played with me for hours without tiring. An aunt or uncle who took me on an outing. A youth minister who let me hang around at church when I had nowhere else to go. All of these people contributed something to my well-being, even if they weren’t permanent fixtures in my life.
What I’m finding more and more as I heal is this: the beauty of the human heart is that it is always seeking to heal itself, to assimilate what it needs in order to become whole. It’s never too late for that, even as adults.
Trauma survivors are familiar with the phenomenon of memories existing outside of time. We experience it in the form of flashbacks, sometimes on the regular. During those times, time itself seems fluid – or at best, irrelevant. The memory feels so real, it can blur the line between then and now. It’s safe to say we’ve all experienced this. But let’s turn that principle on its ear, shall we? There is another side to this: the side where good experiences can exist outside of time, too, and fill in what’s been missing in our development. Good experiences can fulfill a need and provide an experience that helps us grow – whether that need is 30 years old, or 2 weeks old. This is an absolutely amazing facet of the human spirit. No matter how old the wounds are, they are never too old to be healed.
When I was younger, I struggled with attachment. I didn’t know who to attach to, and how to do it in a healthy way. I was always over-attaching to the wrong people and under-attaching to the right people. Eventually I lost them all. The grief was almost unbearable at times. Back then, it wasn’t just about healing, it was about wanting to “keep” someone – for good.
Nowadays, I hold onto people much more loosely. Partly this is because I’ve found a healthier way of being in relationships, through very very painful trial and error. I’ve learned that it’s very unlikely that I will find one human being that has the power and capacity to meet all my unmet needs of the past. It takes more than one person. Few (if any) people have the capacity to step into that position, so I don’t expect anyone to, these days. But partly it’s because I’ve started to recognize that it’s less about where the healing experiences come from; it’s less about the actual person, and more about the experience. I don’t need to own anyone, or have a lifelong commitment from them, to accept the gift of who they are and what they offer in the present moment and be grateful to them for it – no matter where it goes from there. In turn, I offer myself to them – whatever that looks like – and we create a space for each other to just be genuine. Being present with someone is, itself, a healing experience. There is no time limit on those.