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Why We Idealize Primary Caregivers, Even If They Don't Deserve It

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Attachment is a powerful, lifelong force that cannot be circumvented. Whether we are consciously aware of our own style or not; it is in constant operation behind the scenes. Or under the scenes, rather. Business is always open. It infiltrates and shapes our personality, relationships and worldviews. Every single human being walking this earth has developed some type of attachment during infancy to their primary caregivers and that attachment impacted all subsequent relationships during school age, adolescence and early and late adulthood.

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The way our primary caregivers related to us during the first few years of life has a profound effect on whether we develop secure, anxious/ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles — secure being ideal. Unfortunately, traumatic experiences in this earlier part of life puts the person at risk to develop anxious/ambivalent or avoidant attachment styles, which are not healthy and secure. Traumatic experiences can be related to abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, etc.) and/or neglect. Other examples are frequent relocations, abandonment and anything that produces instability and unpredictability in the child’s earlier years.

The diathesis-stress model and vulnerability stress models can scratch the surface of explaining how some people are more vulnerable to be affected so pervasively to such earlier stressors later in life. It has to do with a mix of genetics, biology, psychology, environment and personality. Sometimes having positive experiences later in life can “fix” or “reverse” some of the damage and distrust the trauma caused.

This brings me to a concept I ponder about often and which holds personal meaning to me: the parent/primary caregiver as the “idealized image.” The child has an inherent need and longing for a positive and secure attachment with primary caregivers. They want to connect, attach, be heard, have their needs met, feel like they belong and feel safe and loved. This is extremely important for a child in infancy and early childhood to receive in order to develop secure attachment in remaining relationships throughout their lives. This breeds an expectation for the parents/primary caregivers to provide the aforementioned.

But what if they can’t? What if they don’t? What if instead they impose abuse and/or neglect, producing converse feelings of fear, lack of love, pain and distrust?

Parents/primary caregivers are, after all, only human. Becoming biological parents does not automatically make them better people, or suddenly best equipped for the role. It does not take away their own earlier traumas or demons, any symptoms or illnesses they carry, and it certainly does not automatically change their personality. If anything, the added stressor and pressure of parenthood can exacerbate existing stress. In this rather tragic scenario, they do not fulfill their inherent role of “ideal” image. They are supposed to represent and model the first experience of all that is good and safe in the world and show the meaning of love. If not a primary caregiver, then who?

This yields great discordance and confusion for the child, for their definition of love and safety is established in this way that is normal to them. To be loved and protected is to be abused and/or neglected. To be loved involves feeling pain and distrust. It is no wonder many people carry patterns of unhealthy relationships throughout their lives often times not even realizing it; because to them it is their normal and they subconsciously seek familiar experiences with other people. It would take awareness, education and therapy to modify these ingrained views. To redefine what is a healthy attachment, and what it means to feel safe, loved and to trust. Such corrective experiences are amazing, but not a guarantee, as responses in adults will still vary, because we must factor in the human themselves and what emotional resilience they bring.

There is a beautiful process that occurs as these babies and children grow older and become teenagers and then adults. I call it disillusionment. It will be on a different timeline and pace for everyone. Once the cognitive capacity is reached, and after many experiences in the relationships from an adult lens, parents/primary caregivers, if still in the person’s life even, can be seen for who they really are. Their real personality and problems shine through like a ray of light. A re-perception. A revelation. Sometimes great, other times tragic, and often times an ambivalent mixture, for most people have both positive and negative qualities, right? But what happens next?

Some continue to idealize regardless. Others keep a greater distance and set strict boundaries. Some are able to forgive and even impart pity as a result of their disillusionment, while others harbor anger and resentment regardless: no excuses. It is important to know that either scenario is OK.

Unhealthy relationship patterns are reflective of insecure attachments developed earlier in life.

There is another beautiful process I have seen unfold in my therapy room with clients processing broken earlier attachments, trying to make sense of it, while struggling with present relationships.

People vacillate between feeling intense anger and hatred towards the abusive primary caregiver(s), trying to understand how they could have done all those things if they were supposed to keep them protected and loved; it made no sense. Those who maintain the “idealized image” despite traumatic experiences with abuse/neglect are desperate to understand how and why this happened to them, as if to justify what was done, to provide rationalizations in order to feel good about forgiving them, so they can maintain the position of the “idealized image,” to be able to trust your own thoughts and feelings. Because if the puzzle pieces cannot fit this way, what can people trust?

People often reflect and recount positive experiences and character traits of the troubled caregivers, feeding the idealized image. At the core, people want to hold their primary caregivers on a pedestal and keep perceiving them as ideal. It is probably a psychological need to feel stable and founded.

One thing is certain; it is a whole new world once children grow up and see their parents/primary caregivers for who they truly are.

getty image by Archv

Originally published: May 12, 2020
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