I remember it very clearly – standing there at the sink in the boys’ bathroom of my school, staring at myself in the mirror. I was eight years old.
I had recently found my father’s photo album in the attic of my house. He had died when I was a baby; I had no memory of him, only imaginings and questions. One of the pictures in the album showed him at sixteen, on a diving board, from behind, naked. My father was tall, with a manly, muscular physique.
I wondered about myself: would I be like that, in eight more years? What would I be like? Eight years seemed an impossibly long time to me – a lifetime (as it was, so far!). I peered into the mirror, pretending it was magic, trying to see the sixteen-year-old me in there.
If he could look back at eight-year-old me, what would he think? Would he like me? Would he approve of me? Or would he think I was impossibly silly and childish? Would he even remember being me? What would he be able to tell me?
“Watch out, Donnie, for that fifth-grade teacher, Miss Stanley – she’s a doozie!”
“Yeah, that’s what everyone says. But I’ll have her in two years – what can I do?”
“Not much – she’s the only one. Just don’t let her get to you. Keep remembering, you’ll make it through that year; you’ll come out the other side. You’ll do fine. And sixth grade will be better. Ok?”
“Thanks. I’ll do my best.”
“Yeah, I know you will.” From the mirror, he smiles at me. “For sure. You did – I mean, I did.”
My mentor was me
I stayed there a long time, then went back to my class. I can’t remember whether I got in trouble. Probably not – my third grade teacher was a sweetie.
Megan came to me for help with binge eating. You would never have guessed it, to look at her – at 18 she was slender, with no apparent weight problem. Yet at odd times she would “zone out” and start eating everything she could get her hands on, finally “coming to” when there was no more food to be found or she was starting to get physically sick. We worked through that issue over three sessions; now she was back for a forth, to wrap up.
I had noticed in our discussions that Megan talked a lot about her father – his expectations, her wanting to please him mixed sometimes with anger and resentment, his trying to manage even the fine details of her life, a dependency that seemed more typical of a younger child with her parent. I am not a psychologist – I do not generally analyze or draw conclusions about the meaning of upbringing or relations with one’s mother or father. But it seemed to me, and she said so too, that a greater independence of thought and action would be more appropriate at this stage of Megan’s life, especially as she was about to start college.
There is a lovely NLP process, “Reconnecting to Self” (Heart of the Mind by Connirae and Steve Andreas, pp. 25-27, Real People Press, 1989), that serves as a guide to releasing overly dependent ties to another person. In their place, those ties are reconnected – to one’s self. I discussed this with Megan, then led her through it.
I began by asking Megan to close her eyes and imagine her father standing there in the room with us. “Walk all around him,” I told her, “up close and far away. Hover above him; look up at him from below. Touch him. Pay attention to your feelings of being with him, and especially to how you feel about being too connected with him, too dependent.”
I waited a bit, then continued. “How do you experience the connection?” I asked. “Does it seem like you are physically attached to him somehow? Is there a chord, maybe, or perhaps some other kind of connection between you?”
“Actually, yes – there is,” she said.
“Tell me what it’s like – color, size, texture. Where does it attach, to your body and to his?”
“It is kind of grey, and thick,” she answered. “It comes out of his throat and connects to my stomach.”
“Ok. Now, Megan, I’d like you to imagine cutting that connection, just for a moment – to see what it would be like. Can you do that?”
She nodded, but with a pained look on her face. “It doesn’t feel good,” she said.
“Yes, I expected that,” I said. “That’s why it was only for a moment. That connection has been there a long time and it’s been very important to you, especially when you were little. You’re not ready to break it permanently yet. For one thing, you don’t have any replacement for it.”
Megan nodded, relieved.
“So now Megan,” I continued, “go inside of yourself and ask, ‘What do I want, what do I really need from my father?” And when you know the answer, tell me.”
I waited as she turned inward.
“I need his support and his advice,” she said, “even though he does annoy me sometimes, telling me what to do, things I already know.”
“Ok,” I said. “And that support and advice – what does that do for you? How does that help you?”
She thought a moment. “It helps me feel safe and secure,” she said, nodding to herself. “Protected.”
“Good.” I paused for a moment, then continued. “I’d like you to turn to your right [I already knew Megan thought of her future as being on her right] and begin forming an image in your mind, an image of the you you are becoming, perhaps a few years from now – older, wiser, having learned things that you don’t know yet, more developed, experienced in life. See how capable she is, how strong. The difficulties, the issues that you are struggling with, she has resolved.”
I could see from her expression that Megan was enjoying this part. “Walk all around her; see her from all sides,” I said. “Now step into her, be her, for a moment, looking out with her eyes. Look back at yourself, your 18-year-old self. Do you see, do you feel how she loves you, cares for you? Wants to help you, nurture and protect you, keep you safe?”
“Now step back, viewing her once more from the outside.”
The rest of the process was straightforward. I had Megan turn to her father and quickly sever the connection, this time for real, and quickly reconnect it to her older self. This time she was ready, and she felt good about it, ecstatic, even. And the connection ended up being heart-to-heart instead of throat-to-stomach as it had been with her father.
We did not forget Megan’s father and his severed connection. I pointed out to her that he could do the same thing she had done, reconnecting to himself. He and she would of course continue to love, respect, and count on one another. She imagined him doing this, gaining a fuller sense of himself. “In a way,” she said, “I feel like I can be closer to him now, on a different basis.”
I had her step into and become her older self once more, looking back at the connection and to her younger self. Then as she came back into the 18-year-old Megan, she brought with her some of the resourcefulness of her older self.
Lastly, I asked Megan to imagine several future situations – meeting new people, resolving difficulties, finding she could now rely on her new, resourceful self and her new “mentor”.
This “Reconnecting with Self” process helps us build a healthy ability to stand on our own feet. This in no way means having to be alone. We learn to meet and relate to others as
equals, relating in mutual respect rather in the old, restrictive, dependent ways.