Siblings, but Strangers – Part 37 min read

It’s been 5 months since I published the last update. 

A lot has happened.  

Here’s a recap of our outward life events:

  1. We quit sibling therapy 
  2. Amin fully recovered from his injury
  3. I delivered a TEDx talk at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan on Attachment Theory
  4. I moved to Vancouver in May

And…

  1. I went silent on my parents.

I initially asked for 6 months of no contact. But now we’re at 9 months and I’m still silent. I have never seen myself be this way with anyone. 

I’ve always demonstrated the Anxious attachment style, which is constantly seeking and maintaining connection, or protesting when connection is threatened. 

At first, I thought I was silent because they persistently asked difficult questions: What’s going on with your job search? Where is your career headed? Have you met anyone new yet? Why do you keep running away?

Then I thought perhaps I’m unconsciously retaliating for all the times in the past when they were silent towards me. I was agonized by the possibility of this being true. My heart was on fire and bleeding at the same time.

I wished they would stop calling and messaging because it was incredibly painful to watch my words and actions hurt my parents. I wish I could have protected them from the pain I was generating. I know this is not what parents expect when they bring a child into the world.

I felt guilty for putting time and distance between us. The one time I had gone silent as a child, I was quickly reprimanded for it. That’s when I learned that silence is never acceptable. 

On some days, I wanted to reach out, give them what they’re seeking, be that good daughter again, but something was holding me back. 

I sat with my pain and asked, “Where do you come from?”

It replied, “Shame.”

I further inquired, “What purpose do you serve?”

It replied, “Self-protection.”

Suddenly, it became clear that this was not silent treatment – an intentional emotional abuse tactic. I was not doing this to hurt my parents, but rather, I was doing this to protect myself from being constantly triggered. I felt so emotionally unsafe that I went into a silent self-protection mode. 

The triggering interactions cut through my heart like a thousand knives. Every time that happened, the cup of shame deep within my heart filled to the brim. I was trying to prevent it from overflowing into the rest of my body, poisoning myself into apathy. 

I felt deeply ashamed for disappointing my parents in all areas of life: career, marriage, children.

Now I had to sit with this truth.

I wanted them to see me for who I am rather than what they wanted for me. But was I ready to do that for myself? Was I ready to see myself as I am?

Can I love myself as I am, even if they choose to reject or abandon me? I guess we’ll find out. 

Granting myself permission to be silent towards my parents allowed me to see that this behavior is completely innocent and doesn’t carry any intention to hurt them. This was simply a natural freeze mechanism, one of the three built-in self-protection mechanisms we have at our disposal in the face of danger. 

Since I have an Anxious attachment style, I am more familiar with the other two: fight and flight. The impetus behind what I had previously called the “silent treatment” is to lay low, wait for danger to pass, hold out until it’s safe to resurface again, and preserve the relationship.

The freeze mode is typically common among individuals with an Avoidant attachment style. They often feel overwhelmed by intense emotions and need to shut down and disengage in order to make sense of the situation. 

As I was experiencing the other (Avoidant) side of the story, my heart was gripped by a sense of guilt for shaming anyone who had found refuge in silence before – including my ex-husband and my brother. I had to unlearn the original lesson, reframe the past interactions in light of my new understanding, and apologize for contributing to the lack of emotional safety in these relationships. 

It is common for us to shame others for qualities that were dismissed or suppressed in us during our formative years. And it is quite likely that it will be those qualities that trigger us the most. 

For example, Avoidants will often shame their Anxious partners for requesting even healthy levels of support, reassurance, and validation. They will perceive them to be overly dependent and needy, because the lens that they are seeing the world through has a bias for extreme independence. This lens makes Avoidants hypersensitive to anything that is perceived to challenge their complete autonomy and independence. 

The needs of an Anxious and Avoidant are seemingly in direct conflict; the Anxious seeks connection while the Avoidant seeks freedom. Most mainstream literature says that these two attachment styles cannot ever make it work, but I strongly disagree. These two types can absolutely have a healthy and happy relationship if they are conscious and set up the right rituals from the beginning to lay a strong foundation.

For the Anxious person in the relationship, this provides certainty of connection. They feel secure knowing that there is regular, dedicated time to discuss difficult topics and cultivate closeness. For the Avoidant person, this provides relief knowing that difficult issues will not be raised outside of these designated times and they won’t be put on the spot by the Anxious partner. Established rituals allow the relationship to ebb and flow while ensuring stability between two people in any relationship.

Here’s how we can visualize it – we know the Avoidant needs time and space away to exist in a committed relationship while the Anxious person prefers constant connection. Setting up a weekly ritual gives them both what they really need, which is a deeper connection. Rupture and repair are part of all close relationships, but it’s the rituals that create continuity in relationships.

I encourage parents to set up similar weekly rituals with each of their children and call it “Mommy (or Daddy) and Me time”. It enables the child to feel heard, seen, and known by each of their parents and establishes an emotionally secure base within the family. 

This way, siblings don’t need to subconsciously compete for their parents’ love and attention. They know that they will each have their own independent time when the parent’s attention is fully focused on them and their needs. This is how children come to know that they are worthy of love and attention. It also sets the blueprint for a secure intimate relationship in the future. 

Amin and I were much better about establishing rituals. We had our nightly chats about three times a week. Amin would get into bed by 10:30pm, and I would sit on his wheelchair next to his bed with Caesar in my lap. This was our dedicated time to talk about whatever was on our mind. Sometimes one of us would have a grievance to bring up and resolve. Sometimes we would be planning an event such as our grand Waffle Brunch.

Perhaps the most important thing we both learned is that on the outside, each of us appears to be quite strong, but on the inside, we’re very sensitive in different ways. When someone lets you in on their inner world, you naturally have power over how they feel – when the power is used correctly, it supports healing, and when it’s used incorrectly, it creates more pain.

This power comes with immense responsibility. We made plenty of mistakes in the beginning, but we eventually learned to be gentle with our words and mindful of each others’ insecurities. Together, we created a safe space – physically and emotionally – for us to start building our relationship day by day.

One Comment

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    Nafeesa August 30, 2019 at 5:23 pm - Reply

    Great article with so much insight!

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