As a therapist, I frequently meet people who—in spite of residing within intact physical structures like apartments and houses—have never had a felt sense of home. While we all take for granted what this notion intends, the very idea of “home” is a socio-cultural psychological construct which many would do well to reconsider. In this article, I'll consider that construct from both a "philosophical"and clinical perspective, as well as providing some "self help" for those who identify with this sort of homelessness.
Generally speaking (and I should note here that I am doing so within a North American context as it’s what I know first-hand), “home” is a socio-cultural ideal insofar as it reflects collective Western values, values arising originally from tribes and clans and informed later by religious traditions, Enlightenment and Puritanical ideals, politics of the Left and Right, patriarchy, feminism, and faith in the virtues of college educations, home ownership, and upward mobility. Home—and its animating feature, the family—are heavily promoted to us by the media, advertising, churches, furniture stores, contemporary Christmas carols, and the greeting card industry; by “Modern Family” and “This Is Us” and “Blackish.”
It is a psychological construct insofar as it represents selves-in-relation-to-others, the internal working model for future relationships and the means by which one finds him/herself “at home” in the world. Optimally, Home is something like this: Home is a place where children are intentionally conceived and thoughtfully reared by responsible, attuned parents. Home is a place where feelings of safety are engendered by the demonstration of parental strength and the experience of parents’ emotional bandwidth. Home is a place where character and resilience devolve when appropriate limits are set and proportionate consequences for wrongdoing are consistently levied; home is a place where things like curiosity and effort and shows of good judgement and critical thinking are esteemed. Home would be a place where grownups are actually adults, which makes it possible for their offspring to be children who can proceed in a coherent fashion through relevant developmental stages culminating in their own future actual-adulthood. Home is where respect is bi-directional between parents and kids but “unconditional love” only flows one way, from those who chose to have children to those had no choice but to be their children (but a parent who earns their child’s love by being a good parent will enjoy having it returned in perpetuity). Home is a place of emotional safety and responsiveness; a place to be seen and heard and held and known; a place for pie and sympathy and shelter from the storm.
Given that description, it’s no wonder there are so many people who, effectively, have no such “place like home.” And how do we account for this epidemic of homelessness? Here’s my answer: because there’s virtually no proof of parental emotional competence anyone requires when a woman finds herself pregnant and decides she’s going to give birth to and raise that child. Astonishing how that truth resides alongside the fact that even a fishing license requires an application and agreement to comply with various fishery rules and regulations. No one demands that we stop perpetuating the intergenerational transmission of suboptimal mental health that is almost entirely governed by environment, not genes.1 I know there are many people out there actually reassured by the near-folklore that genes account for the depression or anxiety or psychosis or alcoholism or whatever the hell runs in the family. It has “run in the family” preeminently because mothers with “issues” tend to get in to relationships that have “issues” and raise children who will thus be bathed in “issues” throughout their nascence and then—big surprise!—present with more “issues” later in life.
People who struggle in their adult years with the gamut of affective, mood, personality, substance use, and eating disorders—all of which share a similar template of emotional dysregulation, a legacy of early relational trauma with parents—often feel like they’ve never had a home; that internal felt-sense of cohesion and groundedness. They describe the absence of this feeling as being lost or empty; “untethered,” as if someone responsible for holding on to the balloon string to which their balloon-self had been tied had just…..let go. One of the very hardest realities about being an adult is that it will never be anyone’s job again to hold on to that string. But people with early trauma of this nature tend to make quite a bit of hash of themselves and their relationships later, searching for a person (or substance, or behavior) with magical tethering-powers upon whom they can impose their incoherent selfhood and the complex task of its resolution.
And many people find themselves caught up in the gravitational pull of continuing to engage with parents who have proven empirically time and again that they will be unwilling or unable to see, understand, know them. Each time they show up for certain heartbreak, secretly longing for “this time to be different.” It is not uncommon for an unloved, unknown adult child to appoint him/herself as caregiver to a particularly problematic parent as he/she ages. Attending to a crappy parent’s needs may have been a strategy discovered early in life; the one proxy for feeling “love” in the relationship. The inner, unconscious logic of this strategy is that “if I love you mom/dad; if I do or be for you, then I am a part of an important us, and I therefore actually exist”…..even if “I” only exist insofar as I become that parent’s self-object, the thing that reflects back to the parent that they are special and important. And then go through life empty anyway; homeless.
So what do you do now, as an adult, if there is no “place like home” at the Holidays? How do you stop going back to the dry well that is your parent/s, hoping this time there will be water? And if there has been a rupture in such a primary relationship—and no present one really exists, how do you cope with your feelings when everyone else seems to be a part of something you never will? Here are some thoughts on getting through this time of year:
Rethink what you think is “owed” to crappy parents.
We’ve all somehow been socialized with the idea that “she’s/he’s my mother/father” so “I have to see/talk to/spend time with/love” him/her/them; or in other words, continue showing up for their abuse or neglect of you. You’re wrong. It is a parent’s job to inspire her/his child to want to spend time with them, which they do by creating and sustaining closeness with you when you are young. If you associate positive feelings with interacting with your parent--warmth or love or validation or sense that you matter; a feeling of safety or “home”—then your parent has earned your continuing love/affection/attention in adulthood.
If you dread interacting with your parent—you know you’re going to end up feeling misunderstood, disliked, guilty, anxious, angry, or impotent—it’s because that’s the relational imprint your parent created in you (meaning how they were with you as a child had negative impact on how you felt--and likely still feel, particularly in their presence--about yourself). In such a case, your parent failed the relationship, not you. You don’t owe them a text, a phone call, an awful weekend at their house, or access to your kids just because they think you’re theirs. When you are an adult, you don’t belong to anyone but yourself (the exception being that maybe you’ve been fortunate to have created a family of your own—whether with friends or with your “person”--to which you now also belong, in addition to yourself).
Anticipate how you’re going to feel.
It's lonely to know that you belong to no one but yourself. And it probably feels particularly lonely during the stupid Holiday season, when everyone else seems to have all these people and presents and mistletoe and wassail and feasting and all you’ve got is Hulu and some IPAs and a closet you’ve been meaning to organize. But being lonely when you’re alone is a far sight better than being lonely in the company of others—with whom you long/ed for closeness, of which they weren’t/aren’t capable—and you’re an expert at it at this point. You got this. Make Christmas your bitch this year. There’s no new feeling here; nothing that’s going to go “boo” and surprise you and swamp your ability to cope. But: you might need more or better strategies than usual so….
Make plans to feel differently.
Since you can anticipate how you’re going to feel, get ahead of it. Inventory the things you do that bring you pleasure and plan to do as much or as many of That as you can.
Have your list of alternate self-talking points close at hand so when automatic thoughts that sound like “no one has ever loved me…and no one ever will” or “who would want to be with me” or “everyone else has someone to love” you can counter them. If don’t know how to counter your own defeating self-talk, go on You Tube and learn from an expert like Tony Robbins or Les Brown or Oprah Winfrey; have one of their voices become the missing inner parent, the person who stands up for you and says “I choose something else” right now, this minute, this day.
Be kind to yourself…but not indulgent in any of the ways--like eating, drinking, buying crap you can’t afford, or other avoidance-based or self-harming strategy--that always and only end up magnifying feelings of shame and reinforcing your distance from others. Imagine what a (hypothetical!) kind parent would say or do with or for you….and then do that yourself.
Do something that will make you feel proud of yourself--any one thing, no matter how small it seems. Every one thing is one thing more than you had before, which means you are already on your way to being “the kind of person who…” does such things.
Move. For real….as in, move your body. Get the f#&$ up off your bed, take a shower, get dressed, put your face on, and go walk around. Anywhere. If the weather sucks outside, or you live in a bad neighborhood, put on some music and dance or find somewhere indoors to walk around or climb some stairs. Lassitude is a dangerous province for the homeless.
Cultivate an observational stance.
If you are one of those people who--despite knowing that interacting with mom and/or dad (or other family member; fill in the blank here ________) basically sucks—feels obliged/compelled to continue doing so, you’ll benefit from the cultivation of a certain skill. And that skill is not “how to communicate with them more effectively.” One can’t negotiate with a terrorist, and a crappy parent whose crappiness has persisted into your adulthood qualifies for this designation. Understand that their ability to destabilize you is the power they still hold over you. If you still find that interacting with them leaves you feeling frustrated, furious, wounded, tearful, depressed, empty, or worst of all, hopeful they’re going to change….and the parent you longed for will magically suddenly awaken from their selfish slumber, become poignantly aware of the value you intrinsically possess that “escaped them” earlier, and, since we’re fantasizing here: maybe even apologize for their negligence/destructiveness!), you are emotionally invested. To preserve yourself, you’ll need to divest.
Divesting means cultivating objective distance. When you are with family, observe the interactions as if you were going to write a scholarly paper on it later (perhaps something like “Domestic Rituals of the Hyena Pack), and notice yourself participating. When your emotions start to get jangly, step back from the action—either in your head or actually “take a break” from the room--and be curious about what was said and how you responded and what happened next. Look for pattern--if you don’t already know what they are—and “traps;” the things that you fall in to over and over, like Charlie Brown and the football. Being able to be curious about your own experience—rather than activated by it—is how you begin to disarm the terrorist.
To sum things up, all of these “Holiday strategies” are actually ones that help people begin to build a “self” within, the self that fills in the empty, homeless space where positive early relational experiences woulda-shoulda been, regardless of the season or occasion. Only you can solve your homelessness, ….but you get to. You don’t have to wait and hope—as you were stuck doing as a child—that someone else would come along and invite you home. And as suggested in the beginning of this piece, since “home” is a mostly psychological construct to begin with, it means we can individually determine what home is, and build a definition into which we are included rather than excluded. Home, for some of us, becomes a thing we are rather than a place we wish we could be.
1 It was beyond the scope of this article to get into depth about the determinism of genes versus environment, but in general we know that a tendency for some individuals to produce more of the stress hormone cortisol than others is gene-based, as is the under-production of the neurotransmitter serotonin, but favorable attachment experiences in the first years of life have been shown to short-circuit the expression of these under-and overages (which present in mental health issues) later in life.