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Let me tell you about my struggles with Object Constancy.
It all starts with one very rude conversation.
“You feel bad now but just yesterday you were in such a great mood and all these fabulous things were happening. It’s because of your little goldfish brain. It’s like you can’t remember things 3 seconds after they happen.”
When I think about this phrase from my ex, two thoughts go through my head. The first being “Ew, I’m glad he’s my ex.”
And the second was that, mean as he was, unfortunately, he was correct.
If he had chosen to say that a better way, it would’ve been to point out that my mood seemed to swing from happy to distraught at a moment’s notice. Or that I couldn’t seem to remember ever feeling joy even though I knew I had just recently experienced it.
Or that I could only regulate my emotions based on what was happening to me externally in the moment (i.e. I was extremely reactive).
Or that it was curious how I would have an extreme amount of anxiety when he was away from me.
Or wonder why I believed any infraction at my job, no matter how minor, would lead to me being immediately fired.
Or how it was odd that for a long time I didn’t believe people existed when I couldn’t see or sense them.
I don’t think either of us understood, almost 8 years ago, that these outbursts were not personality quirks. What I know now is that they are symptoms of a serious mental health disorder. Relics of a chaotic and traumatic childhood.
Oh and that he’s a jerk, but that’s a different story for a different day.
ACES and Object Constancy
Many years later, after a lot of struggle, self reflection and eventually the correct course of treatment and medications: I got stable. (Insert Praise Hands Emojiis Here!)
Now that I’m stable, I can look back and see there was definitely something that prevented me from practicing healthy behaviors. I didn’t know what that something was until I stumbled across an interesting article on ACES (adverse childhood experiences).
This piece and further research stated that children who experience early and/or continued trauma sometime lack Object Constancy.
What the What is Object Constancy?
To understand Object Constancy you have to know about its precursor, Object Permanence. OP is a developmental concept one that all babies develop in the first 3-4 years of their lives
Object Permanence is the understanding that things continue to exist even if you can’t see, hear, or sense them in any way. It’s the thing that gives children the sense of security that their parent will return to pick them up from day care. Alternatively it’s the lack of OP that makes peek-a-boo so interesting for a baby, producing the classic surprise/happiness reaction when you pop back up.
OP is vital to the emotional and social development of a child. It helps them embrace uncertainty as an adult in the form of Object Constancy.
The Effect of Growing up in Chaos
What if you don’t fully develop this skill in early childhood? What if you had a primary caregiver that was largely absent, inconsistent or fickle with their emotions? Or if you lived in a chaotic or abusive household?
Well you’re in luck. I can tell you because that’s exactly what happened to me.
In my case, my dad died when I was very young. Which was traumatizing enough but I also grew up in a severely chaotic and often violent household. Mom, who was doing her very best to raise two kids just couldn’t handle everything emotionally and would shut off.
We were all trying to survive. We didn’t have the luxury of learning basic emotional concepts.
So I ended up with horrible mood swings. Ones which made my friends and family walk on eggshells around me. Clingy and controlling behaviors ruled my romantic relationships. Outbursts of emotional and, yes, physical, violence erupted when I couldn’t make sense of the world around me.
Trauma, ACES and Brain Development
All this happened because I was traumatized and didn’t have the concepts to deal with it or vocalize my pain. On top of that, I was consistently stressed by my environment and the resulting ACEs I was stacking up. Toxic stress related to ACEs has a serious impact on the brain development of a young child, according to the CDC.
One of the biggest developmental milestones I missed because of this was a solid grasp on Object Constancy. This meant every time someone walked out of my eye sight, I believed they disappeared for good. As I got older, I was able to grasp that this wasn’t true. But it took much longer for me to learn and I can’t practice it as fluidly as one might expect an adult to do. For a lot of my life, this left me in a cold, lonely, shameful and terrifying world most of the time.
If a partner got mildly annoyed at me, my brain would tell me that they’ve always been angry with me. I didn’t (or couldn’t) remember the good times very well. Similarly, if things were good, I was on top of the world. I also participated in risky and impulsive behaviors because I couldn’t pull from past experiences to inform my sense of safety.
This led to a lot of childlike behaviors like tantrums, constant affirmation seeking, and an intense, almost frantic clinginess. On the other hand, the shame it produced it also led to a deep self-isolation. I felt like I was ruining other people’s lives because of my clingy controlling self.
Embracing Life With Goldfish Brain
There isn’t always a silver lining to childhood trauma (and there doesn’t need to be one, it’s awful). But for me I’ve chosen to embrace my struggle with Goldfish Brain.
Because dealing with this issue has given me higher greater levels of empathy, introspection, kindness, grit, curiosity, creativity and grace. All of this informs my advocacy work, helping me help others by telling my story. And I think that’s pretty darn cool.
What about you? Is this something you might struggle with as well? Let us know in the comments below.
P.S. If you are also struggling with OC “Gold Fish Brain”, a fear of abandonment, intense mood swings, and/or had a traumatic childhood that’s morphed into a chaotic adulthood I suggest you check out this brilliant article on OC and OP as they relate to one’s mental health and well being.
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