The failing kale plants in the raised bed? He’ll go to the store and buy bat guano and who knows what else to make a concoction to nourish the soil to make the kale more hearty (whereas I would just consider it a loss and add a few bunches to the grocery list that week).
The random houseguest gift orchid that lost all its blossoms sitting in our too sunny living room? He’ll move it to the bathroom, take it out of its pot and water and drain it in our sink until it’s healthy again (whereas I… well, you get the picture).
I admire this quality of my husband. Even though and maybe especially because I don’t possess it myself (let’s face it: my thumb is brown, not green).
And, with most things I observe, this habit of his – taking care of the environment of struggling plants so that they thrive again – makes me think about parallels with therapy and with psychological development principles, particularly how antithetical this way of patient tending can be in dysfunctional family systems when one member is struggling.
In my work with clients who come from complex relational trauma backgrounds, they – the proverbial plant in the garden – are often viewed as the problem of the family system versus a natural product of the context of the family system.
They’re given the message over and over that they’re not okay and it’s not often (or ever) considered that the proverbial soil itself might be the problem.
And, more often than not, both the struggling plant and the soil it’s rooted in receive little to no patient tending to help bring it back to life as it were.
To learn more about this parallel and how it may apply to you if you came from a complex relational trauma background, keep reading.
Tend to the soil; don’t blame the plant.
All children need certain elements to grow and thrive physically and psychologically.
This includes (but isn’t limited to) a sense of safety and stability in their external environment (especially with their caregivers); adequate food, clothing, and medical care; a deep regard and appreciation for their personhood; and, more abstractly, love, time, attention, and consistent care from their guardians.
In such an environment, the conditions are in place to help a child grow and develop and to venture out into the world and face the challenges and complexities that childhood, adolescence, and life inherently holds.
To use the gardening metaphor, in this kind of environment, the soil is rich and healthy for whatever plants may take root in it.
But in dysfunctional, chaotic, neglectful, or abusive family systems, these conditions may be partially or sorely lacking.
Instead of safety, there may be financial insecurity, sexual abuse, addiction, mood or personality disorders.
Instead of a deep regard for the personhood of the child, there may be gaslighting, derision, shaming, projection, and molding of the child into what the parent wishes them to be instead of who the child authentically is.
Instead of love, there may be control masked as love.
Instead of time and attention, there may be none or it may be outsourced (to the TV, to the nanny, etc).
And instead of consistency, there may be erraticness. A sense of Jekyll and Hyde in their parents’ moods or personalities. A constant feeling of walking on eggshells.
In such environments, what do you think happens to the child?
If a garden bed was laced with acid, shielded from the sun, and denied water, would the plant in it grow and thrive and blossom as well as it might optimally?
No. Of course not.
But still, it might survive.
A child, much like a tender little budding plant even in such an inadequate garden bed, will likely find a way to persist.
In that way, children, to my mind, are the ultimate survivalists and greatest adaptors.
Children will do whatever it takes to survive the powerless chapter of childhood.
Sometimes this may mean contorting themselves in ways that are pleasing to their parents.
Sometimes this may mean cutting off and splitting away certain parts of themselves that are “displeasing” to their caretakers.
Sometimes this may mean seeking comfort and care from whatever sources or substances they can.
And sometimes this may mean wearing personality masks, adapting behaviors, and moving themselves into and out of environments to try to manage their feelings and comfort themselves somehow.
The child adapts to the environment he or she is in and grows in response to variables he or she is exposed to.
Like a bent, warped branch that does not grow straight and strong but instead arches severely to the side, turning its leaves toward the one patch of sunlight in the untended garden, so too will a child not necessarily grow as “straight and strong” as they might have if the conditions had been more optimal.
But sometimes, the family may point a finger at the child and shame and blame them for how they have developed, coped, and adapted.
“You’re getting too overweight. You need to exercise daily like your mom and I do.”
“You’re too angry! Why can’t you be nice like your sister?”
“Why don’t you spend time with friends instead of alone in your room with books?”
“Why are you so sensitive? It was just a joke!”
Perhaps the child was overweight because they were trying to hide and protect themselves from a painful home life, showing themselves “love” with food because “nourishment” lacked in their house.
Perhaps the child was angry because they grew up with an alcoholic, narcissistic father and their “bad mood” was an appropriate response to knowing their needs as a child were not being met.
Perhaps the child spent time with books and disappeared into stories because real life relationships felt too painful, too confusing, too overwhelming and unsafe based on what they had been shown and modeled at home or at school.
Perhaps the child was a highly sensitive, empathic and deep little soul who, even at a very young age, knew that “jokes” that made fun of or bullied others weren’t kind and appropriate. The child’s sensitivity was a gift but in their family it also may have been a liability.
This child, this adolescent, coping with their environment as best they can, often becomes the identified patient, the scapegoat, the black sheep of the family when blamed and shamed in this way by others in the family.
They’re seen as the problem but in reality they are only a product of the system.
The “soil” has yielded this particular proverbial plants growth of lackthereof.
It’s not the plant’s fault. It’s a product of the environment. It’s a result of the soil.
So how do we tend to the soil?
In an ideal world, hopefully the family system – the soil – goes to family counseling or undertakes a journey to address the elements that may be dysfunctional, chaotic, or unhealthy among them.
But, sadly, I don’t think this happens nearly as often as it should.
So what’s the outcome?
Well, again, children become adolescents, coping with their reality as best they can.
And someday, adolescents become young adults who will hopefully have more agency, power, and resources to leave, alter, address or heal from the environment they grew up in.
“If you have attempted to fit whatever mold and failed to do so, you are probably lucky. You may be an exile of some sort, but you have sheltered your soul.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD
Their task as adults – should they have grown up in less than ideal soil environments – becomes seeking out and transplanting themselves to better proverbial soil environments.
This can look like a literal leaving of home, not only of their parent’s house but the town or city they grew up in.
This can also look like a leaving of the church or religious system they were raised in.
This can look like seeking out and cultivating healthier, more functional relationships.
This can look like learning about boundaries and asserting them appropriately.
This can look like creating the external safety and stability their childhood lacked.
This can look like treating themselves with deep regard and only allowing others into their life who do the same.
This can look like going to therapy.
Transplanting oneself to a healthier, better soil environment can look many, many different ways.
And hopefully, no one does this alone.
Hopefully, each of us who were raised in unhealthy, dysfunctional or chaotic environments will encounter real-life or pen and paper mentors and guides who can help us better grow.
“You are born to one mother, but if you are lucky, you will have more than one. And among them all you will find most of what you need.” ― Clarissa Pinkola Estés, PhD
Hopefully, we will all encounter patient, tender gardeners along our path who will help us heal, grow and thrive.
And hopefully, along the way, we learn how to be our own patient gardeners to ourselves, tending to ourselves with curiosity and deep regard when we are struggling or in need.
And, in turn, doing this for others in our life when and if they need it, too. Our partners, our children, our best friends…
“You have inherited a lifetime of tribulation. Everybody has inherited it. Take it over, make the most of it and when you have decided you know the right way, do the best you can with it.” ― Murray Bowen, MD
When we do this, when we learn to be our own patient gardeners and surround ourselves with people who can likewise embody this archetype and treat us lovingly and helpfully, we help undo the pain of our complex trauma past and move forward in creating a more whole, enlivened life for ourselves.
So tell me in the comments below: What’s one or more ways you could embody the patient gardener archetype for yourself? Who are the patient gardeners in your own life who have shown up for you and helped tend to you when you were/are struggling? What might you need in terms of a healthier “soil” environment for yourself now?”
Leave me a message in the comments below.
I look forward to hearing back from you.
If you would like additional support with this and you live in California or Florida, please feel free to reach out to me directly to explore therapy together. You can also book a complimentary consult call to explore therapy with one of my fantastic clinicians at my trauma-informed therapy center, Evergreen Counseling.
Or if you live outside of these states, please consider enrolling in the waitlist for the Relational Trauma Recovery School – or my signature online course, Hard Families, Good Boundaries, designed to support you in healing your adverse early beginnings and create a beautiful adulthood for yourself, no matter where you started out in life.
And until next time, please take very good care of yourself. You’re so worth it.
“I remember that in my boyhood, the bin in which we stored our winter’s supply of potatoes was in the basement, several feet below a small window. The conditions were unfavorable, but the potatoes would begin to sprout—pale white sprouts, so unlike the healthy green shoots they sent up when planted in the soil in the spring. But these sad, spindly sprouts would grow 2 or 3 feet in length as they reached toward the distant light of the window. The sprouts were, in their bizarre, futile growth, a sort of desperate expression of the directional tendency I have been describing. They would never become plants, never mature, never fulfill their real potential. But under the most adverse circumstances, they were striving to become. Life would not give up, even if it could not flourish. In dealing with clients whose lives have been terribly warped, in working with men and women on the back wards of state hospitals, I often think of those potato sprouts. So unfavorable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted, scarcely human. Yet, the directional tendency in them can be trusted. The clue to understanding their behavior is that they are striving, in the only ways that they perceive as available to them, to move toward growth, toward becoming. To healthy persons, the results may seem bizarre and futile, but they are life’s desperate attempt to become itself.” ― Carl R. Rogers, PhD