Object Constancy, Adult Version
Object constancy in adults is not something that I can find a whole lot of info about, other than a few books that I don’t have time to read at the moment, which I’m not going to link to at this time. So I’m just going to write about my experience in hopes that it might shed some light on something for someone reading.
So as usual, I have stumbled across some internal realizations and am once again surprised and dismayed at how out of touch I have come to be, as an adult. From myself, from my experience, from my inner workings. So this information was good to have back. It helps me understand, and I hope it helps others in some capacity, whether you can relate or whether it just gives you a starting point for re-connection. In thinking about some relational issues that have arisen lately, the following truths came to light for me.
By the way, object constancy, for me, within the context of this blog post, seems to be about 2 things: my perception of how stable my relationship is with a person (which might also be called trust? –I dunno.), and my perception of the other person’s opinion of me. My perception, mind you; which may or may not be accurate depending on my current filters. And memory is definitely related somehow, but I’m not a scientist, psychologist, or neurologist, so I couldn’t tell you exactly which piece of this is comprised of that element.
So in a nutshell, due to attachment trauma and the resultant attachment disorder, my relationships with people boil down to: How likely are you to abandon me, and how consistently do you approve of/like me as a person (or in other words, how much of myself do I have to hide from you in order to be allowed to keep you and to make you want to keep me)?
Object Constancy: A Literal Picture
It’s kind of like I have a picture in my head of all the people who have ever existed in my life, but in front are the ones who are actively present in my life at the current moment, kind of like a photographic census. Like everyone is located on a 3D grid in my mind, but maybe not that defined. People I knew a long time ago are more toward the back. What I think is interesting is, the people closer to the front of this grid have a very strong visual image in my mind, in color and 3D. I can literally “see” them on the inside. In this picture, most of them are smiling and exuding emotional warmth, unless they are not very smiley in real life, in which case they have whatever expression they’d normally have if I were in their presence. Emotionally they are still conveying love to me on the inside, whether by smile or some other gesture or expression.
The people on my grid who are active and present from day to day are generally ranked in order of personal importance to me, and then sub-ranked by a thing I shall call consistency.
Despite it having its own actual meaning, consistency for my purposes in this is strictly defined by:
1) how much I interact with them on a daily basis (or at least a regular, predictable basis, if not daily), and
2) how frequently they respond to attempts to interact that I initiate. BONUS POINTS if THEY initiate any interaction with me in any way…as long as it’s positive or neutral (neutrals are counted as positives). Obviously a secure attachment to a person is not built if they frequently initiate hurtful interactions.
My mind, like a computer, seems to analyze and compare data over time, averaging it together and summarizing information acquired as it comes in. As I get to know a person, and our relationship begins the process of attachment and definition, there are several possibilities of what could occur.
Best Case Scenario: High Consistency
When a person in my life is good in both 1 & 2, which I guess you could call having high consistency, and this is seen to be true over time, my mind can “hold” on to their image on my mental grid. It keeps its color, it keeps its position in “front” of people with lesser consistency. Emotionally, I can maintain my trust/belief in their wanting and having a “place” in my life for a long time. What I know and believe about their character and goodwill towards me remains stable. Emotionally I feel very secure in this situation. These people would be the ones I would feel the closest to, relationally speaking. (Note: this situation is rare in today’s busy society.)
If a person has high consistency, I can still hold their image and the emotional security even for a period of temporary low consistency – like, for example, if they go on a vacation for 10 days and do not interact with me very much during that time. Being forewarned of situations like that is always nice, but even unexpected periods of temporary low consistency (ex: a friend having a family emergency that takes them out of town) can be tolerated really well if the person has a good track record of high consistency on the front end. My trust does not shatter so easily with these people. (–But trust, like all other things in a person’s mind who has a disorganized attachment system, is subject to change without warning. I’m just saying that the probability of that happening with one of these types of people is lesser.)
Next-Best Case Scenario: Moderate Consistency
If a person is good at 1 OR 2 – but not both – things are usually still fairly good. If a person doesn’t have a lot of time for daily interaction, but they respond to me when I reach out to them, this still interprets quite well for my relational brain. OR, less ideally (for whatever reason…this is just how my brain prefers things) if they interact with me daily on their own time frame, but do not always have time to respond at a different time when I initiate, as long as the interaction is there at all, things are still generally good. I still generally feel moderately secure. But if they’re only good at 1 or 2, and then they stop doing 1 or 2 (whichever they were doing), it causes alarm in me more quickly (unless they warned me beforehand, like the vacation example from above). BUT. The big “but” in this scenario is that the lower a person’s overall consistency is, the more prone I am to becoming insecure more quickly. Unless there are other, more indirect ways the person has proven their character stability over time, I am more prone to misinterpreting their words or actions. (As an example, there are people I don’t necessarily see or talk to every day, but they always reply to my emails. This, in my world, makes up for a lack of direct interaction.) People with moderate consistency have an unstable visual image, in my mind. It tends to flicker, with positive interactions from them giving it more color and sustaining their smile. Lower consistency – or trends of lower consistency – cause my mental image of the person to fade, and whereas I might have believed them to have goodwill toward me at some point, insecurity makes their smile disappear and a look of disapproval come over their face in my mental image of them. My trust in them is fragile.
Worst-Case Scenario: Low Consistency
When a person doesn’t do either 1 OR 2, their image literally fades off my radar over the course of time, with little pauses in the fading process if there are random interactions or responses. But if they aren’t consistent or predictable, the predominating result for me is confusion. Especially if I want to like them but I can’t build up enough trust that the feeling is mutual or that they are dependable in relation to my life or our friendship. I see them as questionable in terms of whether they would abandon me if I need them and whether they genuinely like me or not. In my mind, their color image starts to fade to gray, in the absence of consistency. The expression on their face becomes indifferent or possibly disapproving. Gradually the image also starts becoming transparent. Eventually, if nothing changes, it disappears and/or becomes an outline (I think it depends on if the person is still in my life, or has physically left), and the outline gets moved to a place further back on the grid, whereas the images correlating to people with good consistency stay in the front. People with a faded or lost image are generally seen as uncaring, insincere (if they claim to care but do not interact with me at all), or disapproving. I have no trust in them that extends beyond real-time interaction.
Repairing Broken Images
Broken internal images can be repaired, if some type of change in relational consistency is facilitated. But once a person’s image has disappeared (or become an outline) on my mental grid, it takes a long time of demonstrating high consistency to bring it back to color status with an approving expression. It takes longer to repair an image than it would have taken to sustain it from the beginning.
Sometimes, oddly, consistency is totally unrelated to someone’s personal feelings about me. And as an adult, I can recognize this. I highly doubt that kids can, and I’m certain that babies can’t. But for example, say I have a close friend that I feel very emotionally secure with. We work together and I see her every day. More often than not, we also do things together on the weekend. Sadly, said friend gets a job on the other side of the country and moves away. I no longer see her or hear from her except for an occasional email or text message. Eventually, no matter what I think or do, her image is going to start fading in its place in my mind. But it will take longer, since there was so much love and trust built up from so much consistent interaction with her. And her expression (smile, love) won’t change, even when the picture fades. I will still know that she loves me even though she’s not available on a daily basis anymore.**
Worst-Case Scenario #2: High Consistency, Negative Interactions
There are people who have high consistency – which may also be unrelated to their personal feelings (such as the workplace, where I see them every day) – but the interactions themselves are consistently negative. Normally any self-respecting person would cut these people out of their lives – and I do, at times – but sometimes circumstantially, that’s not always possible. For me, some people that fall into this category are certain family members and a co-worker. In both cases I can’t just write them off and refuse to interact. Family is family, and work is work. Until I accumulate enough money to buy my own private island and move there with all of my high-consistency (positive interaction) loved ones, I’ll still have to deal with these types. I’m only including this just as a point of interest. These people have strong images in my mind, because of the frequency of interaction with them, but their image 1) has a disapproving expression (always), and 2) is still grouped behind the strong images of people that are most important to me. So the high-consistency, negative interaction people are still toward the front on the grid, but they’re still behind the loved ones. Their images, unfortunately, are stable, even though the people who correlate to the pictures regularly bring stress or pain.
I can’t say that I fully understand all this, but it has been a way of understanding how object constancy evolves as a person grows. I think it’s interesting that my mind has literal images of the “objects” that can develop or change according to external data. It connects perfectly to the roots of the concept, where babies begin to learn that just because they don’t literally see something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. This is a much more crucial concept than it would originally appear to be.
D.I.D. and Object Constancy
It’s also worth noting that people with Dissociative Identity Disorder can tend to have some overlap in symptoms with people who have other disorders, namely Borderline Personality Disorder. BPD is considered the hallmark disorder of failed object constancy. I have experienced quite a few symptoms in common with BPD, but while the object constancy issues are shared, my reactions or attempts to manage life are not always the same as what is considered typical for BPD. Which brings up another important point: those who are multiples are likely to have issues with object constancy that vary from insider to insider. As an adult, I can grasp the concept more easily than some of my little people. If a friend doesn’t answer a message from me right away, I can emotionally tolerate that extremely well, pretty much always. But little people are somewhat different. They may not be horribly upset by a lack of answer, but they will struggle to interpret a lack of answer more than an adult alter would struggle to, even if it’s just for a few minutes as opposed to not at all.
The disconcerting thing for me – collectively – is that object constancy issues of different insiders can overlap at times, and I’m never sure whose perspective is infiltrating my awareness. What this means is that randomly I’ll experience a complete deletion of everyone I’ve ever known, period, from off the mental grid, without a discernible reason that I can put my finger on. This could perhaps happen when a baby part has come closer to the surface (of consciousness) and they just don’t know anyone that I currently know, nor anyone that I grew up to know along the way, and their experience temporarily overrides my collective memory of my life. This is just speculation. Whatever it is, it is scary as hell. It would be like suddenly, for no apparent reason, you cannot remember if you have any friends or family or if anyone loves you at all or if there’s anyone good in the world. This happens to me regularly, and I can’t say it doesn’t freak me out a little, sometimes.
Thankfully it doesn’t usually last that long, and then I can recover what was lost. It can also happen randomly in relation to just one specific person or one group of people; whereas I was totally secure with a friend yesterday, due to overlap in awareness with some other inside part, I may suddenly be unable to remember our collective relationship and thus be unsure how to interpret something currently said or done. To say that this is inconvenient and confusing for everyone involved would be a major understatement.
For further reading, here are a few links on object constancy in babies, children, and BPD.
If any of this doesn’t make sense and needs to be clarified, please LMK. I hope it has been helpful in some way. Cheers. ~J8