Sankofa bird art

I’m Right Where You Left Me

Songs featured in this blog:

Outside my office door, there is a small quilt hanging on the wall with the image of a Sankofa bird stitched as the centerpiece.

In Ghanaian culture, the Sankofa bird represents the importance of going back to retrieve what was left behind. The bird’s feet face forward, but its head is turned backward as its beak fetches an egg from the top of its own back, or places the egg on its own back, to bring it along. The bird turns to reclaim what it needs from the past. The bird makes sure to bring its past along with it. The paradox in the image is that it has been carrying what it needed the whole time: It is the bird’s own beginning (an egg), and it only has to turn around to find it.

The Sankofa is a powerful and ancient symbol of the Akan tribe which is not only important to that culture, but is also the bedrock of psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. . . and of a healthy culture. If we want to be fully alive and whole, we have to bring everyone with us. No part of society–no part of ourselves, our history—can be left behind. And when we do leave someone behind (it’s always “when,” not “if”), it is our responsibility to eventually become aware of that, turn around, and find them.

You can play the three songs at the top of this blog, one after the other, like a conversation between the Sankofa and the egg it left behind. The first song represents the sorrow we might feel as adults for losing the inner bond with the joyful child we once were. The second song depicts the child’s feelings of loneliness and sadness after being left behind. And in response, the third song promises that the adult will listen better and work on rebuilding this inner connection. As you listen, picture the adult and child starting to understand each other, bringing warmth and healing through our sincere effort as an adult to feel and soothe our own painful past.

In therapy, I sometimes ask people to imagine they had to leave a part of themselves behind to survive the challenges they were facing. They might have done this to prevent being overwhelmed by their emotions. This part that was left at the side of the road is still waiting for them to return. This “child” or the Sankofa’s “egg” still hopes we’ll come back. There’s also a fantasy many of us have that idealized parents will wake up and realize the child has been left behind, and come looking. While this is a healthy wish that validates we were lovable and deserving of this, adulthood means letting go and grieving the loss of these dream parents, and creating our own rescue mission. And when we do go back to find that young child, there is pain and anger upon being found. And we are discovered not by strong, loving, safe, ideal parents but by our own flawed, messy selves. It’s deeply painful work, and it’s rewarding.

What’s this part we leave behind, and sometimes reclaim in psychotherapy? It’s the overwhelming feelings we couldn’t handle as children. When life was too much (too scary, too enraging, too crazy, too sad) and there was nothing we could do about it, some of us focused on excelling in something like school, sports, or hobbies, while others used drugs, alcohol, food, or sex to numb these emotions. We move forward because we must (and we use what we have to help us move forward or survive), but not all of us gets to move on with us. This leftover part stays right where it is, like an egg on a bird’s back just out of sight, and waits for us. We can’t completely get rid of it, and it needs our attention to reintegrate it, making us whole and allowing us to move forward in life with all of our true feelings and spirit.

Taylor Swift and Aaron Dessner wrote a song during the height of the Covid lockdown in 2020 called “right where you left me.” It is featured as a bonus track on Taylor Swift’s album, evermore. Like many of her songs, it is a meditation on the deep pain of lost love, and the heartbreak of being left alone. And we can also hear it as if we are the Sankofa attuned to the deep work of psychotherapy.

Two songs that can poignantly accompany this one are Sara Bareilles’s “She Used to be Mine” and Shawn Mullins’s “Song to the Self.” Bareilles’s lyrics express the adult’s grief of having lost the beautiful, fiery child from where so much joy and promise and heartbreak came:

She’s imperfect but she tries
She is good but she lies
She is hard on herself
She is broken and won’t ask for help
She is messy but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up
And baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone but she used to be mine.

And Mullins’s lyrics are a loving encouragement and promise that our adult self will do everything possible to stay connected this time:

And I will try to believe what you tell me
And I will try to be true to my self
Cause I’m as free as I ever will be.
So don’t be tryin’ so hard
Don’t be feelin’ discarded
Just feel that love surround.
Cause there’s a whole lot there
A whole lot waitin’ to be shared
There’s still enough to go around.

This pleading by the returning adult as it tries to regain the trust of the child within requires consistent effort. That inner abandonment, as necessary as it may have been long ago, is not healed easily. The adult part must truly want to understand, to feel rather than fix that child. The child must feel the sincerity and tenacity of this adult, and it cannot be faked. Until that kind of trusting, loving connection happens inside, the child waits in limbo.

In therapy, people often come after having encountered their version of Sara Bareilles’s voice in “She Used to be Mine”: the awakening of the adult’s grief over the separation from this child. Mullins’s song comes later, so to speak. Taylor Swift’s “right where you left me” is the child still waiting for the adult to return. Swift’s song is often where we must start if we are to make progress. We must become very good at hearing the voice of this child. What is she trying to say?

Friends break up, friends get married
Strangers get born, strangers get buried
Trends change, rumors fly through new skies
But I’m right where you left me.
Matches burn after the other
Pages turn and stick to each other
Wages earned and lessons learned
But I, I’m right where you left me.

When we are stuck in a place of deep, isolating pain, life keeps moving around us. We may attend important events, like weddings, parties, and funerals, but we might feel disconnected, almost sleepwalking through them. Freud called this “introjection,” when our energy turns inward because our emotional or physical wounds need our attention. There’s a paradox here: we may learn how to ignore or abandon these feelings even while all of our deepest emotional energy is tied up with the feelings. Our deeper focus is the wound, making it hard to connect emotionally—vulnerably and openly–with others. But outwardly, we might learn how to focus our behavior and interaction on the outside world so that we are ‘functioning’ properly and can get things done. So, the pages of our life keep turning but it doesn’t matter what the words on the pages are saying or whether we skip whole pages stuck to each other. We act as if we are reading the book, but we are not absorbed in the story. Years pass until someone walks into therapy at 50 or 60, ready to find that child on the side of the road and fully come alive.

Help, I’m still at the restaurant
Still sitting in a corner I haunt
Cross-legged in the dim light
They say, “What a sad sight”
I, I swear you could hear a hair pin drop
Right when I felt the moment stop
Glass shattered on the white cloth
Everybody moved on.

When adults pity a child, it brings no relief or change. The child only senses the distance. No healing happens at that distance, no matter how much worry or compassion the adult shows. If the adult doesn’t deeply feel or connect with what’s inside the child, being aware of it doesn’t help. The plea for “Help,” at the start of this stanza reflects the deep need of this part. Though it seems silent and isolated, it’s actually crying out for connection, yearning to be acknowledged. The child can’t handle this part alone.

The Sankofa might decide it’s time to deal with the past, but we all need support to do it properly. Otherwise, it’s too much to bear. Swift relates this to a lone figure in a restaurant, feeling the shock of a significant loss, where everything momentarily stops, but then everyone moves on. In life, it’s the same. Even if something major happens around us, like a death, a tragic accident, or a shocking discovery, others quickly move on and leave us stuck in that moment. This is a common experience for traumatized people. While others move on, they forget or don’t understand that the person, who may look the same, is profoundly changed or emotionally detached from the activities they seem to be part of. The traumatized person is still sitting in the restaurant.

I, I stayed there
Dust collected on my pinned-up hair
They expected me to find somewhere
Some perspective, but I sat and stared
Right where you left me
You left me no, oh, you left me no
You left me no choice but to stay here forever.

Leaving ourselves behind is a terrible but sometimes necessary decision. Someone needs to finish school, get a job, start a family. And that left-behind part is given no choice “but to stay here forever.” Dust collects on the adult and the child: the one with pinned-up hair and the one who sits cross-legged. Others may insist that we move on if they know we are stuck. But deep down, the child in us is having a very different emotional experience than how things appear on the surface. My daughter has pointed out that Swift sings with a protest here: “You left me, no! You left me, no!” before finally giving up with “You left me no choice but to stay here forever.” Imagine that child at the side of the road calling to us as we drive off in the car, trying to build some kind of life.

Did you ever hear about the girl who got frozen?
Time went on for everybody else, she won’t know it
She’s still 23 inside her fantasy
How it was supposed to be.
Did you hear about the girl who lives in delusion?
Break-ups happen every day, you don’t have to lose it.

When we are frozen in time by this loss, this child part of us does not age. We may keep it hidden away entirely, or it may constantly take over and express itself hoping to get the connection it’s missing. We may appear young in spirit, we may act like life is an extended childhood because we never get to finish our childhood in an emotionally satisfying way. There is a difference between accessing and enjoying the child part of ourselves as the adult we are now, and still acting as if we are a child without the mature part integrated as the chaperone. We can feel the mismatch between our actual age and how we are feeling or acting. We may act very serious and mature but feel deeply childish, or we may look like a gray-haired adult and act childish. In both cases, we are not feeling and acting like a solid, in-tune emotional symphony of a person.

She’s still 23 inside her fantasy
And you’re sitting in front of me
At the restaurant, when I was still the one you want
Cross-legged in the dim light, everything was just right
I, I could feel the mascara run
You told me that you met someone
Glass shattered on the white cloth
Everybody moved on.

While Swift is singing about the loss of a love who has “met someone,” there is a similar pain that happens when people are stuck in this limbo of childhood wounds, waiting for the return or arrival of someone who cares. We can see the people in our lives “sitting in front of me” who we can’t fully connect with. The other person may want to connect with us and everything could appear to be “just right” but the mascara runs as they eventually give up on us loving them the way they need from us.

I, I stayed there
Dust collected on my pinned-up hair
I’m sure that you got a wife out there
Kids and Christmas, but I’m unaware
‘Cause I’m right where. . .
I cause no harm, mind my business
If our love died young, I can’t bear witness.

In the refrain, Swift adds elements of home and family and how a fully lived life grows and deepens our ties to people and tradition. She ironically says she’s “unaware” but it’s only pretending to be unaware. The adult is doing the pretending, and the child feels deeply what is still missing. The child feels the losses mounting. Swift says “I cause no harm, mind my business.” We are all trying our best to be good people, even when inside it can feels lonely or hopeless. There’s an unconscious guilt that nags at us. We are out in the world being ‘good citizens’ while our child is left hungry in their bedroom. When she says,

“If our love died young, I can’t bear witness,” it points to Freud’s introjection: I wasn’t even fully there when this relationship fell apart. I couldn’t be there. History repeats itself: the separation from the child is played out in a similar way. I feel the pain on some level but there is nothing I can do to stop it.

And it’s been so long
But if you ever think you got it wrong
I’m right where you left me
You left me no, oh, you left me no
You left me no choice but to stay here forever.

Children (even the child inside of us) are capable of enduring unbelievable amounts of pain, betrayal, abandonment, without ever totally giving up hope. The child in us carries the weight of these feelings as we go out in the world to deal with practical things. No matter how long it’s been, the door is left open for the adult in us if we ever want to come home and start making amends.

One translation of Sankofa is: “It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.” We need to say these things out loud. It is not taboo to do psychotherapy. It is not taboo to embrace our painful history, to love ourselves more deeply, to come home. The good news is that when we are finally ready to turn backward, the child is sitting there waiting, and full of compassion and power and love to heal the adult. This child part may not make it easy on us when we return home, but rest assured it is still right where we left it.

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