If you’ve ever tended to a child, you know what it’s like to watch someone fall apart and come back together again. A child is flexible; she has a tender heart; she falls in and out of joys and disappointments. She can go into the depths of feeling and return, sense of self and well-being completely intact.
There is an art to falling apart. There is an art to surrendering to what is not yet known, trusting that we will find our way. In my therapy practice, many clients want to learn how to navigate feelings that seem incomprehensible. They want to know if it is possible to let yourself feel difficult feelings and still be O.K.
A child knows how to do this, but only if she has received a steady diet of love and care. In order to retain flexibility and tenderness of heart, the child needs parents who consistently extend themselves as a bridge. In the earliest stages of infancy, the parent needs to know how to “hold” the child’s feelings. The parent, through a consistent nurturing presence, helps the child process intense and difficult feeling and helps the child come back to feelings of safety and security.
The parent does this by being emotionally attuned. In other words, she simply allows herself to be impacted. She lets herself feel what the child is feeling. But she doesn’t stop there. She helps the child process the feelings by bringing in her own advanced capacities. If she has been parented sufficiently, she has an ability to move from the reptilian brain (which deals with fight or flight survival mechanisms) into higher levels of brain functioning. Her higher brain functioning allows her to soothe her own distressed feelings, be self-reflective, and move into taking appropriate care and action. Simply put, she knows how to find calm; she looks into her child’s eyes; she picks up her child; she coos. She says, “You, my dear, are scared, but you’re O.K. I love you, and I’m right here.”
This soothing creates neural networks in the child’s brain. The brain becomes structured to internalize care. The parent’s consistency translates into a child who knows how to be soothed, and this capacity shapes how the child relates to the world. The world can seem a dangerous, fearful place or a welcoming and accepting one depending on these early patterns of care.
Many of us were parented by well-meaning adults who lacked their own internal structure -who were distressed or emotionally absent- and, who, in the face of our needs were not able to bridge us into well-being.
This is compounded by a lack of awareness in the general culture, one in which feelings are often dismissed or devalued. Many of us got the message as children that if we needed to cry, we had to do it alone. We may have been taught that crying was inappropriate or, worse, something devised to manipulate a false means toward sympathy. We may have learned as best we could how to hold ourselves up. This set-up is one in which the child is left to feel fearful, attempting to soothe herself while also navigating feelings of rejection and shame.
This way of relating to emotions has been our cultural model. As a culture, we value strength and self-sufficiency, but if this is derived by cutting ourselves off from our emotional lives, what is the cost? We may have learned to give the impression of strength, be we may also have learned to be walled off, distant or defended in the very moments when we are most needing intimacy, love, and care.
What if we all had received a different experience? What if we all, in our moments of suffering, had the experience of a parent holding us, loving us, and keeping us safe? If this were true for all of us, we would no longer need to sidestep powerful feeling. We would learn how to bridge powerful feeling into greater empathy, creativity, and expansiveness. The world is truly a different place if we are given a foundation of trust.
There’s something we do in therapy that’s very like the early parent-child relationship. We open the door to a new way of relating. We allow for the precociously held-up child to soften and receive care. We allow for the trust in life to start in a relationship between two people.
In therapy, we re-work relationship patterns. When we do this, we are working with the wiring in our brains. Our patterns may feel deeply ingrained, but, thankfully, our minds are not static. Through conscious relationship, we can build new connections and an internal structure that supports well-being and nurturing care.
To learn more about relationships and the mind, read The Developing Mind by Dan Siegel.