Imagine, if you will, a baby in her mother’s arms: When she cries she is fed, when she’s wakeful there is warm contact and when she is tired she is gently rocked to sleep. Her ideal mother is always available and perfectly attuned to her needs…
And now imagine a different scenario: the baby in her cot cries. Sometimes mother comes, but sometimes she doesn’t. Left to cry, the baby grows more and more distressed; her nervous system is overwhelmed. If this goes on for long enough, or happens often enough, at some point the child will stop crying – it has shut down, given up: somehow a decision has been made that it’s better not to express a need if that need is unlikely to be met. We ourselves may have had experiences like this. If they happened at a very young age there may not be any conscious memory, however the result will be imprinted on our nervous system. These experiences provide a foundation for how we approach life and to what extent we trust or expect it to meet our needs.
So as well as the physical needs, which may or may not have been met as we grew up, the need to be seen and mirrored in the responses of others is paramount. When we experience instead disinterest, mocking behaviour or insincerity, then we are likely to feel that it is unsafe to show ourselves fully. To what extent we are consciously aware of that will vary. And if there wasn’t much safety as we grew up, we may not be aware of what’s missing; however, our bodies will hold the imprint in the form of chronic tensions and other ailments.
As adults, the trajectory of our lives is fundamentally unknown. Life is also full of risks; and we are wired to be on the lookout for danger. This wiring has not evolved significantly since we lived in small groups as hunter gatherers. At that time, threats to our survival came in one of two ways: either from predators; or when our belonging to the family or social group was threatened. Back then our survival was dependent on being part of a group and so exclusion from that group was the ultimate fear.
If you watch a group of herd animals such as sheep, you can see how agitated an individual sheep will become if it gets separated from the flock. Cortisol (a stress hormone) is released and this powers the animal’s strong emotional response. Once the sheep is reunited with the flock, oxytocin (the bonding hormone) is released (stimulated by the close proximity of the other animals) and so the anxiety dissipates and its nervous system settles again.
Why am I telling you this? Because we are also mammals and the same hormonal responses are being triggered in us. We may look a lot more sophisticated than a bunch of sheep; but at a hormonal level we are fundamentally the same.
How you might notice that you don’t feel completely safe
- A constant level of tension in the body
- Uncertainty in social situations and in relationships: “Do they like me?” “What does she really think of me?”
- Being scared of being seen as ‘needy’.
- Preference for time alone, avoiding contact with others.
Do we need other people?
We are social animals and we are wired to function in groups. However, like the baby that shuts down when its cries are ignored, we can develop a survival strategy of concealing our neediness so as to not get hurt. We may even hide our neediness from ourselves, believing that “I don’t need anybody”, but underneath the armour is a fear of being hurt and rejected.
Our fears are valid
We were hurt and we were rejected; otherwise we wouldn’t have needed to develop a survival strategy of not needing anyone. This strategy exists as an armouring in the body, which is made up of chronic tensions: It may restrict our breathing; it will almost certainly have an impact on our digestion and overall well being.
The good news
When we recognise the reality of our situation, we can begin to do something about it using the myriad therapies and techniques that are now available.
Safety in the therapeutic relationship
If we didn’t have enough safety growing up, we can heal our attachment wounds within a therapeutic relationship. This might be long term, over years, if the wounds are deep; or shorter term, over months. In either case a commitment from both client and therapist to meet regularly creates a safe space to voice feelings which may have been deeply buried or covered in shame and judgement. There are also therapeutic groups which meet regularly and are ‘closed’, meaning members commit to attending regularly and new members are not admitted unless the whole group agrees.
In terms of the type of therapist; one distinction is between ‘talk therapies’ eg. with a psychotherapist or counsellor and bodywork with eg. a massage therapist. In practice the distinction is not so clear, as many talk therapies may now involve some degree of contact with the body via eg mindfulness or ‘somatic’ (meaning ‘of the body’) work. As our feelings are held in the physical body, bodywork or focus on the body is a very effective way to contact them. Some embodied practices such as Five Rhythms (a type of movement meditation/dance) or TRE (Tremor Release Exercises) are practised in groups.
Creating safety for ourselves
We can create safety in our own lives by using structure: daily, weekly or monthly routines: regular commitments to ourselves. Ayurveda has many recommendations in this area. If you find it difficult to adopt or stick to routines, it is likely that there are internal blocks which are preventing you from taking care of yourself. Family Constellations is a method that can be used to explore blocks; alternatively it can be explore within an existing therapeutic relationship.
What is your experience? What do you notice?
I’d love to hear from you…
Julie Ulbricht, Ayurvedic Practitioner and Family Constellations Facilitator