Author: Kishi Fuller, MFT
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 call wanting a way to navigate feelings that seem
incomprehensible. They want to know if it is possible to let yourself feel 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, she needs parents who consistently extend themselves as a bridge. In the
earliest stages of infancy, the parent must “hold” the child’s feelings. If the
parent can respond to the child’s feelings with a consistent nurturing presence,
she can help digest and transform feelings that would have been, without her
help, simply unbearable.
She 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 mothered
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 welcoming and accepting 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 wellbeing.
This is compounded by a lack of awareness in the general
culture where feelings are often dismissed or devalued. Many of us get the
message that if we need to cry, we must go to our rooms and do it alone. We may
have been taught that crying is 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. We may have been left feeling fearful, trying to soothe ourselves
while also navigating shame and rejection.
What if we all had received a different experience? What if
we knew that when we were suffering the most there would be someone there to
hold us, to love us and keep us safe? I suspect that we would no longer need to
sidestep powerful feeling. We could 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 that precociously held-up child in us 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.
Labels: Attachment, Emotional Health, Falling Apart, Feelings, Kishi Fuller, Relationships, Self-Soothing, Therapy, Tom Rhodes, Traci Ruble, Well-Being