This post is part three in our ongoing relationship enrichment series called “Everything Matters.” If you’ve not yet read the earlier posts, it might be a good idea to go back and check those out. With each post, we will be building on the previous ideas.
The single most widely accepted stereotype of the therapy experience is that, at some point, you’re going to be asked about your mother. Whenever there is a film or television depiction of a therapist, it would be a safe bet to assume that a question about your mom and your childhood will come up. This focus probably comes from the work of one of the grandfathers of therapy – Dr. Sigmund Freud. A lot of his early work – and, therefore, a lot of early therapy work – included ideas about how the mother’s influence significantly impacted an individual throughout their entire lives.
The field of therapy has advanced many of Freud’s ideas. Therapists acknowledge his amazing contributions but have relieved our mother’s of the kinds of burdens that Freud seemed to have them shoulder.
You’re welcome, moms.
Still, it would be wrong to completely dismiss everything Freud said because he was, in fact, on to something. We have the benefit of nearly a hundred years of new research and practice since Freud advanced many of his ideas. His work may have blamed our mothers for too many of the issues that we face in adulthood but it did acknowledge that the relationships with your caregivers have significant impact.
What we now know is that it’s not totally about your mother. It’s only partially about your mother!
When you spend time around a lot of babies from a lot of different families, you start to realize – perhaps unsurprisingly – that every baby has its own temperament. We call some babies pleasant or happy. Some, we would call fussy. And some just seem downright difficult. Some babies are really willing to visit with people that they don’t see often – an aunt or uncle from out of town, for example – and others cling to their parent.
Over the last several decades, researchers have learned a lot about babies and how they experience the world. In our last post, we talked about how the limbic system in our brains is responsible for keeping us safe, keeping aware of threats and storing those things as memories for the future. It’s also fully developed when we are first born so, even before we have any experiences or language, our brains are starting to get an idea of what to expect from the world; some things are safe and helpful, some things are not.
So, while it’s not all about your mother, it’s hopefully easy to see that how a child is cared for from its very first moments can have an impact. While they may be simple, a child is starting to form associations about cause and effect, about safety, and about trust.
A child doesn’t have many tools yet to communicate with the world. Essentially, it can cry. Whether the baby is hungry, or uncomfortable, or tired, or in pain, the only tool it has in it’s repertoire is to cry. It cries in order to communicate. It cries because it is completely dependent on someone else to meet its needs. It cries to elicit a response. And what happens next starts the child along a path to understanding how its world works.
Imagine that an infant is crying and you are the parent. You hear it and you immediately go to it. You pick the child up, comfort her, and quickly realize that she is hungry. You feed her. Soon after, she starts to cry again, though this time it’s different and you understand that she needs to be burped. You hold her up and rub her back, supporting her sweet little head. Pretty soon, she seems tired. You hold her close and walk her around the room until she falls asleep. You lay her in a warm, safe bed, and turn on some soft music as you go back about your routine.
This child is clearly cared for. She is certainly safe and loved. Let’s think about what she has learned. First, she cried and someone responded. Inside her still developing brain, she learned that when she cries, there is someone that will come to her side. She learned that by communicating that she has a need, her caregiver will be able to be present and pay attention to her. As caregiver, you were also able to understand what the child’s need was. You didn’t get frustrated so the child learned that you were safe. You didn’t misunderstand the problem so the child learned that you were reliable. You realized that she was hungry and so you fed her – exactly what she needed. But it didn’t end there. You understood that there were additional needs: she was gassy and eventually needed to go back to sleep. You held her tight and kept her warm and safe. Through all of this, the child learned that she lived in a world where when she communicated, someone who was safe, caring, and reliable was able to respond.
These may not seem like incredibly profound lessons to our fully developed rational minds. But, remember that an infant doesn’t have language. It doesn’t have the ability to rationalize. She simply knows that when she cries, a safe, concerned, loving caregiver responds. The world is safe. She can trust.
If any of these conditions aren’t routinely met, the child might learn something different. If the caregiver doesn’t come right away when she hears the child cry, the child might learn that she needs to cry with more intensity, or that her emotions need to reach a higher level before people will come to her. If the caregiver isn’t able to figure out what the cry is about, the child might learn that people might not be tuned in to their needs.
Even before we are able to comprehend what is happening, our amazing little brains are starting to figure out aspects of life that are safe and loving.
And this is why relationships matter.
We learn a lot about relationships from these earliest of experiences. The experiences that we have – the understanding that we form about the world around us – begin to form a sort of template that we take forward with us. When we routinely experience a world that is responsive to our attempts to communicate our needs and wants, our default expectation is that others will be responsive too. This expectation relates directly to a circuit that has been created in our brains. The more we experience a responsiveness from others to our needs, the stronger that circuit becomes. It’s only as our brains develop do we gain the ability to discriminate in various situations. It’s only then that we learn that some people are not responsive and that others can be even more responsive. Still these early relationships set us on path to understanding the world in our own unique way.
Here’s what this means for us today.
The very simple associations that our brains make as children can have a lasting impact on our default understanding of the world we experience as we grow, even into adulthood. If your experience has been that people have been generally unresponsive to your attempts to communicate, it might be the case that you keep your needs internalized. Maybe you don’t communicate with your partner when you’re feeling hurt. Maybe you don’t communicate when you are feeling rejected. Maybe you feel like it’s pointless to share that you would like to have more sex because your experience has been that people have not responded when you have tried to communicate your need in the past.
Or, maybe your experience was that when you shared your needs with others, they really seemed to understand. They got what it was that you were trying to say. They didn’t overwhelm you with or try to tell you that your need was wrong – or that you needed something that you didn’t. Instead, maybe your experience was that you felt that sharing your needs was how you got your needs met. As an adult, maybe that translates into a relationship where you feel safe to share your needs and wants. Not only that, maybe you’re able to be that for your partner. When your partner shares their own needs, rather than get defensive or dismissive, you are able to listen to what they’re saying and respond to them in a helpful way.
The relationships that you have in infancy start you towards a deeper understanding of the world around you. They form templates that you bring forward into new relationships. Templates, at their core, are really circuits that exist in your brain that – like the field of grass from our last post – are often easier to strengthen then they are to change. Every new experience serves to strengthen or challenge these templates and, with enough experience, they can certainly be changed. However, the templates – the circuitry – that is established by those who provide care for us, are incredibly important.
Your relationships matter. The relationships that you have with your caregivers give you a set a expectations about the world that can be long-lasting. It can have an impact on how you experience relationships with your intimate partners later in life and even in the type of person that you’re attracted to! This happens because your biology matters. The relationships that you have and your expectations about the world are encoded in circuits in your brain that get strengthened or challenged with every experience.
These two ideas can be thought of as setting the stage for one last important idea. Every experience that you have, even those that seem most mundane, has an impact on you. They form you. They challenge or confirm your views about the world. They determine your worldview. Your experiences matter.