HEALING OLD WOUNDS
Sunday 24 March 1996
THE BIRTH OF TRUST
The earliest emotional needs we have are to attach, to bond, to feel secure. If these needs are met, a baby develops a sense of trust, which is the foundation of all emotional growth. This enables a child to grow psychologically and to face new experiences. If this sense of trust is not established, because of a mother's absence through illness for example, a baby will develop an emotional `fight' or `flight' response and either become withdrawn and quiet or cry a lot, becoming very needy and clingy.
ADULT RESPONSES IN RELATIONSHIPS
This pattern of behaviour, once established, continues through life unconsciously. Fear of abandonment and rejection, though common to all human beings, will feel so intense to people affected in this way that it can seriously limit their lives. They will react to intimacy, or the prospect of intimacy, with either a flight or fight response. (Both emotional patterns may be present, but one will dominate. Partners often manifest opposite reactions.)
Fight response: to be needy, jealous, possessive, manipulative and controlling. The fear of being abandoned will feel life-threatening.
Healing stretch: this is the behaviour that can be consciously adopted once the unconscious fear and pattern is acknowledged. If you recognise the fight response in yourself, let go - don't dwell on the possible outcome of actions or try to control events. Develop interests independent of your partner. Learn to trust by practising trusting: decide to trust a person or a situation, letting go of the outcome - which you can deal with if and when it happens. Feel your fear and know that it was appropriate when you were a baby - when your fear that you would die if you were abandoned was justified - but realise that while abandonment might still hurt you as an adult, you will survive.
Flight response: to be passively aggressive, jealous and lacking in trust. Those in flight believe that contact and openness can lead to rejection and abandonment. They find it difficult to express their needs and feelings and often deny having them. Too much closeness can feel suffocating, causing those affected to become emotionally distant.
Healing stretch: initiate closeness. Talk about your fears and feelings. Take risks.
It is during this period, sometimes described as the "terrible twos", that a child needs to separate emotionally from its primary carer in order to develop a sense of self. The child needs to assert itself to gain confidence and grow emotionally. "Me do it" is a common phrase among two-year-olds. However, they do get easily frustrated as they do not have the skills or ability to do very much for themselves. They need to have patient parents or carers who are always nearby so that they can run to them and emotionally re-attach whenever they are feeling insecure or frightened. If parents are overly controlling or not available the child will develop a deep sense of shame and doubt about itself and consequently an emotional fight or flight response.
ADULT RESPONSES IN RELATIONSHIPS
Shame, inadequacy and self-doubt will be carried into intimate relationships.
Fight response: affected adults desperately need to have a partner in order to feel a sense of self. They are often angry and complaining, particularly towards their partner, accusing them of being emotionally distant. They are very insecure and have deep fears of abandonment and rejection.
Healing stretch: if you recognise this pattern in yourself, it is important to believe in yourself as a separate person. Recognise your unique qualities and pay attention to your other relationships. Make an effort to see your partner's positive and negative points. Allow partner time alone.
Flight response: they often have deep feelings of shame and self-doubt and won't get close for fear of being `seen' and `found out'. They have fears of being controlled, smothered and losing themselves in their partner. They often have strong feelings of wanting to escape. This often results in their avoiding relationships altogether.
Healing stretch: reassure yourself that you can be in a relationship and still be yourself. You can do this by repeating an affirmation such as "I can be close and still be me" like a mantra. Risk being open about your feelings. If you are in a relationship, develop outside interests with your partner. Go out exploring together. Integrate positive and negative aspects of partner. Share feelings.
Children now develop a sense of initiative and begin to discover who they are. Initiative is an attitude towards the world, one based on confidence in their abilities to explore and take risks. This is the age at which children discover their identities through imaginative play and role play. They need to have all aspects of their personality validated by their primary carers. Many parents feel threatened at this stage as their child's identifications may not fit their social or cultural biases. This is an important time in the socialisation of a child but if parents forcefully or angrily reject an aspect of the child's personality the child will feel confused, not good enough and guilty. They will respond either by becoming wilful and determined, or by withdrawing and isolating themselves.
ADULT RESPONSES IN RELATIONSHIPS
As adults these children will experience a feeling of guilt and inadequacy that leads either to a desire to control others or to "people pleasing".
Fight response: affected adults rigidly impose their will and exaggerate emotions. They are often attention-seeking, craving recognition and validation. They can be quite ambivalent and alternate between compliance with and defiance of other people.
Healing stretch: if this is your pattern, consciously let go of control. As controlling thoughts come into your mind, make a deliberate choice to let go and relax. Respect your partner's right to privacy. Do anger releasing exercises. Focus on your qualities and strengths. Widen your circle of friends.
Flight response: people reacting in this way have a fear of being invisible and not valued. They believe that they cannot be accepted as they are and try hard to please others. They have difficulty being assertive and are very self-effacing. They tend to be passively aggressive, manipulative and often complain that their partner is insensitive and controlling.
Healing stretch: learn to take more risks. Learn to be assertive. Recognise that what you give out comes back. So, if you behave like a doormat, expect to be treated like a doormat. Stop putting yourself down. Do anger releasing exercises.
At this stage children need to discover their personal power in the outside world, develop problem-solving skills, engage in real tasks and become competent in the management of themselves. They need acceptance and praise for their efforts and achievements - though not constant, undeserved praise which can lead later to unrealistic expectations of others. Children can be very cruel and competitive, and tease and humiliate each other; quiet reassurance can help a child keep a sense of self through this. If the parents themselves also compete with their children, putting them down, the child will feel a deep sense of failure and respond by becoming compulsively competitive, always striving to win; or, alternatively, withdraw from competition feeling resentful. A victim can be manipulative and sometimes sabotaging.
ADULT RESPONSES IN RELATIONSHIPS
These children are left with a deep fear of failure and of incompetence. As adults, they tend to be perfectionist.
Fight response: they are very competitive and argumentative, always having to have the last word. Overburdened by a sense of failure, they become perfectionists. They are as critical of their partners as of themselves, believing they will be loved only if they are the best. They never feel good enough or successful, regardless of their accomplishments.
Healing stretch: if this is you, let go of control. Focus on your partner's and other people's strengths. Recognise and praise achievement and effort in yourself, your partner and your work colleagues.
Flight response: such people have a fear of being successful and getting lots of attention. They feel inadequate and don't like taking risks. However, this leads to frustration. They can become complaining and manipulative, and sometimes will sabotage.
Healing stretch: speak up for yourself at home and at work. Learn to say no. Praise effort and achievement in others when appropriate, not all the time. Recognise your talents and abilities and develop them.
This guide was compiled by Jan Corr, who runs workshops for people who have difficulties in finding, forming or maintaining healthy relationships. She encourages participants to use their creative, intuitive minds to solve their problems. She acknowledges her debt to Dr Harville Hendrix (see main piece) and Erik Erikson (Freud's contemporary who explored the psycho-social stages of development), among others. For information about her workshops, telephone 0181 946 8189
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