Imagine you are a newborn with a nurturing, loving mother. You cry, and in response your mother picks you up, holds you close, whispers in your ear. You smile and in response your mother smiles even wider, makes a gleeful noise, buries her face in your hair and kisses your sweet little baby scalp.
You are learning from all these joyful experiences: that you are safe, your feelings are important, your needs will be met and you are loved.
You grow up believing that life, in spite of its chaos and challenges, is basically a fun and friendly experience.
It all starts in the original relationship between you and your primary caretaker, where you learn that you matter.
Relationships are both the cradle of healing and the seat of damage. Humans are dependent on the care of adults longer than any other animal on earth. A human baby cannot so much as lift their head at birth. By contrast, horses can get up and run within hours of birth. Because of this prolonged state of fragility and dependence, young people need adults to show them love and caring, or quite literally they will die.
But not everybody gets that loving mother. Not everyone is celebrated and welcomed and cared for by the family they are born into.
What happens to children who are neglected, abused or (as more commonly is the case) cared for with grudging efficiency? They are learning too, but what they are learning causes major emotional problems and can take years to un-learn. They are learning that they do not matter, that the world is an unsafe place, that their needs are too big or too bothersome. They are learning to shut their feelings away, deny them, stop crying, stop wanting because they don’t matter.
A few years back I read a harrowing account written by an American nurse who did service work in an orphanage near Chernobyl. In the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown there were many orphans due to parental death from cancer. In the orphanage the nurse described walking into a large nursery where there was…silence. The babies sat or lay in their cribs in stony silence, long accustomed to the fact that their cries didn’t matter. The staff did their best, but with limited funds and volunteers could provide only the basic physical care: diapers, formula, and crib space. The babies that lived (many died in infancy) later had attachment disorders, brain damage, and behavioral problems.
Lack of human connection is deadly.
The reason why good quality therapy, as opposed to just reading self-help books written by therapists, is effective is because therapy happens in the context of a relationship. Therapy is two people sitting across from another, talking about what matters, what hurts, and what helps. In the therapy room, a person gets to have their pain honored and that transforms the pain. Pain that is honored is healed.
The other day my son was playing outside and fell and scraped his knee. He ran to me, tears in his eyes, pointing at his scraped knee.
“Owe,” he said, “I hurt myself.” I picked him up, kissed his cheek and got a Band-Aid. The scrape was slight and within minutes he was playing happily as if it never happened. How much harder would it have been for my dear boy to bounce back if I had sneered,
“You’re not really hurt. Don’t be a baby.” Yet I hear so many people telling themselves this kind of thing about their own pain.
I believe in gently, softly, loving the whole self, especially the parts that hurt.