I am sometimes asked about how humans develop and grow. Also, what is the impact of loss, in particular death, on that process.
Conventional psychology and therapies have many useful things to say about how we grow after coming into the world. Because our arrival and our leaving this earth are both certainties we face, there is as much written on the impact of growing and dying, as well as separation.
Our challenge, as humans, is that it takes a long time for us to reach independence. Many in the animal kingdom can be self-sufficient in days, if not hours.
Because of this lengthy period of dependency, humans normally form strong attachments to those we need in order to survive; most often Mum and Dad, but any-one who fits the bill will do. These ‘attachments’ shape our psyche at a very deep level. This is not so surprising or peculiar. However, the impact of those attachments or, indeed, lack of them, is often tested when relationships change, say, after separation, divorce or death.
So what is known about the way we connect and disconnect? What dilemmas are presented by the processes involved?
HUMAN GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT – the short comment!
We are born very vulnerable and remain so for many years. We need practical help to stay alive – feeding and clothing! At an emotional level we need nurturance for longer than we think. At the same time, a parent or carer has to know when and how to let go, bit by bit. This ensures the young person can ‘individuate’; that is, become their own person. That is just one process that can easily go awry. Another process is the sub-conscious, even unconscious, tendency to dely the process of ‘individuation’. This might be done by fostering dependency and another way is to pass a ‘hot potato’.
The Hot Potato is an emotional message which says: “well, if you are going your own way, here’s how to experience life“. Transactional Anaysis (TA) is a model showing us how that message works – by Driving the younger generation to be like the older generation. To be successful, you will have to …….
A typical Driver facing a male can be Be Strong; don’t show your feelings. A typical Driver facing a female can be Please; your task in life is to please others and to meet their needs. All this sounds very sexist does it not? Indeed, it is. We live in a sexist society and Drivers help transmit the more subtle messages about how to behave if we want the respect of our carers and – in later life – our peers. If all works “well”, then those same processes continue into the next generation. Most often, the next generation follow patterns formed in their own childhood.
Therapy exists to help identify other ways to behave today and to offer an opportunity to devise a revised role model to the next generation to come. That process requires a number of small, safe experiments to test our revisions. Some experiments will result in small defeats; we are not happy with the result. Other experiments result in small victories and we build on them. If we are lucky, the number of small victories increases, and the number of small defeats reduce.
If they do not reduce, we are might, at least, consider: how might I do something a little bit different next time ……
There is an alternative: some individuals will react against their past and try to do something very different, This is known in the trade as ‘reaction formation’ and it offers a part-explanation for the ability of many abused and neglected people to become good parents. Sadly, it can part-explain why otherwise privileged individuals start a cycle of deprivation in their own families.
The tendency to ‘copy’ or react may help or hinder the next generation down.
Several things can go wrong here. The child and carer may not connect at all. At the other extreme, they may connect so closely that one or other feels suffocated and, quite often, the fashion of ‘letting go’ or individuation, gets chaotic. The young person will want one thing, a parent will want another thing and other carers may have different ideas altogether!! Notice how authority figures – parents, teachers, social workers – often fail to identify any common purpose with the adolescents in their care.
This can end up in a fair amount of conflict. I was going to say – imagine the chaos – but I realise many readers will not need to imagine it at all.
Behind this simple explanation – and doubtless inaccurate comment – is a rather more troubling feature. What seems to happen – in this emerging relationship between carer and infant/child – is that the complexity and quality of our neural development is impacted. The neurons, the ‘motorways’ in our body, make the conversation between your two siblings (the hemispheres and other sub-sections of our brain) more or less fluent and (dis)integrated.
If we are to feel secure in later life, then we require consistent, loving attachments in early and adolescent years. Effective care leads to well boundaried individuals; that is, people who know where they start and finish their relationships with the rest of the world and the other people in it. Basically, we thrive when loved and kept safe.
Anything less, and our neural pathways can become impaired to a greater or less extent. That means our everyday functioning can be undermined. We do not always know where we ‘stand’ in the world. We have to learn cunning defensive strategies to ensure our survival when we do not feel loved or safe …. and ….. most of us will seek to survive at any cost.
This will include denying the existence of our unhelpful behaviour – as Basil Fawlty would say, “the bleedin’ obvious” – to everyone else, but me. I should say everyone develops their own favourite defences as part of ‘normal’ development. That only becomes a problem when we rely on those defences in tricky situations that arise all day and everyday.
Please bear in mind that neural complications can arise for an individual – even those with the most healthy physical and emotional care. Some neural complications arise in the womb or in the period after birth. Large neural changes occur in infancy as we shape our world or, indeed, for seemingly random reasons. Such complications can lead individuals to develop some very special skills – a good memory – or to struggle, as with dyslexia.
Fortunately, finding ourselves in an unhappy state, does not have to be a permanent state. We now know that neural pathways can be helped to change and shift into adulthood and older age. Modern research is showing us how that can be done. Allan Schore, see below, is well able to explain this in some detail.
Safe Experiments are part of that process of engaging ourselves in slow, but sure, change.
This is not an easy short list to provide. The field is very large and offers complex findings that often bamboozle us. I have confined myself to a modern, mainstream researcher well able to summarise the literature. You will need to do your own research to do justice to this large field. How about doing a Psychology degree!! For an easier start, have a look at:
HILL, DANIEL. Affect Regulation Theory. A Clinical Model. (Norton Series
on Interpersonal Neurobiology). New York: W.W Norton & Co. 2015.
In Chapter 5, Hill gives an overview of classical attachment theory. In Chapter 7, he moves on to discuss modern attachment theory which he with attention to Allan Schore’s psycho-neuro-biological model of the development of self-regulation.
Schore, himself, is a key author, sometimes described as the “New Bowlby” after John Bowlby, one of the ‘fathers’ of attachment theory. Schore is more than worth a visit but bear in mind his material is dense and not always easy to absorb – or summarise – for your own use. It ican be highly technical. If interested, try:
Or look out his text:
Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self: The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, Routledge.
Texts are very expenses – and very large – so you would need to be very committed to follow through here. The e-book is half price at £60 +!
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
We lose neural and physical connections after separation, divorce and death. Some people find they never made them in the first place. Indeed, a whole load of connections can be lost to us and we can be unaware of that. How can I know what I do not know? Then it becomes difficult to face the consequences of what I do and say. It tricky to know how to appreciate the difference.
It is not easy to know how to start again or, indeed, whether to bother to start at all.
Any Safe Experiments go with that?
You’d think – with something as complex and sensitive as this – that Safe Experiments might not help. Is this so? Only you can explore this question. Even so, do you remember the Road Map? if you have not already noticed how you got where you are today, it can be tricky to look at a crossroads and start choosing the next direction in which to move.
If it helps to re-state a ‘basic’ principle – Safe Experiments are small steps in just one direction; a small step that makes it easier to retrace your step should that prove necessary to try a different direction.
So the title of this page should be:
Connect and Disconnect and Reconnect [in a random way, if necessary].
What safe experiments can you devise to understand how you connected in the world and now connect in it? How might you find ways to disconnect from vexatious people and situations? How might you find new connections in a very changed world?