Why Connect and Disconnect?
I am sometimes asked about how humans develop and grow. Also, what is the impact of loss, in particular death, on that process. Death is an enforced separation and other separations need to happen as we grow older. We need to disconnect, in order to connect with some-one else.
That disconnect can be partial and complex, but in the long life of the human, nothing can stay the same. Keeping it together may mean putting something else to one side.
An example of a ‘useful’ separation is a move away from our parents as we enter adolescence and, later still, in adulthood. To become a different relationship, something has to change. Those changes can be welcomed, resisted or ignored. The outcome is different, depending on what happens.
It could be argue that to make adult connections, we need to make disconnections from our past. Remember my inverted tree! After all, if I am going to find a life partner, I will need to say ‘goodbye’ to others who might qualify for the post.
This may be a cultural expectation only in some parts of the globe, but it is no less powerful, for that. And, anyway, animals do it: swans, for instance!
Psychologists refer to the slow separation needed to thrive in adulthood – through re-connections – as ‘individuation’.
Individuation seems necessary. So, let’s look at the ‘conversation’ between our ‘parts‘ that make that process more or less easy or difficult.
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, joining, separation and dying.
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.
Humans: a vulnerable species for many years
Unlike horses, humans do not get on their feet a few moments after their birth.
Because of the lengthy period of dependency this creates, humans normally form strong attachments to other people in order to survive; most often Mum and/or Dad. Some slide into the task of attaching – or being attached to – smoothly, and others spend much energy fighting it off.
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 change is forced on us by 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 – a short comment!
Being born vulnerable, we need practical help to stay alive – getting fed and clothed! At an emotional level we need nurturance for longer than we think.
At the same time, as stated, a parent or carer has to know when and how to let go, bit by bit, to ensure a young person can ‘individuate’ or become their own person. That is just one developmental process that can go awry.
Another way to foster dependency is the ‘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“.
At the risk of stereotyping, a typical Driver facing many British males can be Be Strong; don’t show your feelings. A typical Driver facing many Western females 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 as we live in a sexist society and Drivers help transmit the more subtle cultural messages relating to how we ‘should’ behave – if we want the respect of our carers and 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. That does not mean we simply ‘fit in’; often as not – at some stage – we rebel.
Copy or react?
Some individuals do react against their past and do something very different. This is known in the trade as ‘reaction formation‘. It offers a part-explanation for the ability of many abused or neglected people to become good parents, despite the ‘example’ they were given. Sadly, it can part-explain why otherwise privileged individuals start a cycle of deprivation in their own families.
The tendency to ‘copy’ our carers’ behaviour, or to react against them, 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. Quite often, ‘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.
The neural impact
Behind this simple explanation 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.
The disconnect can be so robust that different ‘parts’ of ourselves do not communicate at all. The one simply ‘does not know‘ about the other. Any attempt to foster some reconciliation can be met by avoidance or rejection – subtle or direct.
It is even feasible for these adverse childhood experiences (ACES) to lead to a functional neurological disorder (FND) when unexpected and seemingly disconnected problems arise in the nervous system. There is no obvious link to a specific disease or physical disorder.
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 my 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 on an everyday basis.
Please bear in mind that neural complications can arise for any individual – even those with the most healthy physical and emotional care. for instance, I know of people with dyslexic and autistic features who blame themselves, when Mother Nature is a more likely candidate.
The modern term for these differences is neuro-diversity.
Any way out?
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 compute numbers very fast. Others discover that the world is puzzling and difficult to navigate.
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. This flexibility is referred to as neuro-plasticity.
Modern research is showing us how this works. 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.
Allan Schore and John Bowlby – worth knowing about
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 can 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 expensive – and very large – so you would need to be very committed to follow through here. The e-book was half price at £60 +!
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
We lose neural and physical connections after birth, 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. Othertimes, we are very aware.
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 connect in it now? Do you have ‘favourite’ ways to keep distant from others?
How might you find ways to disconnect from vexatious people and situations? How might you discriminate between those people who are vexatious and those offering a ‘real’ opportunity to change things.
How might you find new connections in an ever-changing world and relate to people in it just a little bit differently?