January 23, 2012
When was the last time you felt truly relaxed, when you forgot your worries and experienced a sense of peace? Maybe you were with a close friend or partner. Maybe you were on a beach or in nature. Maybe the feeling just arose spontaneously when you were doing the dishes. Have you ever thought about what makes it possible to have these feelings?
Development of a secure base
During our formative years we may develop what psychologists call a “secure base”. A secure base is what gives us a strong sense of self, an ability to regulate our emotions and to deal effectively with stress. It’s what makes us feel like the world is a safe (enough) place that we can explore, interact with, and be nourished by. From a secure base, we can navigate relationships with greater ease, seek out novel, challenging and rewarding experiences, and embrace the story of our lives.
A secure base is developed when your primary attachment figure (the person who spends the most time caring for you as an infant, typically your mother) interacts with you in a consistent, attuned and predictable manner. No one received this kind of caring all the time, and many people received less-than-adequate parenting. So what if no one was there to express their awareness of your hunger, your discomfort, your joy, your sadness, your curiosity, or your playfulness, to list a few examples? You may not have received the message that you matter. You may have internalized the belief that you are not welcome in the world, that the world is not a safe place for you, or that you deserve to live a good life. Therapy can give you a chance to change those messages.
I believe that at our core, the most essential part of our self longs to be a part of this world. This belief is the foundation for the work I do as a therapist. Together, we strip away the negative beliefs stuck in our minds and our bodies, and we uncover your essential self.
Take a second to check in with yourself. Ask yourself: do I believe that the world is a safe place and that I matter? Do I believe that others want me to be happy?
How does this affect me now?
Our early childhood wounds may manifest later in life as anxiety, relationship difficulties, depression, or addiction. You don’t have to have had a perfect childhood in order to have a secure base, it just had to be good enough. For many, there were times when their parents weren’t present and attuned. This can happen because of stressful events in the family, such as divorce, job loss or illness. It can also happen because they had difficult upbringings and never developed secure bases of their own. As we move away from good enough, the foundation of the secure base starts to develop cracks. These cracks may be an inability to self-soothe, or an ambivalent approach to fulfilling our need for connection, or a lack of self-worth. They may result in feeling like a part of oneself needs to be hidden from others.
For some people, these manifestations will be so mild that they will be able to get through life without being noticeably impacted by them. Others may be troubled by problems that are easy to point to, or haunted by a sense that something is wrong, and they may not know what it is. Life doesn’t have to be that way. If you are struggling or in pain, right now, you can get help.
How can therapy help?
How can these wounds be healed? How can you get to “I’m okay”, or even better, “I am happy to be alive”? Therapy is one possible solution. In a trusting therapeutic relationship, you can begin to make connections between your childhood wounds and your present-day problems. You can see how your beliefs about yourself effect the way you approach relationships. You may learn to understand how your parents were not quite able to meet your needs. When you can create a cohesive story about your childhood, you develop “horizontal integration”, or left-right brain integration, where your sense of self is clarified by filling out the story that you tell yourself about yourself. Through this process, your brain is rewired in a fashion that tends to remove self-judgment. Therapy can help you not only deal with your own problems relating to your childhood wounds, but by dealing with them, you will be better prepared to parent.
A parallel and simultaneous approach to filling in the cracks of the secure base involves mindfulness work. Mindfulness means paying attention to your present moment experience. By merely noticing that you are feeling anxious, judgmental, or depressed (to list just a few examples), you begin to strengthen connections from your prefrontal cortex to other areas of your brain, increasing your ability to make decisions more thoughtfully – moving toward a richer emotional life that isn’t dominated by emotions, but where emotions are more balanced with clear thinking. You can learn to notice when you are feeling angry, for example, and decide not to act on that anger in an unhealthy way, but rather to acknowledge it and decide what to do with it.
A therapist can assist you in the process of noticing your present moment experience, by slowing things down and encouraging you to focus, without judgment, on the sensations in your body and the thoughts passing through your mind. This work allows you to explore your self; you begin to see with more clarity the effects of your past, your deeply ingrained beliefs about yourself. And in that seeing, you become less reactive and more choiceful about the way you live your life in the present.
As your essential nature emerges, you establish a relationship with it. It may sound weird to establish a relationship with a part of yourself, but when you do it, amazing things start to happen. You may begin to ask yourself questions like, “what can I do to nourish myself today?” and then you answer that question by doing something that makes that essential part of you surge with joy. You learn what really makes you feel good.
Change is possible. You don’t have to feel like life is a grueling chore or a persistently painful experience. Help is available.