Early Learning Matters (Part 10)

by Jennifer M. Ryan, M.Ed.

in Attachment, Emotional Well-being, TEA

I may have [purposely] created a pretty bleak picture in my last post, Momma Trauma:

  • “We all face issues from childhood that ‘mess us up.’”
  • “When a child enters into adulthood without the foundation of this secure base (otherwise known as a “secure attachment”) there are many, many problems that surface in their relationships.”
  • “How you manage friendships, intimate relationships, work relationships, sibling relationships, parental relationships – all relationships! – are a direct result of what was encoded early on – what was taught.”

These statements are all true, but there is VERY good news!

Our connection to caregivers – the attachment that shapes our brain’s neural pathways such that we “do” life in the exact way we do life – is only part of the puzzle.  A large part, yes, since the “encoding” that takes place within your brain sets the stage for many of your behaviors in adulthood, but this encoding within the brain is a learned process.  In other words, you weren’t born with this specific set of behaviors. They were given to you on a silver platter, and you slurped up the lessons because you didn’t know any better.

Temperament is a large part of the puzzle as well.  The personality you’re born with – that roughly 30% of your brain that is developed, including your DNA, is a large predictor of your behavior as well. At the core of a person, when we say this is who “I am”, this really means the person you were born as. This is you “in the raw” – no additives, no preservatives, no opinions pushed upon you – simply “you.” The environment which occurs around you, and which is interactive with your being is what shapes your unique personality.

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.” 
― Dr. Seuss

So the point to take away here is, what you feel and what you do are LEARNED.  And what is learned, can be UNLEARNED.  Yay!  I didn’t say the process was easy, I just said it was possible. But to find out the “how” it’s useful to find out the “why” by understanding our subconscious thoughts, behaviors, judgments, assumptions, and perceptions, which is what this “attachment” process is all about.

Certainly, a majority of people aren’t abandoned as Annie was in my last post.  But let’s use Annie’s experience to further illustrate attachment and it’s effects on adulthood behaviors.

You might say Annie’s parents didn’t really “abandon” her, right?  She was sick and she needed to stay in the hospital. Annie’s mother was doing what any loving, caring caregiver would do in this instance, right?  She was seeking medical attention!  And you might say that is enough – that Annie would come around. That once she was TOLD why she was there, it would be enough for her to understand why she was left alone, and hence, she would quickly get over any negative feelings she had on the issue.

The problem with that line of thinking, however, is that babies aren’t “thinking” beings – yet. Remember, babies don’t have the cognitive structures of an adult. They certainly don’t have the decision-making processes in place!  More than anything, babies and young children – children younger than about 5 years old – are emotional, creative beings.  The right side of their brain – the creative side – is what is activated and used.  The brain at this phase of development is like a sponge, soaking in all the information it can through it’s five senses: seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and talking.

The Five Senses

The five senses are important for processing information throughout our lifetime, but particularly as a baby, because it’s the only way a baby “connects” with her caregiver.  It’s the only way, and perhaps the most important way, the baby and young child begins to understand how adults “work.”  The cumulative lessons we teach our young are the behaviors she’ll take into adulthood.

It’s important, therefore, that we as adults understand and examine the ways in which our caregivers imparted their messages to us. Likewise, it’s important for parents to understand the emotional and cognitive development of their babies, so they are able to impart the information in ways the baby can understand.

Babies aren’t little adults.  Toddlers and young kids aren’t little adults.  They can’t be expected to act as adults act and make the decisions adults make.  Furthermore, what you spoon-feed this child on a consistent, daily basis, will set the stage for how this child behaves, as an adult.

Emotional Abandonment

We now know that physical abandonment can create some very difficult issues for the child, and hence the adult. We know that children don’t understand being “left,” as shown in Annie’s example. But these examples are rare.

An often overlooked issue is emotional abandonment.  Emotional abandonment is a child that has everything it needs physically, but it lacks the emotional connection needed to thrive.  It isn’t enough for a caregiver to provide food, shelter and water, although these are certainly very important for survival. And “survive” is exactly what will happen with his child. But is survival all we’re after? Is that enough?

To survive simply means…to breath.  You exist, but you don’t feel whole.

Adults often come to counseling because at the most basic level, they do not feel whole. Isn’t this something we all deserve? To figure out why we don’t feel whole, and then do what we can to get back to that place? I believe so.

An adult that merely survives continually feels like there’s something missing.  Again and again clients go into therapy because “something is missing” or “something isn’t clicking.” Something doesn’t feel right in their lives, and they can’t pinpoint what it is. Often, it is that they are emotionally void.  I’m not saying that are without emotion!  I’m saying they don’t feel a connection to anyone, or to themselves, in a deeply emotional way.  They don’t “feel felt.” They don’t feel “heard.” They don’t feel as if there is anyone that really “knows” them at the core of their being – no one that appreciates who they are, celebrates their emotions, and allows for them to just be, without judgment. And if they DO feel this deep emotion, or have in the past, it is short lived.  To sustain an emotional attachment to someone is almost impossible for some adults.

Emotional abandonment is an epidemic in this country right now. Emotional abandonment is a child who is receiving what it needs to receive physically (or not), but NOT receiving what it needs emotionally.  It is a child developing an insecure attachment.

An insecurely attached adult is someone who’s left lonely, sad, and with feelings of worthlessness. But how do we know we’re tending to our babies and children in ways that they feel emotionally attached – in ways they won’t feel abandoned?  The answers are easy, if you understand the basic structures of human development. Understanding how a baby views the world – how it speaks to the world, hears the world, sees the world – is the most important lesson any parent can learn.

Likewise, an adult who realizes they may not be securely attached, who feels sad, lonely, worthless, and as if there is a “hole in their heart,” needs to understand human development throughout the lifespan.  When there is a deficit from childhood, the gap needs to be filled.  The learning that took place so long ago, creating this emotional abandonment, needs to be recreated – relearned.  The good news is, what is learned, can be unlearned, and relearned again!  But the first step is to find out what was LEARNED.

Does EVERY issue that is brought to counseling mean there’s an insecure attachment?  No. Without a doubt, definitely not.  But, this is an issue seen again and again, so it is worthy of examining further.  Many times I dig into a client’s past, probing into their family of origin to find out how they learned to “do” relationships, and I find there is no insecure attachment issue.  In that case, we simply step into problem-solving and goal-setting to change the emotions and actions without going any further into their past lives as children.

The change process is the same whether there is an attachment issue or not, and we’ll get to those steps in more detail. But when there IS an attachment issue, it’s imperative that we look at that in more detail. Understanding about yourself – your own patterns of doing and feeling – are extremely important.

Your Mom is the BEST Mom, Hands Down

The concepts of attachment and early learning to this degree are is hard to understand and difficult to detect. The fact that there is so much attention and focus on the early parenting styles between caregiver and child is a new concept for many, and as parents we don’t necessarily want to examine this part of our lives. We certainly don’t want anyone telling us there are things we can do better! And, nobody wants to talk bad about their Mom! So here’s a blanket statement about the “Momma Trauma” we MAY have experienced:

You had a good upbringing, and your Mom loved you. She did the best she could with all the tools she had. In fact, it was an INCREDIBLE job. And if you’re a parent yourself, you know the job of parenting is the hardest job on planet earth. Understanding your attachment style isn’t about doggin’ your Momma!  It’s about developing a better understanding of the way YOU learned relationships, based on how you were taught them.

You had a parent who was PHYSICALLY available, how do you know if they were emotionally available?  Well, you may just know.  Sometimes it’s easy to know when you weren’t raised with the best pick of the litter.  Sometimes, the handwriting is NOT on the wall.  And that’s where some investigative work is handy.

I’d like to give you some case samples to help this process make more sense, and to hopefully connect some dots in your own upbringing.

Case Sample 1:

Sarah and Tom came for marital therapy. Sarah decided she wanted out of the 10-year marriage because she had finally realized Tom was not going to connect with her in the way she needed. He was emotionally unavailable to her, despite her pleas for affection. The two did not have kids, and she figured it would be easy to slip away unnoticed so she could find someone who WOULD connect with her.

Upon further investigation, we realized Sarah had a cycle of being non-expressive. When she felt like she was asking Tom for what she wanted, she was simply sending him subtle clues, of which Tom wasn’t picking up on. And when he didn’t pick up on her clues, she shut down. After a few weeks of shutting down, she had enough, and blew up! Tom would be dumbfounded, wondering where this her anger and rage came from. It was if he was blindsided by her words, and he often thought she must have some pent-up aggression to be yelling and behaving in such distasteful, abusive ways. She was damaging the marriage with her words and actions.

Tom didn’t respond when Sarah blew up the way she did, because what he wanted most was for her to simply stop being so aggressive. He wanted her to stop raging, and he knew the best way for her to stop was to say nothing. So, Tom waited.

While Tom waited, Sarah became more discontent, knowing that Tom simply wasn’t capable of giving her what she needed. She wanted emotional connection, for him to understand her, love her, feel her heart, and “see” her, but he didn’t. Sarah felt as if Tom was emotionally impotent, shut down from an expressive connection from anyone, let alone her. Tom’s distance and Sarah’s raging ended with both of them just “agreeing to disagree,” but they only grew more resentful. They went on about their lives, but inside, they were growing more and more distant with each passing day.

They would muddle through their lives, and although briefly, their “meeting of minds” was enough to sustain each of them a little bit. It gave her the drink she needed while parched in a dry desert. But, as was the course, within a week or so, things were back to “normal” and the cycle would begin again. Sarah would reach out to Tom in various ways, but Tom didn’t respond the way Sarah envisioned he would in her head, and disappointed and hurt, she quit trying. Sarah felt lonely and disconnected once again, and shut down. Tom noticed she was shut down, but attributed this to her general “moodiness,” and her cycles of “on again, off again.” Then, out of “no where” she blew up again – filled with rage and sadness in an effort to get any semblance of connection. Again and again, the cycle continued. Reach out, retreat. Reach out, retreat. Reach out, retreat. These two didn’t know how to connect. They WERE connecting, but neither of them saw the other’s actions as connection. They saw their spouse’s actions as irrational and emotionally distant and withdrawn.

Looking into Sarah’s family of origin, we learned how she was the “golden child”.  She was the middle of 5 kids, and her parents clearly had high expectations for her. Not so high that she couldn’t live up to what they wanted, though. She wanted to please her parents and was always striving to “do the right thing.”

Her older sister Mary was always in trouble. She didn’t follow the rules, she didn’t make good grades, and in fact, was even held back her 8th grade year. Sarah’s parents were very disappointed in Mary, and let her know it. Through their actions and their words, of which Sarah witnessed, Mary understood that the love she received from her parents was conditional – when Mary did as she was supposed to do, followed the rules, and made good grades, she was in her parent’s good graces. When she screwed up again, she got the silent treatment from Mom and looooong lecture sessions with Dad.

As Sarah watched this interaction with her older sister, it was clear what she needed to do to get love and affection from her parents: never screw up. And never screwing up meant keeping your chin high and keeping your problems to a minimum. Any hint of difficulty that was brought to her parents could be met with quick problem-solving, assisting Sarah to simply buck up and move on. She kept her emotions to herself so as not to receive the same treatment her sister received: disapproval. She kept quite, despite her struggles along the way, and need to have her parent’s support, understanding, and emotional connection. She needed her parents to “get” her; to really understand her struggles. Not solve them; understand them. Sarah plugged along without much of a peep. No negativity!  It wasn’t allowed.

Fast forward 20 years to her marriage with Tom, and we can see Sarah very clearly acting out what she’d learned as a child:

  • Positivity is rewarded with unconditional love
  • Negativity, or “screwing up” is met with loss of love and affection, and disapproval
  • Watching her older sister experience the pain of disapproval was hard to watch; she certainly didn’t want to bring that on herself, so she kept quite, not revealing her needs

Sarah’s inability tosay and express what she needed, in no uncertain terms in her marriage to Tom, was only hurting the marriage. Sarah was reaching out to Tom the best way she knew how, but Tom didn’t recognize it. Why? Because Tom learned while growing up that we don’t recognize emotion. Emotions are for sissies, and there really isn’t a reason to feel sad or angry or hurt. That didn’t solve anything anyway. What solved problems was thinking rationally and creating a sound game plan.

Through therapy, Sarah learned to be more assertive and ask for what she needed WITHOUT the fear of being denied, abandoned, or rejected.  Tom learned to hear his wife’s emotions, and to not be afraid of them. He learned emotions were normal – they are part of who we all are. In fact, they were the very FIRST part of who we were at our core. We are emotional beings. Tom and Sarah both came to understand this on a much deeper level.

Sarah and Tom changed their behaviors with one another by understanding and appreciating their respective emotional lives more fully. They understood in a way they never had before, that emotions were not only normal, they were essential to being. There were present regardless of whether they were actually expressed or not! When they both understood their emotional lives, they learned how to honor what they felt, honor what their spouse felt, express their thoughts more fully, and understand their spouse’s thought process from a different perspective. They both felt honored and “heard.”  They both felt comfortable communicating and discussing their thoughtful and emotional lives in a way they hadn’t thought possible before counseling.

Case 2:

Jenny was a vibrant 40-something who’d fell on hard times. She once had a business that was thriving in advertising, and her freelance business on the side was bringing in enough money to quit her full time job. After about five years though, she had a “break down” and woke up one day broke, dissatisfied with her life, and with no clients. She had to move home with her Mom because she lost her home to foreclosure. What’s more, she didn’t have the motivation to even go find another paying job. She started to drink heavily in the evenings and occasionally in the morning when she was alone.

Through investigation, we learned Jenny was an only child from a single-parent home. Dad was non-existent since the age of four. Grandparents were present, but only with occasional babysitting. Jenny and Mom were very close. Best friends, in fact! Jenny didn’t have a bad word to say about her Mom, except that now that she wasn’t working and living with her again after 20 years, Mom was disgruntled – always snapping, angry, and telling Jenny what she needed to do to get her life on track. And it was all good advice! Except, Jenny just wouldn’t make any movement toward finding a job and getting her life started again.

Growing up Mom owned her own business, just as Jenny did. Mom was a “self-made woman” and didn’t let Jenny wallow in self-pity. When she wasn’t doing well, she told her to pick herself up by her boot straps and stop complaining. Mom valued hard work, and she wasn’t much help when things weren’t money-driven. In fact, being successful meant making money. When you weren’t making money, you weren’t worth much. Lack of financial success meant life was going nowhere; you were a nobody. Well, at least this is the message Jenny got….

And, now that Jenny is older and had fallen on hard times, she hadn’t yet learned the skill of true, internal happiness. Her happiness had always been externally driven, just as Mom had taught her it should be. When Jenny was producing, she was on top of the world. Jenny had never learned what it was like to struggle – she didn’t have to, because Mom was there to pick her up at every turn. She most definitely didn’t teach Jenny about problem-solving, and how to switch gears. And now, when Jenny found she COULDN’T pick herself up by her bootstraps, she didn’t really know what else to do. And on top of that, she felt worthless, as if her life didn’t mean anything. She didn’t have a purpose, and she obviously didn’t know how to be successful or happy.

Through therapy, Jenny realized that she had learned that internal needs didn’t matter. External successes, and particularly ones that made you money were what gave you worth. Except, in order for Jenny to move forward and be successful and happy at this new phase of her life, she had to rethink what happiness was. She needed to abandon her old teachings and develop new ideas – new beliefs.

TEA Begins

As you can see, change happens when we learn our early development patterns, understand that we learn to “do” life and relationships from our earliest attachment relationships, and when we are finally able to allow ourselves a new way of thinking – when we allow new belief structures to become the habits we want, instead of the habits and actions we don’t want.

We’ve gone through the TEA process, and as you’ll recall:

Your thoughts (beliefs, opinions, assumptions, perceptions and judgments) create your emotions, and your emotions create your actions. Thoughts can be subconscious or conscious – most of them are subconscious!  You don’t even know they exist.  Change happens when you know your subconscious thoughts.

Subconscious thoughts manifest through action as subconscious habits. The way you learned to do relationships at a very young age is most likely the way you are DOING your relationships now. Whether you’re securely attached or insecurely attached, you only know how to behave because you were taught to behave this way.

Examining early learning patterns of development with those important caregivers gives us a glimpse into WHY you feel and behave the way you do.  Now, to change how you feel and what you do, we simply have to change what we THINK.  We’ve come full circle now, back to my original post introducing the TEA!

In my next post, we’ll tie up the entire change process and identify specific steps that need to be taken to change. There is a formula for change – insert yourself in it, and you’ll feel different and behave differently.

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