Irene Lyon says that, ideally, we develop a sense of safety and belonging within our bones, guts, and cells as our attuned caregivers encourage us to feel self-worth and personal agency over the pivotal first three years of our lives. Because we are too young to think and reason, our learning is stored into our body posture and the muscles that move us, the muscles that give us strength and a felt-sense of confidence to take on the world.
Photo taken by Mother
The sensation that we are worthy of the effort it takes to get what we want comes up from our gut which sends more signals to the brain than the brain does down to the gut. As we grow up, we become conscious of our thoughts which get laser-beamed down to the gut, reinforcing the feeling that we can cope with the challenges of our life.
Afferent Signals Arrive in the Brain
The energy that forms how we sense our gut and organ systems (what we call our Sixth Sense) defines our sensations of ourselves as physical, emotional, mental, relational and creative beings. When we are unable to connect to ourselves, to others and our to environment, this shut-down behavior is often described as PTSD. How did this connection get faulty?
For some of us, it goes back for generations, including how our parents were raised and how they mirrored this behavior in our early years. Where large broods are the norm and poverty is widespread, babies were often seen as “yet another mouth to feed” rather than an opportunity to build something wonderful for the next generation. Beating children and chronic shaming practices that use disconnection (get out of the car, now!) and humiliation as a way to control a child’s behavior creates a high level of toxic stress and biological shame that becomes infused into the ENTIRE organism of the young child. In very young children, these feelings are learned as body sensations, which can’t be rationalized later as words or stories. These bad feelings must be addressed where they are: in the body and nervous system.
Those of us who experienced this kind of toxic shaming in infancy and childhood don’t know what it means to feel safe and relaxed in our bones, gut, and cells. We have learned to always be on guard and to express something along the lines of
“all connection is bad and everyone is to be suspected as dangerous and a threat.”
The chronic betrayal by parents and primary caregivers, from which an infant or toddler cannot escape, can instill a quality of hopelessness and defeat such that the person, as an adult, will feel they are in fact bad meat. This underlies self-harm and addictions. The internalized belief that they don’t deserve to be treated well (as the adult may have screamed while the beating the child) leads them to risky situations and abusive relationships. The pervading sense that they are not valued, or even wanted, can lead to a constant cycle of resistance to doing the work, fleeing from healthy behaviors, and rejecting the care of healers and supportive situations. See Irene Lyon‘s blogpost on why every trauma survivor CAN heal, but not everyone will.
For those of us who had mothers who were not capable of soothing us, we lived our early lives ping-ponging between hypervigilant and freeze response. We must learn what it feels like to be biologically calm and to cultivate an internal sense of safety and connectedness. So much restoration work is required, including realizing that maybe the mother herself never felt safe or calm. Coming to accept that my mother could not soothe me, even though I was capable of being soothed by my godmother, allowed me to forgive both my mother and myself. I see now that maybe I am good seed that fell upon rocky ground.
Oprah says, “Feeling that you deserve something is not the same thing as feeling worthy.” And simply feeling deserving and worthy doesn’t mean there isn’t a Competing Commitment such as “if I become biologically calm, I won’t be on the same wavelength as my family and they will reject me because they believe that I must be like them to be liked by them.” If someone has a (maybe unconscious) belief that getting well would betray their connection to their (birth) family, they might get trapped on the hamster wheel of spiritual seeking. See this Harvard Business Review article titled The Real Reason People Won’t Change.
Update Dec 2021
NYTimes Opinion “Opioids Feel Like Love”
The connections between brain opioids and motherly love were first explored by the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp decades ago. Dr. Panksepp, who died in 2017, told me that when he first tried to publish data connecting brain opioids to attachment, he was rebuffed by a top medical journal. His research showed that morphine, in doses so low that it didn’t cause sleepiness, eased separation cries made by baby animals in multiple species.
The idea that the purest, most innocent love — between parent and child — could have any commonalities with the degradation of heroin addiction was “too hot to handle,” Dr. Panksepp told me. Today, however, decades after he published his work in another journal, what is now known as the “brain opioid theory of social attachment” is widely accepted.
When people nurture children or fall in love, hormones like oxytocin are released, infusing memories of being together with endorphin-mediated feelings of calm, contentment and satisfaction. This is one way that social contact relieves stress, making bonding a fundamental protector of both mental and physical health. When we are far from our loved ones or sense that our relationships are threatened, we feel an anxiety that is not unlike withdrawal from drugs.
So if “all connection is bad and everyone is to be suspected as dangerous and a threat,” the endorphins and oxytocin are not endogenously generated. Attachment does not become pleasurable or soothing. Spending time with others does not produce “calm, contentment and satisfaction.” No wonder Maia Szalavitz says “Addiction is A Learning Disorder.”