It’s the nature of all life to evolve in the direction of surviving and thriving. Every living organism is wired to move towards pleasure and move away from pain, and every living organism either adapts well enough to survive or they die.
If you’re reading this, you adapted well enough to survive. And you can be damn sure you did a lot of adapting.
You’re born as this little creature whose first task is to come to terms with the fact that it is a separate body. You spent 9 months NOT being a separate body, and now you are separated and experience the primal fear of abandonment. You never before felt the pain of not being fed on demand, of not being warm enough, of over-stimulation to the senses, and suddenly these are a daily reality.
Already at this point, some babies “fail to thrive,” and die. Making it through being a newborn already implies that you as a tiny creature adapted to tolerate the new stressors of being a separate human being-body.
Then, as self-consciousness develops, we gain a sense of our autonomous capabilities, as well as their limits. We delight in our powers of throwing a ball at the wall and we cry at the disturbance of the ball bopping us on the head in rebound. We begin adapting to the physical reality we find ourselves in as we learn the laws of physics, and play with manipulating them.
By age 4 we’ve also adapted to something not having to do with the physical body or its physical surroundings. We’ve adapted to the emotional reality of the people who are raising us. If this seems like a stretch, consider the fact that if a mother and father hate (an emotion) their baby, they may decide to not feed it, or otherwise physically harm it. It is not some archaic psychoanalytic theory that states that for an infant, the emotional is completely interwoven with the physical. This is simply self-evident. If an infant screams, a mother can physically calm the infant’s body by holding the infant and conveying emotional soothing. Or she can scream with the emotions of frustration and anger and cause the baby’s body to release more of the physical chemicals of anxiety. Have no doubt that for you, for me, for all human beings, our first few years of life were completely vulnerable to and dependent on the physical AND emotional landscape of our surroundings, in a way that is very different from adulthood. For example, when we are adults, someone else’s emotion of anger almost never directly threatens us with abandonment to the point that we will not be fed or sheltered.
Looking back to age 4, it is clear that a system of behavior has been internalized, as indicated by developmental theory as well as common observation of children. Kids don’t act randomly at age 4. They’re already acting certain things out, and more crucially, they already have a sense of what’s safe and what isn’t. They know what makes mommy sad, they know what makes daddy angry. And they behave accordingly so as to not “get in trouble.” We learn what physical and emotional behaviors get us fed, get us played with, and get us praised. And just like all other living beings, once we learn that information, we increase those behaviors so that we survive and thrive to the maximum we deem possible.
Think about an animal that gets beaten. Soon, if the abuser merely raises his hand, the animal flinches. It’s made the association and it automatically adapts its behavior for optimal survival in response, before the impact. Now what if we look at an emotional analogy? When you were about to cry, did those around you say, “Sweetheart, that was hard for you wasn’t it?” (positive, affirming feedback)? Or did they say, “Now now, you’re okay,” “No need to cry about it,” “I should be the one crying!” “There you go again, trying to make everyone feel bad for you meanwhile…” “I can’t believe you’re crying over that,” etc.? These latter responses are all feedback that amounts to a rejection of a child’s own experience, and a child’s own sense of self. Whichever form the feedback takes, the child subconsciously records, “This is the feedback that letting myself cry results in.”
The point of this is not to blame those who may have had those responses. The point is to understand why an adaptation you developed in order to enhance survival/thriving years ago may manifest itself in your behavior today. Unless you’ve spent time literally re-training yourself, you operate according to your default systems. You may find yourself eating when you’re not hungry, and attribute it to lack of discipline or willpower. But, upon further examination, if you could freeze that moment in time and look at what was going on in your heart and mind before that moment, you would undoubtedly find a trigger that used to signal severe turbulence ahead. To continue with the example of crying, let’s say something very upsetting came up earlier in the day. Right underneath the surface, it actually upset you enough to make you want to cry. But, as it was wired into your very nervous system years, decades ago, you learned that crying leads to negative feedback. You might also have learned that not crying earned you positive feedback, such as comments that you were “strong,” “tough,” “reliable,” “mature.” Your brain now automatically perceives the trigger of might-want-to-cry, and routes it into take-evasive-maneuvers. We can spend other posts talking about why you developed the particular evasive maneuver of eating, but nonetheless, your brain routes the trigger into the action of eating.
What does this accomplish? You don’t cry. (Evolutionary success: negative feedback from caretaker avoided!) And while you may swear that at this point in your life, you’re perfectly okay with crying, you want to cry if it would heal you, you truly think there’s nothing wrong with crying – your body-history learned otherwise, painfully. There’s nothing like pain to wire in the deepest anxiety-association in the nervous system. It’s how organisms grow safer and stronger and avoid death. Where would we be if, decades after we were first taught verbally or through experience that the stove is hot, we decided: “Yeah… but.. really, I’m okay with touching the stove now.” We’d burn our hands. Decades passing does not change our very body’s ingrained, visceral, instinctual knowledge of pain triggers – and remember, as a very small child, painful emotional feedback is just as threatening as painful physical feedback. So we really are talking about the same intensity of avoidance of crying, in this example, as the intensity of the avoidance of holding your hand on a hot stove.
So intellectually or even spiritually knowing “it’s good to be open to my own emotions now” is not gonna cut it. Your body, your subconscious, your inner toddler, however you want to think of it, is not interested primarily in emotional healing or any of your enlightened thought – it’s interested in staying safe and secure, and you’re talking about being open to getting burned. Would a toddler listen to you explain the biology of why it’s good to eat vegetables often and chocolate less often? Would she listen to you explain what emotional freedom means? No and no. With this level of your self, you have to operate using only the concrete reality of cause-and-effect. Think: How the toddler feels after she’s guided to eat in accordance with the needs of her body (energetic, light, healthy), versus trying to convince a toddler to automatically eat this way because she should know better after you explained the nutritional principles to her. You’ve heard you’re supposed to feel your emotions instead of eat them – well, that has very little effect on the part of you that’s driven to do so.
If you find yourself – over and over, and over again – not taking care of yourself in the way you want to (for example, to feed yourself in an attuned, healthful manner), you can be certain that it is because there is a threat, wired into the deepest levels of anxiety in the nervous system, resulting from some current trigger.
It is not because you suck. It is not because you are lazy or don’t care enough. It is not because you are pathetic. It is not because you are not meant for greatness. It is not because it is impossible for you to change.
It is because those old threats have not yet been faced and lived through – they persist as full-fledged demons with the emotional weight of impending death and abandonment. They are fed by every additional act of avoidance, just as the monster in the closet becomes more and more terrifying the longer you don’t open the door to discover it’s not there.
It has felt and continues to feel like taking care of yourself is giving yourself your little hit of soothing (eating, drinking, shopping, gossiping, virtual reality, you name it) when you feel like having it.
But would you take care of a child by saying, “Okay, okay, we’ll sleep in the other room tonight since the monster is there”…?
Maybe once or twice. But knowing that this child needs to grow to stand on her own two feet, with confidence and ambition for exploring the unknown world, you would quickly lead the child to open that door and realize she survives and is not overtaken. That would be taking care.
If you experience great resistance to taking care of yourself, if you feel that for so… so long, you have stood in your own way, understand that you have not yet been able to risk the consequences of not giving yourself your shots of reassurance. Which logically implies that there has been an ongoing need for these shots – an ongoing sense of triggers and threats. That’s what you’re living with.
The healing work that’s possible is this: (1) to admit and identify what it looks like when you are reacting/giving yourself superficial shots of security (2) to identify the triggers that cause these reactions and (3) to allow yourself to experience the emotional consequences of facing a trigger, rather than reacting to it by taking your familiar shots.
Just say no to drugs n all, right? =)
Yeah, it’s not that simple. But, it is doable, and you become more alive each time.
Remember the rush of a child’s discovery that there is no closet monster. The bedroom is free! The closet can be used to play and hide in! You can smile as you rest your body and fall asleep rather than curl up in anxiety about making it through the night.
There’s such delicious reward to be had in going through this process.
Sending my heartfelt support.