I was watching something about infant attachment the other day, and it talked about the importance of the mother and baby having a “falling in love experience.”
I was thinking about that partly because of C’s initial experience with me–hanging around wistfully in the garden, waiting for me to turn up, feeling confused about whether we were some kind of romantic couple. And my own behaviour–buying her sweet little cards, whatever bit of clothing I think she might like. I remember, too, trying to help her with pronunciation, and her looking at me with very big eyes, something profound clearly going on inside of her: perhaps sufficient trust to take in the experience of me.
I think what happens between parents and infants has to do with the parent being able to enter into the emotional space of the infant–empathetically feeling the distress of the infant, which allows the parent to understand the infant’s distress and know how to calm it–and the infant being able to enter into the emotional space of the parent, which is compassionate, loving, helpful and confident so that the infant is not just soothed by the feeding or the diaper change, but by the parents’ calm.
I think a lot of what happens socially is that we enter into one another’s emotional space and work together to create something tolerable, if not enjoyable, and that starts when we are infants. We begin to know how to regulate a shared emotional space socially by entering into our parents’ experience of regulating themselves and us.
So what happens when the parent can’t do that? When the parent enters into our emotional space and instead of injecting calm and confidence into our distress, is herself overwhelmed, anxious or frightened? We learn that entering into the parent’s emotional space and taking in another person is itself frightening and stressful.
That entering into the emotional space of another, and working together to regulate that shared space, is the foundation for most learning that happens throughout our lifetime. We learn how to regulate our emotions by taking in our parents’ inner experience as they are regulating themselves and us. When we can’t enter into that shared emotional space or when we don’t learn regulations skills, you end up a child with difficulty managing emotional states, difficulty in making sense out of felt experiences of all kinds, difficulty in controlling impulses, difficulty in understanding their own motives or felt states and difficulty in understanding other peoples’.
So you have someone with a lot of internal stress, not a lot of skills in managing that stress, experiencing internal states other people don’t really want to enter into, who doesn’t really know what to do about those states to manage them, and has very strong impulses that are difficult to control. Someone who might fall into very deep depression easily, or someone very anxious or uncertain about what to do–anxiety is the emotion of “I don’t know”–might have a short fuse and rage or reach out in ways likely to be ineffective to get needs met. You have someone who is not very effective at managing an emotional and social world.
I have been thinking about that. There are parts of my adult experience of loneliness that have to do with that lack of effectiveness. I feel like I am a lot more effective now. I can enter into other people’s emotional spaces with them. I do end up keeping a lot of my internal state under wraps, because it’s just so difficult and painful, but I can form connections a lot better, and it does meet my need for connection much more. Enough of me is seen or feels seen for me to get my need for connection met, even if I am managing the trauma stuff that comes up for me pretty regularly all alone.