“The root of all our relationships is right here in the mother-baby communication. And it sets a trajectory — the infant-mother, infant-father communication sets a trajectory in development. Which doesn’t mean you can’t change it, and doesn’t mean other things don’t change it. It's not a linear trajectory. But it's a very powerful, formative trajectory in development.
Human communication is so fast. We know something happened, we kind of know what it is, we know we were affected by it. But it's so fast, and a lot of it's out of awareness, that you couldn't go back and really unpack it without the advantage of the film.”
- Dr. Beatrice Beebe
Psychoanalytic therapy has different schools within it. They all share similar core values and ideas about the unconscious and what the goals of a psychoanalytic therapy is. However they differ slightly on what they propose causes change in a person. Self Psychology and Relational Psychoanalysis are the schools that I predominantly work from. Both highly value what we have learned from “the baby watchers”. Since the early 1980’s mental health professionals and researchers have been filming mothers and their infants. Beatrice Beebe (as seen in the promo video above) and Daniel Stern are some of the top psychoanalytic names in this research. They film the face of the baby and the face of the mother at the same time and then slow the film down to see it frame by frame (there are 60 frames per second in digital video - the face can change multiple times within a second). This allows them to see the “dance” of attachment (the non-verbal ways that mother and baby connect and co-regulate each other’s emotions and bodies). These videos regularly and accurately predict whether a child will have a secure or insecure attachment style. These videos have not only taught us about how secure attachment is created they have also taught us about how people connect, how trust is built and how shared emotional experiences come about. There is over 40 years of this research and it’s still growing. So it is increasingly reliable to build theories and models on for what causes things to go wrong when it comes to relating and self regulation. It is also reliable for deciphering what helps people get better. In short, the thing that messes us up is relationships and the thing that helps us get better is relationships.
There are certain things that are a given in our life (i.e. the sun will come up tomorrow, I can trust others to drive according to the law, food will help me feel better when I’m hungry, etc.). One of those givens early on is, “my parents will help and protect me from things that overwhelm me like hunger, fear, over stimulation, physical pain, hurt feelings, etc.” As well as, “my parents will care about my desires and achievements and for the most part understand me.” When pieces of those givens stop happening we intuitively feel we have to pull away and trade “relational protection” for “self protection”. When that happens we often have to figure out a way to manage something ourselves that is already unmanageable for us. So we learn to compensate in place of being able to manage what is bothering us. What we choose to use as compensation can range from benign to extremely problematic. Anecdotely it seems that we often choose what is in our environments or what is modeled to us (i.e. if our parents utilized rage to manage their self than we will often utilize excessive anger too or if they utilize pretending like everything is okay we might over identify with that and use it too). This usually is an unconscious process meaning we are not consciously aware of our compensatory process because it usually gets wired in during the pre-verbal stage of development (this is because the right hemisphere of the brain develops before the left hemisphere does) and then bolstered along the way in childhood if the environment doesn’t change. Of course this is a complex process that involves what we call, “fit”. Meaning it isn’t only the environment that’s at play but it’s genetics too (I.e. an infant that is highly sensitive who’s paired up with a parent who is not [either by their own right naturally or by their own self protective processes] probably won’t be a good fit and will unavoidably create loss. This is not right or wrong it simply is a part of life).
What this means
If later we realize that our self protective compensating is making it hard to connect or stay connected to people in satisfying ways we are in a tricky spot. Because we are now faced with trying to bring a part of ourself out into our regular personality that has long been hidden away behind our compensatory process (i.e. our anger, our addictions, our over use of social media, etc.). This part is usually very insecure (because it is still at the developmental level it was when it went away) and is prone to quickly feeling misunderstood or misattuned to or dismissed (an experience that often causes feelings of shame, loneliness and sadness to flood us).
Affect or self regulation is a slow thing to master and requires relationship. And when we are learning to trust and attempt to attach in new ways it requires committed and relentlessly understanding relationships (like a psychotherapeutic relationship) because we will never unconsciously trust ourselves to another without that and therefore won't move from self protection to relational protection (the thing we need to gain self regulating capacity). We need relationships that understand the health inside our problematic behaviors and respond to that over the problematic behavior chiefly. We need less focus on behaving right and more on what behavior means.
Compensatory actions (like anger, shutting down, feeling numb, addictions, anxiety, etc.) often are the last thing to go because the "self" needs to grow enough to be ready to replace the compensatory thing. We need to keep compensations in place until we have the replacement ready.