Most of us have at some point met those rare people who just ‘have their shit together’. They get on with life. There’s no unnecessary fuss. Minor setbacks don’t phase them; major tragedies are received with grace. How did they get to be this way, when so many of us seem to struggle with temper, anxiety, relationships, existence itself?
From my novice study into developmental psychology, I’m beginning to comprehend just how vital early relationships are in mapping our understanding of life. Explicit childhood traumas such as abuse have a more obvious link to mental health issues later in life, but so many people from loving homes struggle with regulating emotions, trusting others, or finding meaning in life. And what about the examples of people who have come through horrific early experiences and end up with exceptional self-discipline and kindness? The deciding factor appears to be the young child’s attunement to a dependable, understanding, and compassionate adult.
During the early years of development, we’re still learning how to make sense of the world outside and how it relates to the feelings we have inside. Ideally, our parents act as that discerning part of the brain that we have yet to develop (the pre-frontal cortex). They act as a mirror for our emotions, demonstrating that it’s normal to feel sad, frustrated, hungry or tired. They teach us to respect the natural waves of desire, fear and boredom that arise in us, rather than only accepting our states of happiness and pleasure. Even if the child witnesses emotional immaturity in other adults, there is at least one being, one pair of eyes to look into or arms to run into, that let’s them know what’s real.
So that’s how the ‘normal’ people develop. They grow to be easy-going, accepting, non-judgmental, kind. They are less inclined to take offence, to lose their temper, or treat others unfairly. They learned to understand their fluctuating inner states and were seen and heard as children. And what about the more neurotic among us, for whom those emotional tornados blow us uncontrollably around in circles that could end in temper tantrums, sulks, depressions, compulsive behaviour and occasional manic highs?
Dr. Gabor Maté, the well-respected medical doctor and author, gives a perfect example of when this ideal development scenario doesn’t play out: a little girl is angry with her mother because she wasn’t allowed to eat sweets before supper or play with the knives. If the mother has her own emotional triggers around seeing anger (perhaps from her own experiences that left her with some trauma), she implicitly or explicitly provides the child with the message that good little girls don’t get angry. The message the child receives, however, is that angry little girls don’t get love. She can either learn to stuff down her emotions to please her mother, or she can further act out in rebellion. Either way, she has learnt not to trust her intuition, that something is wrong with her.
Childhood attunement creates a tie to reality. It unites the child’s spirit to their experience; they are calibrated. Without this emotional validation, we learn to live outside of that wholehearted, immediate existence. Our impulses, behaviours and thought patterns come from somewhere we haven’t explored - some unchartered territory deep within our subconscious that we were never guided to as our minds developed. Because we are not aware of our inner states, we feel controlled by external forces. We are swept along by what the world throws at us, habitually grasping and frustrated by our perceived lack of control. This can often manifest in addiction, obsession or compulsive behaviour, as we constantly crave something ‘out there’ to fill the void within.
What began as an intelligent strategy of survival is no longer serving us as we go out into the world. The disconnection we used as a coping strategy means we now live one step away from grounded reality. I think it is an important first step to understand this intellectually, so that judgmental voice in our heads telling us we’re simply deficient and unworthy is quietened by the appreciation of why we came to be wired this way. And it’s of course vital not to stop there - if this were the end of the story we’d be accepting this dysfunction as our fate. Science is exponentially unearthing evidence that we have an incredible capacity to change our minds. This has led me down the path of meditation, philosophy, and spiritual practices that I am sharing more and more with my students.
Much of the self-help movement teaches that to achieve happiness we must change our external circumstances. Although working towards goals no doubt provides a sense of fulfilment, the accumulation of external success can never fill that void created by the belief that our truest self is not valid. To me, not experiencing that shared frequency with another person - that sense of being in deep resonance, being utterly seen and heard in the rawest of vulnerability - it feels like a lack of evidence that I’m real, that I’m sane. The search for wholeness cannot be found in the pursuit of a life that will look good on paper.
Wholeness and what Buddhists call bodhicitta (the awakened heart) is achieved through internal investigation, and I have come to see meditation as a recalibration tool - the technology to piece together our intuition so that we can trust our ‘gut feelings’ and our ‘heart-felt’ sense, rather than relying on the analytical and hyper-vigilant thinking mind. Mindfulness trains us to observe these fluctuations in mental states without being swept up by their force. Only with this full integration might we start to feel present and at peace with this reality.
For those of us that did not receive that direct attunement in a profound way as children, the process of feeling at home in the world is vastly more complex and challenging. We have to work through the conditioned belief that there is something inherently wrong with us, towards a sense of true belonging. For me, this process has taken off in a big way through the Buddhist teachings of mindfulness and compassion, put into practice through formal meditation and reflection. I’m grateful for the access to the wisdom of both these ancient lineages and evolving scientific thought as I begin my humble path through these muddy waters, and hopefully guide as many people through the clearing I make.