DR. ATHENA STAIK, PH.D.
March 23, 2023
No wonder we cry at birth! From the get go, it seems, Mother Nature gives us a series of challenging tasks to overcome, and doesn’t wait to do so in later periods of our lives.
Challenge one: To grow, life ever invites you to "get comfortable with the uncomfortable."
It starts from the very first breath. Just moments after the umbilical cord is cut, Mother Nature invites us to breathe, using our own lungs to obtain the oxygen we critically need. And shortly after, we have to feel pain uncomfortable feelings, such as the pain of hunger or thirst, feeling uncomfortably hot or cold, what will bedo our own breathing, to take responsibilitythe first steps of breathing and crying out when we're hungry or sleepy. taking the reins to, one day, taking full responsibility for our own wellbeing.
In this case, for the first time, we experience sensations of pain and discomfort that, for our own safety, growth and wellbeing, not only squeeze us out of the peaceful, painless existence of life in our mother’s womb, but also confront us with a new reality that, from the first breath (to the last), growth pains will accompany our development throughout life.
And it starts at birth and the new painful experiences of breathing in air, feeling hungry or thirsty, too hot or cold, and so on, all of which prompt us to respond with sighs and cries that, to get the attention of our mothers, ultimately, to form a first relationshiop, mother and child.
Ouch. What happened, the infant may wonder, to the heavenly experience of being in mother’s womb? And why was I thrust out of a blissful heavenly Nirvana — without being asked?
We are wired to struggle, and to engage in processes that make us feel vulnerable yet serve to expand our reach, as the work of researcher Brene Brown notes. It's how we learn and grow. Without these challenges, we atrophy.
Challenge two: To know who you are, life ever invites you on a journey of learning and discovery.
Each task as we move from one stage of development to another seems customized to teach us to discover we are fully equipped from within to meet each our milestones. Later in life we hopefully discover other amazing inner capacities, such as for imagination or possibility thinking.
Born with a burning curiosity, not unlike scientists, we yearn to know everything there is to know about ourselves and our world. And that is one of our key attributes as human beings, by the way. A healthy brain is most always in “learning mode” and only in “protective mode” in situations that pose actual physical danger or threats .
How could we have known then what we learn later in life, that: the purpose of certain life tasks, as painful as they may be, is to grow us, to strengthen and prepare us to love ourselves and life, our human nature, with our whole heart and live fulfilled, meaningful lives.
In any case, it is safe to say, we have abilities far greater than we think or could have imagined as children.
The First Task of Life?
As infants and small children, our first task is to win the love of at least one parent. Babies do not survive without love. Food, shelter, sustenance do not suffice.
As studies of attachment show, small children actively seek a love bonding with their caregivers. To live, newborns must form some type of bond, whether secure or not, with their mother or a “mothering” person.
Clearly the driving Principle that moves young children to do what they do is: to be loved by another is all what matters in life. The love of another is life itself for infants, who do not survive without this nutrient.
The recent works of neuroscientists, such Ramachadran, uprooted old ideas and views of human nature. In his words, “The curious reciprocity between self and others is especially well developed in humans and probably exists only in rudimentary form in the great apes. I have suggested that many types of mental illness may result from derangements in this equilibrium.”
Love, and not survival, is the most compelling force for our human species.
There is perhaps nothing more frightening to children than the possibility that they would not be loved or rejected, abandoned. Human babies are born with hardwired inner yearnings, or emotion-drives, for belonging and acceptance, for example, and these link to, and accordingly activate, core fears, such as rejection, inadequacy or abandonment.
Our parents’ responses mirrored emotional messages to us, telling us what they needed from us, what they believed about us, themselves, and the world of relationships. The work of neuroscientist Damasio on “mirror neurons” shows, among other things, that infants’ faces reflect back the emotional data they receive from their parents’ faces, such as happy, sad, worried or calm.
If our parents were scared and insecure about their value in relation to self or one another, life, or key adults in their lives, and many if not most were (even the most outwardly confident), then our brains were attuned to their stress patterns. In other words their brains attuned ours. To the extent they dealt and handled their world of emotions and thoughts, we as children learned to likewise do.
A medley of much blame of parents is everywhere on the internet, far too often, it is unqualified and unjust.
Adult children, some of them therapists, advise other adult children to eliminate this or that person from their lives without regard to principles of life and wisdom of the ages. Like a disease, it has spread to advise to eliminate anyone in life that causes us grief.
A key task of adulthood, and all of us are adult children, is to self-actualize. And to do so, we must get to know and experience our parents, as human beings, with many roles, not just that of parent (as vital as that is!). As human beings, it is wise and healthy to keep our brains out of judgment and scorn mode. To graciously understand one another as human beings always doing the best with what we know at any given time.
The complexities and paradoxical nature of being human necessitates releasing and softening neural pathways that repeat and reenact toxic patterns of judging, blaming, punishing. Blame leaves us feeling powerless. For this reason, wise sages and prophets warn us of tendency to judge or to think in ways that treat self as entitled in relation to others.
The purpose of this vantage point is not to serve the parent, rather critically designed to nourish and propel an adult child to thrive and self-actualize.
Like all autonomic processes of the body, when it comes to survival, the subconscious mind is in charge.
Built-in Safety – “Early Survival-Love Maps”
Love is the first task of life, and it is no small matter. For a small child, it is a life or death proposition. Sadly we lose sight of this as adults of the fact that, in early childhood, the forming of a love bond with mother is not a milestone, it is a matter of physical survival for the infant.
The yearning to be loved however continues throughout life; ideally, in a mature adult, as their inner drive moves them to thrive and self-actualize, their highest priority is to love, to feel their love and life have value, in contributing value to others' lives in some way.
Even in optimal conditions, the quest to be loved makes early childhood inherently wounding, a fragile period of life at best.
It is just as impossible, for example, for a child not to experience fear and pain as it is for the cognitively developed brain of an adult. We may hide, mask or numb it, however, our core fears and vulnerabilities are as much a part of life as breathing.
The truth is, we experience scary moments all the time.
Thankfully, however, the human brain is designed with a built-in safety features.
One key one are these “early survival-love maps,” as they are cellular pockets of memory, neural patterns that, as protective mechanisms, played a critical role in our survival in childhood.
These neural patterns “worked” to keep us as emotionally healthy as possible in childhood. How? They helped us get quick-fix doses of hormones released in our bloodstream, the “safety and love” hormone oxytocin in particular.
Our “own” survival-love maps were first formed in early experiences within the first 3-5 years of our life. These early relating or attachment patterns between us and our parents were imprinted in the neural circuitry of our brains, forming a set of instructions or “rules” that can endure throughout life, according to Dr. Daniel Siegel.
This transmission of sensory data also formed our earliest sense of self as separate from our parents. As we developed, this pool of data largely formed our self-concept, even though we carried a lot of our parents’ stuff mixed in with our own.
Memories of when and what activated our body’s “fight or flee” system received special attention from our subconscious mind, which is in charge of early survival-love maps, among other similar processes, such as the formation of habits and memories. Whenever our human parents were upset or anxious, for example, regardless whether their anxiety was directed at us, or some other person or event, this likely activated our own survival response. The brain is in its most alert state when the body’s survival response, or “fight or flee” activates.
Mostly subconscious, these often limiting “rules” tell our brains how to relate to those closest to us, for example, how to get quick-fixes of love to survive. They can endure a lifetime, and tend to become particularly rigid in trauma.
Why do “early survival-love maps” no longer work as intended in adulthood?
They keep adults in comfort zones that block their growth and transformation to fully experience life and feel their fears, indeed transform them into assets.
Early survival-love maps allow children to subconsciously distort their experiences and to create illusions instead, whatever it takes it seems — for them to feel the level of emotional safety they need, with regard to their hardwired impulses to feel loved.
This map consists of a set of rules our brain learned to follow that was shaped directly by our early experiences as children. Subconsciously, we “decided” or “learned” certain rules that best ensured we would receive some measure of “good feelings,” albeit quick-fixes, by releasing certain hormones in our bloodstream.
At some point in adulthood, this map outlived its usefulness to us. No longer the solution, it became part of the problem instead.
Unless we break free of our dependency on these “early survival-love maps” in adulthood, the subconscious mind will give them primacy, which puts survival fear in charge of our mind and body, as follows, these neural scripts:
- Block us from connecting inwardly to get to know ourselves and others intimately.
- Activate protective defense strategies coming to our (emotional) rescue as if our life is threatened.
- Stuck on other persons, past or present, to make us feel loved and valued.
- Addicted to quick fix feel good drugs or activities to numb our inner pain.
- Block us from developing our inner capacities for healing, strength and happiness.
- Hijack our efforts to remain calm, confident, centered when we feel stressed or triggered.
- Treat us like overprotective parents who know what's best for vulnerable children.
In short, early survival-love maps block the formation of healthy intimacy and relationship bonding in adulthood.
Nevertheless, it’s interesting to ponder why nature would make illusions part of the plan in childhood.
Make no mistake, it’s a deliberate process.
Every human being has universal strivings to matter and feel valued in relation to life and others. In order to survive, a small child must attempt to fulfill a task that is, truthfully speaking, impossible to achieve, even in the best of family circumstances!
How do we make sense of this phenomenon?
Life is about the journey, and not the destination.
It’s about showing up, with a heart open to learn and create more love in the process.
Nature’s plan however is never to have parents and others to unconditionally love us; and rather about the lessons, and what we learn about ourselves and life, along the way.
Now, as an adult, it’s about who you want to put in charge of the power you have to make life-shaping choices. Will it be you as a conscious agent and choice maker of your life – or a subconscious survival-love map?
Emotional pain is part of life.
The good news is that pain is more of an asset than a nuisance. It is a vital teacher and guide, alerting you to pay attention, or signaling you what works and what doesn’t work to help you do more than merely survive — also thrive.
There’s more good news. Human beings are resilient! The human brain has a capacity, known as plasticity, which makes it possible for you to heal and change limiting patterns throughout life.
If you are alive, with most of your faculties intact, regardless your childhood experiences, you have all you need, inside, to create and to live a vibrant life.
Whereas the most compelling principle of early childhood is “to matter is to be loved,” a distinctly different principle operates in adulthood. More on this and the “Later Task of Life” in an upcoming post!
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.
Brown, Brene (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You. NY: Hazelden Publishing.
Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. (2011). The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest For What Makes Us Human. NY: Norton & Company.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2010). Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation. NY: Bantam Books.