written by Lucia Mieli
Here I am, my name is Lucia, and I am the psychotherapist who has had the privilege and fortune to meet Alex when she was struggling so much, so that together we could then support her journey towards owning the marvellous human-being and mother she is, finding self-love and direction – or, at least, beginning to .
But let’s start with dissipating any possible misconceptions about therapy and its role and aims.
Learning to understand, own and love oneself – to then be able to better navigate our relationships to others (including our children) and the world – is a never-ending process. So it’s not like I came in, and Alex learnt how to be happy: sorted. No: the quest for self-love and meaning continuously renews itself, for everyone. However, it is made for some people more arduous, or even impossible, depending on the emotional foundations that have been set for us at the beginning of life. And this is where therapy comes in.
Then again, I didn’t do magic or vanish the strings and arrows of life for Alessandra. I didn’t in fact make pain, or effort, go away, as wellbeing is not about learning how to have only positive emotions.
And, I didn’t change Alessandra – a word often psychologists use, “change”, but a word I don’t like. Maybe because I don’t feel it reflects the truth: it has always been pretty stark to me that Alessandra, despite what she felt towards herself, was and is perfect and whole, unique and beautiful, as she is.
She, like many women I have had the opportunity to meet and share a part of their journey with, was suffering and struggling with motherhood, not because she was defecting in some way, emotionally, but because life had taught her that she had to be only part of herself, whereas the other part was a problem. Life can, in fact, impart us, as we shall see, a deep, scorching lesson about what we can securely and legitimately feel and be, sometimes leaving very important, even fundamental, ‘bits’ out.
“Cause a ‘normal’ person wouldn’t feel that way”.
So we learn to hide, push away, strive to control those ‘bits’ of ourselves. We try and deal with them on our own. We feel we must. In order to be loved. In order to do a good job. In order to survive and make loved ones stay around or, even, stay alive.
I can almost feel now some of you readers detaching a bit: “this doesn’t relate to me at all”. Well, ladies and gentlemen, the surprise is: it does, it relates to all human beings.
In the aftermath of WWII, a few British psychotherapists working with orphaned children learnt that, contrary to what we believed for centuries, human beings are not born with an innate self that stays the same and remains unscathed regardless of the circumstances. So that some of us would be born good, some evil.
No, they discovered that we instead all learn to shape or even shred part of our potential repertoire and emotions in response to what our parents could accept and love at the time when we depended from them completely, as a little child must from her attachment figures. When I say what our parents could “accept and love”, by the way, I don’t mean approve of, or comply with: something can be loved, not judged, accepted as legitimate, empathised with, even though “no, I won’t give you that candy-bar cause it will ruin your dinner”.
Our evolutionary endowment entails that we all build this subconscious, primordial learning about what we can securely feel and be, written deep in our neural networks. This is because we are born with a very immature brain, which literally forms within the primary relationships to our parents and other attachment figures during our early years.
To help you relate to this concept, let’s take a step back and look at this process a bit more closely, as it is crucial to understand why we all have part of our self that we are not completely at home with.
Everyone can sympathise with experiencing emotions and needs one is either “comfortable” or “uncomfortable” with. So, for instance, some people are very “at home” with feeling angry, and express it without any problems, whereas others would feel very embarrassed just at the thought of “making a scene”.
You may be surprised to learn that each person’s unique map of comfyness and uncomfyness attached to specific internal states is nothing but a blueprint of internalised positive or negative responses to the expression of those very same internal states which that person consistently experienced in early life from attachment figures.
When human beings are born in fact cannot regulate their internal states, what is “felt”, and depend on a caregiver to bring activation back to a comfortable level. It’s a bit like what you see some species do with food, where the parent prechews a mouthful before it passes it on to its offspring. In the same way, imagine human babies “spit out” raw emotions for the caregiver to receive, “chew” (attaching meaning and modulating them internally) and give back in a “digestible” form.
However, every parent has his or her biases, no matter what, and all of our parents certainly did, where personal preference and ease also combined with what cultural norms of the time regarded as acceptable or unacceptable behaviour from a child’s part. So, in a word, there was some stuff they couldn’t, or wouldn’t, want anything to do with.
This is the real origin of our dos and don’ts (actually, better, “ought to feel” and “mustn’t feel”) of today, even though we may feel that they are very much our own, a fruit of our free will, of our personality or morals. Actually, they are instead nothing but aggregations of memories in which specific emotions and behaviours we displayed as children used to consistently trigger our caregivers respectively to relate to us or, on the contrary, to withdraw. Over time, we internalised their response – so that it became ours and not an external event – so that our behaviour could, in anticipation, reflect what kept our caregivers “with us” emotionally.
To explain the process of internalisation in a very basic way, imagine that, over time and depending on the positive or negative value of the caregiver’s response, every internal experience of ours (perception, emotion, feeling, thought, each linked to the other in chunks of coherent experience) has become “flagged” to trigger (before the caregiver’s anticipated response) either a “ok, go ahead, you can feel and think this” or a “stop! Danger! You mustn’t feel/think this” signal, a bit like a traffic light that shines green or red. The signal, in turns, elicits a pattern of activation in the body, through what we call the autonomous nervous system (ANS). If the chunk of experience (perception + emotion + thought) has been flagged as “good” (anticipated positive response by the caregiver), the ANS stays in a balanced activation pattern, our behaviour and expression can be informed by the emotion, and stays coherent to it (ex. need for contact > approach). If instead the red light is activated (anticipated withdrawal), anxiety is set off, and our behaviour and expression does not reflect the emotion but becomes incoherent with it (ex. need for contact > freeze).
So, to recap, we have learnt that our sense of self, despite feeling unitary, has instead a dyadic nature. All of us have an affective self-made of perceptions, emotions and feelings, which we’ll call our “child-within”, who is also the depository of our needs, physical and emotional. Alongside it, we develop through internalisation a regulatory self, a “parent within”. The latter has the task of telling us what to do with our affective responses, first interpreting them by attaching a meaning and a moral value, then inhibiting or liberating their expression by triggering second-level emotional responses to what we are experiencing.
Depending on the level of withdrawal we suffered at our caregivers’ hand in response to specific emotional expressions, we develop different ways, more or less harmful, to deal with “forbidden” feeling states.
In the best-case scenario, we can still be able to feel the emotion, but experience shame or guilt towards it, so we try to hide it or control it, willing it out.
If the emotion is not a basic one, all is good. Otherwise, there can be real trouble.
There are, in fact, emotions that underpin needs that are unavoidable, what we call species-specific needs, meaning they must be satisfied to ensure adaptive functioning and therefore keep recurring. In terms of emotional health, we can identify two basic needs: attachment, from which we gain a sense of security, and individuation, meaning the sense of having a self that is ours to own, the source of our uncalled, ungiven creativity, whose space is accepted by the other. So, in two words: connection and space. Saturation of these fundamental requirements sparks a sense of wellbeing, whereas specific emotions are innately triggered when they are thwarted. To be precise, anger is triggered when either the relationship is too tight and becomes claustrophobic or intrusive, or too loose. In the latter case, fear is also released alongside anger. So, note that negative emotions, far from being something useless we may strive to erase, are key signals for our internal compass guiding us towards wellbeing. This is because the basic emotions of anger and fear are fundamental alerts to help us regulate the optimal space within our indispensable relationship with others and the world.
In light of the above, some of you may already have guessed that trouble arises when the parent-within tries to police anger and fear, interfering with their ability to tell us when our needs are not met.
But, before we move off to see what trouble means in practice, how does this internal policing work?
The parent-within, that is our deep encoding of acceptable and unacceptable feeling-states, has a cognitive counterpart, as we’ve mentioned above. By that, I mean that it produces certain patterns of thought. As I’ve implied earlier by using the words “good” and “bad”, it is in fact experienced as having a moral undertone, driving a wedge between an “ought self” and a “bad self”.
The presence of this deep learning is in fact generally perceived by most as an “internal judge”, what we call conscience, telling us that what we are feeling is either “good” (legitimate, useful, coherent, sane, acceptable by others) or “bad” (wrong, ungrateful, selfish, evil, shameful, mad, abnormal, unacceptable by others).
Depending on how we have been parented, the internal judge can then present different degrees of harshness. For some people, it can be extremely ungiving, a persecutor even, capable of triggering not only guilt or shame, but terror. This is associated with a very early experience of emotional unavailability, when the person was just an infant whose need for a relationship was so absolute and annihilating that she experienced the withdrawal of attachment as if she were dying. So, whenever that person re-experiences the emotion that her caregivers used to withdrew from, she can develop such intense overwhelming anxiety in response to that internal state that she literally “flees” from it. Result? Something called dissociation, which can be “hot” (overwhelming anxiety) or “cold” (an absence – literally the memory of the caregiver’s – sometimes described as a blank, a dark void, no feeling at all, or depersonalisation, that is feeling like it’s not our feeling, as if it were someone else’s).
So, even many years later, if the vetoed emotion is registered within the self, the person can experience the same terrifying anticipation of death and feel overwhelmed by anxiety, or resort to dissociation, even if there is no threat around to justify the apparently disproportionate reaction. It is the feeling that’s experienced as dangerous, even though the mind generally tries to displace the anxiety onto apparently external causes of fear. But don’t let yourself be taken for a ride: the imagined, persecutory external threats are just masks, containers for a much deeper source of anxiety: our parents’ long-gone systematic withdrawal of love in response to us feeling a certain way they couldn’t relate to or cope with.
So, you may now get a sense of what kind of distress could be released if parental failure at meeting our infantile experience regarded expressions of anger and fear. When we try and gag the guardians of connection and space, in fact, the toxic internal reaction described above is triggered again and again – continuously in practice, as the underlying unquenchable needs keep resurfacing, calling out to be heard. And when I say “parental failure at meeting”, remember that for a child the most terrifying reaction is not aggression, but fear, namely if we perceive our caregiver is scared of our emotion and that she withdraws from it. And, surprisingly as it may sound, it happened and happens a lot, cause not many people from our parents’ (nor our) generation are comfortable with negative emotions, as we shall see in chapter six.
The species-specific needs of attachment and individuation, with their associated emotions of anger and fear when they are thwarted, cannot be willed out. They keep coming back. So, if they are vetoed, the person eventually hits a brick wall of helplessness, as all her attempts to control and remove them are doomed to fail. And that’s where despair comes in, what we call depression. Not sadness, then, but the helpless, frantic attempt to repress of the adaptive signals of anger and fear.
 See the writings of Bowlby, Spitz, Fairbairn and Winnicott.
 Children are very resilient to random inconsistencies, whereas for something to be internalised it needs to be a systematic response. In other words, rest assured that it’s not gonna be the outburst, the odd one out, that leaves a mark.
 A term used in Philosophy (Idealism) to try and capture what spontaneously emerges from a subjectivity that doesn’t serve a need or a purpose, that just is.
 Fear of emotions is usually subconscious, and experienced as anxiety, as we have illustrated earlier. So it’s not like our parents could come round and tell us “Oh yes sweety, I used to be pretty terrified when you were crying as a baby”.