Disclaimer: I know this doesn’t speak to everyone’s experience, including those adopted at birth or those with extremely volatile early experiences. Please know that I acknowledge & honor this disparity.
When we are born, our mother’s body releases ‘love’ hormones & neurotransmitters that intuitively drive her to take care of us. Oxytocin, the primary maternal hormone, is secreted through the pituitary gland, at the base of the momma’s brain. She becomes wired towards mother-child bonding. Thus, mom, in the least, changes our diaper, protects us from harsh environments, and feeds us when we cry. Biologically, she strives to keep us alive. Luckily, for many of us, mom also is motivated to connect on other intimate levels making our cute, little baby selves feel loads of love.
Fast forward a couple years, to when we develop into toddlerhood and then, into a young, active child. Developmentally, we run amuck, gain our independence, and then assess our sense of emotional and physical security by glancing back at mom, seeking an approving gaze. Do you see me, mom?
At this stage, we start to believe that we need to now earn our mom’s love, hypersensitive to any sense of disapproval. Our newfound drive begs us to seek independence. Erik Erickson’s stages of development call this stage autonomy versus doubt. If we don’t successfully transition, getting necessary approval, we can get stuck in shame. As little children, we must navigate a confusing world in which, perhaps mom says “bad” when we help ourselves to snacks without her permission. Sometimes, mom pushes us away when we are tugging at her pant leg, exhaustively seeking attention. Here, in spite of our mother’s best intent, we often learn the rules for love, the if-then rules of how we need to behave to gain approval. Some examples of how these rules, and their effects, can vary vastly depending on your experience:
“If I cry loud enough, I’ll get her to pay attention to me.” = In adulthood: “I need to have problems to get attention.”
“If I cry loudly at the store, mom will scold me.” = In adulthood: If I don’t hide my sadness, people will be ashamed of me or not want to spend time with me.
“If I cry, mom will tell me to be a brave little boy/girl” = In adulthood: Sad emotions should be pushed away. If I’m unsuccessful at shoving them away, I’m weak.
Here, we land at the part of the therapeutic dialogue where people often get annoyed with the idea of blaming their mother for their attachment issues. Hate to break it to you— our (in)secure attachment bonds are relevant. I, by no means, am a therapist who wants to sit in that pile of crap with you forever and play the blame game. I am, however, a therapist who is here to empower you and say— “listen, these are the rules you’ve learned and it looks like they come to life in your life in these ways as an adult. There’s great news though! Now that we know your rules for love, let’s look at how you can begin to act differently.” This way, when you feel alone, shunned, unheard, emotionally untuned, or unlovable, you can check the situation and see whether your reaction is based in reality or a longstanding rule book that no longer serves you. Checking your rules, and then reworking them through therapy, is how we heal and relearn love.
To learn more about Oxytocin and it’s effects on socialization:
To learn more about Erik Erickson’s 8 Stages of Development: