This ability to self-manage is, like all human behaviours, on a vast spectrum from over-doing it to under-doing it and during the course of our lives we will not remain at the same point on the spectrum. Think of Bridget Jones’ Diary. Sometimes she starves herself on 500 calories a day, but in times of stress it goes up to around the 7000 calorie mark.
Why do we respond to difficulty differently?
It’s not just a matter of willpower. It might also be to do with how you were responded to as an infant. Let’s suppose you are 18 months old and you’ve got a paper cut. It hurts, you seek out a parent or carer for comfort. The response you got will probably fit into three areas:
- Your carer tells you its only a tiny cut and not to make a fuss. You feel told-off, unseen, unheard, humiliated and your finger really hurts but you become unsure about the validity of your feelings.
- Your carer makes as much noise as you are doing, she is distraught for you and for herself that this is happened to you. You pick up on her hysteria and panic. Your distress spirals.
- The adult is calm but takes you and your wound seriously. She assures you that if she kisses it better and puts a plaster on it, that although it hurts now, it will soon get better. And it does.
As infants and children we usually get more of one type of response than another, and as we get it time and time again it shapes our brain as we grow up. If we got more 3s, we’ll probably be in a better position to be able to soothe ourselves as adults than if we got either more 1s or 2s.
Some of us are easier to soothe from birth than others, known as ‘good’ babies (erroneously in my opinion) and some of us required more soothing from our parents (known as ‘difficult’ babies, also a horrible label) but if we had parents who worked hard at attuning to us this does not mean that ‘difficult babies’ won’t be able to absorb from their parents how to effectively regulate their emotions.
Responding to stress as adults
And if we weren’t lucky enough to have such attuned, consistent and responsive parents? Well, we may have more difficulty sometimes, not to close right down into a depression or to go over the top when responding over-dramatically to what life throws at us.
The good news is that our brains are plastic and although old patterns of reacting may be long entrenched, change can and does happen. You are formed in relationships and in a similar way you can use a relationship with another to re-form. Learning how to manage our emotions, rather than be managed by them, takes practice. To build new neural pathways takes many repetitions, just as it does to build up a muscle. This is why psychotherapy can rarely be concluded early if our initial problem began in a pre-verbal stage of our development.
To get our emotions to work for us, rather than us being a slave to them, means getting into the habit of self-observation. If we can retain a part of ourselves to watch what is going on firstly we can get a better handle about what our process actually is - it’s really hard to change direction unless you know which direction you are facing in the first place. And, secondly, being able to serve-observe means allowing us time to chose what action to take rather than having the usual automatic response, which may not be working for us.
These are the types of skills a therapist is practiced in helping people with, as well as being able to listen. However the most powerful healing intervention is, I believe, being listened to, and taken seriously. Over time you absorb it, like an infant absorbs the type 3 response (see above) and when you have internalised someone you have learnt to trust, responding to you in this calm, accepting way, it is easier to accept and soothe more of yourself.