No wonder we cry at birth! From the get go, it seems, Mother Nature challenges us to learn and grown, for example, to get comfortable with totally new physical sensations, such as hunger, thirst and the pain of breathing oxygen into our lungs, etc., inviting us to see and make increasingly complex choices later in life that require us to cultivate the ability to make distinctions between pain that is there to grow us, and needless suffering.
It starts from the very first breath when our body invites us out of the painless comfort zone of our mother’s womb, and tells us we no longer can depend on our mother’s body to breathe us, to provide the nutrients and oxygen we need to survive.
Each task assures us we are fully equipped with everything we need inside to survive and reach our developmental milestones. Later we learn we have inborn miracle-making resources, such as for imagination and possibility thinking, that seemingly invite us to transcend the physical limits of our nature.
Born with a burning curiosity, not unlike scientists, we yearn to know everything there is to know about ourselves and our world. Learning 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 real threats or danger.
How could we have known then, however, what becomes clear later in life, that: these developmental life tasks, as painful as they may be, are designed to grow us, to strengthen and to enrich us, and perhaps to grow our wisdom, every step of the way, so that we learn to live and love authentically with our whole heart?
We may not like it, but we are wired to struggle, to learn, and to engage in processes that make us feel vulnerable and yet expand our reach, as the work of researcher Brene Brown reveals, and allow us to continually move out of the limiting ‘comfort zones’ we tend to create as natural aspects in our growth and development throughout the course of life. Many of these ‘comfort zones’ serve an essential purpose, for a time, until they no longer serve us, at which time they become ‘stuck’ places.
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 get at least one of our parents to love us enough to meet our needs for sustenance, but also touch. With rare exception, the love and safety hormone, oxytocin, is released into our mother’s body, concentrating the focus of her attention on us … and this loving attention releases the same hormone in our body, ensuring we survive. As critical as food, shelter, sustenance are to our survival, they do not suffice in the early months and first years. Babies do not physically survive without love.
As studies of attachment show, infants and small children actively seek a love bonding with their caregivers. To live, newborns must form some type of bond, regardless whether it feels relatively secure or insecure, with their mother or a “mothering” person, at least one.
Clearly the driving force that moves young children to do what they do is: to have another’s love is all that matters; it is life itself.
The recent works of neuroscientists, such Ramachadran, have 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.”
Though science has taught us to think that physical survival is the force that drives human behaviors, arguably, love is the most compelling force, one that continues to be the primary shaper of our behaviors from the cradle to the grave.
There is perhaps nothing more frightening to us, as children, than the possibility that we would not be loved or accepted by key persons in our lives. We have inborn yearnings for belonging and acceptance, for example. These emotion-drives shape most every behavior, and are associated with our core fears, such as rejection, inadequacy or abandonment.
Our autonomic nervous system continually collects data, and is ready to activate our body’s stress response (‘fight or flee), which puts the parasympathetic nervous system in control of our body – and our choices.
Since our bodies come pre-wired with knowledge of what we need to survive, it’s safe to say that we were born with a felt “knowing” that, in infancy and early childhood, our physical survival completely depended on these early emotional bonds. That is, our sense of physical safety is intrinsically linked to our sense of emotional safety in any moment, and this link is particularly strong in the early years.
Our parents’ responses to us also reflected back emotional messages to us, like mirrors, telling us at a felt level what they needed from us, how they felt about us and how they about the world around us. The work of neuroscientist Damasio on “mirror neurons” shows, among others, 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 sense of value or worth in relation to themselves, life in general or key adults in their lives, or key adults in their lives, and many if not most parents are in our culture, we likely concluded, again at a felt level, that this is how they felt about us. As a result, we may have responded by learning to mistrust or disconnect from our inner abilities to be present to our self, especially to our emotions of vulnerability.
The body’s survival response is activated when we feel anxious, and in that state of mind and body, we tend toward fear-based black-and-white, or either-or thinking, and a certain type of rabbit-hole conclusions, or toxic-thinking patterns, that are unhelpful in that they are dark and not enlightened by 360 degree possibility thinking.
The early years are critical to emotion regulation and brain development, and our ability to form and maintain relationships. With present advances in research technology, now we can actually see the changes that occur, as a result of healthy or unhealthy attachment and attuning between a caregiver and infant, in the physical structure of a child’s brain, to include growth and gray matter density. Initial development of the brain occurs from the lower level of the brain, the emotional part, upon which the rest of our brain is built upon.
This means that how our parents dealt with their own inner world of emotions and thoughts, etc., profoundly impacted how they responded to our emotional responses, and thus also, how we responded to our self and to life around us.
How could they be present to our fears, after all, when they didn’t know how to be present to their own?
Love is the first task of life, and it is no small matter. We come into this world hardwired with an emotional sense that experiences or attunes to love, and the love we receive carries life or death weight.
As adults, we may lose sight of the fact that, in early childhood, this compelling drive to feed on love and to need human connection is about ensuring our physical survival.
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”
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 an adult. We may hide, mask or numb it, however, our core fears and vulnerabilities are an integral part of life as breathing. They are there as markers and action signals to help us navigate our life.
The truth is, we experience scary moments all the time. And we don’t like it.
Thankfully, however, the human brain is designed with a built-in safety feature!
I call them “early survival-love maps,” as they are 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 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.
Why “early survival-love maps” no longer work?
Literally, early survival-love maps allow children to subconsciously distort their experiences and to create certain illusions instead, whatever it takes to emotionally survive the vulnerable years of childhood — for them to feel the level of emotional safety they need, with regard to their hardwired impulses to feel the matter, on the basis of feeling they are loved.
This map consists of a set of rules our brain learned to follow that was shaped directly by our early experiences as children. They can endure a lifetime, and tend to become particularly rigid in trauma. 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.
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.
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, they take charge of our mind and body, as follows:
- They block us from connecting inwardly to get to know ourselves and others intimately.
- They come to our (emotional) rescue by activating our protective defense strategies.
- They keep us thinking that we are dependent on others to love and value us before we can feel loved and valued.
- They persuade us to rely on (addictive) sources outside of ourselves for safety, strength and happiness.
- They hijack our efforts to remain calm, confident, centered when we feel stressed or triggered.
- They treat us as if we are more vulnerable than we actually are, like an overprotective parent who decides what’s best “our own good.”
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?
Relationships in life follow formulas as precisely as the field of mathematics. One of these rules of nature is that life is not about the destination; it’s about the process.
Life is about the journey, and not the destination. It’s about showing up, with a heart open to learn to love.
Nature’s plan has never been about getting our 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 a matter of 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 your 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.