In his New York Times bestseller, Getting the Love Your Want, psychologist Harville Hendrix explains why people who grew up in homes — well, a little like the one in the 2006 flick Little Miss Sunshine — without proper emotional nurturing seek dysfunctional relationships as adults. He explains the low brain — our more reptilian thought process that can’t handle anything different than what it already knows and reverts to fear as its primary gear — and the new brain, the cerebral cortex that is conscious, alert, able to reason and think logically. He writes:
What we are doing, I have discovered from years of theoretical research and clinical observation, is looking for someone who has the predominant character traits of the people who raised us. Our old brain, trapped in the eternal now and having only a dim awareness of the outside world, is trying to re-create the environment of childhood. And the reason the old brain is trying to resurrect the past is not a matter of habit or blind compulsion but of a compelling need to heal old childhood wounds.
Some of you undoubtedly are thinking: “Oh puh-leaze, move on from the naval-gazing-it’s-my-mommy’s-fault theory.”
I may have uttered similar opinions had I not fallen into this trap so many times in my adult life, even as a happily married woman. What I failed to recognize until recently is that a healthy marriage doesn’t protect you from attempts to fill in the deep hole left from the earlier years. If you don’t do it in your primary romantic relationship, you get the job done via friendships and family relationships. Try as you may to recover from your past and move on, but I agree with Hendrix that you will always subconsciously seek to heal those wounds by trying to recreate a similar situation and forcing it to be different.
The trick is disassociating the situation from the brain phenomenon.
It’s not about the person, place, or thing you are fixated on. It’s not about the friend who is emotionally unavailable. It’s not about the relative who will never remember your birthday. Or the co-worker who is smarter (or so he thinks) than you. It’s merely the low brain recognizing a possibility to have some fun, a potential sandbox to build the sandcastle of your youth so that this time it can stand forever.
There is relief, I think, in knowing that there are patterns of thought that are so intense and ingrained in us that we may not even be conscious of what’s going on until we reach an “ouch” point, at which point we say, “What in the world? Where did this come from?”
I liken it to being brought up eating fruit loops.
Let’s say your mom fed you fruit loops for breakfast every day from the time you were one. You really didn’t know anything different—that there was healthier stuff in the supermarket. Then, one day, your grandma comes to stay with you and makes you a bowl of Kashi whole grain cereal. It tastes awful. You take one bite and push it away.
“It’s good for you,” your grandmother says. “It will make you big and strong.”
“I don’t care,” you tell her. “I prefer to be small and fat and eat my fruit loops.”
It’s what you know. It’s comfortable. It’s familiar. Damn it. You just want your fruit loops.
But if you want a healthy relationship – in all forms (friendships, marriage, sibling bonds) – you must train yourself to like the whole grain cereal. Even though your body genuinely craves the sugary, processed, colorful stuff, you must keep on eating the Kashi, trusting that one day you will crave the Kashi like you do the fruit loops.
Yesterday I was interviewed by a website on depression. One of the questions was this:
Sometimes people with depression feel so awful that they don’t want to do anything. Yet, when they get themselves to do something (take a walk, speak with a friend, etc.), they often feel better. Can you offer any suggestions as to how someone can take some positive actions when they are feeling really down?
That’s really hard. I’ve been there, and I know how hard it is. I guess I know from patterns in my past that if I go through the motions, eventually one day I will realize I’m walking without thinking so hard about putting one leg in front of another. I guess you just have to trust that you won’t always feel miserable, but the steps to get there require your doing something that feels so counterintuitive. You have to steer right to go left, in other words. So if you can just say to yourself, “This feels like the worst possible thing I could do right now … but I’m going to try to do it anyway in the hopes that it will, one day, make me feel better.” You put a penny away every day in the hopes that one day you will be able to buy a small treasure with your coins.
It’s the same thing with your marriage or friendships or any relationship. In the beginning, and at times throughout the relationship, you have to steer right to go left. It’s not supposed to feel natural. Not to a person who grew up without the emotional nurturing that is supposed to take place during the early years. It feels foreign, scary, and just too stable!
“I don’t know how I managed to marry someone as grounded, compassionate, and wise as Eric,” I told my therapist the other day. “He certainly doesn’t fit the profile of anyone I dated before him. He is the only person with whom I’ve felt peace.”
“He is your angel,” she said.
He is my Kashi.
So I pursue the fruit loops in friendships that can’t sustain me, in less-than-healthy family relationships, in every possibility I have to cling as though my life depended on it to a person, place, or thing that is emotionally unavailable. And the more unavailable, the tighter I cling, so that subconsciously I can transform those days of abandonment to unconditional love, a kind of emotional nurturing that I so crave.
But the good news is that I’m catching myself sooner in the process than I used to, so it doesn’t hurt as bad when I finally realize what I’m doing. I’m investing less and less of myself into building the sandcastle of my youth because I know that it’s only a matter of time before the waves or the wind destroy it. I can’t heal it by revisiting it. Not by making a friendship into something that it can’t be. Or giving a relative a birthday calendar that he can hang on his wall. The only way healing happens is by doing the counterintuitive thing and eating the wholegrain cereal.
Because, grandma was right. It will make you big and strong.
This article was originally posted on Psych Central.