A major part of my education and training in adult psychotherapy is infant and child development. Huh? How does understanding babies help me work with adults?
Unnecessary news flash: We all used to be babies.
The baby in us is always there inside our adult selves. That inner baby goes everywhere with us, and I need to know how to work with it through its adult host in therapy.
If that sounds like a put-down, consider this: babies are brilliant! The rate of development during the first few years of life is astronomical. Babies are mini physicists, mathematicians, linguists, artists, and anthropologists, studying and playing with a world that was entirely alien to them at birth.
Something that comes up in therapy with adults is a fear of dependence on the therapist. This is a big reason why people put off starting therapy in the first place. This makes sense!
In Western culture we’re often taught that dependence is bad or weak. Let’s take a look at what attachment research has to say about that.
Attachment Theory 101
We all have attachment needs—the need for relationships, for connections with other people. This need is present at birth and continues throughout our lives.
As infants we are entirely dependent on our caregivers for survival, not just for our physical needs but for our attachment needs as well. We know from research in overpopulated orphanages that babies who are adequately fed but not emotionally nourished (not held or interacted with) experience failure to thrive and do not develop normally—physically, cognitively, or emotionally. Some of these severely emotionally deprived babies die despite receiving physical sustenance.
Let’s take a normally developing infant. She’s totally dependent. Ideally she has a caregiver, an attachment figure, who is able to meet her basic physical and attachment needs. (I’m going to refer to this attachment figure as mom for simplicity, but it can also be dad, a grandparent, or whoever takes a primary role in taking care of the baby.)
This baby grows and develops into a toddler. An interesting thing happens during a toddler’s development. She starts walking (or sprinting at full speed) away from her attachment figure to explore what she can’t reach when she’s in mom’s lap. There’s a big, exciting, and sometimes scary environment to explore outside of mom’s arms, so naturally the toddler sometimes feels a little freaked out. When this happens, she goes back to mom for comfort.
Like homebase in a game of tag, the toddler needs mom to be a secure base where she can calm down and refuel. This bold, independent explorer needs to be able to briefly move back into dependence. Once she’s allowed to do this, and sometimes with a little reassurance and gentle encouragement from mom, she’s off and running to conquer the world again.
This pattern happens over and over again, and soon this refueling process is able to be “wireless”—just a quick look back at mom can recharge the toddler.
This is the dependency paradox. Knowing she can return to dependence when she needs to actually bolsters her independence.
Eventually, the child becomes able to keep the comforting aspects of her mom with her emotionally, even when they’re apart.
Our dependency needs resurface regularly, especially when we’re going through a difficult time. This is also called regression. Think about what you crave when you have a hard day at work, a nasty cold, or when the world feels especially scary. You want to go home, maybe put on your fuzziest pajamas, eat some comfort food, and talk to your person (a partner, a friend, or, yes, maybe your mom). Then, when you’re feeling stronger and safer, you brave the world again.
Contrary to this regression being harmful for us, it actually serves to re-power and empower us. This is called adaptive regression in service of the ego (ARISE). Think of the ego as your sense of you. The keyword here is adaptive—this regression is helpful and necessary.
Independence requires the ability to return to dependence when needed. In this way, we are all interdependent.
In psychotherapy, one of the therapist’s functions is as an attachment figure. Therapy serves as a homebase, a safe place for regular refueling before you go boldly back into your life outside of the office.
If you could use the homebase of therapy to feel stronger and safer in your daily life, I invite you to schedule a phone consultation with me.
P.S. For a contrasting view not informed by attachment theory, check out this song.