Written by Gunnel Minett
A favourite explanation for a number of psychological problems, including all forms of addiction and dysfunctional behaviour, is that we were not loved enough as children. True as this may be, for many of us it does not mean much, and consequently is not very helpful. Perhaps we don’t really understand what ‘love’ means and how much ‘enough love’ is. Or it gives us a sense of either our parents being ‘wrong’ or ‘inadequate’, or, even worse, that we (because of some deficiency) were unable to receive the ‘love’ our parents were trying their best to give us. And for someone who experienced their childhood as lacking most forms of positive expression, love is probably not a word that would easily be associated with that scenario.
Very often the theme of ‘love’ and ‘unconditional love’ is also presented by psychotherapists of all kinds, usually with the subtext that the therapist is somehow able to offer the ‘unconditional love’ that the patient/client is lacking. Although this is a very common approach, in particular in many alternative or complementary forms of psychotherapy (mainly inspired by New Age ideologies) there is still not a clear and comprehensive explanation of this mysterious ingredient that seems to play such an important role in our lives.
Let’s talk biology instead
In the last 50 plus years science has made rapid progress in helping us to understand why some of us fail to make it to a harmonious adult life and instead end up in various forms of dysfunctional lifestyles. By focusing on biology rather than psychology (which incidentally is where Freud started) we can start to see what the concept of ‘love’ actually stands for. An added bonus with the biological approach is that it may help us feel less guilty, both as parents and children, for not being able to handle such a positive thing as ‘love’. By looking at biology, i.e. how we develop from conception to adult life, we can detect a number of features that are essential in the development of harmonious adults. Just as it is important for a growing child to get the right nutrition to develop a healthy body, it is equally important to get the right form of feedback from the environment to develop a healthy psyche. Below are some of the more important inputs that every child needs for their mental development.
An important feature to start with is that we (primates) are born prematurely (compared to many other animals). This is mainly for two reasons. One is that women would not be able to walk upright if babies were born with a bigger brains. The other, more important feature is that we need to learn from our environment how to behave as adults (given that we are group animals and need to fit in with the group).
Pre-programmed start in life
The evolutionary process is entirely based on millions of years of trial and error. As a consequence this process has equipped us with a genetic ‘blue print’ for what we need in order to grow up to become harmonious adults. Of these instinctual needs some of the most important ones are:
Need for nourishment o
Need for a save environment
Need for physical and emotional care (including a ‘hard-wired’ affection for closest carers)
It is this type of very basic needs that are translated into the ‘love’ that we later are told is the root of our problems. So what we call ‘love’ is actually real biological needs that we require to develop a healthy body and mind. We need to be fed properly to give the body sufficient biological building material. We also need a safe environment so that our stress levels are developed and kept on an acceptable level. And because we are group animals we also need to feel a clear acceptance by the group (since being forced to live entirely alone may be a threat to our survival)
At least three ‘brains ’
Because all living beings have developed over millions of years we as well as other animals have gone through various development stages (still repeated in each individual). In our case this has lead to not just ‘one brain’ but more like three brains. We have the:
Reptilian brain (oldest part – shared with animals up to reptilians)
Mammalian brain (later development – shared with all other mammals)
Neo-mammalian brain (latest development unique for higher primates)
The reason for this is that evolutionary process do not allow for new starts. It can only moderate and add to the previous stages. But for practical reasons, to function well we are of course better of with just one brain in charge of body and mind. Therefore the different brains have merged into one and instead divided the bodily functions between them in the following way:
Reptilian brain (brain stem, cerebellum, hindbrain) handles basic needs – self defence, food, reproduction and homeostasis etc. It focuses on outer world with no sense of ‘self’ or time. Centre for unconscious processes.
Mammalian brain (midbrain, limbic system) handles emotions, basic social skills, immune system. It handles much of our inner life and gives a sense of past and present time and is centre for many sub-conscious processes.
Neo-mammalian (cerebrum, cerebral cortex, neo-cortex) handles language, conscious thought processing, rational logic thinking – sense of past present and future time and is the centre for conscious processes.
Internal ‘traffic jams’
Having this divide in the brain requires cooperation. This is another reason why we need to get the basic needs met. If not it will create imbalance of various forms where the weakest link will play a crucial role. Say we did not get a safe enough environment to start with (a very common reason for dysfunctional adults is that they grew up in dysfunctional families and were exposed to too much stress). This may lead to an increased sensitivity to stress and over-reaction of the self- defense response. It is a well-known fact that violence in childhood often lead to violent adults. Anyone who doubts this only need to check the daily news to get this confirmed. Another way of describing this problem is that rather than cooperation in the brain, the over-reaction in one area may cause a conflicting message that may override or bias the response to every day situations. We can compare it to internal traffic jams where some (appropriate) reactions may be blocked by other (over-reactions or inappropriate reactions). The outcome of such a situation may be a wide range of dysfunctional behaviour, from the very socially acceptable (often admired high achievers) to socially or self destructive behaviour that can lead to prison or hospitalisation. We want to behave in one way but for reasons more or less unknown to ourselves, we end up doing something we did not intend to do. A typical case may be the alcoholic that only wants ‘one drink’ and does not stop until the bottle is empty. Or overeating, over-spending, over-working or any other form of addiction we can think of.
One contributing factor in this situation is that we do not have access to all information that contributes to our behaviour in a certain situation. In order for us to function well in everyday life we need to select the information we are aware of. For instance we don’t need to be reminded of heartbeats, breathing and other ongoing bodily processes. Nor will it be useful to be equally aware of all that happens around us and how we deal with it. If we are walking down a street talking on our mobile (as we all tend to do these days) we are most likely to pay most of our attention to the conversation we have on the phone and less to how we cross streets, walk past people etc. Unless of course something happens in the street that for some reason will attract our attention, in which case we will switch focus for our attention. In order for us to be able to multi-task like this much of the information processing will be subconscious. There is in fact so much subconscious processing going on in the brain that it would be more correct to say that it is our unconscious thoughts and emotions that are in control and that we are conscious of is only the tip of the iceberg.
This level of unconscious processing does not make it any easier for us to understand our dysfunctional behaviour and what is causing it. On the contrary, our difficulties to understand why we behave in a certain (dysfunctional or conflicting) way add instead to the problem. Our first reaction is often to try to self-medicate. The most common ways are alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs but it may also be other forms of behavioural addictions. Whichever way we try to fix ourselves, chemically or behaviourally, the end result will probably change the brain chemistry. And since our brain functions are chemical-based, changing the chemicals will influence both body and mind.
Who can help?
The problem with self-medication is of course that unless we know what the problem is, it is very unlikely that we will prescribe the appropriate cure. And as so often with drugs, self-prescribed or not, they tend to have negative side effect. In particular when it comes to psychological problems, it is therefore important to have a clear understanding of the problem before heading for the cure. This is where psychotherapy comes in. These days it is a well establish fact that by helping a person to understand their conflicting inner thoughts and emotions, they can overcome what they may regard as unwanted behaviour. It is also well documented that much of psychotherapy is done by people who also are ‘self-medicating by proxy’ i.e. trying to fix their own problems by dealing with similar problems in others. There is nothing wrong in that in itself. On the contrary, it can be a very good feature in therapy that the helper can identify with the problems by relating to own experiences. But as so often it is truth that will set us free. When the therapist is unable/unaware/unwilling to separate their own problems with those of their clients this will most likely have a negative effect on the client. The therapist may in effect be depended on being the helper, needing the client to stay stuck in their problems as well, so that the therapist can go on processing his/her own problems endlessly.
Too much love
One sign of the needy therapist may be that s/he talks a lot about love. The client may be told (prematurely) to love and forgive people they experience as bad influences or to open up to all the love the universe is radiating (formulation often depending on school of therapy rather than facts). The therapist may also emphasise how much love s/he radiates towards the client by avoiding clear client/therapist boundaries and/or how important the therapist is for the healing process, either by being able to ‘fix’ the client problems through their own skills, their ability to ‘channel healing’ or anything in between.
If this situation occurs it should be seen as the signal to ask the therapist what love has got to do with it. Adding guilt and therapy dependency to the problem will not be very helpful. On the other hand, with the right help our brain is very flexible and able to fix itself. So there is definitely hope for us all.
Keywords; brain, emotions, birth
© Gunnel Minett, July 2010
See also Gunnel Minett’s book How to Grow a Healthy Mind https://www.amazon.co.uk/Grow-Healthy-Mind-Gunnel-Minett-ebook/dp/B01LW42CI0/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1497262314&sr=8-2&keywords=gunnel+minett
(also available in Swedish: Genvägen till ett bra liv. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Genvägen-till-ett-bra-Swedish-ebook/dp/B01M9EU9TB/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1497262314&sr=8-5&keywords=gunnel+minett