When people think of therapy they often think of the old notion of blaming mom. Those who’ve been around the therapy block enough times know that the adage holds a lot of truth, we talk about her….. a lot!
So why exactly do we pick on the one person who bore us, changed our diapers and fed us when we were hungry? Well…….
We are all born with an attachment system and its sole function is to help us connect to others. Our species’ evolution depends upon social interdependence since we cannot make it alone in the world. The way the attachment system works is via mirror neurons, which fire when we observe and interact with others. Ever notice you yawn when you see someone else yawn, or your mouth waters when someone else is eating something sour? This is the brain’s way of connecting us to others, making us feel what others feel.
That is why it is so important when mothers mirror their infants, smiling when they smile, frowning when they frown etc. Because when our moms ‘get us’ we get ourselves, even as infants. But when instead mothers respond contrary to their infants, the dissonance causes a disruption in the bonding exchange. For example, when mothers respond to their infants who are smiling and cooing, with stress or sadness, infants will begin to feel a disconnect between their feelings and needs and the world as they experience it. Instead of sensing a responsive and caring environment, the infant feels insecure and unsafe.
The early experiences that we have before we can even speak, get coded in our brain as implicit memory. We don’t realize we have these memories, and yet there they are, taking up real estate in our neocortex. Then when these implicit memories are activated later in life, we don’t realize we are ‘remembering’ but rather we assume that’s just the way we feel.
During the course of our lifetime, our implicit memories become our working models, with which we predict and expect others to behave and react to us. It also impacts the way we see the world.
It is rarely the intention of the caregiver to do anything to negatively impact the relational experience, however, neurobiology overrides the best of intentions. And while it can certainly ride out bad days here and there, our attachment system accumulates our experiences over time.
So next time your therapist asks about your relationship with mom, trust that its not about blame as much as it’s about gaining insight into our implicit memories and how they are affecting our lives today.
Check out this YouTube video for a real life demonstration: