Our early relational experiences are encoded in our infant neurology. During the first 18 months of our lives we are imprinting every moment, recording every stimulus. These impressions, which form the templates through which we engage the relational world for most of our lives, are predominantly outside the reach of conscious awareness. As many of us have discovered, this early material has a way of surging in our close relationships, partnerships and marriages. Transparent beliefs about our value and worth, about our enough-ness and our needs are longing to be known, held, and integrated into our adult lives.
But in the moment, when we’re chatting carelessly in the kitchen and corrected for our grammar, or we’re denied by our spouse when revealing a need, these reactions of others can trigger what feels like an avalanche of partly processed feelings, a conflagration of unintegrated emotions. Within a split second, we are hooked and activated, desperately reaching for relief from the raw somatic sensations that were long ago evidence that our very survival was at risk.
Something so insignificant as how we’re folding the laundry or a minor difference about the way the pillows are arranged on the couch can catalyze an internal maelstrom of hurt and rage over not feeling seen as we are. We perceive the present moment from the vanatage point of our childhoods; we are flooded with the experience of infantile rejection, abandonment, loneliness, and raging unworthiness. Before we know it, we’ve made a case for withholding or withdrawing from our spouses or friends … We take refuge in our early childhood experience, reminding ourselves and doubling down on the belief that it’s just not safe to open here.
Our expectations in relationship – the reliability of others, our worthiness to receive love, whether it’s okay to allow another to truly matter, whether it’s safe enough to lead with our vulnerability – are structured in a fragile little nervous system that is longing for safety and connection. The neural pathways are tender, open, and responsive, as we seek attuned, right brain-to-right brain resonance with those around us. We want to feel felt, to have our subjective experience held and mirrored, and we long for the space in which we can explore unstructured states of being.
While this encoding is deeply embedded, it can be rewired. While it may feel relentlessly entrenched, it is not as solid as it appears. Even if our early environment was one of consistent empathic failure, developmental trauma, and insecure attachment, it is never too late. The wild realities of neuroplasticity and the courage of the human heart combine to become an unstoppable and erupting force of creativity and reorganization.
Through new relational experiences – with a therapist, a lover, a friend, a baby . . . with a being of light, a divine presence, or a deity of mercy or compassion . . . or with a star, a deer, the moon, or with the earth itself, we can make the human journey together, in all its messy glory, and bear witness to the power of presence and tender attention to help us reorganize. We can watch in awe as the immediacy of connection lights up mirror neurons and the cells in our hearts in a fresh moment of warmth and kindness. Each time we meet and attune to another, receive their pain or heartache, receive their love, return it with our presence, as we simultaneously stay close with the inner “other” within ourselves, a new world is born.
As long as there is breath moving in and out, we can update the narrative. We can make new meaning of our lives, re-author the story, re-dream the dream, and re-imagine new life. We can make a new commitment to the here and now, and practice flooding our immediate experience with presence and acceptance. Slowly, over time, we can embed new neural circuitry and new pathways of holding awareness.
No matter what is happening in our lives, we can start right now. In this moment. There is only ever this moment. The opportunity for reorganization is always here and wired within us. Don’t give up. Rest when needed, but keep going. Love will never give up on us. Love always finds a way.