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There is a story most of us are told from a very early age, a story that is compelling and seductive but tragic if we come to believe it.  The story is that we will live happily ever after once we find the woman or man of our dreams, our soul mate, our one true love.  Throughout our lives we are inundated with this story through fairy tales, movies, television, music, and magazines.

It is tragic to believe this story because it’s not true, and because we miss opportunities to use our time and energy more wisely when we keep searching for someone we believe will make us happy.

What if we learned a different story?  What if we learned stories about lovers coming together not to be made happy and whole by the other, but to uncover and heal childhood relationship wounds and corresponding protective coping strategies so that they could freely love each other and follow their dreams and aspirations?

The research done in Attachment Theory and Interpersonal Neurobiology is laying the groundwork for this kind of story.  The research shows that the way a parent (or primary caregiver) bonds or doesn’t bond with a child profoundly influences how the child will bond or not bond with others throughout his or her life.  Fortunately, the research also shows that our brains are neuroplastic, which means we can undo the wounds and blocks to love we developed from our relationships with our parents.  (There is no blame of parents in this story.  All parents do their best given their childhood wounds and the disconnected societies they live within.  And, yes, there are other factors, like genes.  However, as Daniel Siegel writes in his book The Developing Mind, it is experience that determines how and when each gene becomes expressed.)

Because we are mammals, we are dependent as children on connection with our parents for our survival.  Feel-good neurochemicals such as oxytocin are released when we have a warm, caring connection with our parents, and stress-related neurochemicals such as cortisol are released when there is a break in our connection with our parents.  From the moment we are born, and most influentially through the first three years of life, our brains and nervous systems are impacted by our interactions with our parents.  The foundation for how we will behave in relationships throughout our lives is laid during the first three years of our life.  Fortunately, the shaky parts of the foundation can be rebuilt if we get enough support.

“Early experience shapes the structure and function of the brain. This reveals the fundamental way in which gene expression is determined by experience.”
– Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

Implicit beliefs (beliefs that are formed unconsciously based on repeated experiences) about relationships begin to form from the time of birth. If a parent knows how to form a healthy bond-to be close and attuned, empathic, caring and compassionate-and can notice and make a repair when there is a break in the healthy bond-then the child will form implicit beliefs such as, It’s ok to be close to others; It’s ok to feel my feelings and share them with others and reach out for help; I don’t have to be perfect to be loved; I matter; I’m understood; and so on.  If a parent knows how to support healthy differentiation-to nurture the child’s sense of self, help him be his own empowered person-then the child will have implicit beliefs such as, It’s ok to trust myself and be my own person; My voice matters; I can take up space in the world and follow my own dreams.   If parents don’t know how to bond and differentiate, then their children will form limiting beliefs in the realm of, It’s not ok or safe to be close with others; It’s not ok or safe to be my own person and trust myself, and protective, coping behaviours will develop out of these beliefs.  These beliefs and behaviours don’t change when we become adults, unless we do the inner work to transform them.

As adults, the more intimately we become connected with someone, the more pronounced our implicit beliefs and behaviours become.  This is because our limbic system is afraid we will have similar painful breaks connection to the ones we had with our parents.  If we are not aware of our implicit beliefs and behaviours and how they affect our adult relationships, we will have great difficulty building thriving relationships.  If we are aware of the implicit aspects we bring to relationships, then we can co-create a relationship that helps us heal and come alive.

“Internal mental experience is not the product of a photographic process. Internal reality is in fact constructed by the brain as it interacts with the environment in the present, in the context of its past experiences and expectancies of the future. At the level of perceptual categorizations, we have reached a land of mental representations quite distant from the layers of the world just inches away from their place inside the skull. This is the reason why each of us experiences a unique way of minding the world. (pp. 166-167)”
– Daniel J. Siegel, The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are

What does the healing part of the story look like?  One answer is… Empathy, Empathy, Empathy.  Empathy is like yoga for the brain and nervous system.  As yoga postures bring greater alignment between the muscles, ligaments and different parts of the body, empathy brings greater alignment between the limbic system, the prefrontal cortex and the autonomic nervous system, especially skillfully done somatic-based, resonant empathy that focuses on sensations, feelings, emotions, and needs.  I believe it takes a community to raise a relationship, so finding many sources of empathy, from empathy buddies, from ourselves, and from those with training in depth empathy processes, is one of the best ways to support a relationship to flourish.

When our limbic systems get enough empathy, healthier beliefs about relationships get formed, coping strategies shift, and our capacity to bond and differentiate grows.  Empathy helps us fall in love with ourselves, which is the only sure way of falling more deeply in love with another.

Of course, this new love story isn’t really new at all, just one that’s been buried under a barrage of the happily-ever-after fantasies.