Home > attachment theory, boundaries, dependence, earned attachment, encouragement, feelings, healing, insecure attachment, limbic resonance, needs, safety, self-worth > But therapy can take us a long way: Learning Developmental Skills Part 1

But therapy can take us a long way: Learning Developmental Skills Part 1

This was going to be the second part of a discussion on how therapy is not enough. I talked about how therapy isn’t enough to make up for the loss of the unmet needs of childhood which are impossible to meet now because we are no longer children and unable to take in the kind of love and care on a deep enough level to completely wipe out the loss. Even if someone was willing to re-parent us, the behavior a parent exhibits towards their child is not appropriate for an adult. But the second half of the equation, that I wanted to address here is the developmental steps that were skipped or distorted by not having our needs met or being taught certain skills because our parents did not know them either. This is also a big part of why therapy can be so painful even though no one is doing anything wrong this time around. I had been planning on covering all of the developmental learning in the rest of this post but as I outlined what I wanted to say, it became evident that the post would become a twee long even for me. So instead, this is the beginning of a series. 🙂

So many things that human beings need to learn to develop into full-fledged individuated adults capable of leading a full life who know a sense of wholeness is learned implicitly through limbic resonance. Human beings have open physiological systems so that when we interact with another person or animal who has a limbic system (mammals), our nervous systems engage each other in a way which allows us to discern the inner state of another being. Ever noticed that if you are really sad, a dog may come over and nudge you gently? Or have the experience of someone doing something in public that is endearing or annoying and you meet eyes with a total stranger and connect that you are both reacting the same way? We have whole sections of our brains whose purpose is to discern and understand the other. Our very brain structure and development are affected by our interactions with other human beings. When another human being successfully understands our interior world and reflects their understanding so that we can comprehend it, then we are attuned. Attunement is the sense of connection that can bring comfort, relief and soothe us, its promise is what draws us close to our loved ones. This movement back and forth between our nervous systems is called limbic resonance. Our individual nervous systems match up or “resonate” with each other.

There are two broad categories of memory, explicit and implicit. Explicit memories are what most of us think of when we think of memories. Biographical facts about what has happened to us or things we have learned. For example, if I asked you what you had for lunch yesterday or what is 2 X 5, you would provide the answer from your explicit memories. Implicit memories are skills we learn through repetition and experience. A good example is reading. At one time you had to explicitly learn the sound of each letter,  than learn to blend those sounds into a word, than make meaning out of those words, and learn sentence structure. It was a painstaking process with a LOT of repetition. But eventually, you learned to read. As you are reading this, are you thinking about phonetics, or sentence structure or stopping to identify each individual word? No you are just taking in what I am saying without having to stop and think about HOW you’re doing it. That is because as we repeat skills, our brain actually forms neural networks (strong paths of connections between related synapses) dedicated to the skills we’ve learned.

It is believed that these memories are actually stored differently and in another part of the brain. There was a really interesting case of a brain-damaged man who due to injuries in a car accident could no longer form explicit memories. He was no longer capable or remembering anything that happened more than five minutes before. His long-term memories were intact up to the time of the accident, but he formed no other long-term memories afterwards. This man did not know how to braid before the accident. Afterwards, he had lessons every day in how to braid. After some time, if you asked him if he knew how to braid, he would tell you  no he didn’t, but if you put three cords in his hand, he could form a perfect braid. We sometimes call this “muscle” memory. Riding a bike, driving a car, folding laundry, you name it; you do enough of it, you become more skilled at it, but are often not conscious of when and how it happened.

There are many skills that are needed to be a successful human that are transmitted through limbic resonance and learned implicitly, by being in the presence of another human being who is exercising the skill and being connected with them through our right brains (in our emotions, not just our cognitive understanding). As they practice the skill, we literally absorb on an unconscious, implicit level the ability to do what is modeled for us. I am going to discuss a number of areas in which I believe therapy can assist us to grow, and most of them are taught as much through this implicit learning as it is through cognitive understanding and discussion. The most important parts are, I believe, ONLY learned implicitly. This is why we must bring all of ourselves, including all our feelings, into the therapeutic space.

Here are the areas I plan on discussing in this series: regulating emotions, identifying needs, expressing needs, feeling safe, feeling understood, understanding ourselves, stopping avoidant behaviors, and “earning” secure attachment. In some ways, splitting this up into separate categories is an artificial approach as so many of these skills are interrelated and overlapping, and we learn them in cycles, each skill building on the other. It is necessary to speak of them one at a time in order to explain them, but I do want to try to make clear that there is nothing neat or organized about learning them. Just for the record, I was quite often a confused, weeping, angry, wailing, frustrated, painful mess while learning all of this. And I still have a LOT of room for growth in many, if not all, of these areas. That would be because I am still breathing. 🙂

And as for the painful part? Many of these lessons are hard enough to learn as children. What do you mean mommy is not ALWAYS at my beck and call? What do you mean sometimes I don’t get what I want? Why do I feel so bad sometimes? I’m a separate person? The other person has their own needs, feelings and desires? We are not born knowing any of these things. Children, however, since they are learning and growing so rapidly and their brain structures are still forming, learn quicker and more easily as adults. The human brain retains its plasticity (ability to continue changing) our whole lives, but it does become slower to respond and harder to change as we age. So it’s a bit of an uphill battle for us. I’ll be touching more on this throughout the series.

So in the next post, we’ll start by discussing regulating emotions. See you next time, go gently with yourselves.

NOTE: I’m going to do my best to be consistent about writing posts, but this week in the US is Thanksgiving, which sets off our Holiday season which continues through New Years. The girls are home from college right now (wonderful to see them! Messy house! :)) and will be back again for Christmas. Between preparations and all the social plans, it’s usually gets a little insane this time of year (not to mention extremely triggering for a lot of people) so there may be interruptions and stops and starts. I beg your kind indulgence. For those of you in the States, Happy Thanksgiving!

  1. True North
    November 29, 2011 at 1:32 am

    AG your posts are always worth waiting for.

    We must be very similar because right now I am a confused, weeping, angry, wailing, frustrated, painful mess. My only issue is trying to decide if I want to cry, throw something at my therapist or scream in frustration, or just plain quit.

    I know you understand this. thanks,
    True North


    • December 8, 2011 at 11:16 pm

      You know we’re very similar. 🙂 And your description of where you are sounds exactly right to me. 😉 I wasn’t allowed to be a confused, weeping, angry, wailing frustrated or painful mess as a child. And as for anger, well, that was not a place you EVER went…. too dangerous. So, as much as it doesn’t feel good, we can be grateful that we now have a place where it is safe to feel that, safe to express it and be met with understanding instead of scorn. There will be another side and it will be worth all this to get there.



  2. Starrynights
    March 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    I was reading and loving yet another post of yours (still catching up…!) – and then I hit paragraph 6, where you started listing what you were going to cover in this series, and just… shut down. As in, couldn’t read anymore. Emotionally hung up. Good grief, what’s wrong with me?!? :/


    • April 4, 2012 at 8:15 pm

      For someone dealing with a trauma history or insecure attachment, it’s a pretty daunting list. Took me years, if not decades, to learn a lot of those skills and most, if not all, are still works in progress. My guess would be that it started to feel pretty overwhelming to you, so you shut down to protect yourself. Breathe easy though, at the rate I’m going it will take me years to get through that list. 🙂



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