No connection means no survival. Does this mean that we must have a perfect connection in order to survive and thrive? No. That would require having perfect parents, and there are no perfect parents. Not only that, there are no parents who were not once children themselves. I will return to this point when discussing the impact of our unique familial experiences.
Donald Winnicott succinctly said that what we require is “good enough” parenting. Such parenting allows the infant to connect for comfort and support and, when overwhelmed by stimulation, break the connection, then find that the mother is still there when he is ready to re-engage. It is crucial for the parent to remain available as the infant pulls away from stimulation and then returns. Mother must allow for and tolerate these disconnections and not thrust herself into that momentarily blank space. To do so would be for her sake and not the infant’s.
The child is incapable of holding the image of the parent in mind—a phenomenon called object constancy—until about age 22 to 30 months. Play a game of peek-a-boo with an infant, and you will see the apprehension on his face when you cover yours and then the exquisite joy of engagement when you show your face again. Winnicott beautifully summed this up by saying, “There is no infant without the mother.” He commented that the infant finds himself in the reflection of the mother’s eyes. These statements are both poetic and factual. One cannot discuss an infant without the frame of reference of the dyadic interaction with the mother. This connection ensures the infant’s survival and, with the appropriate attunement with mother, his thriving. The attunement takes place not only on a psychological level but on a biological one as well. It provides the fundamental schema for connecting with one’s social environment in addition to that for internal emotional regulation. Allan Shore has shown that the infant’s experience with his mother directly influences the development of his brain’s physical structure. Nature and nurture meet at this junction of the psychobiological connection between the mother and the infant.
As adults, we use such terms as “in tune with” or “tuned into” in reference to our connections with and understanding of one another. It is this very essence of attunement that infants require and that we adults find so wonderful. Neuroanatomically, attunement involves the right orbital frontal cortex of the brain, which is the probable locus for the phenomenon of empathy, the profound connection between human beings. This is also the area where transference—feelings the patient has from past relationships, re-experienced in the present with the therapist—and countertransference—the therapist’s past relationships re-emerging in relating to the patient—likely emanate. Corrective emotional experiences, defined by Franz Alexander as important relationships relived without the associated prior trauma, may involve this same brain area as well. For example, a patient may experience the therapist as a supportive and encouraging parental figure, not the actually critical and condemning parent. By incorporating these new experiences, the patient may transcend the painful, old ones.
Some years ago, on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, I read about a fascinating, straightforward study. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a reference in order to credit the authors. Because the work was so simple and elegant, I am going to mention it here anyway. The researchers asked a group of people if they had ever felt loved or been in love. Those who responded positively were then asked how they knew that what they felt was love. The experience called “love,” they said, occurred when they felt understood or when they understood another person. This dramatically illustrates the powerful feeling created by attunement. We interfere with attunement when making judgments of others. In some societal situations, this may be perfectly appropriate, but an important caveat applies, particularly in emotionally intimate relationships: If we judge, we will likely not understand. If we understand, we will likely find little need to judge. This does not mean that we should overlook, excuse, or condone adverse behaviors; rather, we should focus on comprehending the meaning of the behavior.
Excerpt from Breaking Free: How Chains From Childhood Keep Us From What We Want