Do you need some new strategies for being OK?

We learn our strategies for being OK through early interactions with our parents

We all use different strategies for being OK and meeting our own needs and if these don’t serve us well it is a cliché that this is our parents fault. Our early experience of life is greatly influenced by the ways in which our parents behave towards us and respond to us. We each have our own individual ways of reacting to what they do. Through these interactions with our parents we find out what it is that we do that works best to meet our needs and we keep doing these things. Thus we develop our personal strategies for being OK, managing our experiences and meeting our needs.

How are our strategies for being OK created?

So, for example, let’s say you find yourself as a small baby ready for bed, wrapped up tightly, swaddled and cosy at first, but then feeling constrained and uncomfortable. What can you do to satisfy your need to feel comfortable? Well, you don’t exactly decide what to do but you might express your discomfort by screaming at the top of your little voice. I will look at three of the different ways that this could turn out for you:

I eat to distract myself from my feelings

In the first scenario when your mother hears you scream she comes and picks you up, rocks you and sings to you. You like that but you still feel uncomfortable so you continue to scream, feeling an enormous urge to be able to move your limbs freely. Your mother puts you to her breast. You become distracted and start to feed. Every time you stop you feel uncomfortable again so you scream again. She feeds you again. You feed until you are sick. Exhausted, you finally sleep. This goes on night after night. You have learned. When I am not OK no-one will understand me but at least I can eat. The strategy? When I need to be more comfortable I can eat to distract myself.

I eat to switch off my feelings

In the second, your mother hears you scream but knows you have already had plenty to eat and after checking your nappy she puts you back in your cot and leaves the room. You scream louder. She hates hearing this and really wants to come and pick you up but she has read all about this. She knows that you need to learn to settle yourself to sleep. After a bit you do that, well not exactly settling yourself, but falling into an exhausted sleep. The next night you cry only for a few minutes and the following one, scarcely a whimper. Your mother feels happy about this. You have learned: When I am not OK that there is no point in even telling anyone. The strategy? When I need to be OK I switch off my feelings.

I wait for someone to sort it out for me

And in the third scenario: This time, it so happens that your mother looks at you just as you start to feel uncomfortable and you respond to her by cooing and attempting to smile at her. You just can’t help it, you love your mum! She smiles back and talks to you. You try to get your arms free. You gurgle and talk back. She laughs and smiles some more. You try again to move your arms to reach out to her but you can’t because of the swaddling and she finally notices and smiles and unwraps you. The strategy: When I need to be OK I feel powerless and wait for someone to sort it out for me.

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   
    They may not mean to, but they do.   
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,   
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.”

Philip Larkin

It’s all because of your great-grandparents

So your strategies to get what you need are formed through your experience of your mother’ actions. Her actions are motivated by her love and care for you and her, usually valiant, efforts to be a good parent to you. (Of course, sometimes there are constraints, even severe ones, on a mother’s ability to parent if she is unwell, unsupported or ill-informed.)

These early strategies are brilliant strategies . They serve us well when we are young and can continue to serve us well as adults but not if they are all we have. Later, with the support of your parents and others, you learn some more mature strategies to get what you need. You learn to express and request what you need from others in words and you learn how to take care of your own needs. We learn to express and ask for what we need by watching other people doing this and not everyone knows how to. Maybe your parents didn’t. And maybe they didn’t because your grandparents didn’t. So I guess we could say that it’s all because of your great-grandparents! Which, in my case, means people who were born in the 1860s, so actual Victorians and probably not that great at expressing and asking for what they needed from each-other.

Maybe you sometimes react to stressful or uncomfortable situations by switching off your feelings, or by eating (or playing computer games or having a few beers) to distract yourself or by waiting for someone to sort it all out for you? And maybe you would like to work out some new ways to deal with those stressful and uncomfortable feelings?

Does any of this resonate with you?