As we grow up and then move through adulthood, we all have normal needs for safety, fulfillment, and love.
For example, children need to feel secure, adolescents need a growing sense of autonomy, and young adults need to feel attractive and worthy of romantic love. When these needs are met by various “supplies” — such as the caring of a parent, the trust of a teacher, the love of a mate-the positive experiences that result then sink in to implicit memory to become resources for well-being, self-regulation, resilience, self-worth, and skillful action. This is how healthy psychological development is supposed to work.
But it doesn’t always go this way, does it? In the lives of most people (me included) – even without any kind of significant mistreatment, trauma, or abuse — the incoming stream of supplies has sometimes been a thin soup: perhaps your parents were busy caring for a sick sibling or preoccupied with their own needs and conflicts, or you moved a lot as a kid and had a hard time connecting with peers, or high school was more than the usual social nightmare, or potential lovers were uninterested, or jobs have been frustrating and dispiriting, or . . . in other words, a typical life.
Just One Thing
by Rick Hanson, Ph.D.
Publisher: New Harbinger
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.
The shortages in a thin soup leave lacks, deficits, in key internal resources. For example, I was a year or two younger than my classmates, which led to a shortage of inclusion and valuing from them, which in turn led to a lack of confidence and sense of worth in groups that persisted into adulthood. The absence of good things naturally has consequences.
And so does the presence of bad ones. When blows land — when there is loss, mistreatment, rejection, abandonment, misfortune, or trauma — they leave wounds. Sometimes these heal fully, usually due to a rich soup of supplies. But often they don’t, leaving pockets of unresolved emotional pain like pus beneath a scab, while also affecting a person’s functioning like a lifelong limp from a broken ankle that never fully mended.
A lack or a wound will leave “a hole in your heart” — which gets even deeper when the two exacerbate each other. For example, I vividly recall the time a popular girl in high school really put me down; it was a minor blow in its own right, but my years of social isolation had left me with no shields or shock absorbers to buffer its impact, which was to make me feel awful about myself for a long time afterward.
So what can you do about your own lacks and wounds? You’ve got them; we all do. Life alone can be healing: time passes, you put more distance each year between yourself and the train wreck of your early childhood, seventh grade, first great love, last job, last marriage, or whatever, and you move on to a better place. But this essentially passive process of being carried by life is often not enough for a real healing: it’s too slow, or it doesn’t reach down deep enough, or key ingredients are missing.
Then you need to actively fill the hole in your heart.
How do we do this?
It’s fundamentally simple: you take in good experiences that are specifically aimed at your own lacks and wounds. It’s like being a sailor with scurvy: you need vitamin C — not vitamin E — for what ails you. For example, I felt both protected and independent as a child, so experiences of safety and autonomy as an adult — while valuable in their own right — did not address my issue: I needed the particular healing balm of experiences of inclusion and respect in groups.
Consequently, it’s important to know what your own vitamin C is (and sometimes a person needs more than one kind). Perhaps you already know, but if not, here are some questions to help you find out: When your lacks or wounds developed, what would have made all the difference in the world? What do you long for today? What conditions help you feel truly happy – and bring out the best in you? What sort of experiences feed and soothe a deep hunger inside?
More specifically, here’s a summary of some healing experiences – “vitamins” – targeted for particular lacks and wounds, organized in terms of the three motivational systems in your brain:
|Lack or wound||Vitamin|
|Avoiding harms||Weakness, helplessness||Strength. efficacy|
|Alarm, anxiety||Safety, security|
|Resentment, anger||Compassion for oneself and others|
|Approaching Rewards||Frustration, disappointment||Satisfaction, fulfillment|
|Sadness, discontentment, “blues”||Gladness, gratitude|
|Attaching to “Us”||Not seen, rejected, left out||Attunement, inclusion|
|Inadequacy, shame||Recognition, acknowledgement|
|Abandonment, feeling unloved||Friendship, love|
Once you have some clarity about the psychological vitamins you need, the rest is straightforward:
- Look for these vitamins in your life; also do what you can to create or increase them. For example, I keep my eyes open for opportunities to feel liked and appreciated in groups, plus I prod myself to join groups to create those opportunities.
- The vitamin you need is an experience, not an event. The point of situations in which you are protected, successful, or appreciated is to feel safe, fulfilled, and worthy. This is hopeful, because it gives you many ways to evoke key experiences. For example, if feeling that you matter to others is what will fill the hole in your heart, you could: look for signs that others wish you well, whether it’s the smile of someone making you a sandwich in a deli, the encouragement of a coworker, or a lover’s hug; think about the many people in your life today or in your past who like and appreciate you; ask your partner to be affectionate (and be open to hearing what would help him or her to do this); try to develop more relationships with people who are by nature warm and supportive.
- Be willing to get a slice of the pie if the alternative is no pie at all. For instance, if you finish a tough project at work, focus on the sense of accomplishment for everything you got done rather than on a few loose ends; if a friend is warm and loyal, open to feeling cared about even if what you really want is romantic love.
- Then, using the second and third steps of taking in the good, really savor the positive experience for ten or more seconds in a row while sensing that it is sinking down into you, giving you what you’ve always needed.
- Have confidence that every time you do this, you’ll be wiring resources into your brain. When I started this practice myself, in my early twenties, the hole in my heart looked like the construction site for a skyscraper. But I just kept tossing a few bricks — a few experiences of feeling included — into that hole every day. One brick alone will make little difference, but brick after brick, day after day, year after year, you really can fill even a very big hole in your heart!