Monday, February 18, 2008

Inner Connection to Others

In Risking Connection® we teach that a childhood full of attachment disruptions and trauma impairs development of basic self capacities. Self capacities are those core skills that allow us to hold onto who we are no matter what happens, to survive adversity, and to handle what life brings us. Risking Connection® identifies three core self capacities: the ability to form and maintain an inner connection to others; the sense of being worth the air you breathe; and the skills of feelings management. These self capacities develop through connected, attuned relationships with others. When a person does not have a chance to develop these skills, all set backs large or small throw them into extremes of intolerable feelings. They do these things we call "symptoms"- hurt them selves, hurt others, retreat, to escape the intolerable feelings because they know no other options.

The skill of "form and maintain an inner connection to others" is often mistaken for the skill of just making a connection with others. Our kids are not good at making connections: they do not trust, they have been hurt, they protect their hearts. They often do not know social skills of conversation and reaching out to others. They are scared by being close. Just making a connection with them is often hard enough.

But we must go a step farther. In order to survive life, we also have to be able to keep a sense of our connection with others even when they are not physically present. Even when we are alone, we must be able to remember (and actually feel) that someone loves us.

Inner connections with others are formed through repetitive, trustworthy, dependable attuned relationships with loving others. With our own children we work hard to create inner connections. When we will be away from them, whether for a school day or a longer trip, we write notes, call, leave pictures, leave presents, use many rituals to covey: even when I am not with you, you are in my heart and I love you.

The kids we work with have not had this care and constancy. And in fact people have disappeared from their lives unexpectedly. Others have not acted lovingly towards them.

But why is it so important to have inner connections with others?

If not, whenever you are physically alone, you will feel desperately and completely alone. And scared.

When someone leaves work for the weekend you will be certain that you will never see them again.

When something goes wrong, you will not be able to tell yourself: that’s okay, my mother still loves me.

When some one treats you badly you will not be sure that anyone will come to your defense. Or, therefore, that you are worth defending.

We generally think of inner connections as being able to summon the presence of a certain loved one when they are not there, to give ourselves reassurance and courage. And that is a big part of it.

But inner connections also become the voice with which we talk to ourselves, what we say to ourselves ("it’s okay, you’ll get past this" or "you stupid idiot, you messed up again"). And thus they shape our view of ourselves and of the world.

One of our faculty trainers Richard Nicastro ( gives this example. A client once described to him the difference between how she imagined the world inside his head and the actuality of how she experienced the world inside her own head:

My client’s description of my internal experience (My room):

Think of a room that you admire, maybe one that you know or visited. Picture the room filled with items you love, items that make you feel warm, bring you comfort, joy, and excitement. People that you love and admire can stay or leave in your room as you see fit. These loving others can sit next to you if you want, they can converse and are responsive to your needs. They can even sit quietly or leave if you need them to. Whenever you’re upset, you have access to these people. Their presence gives you comfort. In this room you’re basically in charge of what happens. You love existing in this place and you know that you belong here.

My client’s description of her internal world (her room):

Now imagine a different sort of room. One of those rooms that exist in the basement of a house that no one wants. It’s cold, dark, and damp in my room. Everything feels unclean in this room. My room is barren and inhospitable. People come and go as they please. People I wish I never knew. They are unpredictable. At times violent and cruel, at other times uncaring—at best, indifferent. They never seem to leave me alone. I hate this room but there is no way out. Sometimes breaking things in my room makes me feel better, but only temporarily. Once in a while someone knocks gently on the door to my room, offering promises of something better. While these people are different from the people who live my room, they never seem to stick around. So I don’t get excited anymore when they knock. Whether I smile and nod or spit and bit, the end is always the same. I end up alone in my room.

This is an extremely evocative description of the inner self that develops when someone does not develop strong inner connections to others.

So, this is the gift we can give the kids and families we work with, by being reliable, trustworthy, by actively thinking about how to create these connections. We do this by mentioning we were thinking of them, by telling them when we will next see them, by giving them a token from our office, by letting them listen to our voice mail, by notes, and many other ways. And gradually they will develop a warm and loving presence to help them through difficult times- and will have less need to resort to crisis behaviors.

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