TIFT #30 Primal Love

tift Sep 21, 2021


The idea of primal love comes from working with clients who have been deprived in early life. Many of the people who responded to posts (on the howtherapyworks.com blog) about attachment to your therapist have found themselves looking for something their therapist could not give them. A key question is: At what point in development might those needs and wishes be healthy and understandable. The answer is clearly at an early stage. 

During early years, humans are helpless. We need attention and concern essentially 24/7. We need a caregiver or caregivers who are tuned in and can guess our needs and feelings without our needing to do much more than complain loudly. And we need them to be thrilled with our every smile and every accomplishment. Fortunately, adult brains and hormones normally make caregivers and parents want to provide exactly that, primal love.

Failures of primal love can be varied. They can come from the coldness of orphanages as reported by Bowlby following World War II. They can involve frank abuse, neglect, or aggression. They can arise from the narcissistic caregiver’s using the child as a tool to prop up self-esteem. They can be indirect, for example, failing to protect from attacks other family members or siblings. And they can involve a caregiver who seems to promise primal love but is misattuned and fails to read the child correctly. 

The need for primal love is a matter of life and death. If it is not met, there is a genuine threat of death. More important, small children instinctively respond as if it is a matter of life and death because that’s what evolution has taught our species. Baby mammals and human children who responded intensely have always been more likely to survive. According to Mark Solms, the force behind Neuropsychoanalysis, “emotional disorders entail unsuccessful attempts to satisfy needs.” It is terrible to say, but when normal responses are not answered and when the need for primal love is not met, small children’s attempts to satisfy that need are bound to be unsuccessful. In other words, damage will be done and mental pathology is the consequence.

What kinds of problems can result?

The need for primal love is so basic that it should not be a surprise that a wide variety of problems can carry into adult life. I think, especially, of the era before age two, during which children don’t have the cognitive capacity to think about the relationship with the caregiver, but respond instinctively to a shortfall in primal love. 

Problems include the three forms of insecure attachment: anxious, avoidant, and disorganized. They also include lack of ability to tolerate separation, various forms of body dysregulation, difficulty with self soothing and sleep, and resorting to intense kinds of stimulation to give some sense of being grounded. I'm sure there are others. Unmet need for primal love is the most common underlying problem in many of the examples of intense attachment to a therapist chronicled in the comments to my blog posts. 

An additional layer of pathology

Almost universally, as stated above, early, instinctive solutions for dealing with a lack of primal love are not only unsuccessful and lead to maladaptive responses, but those responses can cause secondary effects or consequences of their own. Insecure attachment patterns cause chronic anxiety or aloofness. Inability to self-sooth causes stress responses and lack of sleep. Body dysregulation leads to physical symptoms. Separation anxiety puts stress on relationships. And, to cap this list but not to exhaust all possibilities, seeking intense bodily sensations leads to many other complications. These complications can trigger yet another layer of maladaptive coping, particularly conscience-based patterns that generate shame.

When the conscience comes on line around age three, it brings with it a powerful new form of self control. As outlined in TIFT #24, values and prohibitions are internalized and become the core values, against which the individual’s behavior is measured. When a child fails to meet those standards, the result is self-shaming, providing a powerful, internally generated deterrent. 

This new system is brought to bear on failures ultimately caused by inability to deal effectively with a shortfall in primal love. The self is devalued, shamed, and sacrificed in the hope of somehow becoming worthy of love. Characteristics such as neediness, social awkwardness, or even weight gain, caused by the lack of love, can become a source of negative judgment and shame.

Thus, at a minimum, we have two layers of Entrenched Maladaptive Patterns: One layer consisting of the original failed attempts to deal with the shortfall of primal love and a secondary layer of conscience-based attempts to control complications caused by the failure of first layer of coping.

The inner child seeking Primal Love

The result of all these layers of maladaptive coping is that anything resembling primal love is even further from being realized. Clinginess and avoidance don’t help. Substitute physical gratifications don’t satisfy, and seeking medical cures for body dysregulation usually fails. Perhaps worst of all, self condemnation and shaming make one less desirable to healthy people, rather than more so. So the need for primal love continues to be unfulfilled. 

In approaching this situation, it is very useful useful to think of an inner child still looking desperately for missing primal love. That is the origin of most cases of intense attachment to one’s therapist. 

I’m sorry to paint such a dire picture, but it is a daily reality for so many humans. Fortunately there are answers and many traumatized people find their way out of the cascade of maladaptive patterns of coping.

In the next TIFT, #31, I’ll outline 9 principles that bear on how health and acceptance can be found in adult life.

Jeffery Smith MD

 Photo by Johann Walter Bantz on Unsplash.

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