How we create a ‘sense of self’ by holding our children and talking to them.
The sun is rising on a new morning, I am (sleep)walking around the house. The hands of the clock are sprinting to an unknown finish line, while I am slowly (and so far, unsuccessfully) trying to get myself together. The clock is pounding in my head. We are late! Very late! I increase my pace, running from one room to another. My beloved little girl happily follows my steps, charmingly dragging stuffed animals and dolls with her like this is all part of a game we play. Her rolling laughter fills up the space around us. The clock does not exist in her world, all we do is play.
The water has boiled in the kettle, I am finally making coffee. I went to the store yesterday so where, the hell, is the sugar?! She stamps her feet excitedly on the floor and in one moment tears the package apart. Million grains of sugar are scattered everywhere, like fields of crystal flakes. The little one is ecstatically observing the new texture, touching it with the tips of her fingers, whereas I can almost observe my sanity scattering on the floor alongside the white sugar flakes. I calm my breath. Instant tears of frustration pool within my eyes. My inner voice is shouting at her like a lunatic, killing any last strength that was left in me. I take another deep breath, restoring my sanity where it belongs, and wonder who or what should I collect first – Me? Her? The sugar? After all, these are all part of this scattered morning… By explaining to the little one that we now need to take a shovel and a broom and collect the sugar flakes, I symbolically gather the both of us ‘back in the sugar jar’ so we can wake up properly and be prepared to start the new day.
Our lives are saturated with moments like these, when the internal and external realities are generating so much noise that even a small trigger like the scattered sugar could flood our inner container, creating a big storm inside. These incidents could allow us to take a pause, and be relieved for finally being given a break from the every – day pressures, but might also make us feel pretty shaken.
Inside my own skin: The field of psychology is interested, among other things, in our early development as babies. One of the aspects of that early period of life, is the pre-verbal experiences we had as babies. These pre-verbal experiences refer to the way we were experiencing the world before we acquired the ability to speak, and verbally express our thoughts or feelings. According to the child psychology field, these early childhood hidden memories have an immense impact on the way we feel, think, respond, and behave as adults.
Esther Bick was one of the first Psychoanalysts who dedicated their life work to the early childhood’s development. Bick (1968) writes about the baby’s development of a sense of self through his skin’s sensations. By doing so, she demonstrates the strong bond between our physical body/reality, and the emotional sphere. According to which, the baby finds the ‘proof’ for the existence of another person but him (external object) by the sensations he feels on his skin. He gets to know his parents through the physical contact, such as while being breast fed. This essential touch of the parent provides a firm and holding container to the different parts of the baby’s personality, creating for him a sense of self.
Bick’s skin image is simple and complicated at once. It is very clear to us that the baby needs to be physically held by the parent to survive. What we now realize is, that the skin wrapped around our body is also functioning as a container, allowing us to feel psychologically held. The caregivers in charge of the baby’s emotional and physical well-being are creating a coating, which would be at his disposal, as a safe and holding container. To this Bick calls: “Being all of a piece within his skin” (Bick, 1968).
We are hardly aware of the psychological function of our skin, until we feel the need to be held. Indeed, in this hectic morning all I needed was a hug. I needed that the world would wait for a few moments, the clock would stand still, my husband would come home for 5 minutes of physical holding, and help me gain back my sense of self. A five-minute hug from him could be a good alternative for the real thing – A hug from my mother. In the absence of these two, my daughter and I were engaged in the re-collection of the sugar grains into their container, a symbolic activity which allowed the two of us to calm down and gain a sense of control, feel all of a piece within our skin.
Body and soul: Winnicott (1954) refers to this subject when he talks about “the psyche-soma”, the duo of body-soul. To explain his theory, Winnicott uses an image of a big round body, containing everything in it and functioning as one unit. According to him, when we are functioning normally there is no separation between our body and our soul. The physical and mental spheres are not standing one against the other, but functioning together, two parts of the same big unit. Growing up, we acquire the ability to imagine, picture in our mind the physical outlines of ourselves (our bodies). By imagining, we are creating a whole image of ourselves. This inner image of ourselves is a big part of our inner world. To these two parts (inner world and external world) Winnicott calls: Self and Imaginative-self.
All this sounds at first quite complicated, but is easily demonstrated using our everyday lives. I find myself debating frequently whether what I am feeling is physically or emotionally based – when my heart is “broken” it is obviously not spreading in tiny little pieces like the sugar pack from this morning, but it sure does feel this way. Emotional pain could make us feel physically ill and we can hardly tell the difference.
Mind and soul: To continue Winnicott’s trail of thought, I would like to address another idea of his. Our soul, is an imaginative elaboration of our physical sensations. Meaning, what our babies physically feel (hugs, kisses, hunger, cold, etc.) is becoming their emotional reality as well. Moreover, the soul can mediate between the external reality and our emotional experience. When the external environment does not meet our need (is not “a good enough environment” as Winnicott calls it) it could turn into one in our minds. Our mind is what makes a “good enough environment” to a perfect one (Winnicotte, 1954). Considering that we could never be the perfect parents, no matter how hard we try, this is good news to all of us.
Soul mitigates reality: Therefore, when the hands of the clock are sprinting, the clock keeps pounding in our head, and we feel like we are very close to the break point, we use our mind (mentalization) as an anchor. The internal dialogue we create is mitigating the relation between the inner and external world. The way we think about what is happening to us has a great impact on how we feel about life in general. As an adult, I am familiar with this inner dialogue and manage a delicate balance using language, words and images. My daughter, on the other hand, is still at the preverbal stage of life, experiencing the world with her other senses: she tears a package of sugar, sensing its grains through her fingertips, and recollecting them with a shovel. Happily, I am able to do the other activities for her, providing her with the functions she still lacks: the recollection, speaking or holding in these scattered moments are allowing her to feel contained and safe, inside her skin.
Winnicott, D. W. (1954). Mind and it’s relation to the Psyche-Soma. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 27(4): 201-2019.
Bick, E. (1968). The experience of the skin in early object relations. The International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 49: 484-486.
About the writer:
Adi Dwek Bonar is an experienced therapist and counselor living in Luxembourg. As part of her work, she accompanies children, adolescents, parents, and soon-to-be parents in the process of understanding themselves and/or each other to increase their well-being.
Her personal experience as an expat raising two kids in Luxembourg taught her the specific challenges of relocation and the growth opportunities it holds.
Adi is accepting new clients in her clinic in Luxembourg city, or via video chats.
You can read more about her at: www.2grow.eu
You can contact her at: Tel: +352 661 888 864 firstname.lastname@example.org