Why We Forgot How To Feel
Words by Dr. Gabor Mate
When a child is born, a child has two needs. The first need is for attachment. And attachment is contact, connection, love. Without that, the human child does not survive. Even an avian child doesn’t survive. The baby bird has to be attached to the parent. The parents have to be attached to the baby. Otherwise the infant simply does not survive. Mammalians even more so and most so the human because we are the least developed, the least mature, with the least developed brains, and the most dependent for the longest period of time of any creature.
So our attachment needs are enormous. And they remain important through our lifetime because we have to have attachments to form societies, social groups, without which we don’t survive. So attachment is a huge need - to be able to connect, belong, be loved by and loved. That’s just a basic human need.
But we have another need as well which is for authenticity. Authenticity is the capacity to know what you feel, to be in touch with our bodies, and to be able to express who we are and manifest who we are in our activities and in our relationships. Now why is that? Well, think of a human being in evolutionary period who is not in touch with their body and gut feelings. How long do they survive out there in the wild? So authenticity is another huge survival need.
But what happens to a child where the attachment need is not compatible with the need for authenticity? In other words, if I am authentic, my parents will reject me. If I feel what I feel and express what I feel and insist on my own truth, my parents can’t handle it.
And parents convey those messages unconsciously all the time. Not because they mean to, not because they don’t love the child, but because they themselves are suppressed, or traumatized, or hurt, or stressed.
Now what does a child do with that? Well, if I give up my attachment for the sake of authenticity, I lose my relationships upon which my life depends. Therefore, there is no question. What becomes suppressed is our authenticity, our emotions.
And then, we become 35, 40, and we don’t know who we are. Somebody asks us, “what do you feel?” And you say, “I have no idea.” And how many times have we all had the experience of an inkling of a strong gut feeling, and ignoring it. We ignore it and get into trouble.
Well that tells us what happened. What happened was that at some point we found out that it was too costly for our attachment relationships to be in touch with our gut feelings. So then it becomes not our first nature but our second nature to lose touch with ourselves and to suppress our gut feelings. And then we pay the cost later on in the form of addiction, mental illness, or any range of physical illnesses. But it all began with this tragic conflict that children should never be confronted with but are all the time between authenticity on the one hand and attachment on the other.