“It isn’t codependent to crave human touch when you’re hurting. It’s called co-regulation and it’s a survival need wired into you since birth.” ~ Dr. Heidi Green
If there is one emotion that I understand all too well, it’s loneliness.
Having gone through my own turbulent journey and supported hundreds of souls in theirs, I know all too well that while our healing is our responsibility, it can be an extremely lonely space.
Our head is a mess, our emotions are splattered all over, and we struggle to make sense of so many things at once. It’s excruciatingly painful to look at our wounds and tend to them in some broken way. At the end of the day, no matter how much you’ve talked about it or tried to work your way through it, it still feels like coming to an empty house.
And we need to enter that empty house several times before we can begin to call it our home.
The way the world operates doesn’t make it any easier. No one really understands what we’re going through when we’re trying to piece ourselves together while it feels too confusing.
We’re overwhelmed with everything; that kid in us is constantly yelping for some tender love and care. Yet, we come home to emptiness.
While the brutal reality of life is that no one will do the work for us, we’ve got to dig into our own heart and mind and heal our own wounds.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Yet, it is for so many of us. We are constantly being told to be self-reliant for that one thing that needs the presence of another human the most: our emotions.
We live in a relational world. We feed off each other’s energy. Our lives are intricately connected, yet we force ourselves to be strong and hide the vulnerable parts of us.
We gravitate toward emotional isolation and think that the only way to make sense of our emotions is to stuff them in and not let anybody know what we feel.
It is this emotional disconnection that puts so many of us on the path of emotional pain and anguish. It leaves such deep scars that even our eyes hurt by just looking at them.
Perhaps that’s why so many of us are afraid to heal because healing requires us to tend to the parts of us that are screaming in pain and it takes all our soul’s strength to nurture them. And when we have to do it all alone, it’s pretty scary.
The fact is, the one thing we need the most in our healing journey is co-regulation. We heal faster and better when we can run toward someone with all our aches and pains and pour our heart out and in return receive a warm hug, a gentle touch, and the reassurance that “I am here with you.” This…feels safe.
And when we feel that we are taken care of, our mind and body respond differently.
“Co-regulation is natural. It’s how we’re built. Self-regulation is not natural. It takes a lot of effort. It causes the person to move into greater isolation which exacerbates the cycle of feeling lost from each other.” ~ Bonnie Badenoch
Sadly, we perceive this as a sign of “weakness” whereas this is what we are meant to do.
The ability to self-regulate (i.e. to soothe ourselves) when in distress is not something that comes naturally to us. As infants, we need to be soothed. We need to know over and over again that someone is there to hold us, take care of us, ease our distress, and make us feel safe. When we are constantly exposed to this co-regulation (i.e. being soothed) while in distress by someone who feels safe to us and loves us, it allows us—as infants—to calm down. Over time, this sense of co-regulation paves the way for self-regulation.
“Children learn to self-regulate through co-regulation. The better we can soothe them when they are agitated, or support them when they are low, the better they are able to absorb how to do this for themselves.” ~ Stuart Shanker
As we start to grow, we slowly learn how to support ourselves in distress. And this is something we need to be taught. We are not born with the ability to soothe ourselves.
We are born with the need to connect. If our caregivers are responsive toward our emotions—verbally and physically—we get the message that our emotions are safe and so is the world. We feel that we matter and are taken care of. It’s only then that our interaction with the world becomes independent.
This need for co-regulation is wired in our nervous system. It is the way one person’s nervous system influences that of another. It is a neurological and biological process. It’s a process that begins in the womb and continues throughout life.
When this need is not met, we grow up to be insecure, cautious, distressed human beings who are completely cut off from our own self. We grow up feeling unworthy and undeserving of anything good.
And it doesn’t go away, even when we become adults. It’s always there, making us reach out to people for love, support, acceptance, and safety.
We need this sense of safety and validation of our being from everyone connected to us: our parents, kids, friends, and partners.
Yet we push ourselves to think, feel, and believe that we need to be “independent” all the time and end up killing the very essence of our relationships.
“Emotional connection among human beings is like oxygen.” ~ Sue Johnson
It’s not humanly possible; the more we find ourselves in situations where our pain is not understood, not tended to, and there’s no one to soothe us when we hurt, everything inside of us shrinks.
To heal, grow, and just be, we all need to feel that we are safe and loved. In fact, that was all we ever needed as kids. That’s all that a child needs.
No matter how old we are or get, we will always be children in adults’ bodies, yearning for human connection.
And when that happens, the world suddenly moves from black, white, and grey to all other possible colors. We feel alive. We feel like we matter and life appears to be meaningful because we know we have someone to share it with.
But whether we get that or not is a different story altogether, and that is the sad reality that so many of us silently grapple with—only if we learn to be there for each other in a way that enables us to grow and come into our own.
“What do you need?
To be seen, heard, and held.
Why do you need it?
To feel safe and loved.
That’s all that matters. Doesn’t it?”