Our early childhood experiences can have quite an impact. One view, known as attachment theory, proposes that every child needs to form an attachment, a secure relationship, with at least one person in order to feel secure in future relationships. The child develops an impression of itself, others and relationships as a whole through the lens of this early significant relationship.
If this primary relationship is missing, inconsistent, broken or abusive, the child can struggle to form healthy attachments or relationships with people in the future. The child nevertheless develops patterns of coping and relating aimed at getting his or her needs met. Without developing such coping mechanisms, the child could experience what feels like intolerable anxiety or distress.
A typical coping mechanism could involve manipulative behaviours, designed to evoke what the child needs from others to feel loved, to feel secure. Conversely, it could involve withdrawing into oneself as a way of defending oneself from emotional deprivation, as a way of not-needing others, as a way of getting by on one’s own. It’s all very complex.
Under pressure or stress, an adult can regress to feelings and behaviours he or she experienced and developed as a child. Sometimes, such behaviours are constructive and helpful. Sometimes, however, they are inappropriate to the adult’s world (e.g. in a family, community or work). A person can find him or herself reacting in ways that feel surprising, uncomfortable, strange-yet-familiar.
Some psychologists have proposed that the notion of ‘God’ is simply a projection of human imagination, a transcendent figure to attach to, the ultimate parental figure, a compensation for some deep unmet emotional, psychological and relational need. It’s as if a person can inadvertently confuse their need for an attachment figure with the reality-or-not of an actual figure.
At one level, this hypothesis sounds quite plausible. If I didn’t have other good reasons for believing in God’s existence, I could be convinced that my faith is a projection, a delusion. However, the fact that a person is able to find security in belief in and relationship with God does not of itself negate the possibility that the source of that security, God, is genuine and real.
The challenge I experience day-to-day is more existential than philosophical, logical. It’s about how to believe, trust, hold onto belief that God loves me. It’s an internal struggle. As a child, the complicating issue isn’t primarily about whether a parent figure actually loves the child, but whether the child believes it is loved and finds that experience reliable, trustworthy and secure.
And so I wonder how my own childhood experiences of love influence my ability to believe, accept and trust God’s love. I wonder how I might live if I truly knew that love, how I might relate to God, others and myself, uncluttered by my need to feel secure. I wonder how freeing that might feel, what potential God could release within and between me and others. It’s an intriguing possibility.
Nick Wright is a coach and consultant, specialising in reflective practice.