Home Mental Health & Well-Being Understanding the Nurture Trap, Psychotherapist Explains

Understanding the Nurture Trap, Psychotherapist Explains

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The human animal has evolved to adore being nurtured. That feeling of being loved, looked after, cared for, and the centre of your world, is magnetically beguiling.

It’s an evolutionary thing – those in our ancient past who responded well to it lived longer.

But there’s a huge problem with it too, in that while we need it to survive when we’re young and not yet equipped to deal with the roughness of the world on our own, if we get hooked on it as adults it has a stultifying effect upon our life. It can even result in early death, the very thing it should prevent.

In my days in practice as a psychotherapist, I noticed that it was as if the minds of those who had received too little during their early years showed certain types of behaviour patterns designed to get more of it as an adult. They would claim all sorts of situations that would encourage loving attention from others:

  • Greatly exaggerate the symptoms of any genuine illness.
  • Claim to be unfairly or badly treated in some way.
  • Talk about how they always feel so inadequate.
  • Talk about one catastrophe after another.
  • Wonder why they have been singled out by the universe

Not only that, but they might also be secretly pleased if they could feel the onset of a cold or ‘flu, and often harboured a secret wish to seem seriously ill without actually being so.

In other words, anything that would compel others to look after them in some way. They repeat their stories and claims at regular intervals and report sadly how tough life is for them, and the others continue to nurture and reassure them that they are a brave soldier and that life goes on. The balance between them is maintained.

But not always.

For some people, the fact that the attention-seeking ploy works so well can occasionally create its own problem. That happens when those nurturing ‘others’ get rather used to the fact that this individual has so many woes they can barely function, and just stop responding to it.

They know that other people will continue to look after the sad ones, tell them they’re wonderful and lovely and one of the world’s beautiful people and so on.

Much wants more

For the sufferer – because that’s exactly what they are – the apparent withdrawal or reduction of sympathetic outpourings generates a craving that behaves almost like an addiction (though it truly is not).

It might even be the case that they have become used to the level of nurture they receive, and just like a drug addict, have to increase their ‘dose’ to get the same effect.

It’s a quite well-known process characterised by the phrase ‘much wants more’. And so they have to ramp up their tales of misfortune and mishap, seeking to get a satisfactory ‘hit’ from the response.

And now they’re possibly on their way to a serious situation from which there’s little chance of going back and an increased risk of intractable and serious physical illness. The mechanism has two possible sources:

  • The constant playing of being ill, downtrodden or unfortunate becomes so deeply embedded in the psyche that the subconscious views it as something that is essential for survival. It triggers various forms of self-sabotaging behaviour that now create genuine versions of the problems, even physical illness. The individual will have no idea they themselves are the cause of their problems.
  • The lack of physical activity as a result of the actions of various circumstances results in genuine illness through lack of physical activity, and this creates such psychological processes as anxiety and depression. This time, they are real.

And the problem now is that all the nurturing in the world will not repair the damage. To a large extent, the mind controls the body, and it has now created a genuine need for nurture because the individual cannot get better.

A recognition

If you’re now feeling a bit uncomfortable because you’ve recognised something of yourself, this is your opportunity to break free and start to live. It’s important to recognise and act upon certain facts:

  • If you love the attention you get from being ‘special’, be especially upbeat and you’ll get even better attention.
  • Most of the time, people don’t look after you because they love you – they do so out of a sense of moral obligation to help. Whatever they tell you.
  • The most popular people are the cheerful ones who make others feel good. They are usually the most loved, too.
  • You might be aware that you had a tough childhood and weren’t properly cared for. If so, here’s something to think about: no matter who did what, when, where or why, you are the only person who can sort it out, though you might need the help of a good therapist.

Create a plan for yourself where you create change a little at a time, so slowly that others don’t really notice it at first. That way you avoid sarcastic comments which can put you right back to the beginning. Practice changing your mind when you are about to tell a tale of woe and instead ask somebody how they are. Just now and again.

Do something you would normally avoid and don’t tell anybody. Just now and again. And when somebody tells you they don’t feel well, or that some disaster has happened, whatever you do don’t hijack their tale. Keep the conversation about them and ask how you can help them, not just now and again but every time.

Terence Watts is the creator of Brain Working Recursive Therapy (BWRT).




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