July 22, 2021

Why do I Act like a 4-Year-Old in my Adult Relationships? (aka Nervous System Patterning).

“I feel like a child,” I uttered quietly.

I was already multiple decades past my childhood.

As my thoughts spun out in the throes of anxiety, I was sure I was suffocating.

My nervous system ran amok and my body’s panic responses took hold: my breathing now shallow and my eyes rapidly scanning the room.

“I couldn’t call. I had a busy day and couldn’t figure out how to find the time,” he said over the phone. I could barely hear him.

Primal anxiety had hijacked my thoughts, desperation leaking out of my pores. It was physically painful.

Although we had been in a relationship for a year, I was sure his nonexistent call the night prior was code for “he is abandoning me.”

I had been waiting for him to figure out that something was wrong with me and leave. And his missed phone call convinced me that the time had arrived. This was not rational, and I knew it.

It took me 10 days to fully restore my nervous system.

At which point, relational damage had taken hold.

If our emotional needs were not met in our earliest days of development, we may have developed nervous system responses or coping mechanisms that pre-date our ability to speak.

If we are relationally anxious, we may skew toward being hypervigilant. This is where we closely monitor the body signals, actions, tone of voice in others, mirroring their actions.

We feel responsible for their state of mind and may believe something is wrong with us, or that we have caused another person’s emotional state.

We may take on a heightened sense of responsibility for the feelings of others, or feel abandoned, unheard, or panicked.

We can lose ourselves, overtaken by a nervous system response that we don’t understand, overcome with thinking and feeling that is rooted so deeply that we aren’t aware of any other possibilities.

We may think it’s how everyone else feels in similar circumstances: we don’t recall any other way in our reactions or thoughts.

But a clue that something is amiss is when we struggle with the same relationship problems or detect a set of thoughts or behaviors within us that’s otherwise misaligned with our adult personalities and ration.

When our mind gets overtaken, and we find ourselves acting petulant, pouting, wailing, whining, or in the throes of an outburst as adults—we are displaying the nervous system patterning of childhood trauma.

If we can’t attach any memories to our childhood, or are unclear of adverse events that occurred, this is often a hallmark of developmental trauma, which means we are stuck in patterning developed under the age of four.

Humans co-regulate and a child’s nervous system is underdeveloped at birth. Our brains rely on mirror neurons of the adults around us to develop optimally.

Babies can’t “self soothe.”

Without an adult to be present, empathetic, and attuned, a part of our brain doesn’t develop.

If our caregivers didn’t have the skills or time to give us what we required, as adults, our nervous systems escalate into fight, flight, freeze or fawn (getting overly lovey-dovey) with the presence of heightened body sensations or emotions, rather than remaining calm and integrating with our ration.

Our nervous system is then running our relationships, and we are navigating them as though we were children.

My childhood memories begin at age four.

One of my earliest is that of riding my tricycle and shrieking when I discovered a daddy longlegs spider had taken up residence on my thigh.

My dad responded to my ear-curdling screams, brushed the spider off, told me to stop “being silly,” and walked away.

I now also had a pit in my stomach from being emotionally abandoned.

I didn’t feel “silly” when I was terrified, so I deduced that something must be wrong with me. I felt panicked that I wasn’t loveable. I was now on my own to regulate my nervous system and calm myself.

I just didn’t know how.

Without any empathetic abiding witness by our side, we may feel like children in a panic, because we functionally are. We are terrified by small things, the size of a spider, and reliant on our four-year-old strategies.

It’s said that we should find our authentic selves.

But what if we don’t even know what that feels like because we didn’t ever have the chance to experience ourselves that way?

To help our relationships and ourselves, we can use our adult minds to re-pattern the child inside, practicing when we are in a heightened state or able to recall one:

>> Feeling our sensations. 

We want to notice and name our body sensations in the here and now. We need to detail the sensations of our body, a skill we rarely were encouraged to do as children. Start by noticing and naming what we feel out loud. For example, we can say: “I feel a scratching below the rib cage and a tightness in my neck plus a clenching in my jaw.”

When we sit in these sensations, we often feel discomfort. It is necessary to safely develop a tolerance for these physical feelings, and we will notice that the intensity starts to shift as we invite them in, without judgment.

>> Naming our emotions.

We can then name the emotion accompanying the physical sensations. This helps us associate an emotional feeling with the body, so we can better understand the cues and information the body is giving us.

Example: “I feel scared and sad.” This integrates our feelings and our body sensations.

>> Noticing what we have made that mean about ourselves.

In this, we ask ourselves what we are perceiving or believing. We do not list what happened, but instead, stay focused on what we believe about ourselves.

For example, we can say: “I believe I’m not good enough and I think you are going to leave me.”

This integrates the mind with the body and emotionally felt sensations.

>> Applying self-compassion.

If we didn’t have an attuned parent who could witness our experiences and help us make sense of them, we often believed we were alone, flawed, or shameful when we experienced either body sensations or emotions.

Accessing self-compassion helps us understand that we are not alone, many people have felt these feelings, and gives voice to the same inner wisdom and words that we would offer a friend.

If we were someone else in a similar circumstance, what would we say to that person?

We need to offer these words aloud to ourselves.

>> Attuning to another. 

We do not need to do this work alone. And we cannot.

We need to sit with another safe person, attune to them, and allow our nervous system to co-regulate with theirs, calming us and using our social nervous system to reprogram our behaviors.

What do we need most from someone else: to be heard? To feel connected? To be seen?

Identify what we would do for a four-year-old or two-year-old in the same scenario and voice this aloud to the empathetic abiding presence who is with us.

>> We can practice this loop, pause any time if it does not feel safe, and work on building resilience and tolerance as we practice.

The severing of connection with ourselves and our authenticity is the trauma. We can reconnect.

I recovered my primary relationship after six months of practicing this loop, a year after first noticing the initial damage my childhood fear of abandonment had caused.

The only person abandoning me was me.



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