“Save Me, Grandma!” – The Power of Primary Emotion

By Carole Vogt, PsyD

In addition to being an Emotionally Focused Therapist, I am also a Grandma. I have taken care of my first grandchild on a regular basis for the past year. He is now 18 months old and is so full of life and confidence when he is feeling safe and secure. I am a primary attachment figure for him. He depends on me to be there for him and I am.

The other day while he was in my care at my home something terrifying happened for him. Scared child needing reassuranceYou are probably wondering, “oh no, what horrible event happened?” Here is an example of what happens when a baby, a child, or an adult is thrown into primary emotion in an instant. It wasn’t a huge event —it actually was nothing from my adult attached perspective.

The doorbell rang.

That was it.

I left my grandson standing in the living room to go to the front door to see who was there. Now, the 2 big dogs I own were barking so that did add to the commotion, but other than that from my perspective there was nothing to be alarmed about. But for my grandson, it was absolutely terrifying: his grandma walked away from him and left him in the room by himself when something unknown was happening.

Primal Fears in Relationships

He ran into the hallway and was crying in the most primal way I have ever seen and reached his arm out to me while I was about 10 feet in front of him by the door I was opening. You would have thought he was reaching out over a cliff shouting “save me!”  I immediately saw and felt the fear in his face and body and cry and went to him and picked him up. He needed me immediately in that instant to reassure him that I was there for him, that I cared for him, that I could be counted on when he was so afraid.

He was experiencing primary emotion — we might call it “flight or fight” emotion. The “gut” reaction that floods us immediately when we feel threatened. He didn’t stop to think about it, he felt it in his entire being. That’s how it is for us as adults also; primary emotions come up when we feel threatened in our primary attachment relationships. We don’t think first, we feel and we are scared, just like my grandson. We wonder: “Are you there for me?”; “Will you comfort me?”; “Will you help me to feel safe?”

Emotional Responsiveness = Safety & Strength

How I responded to my grandson reassured him that what he felt was valid, that I understood, I had empathy for him. It didn’t matter that I knew he was not in danger, it mattered that I met him where he was with his fear. He quickly settled into my arms from a position of safety and allowed me to answer the door. In our attachment relationships as adults that is what we all long for: to be in a position of safety and security so we can go on and face each moment knowing our significant other has our back.

About Carole Vogt

As a counselor-emeritus at Colorado Counseling Center, Carole brought a great depth of professional experience to her counseling with couples and individuals.

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