Belonging is an essential biological need for all social creatures. Our biology is such that, should we feel ostracised from our ‘group’ or a person we feel a belonging connection with, we biologically go in to a self destructive state which may also include a self destructive narrative (suicide & self harm), too. Or, alternatively, the inclination to harm or destroy others, often referred to as ‘psychopathy’*.
The stress hormone cortisol is released in large amounts as a response to a disconnection of belonging and if we experience that level for anything more than a fleeting duration, it becomes highly destructive to our biology and brain. Our biology requires a regular maintenance cycle, which on the whole occurs while we sleep, repairing and replacing cells, etc. This regular maintenance cycle is disrupted by cortisol (and lack of sleep). The result of such a disruption to our maintenance cycles can result in reduced immune functions and an increased susceptibility to all sorts of illnesses and disease. Stress allows cortisol through the blood brain barrier and if our neurons and their connections are exposed to high levels of cortisol for prolonged periods, the cortisol begins to destroy the protective myelin covering of those neurons and connections, and eventually damaging and killing those neurons and connections, essentially damaging our brain in ways that, over time, can be measureable. While there is, undoubtedly, a narrative element to depressive symptoms, there is also a biological response and an important part of that biology is the effect of elevated cortisol.
Elevated cortisol has a knock on effect with other hormones and neurotransmitters, reducing their effect by impacting upon and reducing the efficiency of their associated receptors. We are phylogenetically wired to make belonging connections through millions of years of evolution. Such wiring is sometimes referred to as a primary action tendency. What this means it that we are ‘born’ to form belonging connections. Leaving aside the prenatal (in the womb) environment developmental argument for a moment; we have a secondary action tendency that is learnt through experience and environment and that is one of survival and protection.
Our postnatal environments are an essential part of early learning. The infant brain and the path of its growth and the connections it makes in the first years of life are determined by the experiences and environments it finds itself in. Fearful environments cause the infant brain to develop in anticipation of those fearful environments being a constant throughout life. More developmental energy goes to parts of the brain like the amygdala and other areas associated with autonomous and instinctual protective mechanisms. Complex reasoning is not required for survival so areas still to develop like areas of the cortex, the hippocampus, and particularly the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulated, and the connections between these areas experience a reduction in developmental energies. The consequence of this is you eventually end up with a person primed for fight or flight; they have an increased tendency to be argumentative, aggressive, violent, or, alternatively, they may have a tendency to run away from conflict, or both, and a reduced ability to control impulsive tendencies. Conceptually, the narrative of the early fearful experiences and environments also play a strong part in this secondary action tendency. What caused the initial fear is integrated in to the autonomous learning of the survival mechanisms. Implicit reminders of that fearful experience or environment will trigger survival behaviours (fight or flight) and the individual might be overwhelmed by the urge to attack or run away without being able to connect that feeling with their present situation. Such overwhelming compulsions without a present situation would cause an effect known as ‘cognitive dissonance’.
Cognitive dissonance is a highly unpleasant state, so we are wired with the inclination to avoid it at all costs. In the case of implicit reminders of fearful experiences or environments, a narrative will be assembled by processes in the brain that connect the implicit emotions of the reminder to something in the current environment, even if, as in neurotic states, this requires a total magnification or fabrication of a threat. So we come back to the primary action tendency of ‘belonging connections’; what happens if the primary action tendency and the secondary action tendency provide a source of internal conflict? What happens if something or more importantly someone, you have formed an important or essential belonging connection to becomes the source of danger? What happens when you implicitly learn to expect secondary danger from a primary belonging connection? What happens when belonging, rather than being implicitly perceived as a source of safety, is, instead, perceived as a source of life threatening danger? This is what occurs when a primary caregiver (mother, etc.) has caused a severe reaction from the secondary action tendency of survival. Bonding and belonging, in any meaningful way, are responded to with an overwhelming implicit survival reaction (fight or flight). Whether it be emotional or physical abuse, death of the connected person, or abandonment by the connection. The response to any subsequent belonging connection is to implicitly fear a repeat of the experience or environment and activate an implicit and autonomous survival reaction to destroy or escape the danger. So, the desire to form a belonging connection is there, but the act of developing that belonging in any meaningful way brings conflict and evasion tactics from the implicit defences. It may be that the desire to form the belonging connection gets stronger as a result of the repeated resistance and an escalation of the internal battle between love and fear, but it inevitably crashes in to the implicit danger response.
The escalation of the conflict between the desire to form a belonging connection, and the implicit response that the connection means danger is an essential ingredient of the dissonance and behaviours associated with the intense, desperate, manic and oppositional relational dynamics of the diagnosis of “Borderline Personality Disorder”, but it’s manifestation is not exclusive to the diagnosis. The implicitly held belief is that making a belonging connection will be a source of safety, but the reality is that any meaningful connection will trigger a course of events in the survival response designed to destroy that connection because that connection, in the fear centres of the brain, means danger.
*worth noting here that the word “psychopath” is not truly a medical term, but a criminal one.