“You can’t go to McDonald’s and expect fillet mignon,” said my supervisor during my therapist training. “No matter how many times you go to McDonald’s expecting fillet mignon, you will always get a hamburger. McDonald’s serves hamburgers.” The metaphor he used for describing unmet childhood needs really resonated with me.
There are many reasons why a parent may have left you craving more as a child. Substance abuse, mental illness, environmental stress, marital stress, and a variety of other factors could have played into what your parents could or could not provide for you as a child.
While I plan to focus primarily on the attachment of a child to the biological mother, the same desire and attachment needs are evident with any primary caregiver (fathers, adoptive parents, guardians).
When babies are born they are typically the center of their mother’s universe (by design during pregnancy and by necessity as infants) and all of their primary needs for food, love, and protection are met. If healthy attachment bonds are formed, children later expect that their mother will continue to meet their needs and love them unconditionally. If needs are not met or are met fairly inconsistently, children become unsure of what to expect from their mothers and have deep needs that are often carried with them to adulthood. These are what I call, “old feelings” because they come from a really old place, infancy.
The primitive need for the symbolic fillet mignon (the loving, attentive, and safe mother) shows up in adulthood. Unconsciously, adult children attempt to have their childhood needs met in adult romantic relationships or maintain the primary wish that their mother or parents will be able or willing to love them fully and completely.
Disappointment and despair often ensue when the adult child continues to order fillet mignon and reliably gets hamburger. One of the integral tasks of therapy is to work on the loss involved around yearning (most often unconsciously) for their mother to meet their needs. Therapy also helps to come to terms with what their mother has to offer. There is a way in which this acceptance can move a person from a desire for symbiosis/ merging with their mother into a new and integrated way of being in the world. They see their mother’s strengths and struggles and have internalized them. The lasting impact is felt when the integration of parent, self, and world becomes evident. More simply put, my mother is ok- she comes with good and bad attributes and will never be what she is not; I have good and bad qualities, and I am ok; and the world is both positive and negative and is an ok place, I can feel safe (note: in cases of abuse or neglect, this process and the outcome would look very different). You will learn to get fillet mignon somewhere else, perhaps you will cook it yourself. You learn to anticipate your hamburger at Mc Donald’s and accept it for what it is. You are now satisfying your craving at the right restaurant.