On my way to dropping my daughter off at pre-school I saw a handmade billboard with the word Kindness. Later that day, in another part of town, I saw another sign but this time with the word Love. I wondered about the person that took the time to diligently trace the letters, color them in, and then in the middle of the night, duct tape them to a pole. I imagined it to be three or so hippie college students drinking wine and daydreaming about what they could do to spread the love. Or maybe the culprit was an old man in AA on the heels of some major loss, attempting to offset the pain. Or maybe it was simply an assignment designed by a sociology professor to measure happiness before and after a good deed.
What impressed me is that this anonymous good deed received zero to little feedback from the world, and yet someone somewhere felt it worth doing.
Here ‘s the thing: It actually does make a difference and there has been research to prove it.
Phil Shaver, a professor and researcher from UC Davis conducted a study involving college students working on a mundane task on their computer. Periodically an attachment word would flash across the screen. Words like:
Before and after the mundane task, the college students took a short questionnaire that measured their internal sense of security. It turned out that just by reading attachment words, without personal context, increased the participant’s sense of internal security and safety in the world.
HOLY MOLY. Words DO matter.
I remember a client reporting that she had been staring at a bookshelf in my office with titles like “Loneliness” and “How to Work with Difficult Clients.” These words reverberated in the background of her consciousness. Every time she glanced over at the bookshelf she felt alone and vaguely like she was burdensome to me.
This also speaks to the hypnotic and repetitive nature of the interventions in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Sue Johnson, the creator of the EFT model, once used an attachment word 43 times in a five-minute video clip of her providing therapy for a couple. 43 times. Her repetition sends the equivalent of a massive flood that enters the amygdala and it gets people releasing emotion because they feel relieved and understood. They enter a kind of happy secure trance.
So right now, if I say to you:
You are not alone. I am with you, and you are loved. We are together and better for it. You can count on me. There is a chemical reaction going on in your brain now. Read it slowly. Your amygdala is soothed. We are mammals and with that comes a biological imperative to connect. Love is not icing on the cake; it’s the cake. Actually, it’s not the cake; it’s the whole meal. It’s survival.
This research by Phil Shaver, PhD compelled me to do a little experiment in our house. We own a small Ikea-purchased easel that the kids previously used for art projects, but eventually got relegated to the garage. I pulled it out the other day because one side is a chalkboard and will do in a pinch to advertise a garage sale. So the experiment is this: Every week or so I write an attachment-loaded sentence and park the sign in the dining room. For example:
You are never alone.
Your needs are okay with me.
You matter to me.
You belong here.
I’m glad you are you.
You are loved.
I’m not mentioning it or trying to drive my message home. I’m just doing what the rogue love anarchist did with the posters around the city. I’m sending a message of love out in our house and trusting that the words will wiggle their way into some part of our hearts. Maybe it will remind us, in more difficult moments, what’s truly important: Love.
With a full heart,
Jennifer Olden, LMFT