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Keep your guard up - and let it down

UCL Trainee Clinical Psychologist, Sophie Raymont, explains why coming together over a shared passion like boxing can help build trust.

I remember being a teenager watching daytime TV - a psychologist sat on the couch, chatting with Phil and Fearne. They explained that the difficulties the star of their real-life story was experiencing were a result of things that happened in their childhood. I used to be baffled by these weird psychological theories - it never made sense to me how childhood could possibly be influencing an adult’s behaviours and relationships all those years later.

I now find myself months away from qualifying as a Clinical Psychologist, and my passion is in this very area – understanding how our experiences in childhood influence us throughout our lives.

Currently, I’m researching the link between childhood experiences, relational trust and learning across the lifespan. What I’ve seen is that our ability to learn isn’t predetermined, it isn’t fixed. Instead, it’s influenced by many different “nurture elements” – this is what psychologists call factors that are to do with our environments or the people around us. One nurture element is our experiences with our parents or caregivers, when we are babies. From the moment we are born, we are a helpless bundle of energy, making sense of an overwhelming world that we have never experienced before. We are wholly vulnerable and entirely dependent on our parents or the people looking after us. How they interact with us is a template for how we expect others will treat us, and how much we feel we can rely, depend on and trust other people.

When our parent or carer truly ‘sees’ us, and by that, I mean really takes the time and space to be with us and try to understand us, we learn to trust other people. We cry, they respond and try to make it better. We stumble, they pick us back up again and encourage us to keep trying. Tuning in to our thoughts, feelings and the world from our perspective (we call this “attunement”) from a person who cares about us, provides us with a template that we generalise to other humans – a sense that in general, we can trust others.

Other people see ‘me’ as an individual and have my best interests at heart. This isn’t a conscious idea that we are aware of, it’s more a general sense that we carry with us, that other people can “get” us and generally will treat us well. This trust in others opens us up to learning from others – we trust that other people can provide us with useful information that might help us learn something or will help us in other ways.

For some children and young people, this fundamental trust has been difficult to establish. Perhaps due to not being treated well by adults who care for them, they learn that others do not ‘see’ their needs accurately: People don’t “get” me. They may have learnt to expect that others will hurt them, or let them down, and they carry around this feeling as a “template” for relating to the world. Trusting others with their emotions or struggles may feel intensely threatening. These children learn it is safer to have their guard up and not to place trust in those around them, because they cannot reliably believe that others will have their best interests at heart.

But we can support young people like this to build trust with other people. By truly connecting with them, doing our best to ‘see’ them and ‘get’ them as accurately as we can, and sitting with them in their perspective on things, we can mirror the attuned experience a young person may have missed in early childhood. One of the most basic ways to build trust is to connect over a shared experience, coming together as two separate people over a joint activity or a common goal. For young people who find the idea of trusting people threatening, connecting over doing something, like boxing, can set a firm foundation for building trust in other parts of life, like school, in friendships, and in romantic relationships.

Having your guard up in the gym, may be just the thing that allows you to start letting your guard down in the rest of your life.

Sophie Raymont is a Trainee Clinical Psychologist working in London. She is interested in the effects of early childhood experiences across the life span. Post-qualification she intends to build a career supporting young people and their families, particularly those who have been affected by adverse experiences. You can find her on Twitter at @SophieRay191.


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