Our need for a secure base

“Life is best organized as a series of daring ventures from a secure base”

John Bowlby British psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst.

The other day, I looked out my window from my cosy little room in Bloomsbury and noticed something strange. The BT Tower which stands only a few blocks away from my building had completely disappeared. 

It’s a landmark I have a personal attachment to, having spent most of my younger years in Central London. I used to use the tower as a beacon to guide me home. Whenever I felt lost, I would look up, locate the tower and use it to get my bearings. My own urban lighthouse so to speak; “BT phone home” was a little joke amongst friends. And now with it disappeared I felt a little untethered, and wobbly. A place of familiarity and safety had momentarily vanished.

This temporary disappearance of my London beacon reminded me of the concept of our secure base.

A secure base, a term developed by British psychologist, John Bowlby, refers to the attachment we (hopefully) develop as children to our caregivers. Our secure base is where we start from in order to go out into the world (the unknown) safe in the knowledge that we have a secure base to return to if needed.  Bowlby explained that “In essence, this [parenting] role is one of being available, ready to respond when called upon to encourage and perhaps assist, but to intervene actively only when clearly necessary.”

A simple example of a secure base in action is to watch toddlers wandering around new surroundings. They often wander a little on their own and then look back to find mum, feeling safe and reassured, they wander out a bit more and check back again to see if mum is still in view. Mum likewise keeps an eye on them. Mum is essentially the toddler’s secure base.  A place of safety and security, which can be relied upon.

We all need a secure base. If we’ve had good-enough parenting, then we’ve normally been able to take our positive experiences and internalise our own secure base as we become adults. This internalisation is key for us to be able to cope with the many twists and turns we may face in our lives. 

But unfortunately not all of us experience that kind of parenting. Sometimes our caregivers were unable to provide a secure base for us. We as toddlers might have looked back to find mum, only to discover she had disappeared. Our caregivers might have been inconsistent in their care and simply unable to provide us with the reassurance and comfort we all need as children. Home may not have been a refuge of safety but a war zone to escape from.  

Therapy can provide a way of building our secure base.  Through the relationship between client and therapist, we can experience what we may have missed out on in childhood. John Bowlby wrote “…unless a therapist can enable his patient to feel some measure of security, therapy cannot even begin.”  British psychiatrist, Jeremy Holmes agrees adding that “without the [therapeutic] alliance there can be no secure base, and without secure base there will be no exploration.”  A secure base is an integral facet for truly effective therapy. 

A recent religious magazine headline asked the question “Will we ever feel safe and secure?”  My simple response is absolutely yes! And it all starts from our secure base. It cannot be assumed that we’ve been given this base from the very start of our lives. It might be that we need to build a base for ourselves. We may need to find our own BT Tower (so to speak).  

With the turmoil and uncertainty in our society right now, our need for a secure base is becoming increasingly relevant. If we can draw upon our internal secure base whilst the world outside wobbles, we can hold fast, safe in the knowledge that we can cope with what may come.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

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