When an infant is born, he or she has a very limited capacity to tolerate distress. This is why babies cry as much as they do. When they are cold they cry. When they are wet they cry. When they are hungry they cry. This is because they really can't do much to help themselves. Not only can they not change their own diaper or get their own blanket, but they can't tell themselves "well, it's OK that I am cold/wet/hungry right now because I know that it's only going to be a few minutes and then someone will come and take care of me." They can't do this because they don't have a sense of time yet, or of cause and effect, or of problem solving, etc. So they are just stuck with their crummy feeling and it doesn't take long before they feel overwhelmed and start to cry. So if you think about their capacity to tolerate upsetting feelings (physical or emotional) as a container, it would be very small. An infant, for example, would have maybe a thimble-sized container inside of them in which to store painful experiences. Once that thimble is overflowing with distress the baby will start to fuss and cry because they are overwhelmed.
Feeling overwhelmed is not good for your nervous system. Our brains and bodies were not designed to manage distress for long periods of time. This is what people are talking about when they discuss stress-related illnesses. Long-term emotional or physical stress taxes our bodies and our psyches. So we don't want that little baby to sit in their distress for very long. We know that they only have a tiny little capacity for distress and we need to be ready to swoop in and put a saucer under their thimble. That way the over-flow is caught and doesn't make a big mess. When a parent or caregiver is able to quickly come in and put a saucer under the thimble of the baby when it starts to overflow, the baby learns that "OK, that was really uncomfortable to feel overwhelmed, but someone came along quickly and helped me contain it so it didn't' make a huge mess". And through that experience the baby learns to expand his or her capacity for distress. So over time the thimble-size container grows and becomes larger-- say a small teacup or espresso cup. So now the baby has more capacity to manage distress the next time it comes up.
Over the span of one's childhood, if the person is lucky enough to have parents who can provide support quickly and adequately, the capacity to tolerate distress grows considerably large. By adulthood if all goes well a person has a container inside of them that is the size of a rain barrel. This means that as they go through their day they can tolerate a lot of stress and discomfort if need be. Which is a fantastic capacity to have in our stressful modern world!
However, as you can imagine, if a child grows up in a family where the parents are not able to quickly and adequately support the baby things can take a different turn. Maybe mom is depressed, or dad works two jobs, or one of the parents is an alcoholic, or mentally ill. Or one of the siblings has a serious medical condition. There are many reasons why parents may not be able to adequately saucer their children. But regardless of the reason for the failure the result is the same. The child grows into an adult who still has that thimble-sized capacity for distress inside of them. And this means that they are constantly feeling overwhelmed and flooded by painful feelings that interfere with their functioning.
For some people the effects may be obvious-- not being able to keep a job, not being able to maintain friendships or romantic relationships. For others it may be the underlying reason for developing addictions. Or just never fully reaching one's potential. The manifestation of having a small internal capacity for distress is different for different people but it is damaging to all.
So what can be done about this? Since the "failure" is in childhood, what can the person do as an adult to work on this problem?
If you are fortunate enough to be in a committed relationship with a willing partner, you already have a saucer. You just don't know it and he or she may not know it either! Our partners are natural proxies for our parents if we will let them. In a healthy relationship our partner, just like our parent did when we were little, watches us all of the time and pays attention to our tone of voice, our facial expressions, our body posture, even our breathing. And because they are watching us so closely they know when we are starting to feel overwhelmed. A good partner can then, just like a good parent, swoop in and provide a saucer for our overflowing feelings of distress.
Many people who did not grow up being saucered have two problems: one, they don't know how to use others as a saucer, and two, they don't know how to be good saucers for others. If you find yourself in that situation, what can be done?
Well, it turns out that therapists are fantastic saucers. Pretty much everything we learn in our training is in the service of saucering people. So not only do we make great saucers, we also make great teachers of saucering. By sitting with a couple and watching them interact, a good couples therapist can see when one partner needs some saucering and can instruct the other partner on how to do it. Over time with this coaching partners can learn to be reliable saucers for each other, and in turn increase each other's capacity for emotional distress. In having repeated experiences of being "saucered" by his or her partner the adult is able to increase his or her capacity for distress, just as the child would have. While these changes take time, they are also permanent and far-reaching.
If you and/or your partner feel that you have trouble sitting with painful feelings, whether it's anger, hurt, sadness, grief, boredom, jealously or anxiety, you may want to consider finding a good couples therapist. Remember that the most important thing in starting therapy is to feel comfortable with the therapist, to feel that the three of you have a good "fit". Feel free to interview several different therapists-- we don't mind! Any good therapist will encourage you to shop around and wait until you feel you have found someone that you can feel comfortable with.
One of the most wonderful things about being part of a couple, in my opinion, is having someone who can help you change and grow into a better person. By learning to saucer each other more effectively you can increase your capacity for stress and reduce the number of "meltdowns" that each of you have. I hope you can take advantage of this remarkable capacity that humans have to support each other and reach the highest potential for both of you.
First I need to give credit to the originator of this metaphor, a friend and mentor Dr. Stephen Finn. Dr. Finn is a psychologist in practice here in Austin, Texas and is on faculty at UT Austin. He has mentored many psychologists over the years and is a world-renown expert on psychological assessment. If you are interested in psychological assessment you may find his website, www.therapeuticassessment.com, of interest. Now that I have given credit, let me explain what "saucering" is.
You may not know it, but the porn industry has figured out how to hijack your brain's normal circuitry to make you addicted to their product. And they are quite successful! Just as McDonald's uses our brain's cravings for calorie-dense food (that came from eons of living through food shortages), the porn industry uses our brain's natural mechanisms for bonding and procreation to make us crave highly sexualized, ever changing pornographic material.
Here's how it works (I am paraphrasing from Sam Black, author of The Porn Circuit):
So you can see how our brains are wired for partner sex. Each sexual experience, which based on mother nature was supposed to happen with another person, was designed to bond us emotionally to that person. To create powerful feelings of pleasure, excitement, affection and desire/craving. But that system gets hijacked by porn and turned into a powerful reinforcement system which leads the person back to porn for more and more "fixes".
For more information brain circuits involved in pornography, download The Porn Circuit for free.
Below are other findings from brain researchers that illustrate how the brain responds to pornography:
Cambridge Neuropsychiatrist Valerie Voon, in the UK documentary Porn on the Brain, demonstrates that the brains of chronic porn users closely resembles the brains of alcoholics. She explains that her research has shown that a particular area of the brain, the ventral striatum, “lights up” when a porn addict sees porn. This is the same area of the brain that responds when an alcoholic sees a drink. So the same areas of the brain that get hijacked in alcoholism, leading to addiction, are being hijacked in people who repeatedly use pornography.
And in an interesting book by Dr. William Struthers (Wired for Intimacy) brain research is quoted as demonstrating that viewing pornography and masturbating changes the singular cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for helping us have willpower and make hard moral and ethical choices. The singular cortex is actually weakened in people who view pornography habitually. The sad fact is that pornography habits make it harder for us to avoid going back to pornography! It becomes a self-perpetuating cycle.
Gary Wilson, in his TEDx talk, explained why people who use porn frequently eventually have to find more and more extreme images/experiences to get the same result. As noted earlier, porn causes a release of dopamine in the brain. After using the same kind of porn over and over again the brain actually begins to wear out! It stops the production of dopamine to that stimulus (or anything that is too similar), which leaves the person craving their dopamine "fix" but unable to get it. The only way to get the high back is to find something that is more extreme than the original porn. Think of this like an alcoholic developing tolerance to drinking-- at first two drinks gets them tipsy, but in a year or two it takes 4, then 6, and so on. So the tolerance to the original level of stimulation drives them to more and more extreme types of porn just to get the same feeling of pleasure.
For more information on the consequences of this particular aspect of porn addiction see the article "Why Does Porn Seem Hotter Than My Partner?" (http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/why-does-porn-seem-hotter-than-my-partner/) One of the most important things I have learned as a therapist in this situation is that chronic pornography usage can actually cause impotency in real-life sex! The brain gets so used to responding to porn that it gets confused when we have a real-life partner. Men can actually experience impotency or other erectile problems when they try to have sex with a real person, because they have conditioned their genitals (and brain) to respond only to a virtual person!
For more information on how to undo the porn habit and the hold it has on your brain (and your body), you may want to look at The Porn Circuit: Understanding Your Brain and Break Porn Habits in 90 Days.
The take home point is that Mother Nature never anticipated the internet. So our poor brains are not doing a very good job of keeping up. Circuits and chemicals that were designed to help make us get together to procreate and bond to partners are going haywire when exposed to types of stimulate they never anticipated. If you want your relationships to last you may need to learn more about the detrimental aspect of pornography and how to put those same circuits and chemicals to use in favor of your relationships rather than against them.
Krista Jordan, Ph.D., ABPP