The Security Blanket

Chapter 3b of Meeting the Voices in My Head and Searching for an Inner Adult

Image by Apelad

In the last installment, I began to talk about how babies learn to cope with being left alone in their crib and the long-term outcome of this universal experience. The baby finds itself in an abyss, utterly helpless and confused about what is going on. It can go three ways, and I talked about the first two. A kind of firefighter can come out, maned for those civil servants who have license to ruin a home in the interests of saving it. We usually call this rage. The second is the baby could get the Fuck-Its, which enable the baby to cope by becoming lethargic. Fully grown people can exercise these same two options when they feel lost and powerless.

In this post, I present the third option. The baby can create a security blanket and pretend everything is fine.


Luckily, the Firemen and the Fuck-Its are not the only ways to cope with being in an Abyss. A better method that babies learn to comfort themselves when their parents are not around is with what the psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott called a transitional object. A security blanket, in common parlance, although it’s not always a blanket. Teddy bears and dolls are often used. They don’t have to be warm and cozy, although it helps. I would go so far as to say even words, ideas, and, yes, the very voices in my head can be security blankets.

When I was a kid, I had a red, plaid blanket, which I dragged around till it was so dirty, tattered, and torn my mother was embarrassed by it. She tried to throw it out, but I saved it from the garbage. I don’t remember how she finally succeeded in getting rid of it, but I still would like to have it, not to carry it around, but as another memento of my childhood. Originally, my blanket served as a substitute for my mother before they became mortal enemies. I could comfort myself with it when she could not be around.

You can see how this might be useful to a baby stuck in his crib, especially when he’s crying, not for some simple need, but because he wants someone to come. The blanket takes the place of the caretaker. Just how does a blanket do that?

It all comes from a willingness to use symbolism and metaphor, coupled with a suspension of disbelief. The part of me named Linus is the very one to perform it. The security blanket stands in for and symbolizes my mother. It’s magic that he believes it. He willfully decides to pretend the blanket is my mother and the Abyss is not there. There may be some properties of the blanket in common with my mother. Both are soft and warm. It may have her smell on it. There are associations. She may have given it to me. Linus allows the things the blanket has in common with her to dominate his notion of the blanket, while he ignores characteristics that don’t. He pays no attention to the fact the blanket gives no milk, cannot change a diaper, or sing nursery rhymes. The blanket is a metaphor of the caretaker when he or she must be absent. Like any metaphor, the blanket resembles her; but, like any metaphor, it can be confused with the real thing. Linus convinces me to forget that important thing I just learned that my caretaker and I are separate and I can’t have her whenever I want.

It all comes from a willingness to use symbolism and metaphor, coupled with a suspension of disbelief. The part of me named Linus is the very one to perform it. The security blanket stands in for and symbolizes my mother. It’s magic that he believes it. He willfully decides to pretend the blanket is my mother and the Abyss is not there. There may be some properties of the blanket in common with my mother. Both are soft and warm. It may have her smell on it. There are associations. She may have given it to me. Linus allows the things the blanket has in common with her to dominate his notion of the blanket, while he ignores characteristics that don’t. He pays no attention to the fact the blanket gives no milk, cannot change a diaper, or sing nursery rhymes. The blanket is a metaphor of the caretaker when he or she must be absent. Like any metaphor, the blanket resembles her; but, like any metaphor, it can be confused with the real thing. Linus convinces me to forget that important thing I just learned that my caretaker and I are separate and I can’t have her whenever I want.

When my kids were small, I gave them hundreds of things they could have used as a substitute for me. Their rooms were filled with blankets, stuffed animals, pictures, toys, and books. I like to think it all comforted them when I couldn’t be around. Something must have worked. They are now fully capable of living their lives without me.

I imparted more than just material things. I sang nursery rhymes, told stories, and issued commands I hoped would stick in their heads. I meant for them to carry my voice in their heads, a voice saying all the things I never want them to forget, as well as those I wish they would.

For instance, whenever we were about to cross the street, I would say, “Look both ways”, even though I was already looking both ways for them. I said it because I was trying to give them something to remember when I was not around. The injunction, “Look both ways,” serves many purposes at once. It’s good, practical advice that can keep them from getting hit by a car; it’s an ever-present reminder of their old Dad; and it can give them confidence at a busy intersection. That last one may be taking it too far since they could look both ways and still step into an open manhole. That’s the problem with security blankets. Sometimes we expect them to cover too much and hide the fact that we know less than we think we do

Many of our security blankets mean little in themselves but must be unfolded to get at the meaning. Politicians use them all the time when they evoke highly charged words like democracy, freedom, security, and justice. When you hear those words, you may get a nice feeling because of all the good things you associate with them, but you don’t know what he or she means by them, nor what everyone else in the crowd thinks they mean. You must pull the blanket off before you know what they mean and what they are hiding.

When my kids were small, my lessons were not limited to simple commands. I tried to impart values like democracy, freedom, security, and justice, as well as religious beliefs and a sense of worth and purpose. These are also security blankets, but they are made to cover up the Abyss and pretend it’s not there.

As a therapist, a large part of my day is devoted to pulling off my client’s security blankets. I know that’s what I’ve got to do when someone comes in and says their goal is happiness. Happiness is a very common security blanket word. I immediately proceed to look underneath and ask them what happiness means to them. They’ll say something like “being together with family”, another security blanket word. “How does being together with family make you happy?” I ask. “We love each other,” they say. Love is another security blanket word. And so, on we go, pulling off security blanket words, spread over top of each other. Do we ever get to the last security blanket? Not a chance. We give up, first.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s often illuminating for both of us to explore what these words mean to them, and I like to think it helps them clarify their values. But I know, if we ever do get to the last security blanket, nothing would be underneath. We will have returned, once again, to the Abyss.

Here’s the true story of the security blankets. The Innermost Child is lost in the Abyss, not knowing what anything means. A parent comes along and says, I know what it means, it means this, and hands the child a security blanket he got from his parent or some other part of society. The child says thank you and feels much better. He now understands the meaning. But, if he ever looked underneath, he’d find there is no meaning. He is still in the Abyss.

If this is depressing, I’m sorry to say it can’t be avoided. Unspeakable evils hide under security blankets and must be brought to light. This is why I pull them off. Some of security blankets contained beliefs about race, sex, gender, and difference. It has been necessary to confront, for instance, what I was told about African-Americans. When I did, I discovered they were lies. I found myself in the Abyss again, wondering what I could believe. However, I like to think this process of pulling off security blankets improves matters because it takes me back to the basics, where a mystery resides. There is always a mystery at the heart of everything. All the voices in my head are just chattering away, pretending they know everything. They don’t, unless there’s an adult among them with some wisdom, who can make it all make sense.

Next: The Bot I Call My Parent

Published by Keith R Wilson

I'm a licensed mental health counselor and certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor in private practice with more than 30 years experience. My newest book is The Road to Reconciliation: A Comprehensive Guide to Peace When Relationships Go Bad. I recently published a workbook connected to it titled, How to Make an Apology You’ll Never Have to Make Again. I also have another self help book, Constructive Conflict: Building Something Good Out of All Those Arguments. I’ve also published two novels, a satire of the mental health field: Fate’s Janitors: Mopping Up Madness at a Mental Health Clinic, and Intersections , which takes readers on a road trip with a suicidal therapist. If you prefer your reading in easily digestible bits, with or without with pictures, I have created a Twitter account @theshrinkslinks. MyFacebook page is called Keith R Wilson – Author.

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