The origins of a desire to help others & putting one’s own needs first

I experience a desire to help and support others as if it were part of my nature – why else would I be so drawn to being a therapist? I now understand, through reading, and through learning about pre and perinatal development as a craniosacral therapist, that a need to help others is something that some individuals may be born with, or learn from very early on. For me, the work of the pioneers of pre and perinatal psychology has been an eye opener to say the least. 

How our earliest life experiences shape who we become

Franklyn Sill’s book ‘Being and Becoming’ (2009) is the source of the following theoretical understanding about pre and perinatal development.

A prenate’s experience of the maternal holding environment in the womb, and in the first few months of life may, according to psychologist Frank Lake, have a formative influence on personality development. In the womb the infant receives from the mother through the umbilical cord. After birth, the mother or primary caregiver’s attunement and responsiveness to the infants basic needs creates a holding environment for the little one that generates feeling states. Lake called this umbilical affect, a term originally used by Francis Mott, another pre-natal psychologist (1964).

Feeling states of the little one and the mother merge together in the womb and boundaries are blurred for the first few months of life, although there is, at the same time, a sense of self for the little one.

It is obvious that in the womb the mother’s psycho-emotional state is all the infant has around it, feeding the infant and bathing it. This connection continues for the first six to nine months of life when “the infant experiences itself, its world, its needs and its emotional life as non-separate from the mother” (Sills, 2009, page 138). So it is not hard to see the ramifications for personality development if an infant’s mother is living with joy and responsiveness to her own needs or, if the opposite is true, and the mother exists in a state of fear experiencing a hostile and unsupportive environment.

The first three months of life, after conception, are thought to be particularly important to the development of one’s adult personality – laying down the foundations for it. 


There are three types of umbilical affect described by Lake. These are positive, negative and strongly negative. The fetal response to umbilical affect will depend on the nature, duration and severity of negative affect and the constitution of the fetus. Oppositional personalities, psycho-emotional splitting, defensive projections, dissociation and disconnection are all thought to have their origins in strong states of negative affect by Lake. The sense of badness that is flowing into the fetus is intolerable. It is pushed back – and pushed into the mother through the umbilicus. The badness felt within may be projected and pushed onto others in later life as a defended personality develops perhaps exacerbated by adversity and distress. This was a survival strategy. Lake considered that later in life the individual’s basic sense of trust in relationship may be impaired and intimate relationships may be perceived as painful or threatening when there has been prolonged  and unremitting extreme negative umbilical affect. Hopefully however, the little one will receive enough positive umbilical affect to balance out negative states and to build trust, resilience, and a sense of OK-ness for future life. Some degree of negative umbilical affect is unavoidable. The little one knows that these negative states are not going to last and soon they will feel safe and nurtured again.

The concept of the fetal therapist

Through experiencing negative states the little one may feel unseen and unrecognised. It is as if its existence is denied. In later life the pre and perinatal wounding may express itself as feelings of being unworthy and yearning for recognition.

As the prenate is totally dependent on the mother the little one may feel a sense of desperation to try and alleviate the mother’s distress – in order to survive. Putting the needs of others before one’s own needs may be an outcome of this early wounding.

Another survival strategy arising from such early wounding and negative umbilical affect may be to take on the badness through experiencing a felt sense of being the cause of the distress. I am the cause of the badness. It is my fault. My mother is good. In trying to do something about the internally experienced badness experienced as a prenate or infant, the adult may dedicate themselves to helping others, to causes and to making the world a safer place. Soothing the pain of others to help themselves, and in so doing alleviate one’s own internal anguish – which may be resonating with a feeling state from very early life.

Craniosacral therapy as a way to recreate and reconnect with a safe holding field

In my work as a therapist I see many clients who come to me in states of anxiety, stress and fear – not helped surely by the playing out in the media of life threatening viruses sweeping the world, genocide, catastrophic environmental damage and governmental responses to all this. Personal issues are however usually of most concern: relationships, work, life transitions, and processing difficult experiences in the past. 

What can I do to help? 

Craniosacral Therapy enables me to help my clients feel safe and truly heard. I am essentially creating a safe holding environment that resonates deeply with a person’s early life womb experiences and their experiences of being nurtured, loved and cared for.

Once, when working with a young woman who was from a Middle Eastern culture, and we had together found a deep and expansive sense of stillness and peace in the work – she said “I feel so safe and comfortable, it is as if I were at my mother’s breast”. 

Being in such a peaceful state is a hugely powerful experience. It resonates throughout the body – bathing every cell – and connecting the little one inside with positive umbilical affect to counteract anxiety, fear and defended states.  

Perhaps for me however, one of the best things about practicing this form of healing is that I get to feel safe, calm and connected myself – as this is a pre requisite and also a result of trying to create the safe holding space. In this way I can help another through being aware of myself and my boundaries and through putting my own needs first.