Whenever I’ve had rescue animals, they have been older animals needing new homes. Last spring was the first time our rescue animal was just a baby. She was a 7-week old kitten who was so tiny that she slept inside our shirts. We named her Lily.
In her first week at home, one of us bought a couple of dollar store cat toys. I don’t even know which one of us it was. One of the toys was a plastic stick with a couple of feathers on the end of it.
That stupid stick became the most important thing in that kitten’s life. She dragged it everywhere with her. You have to remember that at that point she was tiny. And she dragged a long plastic stick up and down 3 flights of stairs multiple times a day. She also jumped up onto high surfaces with the feather stick. Of course, I’m a jerk and started playing mind games with her by hiding the stick (hiding it somewhere obvious) and waiting for her to find it. When that game got too easy I started to use it to play fetch.
At some point, Lily decided my having access was far too dangerous for her comfort object. So she started hiding it from ME!
I started finding feather stick in strange places like under the carpet, under the blankets in my bed, in the bathtub … One day she hid it so well that I couldn’t find it anywhere.
We replaced feather stick with a new one with completely different coloured feathers. I wasn’t sure she would fall in love with the fraudulent toy, but she treats the new one with almost as much love and affection as the first. No matter where I put that thing, she inevitably brings it into the bathroom and I step on it in the dark.
Lily and feather stick reminded me of research I once did on adults and comfort objects.
Small children are given or claim objects that bring them comfort, and provide a sense of safety, of soothing, of calm. Then they start school and it becomes socially inappropriate to carry around your comfort item. Why? At what age do you suddenly not need comfort or soothing? Do you turn 5 and now you don’t need that ripped piece of cloth from your grandmother’s pillowcase that you’ve slept with for 3 years? You turn 17 and that plastic lizard you’ve carried in your pocket your whole life suddenly has no meaning and you can’t have it any more?
There are many children who give up their item by choice and no longer need it. That’s also okay.
These items are called “transitional objects” and are a healthy part of development as a child transitions from dependence to independence. Studies show that children grow out of the need for this item as they learn “other ways” to cope with stress. Other studies show that many people keep their transitional objects into adulthood.
“The use of transition objects continues through our lives as we imbue objects with meaning and memories that are associated with other ideas, places and people. Photographs, mementos and other memorabilia are used to remember good times and friends. Transition objects may also translate as fetish objects.” – Winnicott, D. (1953). Transitional objects and transitional phenomena, International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 34:89-97
I would like to meet one adult who is so self-actualized that they never, ever have a need to feel comforted and soothed.
“As adults, there are other types of objects that serve a similar purpose as transitional object used by children. It is common for adults to keep prized possessions owned by their parents when they were growing up. Dad may have passed away many years ago but wearing his watch is a comforting reminder of that relationship. […] (they) are a wonderful way to reduce stress. That photograph of mom, jacket of dad’s, china-set you inherited, and other such things, are serve the purpose of reminding us of the happy parts of our childhood and helps comfort us when we are feeling stressed, depressed or very anxious. Some people call these “lucky charms.” Whatever they are called it’s good to have them.” – Allan N. Schwartz, PhD, April 23, 2012
I don’t disagree. While packing up our house I threw away many items imbued with memories but I just couldn’t part with a stupid notebook full of stamps that I collected from mail from my childhood penpals … and at the same time …
I WANT TO TELL YOU TO RECLAIM YOUR THING!!!!!
Why can’t we keep using the item we used in childhood? Who says there are particular objects for children and others for adults?
And if you can’t get back what you had as a child, find something similar. Or something new. And if you never had a comfort object, go find one!
What would feel soothing to you? Which senses do you want to call upon when you need to be comforted or soothed? A scent? A texture? A temperature? What feels calming? Is there something that reminds you of someone or some time that was so good that just looking at it makes you smile? Does that thing have to live in a box? Or is it a photo you can put in your wallet?
I have a scarf. More like a shawl in size really. It is beautiful. It was also given to me by someone special to acknowledge something I accomplished. So the scarf represents care, and strength, and love, and a reminder that I can actually do the hard things. In the beginning, I felt embarrassed about carrying it around with me all the time. I was even more embarrassed that I started sleeping with it. I tried to find ways to make it casual like, oh I’m really cold in this 28 degree direct sunlight, I’ll just stick this giant scarf in my bag on the way to the beach in case I get too cold … or … oh I always carry this with me in case I get cold … I have fibromyalgia, hypothyroidism, and an endocrine disorder; I don’t get cold.
Now I carry it around like a badge of honour. Screw what other people think. I’m 42 years old and I have a blankie! I have it with me 24 hours a day (except while it’s being washed which I do myself so that I know exactly how long it will be out of commission).
I know I’m not the only adult with a comfort item. I finally decided, why does it matter what anyone else thinks about what makes me feel good? I have an anxiety disorder and when I get overwhelmed, the scarf reminds me that I’ll be okay.
So if you already have your item, awesome. Feel good about having it. You don’t have to share it with the world. But allow yourself the gentleness and compassion that you would show a 2-year-old who needs her favourite stuffed monkey to be able to fall asleep.
And if you don’t have anything, I challenge you to go find your feather stick!