Recently I started reading a book called "Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers," by Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D. On page 18, they say, "… The orienting instinct is basic to our nature, even if we rarely become conscious of it. In its most concrete and physical form, orienting involves locating oneself in space and time. When we have difficulty doing this, we become anxious. If on waking we are not sure where we are or whether we are still dreaming, locating ourselves in space and time gets top priority. If we get lost while on a hike, we will not pause to admire the flora and fauna, or to assess our life goals, or even to think about supper. Getting our bearings will command all of our attention and consume most of our energy. … Our orienting needs are not just physical. Psychological orientation is just as important in human development."
As a student of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) (see sidebar), I try to relate the interactions I have with others to the feelings and needs they experience. In most cases, orientation is not clearly a need that is up. We tend to take our understanding of our physical world for granted as we move around our local milieus. However, I think the authors are on to something regarding the psychology of it.
When I first started taking hormones, I felt relief from a low-level anxiety that was so much a part of my experience and psyche I hadn't been aware of it. In its absence, however, it was very noticeable. In speaking with other trans people, I've found similar experiences following their first hormone doses to be universal. If it isn't, that's because I haven't spoken yet to a trans person who hasn't shared this result. In the past, I didn't connect it to the need to orient so much as a need for clarity, but reflecting on the truth of the author's statement, I think I was missing something.
The need for orientation, both physical and psychological, is universal. We all share it. The authors relate it to children, which makes sense in the context of their book, but I suspect that its psychological manifestation continues powerfully throughout life. I wonder how extensively it permeates our psyches and influences our actions, decisions, and lives.
For instance, how does it relate to alcohol and drug abuse? Is the abuse either an instigator or response to a lack of internal orientation? In my own case, prior to orienting around Kristin and transitioning, my abuse was so pervasive I concluded for awhile that I was an alcoholic. However, since transition, I find that drinking enough that I start to feel the effects brings an instant stop to any desire to drink more. I like sobriety much better. Is the psychological orientation found in matching my hormones to my brain responsible for that shift?
An even bigger question arises in relation to religion. Certainly religion is an orienting entity. Many people focus their lives around the larger guiding principles provided by religious texts and authorities. It seems to me that religious authorities often use this orienting need or principle to manipulate their flocks into quite negative directions. People everywhere cling to religion even when scientific evidence refutes religious myth. Hence, Galileo was sentenced to death if he didn't recant his conclusion that the earth revolves around the sun, that the sun is the center of the solar system. In my own case, when I joined the Marine Corps and found myself far from home, disoriented from anything I'd ever known to that time, I fell to the religious (Baptist and Pentacostal) proselytizers who infest military bases, preying on young military personnel in their vulnerability.
I have often wondered about the power of religion. Clearly it meets human needs, but what needs are really up for us when we cling to our faith, even in the face of fallacy, so fiercely? This intense need for orientation, starting with our first breaths, seems to explain it.
Read more on orientation here.