Updated: Jan 23, 2022
I thought it would be interesting to consider, as I do with my therapy clients, how our nervous system responds to other people; let’s call it the social nervous system.
Because we are all intrinsically linked to our family backgrounds, a perfect showcase for considering familial relationships is the film Bridget Jones‘s Diary, based on the book of the same name by Helen Fielding. (The film's an astounding 21 years old this year, at the time of writing!)
By considering how we respond to others, and how our caregivers responded to us, we gain valuable insight into our patterns of relating romantically, in the workplace, and with friends and family.
Bridget Jones clearly has some anxiety issues, and makes some questionable relationship choices, but why could this be? In attachment terms, Bridget is likely primarily insecurely / ambivalently attached, and it’s no surprise when you look at her family of origin. She has a seemingly low sense of self-esteem, is obsessed with meeting other people’s needs, has an external sense of evaluation (e.g. ‘if I achieve X weight, people will like me more’), and she wants other people (men in this case) to make her feel valuable.
I would imagine that as someone in the yellow zone of what I explain to clients as being my ‘traffic light system of the nervous system’, she will experience bouts of anxiety; fears of rejection; she will strive for acceptance from the people around her; and will behave with a ‘pull and push’ mentality in romantic relationships. Her family dynamics are pretty dodgy - examples include the creepy uncle (actually the husband of her mother’s friend, but socialised to Bridget as her Uncle) who wants to touch her bottom at the party, and the casual affair that her overbearing and self absorbed mother has, that her father seemingly accepts, due to his own familial dynamics (more on that below!) – her parents are not modelling good relational behaviour!
When Daniel Cleaver cheats on her, Bridget sinks into her bed and into the ‘shutdown pit’ (the red zone in my traffic light system of the nervous system). Here, she will undoubtedly find low mood, a reliance on things like alcohol, cigarettes and food to make her feel good; she will feel disconnected from her friends and family, and likely generally feel unmotivated. Gratitude and self-compassion are hard to access here. I anticipate she would also be having lots of negative self talk about not being good enough or worthy of love. (On a positive note, I love her use of music to face and embrace her state – eg ‘All by Myself’ by Jamie O'Neal.)
Bridget‘s mother Pamela
Bridget‘s mother Pamela meanwhile is clearly, in my mind at least, primarily avoidant in her insecure attachment style; like Bridget, she is in the yellow zone, but more in the fight zone than the flight zone like Bridget.
Her mother has lots of narcissistic traits, treats the people around her with contempt, shows no real empathy or interest in other people’s needs, and has that very controlling, pulling away behaviour.
Bridget‘s father Colin
Bridget’s Dad I can only assume is primarily ambivalent in his attachment, as it is unlikely he would put up with his wife’s behaviour if he was primarily securely attached – it would be a huge mis-attunement within that couple. Like Bridget, he will therefore likely face fear of rejection, have a pull / push relationship with those he is romantically involved with, and be a people pleaser (perhaps co-dependent to Pamela).
He does put up with some questionable behaviour from his wife, and is certainly not modelling secure, connected, relational behaviour to Bridget (in terms of how he and his wife relate to each other - his relationship with Bridget is rather charming). Because she was brought up by a possible narcissist (Pamela), Bridget’s nervous system seemingly feels safe or familiar when people treat her badly.
Daniel Cleaver, with his presumed, primarily avoidant attachment style, is also potentially a narcissist like Bridget‘s mum, or at least has traits, as she does. He is very grandiose, does not care who he hurts, thinks he is above the rules of society, and just wants to appease his own needs. Of course he can be charming and engaging, as are many overt narcissists. Bridget’s nervous system has been primed for this level of familiarity, hence because she’s used to being treated in this way, she falls for Daniel’s love bombing. At one point he says, ‘If I can’t make it with you, I can’t make it with anyone’ - probably the least romantic thing anyone has said in the history of literature and movies! Daniel and Bridget‘s mum share some of the childhood wounding that Bridget undoubtedly has as well.
Daniel and Pamela also likely fear rejection and abandonment; they too have a low sense of self-esteem and a crushing sense of not being good enough. But rather than manipulate other people emotionally in an overt, needy way, their manipulation is more controlling and it is ultimately quite damaging to the people around them. They would have likely experienced difficult childhoods (in some aspect) themselves, and perhaps grew up feeling that they had to look after themselves emotionally, developing a very strong sense of superiority along the way. Their 'parasympathetic tone' may be low - meaning that their early care-givers probably did not model self-regulation - leading Daniel and Pamela to feel 'out of touch' with their own regulation (especially to feelings), and self-care.
When they are heightened and triggered, it is likely that they will slip into anger. I can imagine Bridget‘s mum being very angry with her words, e.g. quite spiteful, weaponising her words to protect herself and that wounded inner child. Daniel is perhaps more likely to revert to physical anger. Or if not, maybe he will discharge it in less physical (yet passive aggressive?) ways; his actions can certainly be very 'protective' and defensive, as if driven by anger. Daniel and Pamela's strong sense of self (even if it is ultimately a mask) may fend off visitations to that red shutdown zone, so they may be less prone to low mood and depression, because their strong sense of self worthiness (or the mask of it!) might provide some protection.
But if they do get down into that place of low mood, it will be agonising for them because it will make them feel extremely vulnerable, which is the most difficult thing in the world for their nervous system. They will therefore avoid vulnerability at all costs, because it means they are out of control, and control is what keeps Daniel and Pamela ticking along.
A quick and cursory glance at the first page of Google sees that some people have a rather romanticised view, maintaining that Mark Darcy is securely attached. However I do not see it. For me he is primarily insecurely avoidantly attached, just like Daniel, however without Daniel’s narcissistic traits. In all honesty it is hard to tell with Mark because he is presumably grieving the breakdown of his first marriage, feeling rejection (like his fellow primarily avoidantly and ambivalently attached characters) that would have affected him greatly.
There’s a hint that his family of origin has that stiff upper lip, stoic mentality, and one can imagine a strict and emotionally distant childhood, which may have contributed to his avoidant style. I do not see secure attachment in Mark; for me, his nervous system is in the yellow ‘fight’ state, deliberately putting a wall around him to protect his vulnerable soul, which already has some childhood woundings, and has now has been further hurt by his ex wife’s infidelity. He only gives Bridget small invitations of connection; he even seems to be pursuing her while he is romantically involved with his American colleague. If he were more securely attached (and in what I term the green zone of connectivity) with all around him, he would be much more able to process his emotions, because they would be more up in his awareness, not buried deep down.
Again this man is perhaps less likely than Bridget to experience crushing lows because of his emotional independence, and the fact that he has a stronger sense of self than she does; but boy, when he gets to those lows, will they be crushing. Like all of us, when Mark hits the 'red' or shutdown zone, access to the combined, positive blended 'left and right' (e.g. more analytical versus emotional) brain states is more difficult - that all-important 'higher cognition' is offline. Flexible thinking simply goes out of the window! (And as a primarily avoidantly attached person, he's probably more prone to analytical thinking anyway - it's likely that he's now being quite 'black and white' in his thoughts). Additionally, the prefrontal cortex of the brain, with its emotional regulation, is mostly shutdown or limited, too, in the nervous system 'shutdown' state. Hence, Mark will likely get a massive vulnerability hangover on his way back up from the shutdown state.
Essentially, Bridget needs to spend some time working on herself, rather than making herself look outwardly good enough for other people. Yes, she has strong friendships, but she is quite reliant on these friends to regulate her, and can only easily regulate herself through food and drink and other people, it seems. I prescribe solitary walks with self-development podcasts, and personal talking therapy to help her break free of the chains from her parental relationships that have left her always seeking connection, whilst at the same time fearing rejection.
As mentioned, one thing I do like is her use of music that reflects her current nervous system state – All By Myself is the perfect song for when she is in shutdown. It is the ultimate ‘facing the situation’ music for Bridget, really bringing her emotions up to the surface, so she can face them, process them, and then (hopefully) move on. I’d like to see her doing more of that in her day-to-day life, so when she is in her yellow, reasonably anxious state, she can use angry or anxious music, maybe punk, dance or rock, to keep regulating her up the ladder. The higher she goes, the more likely she will be to choose more melodic and affirming music and lyrics.
Frankly, in some ways her Dad might be better off without her Mum, although family therapy could very easily get the marriage on track, if her Dad can find his voice and verbalise his needs more. Perhaps they can find a way forward if they are both very open and honest with each other; although I can’t see Bridget‘s mum ever changing without some more self reflection. If Bridget and Mark stay together (and in the first movie, we do not know if they will!), I would suggest they have some couples therapy to help them work through their beliefs about their sense of worth, so they can have a clean slate with their relationships. That match of the primarily insecurely avoidant and primarily insecurely ambivalent personalities can actually work really well, provided there is a sense of awareness about one’s triggers and challenges - they both clearly have big weaknesses or vulnerabilities in the area of rejection and abandonment!
I would suggest some kind of activity they could learn together that really lifts them both up into a more connected state but comes with a sense of self-pride and achievement; this might be some form of dancing like salsa or something physically challenging like bouldering / rock-climbing - they would both benefit from some kind of outdoor activity, maybe hiking, volunteering with animals, gardening, beachcombing - anything that help them both stay up in that connected green state whilst in nature. Lots of work on gratitude would also help stave off those avoidant and needy-tendencies and get them more focussed on their self-actualisation, and emotional health and literacy.
Top pic by IMDB.