I received a request this week from David in England. He is doing research on music performance anxiety. In the research he has done he describes a common theme of a wounded inner child. As I thought about what he was asking me in his letter, I was reminded that I believe all of us had painful and difficult childhoods. I believe that by definition, childhood is painful and traumatic. That is certainly not meant to diminish my respect or compassion for those among us who suffered from severe childhood trauma. It is more a statement about the traumatic and challenging series of losses that happen in every childhood.
When we are born, we are the ultimate grandiose narcissists! All of us, each and every one, come into this world having our needs met by others. We are born expecting that when we have needs, someone takes care of them because we cannot. Human babies are helpless in their infancy. Volumes have been written about the cultural imperatives of family and tribal support that have evolved to meet the demands of infant narcissists. What we know is that the more sophisticated and complex the mammal, the more time is spent in infancy where the mammal baby is completely at the mercy of the care by others. Thus, we evolved societies to help meet these needs. We learned about parenting from experts such as Dr. Spock and we create schools to train our young, we are worried about early childhood education. We have to teach our children everything from how to pick their nose without offending others, to the correct way to write the five basic structural sentence patterns of English.
I think it is fascinating to look at the grandiosity of the infant, the innocence and the rage that combine in their awareness as they expect and demand that the universe satisfy and gratify their every need and whim. Babies are made that way. It is life that changes them. Life changes them through denial of their narcissism. Eventually they discover that the world does not revolve around them, they do not command the universe (even though they think they “know” they do.)
As a baby, I want….. and my want is met. I hunger and I am fed. If life fails to feed me, I am rageful. If my rage does not cause the world to respond, I become uncertain and afraid. I panic, and if my needs are still not met, I die. In order to survive, my needs must be met externally until I can adapt, grow and develop the skills I need to meet them for myself. For this learning to take place, I must experience loss. Loss is inherently traumatizing. Those of us who are not supported and taught and naturally strong enough to survive the loss, weaken and die. Humans have amazing adaptive capacities. We do not have to have perfect mothers. We do not have to have full and complete satisfaction of our needs. We just need a chance to make it, as long as we can adapt.
Do you remember the Harlow monkey experiments? The nurturing of the “mother” doll was enough to support the survival of the baby monkey in the sterile environment, as inadequate as it was. In the same sterile environment, the monkey without the doll failed to thrive. Survival does not take much, but it does require that in our lives some support, some sustenance, some opportunity exist. We, as organisms, then begin to learn and to manipulate our environment to demand, cajole, and seduce it into meeting our needs as best we can. I believe that this is traumatizing and hurtful, and childhood is made up of thousands and thousands of losses, each of which is a blow to our narcissism and our grandiosity. As we mature and survive, we become less grandiose and less narcissistic. We will always maintain some elements of grandiose narcissism in our personality, but if we are to survive and thrive in our lives and cultures, we must grow out of it. Darwin says those who survive are the ones who learn and adapt, those who do not, die.
As a therapist I always try to be mindful of this paradigm. Life is about loss, but loss is about opportunity. How we manage to survive loss and seize the opportunity to manipulate our environments and grow and change is the key to our level of survival and success. Each of us is different from the other, both in the area of basic and fundamental abilities, and in the area of essential available elements. Life is not fair. I constantly remind my clients of this. Albert Ellis used to say, “Why not you?” when his clients complained about bad things happening in their lives or complained that they did not get what they wanted and deserved. Why not you? Why should you be rich, beautiful, successful and happy? Who are you as differentiated from the rest of us by anything other than luck?
My therapist friends and I often talk about the amount of “historical” revisiting is necessary for healing and good therapy. Many of my colleagues believe that good therapy requires that an individual sit with their pain, remember their losses and generate opportunities for the “natural” relief of healing that comes from processing their wounds and losses. I tend to disagree. I operate from the premise that all of us are wounded, all of us have losses and hurts and all of us have been victims of the inequalities of life and opportunity and of the damage done to us by the selfishness and narcissism of others, including our parents.
My challenge to my clients is to say to them you are not responsible for how you got here. What happened in your life happened. It is not your fault, you did not cause it, you were the victim of the lack of fairness, which does not really exist and of the failings of others. You are wounded and damaged. Okay, now what? How do you move forward? Although you are not responsible for how you got here, you are responsible for how you leave. You can become “response-able” (you are not powerless, you are able to respond.) You can choose a different path than the one that you are on. What will you chose? What is the cost/benefit ratio of your choices. What will it cost you if you do or if you do not? I want them to think about this reality. I want them to take ownership of their power and to carve a path of healthy selfishness to make the adaptations they need to grow and learn, thrive and prosper. I abhor a victim script. Get rid of it! If you choose to keep it you must know that you are making a choice and positioning yourself to have hurtful and wounding things continue to happen in your life. The interesting question for me is why you would make such a choice? What is your pay-off? What do you get out of it?
I have a friend who is struggling with a major life change. She is looking at making some choices that will completely redirect her life and the way she lives it. She is frozen with fear. She wants to complain about the timing of life and why now is such a bad time to face this decision. She wants to do what Freud calls repetition compulsion and continue to re-do the things she has done in the past which leave her in pain. I keep asking her what is her pay-off? What does she get out of holding on to a failure to thrive mentality? She says I am cruel and heartless and that I am picking on her. I laugh because I know she is being dishonest. She knows I care and love her, but she wants to stay stuck because she is afraid. She is afraid of choice, she is afraid of success and she is afraid of change.
All those things come anyway. Life is not fair. Life is an ever- flowing stream, and then it stops and you die. In the meantime, seize the day. Make your choices and experience your losses but do not be a victim!