The Long Reach of Childhood

How early experiences shape you forever

This Is Who and What They Are!

Exploring the need to deny it

Wiping her tears, Susan laments, “He keeps on breaking his promises even though he knows I keep mine.” Holding his anger in check Paul says, “My partner claims he’s not competitive but he somehow manages to undercut me every time.” Dee’s complaint: “I do most of the work and she manages to get all the credit.” These are some of the struggles I’ve heard from individuals who are caught in a losing battle with another person with whom they are consistently involved.

The battle usually includes two key components: having one’s expectations dashed because of the consistent lack of the other’s ethics and fairness; and operating in situations where mutual acknowledgement and respect would be a necessary component for avoiding prolonged resentment and contention. These kinds of negative interactions can be found between couples, married or otherwise, business partners or associates, members of social or charitable organizations—primarily situations in which two individuals need to come to a mutual understanding of an important issue and/or a validation of importance and value. As these interactions continue, the price paid for being on the losing end can escalate, causing emotional, psychological as well as financial damage.

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The motives of the individuals who consistently take advantage of another can be tied to personality dynamics, a belief in their right to entitlement or any number of personal histories that allow one to justify one’s actions. But why does the individual who is being taken advantage of continue to not recognize the consistent negative pattern of the other.

We begin with the long reach of childhood: how the beliefs, experiences and impacts of childhood continue to influence and direct our lives as adults. To grasp the power of that long reach, we need to have a basic understanding of one of the functions of the human brain. There are several key areas worthy of exploration: beliefs tied to survival adaptation, personal histories and attempts to change one’s history, ideas of fairness, and lastly but particularly important, implicit knowledge,

Some children are particularly sensitive and empathetic based on their personalities and emotionality. They are more vulnerable to resonating to the vibrations in their environments and are children who, like the child in the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, sense that their emperors are not wearing any clothes. I turn the emperor’s story into a metaphor to explain why children may need to deny their own reality in order to survive. Like all fables, there is a happy ending to The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the child being honored. In reality, it is the messenger that is often in danger of being killed. Imagine how thrilled the emperor would be to have a child point out that he is standing nude in front of his subjects, that his advisors have lied to him, and that he has been severely conned. Survival would require that the child deny his recognition of the true reality. Thus an individual, growing up in an environment that requires a child to deny their recognition of their true reality, carries that requirement into adulthood. The “that” and “who” of the other is denied or distorted, leaving the individual vulnerable to continued disappointment and grief.

Some individuals will try to heal the wounds of their childhood by playing out, as adults, a hoped-for-reversal of the original situation. For example, Sally was a child who suffered an emotional wound because her parents were always too busy to pay much attention to her. As an adult she’s not drawn to people who are known as especially good caretakers. The problem for Sally is: they take care of everyone. She is looking for those individuals who do not take care of anyone and then --- because they will see her as so special – they will take care of her and heal the old wound. As Sally discovers, those who do not take care of anyone will continue their pattern and not take care of her. And this, in turn, plays into her sense of unfairness, causing an even deeper wound.

Recent research has suggested that children’s ideas of fairness begin at an early age and that they have a more developed sense of the concept of merit or equity than had previously been recognized. This sense of merit means that they are aware of the contribution of others and that they consider merit an integral part of fairness. “But that’s not fair” is a familiar cry associated with children. Implied in that cry is not just the abstract idea of merit, but a more personal experience of not being recognized as a participant who has earned “merit.” Reread the complaints in the opening paragraph of this blog and you will recognize that same disappointment of not being recognized as earning merit. Individuals, who as children, experienced this disappointment within their family interactions, tend to respond, as adults, with a greater degree of hurt to their merit being dismissed or ignored.

And lastly is the importance of Implicit knowledge. The teaming of research in neuroscience and infant attachment has yielded important information that offers insight into how and why a child “knows.” Researchers now differentiate between explicit knowing associated with the left- brain and implicit knowing associated with the right brain. Explicit knowledge is that which an individual can consciously recall and articulate; knowledge that is declarative and capable of being narrated; knowledge that is already known and codified and is rooted in language.

Implicit knowing is non-symbolic, non-verbal and non-conscious, involving parts of the brain that do not require conscious processing during encoding or retrieval. In general, implicit knowledge involves circuits in the brain that are tied to experiences involving behaviors, emotions and images. Unlike explicit knowledge, implicit knowledge or knowing is present at birth. The late Daniel Stern, a well-known researcher in infant attachment issues, further defined implicit knowing as “relational knowing” ⎯ knowing how to be with other people. Stern explained it this way in The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life: “All the considerable knowledge that infants acquire about what to expect from people, how to deal with them, how to feel about them, and how to be with them falls into this non-verbal domain.”

This ability to implicitly anticipate and respond to the other(s) creates states of mind in an infant that are encoded as an implicit form of memory. Watching an infant respond one way with mother and very differently to father is watching the effects of implicit memory. The infant has “learned” implicitly how to be with each parent based on previous interactions now embedded as implicit memory. We continue to implicitly anticipate and respond to others throughout our lifetime, continually forming implicit memories. Our lives can become shaped by reactivations of implicit memory, which lack a sense that something is being recalled. We act, feel and imagine without recognition of the power of past experiences to define our present reality. A history of “knowing” or “not knowing” how to react or not react to unfair treatment can be a major factor in an individual’s response to the “who” and “what” of their “others.”

Understanding one’s history of “knowing” how to exist with and among others can offer change. In a metaphorical sense, a computer is a “technical” version of the brain. And like a computer, the power of the brain is vested in its “operational system,” with implicit knowing playing a major role.

According to an explanation of a computer’s operating system that I found exploring my computer, an operating system, at its simplest level, does two things :

“1. It manages the hardware and software resources of the system including such things as the processor, memory, disk space and more….This is very important, as various programs and input methods compete for the attention of the central processing unit for their own purposes. ….In this capacity, the operating system plays the role of the good parent, making sure that each application gets the necessary resources.

2. It provides a stable, consistent way for applications to deal with the hardware without having to know all the details of the hardware, and it provides a consistent application interface, especially important if the hardware making up the computer is ever open to change.”

I’ll let you complete the comparisons as they relate to the brain and its operating system, one of which is implicit knowledge and implicit memory. More of the brain/computer in later blogs.

This blog will continue to expand on The Long Reach of Childhood: How Early Experiences Shape You Forever including more information on the latest research and theories that deal with the brain’s operating system. Hope you’ll continue to join me on this journey. And hope that your changing your operating system will change the “who” and “what” of your “others.”

Ditta M. Oliker, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and the author of The Light Side of the Moon: Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.

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