What is the current, normal, neurotic situation for most people? We first see a cautious distance, especially in infants, and under that, skepticism and fear. Under that? Pain. And under that? The basic need for love. If we read that sequence in reverse order, we can see the chronology of how it develops: we begin with a natural need for love, but when the family foundation is unsafe, the expectation of love is unfulfilled and pain ensues. When love is not received, skepticism and anxiety become a generalized condition. We form personality in relationship with our parents and, the younger we are the more impressionable we are and the more we are subject to an all-encompassing, immersive, parental ecology.
Imagine a little girl sitting on the floor making a drawing for Mommy with the full flower of altruism and love in her heart. Beautiful, but in this example, she’s drawing with Mommy’s lipstick and she’s doing it on the dining room wall! Now, Mommy walks in the room. What does she do? If Mommy is the Buddha, Mommy notes her emotion with compassion (yes, the Buddha-Mommy still has emotions, she just responds to them with love and acceptance) and gently steers the little girl to a more suitable medium, all the while praising her for her generosity and her artistry. Of course, there are few Buddha-Mommies around, and many of us would respond to a lipstick drawing on the dining room wall with either anger or emotional withdrawal. This is the way certain behaviors in the child—artistic creativity or fearful dependence, for example—are shaped in parent-baby interactions.
In order to understand how the process of personality development unfolds, let’s go back to the earliest days of a child’s life. Babies don’t start out with a personality, they start life from their core (if immature) self, genetically programmed to be curious, loving, openly themselves and yes, cautious (it’s a big, brand-new, unknown and potentially dangerous world out there), but essentially (in their essence) perfect. As they gradually come to consciousness, babies present their true original self to the world openly. The child cries when it’s hungry and mature, loving parents will respond, in essence: “Oh darling baby, we understand that you cry when you are hungry. That’s the way it should be, and we’ll feed you now.” The child might then enact another part of its pre-programmed unfolding of self: “I sleep when I’m tired,” and the parents might respond, “That’s beautiful, little baby, we’ll make sure you have a safe place to sleep.” Finally, the child enacts a part of its natural behavioral repertoire—say, screaming with rage when a need isn’t met—that may not be acceptable to the parent. This characteristic may intersect with a psychological issue the parent has—perhaps it triggers the parent’s need for safety and control, perhaps it violates ingrained codes of morality, perhaps the parent had overly demanding parents of their own who got angry at them when they were young, and so they may have developed a personality that is resistant to the demands of others.
For whatever reason, this third characteristic of the baby pushes one of the parent’s own childhood buttons. So when the child offers this part of itself, instead of responding, “Oh sweet child, we understand you are exploring your universe, learning about control, and we love you nonetheless (but you still can’t have the candy now),” the parent this time says, in essence, “Hold on just a minute there now baby, that characteristic will have to change!” (Parents will generally communicate this message through one extreme or the other, either with coolness, by withholding love, or with heat, by expressing anger—emotional “fight or flight”—but either way, it’s not centered, balanced, grounded, awake, mature parenting. Either way, it’s lacking unconditional love, the primary element of good parenting required by a baby.)
In response to this demand for change, the baby is confused and surprised: “Wait a minute,” the baby seems to be saying. “Remember me? The ‘darling baby’? You loved characteristic number one. ‘That’s beautiful, little baby,’ you said. And you loved characteristic number two. Now you’re telling me that this part of me is unacceptable? I must have heard you wrong. Here’s characteristic number three again: ‘I scream with rage when I don’t get my desire met.’ Isn’t that beautiful, too?” Yet with every action and every emotional nuance, the parents, in essence, say, “No, that characteristic is unacceptable!” and again, the baby’s expression of that particular characteristic of its true self is rejected by the parent.
So, what’s a baby to do? After trying openly, repeatedly, to be loved, the evolutionary imperative kicks in. There’s a fundamental Darwinian survival consideration: the baby is not only frustrated by this treatment, but also helpless and vulnerable. The child doesn’t know that there is a world out there beyond the eclipse of the two parents, who are overwhelmingly dominant in the child’s ecology. So the baby (in essence, nonverbally, viscerally) “thinks”: “Hmm . . . This isn’t working. Here they are, two gods in my life and they are saying I have to change that part of me or they won’t love me—and that could prove fatal: if they neglect me I could die of thirst or malnourishment, or from outright acts of violence, if they become enraged by me. OK, I’ll switch to Plan B: personality.” The child really has no choice; it’s conform or die. That is, on a fundamental level the baby “decides” to conform to the neurotic template the parents are offering it: “Rage is unacceptable. You must be compliant instead.” This creates a split between the original, true self and the newly adopted personality strategy that solves the immediate, short-term problem of survival but creates a duality in the baby’s sense of self—true self repressed; adopted personality expressed—that results in a lifetime of difficulty, what we refer to as “neurosis.”
Even so, the human spirit is indomitable and many a child will spend a lifetime struggling to find a way to enable their true self to emerge, despite the over-control or under-love of parents. This is because the true self doesn’t go away, it just goes into hiding, in the basement of the organism, with the door shut, locked with many sturdy locks and boarded up with a big sign written in a child’s scrawl, saying, “DANGER! Don’t go down here! Pain and possible death down here! Stay away!”
Even so, the locked-away component of our true, original self doesn’t stay down in the basement quietly. No, it raps on the pipes, bangs on the door, and generally lets itself be heard upstairs in the form of symptoms.
Yet I believe that symptoms are positive—our best friends—in that they offer us the truth, the opportunity to reconnect with our true self, the opportunity to become whole again. So I instruct my clients to follow their symptoms down to the source, to open up the basement door, remove the boards, unlock the locks, and go down there.
When they try to get back to their earliest childhood trauma or deficit (“trauma” from parental anger; “deficit” from parental coldness), they frequently report, in some form: “But there’s a monster down there!” and the monster frequently growls out something like, “Go away, or I’ll scratch your eyes out!”
In my work as a psychotherapist, the foundation is the development of a trusting, loving, natural relationship with my clients. By the time I advise them to go down to “the basement,” that trust should have been established, and so I tell them, “It’s not a monster. Try again. Go down there, and this time go toward that voice with love and strength in your heart.” When the client tries again, they generally see that it’s not a monster, but a small child, huddled in the corner, scared and defensive, sobbing softly through tears in a child’s voice, “Go away, or I’ll scratch your eyes out.” Most of us, seeing a little child crying and making such a clearly fear-based, defensive, unconvincing threat, wouldn’t turn away, but rather would approach the child (our inner, rejected child), scoop them up in our loving adult arms, and bring them upstairs, set them down at the dining room table with the rest of our personality, and announce to all: “This child, this part of us, was locked away long ago, but is now back upstairs with us, free and entitled to be their true self again.”
My clients are able to do this now and weren’t as children because, while the pain of receiving immature parenting, of not being unconditionally loved, is still as strong today in our subconscious as it was when it was originally experienced by the young child, the fear of a possibly fatal consequence of the neglect or aggression is gone. This is because while we always need love, as adults we have usually come to feel safe in our own hands. As a small child, we had neither the physical nor the cognitive maturity to survive on our own. Physically, at that stage we didn’t have friends or a job; we couldn’t drive a car. As a one- or two-year-old, we didn’t have the ability to say, “Mom, Dad, you’ve been providing immature, self-centered, neurotic parenting, and unless you start cherishing my development, keeping me safe, and loving me for who I am, I’m moving out and finding my own apartment!” Ridiculous, of course, in a toddler, but it’s just how we might respond were we to experience such treatment as adults.
Furthermore, from a Piagetian developmental perspective, young children simply don’t yet have the cognitive maturation to do what we as adults can easily do: take the other person’s perspective by putting ourselves in their position, looking at the big picture, thinking of the future. No, a child sees things in black-and-white terms: either I’m wrong or my parents are, this is so scary that I have to bury it forever, and the like. These are the psychological equivalent of that old childhood threat “I’ll hold my breath ‘til I turn blue!”—an impossible strategy. Yet by the time the client has become an adult, they are cognitively developed, and once we have created a setting of trust and acceptance, the fear has abated and the basement door is opened, they can re-experience their childhood fear, recontextualizing it as sad, but not overwhelming. They are now capable of releasing that old fear and finally seeing their childhood experience, themselves, and their parents with empathy, compassion, and acceptance—with relaxed, loving peace.
So we can see now that personality is not our true self; but rather, it is acquired, secondary, external—strategic. The psycho-logic went like this: “Well, I couldn’t get love, approval, and support for my natural trait; maybe I’ll get, if not love, at least approval and support—ersatz love—if I adopt this characteristic my parents are so intent on imprinting on me.” It’s as if the child is malleable clay and the parent—with a “neurotic” personality shell already in place—becomes a mold that is repeatedly imprinted upon the impressionable child. Eventually, inexorably, the vulnerable child conforms—or reforms—and personality emerges. It must be noted that the result of this parental press is not always conformity. Often the response to overweening parental pressure is rebellion, even in a young child. Yet rest assured that one way or the other, the child’s psychology, the child’s personality, will be in play in response to mindless, immature parenting.
With this process specified, we can now see the emergence of a “core-shell” theory of personality development. Our original core characteristics that were not acceptable in childhood aren’t eliminated, but repressed, and the acceptable traits, both natural and adopted, become the shell with which we interact with the world. That shell is the ego, a natural, adaptive psychological structure that in a healthy individual is a powerful tool used by the self—our true identity—to have an adaptive effect on the world and our survival. In a repressed self, however, out of the fear that we are inadequate, incapable, dangerously flawed, created in us by parental rejection, we defensively place our entire identity into the powerful, effective—safe—ego function. This strategy chosen by our childhood selves is understandable, but a distortion of the healthy function of the ego as tool, not identity.*
* FOOTNOTE: Of course, it is also true that two newborns, side by side, may naturally exhibit very different dispositions. One may be crying and screaming her lungs out, while the second is sleeping soundly, right next to her. And these differences persist—longitudinal follow-along research shows that twenty years later, the sleeping infant will have grown into a mellow adult and the crying infant into a more excitable one. This is not a value statement. The mellow adult may be calm and happy or slow and inept at life; the excitable adult may be active and happy or over-reactive and miserable. Even so, not all dispositional traits are acceptable to parents, and so personality structures will be crafted in response. It is crucially important to remember that personality is a strategy devised by a baby! Personality is formed during Piaget’s preoperational stage of cognitive development—a period of absolutes and opposites, before the child has the capacity to take another’s perspective or to think about the big picture or the long term. At that age, we can’t mentally rotate objects and we can’t walk in another person’s shoes. It should come as no surprise that personality—again, a strategy devised at an immature stage in our development—once locked in, ends up getting in the way of one’s life, rather than helping us achieve the goals of adulthood.