Feeling Powerful vs. Being Powerful

“Coping” in the toddler brain

Posted Feb 11, 2015

Coping mechanisms are adaptations to environmental stress, designed to comfort or give a sense of control. They differ from the old notion of unconscious defense mechanisms, which Freud believed protected the ego from unacceptable impulses, such as sexual feelings for—or hostility toward—parents or caregivers. Coping mechanisms are generally conscious, intentional, and often tactical or strategic.

Toddlers use coping mechanisms primarily to ward off threats to autonomy and connection, because they cannot keep these competing drives in balance. (See "our two minds" post.) For example, if you go into a room to find a toddler alone with a broken lamp and ask what happened, you’ll hear, “He/she did it (blame)” or “I don’t know (denial)” or the kid hides or runs away (avoidance). Psychologists used to believe that toddlers used blame, denial, and avoidance merely as attempts to avoid punishment and indirectly assert autonomy. Now we understand that they’re also trying to maintain or reinstate connection. After all, the real pain of punishment isn’t the sanction administered—a time out or spanking. The grave pain of punishment is the rejection and loss of connection experienced in the toddler brain.

Whatever short-term gain there might be for adults when we blame, deny responsibility, or avoid emotional experience and social reprimand will most certainly come back to haunt us, sooner, rather than later, usually in the form of resentful coworkers and family members.

Denial and avoidance are fairly universal and straightforward. (If you’re married, you’re probably convinced your spouse uses them all the time.) Denial can seem like stubbornness, deception, and insensitivity. It’s sometimes those things, too, but it’s also an attempt to assert autonomy at the cost of connection ("Of course I didn't mean to hurt your feelings, you're just oversensitive.") or gain connection at the cost of personal integrity ("I didn’t flirt, I love you!"). Adults in the habit of retreating to the toddler brain under stress tend to favor indirect avoidance tactics, things like procrastination, stonewalling, overworking, overdrinking, overeating, over exercising, etc. The most direct and usually the most damaging of the toddler coping mechanisms is blame.

The Road to Psychological Ruin Begins with Blame

If you feel bad about anything at all and blame it on someone else, what can you then do to make yourself feel better?

Not a thing. The act of blame renders you powerless, which is the internal source of all the frustration, anger, and resentment that go with blame. More important, blame strips your painful emotions of their primary function, which is to motivate corrective behavior. Blaming becomes more urgent than healing, correcting, and improving. Once it becomes a habit, blame keeps you locked in the toddler brain, where it poisons relationships and gouges at the core sense of self—a high price to pay for the temporary advantage of transferring guilt and shame to others.

Blame vs. Solving Problems

Blame makes it almost impossible to find solutions to problems. Besides locking us in the toddler brain, it puts us in the wrong dimension of time—it’s always about the past, specifically, who caused the bad thing to happen. (When I speak to groups, I usually ask for a show of hands to indicate how many people were able to go back to the past to solve a problem.) Solutions, of course, must occur in the present and future.

Blame further obscures solutions by locking us into the problem—we focus on how bad it is and whose fault it is rather than on ways to improve. To justify blame, we focus on the damage or injury we've suffered, when growth and well-being require the employment of resilience, intelligence, and creativity.

Blame tends to make bad situations worse by putting us in a punishment mode, rather than in an improving mode. In a punishment mode, we’re likely to make everyone around us defensive and resistant. Even if we get people to do what we want, they’ll do it grudgingly, with hidden (and not-so-hidden) resentment.

Blame and the Natural Purpose of Anger

Blame perverts the primary function of anger, which, in humans, is not self-protection. (If you doubt that, consider when you’re likely to get the angrier, if I attack you or your children.) The survival purpose of anger is to protect loved ones, which overrides self-protection. Most people who witnessed their children being harmed would experience enough rage to take on an assailant many times larger and stronger. The reason that humans are the only mammals to consistently use aggression against attachment figures is that we’ve developed a specialized, defensive form of anger unique among Earth’s inhabitants. It’s called resentment. Where the primary purpose of anger is protection of loved ones, the purpose of resentment is protection of the ego. And no one can hurt our egos as much as loved ones.

Because their egos are newly emergent, toddlers resent a lot, although they don’t hold onto it for very long. The reason that adults in the toddler brain can hold onto resentment forever is the need to justify any negative emotion that might violate deeper values. The more we justify resentment, the stronger it feels, and the stronger it feels, the more we have to justify it. Resentment serves the ego in the short run, by transferring guilt and shame through blame, but weakens the ego in the long run via chronic feelings of powerlessness. The more fragile the ego, the more we blame. The more we blame, the more fragile the ego becomes, and the more likely we are to subvert the natural function of anger by turning against loved ones.

Feeling Powerful vs. Being Powerful

I grew up with angry and resentful people and have struggled my whole career to help thousands of resentful and angry clients achieve a better life. The hardest truth for any of them to grasp is the difference between feeling powerful and being powerful. Most anger and resentment are attempts to feel powerful at the cost of being powerful.

Anger is activated in all mammals by a dual perception of vulnerability and threat. (That's why wounded animals are so ferocious.) In humans, most anger results from blaming the feelings of vulnerability (guilt, shame, anxiety) on someone else, whom we then perceive as a threat. The feeling of power gained from anger is transitory, coming from the amphetamine effect of the adrenalin spurt that fuels it. Amphetamine effects create a sense of power and confidence—it feels like you can do anything! Like all amphetamine effects, the sense of power and confidence gained from anger resolves in depleted energy, self-doubt, and a diminished sense of self. It always drops you down lower than where you started, which is why most people feel depressed after a bout of anger.

In the toddler brain, we try to cut off those hills and valleys with persistent resentment. A low-grade defensive form of anger, resentment lacks sufficient adrenalin to cause the immediate overreactions of its more intense cousin, but it has enough to ward off self-doubt and maintain the feeling of being right. This mediating effect of resentment makes it self-reinforcing, in that it creates the need it temporarily gratifies. That is, the blame inherent in resentment makes us powerless, while its adrenalin makes us feel temporarily more powerful. Like resentment, drugs make you feel better for a while, then much worse, creating a need to feel better again by taking the drug. People justifying resentment sound like alcoholics describing the “trace” vitamins in beer, which makes consumption of large quantities a health necessity.

In summary, the toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance make us feel powerful for a time but render us powerless over our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. If you wouldn’t drive a car designed by a toddler, don’t use coping mechanisms designed by a toddler.

Copyright, Steven Stosny, 2014, online course: Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress.