The Theory of Mind that a child forms by around the age of five is built upon the brain-mind bedrock that was itself built from every single early caregiver interaction that child experienced from birth. If those early experiences were unstable, unpredictable, toxic and malevolent, there is no possible way that child can move on to their Theory of Mind developmental stage with an ‘ordinary’ foundation of benevolent safe and secure attachment. Abused children have no choice but to end up with alterations in their eventual Theory of Mind.
Having “the capacity to reflect on the role of mental states in determining human behavior” is, according to developmental neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Siegel, critical to being able “to provide sensitive and nurturing parenting.” (see his writing at bottom of post) Siegel calls having this capacity ‘mindsight’. This is a BIG subject, and is directly tied to our early childhood development of a Theory of Mind (TOM).
Having this “capacity to reflect on the role of mental states in determining human behavior” affects ALL of our interactions with others, and I would add, all of our interactions between our self and our self, and our self and the whole world around us – because we are human and we process all information by using our human faculties. Theory of Mind is HOW we are in the world.
Theory of Mind is directly tied to a developmental process that begins at birth that allows humans to understand others’ thoughts, feelings, and intentions behind actions. Without an adequate (ordinary) Theory of Mind, an abused child cannot possibly understand EITHER others or their own self in an ordinary way. The ability to recognize states of mind, to tolerate them in self or others, and to transition between them is connected to how an individual’s Theory of Mind operates.
This is a HUGE and critically important concept. I encourage readers to follow some of the links above and to think about Theory of Mind as it affects all of our lives from the first thoughts we have until the last ones. We are a social species. If our Theory of Mind cannot develop through safe and secure early attachments, it will be ‘off center’ and ‘out of balance’ for the rest of our lives. If we have a history of early and severe abuse, we have been given no choice but to try to understand and apply consciously to ourselves the kinds of ‘rules’ and ‘patterns’ of interaction with self and others that securely attached from birth people have built within themselves and never have to think about.
Ongoing life happens because of ongoing communication that involves patterns of signaling (down to the molecular level). The signals must be sent, received and understood accurately for life to continue at all. Any problems with communication signaling will be reflected in some kind of lack of well-being. It is, to me, as simple as that.
When I consider the statistics that tell us between 50% and 55% of us were raised from birth under ordinary safe and secure attachment conditions, I have to wrap my thinking around the fact that the other 50% to 45% of us were not, and that loss left us with some degree of insecure attachment disorder. Given the vastness of degrees of difference among us according to how we were treated from birth, it is hard to make any blanket statements. But I will say that I don’t like to think in terms of ‘damage’ due to irregular or malevolent early caregiving experiences. I think in terms of ‘changed from the ordinary’.
I envision it like all of us are prepared one way or the other to get along in the ‘game of life’. If I think about this like we are all prepared by our early experiences to join in a game of cards, I can see how all the problems we experience then play themselves out.
Somebody has to know the rules to the game. Let’s say the securely attached half of us know these rules. The rest of us don’t. We end up with varying degrees of confusion, varying ideas about what this card game is about, how we are to participate, and what all aspects of the game MEAN to self and others.
I think about personality disorders like my mother had, or like someone who has a Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I am beginning to understand that their difficulties in forming a solid, ordinary Theory of Mind in their early childhood left them prepared to take their place in the Card Game of Life in a very particular way. My mother’s rules were rigid, bizarre and enforced – period. Anyone who was forced to be a part of her card game had no choice but to play by her rules.
What if you and I were playing a card game and I drew a 2 of clubs. But I had no tolerance for a 2 of clubs. I believed I HAD to have a queen of diamonds. If I was my mother, that 2 of clubs would BE a queen of diamonds, and there would be nothing you could do but play the game by my rules in spite of my delusion. To try to challenge me or convince me of a different reality would cause WWII X to break out (at the very least).
Or, what if you were playing cards with me as I am in the world as a result of my having to grow up under my mother’s rules. I simply would never really understand any part of this game. Anything that I might know about playing remains illusive to me. I have to reinvent myself in the game with every card that’s played – by me or by anybody else.
My mother’s version of getting along in the world worked for her because she could exclude any incoming information that she believed on some level to threaten her. I have great difficulty with excluding any information. It all comes in, and I am left in the opposite camp from my mother. I have to continually deal with everything on some level as if it is a new situation that I have never experienced before.
My way of being in the world is costly and exhausting. My mother’s way, or the way of people with personality disorders (I believe) works better in many ways because it eliminates or greatly reduces the amount of information that has to be consciously experienced and dealt with. Personality disorders simply allow a person to continue to play the Card Game of Life by a constricting set of rules that was set in place in their childhood and is not subject to change. Only through a costly application of personal conscious will and effort can those patterns of interaction between the self in the world with others be changed.
I, on the other hand, have to apply great effort to find any kind of an ongoing structure from which to order, organize and orient myself in this world of others. My mother built herself a mental box that she remained within her entire life. It was her version of safety in the world. That her version didn’t match external reality was not of the least concern to her. She couldn’t afford to let it be.
I don’t have such a box, so I am not limited in my ability to feel unsafe and insecure in the world. I am forced to recognize that I don’t really have much of a clue about how ordinary people get along in the world with each other. My mother really didn’t, either, but her personality disorder protected her from ever having to experience that fact.
My mother did not have to feel the experience of being completely baffled, confused, disoriented, disorganized, unsafe and insecure in the world. She could not have tolerated that reality, so from a very young Theory of Mind developmental stage, she invented her own reality. Because her version of reality so completely included the need to project her own sense of badness out onto me, and because her focus was so intense, powerful and all consuming, there was absolutely NO ROOM for me to develop any sense of my own cohesiveness as an individual self. I could only exist entirely as a fixated-upon card within the deck of playing cards she held in her hand for the first 18 years of my life.
The only tiny fragments of self identity that I could form happened in spite of my mother’s focused hatred of me. They could not become integrally connected to one another because of my mother’s nearly constant interruption of my process. I could not think with a Theory of Mind of my own because there was no room in my mother’s card game for that to happen. I am left now trying to piece together all the millions of tiny fragments of my self into a beautiful vase that is Linda even though that vase was never allowed to exist in the first place. This has left me with a Dissociative Identity Disorder without the identities. And yes, this CAN happen because it DOES happen.
Where does this leave me in regard to Siegel’s statement about having the “capacity to reflect on the role of mental states in determining human behavior?” I am nearly at ‘ground zero’ where anything and everything is possible.
I came out of my childhood with 2 strong and related missions in life: “Be good so you don’t get into trouble,” and “don’t hurt anybody else if you can help it.” I at least had those two cards in my hand, and as it turns out they both acted as wild cards. I have been able to ‘act as if’ I had a clue about playing the Card Game of Life, but this is a very expensive way to get along in life.
I have always felt as if I am on the outside looking in on ‘ordinary’ life. I am conscious of what this state feels like. I see my condition as being the opposite of my mother’s. She was locked up on the inside of herself looking out, and had to manipulate every possible experience to fit her inner reality. She did not have to be conscious of how her reality operated in the world or how she affected others. I am continually left trying to figure everything out as I go along.
In the end, the price of my mother’s way of being in the world cost her every single caring, loving relationship that she could have had. In the end there was no way around the fact that she was locked in the box of her personality-disordered, insecurely-attached self and was absolutely alone.
At least with my way of being in the world I can keep on trying, always trying to understand, to re-form my Theory of Mind and the way I am with myself and others in the world. I understand I have never had, nor will I ever have, the benefit and luxury of being an ordinary person in ordinary relationship with ordinary people in any ordinary way. But I do have the luxury my mother never had of at least being able to comprehend this truth so that I can try to change some things about how I am in the world for the better.
I suffer from having too much flexibility in my being while my mother suffered from having too little. My state of being in the world involves uncertain and nearly constantly changing reflections. My mother had no ability to tolerate any reflection at all. I retained the gift of changeability. My mother (and others with severe personality disorders) left that gift behind them in their early childhoods.
I would rather suffer from too much changeability in myself than have none at all. At least having my wild cards, having the capacity to know that they are wild cards, having the capacity to learn how I am different from ‘ordinary’ people and knowing I can realistically change lets me stay in the game.
“Moreover, the capacity to reflect on the role of mental states in determining human behavior is associated with the capacity to provide sensitive and nurturing parenting….this reflective function is more than the ability to introspect; it directly influences a self-organizational process within the individual…..the reflective function also enables the parent to facilitate the self-organizational development of the child….the coherent organization of the mind depends upon an integrative process that enables such reflective processes to occur….integrative coherence within the individual may early in life depend upon, and later facilitate, interpersonal connections that foster the development of emotional well-being. (Siegle/tdm/312)”
This post follows these others in my exploration about secure versus insecure attachment: