The following descriptions of attachment are based on the work of Daniel J. Siegel (1999). I am not going to talk about secure attachments because those aren’t the kind that cause anyone trouble. Those attachments, based on “contingent, resonant communication” (p. 334) from the time an infant was born, result in optimal infant brain development designed in, by and for a benevolent world.
Insecure attachments result from anything consistently less than best, or as the attachment experts call it, “good enough” parenting. Every insecure attachment results in what Schore refers to as “empathy pathologies” and they are reflections of altered brain development and processing that occur from the inside out. These insecure attachment patterns within the brain are manifestations of adjustments to degrees of deprivation that come from living and developing in a malevolent world.
But wait a moment. That assessment by itself is a value judgment that reflects a cultural, societal bias. Just as some people are naturally geared genetically to be more sensitive than others, cultures are also geared to be more sensitive than others. So what exactly is it about the sensitivity of early caregivers to an infant’s needs and emotions that makes attachment so crucial in determining who we become in all of our relationships – with one another, within our self, within our environment?
Genes govern all human characteristics on many basic levels so that we vary along continuums related to not only sensitivity but also, aggression, motivation, perseverance, ability to focus, curiosity, desire to seek novelty and take risks, intelligence and creativity. What is so critical about our early attachment relationships is that through these relationships how all our other qualities will operate throughout our lifetime is determined because attachment governs the way our immune system and nervous system develops, and directly determines how the regions of our brain grow.
Attachment relationships determine how our brain regions communicate and interact with one another. They will then influence the expression of all the other genetic characteristics we were born with. They determine how we learn and what we learn, how we remember and what we remember, and how we pay attention and what we pay attention to. They determine how who we were born to be manifests in relation to the world. In making this statement I am deviating from the usual considerations about the pattern of our attachment relationships. I do not believe this operation is solely related to our human relationships. I believe attachment determines most importantly our relationship to our own self and from there affects everything about our life.
I believe that I know this because my attachment system was so fundamentally altered from birth so that I became an entirely different person from whom I would have become otherwise. Everything about me and my life was changed. This is how I know about the essential influence of our attachment system in a way that few other people could possibly know. And if I really believe my own words I would next have to say that the disorganized attachment patterns I have are not really disorganized at all. They are supremely organized to operate in a most dangerous, hostile, toxic malevolent world where “getting the good out of life” has taken on an entirely different meaning, and surviving the worst is what my entire being developed to do.
I have a very specific kind of brain and therefore of attachment organization in relationship to the world, one that appears disorganized when compared to and contrasted with the optimal but is otherwise supremely adapted to the kind of world that formed it in the first place. By looking at an attachment system we can determine in looking backwards what kind of world formed it. On the other hand, if we know the specifics of the world that formed the attachment system, we can predict with accuracy how the resulting attachment system will operate. It works both ways. This is the essence of what my brother, Steve, called the genre of my book: forensic autobiography.
In one has witnessed a crime taking place and knows the context, there’s no problem understanding how the “clues” fit into the picture. From the forensic point of view, finding clues after a crime has happened without witnesses and understanding the picture from the clues might take more time and require great care and precision, but the crime can still be figured out. By understanding our attachment patterns we can begin to understand the true and fuller meaning of what our childhoods were like – from the inside out – where it truly matters most.
The tracks, traces and fingerprints are right there within our bodies. Like coming to understand how a great painter created a masterpiece we can closely study the characteristics of the brush strokes. And in the same way that studying an ancient tree’s growth rings one can tell its history – times of drought and times of plenty of moisture. What we don’t yet know may seem to be a mystery, but once solved, it becomes our history. If an infant’s body is healthy to start with, its early attachment experiences tell it about the condition of the world and prepare it to live in there, just as drought or rain tells a tree about the world as it grows.
A tree has no choice but to adapt to the conditions of its environment or die. Developing infants and young children have the same choice. Any other degree of choice comes with consciousness which is not something we start out having. Our bodies including our brains have to grow into this greatest of human gifts. I believe consciousness appears in a body according to how that body has developed and been to receive it. Invisible sound and television waves existed in before we developed the technology to access them. Consciousnesses, awareness, the ability to self reflect and make conscious choices also rely on how a body has been prepared to receive and use them.
Many complicated factors influence the quality of, say, television waves being received, and as many factors affect our ability to understand what is being transmitted. As adults we are not responsible for other people’s degrees of consciousness. We are not responsible for the condition of their receiver or the quality of their reception of consciousness. But early caregivers of infants and young children are responsible because the nature of the resulting interactions will determine how their “receivers” and their “reception” will operate for the rest of their lives.
I am not saying that degrees of change and improvement are not possible in adulthood for people whose early caregiver interactions created brain and nervous system alterations during development. Pharmaceutical companies continue to make fortunes from their drugs that can affect the way brain chemicals operate in the brain. But if damage done by harmful and toxic caregiver interactions during critical infant brain developmental stages is severe enough, and in interaction with the infant’s genetic internal environment causes irreversible adaptations to occur, these fundamental alterations cannot be reversed.
We can learn and we can apply effort to make changes in adulthood, but we have to be realistic about what changes we are attempting to accomplish. If a hundred story building is build on a faulty foundation and the building has to be retained, there will be consequences, especially under traumatic conditions like an earthquake. An infant who does not receive adequate experiences to build a solid brain and nervous system/immune system foundation will be an exception to the well being rule. To expect otherwise is foolishness. You can shore up the foundation, repair the cracks, support the weaknesses, but you can never make that foundation what it would have been if it had been built correctly from the start. And for these people any later trauma will involve much greater risk than for someone who had a better start.
The study of attachment is the study of how these changed, adaptive and often faulty foundations get build in the first place. These are the reasons why I say we cannot return to “sanity” or recover what we never had from the times of our early development when these adjustments happened during our development. This is also why I believe that in extreme cases of abuse the experts are wrong when they say that the hardwiring for attachment was in the infant’s brain before it was born and that that hardwiring can be accessed in adulthood so that the attachment system can be rewired.
Attachment affects the development of brain regions and operations that become fundamental and cannot be changed. Reality has a way of looking pessimistic when we want to believe anything but the worst even when the worst is the truth. The truth is hard to write, and I wish I were making it up, but I’m not. Sadly, I’m not. In this case the truth is not only a lot stranger than fiction but also a lot more painful.
When an infant and young child’s brain is not developed in and by benevolent conditions, its relationship to itself is altered. And here lies the most basic violation of human rights – the right to develop and to be one ’s self. Once the development of the self is altered, consciousness changes, as does awareness, self reflection and the exercise of free will and choice. And to whom do we give this right to violate the most basic human right of another person? To parents, that’s who. We give this right to parents. And who most likely violated the parent’s self development? Their parents did, and on down the generations this violation goes.
Researchers are discovering that verbal abuse has more power to harm a child over the life span than does any other form of abuse. I believe that is because verbal abuse is a communication that slices an infant or child closest to the heart of who they are as an individual. It harms the relationship the self has with the self. I believe that the true damage of insecure attachment affects an infant and child in the same way because early caregiver interactions are only peripherally about physical care. Physical care belongs of an infant or child more closely belongs to activation of the human caregiving system that it does to the attachment system.
The attachment system is about communication. Through the sensitivities of the caregiver to the infant, the infant learns who it is. Flaws in this early communication affect the development of the infant’s self and the relationship that damaged self will have with the world. These communication difficulties happen well before the infant has the capacity for either understanding or using verbal language. But just as our specie’s brain developed for millions of years before we had the ability to talk using words, we already had all kinds of ways to communicate with one another. That same ancient history repeats itself during our early infant brain developmental stages, as well. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” What came before during the evolution of a species is repeated during the development of each individual.
What we come to understand from studying the mechanics of the development of our attachment system is that we are not talking about defenses in the old Freudian sense of the word. We are talking about actions taken by caregivers toward the infant that create corresponding reactions in the forming nervous system which includes the brain of the child. The only thing compensatory about them is that the infant has no alternative but to develop differently in a malevolent versus a benevolent world. A person does not look out the window on a northern winter morning and see blizzard conditions and then walk out the door to go to work without a coat on. Nor does a person walk out the door with a coat on in Phoenix, Arizona in mid August at high noon. Adjustments to environmental conditions make good common sense, and since the beginning of our evolution momma nature didn’t raise no fools or we wouldn’t be here now. That’s as true for each developing individual as it was true for our species.
Remember that I am talking about worsening degrees of damage caused by worsening degrees of maltreatment to infants and young children during early developmental stages. There’s a story about what the Dali Llama said in response to a question during one of his recent investigative conferences where he had invited a selection of the world’s top scientists working on research related to the long term consequences of fetal and infant trauma, maltreatment and abuse to present their findings. After these kinds of presentations the Dali Llama and the assembled monks discuss the findings with the scientists and with one another in regards to the teaching of the Buddha.
- And we wonder why we feel special?
(the child abuse response phenotype – like a personal EMT response team)
Researchers know that if an infant is having problems with attachment it is not due to innate “flaws” within the infant because that same infant can have a perfectly secure attachment with one primary caregiver and an insecure attachment with another. The attachment difficulties an infant may experience are therefore due to the patterns of interactions that adults have with infants. The patterns of these interactions are forming the pathways of activity in the infant’s brain and influence the way the regions are going to interact with one anther for the lifespan of the infant.
We have to understand that scientists use metaphors in the same way that poets and writers do to describe that which can only be seen on the molecular and genetic level. Experts say that the patterns of their interactions with caregivers become “mental representations” or “working models of attachment” that the individual will have triggered into activation long after they are formed in what’s called implicit, or unconscious memory, every time they are later in interaction with other people. They are behavioral response shortcuts based on learning that actually reflect molecular movements of information between cells in the body. When these movements occur in the brain, it is the brain cells or neurons that are activated and send messages according to patterns established through interactions that happened in the past and are stored in this implicit memory.
Let’s imagine that every time you have ever gone to purchase something in a store the cashier arbitrarily charges you whatever they want to for your items. There’s no correspondence between what the shelf price is and what you actually end up paying. Furthermore, once you hand over your money you never know how much you are going to get back in change. Sometimes the cashier hands back to you more than you gave in the first place. Sometimes they stand there and ask you for more and more and more money until you go broke.
You’ve never experienced anything differently and have no way to gain information from others that will help you figure this out. To make matters worse this has been going on since the beginning as your brain was forming in the first place. It would have no choice but to build into itself patterns of chaos, unpredictability and anxiety that would manifest every time you were required to purchase something that was so essential to you that you would die without it.
But what if you accidentally discovered that there was one cashier, who worked a certain shift in a certain store who treated you differently. Every time you made a purchase you were charged the price you anticipated and were given back the correct change. You could rest assured, shop with confidence, know that your budget and your pocketbook were in safety and security. Whenever possible you would return to that place at that predictable time to get your shopping needs met.
But what if you could not predict what store that person was going to be working in or what hours? How could you organize your shopping experience around that fair goodness? What if you could neither predict nor control in any way how the cashiers would respond to you? What if sometimes they were sweet, nice, compassionate and friendly and at others they were randomly nasty and abusive? Sometimes you were completely ignored and were forced to go very hungry because nobody would sell you anything at all.
An additional source of stress now enters your world as you try to figure this out because now you know there’s actually a possibility of being treated differently by somebody somewhere some of the time. Is it more or less helpful to you to now know about the alternative? Or does it make you just that more confused and adds to your suffering?
What if these unpredictable, unfair and stressful kinds of interactions only happened to you while everyone else had nice organized shopping experiences? What if you were then told and made to believe that this was happening to you because there is something fundamentally different and wrong with you so that this is the treatment you deserve? You have nobody to tell you any differently. How do you adjust and adapt and what influence are these complicated experiences having on your brain development?
Because your shopping experience is absolutely crucial to the continuance of your life, all these experiences are going to be moderated my your immune system whose job it is to make sure you stay alive in spite of threats to your existence. Eventually all the stress response defense abilities your body has to help you continue living in spite of harsh circumstances will take over the biggest job of how you handle all the negativities of your life essential activities. If this all happens to you during your crucial early developmental stages, you will never develop a center set point of balanced calm and peaceful equilibrium anywhere in your body. It will become a “survival machine.” These adaptations that your entire body has been forced to make to keep you alive will then be operating in every other environment, context and situation that you experience and will not be limited only to shopping.
Experts would say that your brain is forming mental representations and internal working models that contain the information you are getting about yourself in the world of shopping. These are carried in your brain at all times, though you might only be aware of them when you get hungry and know you must head to the store to face yet another bad and ugly shopping experience. What if the only way you had to learn about who you were as an individual person had to come only from what these uncaring, unpredictable and sometimes just plain mean cashiers told you about yourself? What if these interactions were the only ones to tell you what life in the world was like both now and in the future?
I cannot remember the author or the name of the book I read about 10 years ago in which the author described how he believed that up until the age of 7 a child processes the passage of time so differently than does an adult that one year to a child is actually like seven years passing for an adult. I don’t remember what the author based his statements on, but I’ve never forgotten that idea because if feels true to me. That would mean that the first year of life for an infant is the equivalent of seven years (similar to what people say of a dog’s life).
I would not recommend that anyone return to their truly horrific childhoods in memory any more than might be necessary in order to understand what happened to them. In my case, there are literally thousands and thousands and thousands of abuse memories stored in my body. Every time I sit down to write the truth about what happened to me it’s like finding a pathway back into an inferno of a burning building that is past saving. I can choose a pathway in and follow it during a writing session, but once I “come back” to myself and to my life in the present, and then the next day go back to the writing, what I wrote the day before is nearly as separate from me as if it were written by another person. I cannot simply pick up where I was writing the day before and continue.
I am becoming more used to this process but it is difficult to realize the extent that my memories are not coherent, as the experts would call it. My memories are disconnected from one another now in the present as they were in my childhood as I underwent the experiences in the first place. My memory is “disorganized” and I feel that disorientation every time I make a direct connection between myself and my actual experiences.
As I mentioned, the sense of time passing is not likely the same for children as it is for adults. That makes the experience of abuse at least seven times lengthier for a child under the age of seven than it would be for an adult. When I enter the inferno of my childhood, I think I am in control of where I go and what I am remembering, but I am not. My body does the remembering, and things are not connected in the same way as they would be should I be able to self direct the process from the chair I now sit in while I write.
The events of my childhood are connected to one another through the wisdom of my body who found a way for me to survive them. Because the abuse began so early, the very formation of my brain was affected, especially the early forming right limbic emotional brain that would not be linear and logical even if it had formed correctly. But also all the connections that my right brain has with my left brain, which began its major formative stages after I was a year old and did not develop correctly either, no part of my brain can work properly in relation with any other, either.
Due to the chronic, persistent and consistent nature of my mother’s abuse of me, there are very few things of any sort that I face in the present that are not somehow and in some way directly connected to my childhood and now act as triggers of emotional memory. That is because the entire context of my childhood was implicated and involved with the abuse. Everything about my life was associated with abuse except some connections with the pristine environment of the wilderness that we were surrounded by on the homestead. Yet even here the pervasiveness of the abuse extended past the canvas and plywood walls of our house itself.
The feeling of grey clouds on a dim day, the sound of silence, of howling wolves and coyotes, fog, changing colors of fall leaves, eating berries, smelling woodstove smoke, even changes in temperature trigger body memories for me. Being in a body at all is a trigger for abuse memories. So while I might say it is unwise to return into the raging inferno of your childhood, I also know that if your abuse began at birth and continued through the earliest developmental stages that governed how your nervous system including your brain, your stress response system and your immune system developed, how your body experiences every circumstance since them has already been affected by the abuse because these body systems determine how the body processes, responds to, and stores the memories of every experience that we have for the rest of our lives.
So we in fact carry the burning building inside the cells of our body and we cannot ever escape them as long as we live in the same bodies that developed and evolved in those horrific environments. I know this sounds dire, because it is dire. The only way we achieve states of well being in the present and live a life that is different from the one we experienced while I body formed in the first place, is by using our gift of dissociation so that we can form what we might as well call pockets of experience that are a result of living in a more benevolent world. But the cost for these changes is high, and we pay it every moment we are breathing. At least that is the way my life seems to me.
Perhaps this is because the brain of the mother who formed me was, I believe, inside the skull of a borderline. They say of borderlines that they live in a world of mirrors. That means to me that every memory of every experience is connected as a reflection of one mirror into another into another. These are not the kinds of experiences that our bodies were ever designed to WANT to have. The body therefore has had to take nearly super human pathways to accommodate into its working operation systems, including the expression of our DNA and the workings of our body on their most intimate molecular levels.
We could say that when we lose our memories we lose our connection with our self. When childhood maltreatment experiences can never be formed into benevolent memory in the first place, they cannot be shifted around according to how we might WISH our lives had been. The body knows better than that. So when I have the experience of writing one day and then not being able to reconnect to those same thought on the next day that I sit down to write, I am saying that the problem is with remembering myself in the world of the past in relation to my world of the present.
My concern is that readers will feel this disconnectedness as they read my book unless somebody else can come back later and edit all the material into a linear format that leaves out the actual experience of me. If you take a handful of dice and throw them out on a table, they would not appear there in perfect linear order. Someone would have to go back and straighten them all out, turning them over and putting them in order say from one to six. A chaotic childhood from birth creates an inner reality that is as random to the developing brain as is the throw of six dice onto a table top.
The only logic that exists within my childhood experiences comes from my mother’s disordered brain and mind. Every single thing she did to me made perfect sense to her. That is the truly terrifying aspect of childhoods like mine. What ended up as so disorganizing to me as I developed a body and brain through the abuse is that all the abuse had its own logic according to mother. It is the sub-organization that a disorganized brain can create and the actions that are committed from this sub-organization that are of most concern to us as we undertake the process of searching with a forensic eye through our own autobiographies.
We can go back later and try to reorganize the dice on the table top, but it’s like those dice have a power within them to put themselves back in their original place and order as soon as we lift our fingers from them. That’s because they have an intrinsic formation like an alpha force that does not allow them to be changed once they have been thrown no matter how we try to influence them or implant our logic and understanding after the fact of our childhoods has already happened.
If we want a different, better order we have to start over using a new handful of dice, ones that we can control and arrange in patterns we like better. But we have to be very clear and honest: these are new dice, foreign ones, and extraneous ones. We can try to create new patterns and new rules to live by, but we have been robbed of having that organization and order built into our bodies from the start, and the secondary efforts we make to change things in the present are exactly that. The truest most fundamental aspects of our bodies are always going to operate on their primary circuits. You cannot go back and reform a body that was formed by age two. It doesn’t and it can’t happen.
Those kinds of primary changes have to happen while the critical growth windows of development are open in the first place. If we go back from the present into our childhoods (when the abuse began at birth) and try to reshape ourselves it works about as well as stretching out a rubber band and expecting it to stay that way as soon as you let off the pressure. It will always revert back to its original form. That is why it is essential to understand that the impact of abuse that begins at birth actually creates a different body for us to live in the rest of our lives. We have to understand what that form actually is and how it affects us.
From there we can choose to exert pressure to try to change how our bodies respond in the world, but we must understand that pressure will have to be applied continually for the changes to manifest in our current lives, and our naturally formed state will offer resistance within us that we have to also understand. We have to throw out an entirely different set of dice and work with those. The self that we are attempting to create in the present is a form of an artificial self that will not feel biologically natural to us. We cannot override what our body knows though we can work to teach it a different way of being in the world. But we are limited to working within our own body and we have to understand what it is telling us, how it operates, and what its potential and limitations are – realistically.
I can feel that resistance within me even as I write these words today. I am “stretching” my own truth by trying to put in order my inner experiences in a certain way that is really arbitrary to my right brain. This happens to me, I believe, primarily because the insanity of my mother’s abuse of me began at birth and changed the way my body developed in the first place so that all systems that process my being in the world were formed and determined by that abusive, inconsistent, detrimental environment. I am writing this book primarily as a source of information to people whose bodies were formed under similar conditions as mine was. This is a far different picture than it would be for those whose early infanthood conditions were mostly benevolent. This is the critical difference I wish to elucidate and illuminate. We have to shed the light of understanding all the way back to birth and even before that to understand the impact and consequences of severe abuse that began during these crucial developmental stages that caused us to have entirely different bodies as a result. We think differently, respond differently, process emotions in a different way, and process stimuli, information and experience differently than do those whose abuse began primarily after the age of 2 or do those who never experienced any abuse at all.
The hardest thing to accept is that the people who abused us, primarily our mothers during our earliest development, were probably equally as changed by their early experiences as we were. Why some people end up hurting others and some people don’t now becomes one of the most important questions to be answered. As I begin to understand why I didn’t pass on my mother’s abuse of me to my own children I begin to understand at the same time why my mother did.
Nothing to do with child abuse, maltreatment and neglect is a pretty picture, but under some conditions this picture becomes far uglier than other times. But if we don’t come to understand the foundational experiences that can later manifest in severe abuse of children, we will not understand output in terms of former input. Input has serious implications for output. It has to do with the way we are made both us as individuals and as members of a social species of fierce predators. If we were not a species of fierce predators perhaps severe child abuse would not happen in the first place. If we were not a social species, we would probably not care that it does. As members of a social species, are those who perpetrate abuse of infants and children and those who do not prevent it or intervene on behalf of the victims equally responsible? Where do we as a social species, exactly draw that line?
If when first meeting you I told you, “I am a member of a fierce predatory species” you might have a certain kind of suspicion about how I AM in the world. Would you wisely understand that I have the potential to be dangerous? You might have an entirely different opinion of me if we first met and I said of myself, “I am a member of a social species.” Perhaps as conscious beings our most fundamental difficulties come from being both kinds of species at the same time. How do the rabbit and the wolf manage to live together peacefully in the same house? How do we organize both the prey and the predatory aspects of our being at the same time?
I am poised here, ready to tell you a story:
Tell black rabbit death story here
Part of what makes telling one’s own life story coherently difficult is our involvement with significant others in our life who cannot themselves tell a coherent life story of their own. We find here a fascinating challenge. If one is, say, looking at a four sided object with each side appearing completely differently from one another, how do we tell a coherent story about the “whole thing?” If we are describing a person rather than an object, how do we begin?
In looking at my mother, or at another dear friend of mine, I am beginning to see The Big Four. One is the Original Self, or First Self that was disturbed in its ability to manifest in the person’s body due to abuse and maltreatment. We rarely see that aspect of the person, though those of us who have much practice in living with these kinds of people can love and “fall in love” with that person because we are sensitive and our abilities to detect and recognize this First person has been honed nearly to perfection.
Next comes the Wounded Self, or the Second Self which is the wounded place within a person. These wounds were life threatening and horrifically inflicted very early in an infant’s development and are the wounds that told the First Self that the world was not safe enough for it to live in. Very seldom does anyone see this Second Self. It is well hidden and needs much protection from – guess who?
The Defender Self, or the Third Self is the defending self, the one that did and will do anything possible to keep the Second Self, and by default also the First Self, from being seen. This Third Self is the warrior self, and can become very dangerous and aggressive. This self is charged with maintaining life at all costs, no matter who gets hurt in the process.
Next comes the Maintenance Self, or the Fourth Self, the one that holds everything together and is the one present in the idle format closest to consciousness. This is the public person that most people see and recognize on an ongoing basis. Others do not see this Fourth Person as being simply a functioning, functional façade. This self maintains order in relationship to ongoing relationships and life functions required to keep the body alive.
To accomplish an accurate forensic autobiography one must know what the are looking for and then understand what they are looking at. In terms of the four main systems that motivate mammal, including human behavior, we can begin to understand how an altered phenotype originates. I see these constructions of a person as being far deeper than merely “psychological” although we can pinpoint our starting position through such theories if we want to. They do not, however, reflect the depths of alterations that have happened within the developing infant and young child on the molecular (including the genetic expression) level.
An infant is born with operational attachment and caregiving systems, although the latter operates on the receiving rather than on the providing end at the beginning. An attachment system cannot continue to develop in an optimal direction if the caregiving environment it is born into is far less than optimal. The nascent, or seed of the original self can be wounded very early in its developing ability to manifest itself in the world. Literal physiological adjustments will be made as soon as possible in order for the body to survive. Once this has happened, the four part self is on the way to forming and without early and adequate intervention, the original self will disappear behind a wall of defense.
An infant born into a hostile toxic world will know immediately that it exists in a world of warfare requiring that only those who can adapt will survive. The original self hangs on by a thread as the wounds grow more lethal and the required defenses become more and more developed. Because we are not trained to recognize this process, very few will ever see that the end product, the adjusted Maintenance Self is far from whole and experiences ill being rather than well being.
Because the Maintenance Self is called upon to operate in a complex world filled with other people, it can divide itself and present different faces according to the requirements of different contexts and situations. It can have one face in the work arena, one in the social arena, and an entirely different one at home. Any time the Wounded Self feels threatened, the Defender Self will be called upon to respond. Only to the degree that the Maintenance Self can moderate the actions and reactions of the Defender Self will such a person be considered “normal.”
Very seldom, if ever, will such a person see or recognize their own Original or their Wounded selves because they are hidden from consciousness. Their entire pattern of existence operates around Defense and Maintenance, and these people often appear under close scrutiny to be shallow materialists without empathy or compassion, and often operate with questionable conscience. They have, in fact, invented a particular way of being in the world that maximizes their own success at survival.
The four basic human motivational systems are designed to operate appropriately and flexibly in response to an ever changing world. We are not, however, accustomed to sorting our behaviors into these four categories. Within a secure, optimal, good enough, benevolent early environment, the entire body and being of an infant will grow accordingly and be prepared for maximal fitness and well being. These people will rarely if ever have to stop and take conscious inventory of how, when, where their four systems are operating.
Infants raised under malevolent conditions will develop differently and be prepared for a toxic world of warfare in a threat to life environment. Because their early attachment needs were not met within their caregiving environment, everything changes its course of development. In my own situation, for example, my mother’s caregiving of me was at least adequate for meeting my basic physical needs – most of the time. My mother was primarily in her Defensive Self mode so that she was competing with me for all other resources. Hence, her competition system was inappropriately activated based on her Defensive Self’s need to try to right the serious wrongs that were done to her during her developmental stages.
She was supposed to form a secure attachment to me and meet my needs through her own appropriately activated caregiving system. Parental competition with offspring for resources is based on evaluation and assessment of dire consequences to their own survival in a threat to life, hostile, toxic and dangerous world. What she most meant to do was kill me, but her Maintenance Self was able to operate in such a way that it never had to deal with consequences from such an action. She operated at the edge of legality and managed to pull it off without detection in a world that did very little to protect children from abuse.
Infants and young children are exceedingly limited in their abilities to protect or defend themselves. What they have to rely on is to a large extent genetically determined. I believe that there is a basic continuum that operates as an axis connecting all four human motivational systems. That continuum involves extremes of sensitivity. Those who are most sensitive are usually not the ones with high aggression. Those with high aggression are usually not the ones that are most sensitive. Sensitivity and aggression are therefore at opposite poles of the motivational axis.
Some writers talk in terms of Hawk and Dove personalities. The extreme tendencies toward one or the other are based on genetic predispositions involving basic chemical signaling in the body. These differences manifest in the development of all systems in the body, including the nervous system and brain, as well as the immune system.
If, as I strongly suspect, the immune system is the main operational system directing and regulating all activity in a person’s body, all activities of the Defender Self are immune system responses. The question then becomes, “Under what conditions and to what extent are immune system responses appropriate defense reactions to a hostile environment?”
If my mother’s treatment of me originated in a forced adaptation of her body to the hostile environment it developed in as an immune system defense, where, when, how and why did it become so dangerous to me? And why did I not develop to end up like her? I suspect that my immune system response was different than hers, my immune system was different from hers, my central axis between sensitivity and aggression was different from hers.
I had a different motivational axis than she did. While she might have had more potential for developing sensitivity, when push came to shove it was her potential for aggression that tipped her scales. I believe there was a corresponding chemical change within her body that determined outcomes in a far different direction than who she could have become under different developmental conditions.
My motivational axis does not include much in the way of aggressive potential. I am far on the sensitivity end of the spectrum. Aggressive people can take more active coping, fight stances of defense, while more sensitive people must rely on more passive flight or freeze or hide responses for defense. Within the competition field, my mother was by nature designed for dominance and me for submission.
Was I conditioned for submission? Yes. What natural abilities I may have possessed for fighting back, for aggression or for asserting dominance were literally beaten out of me from birth. In the end, my Wounded Self and my Defensive Self are not that far distant from one another. My mother’s became far distant from one another with her Defensive Self equipped with an arsenal of weapons the was quite capable of using in her aggression toward me.
I believe those of us designed more as Doves will develop and rely on organizing our self within the domain of caregiving while the Hawks will fight it out in the competition arena. Due to our developmental traumas in both situations our basic drives are distorted in their operation as secure attachment was not an option for us in the beginning. Thus our drives never developed normally, and our end phenotype is far from what it would have been if we had developed under benevolent conditions.
What we must understand is that all of life is designed to attempt to control their own interactions with the environment to promote their own survival. This most basic drive, to stay alive, organizes the immune system on whatever level of development an organism can do this. The attempt to control the environment as a basic factor of life requires of us to recognize that it is the complicating addition of the capacity for consciousness, free will and choice that most concerns us when we move to the level of consideration of humans.
Consciousness is not a requisite for the maintenance of life. Although it appears to be something extra that humans possess, I don’t think it is a requisite for us either. It is a gift we have as a result of maximal development in a benevolent environment. The more threatening and toxic an early developmental environment is, the more the capacity for consciousness is limited. Consciousness is available or not available in equal measure to immediate threat to life. Even a person with the highest access to conscious awareness under normal conditions will lose it under extreme threat to life conditions. The body is geared to keep itself alive, and has responses built into it from the beginning of our evolutionary history that are designed to accomplish this. When an infant is threatened enough from birth, or a young child also under extreme threat during development, will end up with a body with less consciousness and more automatic response.
I believe my mother’s treatment of me was not under her conscious control but was rather a manifestation of a threat to life perception operating within her body and her brain. Her life force was divided into compartments that formed during her development and that kept her alive. They formed in combination with her genetic predisposition in response to threat to life in her early development. My mother developed a blatantly malignant psychic structure in which the intolerable parts were split of and spit out – most of them onto me. She never knew I was a person separate from her own projections of her ugliest self, and ugly self someone had fed her in the times of her early development.
The Maintenance Self I saw in my mother WAS her Defensive Self. Only marginally did I experience relationship with her caregiving system. My siblings experienced her Maintenance Self combined with her caregiving to a much larger extent, but I don’t think any of us saw much of her Original Self. That Self was tenuously and marginally connected to Alaska and the homestead, and we were able to share a small part of it there with her as she shared herself with herself. But mostly everyone in our family was overwhelmed, including my mother.
I believe it is when the Original Self is overwhelmed that gives us problems. Within the basic structure of rupture and repair, we are designed to handle minor and temporary states of being so overwhelmed, but when this being overwhelmed becomes major and chronic the ability to return to an optimal state of well being is damaged. And during early developmental stages, before the Original Self even has a chance to grow into its body, damage here alters everything.
Acquiring the basic competence to survive can require a deviation from the development of an Original Self. Once this Original Self has been overwhelmed before the age of two going back and finding it becomes nearly impossible to do because it was deprived of the opportunity to develop in the first place. This deviation from the ability to manifest the Original Self can even happen before birth if the fetus has to develop under less than optimal conditions. In fact, researchers are finding that the deviation in manifesting an ideal self can begin before conception under conditions where the mother’s stress hormones have been altered.
So we have to be thorough in our evaluation of conditions that impact a person’s development, many of them impossible for us to accurately know or assess. Unlike usual forensic investigations, we can have a hard time establishing exactly “when” the “crime” was committed, and might actually find is that we are looking more for when an accident happened. Accidents happen to us. Crimes we commit ourselves. It is in this gray area between accident and crime that we are most likely to become confused and lose our bearings and sense of direction. Like being deep under water we have to be able to see our bubbles in order to follow them up to the surface. Can we detect those bubbles?
Those who like to look at human behavior and use psychological theory to assess people say that “defense mechanisms” become problematic when they were once necessary and appropriate and are no longer needed. What we must realize and accept is that given early developmental circumstances, these “defense mechanisms” are built right into the structure of the body and the brain. They cannot be simply removed or discarded. The body has been forced to adapt by making decisions under threat to life circumstances that were then built into the structure of the body.
If one builds a retaining wall that includes sand in the cement mix, one cannot go back later and take the sand out of the mix without fundamentally destroying everything that was accomplished in the first place, including the final (phenotype) construction result. Let me give you a basic physiological developmental example. The human brain begins major growth of the right hemisphere emotional brain from birth in interaction with its caregivers. Near the end of the first year the major growth of the right brain has been accomplished and now it’s time for the left brain to go into its growth spurt. By this time the infant has begun to increasingly involve itself in the wider physical world outside of its body and further away from its caregiver’s lap.
If this were likened to a picture formed by connecting the dots, the picture is becoming much more complex. The right brain has to feed information to the left for the left brain to develop correctly. If the right brain has been hampered in its development including its ability to regulate emotions, the development of the forming left brain will be hampered as a consequence. There is also a region called the corpus callosum between the two hemispheres of the brain that connects the two. If there are developmental challenges in place, this region of the brain will not develop its connections correctly, either.
How strange it is to get to this point and realize that there is no mystery involved with any of this. Looking at things from the perspective of reproductive fitness indicators, it all makes sense – common sense. Yet if only the fittest reproduce, where does that leave everyone else?
If severe child abuse can interact with genes to produce altered phenotypes and evolutionarily altered brains, then maybe it is the timing that’s wrong, not the person. Somewhere back in our evolutionary past killing one’s offspring might have made perfect sense – but not in today’s world. Old brains out of synch in time? Do we just need to understand this as fact and begin work from here to effect changes? Do we need to stop wringing our hands and quit blaming, shaming and whining as we wonder how and why child abuse (and other crime we cannot understand) happens? Is it all a physiological, biological consequence of extreme stress of trauma to the growing and developing body and brain of a child?
When something startles us into fear in the dark, and we find out it is “nothing,” do we feel relief or disappointment? If we find out that there are logical facts behind child abuse, are we angry because that means we can no longer hate, blame and shame but must assume some of the responsibility ourselves for the “changed evolutionary” actions of others that harm? Where is that illusive line between judgment and discernment, condemnation and informed compassion?
Isn’t there a greater freedom in being able to truthfully say, “Oh, I understand it all now,” so we can get on with the business of dealing with the aftermath and learning how to recognize risk, intervene were necessary, and prevent these accidental disasters? Can I honestly say that the 18 years of abuse my mother did to me was nothing more than that, an accidental disaster? Was she merely no different terrible earthquake, a Tsunami, an avalanche, a hurricane – an act of nature? Was everything that she did to me a mistake, a cosmic evolutionary throwback of an accident?
That bears more closely to what I see as the truth than any other explanation I could generate, hard as it may be to accept or to swallow. Hardest to understand is that in my mother’s disadvantaged mind she intended me no harm. Her brain justified and explained itself perfectly well from her side of the borderline. She did not mean to hurt me the way you or I might aim to hurt someone. She just did it, as naturally as any predator would.
Stripping away all the complicating factors, most simply put, my mother was not fit to reproduce. Had anyone been able to recognize and “read” her reproductive fitness indicators, they would have easily known that. It has taken me hundreds and hundreds of hours of research to figure this out. Now that I see it this way, I can’t see it any other way.
In some strange way this realization disempowers my mother and takes her off of a pedestal. She did not discover or invent evolutionary adjustments to physiology that happen in response to development in a hostile world from infancy. She just experienced it, as I experienced her experience. At this point I cannot put myself on a pedestal above her, either, by saying I am somehow better than she because I experienced her horrible abuse of me and did not end up abusing my own children. I experienced my experience differently than she experienced hers, all the way down to the experience of the mechanisms that tell our DNA what to do. That doesn’t make me better than her, it means simply that I am different.
These realizations have taken the air out of any tires I might have had to drive around hating her with, have taken the air out of any balloon of scorn I might have had sailing through the air. Thus, a let down, a coming down to earth about the reality of her treatment of me, a coming to terms with the abuse that means I can’t believe that she had a choice. Her treatment of me was as physiologically determined as is the reality of the forces that create a bolt of lightning or gale force winds.
She was a force of nature having had some version of her humanity stripped from her so that her brain operated not with full involvement of a self capable of self reflection, free will and choice, but rather as one that reacted to the influence on her make up of developmental factors far outside of her control. That does not mean that she could not have been helped if there had been intervention. But there wasn’t any. Because that didn’t happen, the rest of my childhood followed a predictable course.
We need to expand our understanding of what reproductive fitness indicators are and what they mean. Fertility and virility are barely the tip of the iceberg. Our innocence is becoming ignorance if we continue not to pay attention to what research is showing as the facts.