We all have a childhood. Good, bad, or a indifferent, we all have one. For some, it was a time of building 'magical' forts, playing games at a friend's house for endless hours, and going on fun family vacations.
For others, it was a time of helping too much, trying to become invisible, or wondering if we could ever escape the daily emotional pain of rejection, ridicule and shame.
For yet others, it was relatively "normal" - except for that one thing. That one traumatic thing that was never really dealt with. That one death, assault, accident or natural disaster that changed life forever.
The Developing Mind
Which ever way, childhood is more than just pleasant memories to cherish or painful ones to avoid. It's a time of psychological and relational development. We learned, from the time we were born (some say even sooner- awww cute little developing embryo!), until the time we decided to learn something different, how to interact with our own self and with the world around us in the form of something we call "personality."
Personality is the sum of our experiences, worldview, attitude and expectations about, well, everything. It's the thing that causes us to say "yes" to the party invitation or stay at home with a book. It's the thing that causes us to laugh at that type of humor or to crinkle our nose. It's our overall disposition and outlook... you might say it's our "mind," the way we think and feel about the past, present and future. You might even say that our personality IS our experience. Which would mean that relationships are actually two or more personalities finding ways to connect or repel each other, but that's another subject.
As you might guess, our mind, or psyche, thinks and acts, for the most part, in predictable ways- predictable to us and to others. For example, you may hear that such-and-so has happened, and you think, "Oh! Aunt Edna is going to loooove this!" in either your personality's endearingly genuine or sarcastic manner.
You can do this because you have seen evidence of Aunt Edna's mind- her psyhce. She has shown you through actions, facial expressions, body language, comments, and a host of other cues, what her personality is all about- and you can make predictions about she will like or dislike based on this knowledge.
The Psyche... Only Damaged
Now, let's look at the unfortunate tweaks that can happen when the growing mind- the young developing personality- is forced to engage in adult activities or is forced to deal with stress beyond its coping capability.
Let's say an infant learned (in what is often called "pre-verbal" communication or trauma) that he will not have his needs met or that she is not wanted. The infant's filter (the understanding of self, others and "the world") has already been tainted a certain color. Now, future thoughts and interactions will be experienced through this tainted lens. And this is not to mention the fact that the environment that sent the original negative messages in the first place will probably continue to send similar messages in what becomes a defeating spiral.
Hence, the infant- the yet-to-be toddler, preschooler, grade-schooler, adolescent, teen and eventually adult, will have been exposed to hundreds or thousands or reinforcing messages that fortify the faulty thought processes, inter-personal relational style, and thoughts about the future.
It takes no great stretch of the imagination to see that this growing person learned to think and act in a way that appears self-sabotaging. Those of us who are most likely free from personality disorders will see this person's unreasonable demands, suspicions, threats and other behaviors as "crazy" or "controlling."
It's Only a Conspiracy Theory if It's Not True
You've heard the saying, "It's only a conspiracy theory if it's not true" in reference to the Illuminate, death camps, and the like. The response has some validity. If the evil secret society does in fact exist, and they are actually planning a massive population reduction and world take over, the "conspiracies" no longer exist. All that remains is truth.... the unpleasant facts about life as we know it- or as we thought we knew it.
It's the same for the person with the personality disorder. For whatever reason, they were denied the mitigating factors that may have balanced out some of the negative input, and all that remained were messages of failure, displeasure and/or rejection. All that remained was a 'truth' about themselves, other people and life in general... a very unpleasant 'truth.'
For them, their reality IS that they are bad and they need to hide and deny it. Their needs do not get met. They are not wanted. People always lie, cheat or leave. (Or in conspiracy language, the theories are true... "Yes, Virginia, there really is a Big Brother.")
Their response to the (albeit perceived) constant attack on their mere existence, is therefore valid. Think of it like this: If it was a true fact of the universe that you are inherently bad and you must hide it in order to survive, you might pretend to be someone you are really not. If everyone was lying to you, you might accuse them of lying or check up on them or distance yourself from them If they were all cheating, you might accuse them of cheating... and so forth.
What Does This All Mean?
So, what do we do with all of this information? We can't simply change someone's life-long developmental experience by simply telling them that they were lied to. We can't change learned "facts" that are hidden underneath logic and language, and are protected by defensive reactions by simply pointing out the psychology of development.
But we can bring an element of understanding and patience to what seems to be an unmanageable situation. We can chose to not take someone else's reactions to their own reality personally. We can step out of the "you must see things my way" dance - theirs or ours, if we are honest.
And, we might be able to bring a new environment and send a healthier message to a person who is still able to learn from experience.
Working and living with hurting souls can be hard work. Be brave and strong, my friends, and above all else, guard your heart, - M
Shout out to Dan Siegel, author of The Developing Mind and to Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed.
Photo credit: pixabay
Opinions are that of the author, and not standard within the psychology field (yet!).
The Motley Ms.
Hi! My name is Melinda (or Mel, if you like). I'm a saved-by-grace-er, lifelong learner, INFJ, health & fitness trynabe, Mom, mental health vlogger (hey! go subscribe!!) and Child & Family Therapist - not necessarily in that order (well, except the first one). If you want to see my business-y side, check out my super-professional business website.
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