Upon answering the phone early one morning last week, I heard a friend ask tentatively, “Did you hear about the school shooting yesterday?” “Of course,” I responded, wondering why this particular shooting inspired a phone call. “That was where I went to school,” she said sadly and paused. “That was my college.”
Listening to her voice quiver, I felt the expanding shock wave of fearful confusion that confronted her as her placid inner world clashed with this terrible external reality. Fond memories of graceful corn fields taller than she and friendly young guys who reminded her of cowboys had been instantly nullified.
Impact of trauma
Just as the actual shooting disrupted countless lives, so did it obliterate the safety of my friend’s inner landscape, a private realm in which youthful hope and possibilities were held in safety. Now her associations would include danger, death and trauma, and she was stunned.
Despite the realization that these angry eruptions have become all too commonplace, they fill each of us with dread and helplessness. What could we have done? What should we do now? Simply thinking about such dramatic events is very difficult, because they traumatize, even from a distance.
Look beneath the surface
Media pundits advise this or that strategem, depending upon their particular agenda or profession. One television personality advised that we focus on the victims, not the perpetrator, so as not to gratify his desire for celebrity, all the while she, herself, was enjoying five minutes of celebrity notoriety. Simply ignoring unpleasant aspects of painful events is not productive.
I’ve heard all this before and so have you, these superficial, runny sound bites. Without palpable substance, they rarely illuminate deeply complex issues, leaving us feeling isolated and alone with our questions. What just happened and why?
Rather than casually diagnosing this particular gunman from the sidelines, because I will never know him, his family or the full reality of his circumstances, I prefer to examine the mental processes and dynamics that drive both healthy and explosive behavior.
The origins of a disturbed mind
An analytic approach begins by examining how the human mind develops from infancy onward. Who we are now is linked to who we were then. We treat and care for ourselves the way we were treated and cared for as infants and children. We can only treat others this same way, because we know no other.
In the beginning there is a mother-baby unit. Unable to regulate or care for itself, a baby cannot survive without its mother. Without her baby, there is no mother. Therefore, a mother’s first task is to carefully consider and meet her baby’s dependency needs for food, emotional regulation, comfort and love, just as her mind and body did so during gestation.
Since her infant has not yet developed the capacity to communicate its needs with words, she must somehow intuit them. She does this by feeling so connected to her child that she can actually perceive her baby’s feelings and respond appropriately.
Her feelings guide her as she creates a safe and tolerable environment. By reading her infant’s gaze, touch and body language, she knows to adjust the thermostat and blinds in the bedroom or change the diaper.
First modes of communication
Sight, hearing and touch are our first modes of communication, our first forms of language. As mother decodes her baby’s communications, she becomes his first interpreter. Responding gently to her infant’s cries, she coos, “Oh, are you hungry?”
Only she can feed her baby what it needs in just the right amount. With each interaction, baby downloads bits of information about comfort or feelings and slowly begins to archive and compile them into an “inner mom,” to whom he or she will turn throughout life.
Much as my friend has an inner field of tall corn, we all rely on the compass of our inner mom. You have your inner baseball park mom, holiday dinner mom, bedtime mom and birthday party mom.
An infant’s developmental process begins with this constant and attentive maternal care based upon empathic attunement. Like cool water, it encourages the tiny seed of an infant’s personality to germinate and flourish.
Self-regulation and “going on being.”
By resonating together harmoniously, a child’s personality begins to come into being within the protective embrace of this mother-baby unit. He grows without awareness that his parents are protecting him or controlling his environment. The child psychoanalyst called this seamless developmental process “going on being.”
As the child matures and acquires verbal language, he begins to perform some of these regulatory tasks for himself, able to identify and manage some of his feelings. “I feel hungry. I feel sad. I’ll tell mom.” The child begins to feel competent and capable.
In reality, there are no perfect mommy-baby units. Sometimes we don’t like the dinner, or mom forgets our soccer game. Hiccups are inevitable, even necessary, because as a result, a child learns to tolerate tiny bits of frustration.
The good-enough parent
What we hope for is a good enough unit and manageable bits of frustration. The child learns that mother gets it right most of the time and comes to trust her and eventually others. Relationships become desirable and enjoyable. The interpersonal patterns that spring from the mommy-baby unit inform and echo through our relationships for the rest of our lives.
If an infant’s caretaker was unable to intuit its needs or adjust its environment, the healthy and necessary process of passing feelings back and forth is derailed, and the child’s feelings back up inside like undigested food. With no parent to interpret new feelings and return them in bit-sized pieces, they remain unprocessed, becoming increasingly intolerable and unbearable.
The baby feels assaulted from the inside out as if poisoned. Its own feelings become dangerous, and it has no means of reducing its distress. To save itself, the baby ejects its feelings, pushes them away to reduce discomfort, and these forsaken feelings begin to have a life of their own “out there.” A helpless infant or child has no other means of self protection.
Returning to our hypothetical gunman, we might imagine that his early mommy-baby unit wasn’t quite good enough. Perhaps he suffered neglect or overt abuse. Perhaps his mother had been ill or young and inexperienced. Somehow, he experienced her as emotionally inadequate or unavailable. As a result, he did not develop positive feelings about himself and failed to develop the capacity to regulate himself.
Unarticulated, undigested feelings are acted out
Undigested, his unberable feelings backed up and were protectively ejected like a powerful gunshot. In his mind, he then fused them to other people, in this instance, his student peer group. Having become external receptacles for his intolerable feelings, he began to see these students as equally dangerous.
Once evacuated, he had no way to metabolize these painful feelings. He could only attack them “out there.” At the moment he fired a gun, we know he was not relying on his inner comfort mom. When he aimed deadly bullets at his classmates, he was actually attacking his disowned feelings. The anger and helplessness you feel in response to his outburst enable you experience some of the very helplessness and anger he may have felt.
It is very common for psychological disturbances to manifest during pivotal phase of life transitions. The pressing demands of adolescence, particularly leaving home and learning to function independently as a young adult, pose tremendous challenges for even the healthiest child. For the child who is more vulnerable, who struggles or is less well adjusted, escalating crises may have devastating results.
Individuals who act out their feelings violently are often described by others as very quiet and withdrawn. This suggests several things. First, it implies that the individual has not developed a capacity to diffuse intense feelings with expressive language, so has no recourse but to act them out behaviorally.
It also suggests an inability to safely trust or connect with others, informing us that some aspect of infant development was derailed, because we learn to trust and form interpersonal connections from within the mommy-baby unit.
There is hopeful news, though. The plasticity of the human mind-body is not limited to childhood but remains operative throughout the lifespan. Skillful psychotherapy or psychoanalysis may help repair benign or malignant psychological damage sustained during infancy and childhood by creating a safe place in which to resume developmental processes that were derailed early on.
In time, this novel clinical environment and therapeutic relationship begin to alter an individual’s inner landscape. Neurological, emotional and behavioral patterns begin to shift. If necessary, a psychiatrist can prescribe medications that can be an extremely helpful adjunct.
Rather than affix blame after the fact or assume that your child is simply going through a difficult phase, wisely seek professional assistance as soon as possible. If your child’s distress reawakens your own unresolved issues, you can help your child further by seeking therapy yourself. There’s a good therapeutic match for everyone.
This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.
Contact Dr. Heller at www.mlheller.net or 714/662-7975