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    Oops I did it again: the origins and importance of learning from experience

    This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

    America, in its relative youthfulness, still perceives itself as morally, politically and militarily invincible, devoid of the stabilizing historical context that might actually insure the retention of its truly consequential status.

    We conveniently fail to acknowledge that preceding civilizations and cultures, even those able to preserve global hegemony for millennia, were eventually superseded by others.  Not infrequently, hubris was implicated.  Our scant two hundred years are negligible comparatively.

    Each successive culture, seduced by its youthful prowess like rowdy boys on the playground, falters under the illusion of permanent celestial importance and eventually stumbles, having failed to learn from the miscarriages of those that preceded it.  They unwittingly and unconsciously repeat the past.

    The importance of history

    Our collective memory is short, and we prefer simplistic mythos, like the distorted glory tales of Chris Columbus, to any complex historical accounting of, say, the Great Depression.  Oh, not that unpleasant story again… Yet here we are again less than a century hence.

    It’s a well known fact that when General Eisenhower’s troops liberated the first concentration-death camps in Europe, he demanded photographic documentation, knowing full well that someone would eventually foment that the Holocaust never happened.  We like our history lite and sugar-coated.   I’m reminded of the fairy tale queen in Snow White, who only wanted to know how beautiful she was.

    Working from this ahistorical template, Americans are utterly shocked when confronted with their international or domestic follies, crying crocodile tears of narcissistic rage like toddlers banished from the sandbox for throwing grit in a playmate’s face.  Authentic superiority is a developmental achievement, not an entitlement. Alas, these attributes are too often confused.

    Learning from experience

    I’ve written frequently about the origins of empathy, and most toddlers begin to learn that balancing concern for self with concern for others guarantees access to rewarding relationships social success.  This process requires another salient ingredient, however.  Empathy must be accompanied by a growing capacity to learn from experience.

    This aptitude is also a developmental achievement, requiring a view of self that is permanent and continuous.  I was.  I am.  I will be.  In order to learn from experience, a child must recognize himself in past tense in order to direct himself with volition and purpose in the future.  If I throw sand in someone’s eyes, she won’t want to play with me.  Maybe there’s a better way to interact. Thought and language permit him to consider his behavior and try something new.



    This developmental process is not spontaneous; it requires a sponsoring human environment that helps a child think with his thoughts rather than simply act them out.  We fight with words.  Can you think of some words to describe how you feel?

    Guidance not punishment

    Consistent and gentle guidance, not harsh punishment, permits a child to learn gracefully from experience.  This process of smooth and seamless ontological development, where frustrations are delivered in tolerable doses, was described by the child psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, as going on being. The child borrows emotional strength from his caretakers until he is able to manage more independently, blithely unaware that his environment is being adjusted by others to accommodate his needs.

    Conversely, punishment may suppress sand throwing, but it won’t teach a frustrated child more adaptive and accommodating tactics.  Punishment is tantamount to throwing sand back in the child’s face. He learns that life is about hurting and being hurt, setting up emotional expectations that will force behavior into polarized and mutually exclusive domains rather than toward reciprocal and collaborative enterprise.  Often these polarized parts oscillate in and out of conscious awareness, impossible to sustain in mind simultaneously.

    Defending against emotional pain

    Painful experiences are not pleasant to remember, which is why they are often suppressed and pushed out of awareness.  It’s often the only way a child can avoid feeling penetrated by anguish.  He is not yet sufficiently mature to enact viable alterations in his environment.  It’s as if he forgets and then forgets that he forgot.

    Traumata occurring very early in life before a child has acquired language with which to express or describe feelings are encapsulated as fragmented slivers.  While the child is protected from their sharp edges, he is simultaneously unable to make use of them productively.  They live a life of their own with no way of being understood or resolved. These emotionally traumatic, often shaming experiences remain selectively fuzzy and unformed and are reactivated later as disturbing body sensations, intense dreams and repetitiously futile behavior.

    Ironically, it seems as if life’s most painful experiences are selectively reenacted continually.  This is because they do not yet exist in mentally or emotionally usable states.  When water evaporates as steam, it cannot be poured into a glass and consumed.  Conversely, we can more easily learn from emotionally accessible information.   Language renders feelings accessible, understandable and amenable to change.

    The persistence of memory

    The persistence of memory

    Painful experiences that are protectively shoved away remain inaccessible and are simply repeatedly in an attempt to garner a different outcome.  Instead of altering the future, the individual tries to correct the past by reliving it in the future.  The outcome remains disappointingly unchanged.  Thirst remains unquenched.

    A patient once commented that she always ended up with abusive men. No matter how she tried, every man she dated, even the most charming, turned out to be abusive.  She held a passive belief that she attracted them.  I think she was drawn to them specifically so she could finally change the outcome.

    Her father was violent and abusive.  Her mother tolerated this violence and was unable to protect her daughters from his rages.  It was customary for him to come home after work, tear up the house, terrorize his family and then sit down to dinner as if nothing had happened.   As he unconsciously reenacted his own childhood traumas, he passed them on to his children.

    This woman had never been honored by her father.  She subsequently developed unconscious emotional expectations that no man would respect her, and automatically selected men who didn’t.  She unconsciously adopted and embodied her mother’s passivity and emotional collapse.  While she fervently wished for a different outcome, she was continually crushed when her relationships followed a predictably unrewarding course.

    She was trying to change the past by reviving it in the present instead of learning from it and doing something different.  Her creativity was impaired.  Each time she failed, she became more hopeless about her future.  Repetition exacts a painful toll.

    Throughout the course of her analysis, she became more curious about herself.  Instead of asking passively why does this happen to me, she began to ask actively I wonder why I do this. We decoded her behavior in a way that liquefied the steam so she could drink it.

    She longed for the munificent father she’d never had.  Her reenactments signified an attempt to turn a long dead frog into a living prince.  As she became aware that she had been “dating” her father in an attempt to “fix” him, so that he could be a better parent, she was able to simultaneously mourn for the good father she never had while identifying men who did not personify his abusive characteristics.  As she began to learn from her experiences, she no longer had to relive them.


    Simply attempting to change behavior without understanding its function is neither gratifying nor successful.  Just say no doesn’t work when there are more compelling reasons to say yes.

    Behavior, particularly repetitious action, is a non-verbal language that must be decoded before it can be used and altered.  Cuneiform may be aesthetically interesting, but it is fundamentally useless unless it is decoded and understood.

    Psychoanalytic therapy is superior because it repairs the early developmental failures that force young children to adopt extremely protective measures to tolerate and survive an unwholesome environment.

    Though these archaic defenses were initially successful, they become troublesome when they work too well and are unconsciously employed over the course of a lifetime.  The protective measures, themselves, eventually become problematic, jeopardizing spontaneity and creativity.

    Emotional experiences locked in cold storage can only be relived or acted out, synonymous to hitting the replay button on the DVD.  The movie is always the same.  Increasing awareness permits both learning and intrinsic change.

    Please contact Dr. Heller at 714/662-7975 or www.mlheller.net