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I recently found this article by chance when clearing out some rubbish. Reading it for the second time a few days ago I thought it worth reproducing here as an appropriate link from 'Gloomy Psychology'.... not that one can do much about the circumstances of one's upbringing, but if we want to reduce adverse consequences then a useful step is probably to understand the likely causes - so our traits and malaises may not be as fixed as most of us are inclined to think...


by Oliver James (from 'The Observer')


The verse (by Philip Larkin):

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

Philip Larkin, from High Windows
Published by Faber and Faber



They fuck you up, your mum and dad

In the Seventies, there was a bestselling American self-help book called I'm Okay, You're Okay. Then came David Bowie. On his 1980 album, Scary Monster, he sang: 'I'm okay. You're so-so.' Now, in the Nineties, it's a case of I'm screwed up, so are you.'

Of course, we tend not to put it quite like that. Most of us still think of our­selves as being mentally healthy, emotionally stable — in short, okay. We know many people who are 'screwed up" — in a few cases they may have actually 'cracked up' altogether — but we prefer to think of ourselves as having had a 'reasonably normal childhood' and as being 'reasonably well-balanced'. The truth is more interesting.

The truth is that it is now normal to be screwed up. Philip Larkin was right. Nearly all of us come from families which have to some degree abused and deprived us. Nearly all of us have genetically inherited psychological problems. Nearly all of us pass these on to our children. We are screwing them up, too. For all our individual economic worries, the average Briton has never been richer. By and large, we have enough to eat, we live in warm accommodation, we are able to read and write and we have a wider choice as to how and where we live, travel and entertain ourselves. Technologically developed societies like ours are the wealthiest ever — but at a price to our mental health.

Nearly all of us find modern life difficult. Rates of angst have risen steadily since 1950, accelerating throughout most of the developed world since the Eighties. There have been significant increases in depression, anxiety neuro­sis, eating disorders, addiction, and antisocial and criminal behaviour. Between a third and two-thirds of us are suffering from one of these problems at any one time and the numbers are rising.

In 1975, 22 per cent of a representative sample of 6,000 Britons were found to be sufficiently emotionally disturbed to warrant a diagnosis of 'psychiatric morbidity' — serious emotional problems. When the study was repeated in 1985 with a new sample the same size, the proportion had risen to 31 per cent. If the strict definitions used in these studies were broadened out beyond precise men­tal illnesses, the proportions suffering angst would be about double these. 'Neurosis is the rule, not the exception,' wrote Freud. That is truer than ever.

The Larkin Syndrome explains why we are feeling so sorry for ourselves and can help us to understand our individual psychology. In particular, The Larkin Syndrome reveals how the three starplayers in our adult psychology developed in childhood. Number one: our 'sense of self' — the identity anchored from hav­ing infantile needs met in early relationships in the first six months of life. Number two: our 'pattern of attachment', the assumptions we bring to rela­tionships about how others will treat us, heavily influenced by how we were cared for as toddlers between six months and three years. Number three: our conscience or 'superego', the mind's internal policeman which develops out of the sexually charged triangle between parents and children between four and six years old.

Of course, these inner dramatis personae are not exclusively scripted by our parents' behaviour: they are also influenced by genes. The Larkin Syndrome begins, therefore, with a selection of the latest estimates of the heritability of particular psychological characteristics.


They may not mean to but they do


When the actress Margot Hemingway killed herself with an overdose of sleep­ing pills on 1 July — the day before the 35th anniversary of the suicide of her grandfather — there were reports of 'the curse of the Hemingways'. Ms Hem­ingway was the fifth member of her family to have taken her own life. Like Ernest, she was an alcoholic. So did she inherit her torment and self-destructiveness through her genes?

Professor Robert Plomin of London's Institute of Psychiatry is generally regarded as the world's leading behavioural geneticist. He has written: 'One of the most important findings that has emerged from modern behavioural genet­ics involves the environment... most behavioural variability among individu­als is environmental hi origin.' Nurture is more significant to our personality than nature. Plomin's conclusion comes from reviewing all the evidence on studies of identical twins (over 5,000 pairs) — the main source of information about the effect of genes. Identical twins have identical genes and, therefore, any behavioural differences between them must be environmental in origin. In these studies, the amount of difference between them is compared with that between fraternal twins, who share only 50 per cent of their genes.

Plomin concluded from his survey that about 40-50 per cent of human psy­chology is caused by genes. This has since been confirmed by several other reviews and is the generally accepted figure. The other 50-60 per cent is down to the environment.

When scientists estimate the contribution of nature and nurture to a par­ticular trait they break it down into three components: genes, and nonshared and shared environment. The shared component is what you had in common with your siblings. Say your father was always ratty in the mornings and equally so to all of you — that would have been part of your shared childhood environment. But if he was considerably rattier to you than your siblings, that would be nonshared. Plomin's inspiration was to point out that the surprisingly large (50-60 per cent) difference in the personalities of identical twins who are raised together can only be explained by the nonshared environment.

Plomin is worried that estimates of heritability based on twin studies could be wrong by up to 20 per cent. That should encourage a healthy scepticism about the list that follows. Nonetheless, here — as a vital background to the succeeding analysis of the environmental effect of parents on children — are the latest calculations of the importance of genes.

Heritability of intelligence (as measured by IQ tests)

IQ in childhood

Genes: 30 per cent
Shared environment: 30 per cent
Nonshared environment: 35 per cent

IQ in adulthood

Genes: 52 per cent
Shared environment: 0-1 per cent
Nonshared environment: 40 per cent
(based on 4,672 pairs of identical twins)

Heritability of specific mental abilities

Memory: 22 per cent (478 pairs)
Spatial ability: 40 per cent (478 pairs)
Success in exams at school: 38 per cent (1,300 pairs)
Quick wittedness: 22 per cent (478 pairs)
Verbal reasoning: 50 per cent (478 pairs)
Creativity: 20 per cent (100 pairs)
Reading disability: 25 per cent (199 pairs)

Heritability of personality traits

Extraversion: 40 per cent (9,887 pairs)
Neuroticism: 30 per cent (9,902 pairs)
Emotionality: 40 per cent
Activity level: 25 per .cent
Sociability: 25 per cent
Masculinity-femininity: little or no genetic influence
Tolerance of ambiguity: little or no genetic influence

Heritability of relationships

Male homosexuality: estimates vary from 50 per cent (56 pairs) to 100 per cent
(37 pairs), but all the studies are flawed
Female homosexuality: 0 per cent (4 pairs) to 25 per cent (56 pairs, study flawed)
Divorce: 50 per cent (722 pairs)

Heritability of attitudes and beliefs

Conservatism: 30 per cent (2691 pairs)
Religiosity: 0 per cent (2691 pairs)
Racism: 0 per cent (2691 pairs)
Vocational interests: 50 per cent (over 1500 pairs)

Heritability of mental Illness

Schizophrenia: 48 per cent (310 pairs in modern studies)
Manic depression: estimates vary from 50-65 per cent
Mild depression: estimates vary 0-20 per cent
Anxiety neurosis (obsession, hysteria, panic): estimates vary 0-34 per cent
Alcoholism in males: 30 per cent (444 pairs)
Alcoholism in females: 0-10 per cent (169 pairs)
Anorexia nervosa: 60-70 per cent (but based on only 16 pairs)
Autism: 70-80 per cent (45 pairs)

Heritability of antisocial behaviour

Adult criminality: 34-86 per cent (251 pairs, from 9 studies, variously flawed)
Juvenile delinquency: 69-100 per cent (83 pairs, from 6 studies, variously flawed)
Violence: little or no genetic influence
Stealing: 78 per cent (70 pairs)
Hyperactivity: estimates from 30-50 per cent



They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you


Are you a hungry, even greedy, person? Do you sometimes binge on power and wealth-seeking work, or on sex or drugs or food? Are you a good mimic, a bit of a charmer, a lover of artifice? Do you prefer not to get too close to people? Are you a control freak? Do you tend to see things in extremes of good and bad? Is your world divided into the wonderful few that you recognize as talented or decent or beautiful and the rest? Do you like to be the centre of attention? If so, you prob­ably have a weak ' sense of self. This is rooted in the first few months of your life. The psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott claimed that your fundamental 'sense of self, the roots of your identity, emerge through your relationship with whoever primarily cared for you in the first few months. He wrote that 'there is no such thing as a baby', meaning that babies are nothing without the thoughts and feelings attributed to them thousands of times every­day by their carers.

The sense of self that results is built up from being fed, smiled at, responded to. At this stage, the baby's experience is largely physical — sensations of hunger and satiety, of warmth and cold, of fear or security. It cannot label its bodily sensations or the world around it with words, so it cannot represent its experience in formal thoughts. Its sense of time is limited to changes from hot to cold, from being fed to not being fed. It has weak boundaries between what is Me — what is inside — and what is Not-Me, what is outside the body and mind. Only by having its needs met reliably can it build up a stable set of sensations based on its body which it feels it can control — the essence of Me.

If the care is not empathic, does not start from where the baby is, Winnicott maintained that it will develop a 'false self' and that it will feel unvalued and powerless. If it is only fed when the carer maintains it is hungry, if it is only picked up when it suits the carer rather than when it feels the need, if its smiles are hardly ever responded to with a smile back, then the carer hijacks its sense of self. The baby grows looking outwards for definition without having these biological sensations as the foundation for who it is. It will have a weak sense of self in later life, termed a 'borderline (or schizoid) personality disorder' or even, if extremely weak, schizophrenia (where you may suffer the delusion that you are a different self from the one whose name is on your birth certificate).

Schizophrenia is rare, only afflicting one per cent of the population in their lifetime. But about 10 per cent of people suffer the full set of borderline symp­toms, symptoms of which are found to a lesser extent in all of us. The weak sense of self can cause a 'Me-Me-Me' kind of 'narcissistic' person, who is constantly attention-seeking and only happy when they, or something they feel authorita­tive about, are the topic of conversation. The injury they suffered as a baby at not being deemed important, at having their needs relegated to those of the carer, is dealt with by a compensation: they feel utterly worthless but reverse the truth, saying to anyone who will hear (or more rarely, secretly to themself): 'I am the most wonderful/beautiful/intelligent person.' They have great diffi­culty in relating to people realistically and honestly unless they incorporate them as part of themselves, something they do readily because of their lack of boundaries between themselves and others. These special others are included by the borderliner saying unconsciously: 'I am perfect; you are perfect too, but you are part of me.' Much more than 10 per cent of the population show some signs of this mechanism—perhaps all of us, to some extent in some situations.


Another key sign of the borderline person is a megalomaniac omnipotence, a magical belief in their power to affect the world quite out of keeping with what is realistic. This may be why so many schizophrenics seem attracted to the belief that they are Jesus Christ. Believing they are best, they are convinced that anything is possible. Again, all of us had grandiose fantasies as children and there can be few adults who have completely left them behind, particularly at times of severe stress. Most borderline people have great difficulty in sus­taining stable personal relationships. Contact with others leaves them feeling drained and exhausted because their omnipotent and narcissistic fantasies are constantly banging their head against the ceiling of reality. It also leaves them I feeling lonely and empty, increasing their dependence on others and the need for company. They are at grave risk of filling the emptiness with addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and, most likely of all, to work.

A proportion of such people are extremely successful. In their education, the tendency to define themselves externally makes it easy to devote themselves to pleasing teachers and examiners and, subsequently, employers. Such people may also go to fantastic lengths to try and make their fantasies come true — to confirm their narcissism and omnipotence in reality, using success to gain the adoration and power they were deprived of as infants. The performing arts are packed with narcissists who are desperate for the next fix of public approba­tion. Their deep, infantile sense of inadequacy is matched precisely by their surface need to be recognised as the opposite.

The ones who are more omnipotent than narcissistic (although the two usu­ally overlap to some degree) are engaged in a parallel battle to convince them­selves that their powerlessness as a baby is over. They become the power- and wealth-crazed politicians and businessmen, endlessly concerned to prove them­selves, always restless and in need of further proofs of their efficacy in over­coming others or to provide the material sense of worth that is psychologically lacking. No wonder that we talk about very ambitious people as 'hungry', for a great many literally hungered to be fed as babies. Again, this is true of all of us to a lesser degree.

Another facet of people with a weak sense of self is that they often feel unreal and unable to 'be themselves', uncertain as they are of who that is. Para­doxically, they may feel most real when pretending to be someone else and if they do not gravitate towards acting as an actual profession, they make good actors. These so-called 'as if' personalities live their life as if they are who they are rather than solidly feeling that way. They may recognize their passport photograph or their image in a mirror, but only as the person they are pre­tending to be. This can make them very adept as mimics of others, able to mutate between identities with remarkable fluidity. They are often witty and charming when first encountered, but leave a sense that something is not quite right about them afterwards. They are imposturous people who impersonate themselves.


There is a considerable overlap between imposturous people with a weak sense of self and the psychopath — people who are amoral, antisocial and self­ish and largely incapable of empathy with the feelings of others. A weak sense of self can mean it is harder to tell right from wrong because doing so requires a stable, firm identity. In the popular imagination, psychopaths are all drooling maniacs or cold killers. But only a tiny minority become serial killers or rapists, some of whom are masters of disguise and take great pleasure in the 'game' of evading detection. In fact, it is probably the case that the great majority of the five to 10 per cent of the population who are full psychopaths are not behind bars and some of them occupy the most powerful positions in our society. The behaviour of previously normal citizens in Hitler's Germany suggests that most of us are capable of psychopathic behaviour—to get by, many of us have to act psychopathically at some time. The difference is that true psychopaths do not feel guilt. A lack of moral scruple and an inability to feel pity when your actions hurt others can, when accompanied by charm and ability, advance a career in many professions, so long as you can learn the limits of how far it is possible to I go without getting caught. But most people with these variations of a weak sense of self have tow-level jobs and live deeply unhappy lives.

While the numbers having deprived infancies have not changed signifi­cantly hi recent years, the gradual relaxation of the social force which used to encourage moral behaviour has probably increased the proportion who act anti-socially and illegally. The decline of religious belief, closeknit communities where everyone knows everyone else's business and the breakdown of the fam­ily have fertilised the growth of psychopathy among people with weak identi­ties. However, there is also no doubt that genes play a significant role in caus­ing a weak sense of self, as revealed by studies of schizophrenics. They have the weakest sense of self of all so whatever causes their illness also influences the sense of self — or lack of it — in everyone. If 100 schizophrenics have an identical twin, on average 48 of them will also have the illness. Sixteen out of 100 siblings of fraternal twins with schizophrenia will also have the disease, and six out of 100 normal siblings. By implication, a good deal of borderline per­sonalities are probably caused by genes too.

There is no question that babies are born more or less 'difficult' — even identical twins have different proclivities to cry, sleep and feed. They are also born with varying degrees of motor capacity and more or less active. This is due to different experiences the twins had in the womb and during the birth. A 'difficult' newborn baby, with or without a schizophrenic genetic potential, is more likely to get off to a bad start than one who is 'easy'. The mother gets a good deal more encouragement from the latter and there is some evidence that mothers who are at high risk of becoming postnatally depressed are more likely to do so if they have a difficult baby.

A recent study suggested that if very high-risk mothers bore a child who was floppy (with poor motor coordination) and irritable, they were significant­ly more likely to become depressed. By contrast, numerous studies prove that low-risk mothers tend to turn difficult babies into easy ones by three months of age. But as Ptomin points out, if 48 out of 100 siblings of identical twins are also schizophrenic, despite having exactly the same genes, 52 out of 100 are not. The only possible explanation can be their 'nonshared' environment — differ­ences in the care they received.

The crucial role of the environment is illustrated if you ask why some moth­ers are more high-risk for postnatal depression. The great majority of such depressions are defined as 'minor' and unlike major depressions (like manic depression), which are 50-60 per cent genetic, minor depression (estimated as about 10 per cent genetic) is largely caused by the environment — most crucially, a low income and lack of social support.


But they were fucked up in their turn


All of us display consistent patterns in the way we relate to others (known as a 'pattern of attachment'). For some people it is very sim­ple: they are confident they will be loved and do not rock the boat when things are going well at work or play. But most of us are not like that. We wonder why we never feel sure about our partners, why we become clingy and frightened if a relationship becomes intimate or else shy away from intimacy altogether. There is now a large body of scientific evidence showing that these patterns are profoundly affected by the kind of childcare we receive aged six months to three years. This is a sensitive period for developing fundamental expectations about others. Still powerless to do much to control our destiny, and with mini­mal language and social status, we are at the mercy of whoever is looking after us. Our experience with them generalises out to form a bedrock of assumptions which we bring to all our relationships with others. Can they be trusted? Are they going to like us or do we expect rejection or indifference? Can they be relied upon to meet our emotional, sexual and other needs?

If we are repeatedly let down during this early stage — either because the people (usually our parents) on whom we most rely keep physically disappear­ing or because they are emotionally unresponsive when they are there — then this is what we tend to expect of people we depend on in later life at work and in love.

This pattern is known as an 'anxious' (as opposed to 'secure') pattern of attachment and it is becoming the norm rather than the exception — it's become an epidemic. Fully 40 per cent of toddlers suffer from anxious attach­ment and by adulthood, this has grown to over 50 per cent (as a result of sub­sequent problems, such as an early bereavement or the divorce of parents).

As the pressure builds for both parents to work and as parental separation rates rocket, that figure will inevitably increase. If we think we are screwed up, our children will be even worse and it is even possible now to calibrate this facet of the Larkin Syndrome. If you are a mum or dad, you can calculate the damage you are doing.

It was an Englishman, John Bowlby, who developed the basis for these cal­culations during the Sixties and Seventies. He claimed that toddlers passed through a cycle of anger, sadness and emotional flatness when separated from carers. Only the return of the carer extinguished these 'attachment' behaviours which evolved as a way for young mammals to attract the attention of their par­ents and keep them close in case of danger. Only if the parent was close did the offspring feel safe to do the exploration so important to its development. Sub­sequent research has shown Bowlby's work to be broadly correct and it could prove to be the most important in psychology since that of Sigmund Freud.


Observations of toddlers has identified two main patterns of anxious attachment. 'Avoidant' toddlers react angrily to being separated or let down. They brood moodily and are unable to get on with anything enjoyable, although they may become obsessively involved in solitary play, such as building with Lego blocks. When their carer returns they refuse to be picked up, cuddled or consoled. At school, they are liable to have few friends, to be aggressive and bullying and difficult with teachers. Their mothers tend to be negative in their dealings with the child when observed at home, rebuffing or deflecting the child's attempts to get physically or emotionally close. 'Ambivalent' toddlers share the avoidant child's inability to play and enjoy themselves when sepa­rated from carers but, unlike them, are deeply preoccupied with where the carer is and when they will return. On being reunited, they exhibit a sort of push-pull ambivalence. On the one hand, they cling, are tearful and demand the carer's exclusive attention; but on the other, they 'punish' the carer by being uncoop­erative, wriggly and impossible to satisfy. At school, they are similarly demand­ing of teachers and other children. They are easily moved to tears, hard to j engage in work projects and liable to become victims of bullies. Their mothers \ tend to be inconsistent in responding to the child, by turns emotionally inaccessible and over-intrusive.

By contrast, securely attached toddlers when separated seem confident that ' their carers will return. Then they greet the carers with warmth and enthusi­asm and often involve the carer in what they were doing. At school they form friendships easily and cooperate with teachers. Their mothers are interested, warm and supportive.

When Bowlby's theories first came to public notice, they attracted a great deal of criticism from feminists. He seemed to be suggesting that mothers had a biologically based instinct to care for children and that if they left their tod­dlers in the care of others it would inevitably cause anxious attachment. Bowlby later claimed to have been misrepresented, saying that he did not believe it was only the mother and a woman who could satisfy a child's attach­ment needs.

The mass of subsequent research shows to the satisfaction of most experts in the field that leaving toddlers with parent substitutes can cause anxious attachment — but only if the substitute care is inadequate. The crucial factors are: the substitute must be well known to the child; the substitute must not keep changing; the substitute must be responsive; and the smaller the ratio of children to carers, the better.

If all these criteria are met, the toddler should not be made anxiously attached if the mother returns to work. Unfortunately, this is all too rarely the case. Cost considerations mean that many substitutes have too many children in their care. Professional parents sometimes treat childminders as if they were temporary secretaries, and don't keep them for long. When elderly relatives are pulled in to help, they sometimes find the huge demands of a small child too great and are unresponsive.

There is still a great deal of ignorance about the enormous importance for the toddler's subsequent mental health of getting it right. However, it should be remembered that Bowlby's theory was not exclusively concerned with sepa­ration from carers. He also emphasised the importance of the carer's responsiveness when present. This becomes critical when you learn that as many as one-third of mothers with small children are mildly or severely depressed and that a number of studies show that toddlers with depressed mothers are more likely to be anxiously attached. There is also abundant evidence that many women find caring for small children depressing and that they become less depressed if they get a job.


The best interests of the child are less well served by a mother who is at home and depressed than by substitute care that fulfils the criteria for good care listed above. The solution to the problem is therefore very clear: women who want to work and who would be at risk of depression if they did not, should be encouraged to do so. In fact, relatively few mothers of toddlers are in paid employment. Only about one-third of under-twos have a mother who works, and the majority of these work part-time. The increasing involvement of men in childcare may also serve to ease the problem in the future — men appear to be just as good as attachment figures for toddlers and many find the workplace as uncongenial as successful women often find full-time mothering.

Genes appear to play little role in causing pattern of attachment, although Tearfulness and anger do have a significant genetic element "(about 40 per cent). A difficult and poorly coordinated baby is more likely to depress a high-risk mother and this would make her unresponsive. But this is relatively rare and it should be remembered that environmental factors (like low income) are the main cause of maternal depression.

In the meantime, we are living through an anxious attachment epidemic and recent research on adult attachment is establishing what this means. In the studies, couples fill in a questionnaire which enables the researchers to define if they are securely or anxiously attached and the results are correlated with what both partners say about their relationship.

The secure are more open, trusting, satisfied by and committed to their part­ners and more confident that the relationship will survive. Avoidant adults tend to have more short-term relationships, fear rejection and are less committed, trusting, satisfied and involved. The ambivalent are less trusting and satisfied but heavily dependent with a terror of abandonment. Both kinds of anxiously attached are more negative about their partners, have lower self-esteem and feel unloved.

One fascinating study of 1,000 people from the general community examined the role of attachment in love and work. The secure generally did not worry about work failure or feel unappreciated and had achieved a higher educational standard than the anxious. They tended not to allow work to interfere with friendships or health and took plenty of enjoyable holidays.

The avoidant preferred to work alone, used work as a substitute for having friends or a social life, rarely took holidays and did not enjoy them. The ambiva­lent worried about work performance, preferred work with others but felt unap­preciated, were easily distracted, had trouble completing projects and tended to slack off after receiving praise. Interestingly, they also earned significantly less than the relaxed but fastidious secure group and the workaholic avoidants.

Other studies have shown how pattern of attachment effects the course of bereavement. At their most pathological, the avoidant totally deny the dead person has gone and carry on as if nothing has happened. In many cases they suffer a severe nervous breakdown some time later, often near the time of a sig­nificant anniversary. At the opposite extreme, the pathologically mourning ambivalent type cannot put the dead person out of their mind. The smallest reminder throws them back into mourning many months after the loss and they may find themselves mistaking strangers glimpsed in the street for the departed one. Clinical reports suggest similar patterns when love affairs end — the ambivalent find it hard to let go, the avoidant deny their emotions.

Studies which rely on adults' memories of their early childcare support attachment theory: avoidant adults recall rejection, ambivalent ones recall inconsistency and the secure recall warmth and emotional availability. Clini­cians believe that the anxiously attached will turn out to be more prone to depression, suicide attempts, neuroses, eating disorders and psychosomatic ailments. Since patterns of childcare in the last 20 years have been increasingly of a kind that creates anxious attachment — more working parents with inad­equate substitute care, a 40 per cent divorce rate — the proportion of anxious­ly attached adults will rise steadily from its already worrying level of more than 50 per cent. It is a paradox of modern life: just when we have reached a techno­logical sophistication that enables us to look after our material needs as never before we seem, in order to service this machine, to require patterns of rela­tionship that are unprecedentedly emotionally upsetting.

Man hands on misery to man


Do you believe that for sex to be good it must be naughty? Are you prone to sexual infidelity? Does too much familiarity take the lust out of sex for you? Do you have unwanted thoughts that you cannot get out of your head? Do dirt or untidiness seriously put you out? Are you more conscientious than most people you know? If the answer is yes, then you have some of the classic neurotic symptoms that Sigmund Freud traced all the way back to the primitive eternal triangle of mother-father-child. To understand it, one must first grasp the essentials of Freud's model of the mind.

According to him, there is a constant struggle within the psyche to reconcile a number of competing demands. There is the 'id': that is, the instinct which drive our needs for sex, food and self-preservation. But as Freud points out in Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), the external world can rarely meet the id's demands there and then. You cannot just jump on anyone you fancy or grab any food you would like to eat. Enter the 'superego'—a set of understandings about right and wrong based on parental beliefs and learnt ideas from wider society (often from observing other children). This is our mental policeman that censors the greedy id. The third agency (which has been steadily developing since infancy) is the 'ego' — the pragmatic diplomat who is engaged in an unceasing negotiation between the slavering id, the po-faced superego and the practical reality of what is feasible in the external world.

Freud pointed out that there is nearly always a yawning gulf between what we want (instinctual demands) and what is actually available out there (exter­nal reality). To bridge this gap we have fantasies, scenarios which fulfil our wishes in our mind without the tiresome limitations of mere reality. Fantasies also help us in the crucial business of delaying gratification of instinctual needs. Consider the story of a typical education. 'Work hard for your GCSEs so you can take A-levels; work hard at them so you can go to university; get a good degree so you get a good job; stick at your overworked, underpaid first job so that you can get a better one.' And so on, to the grave.

The id-superego-ego negotiation can also be seen operating out on a hot date. The id has probably prompted a good deal of fantasising before you meet. Down the pub or over a curry, the ego is working overtime to make sure that the id gets its fill through just the right amount of flirting. The superego is rais­ing objections depending on how much your psychic economy is a police state. These may be reasonable — 'How reliable is he/she?' 'How will he/she look in the morning without the benefit of six vodkas inside you?' — to the less reasonable: 'Sex is wicked and dirty.'


Asked in for coffee, the tussle of the conflicting agencies can become deaf­ening as the psychic agencies argue their corner. This may continue even if you do end up naked in bed, and it may only be for the few brief seconds during orgasm that your animal self is in total control. Afterwards, your superego will probably still be whingeing away about what a mistake you made or your inad­equate performance.

The superego plays a starring role in this soap opera, and much depends on whether, at one extreme, it comes down on the id like a ton of bricks, in which case not much fun is had; or at the other, if the superego is a laissez-faire psy­chic equivalent of Timothy Leary, too much fun is had and you are an indis­criminate pleasure-seeker. But what determines the strength of the superego? There is very little good scientific evidence on this question, but there are a mass of clinical reports of what patients have told their psychoanalysts. This being Freud's model, it is glued together by sex.

You do not need to be a Freudian to observe that four to six-year-olds are highly sexual creatures, for whom sex play—doctors and nurses, mummies and daddies, Til show you mine if you show me yours' — is the norm. Even in 1953, when Alfred Kinsey published his famous study of sexual behaviour, more than half of his male respondents could recall prepubescent mutual mastrbation with other boys and one-third remembered touching the genitals of females.

Anyone who has spent time with four to five-year-old children will know that they can be overtly sexual in their dealings with their parents, far more so than two or eight-year-olds. Little boys can act very seductively towards then-mothers, little girls may make eyes at their fathers and snuggle up against their laps. Of course, unless something inappropriate and abusive has been going on, . the child's behaviour is innocent. They do not have sexual intercourse in mind but there is no doubting the sensual nature of their propositions. Nor is there any escaping the tricky nature of what is going on. The triangle with the parents is the original romantic one. As Freud observed, the child desires its I opposite-sexed parent, yet is confronted by the incest taboo. Moreover, it has to compete with the same-sex parent who desires the same person as the child but is far stronger and better-equipped to win the battle.

Fearing retaliation for its illicit sexual ambitions, the child discovers an ingenious psychic solution: it takes the side of its competitor or as Freud put it, 'identifies with the aggressor'. It tells itself, 'I am my same-sexed parent', rea­soning that the aggressor will therefore not attack. Crucially for superego devel­opment, the aspect of the aggressor that the child identifies with is their moral­ity, perhaps because the issue at stake is an ultimate one of right and wrong: it must learn that sex with parents is very wrong indeed. So gradually, the child begins to repress its sexual impulses and conforms the moral code of the same-sexed parent. There are all sorts of problems with this theory, but what seems undeniable is that children of this age do have a sexuality and they do identify strongly with their parents. As many a dismayed liberal parent has discovered, they tend to play in ways that are strongly sex-role specific: boys with guns and trucks, girls with dolls and cuddly animals.


Three reasons why some of us have stronger superegos than others can be extrapolated from this account. Firstly, much depends on how scary your par­ents are. If you are a boy and your dad is particularly strong or aggressive, it will increase your fear of him and therefore, the intensity of the identification. Likewise, girls with scary mums. If the child's parent is milder, so the identification and the superego are more democratic and benign. Secondly, the parents' attitude to sex is important. If a little girl's father flirts back — without actu­ally acting abusively — the child's guilt and fear will be worse, particularly if her mother is riled and jealous rather than tolerant of the flirtation; it is the same for little boy who gets too close to mummy. Thirdly, the actual morality subscribed to by both parents will influence the outcome. The beliefs of a strict, God-fearing, opposite-sexed, Presbyterian cleric are one thing, those of a Hampstead liberal are another.

What the child makes of what the parent is like, rather than what actually happens, is important too. The child is certainly not a blank slate. If it is avoidantly attached, for example, it may be more aggressive and provocative than if it is secure, thereby provoking a more aggressive reaction. A clingy, ambivalent child might discover that sexuality can be used to gain attention, increasing their guilt and fear of reprisals. Genes influence the outcome too. I Twin studies suggest that the ease with which children are aroused to anger and fearfulness is about 40 per cent genetic. A strong predisposition to fearful-ness would increase the child's fear of the oedipal aggressor and therefore the identification with the aggressor. Sociability is about 25 per cent genetic. A child with a strongly sociable tendency might be more flirtatious with the opposite-sexed parent.

Psychoanalysts claim that the effect of all this is lifelong. It is hard to be very precise because the particular superego outcome is affected by our sense of self and pattern of attachment (not to mention subsequent childhood expe­rience, physical health, gender and social class), but there are three distinct adult outcomes. The punitive type are liable to feel that sex — which is strongly associated with forbidden fruit — is wrong and to be inhibited. They are filled with a sense of inadequacy (compared with the oedipal competitor), yet if they do find a partner, it is often someone who looks very like, or has a similar personality to, their opposite-sexed parent — the return of the repressed wish.

Initially, this similarity is totally unconscious and a big turn-on. But when the superego wakes up to what has happened, it vetoes sex. They find them­selves strangely diffident or even disgusted by the very same body and person whom not long ago they desired passionately. Familiarity (literally, 'family-like') having bred contempt, they may find themselves philandering, recreating their childhood (eternal) triangle but, this time, with them at the centre getting their oats every which way. They find 'naughty', illicit sex is exciting. Love is a turn-off because it is too close to (their original family) home. In the case of men, forbidden sex objects (eg schoolgirl uniforms) maybe irresistible. Women may turn to unsuitable partners or rotters.


The punitive superego types are likely to be obsessively fastidious, con­cerned with cleanliness and tidiness, and may find it hard to sort their thoughts out because they are obsessive. They may have other symptoms of neurosis, such as hysteria (more common in women), phobias and panic attacks. Their educational performance may be unimaginative but rigorous. They may be attracted to jobs which are secure and predictable, especially regimented pro­fessions like law enforcement and the military — they are law-abiding and fiercely critical (and envious) of those who are not. They will be easily and often afflicted by a guilt which may amount to mild depression. All these generali­sations may be overthrown, however, because their police state is as vulnera­ble to revolution as any other dictatorship, even if that rebellion is years, even decades in coming. One study asked about the patterns of attachment of par­ents and then measured the patterns of partners. Sure enough, the attachment pattern of the opposite, rather than the same, sexed parent was favoured in partners — women picked men with similar patterns to their father rather than their mother, men went for women like their mothers. The type with a healthy superego may suffer from any of the above problems hi part, at some time or • another, because it is the superego's job to create guilt about sex and conscien­tiousness. But they are much better able to keep a balance between fulfilling I their needs and the demands of society. There is much less pressure placed on the ego to meet the outrageous demands that a punitive superego makes.

The type with a weak superego is roughly the opposite of the punitive. They are liable to promiscuity and unstable relationships. A symphony of antisocial behaviour (in which the id has all the best tunes) gets them into trouble from primary school onwards. Whether or not they end up in prison, there is a life­long battle with authority. Their career is likely to be erratic and unsuccessful but, in a few cases, their freedom from constraint gets translated into an excep­tional ability, especially in performing arts that demand little discipline like rock music or certain sports.

There is no good evidence as to what proportion of people have the differ­ent kinds of superego. An informed guess would put the punitive type at one quarter — at least this number of the population suffer a full-scale neurotic ill­ness (obsessionalism, phobias, panics, hysteria) during their lifetime at some stage and about one-third suffer mild depression. Weak superegos are less com­mon. About five to 10 per cent of people suffer from the full psychiatric disor­der known as antisocial personality disorder — extreme impulsiveness and inability to delay gratification, unfettered aggression, criminality.

The problems of both weak and punitive types will be exacerbated by a weak sense of self and anxious attachment and helped by their opposite. One way of defining a psychopath is someone with a weak self, anxious attachment and a weak superego; mental health is the full house of strong self, secure attachment and healthy superego. For this person, the resort to fantasy as a substitute for reality is least.

The Freudian view is, of course, only one of many possible takes on child­hood (although Freud is still regularly voted 'most influential psychologist of all time' by academic psychologists today). The single most important alterna­tive is known as social learning theory. The starting point for the American psy­chologist Jerry Patterson is that all families have 'coercive processes', behav­iours like whining, teasing, disapproval, yelling, humiliation, negative com­mands, noncompliance with demands and hitting. 'Taken individually, most of these aversive events are trivial, a psychological mote ... Rather than cata­clysmic episodes, flood tides of rage or crumbling defensive structures, coercive family processes change with glacial slowness, a process that is composed of events that are inherently banal,' he wrote.


In studying the development of these glaciers in hundreds of families, Patterson established that consistent patterns of coercive behaviours produce sociable, healthy children and that erratic ones create antisocial, aggressive children (who, in Freudian terms, lack a sufficiently well-developed superego). In families which produce aggressive boys 'the punishments don't work' and the parents are 'inept' at providing good models for how to behave. The parents display irritable aggression, using punishment more to express anger than as an instrument for altering the child's behaviour. Gradually the amount of agg­ressive behaviour escalates, until the family seems to be permanently on a war footing. Both parents, but especially the mother, feel depressed and irritable. They find themselves attributing malevolent intentions to the child with no real basis for doing so. Two-thirds of attacks in such families are unprovoked — as will so many of the boys' attacks be when they turn into violent men. They take place against a background of what Patterson calls parental 'nattering': con­tinual threats and scolding of the child at the smallest sign of trouble, yet the parents do not always carry out the threat and are highly inconsistent.

The constant anger and negativity amplify otherwise harmless acts into the cause of major rows. Threats and other non-physical methods cease working and to make a point the parent is forced to go to the extremities of physical coer­cion to get their way. The levels of physical violence inflate as the currency of parental coercion becomes devalued. Boys from such families are described as suffering from arrested social development, with the relatively uncontrolled social behaviour of a three to four-year-old found in 10 to 11-year-olds. Unlike Freud, social learning theorists do not attach particular importance to the four to six-year-old period, nor do they regard sexual feelings at this stage as being relevant to the development of a conscience. But it is perfectly possible that both accounts are essentially correct and Patterson's can be taken as an ampli­fication of the role of punishment and what the child is actually taught (or, identifies with) in superego development. For example, his studies of boys who steal show that they come from families where the boy was simply not taught that it was wrong. You can plausibly rephrase this in Freudian terms by saying that the boy identified with an aggressor whose morality was deficient.

Another important post-Freudian approach emphasises the role ascribed to you in the script that is every family drama. The scriptwriters are already working long before you are born. If you are the fourth of four girls and your mother was hoping for a boy, or if your father gets on better with boys because he had four sisters and you are a girl, then their reactions to you at birth are already coloured. After the birth, parents project onto their different children hugely different identities, with little reference to what you are actually like.

You may be deemed the clever or stupid, pretty or plain, wild or sensible one, and the chances are that whatever your inclinations to the contrary, you will come to believe it and even play the part. These projections come from your parents' own family experiences, good and bad. Perhaps your dad was con­stantly made to feel stupid by his father and this is a feeling that still plagues him today. He may use you as a dustbin for this unwanted feeling by mocking your intellect. While good scientific evidence testing this is lacking, there have been some impressive attempts to convey its significance by clinicians. Perhaps the most fluent of all was by the brilliant psychoanalyst, Ronald Laing. He maintained that schizophrenia was caused by family projections onto scape-goated children, that they were literally driven mad by their families: by con­tradictory messages and the insistence that they play out impossible roles. From studies of identical twins, we now know that schizophrenia has a strong genetic component and that Laing overstated his case. But, along with the role of early infancy, Laing's theories remain a most likely explanation of border­line personalities and recent research broadly supports it.

It deepens like a coastal shelf


The Jesuit dictum, 'Give me a boy until he is seven and I will show you the man' is as true of psychology as it is of religion. By the age of seven, much has already been decided for the rest of your life. Your self, attachment pattern and superego are heavily influencing what you do with what Me offers and also influencing what offers you get. But your personality is by no means necessarily all done and dusted at seven. A single-extreme experience, or a persistent pattern of other ones, can still have profound effects, for good and ill. A simple example is rape. The studies show that two-thirds of women who were perfectly happy and had good sex lives before the rape, were still suffering terribly a year later. They had flashbacks during sex, suffered vaginismus or had gone off sex altogether. They were liable to be depressed and prone to drink heavily. They were scared of being alone and easily alarmed by strangers. Then- pre-rape relationships were liable to break up. Four to six years later, these kinds of problems were still found in up to a quarter of cases. If ever an experience could turn a secure person into an anxious pattern of attachment, it is rape.

Another one-off life event that can change personality is childhood sexual abuse. Again, figures are unreliable, but thanks to the much-maligned Esther Rantzen, we know it is certainly a lot more common than we used to think even 10 years ago. Its effect on one's sense of self can be profound, especially if done repeatedly, causing the dissociation from the body, identity confusion, promis­cuity and addictions seen in borderline personalities. A person emerging from early infancy with a strong sense of self can be turned into one with a weak self by sexual abuse. Physical — as opposed to sexual — abuse can also override a good first six years, although it is usually accompanied by emotional depriva­tion in early childhood. The great majority of violent men were victims of child­hood violence and for every one that goes on to express their trauma in this way there is probably another who is depressed, as are their sisters.

In fact, depression, aggression and heavy drink or drug abuse tend to go together: three-quarters of convicted violent men are depressed and about the same proportion were under the influence when they committed their crime. Abuse is much more common among men from low-income homes. Their par­ents are less likely to be educated or to use words effectively as the means of punishment. How common violence is in these homes is shown by the estimate that 40 per cent of boys from the poorest homes have been seriously violent at some stage by the age of 32.


Another disaster that can befall the child is the death of a parent. This is one adversity that can have an up side. In most cases, it increases the risk of anxious attachment and of depression, but it can be the spur for high achieve­ment, particularly in boys. If you want a genius or high achiever for a son, your best bet is for him to be the eldest or only child, for the father to die when the boy is about seven and for him to be left in the care of a determined, intelligent and ambitious (for him) mother. This is the profile of many of the greatest men in history.

One-third of all American Presidents and British Prime Ministers lost a par­ent before the age of 14 and so did most of the 'great' dictators of our time, including Stalin and Hitler. It is the same for great scientists and artists — about half our best poets lost a parent in childhood. It seems that the need to fill the dead father's shoes, combined with the right kind of mother, drives them on. The scientists become obsessed with explaining and controlling a perfidi­ous world through theories and experiments, the artists are desperate for an outlet for their melancholy and the leaders are determined to be the arbiters of their own fate rather than be at its mercy again.

Dire though these misfortunes are, they remain relatively infrequent com­pared with divorce. With the rate now at 40 per cent and rising, it is the single biggest threat to the mental health of children today. Studies that have followed samples of children into adulthood have established that, compared with intact families, children of divorced parents are heir to a host of problems, particu­larly the girls. Initially, they seem to take it better than their brothers but, as time goes by, it emerges that they are repressing their rage and insecurity. They are more likely to marry young — greatly increasing their own risk of divorce — having underperformed at school. As adults, they are more prone to depres­sion and neurosis and find the mothering role harder.

By contrast, their brothers react to the split with delinquency and anger, and perhaps because of this, are less disturbed in the long term, although they are more prone to mental problems than sons of intact families. Interestingly, there is some evidence that sons of divorce are more likely to be effeminate — the strongest single predictor of adult homosexuality. The sexuality of about half of gay men may be primarily caused by the family constellation of a dom­inating, flirtatious, emasculating mother and a weak, emotionally or physical­ly absent father, rather than genes.

Contrary to what you may have read in certain right-wing newspapers, the theory that the huge increase in illegitimacy — cohabiting, unmarried parents — is responsible for the rising crime rate holds little water. Half of all children are born out of wedlock in Denmark and Sweden, yet their crime rates are lower than ours. Tying the knot seems to be largely irrelevant with regard to the kind of parents a couple will make. And women who have no partner to share their home are still extremely rare and most single mothers are actually divorced. It is perfectly true that children of such women are more likely to be delinquent, but the reason is not the single status: it is the psychological effect on the child of the acrimony of divorcing (60 per cent of single parents come from a divorce) or separating parents and the drop in wealth that accompanies break-up. On average, after divorce or separation, women have half the income they previ­ously enjoyed, and boys from low-income homes are far more at risk of delinquency.

These and many other life events and trauma can alter your personality after the age of seven. Taken together, they will happen to at least half of us, so they are not an insignificant influence. But as Larkin knew, most of the things that go wrong have already happened and are down to our mums and dads. Then again, Larkin's idea of the best solution was not very helpful:

Get out as early as you can, And don't have any kids yourself.


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