The Drama of Being a Child

Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against depression and mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood. Is it possible, then, to free ourselves altogether from illusions? History demonstrates that illusions sneak in everywhere, that every life is full of them - perhaps because the truth often seems unbearable to us. And yet the truth is so essen­tial that its loss exacts a heavy toll, in the form of grave illness. In order to become whole we must try, in a long process, to discover our own personal truth, a truth that may cause pain before giving us a new sphere of freedom. If we choose instead to content ourselves with intellectual 'wisdom’, we will remain in the sphere of illusion and self-deception.

  The damage done to us during our childhood cannot be undone, since we cannot change anything in our past. We can, however, change ourselves. We can repair ourselves and gain our lost integrity by choosing to look more closely at the knowledge that is stored in us and bringing this knowledge closer to our awareness. This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leavebehind the cruel, invisible prisonof our childhood. We become free by transforming ourselves from unaware victims of the past into responsible individuals in the present, who are aware of our past and are thus able to live with it.  

  Most people do exactly the opposite. Without real­izing that the past is constantly determining their present actions, they avoid learning anything about their history. They continue to live in their repressed childhood situation, ignoring the fact that it no longer exists. They are continuing to fear and avoid dangers that, although once real, have not been real for a long time. They are driven by unconscious memories and by repressed feelings and needs that determine nearly everything they do or fail to do.

  The repression of brutal abuse experienced during childhood drives many people to destroy their lives and the lives of others. In an unconscious thirst for revenge, they may engage in acts of violence, burning homes and businesses and physically attacking other people, using this destruction to hide the truth from themselves and avoid feeling the despair of the tormented child they once were.

Other people actively continue the torture once inflicted upon them in self-scourging clubs of every sort and in sado-masochistic practices. They talk of such activities as 'liberation.' Women who allow their nipples to be pierced in order to hang rings from them can then pose for newspaper photographs, proudly saying that they felt no pain when having it done and that it was even fun for them. One need not doubt the truth of their statements; they had to learn very early in life not to feel pain, and today they would go to any lengths not to feel the pain of the little girl who was once sexually exploited by her father and had to im­agine that it was fun for her.

Repressed pain may reveal itself more privately, as in a woman, sexually exploited as a child, who has denied her childhood reality and in order not to feel the pain is perpetually fleeing her past with the help of men, alco­hol, drugs, or achievement. She needs a constant thrill to keep boredom at bay; not even one moment of quiet can be permitted during which the burning loneliness of her childhood experience might be felt, for she fears that feeling more than death. She will continue in her flight unless she learns that the awareness of old feel­ings is not deadly but liberating.

    The repression of childhood pain influences not only the life of an individual but also the taboos of the whole society.



I sometimes ask myself whether it will ever be possible for us to grasp the extent of the loneliness and deser­tion to which we were exposed as children. Here I do not mean to speak, primarily, of children who were obviously uncared foror totally neglected, and who were always aware of this or at least grew up with the knowledge that it was so. Apart from these extreme cases, there are large numbers of people who enter therapy in the belief (with which they grew up) that their childhood was happy and protected.

  Quite often I have been faced with people who were praised and admired for their talents and their achieve­ments, who were toilet-trained in the first year of their lives and who may even, at the age of one and a half to five, have capably helped to take care of their younger siblings. According to prevailing attitudes, these people - the pride of their parents - should have had a strong and stable sense of self-assurance. But the case is exactly the opposite. They do well, even excellently, in everything they undertake; they are admired and envied; they are successful whenever they care to be - but behind all this lurks depression, a feeling of empti­ness and self-alienation, and a sense that their life has no meaning. These dark feelings will come to the fore as soon as the drug of grandiosity fails, as soon as they are not 'on top,' not definitely the 'superstar,' or when­ever they suddenly get the feeling they have failed to live up to some ideal image or have not measured up to some standard. Then they are plagued by anxiety or deep feelings of guilt and shame. What are the reasons for such disturbances in these competent, accom­plished people?

In the very first interview they will let the listener know that they have had understanding parents, or at least one such, and if they are aware of having been misunderstood as children, they feel that the fault lay with them and with their inability to express them­selves appropriately. They recount their earliest memories without any sympathy for the child they once were, and this is the more striking as these patients not only have a pronounced introspective ability but seem, to some degree, to be able to empathize with other people. Their access to the emotional world of their own childhood, however, is impaired - characterized by: a lack of respect, a compulsion to control and manipu­late, and a demand for achievement. Very often they show disdain and irony, even derision and cynicism, for the child they were. In general, there is a complete absence of real emotional understanding or serious appreciation of their own childhood, and no conception of their true needs - beyond the desire for achievement. The repression of their real history has been so complete that their illusion of a good child­hood can be maintained with ease.

  As a basis for a description of the psychic climate of these persons, some general assumptions should be made clear:

  ·   The child has a primary need from the very beginning of his life to be regarded and respected as the person he really is at any given time.
   ·  When we speak here of 'the person he really is at any given time,' we mean emotions, sensations, and their expression from the first day onward.
   ·  In an atmosphere of respect and tolerance for his feelings, the child, in the phase of separation, will be able to give up ‘partnership’ with the mother and accomplish the steps toward individuation and autonomy.
   ·  If they are to furnish these requirements for the healthy development of their child, the parents themselves ought to have grown up in such an atmosphere. If they did, they will be able to assure the child the protection and well-being he needs to develop trust.
 ·  Parents who did not experience this climate as chil­dren are themselves deprived; throughout their lives they will continue to look for what their own parents could not give them at the appropriate time - the presence of a person who is completely aware of them and takes them seriously.
 ·  This search, of course, can never fully succeed, since it relates to a situation that belongs totally to the past, namely to the time right after birth and during early childhood.
 ·  A person with this unsatisfied and unconscious (because repressed) need will nevertheless be compelled to attempt its gratification through substitute means, as long as he ignores his repressed life his­tory.
 ·  The most effective objects for substitute gratifica­tion are a parent's own children. The newborn baby or small child is completely dependent on his par­ents, and since their caring is essential for his existence, he does all he can to avoid losing them. From the very first day onward, he will muster all his resources to this end, like a small plant that turns toward the sun in order to survive.
  In my work with people in the helping professions, I have often been confronted with a childhood history that seems significant to me.

 ·  There was a mother who at the core was emotionally insecure and who depended for her equilibrium on her child's behaving in a particular way. This mother was able to hide her insecurity from her child and from everyone else behind a hard, author­itarian, even totalitarian facade.
·   This child had an amazing ability to perceive and respond intuitively, that is, unconsciously, to this need of the mother, or of both parents, for him to take on the role that had unconsciously been assigned to him.
·   This role secured 'love' for the child - that is, his parents' exploitation. He could sense that he was needed, and this need guaranteed him a measure of  security.
           This ability is then extended and perfected.
  By 'mother' I here refer to the person closest to the child during the first years of life. This need not be the biological mother, or a woman. In the course of the past twenty years, many fathers have assumed this mothering function.



On the basis of my experience, the cause of an emotional disturbance is to be found in the infant's early adaptation. The child's needs for respect, echo­ing, understanding, sympathy, and mirroring have had to be repressed, with several serious consequences.

  One such consequence is the person's inability to experience consciously certain feelings of his own (such as jealousy, envy, anger, loneliness, helplessness, or anxiety), either in childhood or later in adulthood. This is all the more tragic in that we are concerned here with lively people who are often capable of deep feelings. It is most noticeable when they describe childhood experiences that were free of pain and fear. They could enjoy their encounters with nature, for example, without hurting the mother or making her feel insecure, reducing her power, or endangering her balance. It is remarkable how attentive, lively, and sensitive children, who can, for example, remember exactly how they discovered the sunlight in bright grass at the age of four, at eight were unable to 'notice anything' or show any curiosity about their pregnant mother, or were 'not at all' jealous at the birth of a sibling. It is also remarkable how, at the age of two, such a child could be left alone and 'be good' while turmoil took place, suffering the terrifying events quietly and without crying. These people have all developed the art of not experiencing feelings, for a child can experience his feelings only when there is somebody there who accepts him fully, understands him, and sup­ports him. If that person is missing, if the child must risk losing the mother's love or the love of his sub­stitute in order to feel, then he will repress his feelings, his emo­tions. He cannot even experience them secretly, 'just for himself'; he will fail to experience them at all. But they will nevertheless stay in his body, in his cells, stored up as information that can be triggered by a later event.
Throughout their later life, these people will have to deal with situations in which these rudimentary feelings may awaken, but without the original connection ever becoming clear. The connection can be discovered only when the intense emotions have been experienced in therapy and successfully linked with their original situation.

  Take, for example, the feeling of abandonment – (not that of the adult, who feels lonely and therefore turns to alcohol or drugs, goes to the movies, visits friends, or makes 'unnecessary’ telephone calls in order to bridge the gap somehow). No, I mean the original feeling in the small infant, who had none of these means of distraction and whose communication, verbal or pre-verbal, did not reach the mother because his mother herself was deprived. For her part, she was dependent on a specific echo from the child that was essential to her, for she herself was a child in search of a person who could be available to her.
However contradictory this may seem, a child is at the mother's disposal. The mother can feel herself the center of attention, for her child's eyes follow her everywhere. A child cannot run away from her as her own mother once did. A child can be brought up so that it becomes what she wants it to be. A child can be made to show respect; she can impose her own feelings on him, see herself mirrored in his love and admiration, and feel strong in his presence. But when he becomes too much, she can abandon that child to a stranger or to solitary confinement in another room.

  When a woman has had to repress all these needs in relation to her own mother, they will arise from the depth of her unconscious and seek gratification through her own child, however well-educated she may be. The child feels this clearly and very soon forgoes the expression of his own distress. Later, when these feelings of being deserted begin to emerge in the therapy of the adult, they are accom­panied by intense pain and despair. It is clear that these people could not have survived so much pain as children. That would have been possible only in an environment of sympathy and attentiveness, which was lacking. Thus all feelings had to be warded off. But to say that they were absent would be a denial of the  evidence.

Several mechanisms can be recognized in the defense against early feelings of abandonment. In addition to simple denial, we usually find the exhausting struggle to fulfill the old, repressed, and by now often perverted needs with the help of symbols (cults, sexual perver­sions, groups of all kinds, alcohol, or drugs). Intellectualization is very commonly encountered as well, since it is a defense mechanism of great power. It can have disastrous results, however, when the mind ignores the vital messages of the body. All these defense mechanisms are accompanied by repression of the original situation and the emotions belonging to it.

* Accommodation to parental needs often (but not always) leadsto the ‘as-if’ personality. This person develops in such a way that he reveals only what is expected of him and fuses so completely with what he reveals that one could scarcely guess how much more there is to him behind this false self. He cannot develop and tell-apart his true self because he is unable to live it. Understandably, this person will complain of a sense of emptiness, futility, or homelessness, for the emptiness is real. A process of emptying, impoverishment, and crippling of his potential actually took place. The integrity of the child was injured when all that was alive and spontaneous in him was cut off. In childhood, these patients have often had dreams inwhich they experienced themselves as at least partly dead. A young woman,Lisa, reported a recurrent dream:

My younger siblings are standing on a bridge and throw a box into the river.I know that I am lying in it, dead, and yet Ihear my heart heating; at this moment I always wake.

This dream combined her unconscious rage toward her younger siblings, for whom Lisa always had to be a loving, caringmother, with ‘killing’her own feelings, wishes, and demands. A young man, Bob, dreamed:

I see a green meadow, on which there is a white coffin. I am afraid that my mother is in it, but I open the lid and, luckily, it is not my mother but me.

If Bob had been able as a child to express his disappointment with his mother - to experience his rage and anger - he could have stayed fully alive. But that would have led to the loss of his mother's love, and that, for a child, can mean the same as death. So he 'killed' his anger, and with it a part of himself, in order to preserve the love of his mother, A young girl used to dream:

I am lying on my bed. I am dead. My parents are talking and looking at me but they don't realize that I am dead.

  The difficulties inherent in experiencing and devel­oping one’s own emotions lead to shared dependency, which prevents individuation. Both parties have an interest in bond permanence. The parents have found in their child's false self the confirmation they were looking for, a substitute for their own missing security; the child, who has been unable to build up his own sense of security, is first consciously and then uncon­sciously dependent on his parents. He cannot rely on his own emotions, has not come to experience them through trial and error, has no sense of his own real needs, and is alienated from himself to the highest degree. Under these circumstances he cannot separate from his parents, and even as an adult he is still depen­dent on affirmation from his partner, from groups, and especially from his own children. The legacy of the parents is yet another generation condemned to hide from the true self while operating unconsciously under the influence of repressed memories. Unless the heir casts off his 'inheritance' by becoming fully conscious of his true past, and thus of his true nature, loneliness in the parental home will necessarily be followed by an adulthood lived in emotional isolation.



How can therapy be of help here? It cannot give us back our lost childhood, nor can it change the past facts. No one can heal by maintaining or fostering illu­sion. The paradise of early harmony, for which so many patients hope, is unattainable. But the experience of one's own truth, and the later  knowledge of it, make it possible to return to one's own world of feelings at an adult level - without para­dise, but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does, indeed, give us back our vitality.

  It is one of the turning points in therapy when the patient comes to the emotional insight that all the love he has captured with so much effort and self-denial was not meant for him as he really was, that the ad­miration for his handsomeness and achievements was aimed at this handsomeness and these achievements and not at the child himself. In therapy, the small and lonely child that is hidden behind his achievements wakes up and asks:

'what would have happened if I had appeared before you sad, needy, angry., furious? Where would your love have been then? And I was all these things as well. Does this mean that it was not really me you loved, but only what I. pretended to be? The well-behaved, reliable, accommodating, understanding, and convenient child, who in fact was never a child at all? What became of my childhood? Have I not been cheated out of it? I can never return to it. I can never make up for it. From the beginning I have been a little adult. My abilities - were they simply misused?'

These questions are accompanied by much grief and pain, but the result is always a new authority that is establishing itself in the patient - a new empathy with his own fate, born out of mourning. Now the patient does not make light of manifestations of himself any­more, does not so often laugh or jeer at them, even if he still unconsciously passes them over or ignores them, in the same subtle way that his parents dealt with the child before he had any words to express his needs. Even as an older child, he was not allowed to say, or even to think: 'I can be sad or happy whenever anything makes me sad or happy; I don't have to look cheerful for someone else, and I don't have to suppress my distress or anxiety to fit other people's needs. I can be angry and no one will die or get a headache because of it. I can rage when you hurt me, without losing you.

In the majority of cases, it is a great relief to a patient to see that he can now recognize and take seriously the things he used to choke off, even if the old patterns come back, again and again, over a long period. But now he begins to understand that this strategy was his only chance to survive. Now he can realize how he still sometimes tries to persuade himself, when he is scared, that he is not; how he belittles his feelings to protect himself, and either does not become aware of them at all, or does so only several days after they have already passed. Gradually, he realizes how he is forced to look for distraction when he is moved, upset, or sad. When a six-year-old's mother died, his aunt told him: 'You must be brave; don't cry; now go to your room and play nicely.')

Once the therapeutic process has started, it will con­tinue if it is not interrupted by interpretations or other types of intellectual defense. The suffering person begins to be articulate and breaks with his former com­pliant attitudes, but because of his early experience he cannot believe he is not incurring mortal danger; he fears rejection and punishment when he defends his rights in the present. The patient is surprised by feelings he would rather not have recognized, but now it is too late: Awareness of his own impulses has already been aroused, and there is no going back.
Now the once intimidated and silenced child can experience himself in a way he had never before thought possible, and afterward he can enjoy the relief of having taken the risk and been true to himself. At first it will be mortifying to see that he is not always good, understanding, tolerant, controlled, and, above all, without needs, for these have been the basis of his self-respect.

  There is a big difference between having conflicting feelings toward someone as an adult and suddenly experiencing oneself as a two-year-old being fed by the maid in the kitchen and thinking in despair: 'Why does Mom go out every evening? Why does she not take pleasure in me? What is wrong with me that she prefers to go to other people? What can I do to make her stay home? Just don't cry, just don't cry.' Peter as a two-year-old child could not have thought in these words, but in the therapeutic session where he experienced this reality, he was both an adult and a toddler, and could cry bitterly. It was not a cathartic crying, but rather the integration of his earlier longing for his mother, which until now he had always denied. In the following weeks Peter went through all the torments of his ambivalence toward his mother, who was a suc­cessful pediatrician. His previously 'frozen,' idealized portrait melted into the picture of a woman who had not been able to give her child any continuity in their relationship. 'I hated those beasts who were constantly sick and always taking you away from me. I hated you because you preferred being with them to being with me.' Feelings of helplessness were mingled with long-dammed-up rage against the mother who had not been available to him when he needed her the most. As a result of becoming aware of these feelings, Peter could rid himself of a symptom that had tormented him for a long time; its point was now easy to understand. His relationships to women changed as his compulsion first to conquer and then to desert them disappeared.

  Peter experienced his early feelings of helplessness, of anger, and of being at the mercy of his mostly absent mother in a manner that he could not previously have remembered. One can only remember what has been consciously experienced. But the emotional world of a tormented child is itself the result of a selective process that has eliminated the most important elements. These early feelings, joined with the pain of being unable to understand what is going on - which is part of the earliest period of childhood - are consciously experienced for the first time during therapy.

It is like a miracle each time to see how much reality and integrity have survived behind dissim­ulation, denial, and self-alienation, and how they can reappear as soon as the patient finds access to the feel­ings. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to imply that there is a fully developed, true self, consciously hidden behind the false self. The important point is that the child does not know what he is hiding. Karl, age forty-two, expressed this in the following way:

I lived in a glass house into which my mother could look at any time. In a glass house, however, you cannot conceal anything without giving your­self away, except by hiding it under the ground. And. then you cannot see it yourself, either.

  An adult can be fully aware of his feelings only if he had caring parents or caregivers. People who were abused and neglected in childhood are missing this capacity and are therefore never overtaken by unex­pected emotions. They will admit only those feelings that are accepted and approved by their inner-censor, who is their parents' heir. Depression and a sense of inner emptiness are the price they must pay for this control. Ie, true self cannot communicate because it has remained unconscious, and therefore undeveloped, in its inner prison. The company of prison warders does not encourage lively development. It is only after it is liberated that the self begins to be articulate, to grow, and to develop its creativity. Where there had been only fearful emptiness or equally frightening grandiose fan­tasies, an unexpected wealth of vitality is now discovered. This is not a homecoming, since this home has never before existed. It is the creation of home.