There is no cell of our body that does not have a wounded child in it.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
There is another kind of unfinished emotional business which predates the kind I just described (see “Shit”) and prevents us from feeling and functioning like grownups.
It is rooted in the way our mothers responded to us when we were infants.
Mark Epstein explains it in his book The trauma of everyday life (Penguin, 2013), drawing on the seminal work of British child analyst D.W. Winnicott.
Here’s a simplified version of his explanation:
One of the most important jobs a mother has is to teach her child how to identify and handle feelings. She does this by modeling a combination of empathy (Oh, you’re having a feeling) and reassurance (Everything will be fine). Anyone who spends any time observing mothers with their children sees this happen over and over.
Oh, you’re wet and uncomfortable? Here, let’s get you changed.
Oh, you’re hungry? Let’s warm up your bottle.
Oh, you hurt yourself? Here, let mama kiss it.
And so on. This ability to pay attention to and respond appropriately to the infant’s emotional experience is called attunement.
“In this state,” Winnicott writes,
mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak. That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach.
Mom’s attunement is essential to the infant because it models for the child how to attune to itself. The basic message is Here’s what you do with a feeling: You respect it. You pay attention to it. You figure out what it’s telling you, and you respond.
Attunement provides a kind of emotional container — an experience of holding, attention and safety — which the infant absorbs and, eventually, learns to provide for him/herself.
But what if the mother is unable to attune to her infant?
What if something else is occupying her attention or draining her energy? What if she is exhausted, or sick, or depressed, or frightened, or angry, or being abused, or self-medicating with some substance?
“An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough,” writes Winnicott.
You see two infants: one has been held…well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies. The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living.
What Winnicott calls primitive agony is the experience of being left all alone to deal with incomprehensible and uncontrollable feelings.
This is not an experience that simply drains away over time.
Instead those afflicted carry it into adulthood, as I understand it, in two forms.
One form is a chronic background anxiety, which occasionally erupts as a fear of breaking down, “losing it,” going crazy.
The other form is an inability to deal healthily with their own feelings.
(To be continued.)
Mark Epstein. The trauma of everyday life. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Reconciliation: Healing the inner child. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.
D.W. Winnicott. Babies and their mothers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.