(Excerpted from the forthcoming book “How To Survive Your Adulthood Now That You Are Disillusioned, Disenchanted and Disappointed”)
According to the founder of primal therapy, Arthur Janov, when a baby is put down alone for the first time — say, in its own room while the parents sleep in another room — and allowed to “cry itself out,” the baby registers being “put down” as: “Why are you leaving me alone to die? You are killing me!” Please note the pun: “put down” means “lay to sleep” with infants but “euthanize” with pets. Janov argues that being put down for the first time creates a core or primal abandonment/betrayal wound. Later in life, according to this theory, when our partner cheats on us or we are fired from a job that we love, we become distraught because this abandonment/betrayal reopens our core wound.
The unwitting ramifications of infants being “put down” to sleep alone and then “sent off” to school (until the child becomes acclimated to these new realities) could be staggering. As animals, I believe that we are meant to be in our mother’s arms and sleeping with our primary caregivers – provided a secure environment – for four or so years. But the highly competitive nature of late capitalism has caused people to shorten this secure stage when the baby’s needs are taken care of in the name of creating “productive” members of society as early as possible. A longer earning potential is a greater earning potential.
One of the themes of “How To Survive Your Childhood Now That You’re An Adult” is that our rather abrupt individuation processes have created a majority people whose abandonment fears (cf. also “imposter syndrome”) from insecure attachments manifest as both anxiety and depression, which are afflicting Americans in epidemic proportions today. One of the reasons that so many Americans are treated for anxiety and depression can be traced back to the traumas associated with an infant individuating, gaining its own sense of self, its own identity.
What is important in terms of constructing personal identity is how these traumas are interpreted and assimilated.
If an infant is securely attached to his or her mother and/or primary caregivers, then it subconsciously knows that the mother would never really put it in harm’s way; from Mary Ainsworth’s “Strange Situation” experiments in 1969 we know that infants with secure attachment (33% according to Ainsworth) do not freak out when the mother leaves them alone. The world is essentially safe to them. And more importantly, they can securely reattach when the mother returns.
However, the Doctor Spock/Nietzschean – “let the baby cry itself out,” “what doesn’t kill it makes it stronger” – parenting style of previous generations may correlate with the spate of divorcees who do not truly know how to securely attach and reattach due to the stark and abrupt individuations that were forced upon them before they could speak. The world is essentially unsafe to them.
Just as a thought experiment, imagine a family on a desert island and how they would interact for the first four years of their child’s life and compare it to our bottle-fed, raised by a nanny from a foreign country, sleeps in its own cage and/or swaddled a few weeks after birth, etc. The “scientific” way of raising children seems to have starkly different mandates than a child being raised in nature.
No child was ever born with low self-esteem.
One unintentional ramification of our way of raising children in Western civilization is low self-esteem. Rampant low self-esteem. Children assimilate the frowns of their caregivers trying to train them to use a fork as “There must be something wrong with ME. Mommy (or whatever “Other” “mOther,” in Lacanian terms) would not be unhappy if I were perfect.” Thus, many infants assimilate the idea that “There must be something wrong with ME” during the first few years of their lives and this low self-esteem dogs them through adult years of addiction, infidelity, self-sabotage, inability to maintain a job, and many of the afflictions listed in the thousands of pages of cognitive and emotional disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Also, our educational system is very cliquey: when children are making same-aged friends and forming cliques at school, they notice that they are EXCLUDED from some groups. Again, it is possible that these phenomena are assimilated as “There must be something wrong with ME. If I were different/cooler/perfect/taller/etc. then that group would accept me.”
The funny thing is that I would say that the majority of people (and I admit that my psychotherapy patients represent a skewed population) believe they are “outsiders.” There is something perverse about our culture that makes most people – even the prom queen, football quarterback, movie star, rock star, tech billionaire – feel marginalized. This could be a result of the splintering of our society but until we find or create some common core values like compassion, then it will remain difficult for people from different “tribes” – geeks, jocks, yuppies, millennials, Bobos, Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Socialists, etc. – to communicate empathetically with each other.
Ah… what can be said about teenage years that hasn’t already been documented on Netflix and HBO? It’s all about angst, seemingly. Why are these years so arduous for the unwilling participants? Is it the hormonal changes? Peer pressure? The desire to be liked amidst a sea of haters. Continuously being judged, weighed, calculated, squeezed into a box? There’s something so desperate about being a teenager in our culture. The resentment accrued during this phase of individuation is monstrous and manifests ultimately as low self-esteem.
Teenage suicide rates have never been higher. It appears as if there are severe growing pains associated with being a teenager in Western civilization. In recent times, thanks to technology and disease, things seem to have grown even worse. Most Gen Z-ers today equate texting and DM-ing with “talking” – lest we inform them that 93% of all communications are non-verbal, according to UCLA psychology professor Albert Mehrabian. But even when they see each other on FaceTime or Zoom it is usually only the face so that all body language and ethereal energy as well as smells and chemistry (pheromones) are completely missing.
Mirror neurons do not fire via text message.
Infancy, adolescence and teenage years seems awkward and confusing for everyone involved: too many choices, too many influences, too much in-fighting, too much competition… in some ways our educational system could be equated to a giant resentment factory where spirits are crushed, souls are destroyed, and many teenagers emerge as faceless laborers duped in producing odd and often useless luxuries or manipulating symbols on a glass screen for the next 60 years or until a sufficient rupture compels them to discard the measures of success that have become gilded cages and self-induced slavery.
Our entire educational system should be rebuilt from the ground up. The first eighteen years of a human’s life should not be one behavior-modification exercise after another because one unintentional ramification of continuously being graded and judged is low self-esteem.
Future adults should be taught classes like “How to be someone’s friend,” “How to give a non-creepy hug,” “How to actively listen and make other people feel heard,” “How to have loving relationships,” and “How to breathe” rather than forced to learn subjects that they will never use later in life. We need to figure out another way of interacting that is more compassionate so that future adults are able to construct secure attachments and stronger self-worth.