Can it ever be enough?

Another personal ramble. Sorry if this one is even less coherent than the last. Been very emotionally overwhelmed by a lot of things today and I think I just needed to get some of it out there. Maybe someone will read this and find they’re not alone and that’s literally all the good I can hope to do by opening up.

“I need to be more productive.”

“I could have done more work today if…”

“I’ve wasted so much time already.”

“I won’t take a break until X is done.”

large.jpgThese are but a few of thoughts that go through my head on, well, a daily basis. If I wake up five minutes after my alarm I am ‘behind schedule’ even though I work from home and the only schedule I have to keep is my own. Every minute at my desk that I catch myself doing something other than work wracks me with guilt. And the worse part? The more productive I am in a day, the worse all these things get.

I lost a lot of time to depression, a close friend’s illness, and grief over the past few years. That’s not to say I did nothing during that time: somehow I wrote half a book, survived two and a half years of psychology course with the OU (I had to quit before the end for lack of support from my tutors for my circumstances and I had grown to detest the course), joined the FETC (emotional therapy counselling) to train as a counsellor, and generally achieved a hell of self-understanding.

Still, all I can see of that period of my life is a bleak landscape of nothingness. As though I had nothing to show for all those years. As though I had to justify my very existence by my achievements.

I grew up as quite the high-achiever at school. I was forever in the top 3 of my class (sometimes of the school) and most of my teachers had nothing but praises for me. I can’t remember what my parents were like all the time. But I can remember a lot of being told I wasn’t working hard enough, that I didn’t realise how lucky I was that I could be so lazy about my schoolwork and still get such good grades. It was always made a point that I wasn’t working hard, and somehow, somewhere in my child’s mind who always heard his parents praise hard work before all, I started to think this was a terrible thing.

The thing was, I wasn’t lazy about my schoolwork. At the risk of sounding boastful, I found it all easy. I was an incredibly academically minded child (university certainly got that out of me >_>) and homework and schoolwork was overall a doddle I could get done quickly before collapsing in front of the TV or a video game, or grabbing the book I was reading (NB: I spent years schooled in France where the school day ends at five or six in the afternoon, so I didn’t have that long to do anything once home). I didn’t leave my homework until the last minute (unless it was Latin, I was really bad at remembering to do my Latin homework). I studied for every test.

But still it wasn’t enough.

The core memory I have of all this must date back to when I was about 8 or 9. I had come home beaming with the grade I had just gotten on a test at school (I don’t even remember what the test had been about but I have a clear memory of the piece of paper I held in my hand when I walked in through the door). It was a 17/20 (French scoring system works out of 20, it’s weird once you move to the UK). I was so proud that I showed it to my father who was home on that particular day. I was at that age where I was desperate to be accepted and make proud this man who spent so much time away from home. He always went on about his academic achievements so I was convinced this would make him proud. Do you know what he said to me?

“Where are the other three points?”

I don’t care if he was joking because he never said “well done” first, or after. Or ever. All he saw was what was lacking.

That incident pretty much sums up his attitude to everything I did. When I tried to learn to draw all he would ever do is point out everything that was bad about my drawing. When fifteen-year-old me made the mistake of leaving the notebook in which he had been writing his first novel in laying around, my father read it and proceeded to tear apart almost every word written. My judo medals were never good enough. When I would practice piano he only ever commented on the mistakes. And on the rare occasions I would question why he had to be so harsh on me, he would reply that this was the way the world was and I would have to get thicker skin if I wanted to get anywhere.

By seventeen I wasn’t writing anymore, any attempts to draw long forgotten, the piano lessons forgotten and the judo training a missed memory. I had been sick from a mysterious stomach illness for a year and I just didn’t see the point in doing anything but what I had to. What was the point, after all, if I was never going to be good enough?

What my dad did was insidious and invisible. It took me years to see the damage that one remark had done. To realise the reason I never seem to manage to finish everything is for fear of how that thing, whatever it is, will be judged once I am done. I put off doing things until I have made myself sick with stress over putting it off and then I sit paralysed by the realisation that I have failed before ever starting.

So when I enter periods where I’m actually managing to work, to throw my all into what I want to do, I don’t do it 100%. I do it 200%. Sometimes more. I time every minute, I feel the need to keep track of everything I’m doing just so I can prove to myself that the paralysis is gone and I’m no longer being a waste of space. But the result isn’t that I’m more productive, it’s that there are days where all I want to do is curl up in bed and hide under the duvet.

Last weekend was tough for me: grief caught up with all its tangle of emotions and it all exploded on Monday. So I didn’t do any work on Monday. Let’s put aside the fact I actually managed to work out and did the groceries shopping (and wrote a long rambly blog post, it seems to be the week!), because all I can see about Monday is that I didn’t study either for my course or the language I’m trying to learn, I didn’t work on my book.

And I hate that about myself. I hate this inability to see what I have done, and instead only see what I haven’t. Thanks dad.

So I spent the rest of the week racing against the clock to make up for Monday. Add to that three trips to various doctors (for minor things), and this week seems to have vanished into nothing. Of course it’s not what my calendar is telling me. I have done plenty this week. It’s there, written black on white. But all I can think, all I can ever think is “But you could have done more if…” There are a thousand things that come after that if, all more ridiculous than the other. I did a couple of those this week, I didn’t take time off when I meant to and just pushed and pushed and rushed myself until today when a headache hit me out of nowhere.

I think these headaches are migraines (symptoms match more than not when I look them up) are absolutely exhausting. I feel dizzy, I feel sick, and one side of my face and behind one of my eyes feels unbearably painful. I know the best way to combat these: have an hour nap. Just turn off from the world and go to sleep. But sometimes I just can’t because I feel so damned guilty about it. Because it feels like I’m wasting time.

So I’ve got a long way to go before I stop this frantic race against….well I don’t know exactly. I know all of this on a mental level but sometimes it’s not enough to stop the feelings from overwhelming me. I don’t know if talking about it is going to help, but I doubt I’m the only person out there who feels this way. Some people will have had it way worse with their parents, some won’t have, and like me might feel unjustified in how it has left them feeling as adults.

The advantage I have is that as a trainee counsellor I know that how bad or not something was, if the damage is done, it is done. There is no need to justify why something affected you, it is enough that it did, especially as our children selves are so much more sensitive than they ever let on. We’re not responsible for how our parents made us feel, all we can do is make the most of what we have now.

So to all the people out there who feel like me: it’s ok, you’re plenty as you are. You’ve done plenty today, even if all you’ve done is breathe and survived through whatever shit you’re having to deal with. Don’t let parents, or society, tell you that your worth can be measured by any achievements. It doesn’t work like that. Be you, and that’ll be more than enough. Always.

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Dreams and their importance

Another post taken from my work on my emotional therapeutic course! There were elements of this session that caused me all sorts of issues, namely the concepts of male and female archetypes. I bring it up in the report below, but I also ended up writing another post about it (here) which I sent to my tutors at the time. Since then, the course has been altered to reflect our modern world more accurately, so that was one victory I certainly did not expect!

largeOne of the first things we were told on the dreams workshop was a simply sentence: ‘We cannot sensor our dreams’. That statement holds within it the powerful effect that working with our dreams can have, how it can become a gateway to fears, events, or thoughts we have not been able to access consciously for a variety of reasons. We were presented with Yung’s work as background for our work on analysing dreams. With an awareness that our consciousness is by far smaller than our unconscious/subconscious, we started our travel into the dreamworld and its meanings.

To start with, we looked at what Jung classified as archetypes of what is present within dreams. There are three sets of opposing energies surrounding the self that forms the centre part of the dream and around which everything else revolves. This seven basic archetypes are Jung’s key to the understanding of dreams.

The archetype of the journey stands opposed to the archetype of the cycle of death/rebirth. The first symbolises the beginning of some form of healing work with the destination of the journey often uncertain or irrelevant as the importance lies in the journey itself. It can be represented through actual travelling or the presence of clocks, calendars, mountains in the distance, or even a light in the distance. It speaks of development and progression. The death/rebirth cycle is opposed to the journey archetype in that it doesn’t represent a linear travel but a cycle of change. Death within dreams is unlikely to represent a physical death of the body, but is far more likely to represent the end of something (a state of mind, a situation, a relationship, etc…) with rebirth ever present on the other side of death for each end is in turn a new beginning. Whereas the journey archetype is all about the process of moving forward, the death/rebirth cycle archetype represents a crisis and the potential for something to change and begin anew.

The next set of opposing archetypes are those Jung refers to as the masculine and largefeminine archetypes (which I shall henceforth be referring to as the Yin and Yang archetypes as a way to remove myself from any gender bias attached to either of the sets of energies discussed here, with the Yin corresponding to the set of ‘feminine’ energies and the Yang to the ‘masculine’ ones). On one side the Yang energies are the doing, pro-active energies. They’re about focus and structure, about logical thought and assertiveness. Taken to the extreme they become the violent energies, domineering and frightening. On the other side the Yin energies are about growth, acceptance, and welcoming. Those energies are about nurturing and the simple state of being. Taken to the extreme they become overly passive and stagnant. Where the previous pair of archetypes worked on an either/or basis (we are either undertaking a journey OR in the process of death and rebirth) the Yin and Yang archetype is very much so about balance of the two sets of energies (which is why I also thought the Yin and Yang words were perfect to use in this regard as they are primarily about balancing energies within ourselves). Whenever these energies appear within our dreams (Yung says we usually use people of the relevant gender to personify these emotions but within my personal experience I see it as more being people who we see as representing those energies, gender regardless) it is usually as a way to tell us that there is an imbalance, that one energy might be more predominant than the other and that we need to find ways to rectify this.

Finally, the third set of opposing archetypes are the hero or saviour archetype and the adversary archetype. One the one side, the hero archetype is a positive energy about winning and saving (ourselves). It can take the shape of a warrior, or a cornucopia and represents the light. The adversary is its exact opposite with a negative energy bent on opposition and destruction. Represented by things such as fire, the devil, or wounds, it is the darkness to the hero’s light. Here the aim of these archetypes is not so much to balance each other as to be integrated. Jung believed that we needed to integrate our darkness (referred to in his work as shadow) by accepting its existence and acknowledging it. In our dreams the darkness can often manifest in the form of something chasing us, something behind us that we cannot see but are often afraid or apprehensive about. The resolution comes when we become able to turn around and accept what is behind us in our dream, therefore taking the shadow of our selves within us, and integrating it into our self.

large (2)The seventh archetype is the centre one: the self. It represents both unity and separation and is the focus point of the healing process. There are many ways for the self to present itself in our dreams, although commonly it can be seen that a house (usually from childhood) represents the self.

Dreams can easily be seen and looked at as one would look at a drama, a play unfolding upon a stage. People as actors inhabit our dreamworld with their role and meaning not always matching the person they are in our waking life, making all their interactions with us and one another meaningful on a level deeper than the simply interactions of daily life. There is often a beginning to the dream that serves to set the scene. From there onwards the plot unfolds as it would in a play with the actors going about their roles and the momentum gathering around whatever the problem is until a climax or turning point is reached. When looking at dreams as drama it is interesting to analyse the place of the actors within the setting. It also gives us the opportunity to look at the sequencing of events and the interactions that have occurred. The ending whether it be a fulfilling conclusion or an abrupt end, also holds meaning as to our situation and mental state in our waking hours.

To access a more in depth analysis of dreams we looked at three separate methods which I will now briefly describe and discus as relevant to my own personal analysis done on the day.

The first method we looked at views dreams as happening in three stages: the introduction, the story, and the ending (be it through solution or catastrophe). Each part is analysed separately: what does the first sentence of the introduction tell us? We look at the characters and setting introduced and try to draw association with our waking lives. Throughout the introduction and the story we look at what the dream is trying to say by using recent events in our lives to see if they can be linked with what is happening in the dream. Finally we must extricate from the ending of the dream what action might be needed in our daily life to fix the issue at hand.

I personally found this way of analysing dreams to be very efficient for myself as the dream I used for this I had very detailed recognition of and was therefore able to clearly look at possible associations without needing to be guided. It felt like it is definitely a method that would work best for people who very clearly recall their dreams (or at least the dream worked on) and are easily able to bring back details to mind. It also does seem to encourage a very current interpretations, by which I mean it seems to try and root the message of the dream in the present situation of the person. It asks to draw association with what happened during the previous day, but does not appear to seek to make links with perhaps longer standing issues/anxieties that the person might have and would therefore be better used for dreams that the client feel are relevant to their current situations and not something that is deeply rooted within their past (for example, a recurrent dream).

The second method consists of a list of questions to ask the dreamer. It is a guided large (1)approach to dream analysis which focusses on specific aspects. The list of thirteen questions seeks to draw out the most important parts and feelings associated to the dreams by asking thigs like a word title the dreamer would give his or her dream, what actions were taken, or what would be done differently if the dream was lived in real life. These questions are there to help the client focus only on the elements of the dream which may be helpful if the person is not used to working with dreams or struggles to recall the dream in its entirety. Being able to focus simply on the parts of it that are relevant and meaningful also partially removes the chance of drawing associations simply for the sake of finding meaning behind every single thing. I found it an interesting method when I worked with it as it brought to light one or two elements of the dream that I had not regarded in the same way before, although overall there was a restrictive quality to the questions that I found did not let me explore my dream as freely.

The final method we looked at is Johnson’s four steps in dreamwork. The first step is all about making associations: we are to take the dream’s imagery and create direct associations with words, ideas or feelings that are relevant to us. The associations need to stay direct and not become a chain of connections as this is just the first stage. The associations need to feel right, to ‘click’ for the person making them, which means it advised to not be using a dream dictionary of any kind of universal dream symbols as a way to create the associations, at least not initially. The second part focusses on linking the dream images we have just acquired to our own inner life. We are now seeking to created links in between the words/ideas/feelings that we associated with what was in the dream to our waking selves and our daily lives. We may look at patterns present in the dream that also exist in our waking lives, at emotions that are echoes of our own personalities. The goal is to seek to understand what the dream is trying to draw our attention to: is something changing that we haven’t noticed? Has a healing happened or begun to happen that we didn’t think had? We only begin to interpret all of the findings from step one and two in the third and penultimate step. Here we draw together everything we have looked at so far to find the central message in the dream. We focus on what feelings are there and try to find an interpretation that resonates honestly with ourselves. Finally, the fourth step looks at taking a concrete step following the dream. Whether it be writing a letter, talking to someone, changing certain aspects of our lives, we must focus here on what we can do during our waking time to implement the message of the dream and therefore step closer to wholeness and individuation.

large (3)When I used this method for the dream I was working on, I both found it very helpful and somehow confusing. I liked how creative and free it allowed me to be, especially after the restrictions of the second method. But I did, however, find that I was terrible at sticking to the separate steps and tended to plough on ahead, mixing everything together and doing it all at once. Perhaps I would not have tried to create the associations in the same way had I not been working from this method but I found it difficult to just keep to the steps as each images unfurled into a flurry of associations that were easy to trace and work with. It is definitely a method that I think is best suited to people who find it easy to connect with their dreams, and I believe it is probably also important to not use it as a rigid to-do list but more as a guideline in how best to get the most possible out of our dreams and as a way to keep track of the different levels of associations and when it is best to pull everything together for an overall meaning.

Before finishing it is worth adding that we spoke briefly about keeping a dream log and the importance of it for people who wish to work with their dreams. Whenever keeping such log it is best to write what we remember of our dreams as soon as possible as well as leave space in between each dream to give us a chance to come back later on and to look at them with fresh eyes as we might be able to bring a new level of understanding after we have had time to think about the dream.

 

Fear seen as an Emotional Therapist

This is another report I have written for the course I am currently on. As with the last one it’s very blog-post like, so I hope it’ll make for an interesting read!

largeFear is one of our primal emotions, alongside love, one of the first things that, as a new born, we are able to feel. Fear has a lot of negative connotations, but it is, in its most basic representation, something that allows for the triggering of the flight or fight instinct which can be intrinsic to our survival. But what happens when fear stops triggering that reaction and instead freezes us on the spot, trapping us in a pattern, situation, or cycle that we simply cannot move from? That is when fear becomes an obstacle to our daily lives, and it is also when we begin to fear the fear itself, therefore creating a loop in which we simply cannot face the original fear that has us frozen in place.

Fear is one of the most common underlying feelings that a client might demonstrate, and it more likely than not that they will be unaware that fear is the root of their problem, let alone a fear of what. Because the fear is often rooted in one or more events of childhood, it is likely that the specifics of it have all been buried away by the adult as a coping mechanism. Similarly the fear may also have been displaced.

There are many physical, mental, and emotional signs that can tell us, as counsellors that fear is an underlying problem for the client even if they do not realise it. Physical signs can range from sweaty palms to shaking, to clinging onto specific items and high levels of restlessness. Mentally and emotionally, clients who are afraid are more likely to talk themselves in circle as they are too afraid to give voice to what the actual problem is. They are also likely to report high levels of anxiety in their daily lives as well as suffer from panic attacks. Addictions are also a good sign that there may be fear masked by the client’s actions. And those are only a small selection of examples on how fear manifest itself: lack of sleep, untargeted anger, and a chaotic lifestyle with no capacity to adapt are also some of the red flags surrounding fear in a client.

Anxiety, as is mentioned above, is unfocussed fear that the client has detached from what created it in the first place and it has become spread over everything that is part of the client’s life. Phobia, on the contrary, is a focussed fear, wherein a particular object, situation, or creature, becomes the target of an intense, uncontrollable fear. It is likely that phobias are displaced and targeted fears the origin of which clients can neither face nor recognise.

As therapists what we offer client is not to diminish their face, but it is to develop love large (1)(and self-love) to balance out the fear and make it more manageable. We cannot rid people of their fear, but what we can do is help the wounds caused by the events that created the fear, heal, and become just a scar. Triggering events will always make the scar feel sensitive but, with self-love and the proper healing having happened, a person can know what it is that is causing the feelings and why it is doing so and therefore be able to tackle how they feel both on a mental and emotional level.

When handling people who are afraid it is important for the therapist to be aware that they might need to approach the person and their issues in ways that are tailored to that person as each individual will handle their fear differently. One thing that can be said in most cases is to remind the person that they are being brave, and showing courage in coming to therapy. Courage can only exist in the face of fear, and by coming to therapy people are willing to tackle the fear that is hindering their lives, therefore demonstrating courage. This alone can help some people feel emboldened and more in control when it comes to the difficult process of therapy.

Most important is not to frighten the person away, not to give them another thing to be afraid of. It is necessary to be reassuring with frightened clients, perhaps to employ a particularly soft tone of voice to help them feel at ease. Exercises such as creative expression and dreamwork could prove beneficial to such clients: the former as a way to express the fear in a safe environment and in whichever way is more suited to them and the latter potentially as a way to uncover hints towards what is causing the fear. Visualization can be used to help calm the person if the session has taken them to somewhere which has caused them distress, whereas working with the stones might be a way to find out whether the fear is linked to one individual, or a group of individuals in particular.

What is important above all, and if not done will render any attempt to help the person useless, is the building of trust. Without trust, the client will not be able to open to their fear in front of the therapist, who will most likely become feared in turn.

large (2)It is important to help the client also understand that the fear they feel is not simply their own, but that of the inner child who has been holding onto that fear potentially for years now. It is very important to comfort the inner child and to teach the client to do the same, and not to belittle whatever it is that their inner child is feeling. Ways to get the client in touch with the inner child could involve the use of photographs from childhood (or old diaries), non-dominant hand writing, or the good parent visualization. It could be helpful to ask the client what would have helped them when they were in that situation and do behave that way towards the inner child where possible.

The therapist could ask questions along the line of ‘Can you remember a time when you felt afraid/safe/anxious?’ as a way to start creating a timeline of when the fear was created. Although this might be difficult for customers who have little to no memories of their childhood. Client willing, there are ways to help them try and retrieve these memories, but it is never guaranteed and there is always the risk of the client going to very dark and uncomfortable, often frightening, places. Again the use of old photos can help jog specific memories, and if the client has any, they could use object or toys from their past to build memories outwards from what they remember regarding the object/toy. Talking to old friends and family can also help.

It is also possible that the fear will prevent the recovery of memories, or that they have simply been lost and as such the therapist will need to work more with the present life of the client instead of trying to heal the wounds of the past. It is also possible that the fear has been created in a more recent past and not in the childhood, and therefore will likely need to be tackled differently. Either way, it is important to help people realise that fear is False Evidence Affecting Reality and that the proper support and love, it can be overcome in most cases.

Book review: The Drama of Being a Child (The Search for the True Self) – Alice Miller

This is actually a book report I had to write for my course, so it might be less of a traditional book review and more of a summary/general impressions I had of the book. Either way it seemed enlightening enough for those who might be wondering whether to read this to post it here. I don’t usually review books that aren’t genre fiction so this feels very odd, and somewhat personal too, but I do hope it will interest those who are intrigued by this field of study and self-discovery!

 

41046HJX0YL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Miller offers through her book a fascinating tale of the effects of childhood, not solely on the child as these events take place, but more so on the adult. These events from childhood that have become the invisible strings that guide us through our lives are, more often than not, simply accepted by the adult person as a fact that had little to no consequences on their lives. It is only when as an adult we can look back to our childhood days and not only understand but truly feel what affected us as children, that we can begin to unravel the tangle of fears, habits, and issues that has followed us everywhere we went during our adult life.

Much like emotional therapeutic counselling, Miller recognises the importance of the hurt and lonely child we all carry within us. She emphasises that it is that child’s emotions that make us often react as we do to the world around our adult selves. Because that child is made of so many repressed emotions, so he seeks to either take revenge upon the world, or hide away everything even more. The dialogue with this Inner Child is, to Miller, as intrinsic a part of healing, as it is for emotional therapeutic counselling.

Miller also mentions the importance of confronting those who have caused the hurt during childhood, whether face to face or, if the former is impossible for one reason or another, through a mental dialogue wherein the adult can finally unload the Inner Child’s actual feelings onto the person who has caused them and have a discussion with them. Similarly to emotional therapeutic counselling, Miller does not believe that we can be free of the hurt of our childhood until we have truly felt the emotions that our child-self repressed.

Another element in the book that reminded me strongly of what we had done in the course was Miller’s regular mention of her patients’ dreams and their importance in their therapy. She takes dreams as the subconscious’ way of talking to us, or trying to point where or what the issues might be. She points out in one of her examples how it can be an easy way to track therapy progress as the patient’s dreams change and evolve.

I personally found this read enlightening, especially following what I had already learnt about myself during the course and it shed a fascinating light on some elements of my childhood that has just seemed that they had left me unaffected up to that point. Stories of which I have little to no recollection but have been told about seemed to come back with stark clarity as the emotions I had felt were accessed. It emphasised that it was ok for my adult self to revisit those emotions, to let them happen and face the feelings of my childhood without fear of any consequences. It has allowed me to understand my reactions to certain things that happen around me, as well as turn the emotions elicited towards their true target instead of the situation at hand.

5/5

Childhood development: nature vs nurture, or is it both?

Nature_versus_NurtureThe start of my childhood development course has taken me down the alleys of thinking about how it is exactly that children develop and what it is that affects their development. History has seen many a theory being introduced to explain how it is that we develop, learn, and grow. Not all of them still fully apply today, and some seem absolutely baffling if you’re not inclined to share the views of those who first introduced them. But on the whole, most of them have good points that seems to work especially well when mixed and matched in between the different theories.

The four I studied in-depth seemed to grow from within one another, with obvious elements of past theories being dropped as new and shiny concepts are introduced. Sometimes the progress is minimal, sometimes it is revolutionary, but each step taken forward towards a more global understanding of childhood development is an important one: full of promises of better parenting, happier children, and better developed adults. But there is a debate that has always permeated theories of development: are we the product of nature, or the product of nurture?

It’s not just psychologists that have been faced with this headache, and philosophers have, for centuries, asked themselves the same question. To clarify the terms, nature refers roughly to what we are given at birth: our DNA. Nature will decide if we have blond or brown hair, blue or grey eyes, whether our knees are not aligned or we are likely to get coldsores. Nurture, on the contrary, does not come to us with birth, but through the social context in which we are born, through the people around us, through the education we receive, and so on and so forth. So nurture isn’t going to decide what colour hair we have, but it is likely to decide what kind of human being we grow up into.

To an extent.

And this is where it gets tricky. Once we are grown adults, how can we pretend to know how and why we have turned out as we have? We can make guesses, theorize,  look back on our childhood and try to make rational, logical sense of it in a way we couldn’t at the time. But at the end of the day, even through careful study of other children, there is no sure way to draw solid conclusions and form theories that could claim to apply universally (because humans, after all, have this awful tendency to all be so very different from one another).

Take, for example, the case of Alfred (Yes, this is the best name I could up with for my made-up example). Alfred was born in a loving home, surrounded by a loving, peaceful family. He never spent ridiculous amount of hours watching violent programs on TV either. And yet, Alfred was a violent, anti-social child who could hardly be controlled by his parents. Eventually, it was discovered that Alfred had been born with a deficient part of his brain and was in fact a psychopath  Here, nurture is absolutely powerless against nature, although there is no doubt the nurturing would have affected Alfred in some ways. But nonetheless, who Alfred grew into was not ruled by nurture, but by nature. Perhaps even by both for who can say how Alfred would have turned out had he been raised away from a loving and understanding home? Nobody can, and that’s why the nurture vs nature debate is such a tricky one.

Obviously, there are times when nurture can influence nature, or at least can seem to. Children who are unruly from a young age can be taught discipline, but it is difficult to know whether their unruliness is something that they were born with (an innate trait of character) or whether it something they picked up from peers or siblings behaviour.  What, however, of children who demonstrate such behaviour without ever having witnessed it from others? Are they born with an innate desire to be unruly and cause havoc? Perhaps. And if that is the case then nurture can indeed overrule (or perhaps more so, bend and modify) nature.

genes-environment-choices-500x492

Another issue with the concept is when we start looking at people’s choices in career. Those who follow artistic careers and have had contact with an adult they are related to who also follows such a career might find they are told that they are doing so that it is because it is in their nature (clearly being a musician runs into the family, for example). But if a child of two doctors follows the same line of work as his parents, people are far more likely to blame it on nurture (it’s all he’s ever known/he’s trying to be like you). The question is, what is the difference? Maybe a child only chooses to become a musician, not because it is somehow written in his genes, but because he wants to be like his father, his mother, or his uncle. And maybe the little girl whose parents are doctors decides to follow in their footsteps not become she dreams of being like them, but because she feels a real calling towards the profession.

Either way, the idea that either nature or nurture forms us into what we become misses out one important factor: choice. Neither theories, not even them combined, take our own personal choices into account. From a very young age, babies and children are capable of making choices in their day-to-day lives and those choices are likely to have as strong an impact on their development as nurture and nature put together. But that’s for a different blog post all-together.

Psychologists are more and more agreeing that pitching nature vs nurture is a terrible idea and that if we are to truly understand how we develop, both as children and once we have reached our adult years, we need to look at both. To understand one truly would mean the need to understand the other just as completely. Indeed, how could there be development as we know it if only nurture, or only nature had a part to play?

Childhood and identity

open-uri20120828-7303-1xpgydfIn a handful of weeks, I’ll be starting a module on Child development. Now a couple of years back, when I very first signed up to the course, I rolled my eyes at the idea of a module that dealt mainly with childhood and children. But since then I have had to deal with a lot of issues the root of which is to be found in my childhood. It has gifted me with a new perspective on the subject. As such, I find that I am rather looking forward to studying the psychology of children and how their environment  and the people around them have the power to impact on their personality.

Nurture isn’t the only factor at work, obviously, as nature plays its part as always, often unseen–or perhaps not so much unseen as not understood–and in a far different way to nurture. For example, I read a while back now (in an article that I can no longer find, unfortunately), that scientists have discovered that there exists a gene that is likely to make children behave more obediently towards their parents. Children lacking in that gene, seemed to be far more free-willed and likely to make their own decisions from a younger age, instead of obediently listening to what they’re told to do.

But nurture can definitely affect nature and influence the direction in which it develops. Several researches have demonstrated that children receiving higher level of care of attention from their parent or carer are likely to grow up healthier, smarter, and kinder (See article: Why spoiled babies grow up to be smarter, kinder kids). If you look at it on very simple term: if the baby is well looked after, the growing brain doesn’t need to waste resources on stress, crying, or other efforts to draw the attention of the ones it expects to be looked after by. So our personality, which will later contribute to the forming of our identity, is influenced by outside factors from the second we are born–and possibly even before that, when we’re still in our mother’s womb.

Obviously, the attention that our parents/carers give us as we grow up will not entirely decide who we are: nature still has a say in the matter and some people who have suffered horrendously neglectful and/or traumatic childhood can still turn out to be wonderful people capable of more empathy than most. On the converse, all the love in the world might not change the way the brain of a sociopath or a psychopath was wired to start with.

Nonetheless, childhood is the root of who we are, whether we like it or not: the person we are today has its roots in our childhood. As such, any baggage that we acquire through childhood, we are likely to drag with us for the rest of our life. Sometimes, even becoming aware of the issue and its origin, is not enough to drop the baggage; it might become lighter and easier to carry, but it never fully leaves us.

My childhood wasn’t an unhappy one, my parents were fairly attentive, and generally I was loved by the people around me. One of the greatest problem my family suffered from, was the incapacity to communicate with each other. When I was six, my mother started suffering from depression due to problems at work. As a child, I was well aware that something was different about my mother, although no-one ever told me what: my mum’s depression was only discussed in between her and my father behind closed doors, and even then, I don’t think they did much talking at all. I found out what was happening by eavesdropping at the kitchen door in an evening. But from this, and several very similar incidents, I learnt a lesson my parents had never thought they might be teaching me with their actions: talking about what is wrong with us personally is bad, something to be done in secret and, preferably, not to be done at all.

I have dragged this with me all the way to my adulthood. Even now, I am more than likely to not talk about something that is bothering or upsetting me. I bottle everything up inside, store it behind high walls and attempt to cope with it by myself. It very rarely works, unfortunately. Eventually, everything that builds up inside gets too much and I find myself crumbling under the weight of it all. I am lucky enough to have a special someone here to help me cope, but he–quite rightly–gets frustrated at my incapacity to talk about the things that get to me. I have been trying to improve since I very first admitted to this issue, but it’s still hard most days to not feel ashamed of some of the negative thoughts that go on in my head.

This is but one of the things that I have dragged from my childhood into my life as an adult, and it is but one example of how things can affect children on a level often unseen by the parents or carers. Received, or perceived, love or affection aren’t the only things that start to shape a child’s personality as they grow up. Children learn by watching and copying: when they play make-believe with their friends, they will more than likely copy the attitude of the adults around them. Although such games are unlikely to directly influence personality later on in life, they do set a basis of what the child perceives as normal behavior for an adult and their own expectations of themselves.

Not everyone will be affected the same, but it’s impossible to know what will and will not affect a child’s personality until it is too late. Where demanding parents may push their child’s ambitions and drive forward, it may just as well make them feel pressured, unworthy, and unable to cope. There is no hard and fast rule that decides how we are going to react to how the people closest to us act and how it will affect us once we are out of childhood. Some children may give clear signs of how they are affected whilst others are likely to bottle it up and hide behind a facade.

But one thing is for sure: there can never be too much love and care in a child’s life, and no-one has ever suffered from too much love in their childhood, and from having attentive parents.