As adults, we like to think we’ve put away most childish things. But infantile and childish ways of experiencing ourselves and life linger in our unconscious mind. That baby in the adult’s psyche can be highly mischievous and harmful, producing chaotic reactions.
Early childhood’s influences on our adult experiences have parallels to the scientific concept of Chaos theory. This mathematical theory attempts to understand erratic behavior as it occurs in certain nonlinear systems such as weather patterns. The theory proposes, as one example, that small air disturbances in one location can result, days or weeks later, in storms or hurricanes more than a thousand miles away.
Comparatively, the unconscious mind of adults is buffeted by gale-force winds of emotional chaos that originated as an infantile effect decades earlier. Emotional associations from our distant past now buffet our life in incredible, mysterious, spectacular, and frequently painful and self-defeating ways.
Emotions percolate and circulate in our unconscious mind with some degree of chaos. We all know what it’s like to be happy one moment, sad the next, with no conscious input from us. We also know how hard it can be to regulate our desires, impulses, and emotional reactions. Both neuroscience and psychology have established that our brain struggles mightily and often unsuccessfully to limit the effects of irrationality. Often we try to apply common sense and reason to moderate unpleasant emotions or to curb self-defeating impulses. Yet our emotional side, with a life of its own, can often be impervious to rational entreaties. Still, we can bring order to the chaos when we understand just what we’re dealing with.
Even if we had loving and nurturing parents, we can still be tormented by chaotic spin-offs and emotional turbulence from the first 18 months of life. Before describing this oral stage, I must note that the psychoanalytic understanding to which I subscribe has unfortunately been shoved aside by modern theories of child development. In my view, this has happened because people are determined unconsciously to idealize the childhood experience and reject the radical knowledge from classical psychoanalysis that sees us more objectively. This repudiation of vital self-knowledge is all part of our continuing self-centeredness, denial, resistance, and irrationality.
Developmental psychologists observe correctly that the children’s first signs of self-awareness show up after twelve months. They detail the emergence of growing rationality in the second year and beyond. Yet their scientific methods seem unable to penetrate a deeper existential reality. Their observations are not illuminating a parallel development, namely the baby’s instinctive irrational consciousness and intense entanglement in a false reality driven by acute self-centeredness, primitive wishes, libidinal instincts, inner aggression and fear, and self-defeating compromises. This infantile consciousness continues in various degrees over a lifetime to influence our struggle to distinguish the rational from the irrational and wisdom from folly.
One particular problem, perhaps the greatest turbulence in the chaos, stands out. Early childhood marks the birth of the adult compulsion to recreate and recycle, in present-day contexts, unresolved negative emotions such as feeling refused, deprived, controlled, helpless, criticized, rejected, and abandoned. We keep dragging these negative emotions through life. I’m often asked why we become so attached to them. Here, from classical psychoanalysis, is a theory of how this happens.
It all starts with the baby’s experiences of the oral stage, when the mouth is the primary zone of pleasure. In this oral stage, the baby experiences feeding as self-given, meaning that the feeding and the food itself are services and substances that are provided through the baby’s own powers. What accounts for such irrationality? According to psychoanalysis, babies experience the world through megalomania, or profound self-centeredness, along with a sense of omnipotence or magic power. All the child knows are the physical and emotional sensations of his or her own little body. In this primitive consciousness, nothing exists except what the child experiences directly. Whatever is given to the child by others is experienced by the child as an act of his or her magic power. The illusion of having such magic powers still resonates very strongly in adolescents and teenagers, as evidenced in the widely popular Harry Potter series of books and movies.
This profound misreading of reality may be the infant’s evolutionary compensation, a will-to-live booster-shot for the reality of being so profoundly helpless.
A complication soon arises. Food is not always available exactly when baby wants it. Mother may be busy with other children or obligations. Baby begins to experience not getting the food when the food is desired. The baby can’t understand the relativity of time, so a 10-minute wait for food can seem like eternity. This not getting is a serious affront to the baby’s sense of magic power, and loud wails of protest often result.
How does the baby compensate psychologically? He or she is determined to preserve the magical feeling of being a little wizard at the center of life. The baby “decides,” in an instinctive manner of deduction, that not getting must be what he or she wants. The baby is able to turn displeasure into pleasure (as do sadists, masochists, pedophiles, bullies, oppressors, withholders of emotional support and love, etc.), and make the feeling of not getting acceptable and gratifying. “It’s what I want,” the child deduces irrationally, “so it must be good.”
In psychoanalysis, the ability to eroticize or “sugar-coat” various experiences is attributed to libido or the pleasure principle, which refers to the psychological-biological process whereby both pleasant and unpleasant experiences can be enjoyed or eroticized. As one example, everyday people are quite capable of indulging in an unhealthy yet compulsive way in bittersweet feelings of victimhood and self-pity. Another example: People can “libidinize” inner fear, enabling them to experience macabre delight reading thrillers, going to horror movies, and speculating incessantly about terrorist threats.
So the impression of not getting—feeling refused or deprived—is libidinized, producing a compelling though third-rate pleasure that acts as an emotional attachment. The feeling becomes a default position in our psyche. Not only is it familiar, it easily becomes an indulgence. We become hooked on the feeling, or attached to it. It can even be described as an emotional addiction. This attachment or addiction tends to become an integral part of our identity, meaning we don’t quite know who we are without it.
From another perspective, we’re answerable to this psychological axiom: Whatever remains unresolved from our past becomes an emotional attachment. We’re easily triggered into experiencing the unresolved emotion no matter how negative or painful it is to do so. At this point, we typically cover up, through denial and other psychological defenses, the unconscious choice we’ve made to plunge back into an experience of the negative emotion.
We’re all prey to the repetition compulsion, as Freud called it, meaning we’re creatures who seek consciously or unconsciously to experience situations in ways that replay our unresolved emotions, whether positive or negative.
What are some repercussions of unresolved oral issues? They include chronic feelings involving dissatisfaction, refusal, and deprivation, leading frequently to struggles with self-defeating behaviors. Greed, envy, boredom, anger, and passivity are symptoms of this lingering oral attachment to deprivation and refusal. It’s possible our consumer-based economy—with its environmentally degrading, entitlement-inducing, and debt-driven side-effects—is stimulated, in part, by our deep grievances about allegedly having been deprived and refused at this early age.
Of course, other factors such as genetics and individual biology can influence the degree to which individuals are swept up by irrationality, leading sometimes to mental illness. Incompetent child-rearing also tends to make the negative consequences of the inner chaos more problematic. The chaotic irrationality also goes on to influence later stages of child development beyond the oral stage.
Evidence supporting a chaos theory of the human mind is overwhelming. It abounds in millions of examples of individual and collective suffering and self-defeat recorded in mythology, literature, scripture, and history. Growing awareness of this magnificent chaos can speed up our evolution.