I am adding here a fore-note to this blog in light of Franz Ruppert’s recent developments around the topic of identity. His current thinking is using the term ‘identity’ as it should be, who am I? That is my true identity as we see it in the combination of healthy/trauma/survival ‘I’.
What I am discussing here is what I have called the ‘constructed identity’ and as such is focused primarily on the survival ‘I’ and how we come to think of these survival impulses as who I am. This ‘constructed I’ is not my real identity… it is the one that is constructed from the many survival strategies and, what Franz calls ‘attributions’ and identifcations, roles, expectations of others, chosen identities. I hope this clarifies the different between my true identity and my constructed identity.
A few weeks ago someone showed me a scan of her unborn 12-week-old great granddaughter. The image was of a recognisable foetus shaped being, with a large head area showing the outline of the developing skull, and a black area where the brain will be. Towards the bottom of this black area was a very small rounded lobe-like structure that my friend proudly told me was the child’s limbic brain.
This was very exciting information for me, because in rudimentary way I have come to understand the limbic brain system as being the emotional, wordless part of the brain that developed with the emergence of mammals in order that the mother would care for her offspring. So it would seem that this part of the brain has a strong role in the bonding process of mother with child.
The Triune Brain
This view comes from a theory of the human brain known as the Triune Brain developed by Paul MacLean, ‘triune’ meaning having three main structures, known as the ‘reptilian brain’, the limbic or mammalian brain, and the neocortex.
In evolutionary thinking the brain development of humans happened over time from the bottom up as we evolved from reptiles to mammals to humans:
Located at the top of the spinal cord, at the base of the neck underneath the rest of our brain. It is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain controlling basic life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, trauma reaction, basic sexual urge. It is associated with the basic life survival issues of safety, hunger and procreation – perpetuation of the species.
- Limbic Brain System
Located in the centre of the brain, it developed in mammals as an emotional response so that the mother was compelled to care for her offspring, to stay with them and protect them.
The mammal offspring generally is much more vulnerable and helpless than that of reptiles, and the human newborn child is the most helpless and vulnerable of all. This is because the human child is essentially born prematurely because of our big head, which houses our highly developed neocortex.
“…by one estimation a human fetus would have to undergo a gestation period of 18 to 21 months instead of the usual nine to be born at a neurological and cognitive development stage comparable to that of a chimpanzee newborn.” (Scientific American, August, 2012)
The limbic brain system is said to be the “seat of our emotions.” It communicates how we feel, records positively and negatively charged memories and controls how our body reacts to emotional situations. It has extensive pathway connections to the neocortex (higher brain) and often makes value judgments. The limbic system needs to communicate with the neocortex to process emotions, in order to understand them.
Located over the limbic system at the top of our brain, it is the latest, largest (two-thirds of total brain mass) and most highly developed part of the brain. It contains the most neuron cells, the building blocks for intelligence and memory, and it is where high order thinking, reasoning, learning and problem solving occur.
The neocortex is divided into left and right hemispheres that are connected by nerve bundles.
While this is a useful first-base understanding of the brain structure, it does not reflect the unbelievable complexity of the brain, nor the ongoing developments within neuroscience, but for the purposes of the essay, it is, I think, helpful.
So to get back to my friend’s scan, what really excited me was the fact that this little brain structure was evident at such an early age… only twelve weeks after conception. You can see this in this video of scans of a foetal 12-week old brain. This first shows the brainstem, which incorporates the primitive ‘reptilian’ brain and the knob on the top is the diencephalon, which houses various parts of the limbic brain system (hypothalamus, thalamus, hippocampus, amygdala)
Starting relationship between a mother and her child
The potential of this information is that already at 12 weeks from conception there is the capacity for the child to absorb emotional experience and information, to be impacted and affected emotionally by his surroundings, primarily by his mother. Her emotional state, changes in feelings, reactions to things happening in her life, her attitude and feelings towards her pregnancy and the developing child, all of these are likely to have their emotional impact on the child. The relationship between the mother and her child starts with conception, and must include her experience and feelings of this moment and everything from this moment on; her feelings about being pregnant, towards her unborn child, her feelings about the child’s father, the quality of their relationship; her ambivalence, fears, hopes and misgivings, all are potentially available as emotional information to the child.
Pregnancy as a potentially traumatising experience for mother and child
Once a woman is pregnant, so long as she doesn’t choose to abort the child, there is no going back. She is committed to the process of pregnancy and giving birth. In a sense she cannot escape: somehow or other this growing being within her must come out; she must give birth. She is committed to something over which she has little control. The only choices she can make are to do with the type of birth, whether vaginal or Caesarean, and even in this there is much coercion and pressure from the medical profession, society and culture. (See Choices in Pregnancy and Childbirth by John Wilks.)
For many women pregnancy seems to be a joyful and fulfilling process… on the surface and in part. But for many it is also a frightening and destabilising experience, perhaps re-stimulating unconscious memories of her own incubation, birth and early relationship with her own mother. Pregnancy is a highly emotional process, and we know in our work with Franz Ruppert’s theories and practice, that in the already traumatised person emotional experiences always are a trigger for the unexpressed split off trauma experiences to surface.
Of primary impact on the child are likely to be the basic attitude of the mother towards her child: does she welcome the child or is she frightened of him; is she ambivalent about being a mother, being pregnant, her relationship with the father, going through with the whole thing. Does she consider abortion? Does she attempt abortion?
If the mother’s relationship with her mother was distressing and traumatic, how much is this redolent experience likely to surface during her own pregnancy… any trauma that she experienced in her life, including her own early incubation and absorbed experiences of her mother, are likely to be present for her emotionally and unconsciously. All of these things are then potentially available to the infant developing within her, and are likely to have an impact, thus informing the developing relationship between mother and child.
Bonding, Oxytocin and Trauma
In one sense we are just a conglomeration of chemicals and electrical impulses, and in the process of pregnancy and birth the chemical known as Oxytocin is key to a successful bonding process between mother and child. Nature doesn’t leave this to chance; oxytocin is nature’s best way trying to ensure that the mother will love and care for her offspring. (You can see an interesting example of the power of oxytocin here.)
But we know now that seriously traumatised women produce less oxytocin, and it has been known that some women produce none at all (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23201337), thus dramatically affecting their ability to bond with the child.
And oxytocin, nicknamed the ‘love hormone’, is rather more complex than first thought; indeed it is even now known that there is a paradoxical relationship between oxytocin levels and abuse, leading to emotional addiction to violent relationships (See Why Women Sometimes Become Addicted to Abusive Partners).
So the bonding process between child and mother is far from simple, and is likely to be affected by the already in place emotional history of the pregnancy, the mother’s ability produce oxytocin, her own birthing experiences and her own good or not so good emotional bonding with her mother, and any traumatic experiences she may have had in her life. All of these things will influence to a greater or lesser extent the quality of the bond that develops between mother and child.
What is this bond, and how does it impact the child?
There is no time in our lives where we are more vulnerable and helpless than during the time from conception to about two years old. Even then of course we are still fairly helpless… should we find ourselves in an abusive family we cannot just up and leave home. We have no authority or control over the environment into which we come. We have no option but to manage as best we can in this environment.
The needs of the newborn child are simple. They are ‘needs’ in that they are literally about survival. A ‘need’ in this sense is something without which our life is in danger, as opposed to a ‘want’ which is about desire, not survival. In order to stay alive we need food, we need to evacuate the waste from our bodies, we need to breathe and so on.
So in the listing below of the newborn child’s ‘needs’ bear in mind that these are about staying alive; without them the issue of survival becomes paramount:
- to be fed
- to be kept safe
- to be kept warm
- to have good physical contact
- to have good emotional contact
- to be loved
- to be welcomed
- to be seen for the unique individual that we are
This last sums it up: being seen as an individual with unique rights, needs and requirements, to be valued and respected. This requires a deep and loving, untrammelled connection with our mother, expressed in the eye to eye connection beautifully described by the psychologist Daniel Stern as “me seeing you seeing me”, the child seeing the clarity with which his mother sees him (The Interpersonal World of the Infant, 1985). This gives the child the status as a subject in their life, as opposed to being used as an object by the parents for their own ends.
It is this last existential requirement of “being seen” that is the foundation of our move to being an autonomous, secure, functioning adult (see blog on symbiosis and autonomy). And it is this “being seen for who I actually am” at this very early stage of life that can most easily become a trauma for the child, a trauma of identity, what Ruppert has called ‘the Trauma of Love‘.
The child discovers himself in this connection with his mother. He discovers himself as different and separate. He discovers himself in the loving mirroring he sees in his mother’s eyes… if, and only if, she can do this. And since, as we have seen above, there are so many potential traumatic interruptions to ourselves, so many potential splits as a result of traumatisation, we have to understand how vulnerable this connection is likely to be.
The constructed identity
Trauma survival according to Ruppert’s theories, leaves us psychologically split, with the trauma experience split off and relegated to the unconscious. We still have access to our ‘healthy self’, when we feel safe. When we don’t feel safe, when something happens, however seemingly insignificant, that sends us closer to this split off unconscious trauma, we automatically go into our trauma survival self, instigating all sorts of behaviours to distract and protect ourselves from these uncomfortable emotions.
These ‘trauma survival’ behaviours and attitudes have a long history of development and refinement, dating back to this very early, even pre-birth time of our life. They come from our early perception (non-verbal, because there is no verbal or conceptual ability at this age) of how to survive this trauma of existence we call the Trauma of Love.
Trauma is a moment, an event. It may occur in an ongoing environment of high stress and anxiety, but the splitting as a result of that moment happens in an instant.
The constructed identity is what we construct over time to survive the trauma instant and the stress of the ongoing atmosphere and culture in which we find ourselves. It is an accumulation of borrowed attitudes from others in our family, the historical trauma survival strategies of our mother and father, and momentary things that we discover ourselves as we go along that allow us to exist more or less safely within this family. These trauma survival strategies are continually refined and modified as we grow and learn, but in the end they become who we think we are.
They grow out of injunctions to the self. For example: “I must keep quiet and keep my head down to survive in this family” becomes “I am a shy person”; “I must take care of my vulnerable (traumatised) mother in order to feel safe with her” becomes “I am a caring person”. The trauma survival self-injunction becomes a statement of who I am, and so over time, right from the beginning, we construct an identity that we mistake for who we really are. In this sense we continually repeat the trauma of love by not seeing ourselves for who we really are… we have taught ourselves not to see ourselves in an endless repetition of the moment of not being seen by our mother.
The trauma survival self-injunction becomes a statement of who I am, and so over time, right from the beginning, we construct this identity that we mistake for who we really are. In this sense we continually repeat the trauma of love; we have taught ourselves not to see ourselves in an endless repetition of the moment of not being seen by our mother, and our whole life becomes an eternal quest to be seen, to have our mother see us and confirm our existence, in all the other people we come into contact with, when the truth is she was unable to do that, and no one else can do this for us; this opportunity of good connection with our mother is, and was, always lost.
But we can discover ourselves for ourself; we can do the necessary work to realise the truth of this trauma of love within ourselves, to feel the devastation and despair this really caused, and then find the way to deeply see for ourself who we actually really are. We can discover our ‘I’ by looking at what this ‘I’ is. That is the work of the method we use, the representation of the Sentence of Intention that Ruppert has developed… a method by which we can deconstruct the constructed identity and find the truth about who we are, restoring and redeeming our ‘I’.
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