by Marcus Antebi
Article at a Glance:
All humans (and other creatures) are designed to be able to cope with a certain amount of trauma. If that wasn’t the case we would crumble on the first day of life.
The first trauma we experience is being pushed through the birthing canal. It is not a pleasant experience. We leave a world of darkness to enter a world of light in which the temperature is considerably colder.
The traumatic experience of birth is profound. No matter how much love and attention we get, when the event occurs it will forever be in our memory.
Our birth marks the first experience of our beginning to learn how to cope. When it happens, we cope by crying, shaking, squeezing our fists, making faces, and taking other physical actions.
A child was designed to come into the world in a warm and low-lit place, giving him or her a chance to adjust to the change of atmosphere and climate. Being placed on the mother’s skin reduces the child’s trauma. And as the child then settles in, the midwife can contemplate the right timing to cut the umbilical cord.
Some of us may find it very difficult to comprehend the simplicity of the needs of a human child. When we come into this world we are completely helpless. We need body warmth and skin contact. If that’s given to us, we might then feel the sense of comfort that soothes the brain.
If anything is missing, we have an overwhelming instinct to cry out and shout for help. A baby can do that throughout a whole night without becoming tired.
Babies need to latch onto boobs. They have no judgments and they begin learning what this world is all about from the moment they are born. If their needs are met, then without hesitation they create a view of the world as a safe and comfortable place.
If this is what the child learns on day one, this is how the child will perceive the world on day two. Each successive day that the child is given exactly what it needs, the child will continue to hold to a very positive worldview.
A newborn child has yet to have any comprehension of self. It can’t see its own reflection yet. And even when it first sees its own reflection, it doesn’t have the knowledge to realize it’s seeing its own reflection. The child only perceives its caretaker feeding it.
And slowly over time the child discovers what it might be. If the caretaker looks at the child with nothing but total love, admiration, concern, compassion, empathy, joy, and happiness, that’s how the child will perceive its caretaker.
The child doesn’t know the word “compassion” but will experience it as a physical feeling. Love is in large part a physical feeling. Joy is a physical feeling. The child will feel fragments of this. And if a child looks up at the caretaker and sees all these beautiful expressions of emotions, the child will absorb them and they will become the child’s reflection.
Conversely, if the child sees sadness, worry, despair, stress, tension, jealousy, anger, disappointment, frustration, and shortness of temper, that is what the child will perceive as itself.
With each passing day the human child’s brain is beginning to figure out some very, very complicated things. Sound is an example. The brain is trying to decipher the meaning of sound, the origin of sound, and how to separate sounds from different locations. A loud noise can frighten a child, and that will affect its physical body.
The child is retaining the energy of people. The child is retaining routines that it associates with safety. When the mother nurses the child in the same familiar place with the same lighting, sounds, and temperature, the seamless nature of the experience communicates safety.
If the child is safe, then the child can easily fall asleep, heal, and grow. Such safety and comfort is what we crave and need throughout all of our childhood. When we experience it, we advance and progress.
As we get older our awareness begins to take form. We then need to begin to change. In a way that seems to be instinctive, a child will naturally grow to have curiosity about the world around it. It appears that this curiosity is designed to help the child become knowledgeable about the world so that one day it can take its place as a productive member in society.
Without curiosity, a child would just lay there disinterested. Curiosity is something that compels us to do things or inquire about things. Perhaps it’s instinctual, perhaps not. Certain things that you can say are instinctual to a child are all cerebral and don’t seem to be in the category of physical survival-related instincts such as how to walk, climb, or hunt for food.
You see natural curiosity in children regardless of where they are born. It is instinctual for a child to want to cautiously wander away from his mother as it is for him to look back and make sure she’s still there. So it’s instinctual for the child to both have shyness and be cautious. It’s also instinctual for a child to feel smothered if the mother will not let that child explore the world; it’s possible that the mother could be overly nervous that the child will get hurt and project fear through that nervousness.
How we learn to perceive and respond to things as children has a great deal to do with why we struggle as grownups. It puzzles me that some people deny this and believe that destiny shapes who we are more so than cause-and-effect does.
We need to be aware of and understand things that went wrong during the formative childhood years of our lives. When we do so, we can then look for the sources of trauma and determine ways to repair psychological and emotional damage.
There are no guarantees that a person will be able to fix what was broken at age three. But oftentimes we can. By simply talking about various problems, we can sometimes conjure up ancient feelings that are frozen and hidden away in our psyche. Then by writing about them and talking about them we can set them free.
It appears that what happens to us as older children—around age seven through age 17—shapes us more than things that happened between birth and age six do. But there’s no way to say exactly how everybody will handle their childhood difficulties; we’re all different. Some people could be greatly affected by the traumas experienced from birth through age five, others not so much so. Some people had very loving and safe childhoods, experienced dramatic traumas at age 14, and had major negative personality changes subsequent to those experiences.
Some people are hesitant to acknowledge childhood trauma because it may entail thinking or speaking negatively about their parents. They consider it disrespectful to do so. Additionally, we naturally create protective boundaries around the things that happened to us as children: If we see our childhoods as anything less than perfect, we find it very painful to face that reality. So we create fictional versions of our childhoods in order to feel better.
But the truth of what happened to us really reveals itself in our grown-up behavior. If we are well-adjusted people free of anxiety and addictive behavior, then it’s likely that we came from the childhood we remember. But we may believe that our childhood was great and still be riddled with anxieties, maladaptive behaviors, self-esteem problems, and/or relationship problems. If that’s the case, we may very well need to take a hard look at our childhood.
If anyone believes that they can truly liberate themselves from the past without moving through it mentally and emotionally then they are mistaken. One thing that we often do is cover up our childhood memories by finding adaptive behaviors and clinging to all different types of inappropriate mental and emotional structures to avoid working through what we experienced.
When we build our defenses around anything other than doing hard emotional and psychological work, we’re building our character and our mental structures as if they were a house of cards. And then it’s very likely that one day we will accidentally remove the wrong card from the house and the whole structure will fall down. Even if we don’t collapse our card houses, though, if we live our lives without ever truly knowing ourselves then that in itself is a waste and tragedy. Knowing ourselves occurs when we clear out the wreckage of our past and become able to live in the present moment, love ourselves, and live free of fear.
Regarding fear, I’m speaking of fear of isolation and loneliness, fear of annihilation, aging, and dying, and fear of the attachments that we have around beliefs systems and structures. Without such fear, we can be free enough to understand the world of the universe we live in and have a far better chance of becoming truly happy.
When you watch a newborn baby you can begin to understand how human consciousness works. When we are born we do not have any knowledge or language. Our only experience is waking up in a new atmosphere and suddenly having sensations. The sensations are indescribable to us because we don’t have language. We aren’t even aware that we have bodies, yet we feel pain, anguish, love, and the gentle touch of our caregiver(s). And we experience it mechanically.
The beginning of consciousness is largely mechanical. Our brain is processing the information that is being delivered to it from the entire body. Not only are we processing internal sensations, but now we have our five senses that are experiencing the outside external world. As very young children, there’s so much information that we have to process that we have to spend a lot of time with our eyes closed in order to allow the brain to function. If we didn’t sleep so deeply as children, our brains would be on overload and we would cry.
When a child is being held by a parent who is standing and moving back and forth, the parent is trying to soothe the child’s pain. When the child opens its eyes, it sees light, a floor far away, and objects in the room that can’t be explained. All of these mysterious things enter into the child’s brain, then they disappear, and the child falls asleep again. If the child is given what it needs, the information flooding the child’s undeveloped mind will not be traumatic. It will be stored and saved, and the child will begin to understand the outside world.
It’s a form of magic, metaphorically speaking, when a child comes in and out of consciousness between the external and internal world. The child will cry impulsively and then latch onto the breast and nipple instinctively. The child will enjoy the sensations of the milk coming into the mouth, the soft touch of mother, and the mother’s soothing gaze and comforting voice. At this point the child experiences an external world that is full of pleasure and relief from internal struggles. The child is creating its own version—its own perception—of the outside world.
If any child experiences the love and care it needs, he or she will see the world as a loving, caring place that it enjoys being a part of. Such a child is far less likely to have lifelong psychological difficulties than is a child who grows up under circumstances filled with discomfort, physical pain, and mental and emotional trauma.