Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pessimistic Newton

Early in my counseling career I noticed what may be a psycho-analogue to Newton’s third law – ‘For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.’  Though less reliable than physics, it is:

The specific kind of psychic injury a child suffers is the specific kind he feels impelled to suffer upon others later in life.
A man who was humiliated as a child feels right to humiliate his own children or other people.  The patronized girl will someday condescend to those who strike her as inferior, or possibly, superior.  The “sarcastrated” child will, as father or coworker, shoot sarcastic darts and believe it’s just humor.  The physically abused boy presents a good, though imaginary, illustration of this process.  Picture a young person in whom a muscular indentation is pounded, progressively, into his chest by an angry father.  At some point the indentation, under great pressure, will feel forced to push itself back out, explosively.  A poisonous splinter is embedded in him: It is that splinter, with that poison, that needs to come out, not a laugh, or passive-aggressive vengeance, or codependent martyrdom, or some soft-spoken grievance.  Individuals who practice such convoluted mis-translations of their true feeling are neurological liars to themselves.

Alice Miller describes one retribution shard of what I believe is a bigger hand grenade:

“Why, indeed, did these parents behave with so little empathy? . . . Why did they both stand there laughing, eating so slowly and showing so little concern about the child’s obvious distress?  They were not unkind or cold parents; the father spoke to his child very tenderly.  Nevertheless, at least at this moment, they displayed a lack of empathy.
“We can only solve this riddle if we manage to see the parents, too, as insecure children – children who have at last found a weaker creature, in comparison with whom they can now feel very strong.  What child has never been laughed at for his fears and been told, ‘You don’t need to be afraid of a thing like that’?  What child will then not feel shamed and despised because he could not assess the danger correctly?  And will that little person not take the next opportunity to pass these feelings on to a still smaller child?  Such experiences come in all shades and varieties.  Common to them all is the sense of strength it gives the adult, who cannot control his or her own fears, to face the weak and helpless child’s fear and be able to control fear in another person.
. . . . “Disregard for those who are smaller and weaker is thus the best defense against a breakthrough of one’s own feelings of helplessness: it is an expression of this split-off weakness.”*
DeMause’s theory of the “poison container” describes a reciprocal dynamic:

“The main psychological mechanism that operates in all child abuse involves using children as what I have termed poison containers – receptacles into which adults project disowned parts of their psyches, so they can control these feelings in another body without danger to themselves.  In good parenting, the child uses the caretaker as a poison container, much as it earlier used the mother’s placenta as a poison container for cleansing its polluted blood.  A good mother reacts with calming actions to the cries of a baby and helps it ‘detoxify’ its dangerous emotions.  But when an immature mother’s baby cries, she cannot stand the screaming, and strikes out at the child.  As one battering mother put it, ‘I have never felt loved all my life.  When the baby was born, I thought he would love me.  When he cried, it meant he didn’t love me.  So I hit him.’  Rather than the child being able to use the parent to detoxify its fears and anger, the parent instead injects his or her bad feelings into the child and uses it to cleanse his or herself of depression and anger.”**
I once read a study that related toddlers’ repellent social personalities to the kind of parenting received.  In daycare, they did not bully other children in common ways but by a peculiar invasive badgering, a persecutory hovering.  One can picture how the parent’s mental smothering and picking and demeaning torture into her child – an unwrapped festering package from her own parents – would come to discolor the child’s innocent and good character.

Is it possible that there is a unique poison, a special hue of hurt breathed by children of a cheating parent, which compels them twenty years later to be unfaithful to their own spouse?  If so, it would have to be discerned in the body-feeling through the Focusing process,*** too complex for emotion words and psychiatric labels.

Regressive psychotherapy offers an explanation for the equal-and-opposite dynamic.  Pain, we know, must be discharged by holistic expression such as crying or raging, twisting and grimacing, doubling-over and “primal screaming” and vomiting and whimpering – whatever the body knows, contains.  Defenses protect the child who can’t express – protect him from others and from himself.  If we conceive each kind of pain having its own chemistry, it makes sense to see that chemical, and only it, lying beneath the defense, whether we send it to another person or change it from lead to fake gold.

I value this Newtonian logic in a client because he or she needs to feel the exact pain and bring it home to its source, its parent.  Sometimes we know this pain only through its revenge: anger or contempt or narcissistic haughtiness toward others, including the therapist.

Casual though it is, this idea may help us understand those who murder in signature ways.  Children who set fires or torture animals; the beheadings; choking or smothering (the BTK strangler).  We might go deeper inside the equation that a killer is someone who already feels killed, dead or un-alive,**** to the particular chemistry of his deadness.  What happened in Dennis Rader’s childhood that was answered by watching a child or adult failing to breathe?  What inner death might a future terrorist feel –

“It is not surprising that these mutilated, battered women make less than ideal mothers, reinflicting their own miseries upon their children.  Visitors to families throughout fundamentalist Muslim societies report on the ‘slapping, striking, whipping and thrashing’ of children, with constant shaming and humiliation, often being told by their mothers that they are ‘cowards’ if they don’t hit others.  Physical abuse of children is continuous. . . .”*****
– that lets him desecrate the temple of a man’s mind and soul?

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* Alice Miller, The Drama of the Gifted Child, revised edition 1997, Basic Books.  Part 3, “The Vicious Circle of Contempt,” pp. 71-72.

** Lloyd deMause at psychohistory website.  Article, “The History of Child Abuse” at

*** See Eugene Gendlin, PhD’s books on Focusing, plus the website and youtube videos.

**** Search references to James Gilligan, M.D., maximum security prison psychiatrist and Shengold’s concept of “soul murder” in this blog’s posts.

***** deMause’s chapter, “The Childhood Origins of Terrorism” at

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Comments are welcome, but I'd suggest you first read "Feeling-centered therapy" and "Ocean and boat" for a basic introduction to my kind of theory and therapy.