I’ve been thinking about my patients of all ages who are having trouble becoming fully adult. What is surprising is how strongly their inner mind resists saying goodbye to parenting that never worked in the first place and embracing the genuine love and support that have been waiting for them in adult life. What is new for me is to look at this phenomenon from the point of view of evolution and to speculate about how we become ready to go on our own. (Photo by Tambako The Jaguar, Flickr.com CC BY-ND 2.0)
First, what do I mean by adult? It means becoming what I like to call a “free standing human,” that is, being ready to make one’s own decisions and to live with their consequences. In contrast, there are many people who function in some ways as adults, but who don’t experience full ownership of their lives and decisions. They don’t see themselves as ultimately responsibility for themselves. Seeking out support and advice are part of adult life, but being adult means owning one’s own decisions about which advice to accept. When things go wrong, these people tend to blame something outside themselves, their past, or parents, or current authorities. They see their lives as determined by outside factors. Another manifestation of the syndrome is depending on emotional substitutes for parental love and support. Sometimes the substitutes are people, but often they may may bear little resemblance to motherly love. They can include eating disorders, addiction to drugs or even compulsive self-harm. What all these substitutes have in common is that they are alternatives to full autonomy and distractions that get in the way of making the best of the opportunities we have in life.
Even though I don’t believe in sports metaphors, this one works just right to highlight how adulthood should work: We are the batters in the game of baseball. The pitcher (life) throws a mixture of good and bad pitches. An excellent batter is one who is able to hit one pitch in three. What makes that batter superior is the ability to let the bad pitches go by and to swing at the good ones. Those who have trouble moving into adulthood are the ones who focus on the quality of the pitches and seem relatively unconcerned about how they swing.
Now, why mention lion cubs? Lion cubs stop nursing around 6-8 months, but remain dependent on their mother up to two to three years. What is interesting to me is to wonder what tells them it is time to let go of mother and go on their own? Without knowing about the specifics of their neurobiology, I am speculating that the lion cub has some way of knowing that he or she has had enough mothering and is ready for adulthood. Unlike lion cubs, humans with inadequate parental support are likely to survive physically, but perhaps they are still waiting for an inner signal that they have had the amount of support that was required. The fact that they don’t step into adulthood suggests that they are waiting for something outside themselves to change.
Of course they have a rationale for why they are not engaging fully in adult life, but it seems that they are waiting for someone or something to fill in what is missing. Sometimes they look to a lover who is expected to be both a companion and an ideal parent. Sometimes it is a therapist. Sometimes it is food or a drug or a behavior pattern. Sometimes my cubs simply avoid finding a job or engaging with the world. I have come to believe they are waiting for their parents finally to see the error of their ways and to reform. Of course this never happens.
In fact, substitutes for motherly love can never make up for what was once missing. The experience of being a completely dependent human cub and receiving 24/7 nurturing and attunement can’t be made up for later in life, no matter how devoted the companion, friend, therapist, substance or actual parent. The result is that our human cub never gets to experience the feeling of having “had enough motherly love.” So they wait.
What has made me take a fresh look at this phenomenon is the remarkable power of the drive to fill in the unmet needs of the past. The resistance shown to letting go of this preoccupation with outside conditions can be massive. Even when, through therapy or otherwise, these cubs become fully aware of the dysfunction of their ways, they may still not be able to make themselves take concrete steps into adulthood. Sometimes when they try, the level of stress is enough to produce physical illness. When they do act in adult ways, there can be a backlash of negative feeling or return to symptoms.
This resistance to adulting can be so strong that I have come to believe it may relate to our evolutionary history. What if humans, like lion cubs have a built-in sense of how much nurturing is enough? Not many lion cubs fail to receive the nurturing they need. If they don’t, they are not likely to survive. But humans require a longer and more complex experience of being taken care of and “raised.” So we are perhaps unique in having the experience of survival in spite of inadequate mothering. When our inner gauge of “good enough mothering” never registers full, then perhaps we remain under the influence of deep mammalian forces to keep us waiting for the job to be completed.
I used to think that reluctance to move into adulthood was driven by fear. I still think so, but maybe the fear is deeper than one might imagine. It could be the genuine danger of venturing out into a hostile world before being ready to survive. The waiting can go on for a lifetime, and sometimes does. It is an unhappy, unsatisfied, angry waiting. Why doesn’t someone see what my needs are? As a therapist I am sometimes in the position of being the one on whom those expectations fall. Then I am also a repeated disappointment and cause for anger, as my efforts to help just never lead to the feeling of having had enough mothering.
What is the answer?
Here is how recovery can take place. By taking small steps into adult behavior and attitudes, patients come to experience that being adult is safe. The inner child realizes that even if the therapist can’t fulfill the sense of need, he or she is still doing all that is possible to help. Very gradually an acceptance creeps in that it is too late, and that a full measure of motherly love is no longer possible. In addition, the cub has repeated experiences that adult life is not so bad, and in fact feels pretty good. The inner child comes eventually to know from experience that the fear of adulting is unfounded and learns to be comfortable as a free standing human.
On the other hand, there are factors that can stand in the way. One is the use of non-human substitutes like food and drugs. These can block new experiences of adult caring or the safety of adult life. This is why relinquishing substitutes can be a necessary condition for the maturation that has been waiting to happen.
Another important block is one mentioned many times in this blog in relation to attachment to the therapist. When the therapist is experienced as the one who should do the mothering, the therapist’s “refusal” to show a willingness to “do the job” can be experienced as a repetition of the apparent or real refusal on the part of the parent. The therapist becomes the withholding parent. This often results in a stalemate where the patient waits for the therapist to change and the therapist waits for the patient to change. Sometimes, when the therapist shows a bit of humanness or makes a serious gesture towards flexibility, that is what breaks the impasse. Until it is dealt with, the two will be in a tug-of-war that can go on indefinitely until someone gives up. That is a bad outcome.
The Important Role of Thoughts:
A regular part of the experience of cubs who are stuck waiting is that their mind produces a lavish stream of thoughts tying them to their unfinished past. They may obsess constantly about past failures. Sometimes they blame themselves. This is when, as children, they were not able to express dissatisfaction directly towards the parent. They learned to blame themselves instead. Sometimes they blame life or others, and spend endless energy trying to “reengineer the past.” These thoughts and the intense emotions accompanying them create a powerful distraction from facing the fear of moving into adulthood. Those who don’t blame themselves may find fault with the people and resources available to them as adults. Preoccupied with things they can’t change, they continue to wait for the inner signal that they have had enough mothering.
My Interest in Evolution:
Thinking and discussing with colleagues at SEPI, the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration, I have been focused lately on how the field of psychotherapy is still struggling to integrate our growing knowledge of neurobiology. Biology has long since accepted a single “paradigm” or framework, based on the idea that living things have all evolved in ways that enhanced survival and procreation, in darwin’s words, “survival of the fittest.” This framework provides an intellectual backdrop for understanding the whys of all of biology. Importantly, biologists are aware that “why” questions, such as why chameleons are able to change color, are sometimes speculative, but our willingness to ask the questions leads to greater understanding and to further research and learning.
In contrast, psychology has been hampered by our inability to see into the 90% of mental activity that is not available to consciousness. Why questions were once purely speculative and each camp had its own set of beliefs. Freud speculated that the unconscious was driven by sexual and aggressive instincts. This was an elegant formulation, but not subject to experimental confirmation. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, felt that science had no business trying to understand even conscious thoughts, let alone unconscious ones. Later, the cognitive revolution brought conscious thoughts into the realm of science, but tended to avoid why questions, other than the belief that thoughts must be the result of learning. There is still far too much fighting over different belief systems.
In recent decades, neurobiology has made powerful strides and has brought scientific knowledge to areas that used to be speculative. We now understand where and how information is stored in the mind. Mental “data” including feelings, nonverbal patterns, language and ideas are all stored in “neural networks,” groups of nerve cells that tend to fire as a unit. We also understand that basic emotions like fear and caring emanate from our “mammalian brain,” in areas beneath the cortex. Furthermore, our emotional brain is broadly analogous to that of lower mammals and even birds and other animals. The result is that the unconscious mind is no longer so mysterious. We can begin to picture how the mind takes in perceptions and identifies whether they represent dangers to avoid or opportunities to pursue. Now we can begin to formulate how positive and negative emotions drive our thoughts and behavior, motivating us to approach those things that give positive feelings and avoid those that are associated with negative ones.
Today I am asking a why question with some hope of an answer eventually becoming available. Why do so many people have serious trouble accepting adult responsibility for themselves. For now, we can speculate that this powerful reluctance to move towards independence may derive from some innate mechanism in which the mind naturally associates grown-up behaviors with massive fear until such time as a perception of having “had enough mothering” triggers a readiness to reach out and join the adult world with all the fine choices and satisfactions it has to offer.
If my speculation is true, then what therapy accomplishes is to promote an unnatural, but desperately needed, resolution of the fear of adulting by helping human cubs take progressive emotional risks and gain positive experiences conveying inwardly the safety and freedom of adult life.