The effects of overwhelming experiences

Young children have a deep and instinctive desire to learn about their world. They love to throw themselves into full contact with their surroundings: mud, water, trees, people… It’s like they are building a map of the world in their minds, and each new experience adds to their map. This map helps them navigate the world; as they extend their map and fill in the detail they navigate with increasing confidence and elegance. But, until they’ve gained a lot of confidence, young children’s minds are vulnerable to being overwhelmed by experiences they can’t yet handle.

When our young minds are overwhelmed, our ‘map making,’ (learning and understanding) ability seems to shut down, and instead our minds go into a kind of ‘record-only’ mode. Everything that was happening during the overwhelming situation gets recorded: every detail of what we saw, heard, smelt and felt, and all of our panicked thoughts and painful emotions.

These recordings usually feel horrible, so we push them out of our minds as much as we can. But fragments leak back into our minds as disembodied thoughts, feelings and sensations. They quietly distort our perception of reality. If we react to these feelings and sensations from the distant past as if they are happening in the present then we behave in ways that don’t make sense.

Instinctive healing processes

Children have a powerful instinctive drive to recover from overwhelming experiences. They seek out the safety of an adult’s attention. If the adult can stay loving and attentive the child will cry, laugh, tantrum or tremble with fear about what overwhelmed them, for as long as it takes, until they are done. This process allows them to look again at an overwhelming experience, understand it, and fit it into their map of the world. Unfortunately our cultures have repressed the recovery process in children and this has left almost every human adult with a large amount of recorded emotional pain and confusion in our minds.

There is much to write about this phenomenon and its deep implications, but my purpose here is to highlight some particular effects.

Common themes

These recordings of our minds being overwhelmed, that we all carry, are as varied as our individual lives. However, some themes seem to be very common. I will focus on two examples.

The first example is the recorded thought/feeling “No one is thinking about me.” This is part of all recordings because it was only those situations where no one was thinking about you that left a recording: if someone had been able to think about you then they would have protected you from the overwhelming situation, or they would have helped you recover fully afterwards.

The feeling “no one is thinking about me” easily leads to the conclusion “I have to make sure I am OK because no one else will.” This then leads to many kinds of unawarely-selfish behaviour. It leads people to ensure they have ‘enough’ by grabbing resources (such as food).

Because it is so common, this one simple recording can have huge effects. Small differences in each person’s ability to accumulate resources can quickly turn into large disparities, since the more resources you gather, the more ‘power’ you have to ensure that yet more resources come your way. Once you have pulled a lot of the resources your way, others might figure out that, if they work together, they can take them back. So the strategy of divide and rule becomes necessary, to distract and confuse people and prevent them working together. Interestingly, the same false conclusion, “I have to make sure I am OK because no one else will,” present in everyone’s minds, is also an essential pre-condition for divide and rule because it makes it hard for people to trust each other, and therefore easy to turn them against each other.

So this one simple recording, present in enough adult minds, can lead to the spontaneous formation of exploitative class societies.  See A framework for understanding exploitative societies.

The second example of a common theme in recordings of overwhelm is the feeling “I am very small and powerless.”  A recording is only formed when a young child’s mind is overwhelmed by a situation they could not possibly handle – they were too small, too inexperienced, and therefore powerless to change what was happening. So the feeling “I am very small and powerless” ends up being a part of every recording.

This recording has two opposite effects. The first effect is that you feel you really are too small and powerless to change anything, leading to an almost universal passivity in the face of big problems. (Examples are humanity’s very limited response to threats from climate change and nuclear weapons.)

The second effect is a reaction to the intense discomfort of feeling of small and powerless – that is, to try to be ‘big,’ to seek power, to win – usually by being ‘bigger’, more ‘powerful’ or ‘winning’ over others.  This effect gives rise to all kinds of dominating behaviour. 

Some of the recordings we have are of situations where we felt like we were going to die – simply being left alone as a very young baby can do this – and when these play back almost anything we do feels justified because, deep down, below conscious awareness, we feel like it’s life or death.

This recorded feeling of being small and powerless also makes people vulnerable to manipulation on being offered the appearance of ‘winning’ over others, or the threat of ‘losing’ to others. A large part of all political manipulation is on this basis.

This recording, which leaves us feeling forever small and powerless, also leaves us vulnerable to feeling that we need more security, more money, more stuff, no matter how much we already have, and so leads to the formation of societies based on competition and over consumption. These societies have reached the point where they are destroying the ecological basis upon which all life, including human life, depends.

Rebuilding our societies

We must now rebuild our societies so that they support life. Part of the work will be spreading an understanding of how recordings of overwhelming childhood experiences have left everyone vulnerable to re-enacting both passivity and destructive behaviour. Simply understanding this will be enormously helpful in many situations, but it won’t be enough.

Part of the work will be helping each other recover from these experiences. Our cultures have suppressed the emotional healing processes that would help us recover: crying, laughing and shaking with fear, expressing our indignation. We can try to reclaim these processes, but it won’t be enough.

Most of us adults have pushed painful experiences so far down in our minds that our emotional healing processes can’t reach them. In the absence of being allowed to recover we narrowed our lives – we limited ourselves to doing only those things that didn’t remind us of the painful recordings. But if you don’t dare to look at painful experiences you can’t recover from them. So, for adults, full understanding and full recovery only become possible when we dare to step outside of the limits we’ve settled into.

We can’t just hope to understand and to recover – we have to start imagining and then building the kind of lives, relationships, families and whole societies that we humans would have built had we not been so hurt and confused.

Edited 14/9/2021

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