The effects of overwhelming experiences

When we humans are very young, our fragile minds are sometimes overwhelmed by experiences they can’t yet handle. Instead of understanding and learning from what happened, these experiences seem to leave our minds with a semi-permanent snapshot of our scared and confused mental state at that moment. It’s like a literal recording of every detail of what we saw, heard, smelt and felt, and all our thoughts and emotions.

These recordings of overwhelming experiences can later ‘play back’, typically when triggered by something in the present that is similar to anything in the recording. When that happens, elements of the recording overlay our perception of reality, distorting our perception. It is very difficult to distinguish between reality and the replay of a recording. When we respond to this distorted perception then we behave in ways that don’t make sense.

Children have a powerful drive to recover from overwhelming experiences using instinctive mental and emotional healing processes. These mental processes have physical indicators: laughing, crying, trembling with fear, expressing indignation (a tantrum), and others. Unfortunately, we have tended to repress these recovery processes in children, and this has left every human adult with a large amount of recorded hurt 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.

The content of these recordings of overwhelm we each carry are as varied as our individual experiences, because they are simply recordings of what was happening when something overwhelmed our mind, and each of us was overwhelmed in unique situations. However, all of these recordings have elements in common, which means that everyone carries them. For this reason, these common elements, and the influence they have on collective human behaviour, are important to understand. I will focus on two examples.

The first example of a recorded element goes like this: “No one can think about me.” This is common to all recordings because it had to be true: 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. Only those situations where no one could think about you resulted in a recording.

This recorded element 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). Small disparities in individual’s ability to accumulate these 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 of childhood hurt, present in enough adult minds can lead to the spontaneous formation of exploitative class societies.  See A framework for understanding exploitative societies & Ending the legacy of divide and rule.)

Another common recorded element goes like this: “I am very small and powerless.” This is common to all recordings because, again, it had to be true.  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.” is 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 our very limited responses 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 – 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. Recent examples of this manipulation can be found in the election of Donald Trump, and the Brexit campaigns, mostly on the Leave side.

This recording, which leaves us feeling forever small and powerless, also leaves us all 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 over consumption.

These confusing recordings of overwhelming childhood experiences are not permanent, but our cultures have come to suppress the very processes that would help us recover: crying, laughing and shaking with fear, and so on.  We can reclaim these processes and begin the work of removing the recorded hurt and confusion from our minds.  We can build societies that support human life, and all life, rather than endangering it though over consumption.

Central Ideas

Human beings are capable of high levels of cooperation, love and caring. However, for thousands of years most of us have been living in societies that systematically suppress these human qualities. These inhuman social systems now function to sustain themselves, the systems, not the people within them...

Divide and rule has been used to control populations for thousands of years... This division is not natural or inevitable – we can understand it and undo it; we can build a society organised for the benefit of all people and all life...

When we humans are very young, our fragile minds are sometimes overwhelmed by experiences they can’t yet handle...

Human minds seem to be vulnerable to being hurt emotionally, but also equipped with emotional healing processes...

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