When I was six, it was a very bad year. Not that it had been so great before. My twin brother and I were rivals for my parents’ scarce emotional resources, and I, the less cute second-born, always lost the competition. In fact, years later, my mother told me, somehow without recognizing how this might have hurt me even then, that when friends and relatives came over to see the twins, she brought out my brother and told her guests, “The other one looks just like this one.”
Then, when I was six, my sister was born, and my mother, in her primary maternal preoccupation, became far less tolerant of my brother and me. We were just getting dirty or yelling – being boys – but suddenly, that wasn’t acceptable any more. Every day there were new rules about how we were supposed to behave. Why couldn’t I follow them?! Was I trying to make her angry?! Or was I just too stupid to get it?! And then she would beat me with a shoe, a belt, whatever came to hand, and I cried with pain and humiliation as she whaled away on my naked backside. How many times did she have to tell me?!
Afterwards, curled up in tightly on my bed, my face turned to the wall, I felt the sting of my badness. I was unlovable, an untouchable, all alone in a world where no one could see me or even wanted to. I was in my very own personal Hell, and I was going to be there forever.
Everyone has a Personal Hell. What you just read is part of mine.
A Personal Hell is an emotional place created in childhood that encapsulates all our worst fears and fantasies. For some of us, it’s a cold and lonely place of endless isolation and darkness. For others, it’s a searing experience of attack and destruction. But whatever the specific shape and texture, a Personal Hell is an experience we are desperate never, ever to repeat. Ironically, our efforts to stay as far away from it as possible keep us very close to it and often govern our entire lives.
How is a Personal Hell created?
The process begins at birth, with newborn babies who are completely dependent upon their mothers (and fathers) not just for sustenance, but just as importantly, loving care. Research has shown that infants who are provided with food, clothing, and shelter, but who not picked up and held regularly, will fail to thrive, displaying a range of profound attachment disorders. They may even give up and die. Because of that, babies, and even older children, will make every effort to adapt to the personalities of their parents; and when there is conflict between the parent and child, that child will most often blame himself, even if he is innocent. He will then try to do something different. Sadly, the effort often fails, because the parent, unwilling or unable to face his or her own emotional issues, isn’t trying to change. The child is the only one.
Of course, occasional conflict between parents and children, even babies, is inevitable. One might even say it is desirable, because it helps teach the child to deal with the interpersonal conflicts that are an inescapable part of human life. Repetitive conflict, however, is another matter entirely. Regular clashes between a child’s expressive, emotional being and the parent’s restrictions can trigger a traumatic developmental process, in which the child, running out of options for remedial action, shifts (unconsciously) from “I did something that made Mommy angry, so I have to do it differently,” to “Everything I do makes Mommy angry, so there must be something wrong with me.”
Once this sense of defectiveness becomes established, it operates as a potent organizing principle, coloring all the child’s subsequent experiences. More and more, he will see himself, at the core, as rotten, bad, ruined, less-than, not-enough, or shamefully substandard in some way; and further, he will equate his inadequacy with unlovability, such that he will expect that those who come to know him will inevitably reject him.
Naturally, the child’s conviction “I am shamefully defective and therefore unlovable” is a powerful influence on him, forming the basis of depression and a sense of not belonging. Children often find themselves feeling lost, sad, alien, different, and isolated from the rest of their families, to which they believe they don’t belong. They will curl up on their beds, their faces turned to the wall, or hidden in closets, or nearby woods, or any dark and lonely place, crying softly to themselves, “No one loves me. No one ever will.” For many of us, this is the beginning of our very own Personal Hell.
In future blogs, I will talk about the way in which a Personal Hell impacts and organizes subsequent life experience:
• How our sense of defectiveness can become attached to some identifiable attribute, concretized as “stupidity,” or “ugliness”.
• The way that the child, unable to obtain the kind of distractions available to adults (drugs, alcohol, sex, work, or vacations, for example) turns to his own mind for relief, creating a fantasy of power and lovability that is the opposite of a Personal Hell. I call it a Personal Heaven.
• How, at puberty and in teenage years, early experiences of love and sexuality come to embody the hope that one can actually realize Heaven on Earth.
• The way in which a Personal Hell persists nonetheless and triggers increasingly desperate measures to avoid it, so that a great number of life problems are ultimately failed solutions to avoid the darkness.
• How Hell must ultimately be dealt with in order that it not continue to rule our lives.
For now, however, I will just say that one’s Personal Hell is often the root cause of many subsequent life struggles, and it is my strongest conviction that unless and until it is addressed, it will continue to make life, well, a living Hell.