[NOTE: please read the second and third paragraphs from this post before continuing. Important–don’t skip reading them!]
By “archaic,” I refer to the use of the term by post-Freudian psychoanalysts like Melanie Klein. She wrote of the terrifying archaic mother that exists in babies’ minds during their first few months, when they’re experiencing what Klein called the paranoid-schizoid position. This position is a splitting of the internal object of the mother into extremes of good and bad, accompanied by intense persecutory anxiety after trying to split off and project the bad mother.
Heinz Kohut also referred to archaic feelings in the infantile mental state, old feelings that are brought back to the surface of consciousness in the adult patient through the narcissistic transferences. He studied and treated patients with narcissistic personality disorders, those who “are suffering from specific disturbances in the realm of the self and of those archaic objects cathected with narcissistic libido (self-objects) which are still in intimate connection with the archaic self (i.e., objects which are not experienced as separate and independent from the self).” (Kohut, page 3)
So I’m using “archaic” to mean old emotional experiences from early childhood and infancy, repressed as the years go by and forgotten about. Yet remember that whatever we repress comes back, though in a new and unrecognizable form.
Many of our traumas are of this archaic kind. As infants, we can’t prevent moments when our parents frustrated us, which results in us using the defence mechanism of splitting, or dividing our internal mental representations of our parents into absolute good and bad, and then projecting the bad half outward. If those parents have gone beyond being merely frustrating, and have ventured into being emotionally neglectful or even abusive, imagine how much more severe the splitting will be, and how much more severe the archaic trauma will be.
I’ve written several times before of my speculations on what my mother’s infancy and early childhood must have been like, she having been born in England in August, 1938, and doubtlessly having been surrounded by stressed-out parents and relatives during the Blitz, if not having endured the ordeal of bombings right there in their own city.
To have to take in, as a tender infant, such overwhelming agitation would have been unbearable. Such bad vibes would have had to be expelled and split off from the self. There’s no way an infant would have been able to process such archaic trauma.
The two poles of my mother’s nascent personality–those two being her infantile grandiose self, using her own mother as an empathic mirror of it, and her father as idealized parental imago–were in an unstable state because of the war. When her father died, she as a child lost the idealized pole, her beloved role model, forever; when, as I suspect, she found her now-single mother too busy and stressed to be sufficiently emotionally available for her, the other pole was insecure.
Her mother’s marrying of her now step-father must have caused some friction, that of the “No one can replace my daddy” sort. To defend herself from the psychological fragmentation that would accompany this weakening of her bipolar self–which, had it not been weakened, would have resulted in her grandiose self being let down in bearable amounts (known as “optimal frustration“), leading to mature, restrained, and healthy levels of narcissism–my mother would have had to build up a pathologically narcissistic False Self.
This False Self of hers gave her stability, allowing her to function in the world, in spite of her pathologies. That archaic trauma, however, was never resolved. Whatever gets pushed back into the unconscious will return, as I said above, though in a form that isn’t easily recognized.
I have every reason to suspect that, now grown-up, married to my dad, and a mother, she regularly behaved like a tyrant to my elder siblings, my brothers R. and F., and my sister, J, when they were little. I suspect that the bulk of the abuse they suffered from her was either before I was born, or when I was too young to know what was going on, let alone remember.
I’ve already related the story of our mother bragging (decades after the incident) about pulling down the pants of R. (then a kid) and publicly spanking him in a supermarket for “being a brat” (his fault, for all I know, could have been anywhere on a continuum from “being a brat” to just causing her narcissistic injury). “He never did it again,” she boasted, proud of her power over a little boy.
I’ll bet there were many instances of her doing this kind of thing to all three of my siblings, of her (and, to be fair to her, of our dad doing it, too) beating them (physically or mentally) into submission. The archaic trauma that they’d have felt, at so young an age, would have made it virtually impossible for them to process what had been done to them, let alone understand its true meaning.
Children at such a tender age are far too helpless to go around questioning the motives of their parents. In their state of utter dependency, children cannot afford (literally) to contemplate the possibility that their parents are, often if not almost always, bad people. When punished, bullied, threatened, or abused by Mom or Dad, a child will find it easier to blame him- or herself for the problem; this is a defence mechanism called turning against oneself.
The frustrating bad parent is nonetheless still there, and the child has to deal with the resulting pain in one form or another. As I said above, the child can engage in splitting, recognizing only the good parent and attempting to project the bad one far outside himself. This ejecting, I believe, is what R., F., and J. did with those aspects of our mother that were so hurtful. They also turned against themselves whenever she flew into narcissistic rages, instead of contemplating the far more painful possibility that one of the two crucial people feeding them, clothing them, and putting a roof over their heads often got mad at them for immature, totally unjustified reasons.
J., the golden child of our family (and therefore the top candidate to be the narcissistic second-in-command in our family, since our father tended to be bad-mouthed by our mother, that is, if she felt he’d crossed her in some way), would have been disappointed in Dad’s insufficient empathic mirroring of her grandiose self; so J. would have compensated for this insufficiency by having Mom as her idealized parental imago.
Because of this idealizing, J. would react to any of our mother’s rages with fawning. What makes my elder siblings’ world have psychological stability is their bedrock belief in the narrative that our mother was a ‘wonderful, loving family woman’…yes, one who gossiped about and bad-mouthed her nephews, stirred up resentment and division in our family, and emotionally abused me with gaslighting and lies about an autism spectrum disorder I’ve never had. Some love.
This insistence that Mom was ‘so wonderful and loving,’ just like Mom’s having told me on her deathbed that she’d given me “the most love” (i.e., more than she’d given R., F., and J., which is utter nonsense–she most obviously favoured J., her golden child), was a blatant example of reaction formation. To keep alive the myth that ‘we’re all one big happy, loving family,’ R., F., and J. speak of Mom’s wonderful love instead of facing up to the painful reality that was the opposite of this fabled love: at best, she loved us conditionally–if we gave her narcissistic supply, she was good to us; if we failed to give her that supply, there’d be hell to pay. R., F., and J. learned how to play Mom’s game.
I didn’t learn the game, because I didn’t want to (I hate phoniness). I would also pay dearly for that refusal. I paid for my individual ways by being made into the family scapegoat, or identified patient. My ‘illness’ as that ‘patient’ was the autism lie, a label used to make me feel different from everyone else, and thus to isolate me, judge me, and make me feel inferior to the rest of the family.
You see, they all had their forms of archaic trauma, and they needed to release all that pent-up pain. In me, someone five years younger than J., six years younger than F., and eight years younger than R. (making them adolescents when I was a little boy, and young adults when I was an adolescent), they had the perfect emotional punching bag. They projected everything they hated about themselves onto me, and displaced all their frustration at the split-off bad mother and bad father onto me. Getting all that negative energy out of themselves allowed them otherwise to function.
I, on the other hand, didn’t have the luxury of a younger brother or sister that I could take out all my pain on. That my elder siblings, mother, and to an extent my father, could use me for that purpose shows not only how spectacularly they failed at being that ‘loving family’ they fancied themselves to be, but also shows what cowards they were. Anyone can take his frustrations out on a powerless child; not everyone can look in the mirror and see what’s wrong with himself.
Now, to be fair, on a number of occasions, I as a teacher have found myself blowing up at students (little kids, generally) whenever they irritated me, frustrated me, or made my job stressful in any other way. I have also, unlike R., F., J., or our late mother, usually apologized sincerely to those kids and made genuine efforts to control my anger. And I have never used gaslighting on a student to make him believe he had a mental disorder he doesn’t have, to maintain power over him.
The bullying that my family subjected me to involved intimidating me to the point where I rarely dared to fight back. This, of course, started when I was very little, and they were all much bigger than I. At the time, my caving in to them and letting them walk all over me was a simple survival tactic. By the time I’d grown taller, I was already programmed never to fight back. Our mother’s typical defending of them at my expense only reinforced that programmed passivity of mine. The bullying I endured in school didn’t help, of course.
This timidity of mine, my ‘freeze‘ response, was based on my archaic trauma. If I ever dared to fight back, I knew the family would double down on me with their nastiness, because they never wanted to lose power over me. Their rationalizations over why they ‘had to’ get so nasty (I was ‘so frustrating’ and ‘annoying,’ while they apparently never were), combined with a few good deeds done here and there for me, reassured them of their collective delusion that they were always ‘loving’ to me.
Our family relationships were based on lies, for not only did Mom have her False Self, but she also assigned False Selves to us: I had to play the role of scapegoat; J. was the golden child; R. and F. were somewhere between golden children (to the extent that Mom had them be that way) and lost children (to the extent that she and Dad would have them that way); and Dad, to an extent, had the ‘tyrannical parent’ label projected onto him by Mom. None of us could be our authentic selves, for keeping the family myth alive was all important.
Curing these archaic traumas, however, is crucial to our healing process. We have to dig deep down into our early years to find the root cause of this pain. The fact that uncovering this pain is…well, painful…naturally discourages us from trying, and many of us cannot afford psychotherapy.
I find that mindfulness meditation is helpful in finding a state of calm with which to start the day, a way to contain all my agitations, but it isn’t enough. In Bion‘s containment theory, we learn (originally as babies through our mothers’ help) how to process agitating emotional experiences, detoxify them, and transform them into acceptable feelings. My ocean meditation, imagining my body to be part of an infinite ocean, with waves of energy flowing in, through, and out of me, can represent this taking in of agitating feelings, detoxifying them, and passing out the transformed, soothing vibes.
I’d be fooling myself, and I’d be being disingenuous to you, Dear Reader, if I were to say that such meditating is all we needed to do. Meditation helps a lot, I think, but we need to do more to detoxify our archaic traumas.
This is where putting trauma into words comes in. We need to face those old, painful experiences and find a way to express our feelings about them, without judgement, and all the while validating how we feel. When the trauma hit us, we felt angry, hurt, betrayed, frightened, crazy…and it’s OK to have felt that way. There’s no shame in feeling these feelings; such feelings are part of being human.
We have to feel these feelings, write about them, talk about them, create art based on them…whatever will help the healing process. We have to mourn the loving family we never got to have. This is how we get past the paranoid-schizoid position–that of splitting everyone and everything into black-and-white halves, then ejecting the bad half instead of facing it–and move into the depressive position–of integrating the split halves, seeing everyone and everything as a grey mixture of good and bad…because whatever splitting we do outside is also split inside ourselves.
In case you’re wondering, Dear Reader, if I’m at all working on integrating the split halves of my ‘good mother’ and ‘bad mother,’ as well as the split halves of my siblings, the best answer I can give you is this. Though, through the course of this and almost all of every other post I’ve written about my family, you’ve read me bash each and every one of them; I’ve also on occasion acknowledged that they all have their good sides, too, including my late mother. My negative judgement of them (and I’m sure they have the same overall assessment of me, too) is based on finding that what’s bad in them exceeds what was and is good in them.
As for the remaining ‘good mother’ in my mother, I have this quandary that I can never resolve: how am I to judge those times when she was good to me, that is, when the goodness was real kindness on her part, and when was the goodness just a reward for having given her narcissistic supply? What percentage should I attribute to the former, and what percentage to the latter? Given all the evil she’d done to me, I find I can only assume that the former portion is the smaller–much smaller–amount. Given the collective narcissism she spawned in her flying monkeys, my siblings, I can only assume that their genuinely heart-felt moments of goodness to me were also few and far between.
It’s an awful feeling going through your life knowing your family never truly loved you, that it was more of an act put on to preserve their public image than anything sincere. You go through life not knowing what real love is, not knowing who to trust, because the dysfunctional, abusive family you grew up in is how you define a ‘normal’ family, in the absence of strong alternatives. When loving people present themselves to you, you tend to reject them because your trauma won’t allow you to trust even people totally worthy of that trust.
Because of these difficulties, it is imperative that we go through these archaic traumas and find ways to heal. You don’t want to continue with the same destructive patterns that those traumas caused you to make into habits. There are lots of videos on YouTube (you might like Michelle Lee Nieves‘s videos, or perhaps Richard Grannon‘s) and online articles out there; I recommend you look for them, if you find that what I’ve written is ineffective.
Meanwhile, do mindfulness meditations, engage in self-care regularly, catch yourself whenever you engage in negative self-talk, practice self-compassion, write about your traumatic feelings (that’s what I’m doing here, for myself!), listen to positive affirmations while in a semi-hypnotic, meditative state (to make you more suggestible to the affirmations), and find communities of support.
Remember, above all, that you are none of those awful things your abusers called you. All that verbal abuse was just them projecting everything wrong with themselves onto you. None of that was you. And if you’re none of those bad things, why not begin to believe that you’re a whole lot of good things instead?
8 thoughts on “Archaic Trauma”
Reblogged this on Emerging From The Dark Night and commented:
A brilliant post by someone working so hard to make sense of their childhood trauma..very helpful and full of insights..
Thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing! 🙂
So good Mawr.. I was the youngest too. I sometimes take it out on my dog and then apologise profusely as I know its how I was treated as a child replaying…
Thanks for reading, and thanks for your comments! 🙂