Is living frightening? At times, it is—for some more than others. We feel experience. The meaning of an experience doesn’t wait for a logical explanation. We feel, then explain. When we encounter life, the experience charges the body with feeling. Some feelings, biologically inherited, are programmed into genes. In affective neuroscience, Jak Panksepp refers to these as primary process emotions. These normal biological responses become infused with meaning through culturally defined interpretations. However, when pain is intense, we create protective interpretations to lessen the impact. These protective interpretations may interfere with normal development as our lives progress.
Some interpretations are necessary. They smoothly integrate experience into the larger fabric of our lives, allowing complex functioning and planning. Through the years, if we are to gain wisdom, we must challenge some of our comfortable interpretations; the simplicity of childhood explanations fail to meet the complexity of the reality of our adult world. We need more complex explanations.
Sadly, many refuse to grapple with the conflicts between their simplistic beliefs and the complex realities of experience, closing their eyes, and continuing to misperceive experience. They squander when the reality collides with ignorant constraining biases.
Childhood beliefs provide meaning to feelings, relationships and fears. The childhood mind fuses experience into meaningful constructs, limited by their narrow experiences, they simplify the world. They soak in culture and family biases, modifying complexity into understandable chunks for digestion by their developing minds. These beliefs, restricted by the sparse histories of a child, often fail to adequately explain the richness of complexity.
One significant difference between child and adult is that the child has limited control; they learn from those around them —not from people they freely choose to be around. Their little minds create a predictable and safe world the best they can—even if their real world is fractured and erratic.
When caregivers are dangerous, surrounding the child in toxicity, the little mind adapts to the volatility, implementing immature defenses for psychological survival. A child’s reality is distorted—for good or evil. Some children emerge into adulthood without the slightest suspicion of danger; the world they knew was safe and they take no precautionary actions. Other children face a dangerous and chaotic world; these youngsters continue to experience fear as they age even when dangers are not present.
I am amazed by the adaptations of the thinking mind to soften experience. The learned meanings programmed in the child’s mind supports survival within their inherited environments. Unfortunately, childhood distortions continue into adulthood when the learned meanings are no longer relevant—now these thought and emotional patterns contribute to dysfunction, preventing the emerging adults from living a life that they desire. We know these as defense mechanisms in psychology.
T. Franklin Murphy wrote, “protective deceptions impact all of us, not just those whose lives are in ashes. Self deceptions limit our relationships, exercise programs, job promotions and budgets. While the facts are clear—we are failing, we continue to justify errant courses. We keep giving subpar effort and blame the disappointing results on someone or something outside of our control” (2016).
When we begin to unravel hidden meanings inherited from the past, opening up new realities, the unveiling of a broken self can ignite shame. By removing protective but distorted lenses, we discover the person underneath. Once we remove the web of meaning previously protecting us from vulnerabilities, our nakedness exposes us to some harsh realities. But by embracing our frightened child inside, we discover the child within is endearing—worthy of love and kindness.
Cognitive Appraisals and Protective Interpretations
Ego defense theories have long been a staple of psychology. Freud brought unconscious processes to life with his storied writing and research. A foundation element of defenses is the unconscious appraisals of environmental stimulus, and our reaction to the personal interpretation. “The same stimulus may be either a stressor or not, depending upon thee nature of the cognitive appraisal the person makes regrading the significance…” (1964).
If appraisals matter, then softening appraisals to shine kindly on our circumstances and nature of our being can relieve discomforting stress responses, and help the interpreter maintain internal homeostatic balance. So, we protectively interpret harsh data to save ego damaging insults. We fail, we hurt, and we struggle but find a kinder way of interpreting the facts to stroke our ego with deceptive colors. This is fine, of course, until the deceptions stymie growth and we continue in the same messy life that we wish to abandon. Through compassion, both from within and from others, small moments of security begin to take hold; the nasty truths can be exposed and challenged. The synaptic connections, holding emotional learnings, open briefly for examination and challenging. We can make our dangerous world safe. Our fractured explanations infused with reality, and our futures may flourish.
Speisman, J., Lazarus, R., Mordkoff, A., & Davison, L. (1964). Experimental reduction of stress based on ego-defense theory. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 68(4), 367-380.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2016). Self-Deceptions. Getting Past the Illusions. Flourishing Life Society. Published 11-2016. Accessed 6-19-2022.