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 gives them more information to put in their map. This map helps them navigate the world with increasing confidence and sophistication 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 young children’s minds are overwhelmed, this beautiful learning, ‘map making’ ability seems to shut down, and instead their mind goes into a kind of ‘record-only’ mode. Everything in the overwhelming situation gets recorded — every detail of what they saw, heard, smelt and felt, and all of the panicked thoughts and painful emotions. Everything is recorded, but it’s not learnt from, not understood. I think this happened to all of us.

These recordings usually feel horrible, so we try to push them out of our minds as much as we can. But they 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 now then we behave in ways that don’t make sense.

Instinctive healing processes

Children have a powerful instinctive drive to recover from these 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 their mind to review an overwhelming experience, understand it, and fit it into their map of the world. Unfortunately our cultures have repressed this recovery process in children and this has left almost every human adult with a large amount of recorded 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 we all carry, from when our minds were overwhelmed, are as varied as our individual lives. However, there are some very common themes. I will focus on two of them.

The first is the recorded thought/feeling “No one is thinking about me.” This element is part of every recording because it had to be present in every situation that left you with 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 grab, 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 people into fighting each other and so prevent them working together. Interestingly, the same false conclusion, “I have to make sure I am OK because no one else will,” also facilitates divide and rule because it makes it hard for people to trust each other, and so it’s easy to divide them against each other.

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

Another common recording 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 – by being ‘bigger’, more ‘powerful’ or ‘winning’ over others.  This effect gives rise to all kinds of dominating behaviour.  We all do this in various ways but very often we don’t notice that we’re doing it.

Whenever I give talks on this I do a quick audience survey. I ask people to raise their hand if they identify with some questions I’m going to ask. What I’m really asking is, Are you a bit like me?

  • Have you ever been irritated with someone? Or impatient with them?
  • Do you ever feel like you have to win? Or at least not lose?
  • Do you ever want to have the last word in an argument or discussion?
  • Do you ever react angrily to someone? – Or snap at them?
  • Or stay distant or cold or uncommunicative? Or quietly withhold your full cooperation?

I raise my hand to all of them. Most people in the audience tend to laugh and raise their hands in recognition.

This recorded feeling of being small and powerless leaves people vulnerable to manipulation through 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 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 domination. 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 and more. We can try to reclaim these processes and begin to recover, but it won’t be enough.

In the absence of being able to recover we narrowed our lives – we limited ourselves to doing only those things that didn’t remind us of the painful experiences. But if you don’t dare to look at painful experiences you can’t recover from them. So full understanding and full recovery only become possible when we dare to step outside of the limits we’ve settled into. We have to dare 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 left so hurt and confused.

Edited 3/11/2023

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