Normal Neurotics Like Us


by Jean Liedloff

First appeared in Mothering magazine, Fall 1991



When asked what sort of person consults me in my private practice, I sometimes say, "Normal neurotics like us" or "Adult children 'normal' parents." Most people smile sadly and know just what I mean.

I never intended to do what I am doing, nor did I study the subject in school. It grew out of years of concern about what I have come to view as a vast pathology, a tragedy affecting all of us in Western society in some measure.


Our Great Western Malady

My story began when I was in Europe for the first time and was invited to join an Italian expedition to the South American jungle. Their purpose was to look for diamonds, but any excuse would have done for me. I had always had a romantic attraction to Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan story, W. H. Hudson's Green Mansions, even the word jungle itself. So I accepted the job of expedition photographer-writer without much persuasion.

Over the course of five and a half months of hardship and adventure, I acquired a deep respect for the jungle and had just the faintest inkling that the Indians' Stone Age way of life had something to tell us about our human nature -- something essential that we have apparently misunderstood.

Not until I made three more expeditions to a fairly unexplored region further west could I see the truth. Living and traveling with people of the Yequana and Sanema tribes presented me again and again with the evidence before it sank in. Back home in New York after the fourth expedition, I was at last able to do more than simply question our Western view of what we are and what is good for us. One more expedition, and I was ready to say that the way we treat babies and children is not appropriate for human beings and is, along with many other customs that abuse our nature, the cause of widespread alienation, neurosis, and unhappiness.


In my book The Continuum Concept, written in England after that fifth expedition, I could describe ways to avoid producing much of this alienation. Drawing on the Indians' treatment of children, I advocated maintaining constant physical contact until youngsters begin crawling, sleeping with them until they leave the family bed of their own accord, meeting their innate expectations, not overprotecting them, and trusting and respecting their developing personalities.

Then came the inevitable question: what about us? How can this new understanding of human nature help adults who are suffering the consequences of having been brought up in the "normal" way?

I could not call upon the Yequana example for assistance, for they had no neurotics in need of help. So I looked for a way to apply the principles of the continuum concept to our adult troubles. At first, I focused on how to give adults the formative experiences of babyhood and childhood, the positive treatment they had missed. That approach proved impractical, difficult, and cumbersome. Next, I concentrated on the negative, or traumatic, early experiences they had unfortunately not missed.


Working with the late Dr. Frank Lake in Nottingham, I learned abreaction -- "primal" techniques that allow people, by means of special breathing, to relive their earliest terrors, the birth passage, and even prenatal experiences. Adults would cry and whimper and roll around on the floor, often in a "womb of cushions" held by others. Memories, images, and fragments of painful early experiences would frequently arise. And as the agonies suffered by "normal" people in "normal" birth and infancy came to expression, so, too, did the origins of many of their fears and irrationalities, as well as their self-defeating and antisocial behaviors. It became clear that the immeasurable harm caused by even the most loving and devoted parents in Western culture, and abetted by the most well-intentioned "experts," was the consequence of a long-standing and profound incomprehension of the eminently respectable nature of our species, especially in our perception of children.


For a time, I hoped that reliving early experiences was in itself therapeutic, that it was nature's way of healing the wounded psyche. After a year or two of utilizing the technique in my London practice, however, I came to the conclusion that as cathartic as it might be, it rarely made a difference in the quality of the person's life. Discouraged, I even began to wonder if it was possible to remedy the damage sustained in childhood.

After an interval of not seeing clients, I reopened my practice and soon had a full schedule. It was then that I noticed something curious about normal, neurotic adults: what we were experiencing was not a variety of "problems" at all, but rather the very same difficulty. Although the details and degrees of damage differed, the malady was the same. It manifested as a deep sense of being wrong -- of being not good enough, not lovable, disappointing, incompetent, insignificant, undeserving, inadequate, evil, bad, or in some other way not "right." What's more, this feeling of wrongness had come about almost always through early interactions with parental authority figures. And it had evoked powerful unconscious beliefs that have informed our views of both self and self-in-relation-to-other.

Upon coming to this realization, I searched for words to describe how human beings would have to feel about themselves in order to live optimally, to feel at home in their own skins and represent themselves accurately to others. I thought of the Yequana people, and arrived at the words worthy and welcome. People need to feel worthy and welcome, not bent out of shape, angry, or apologetic about their existence.


My clients' behaviors clearly reflected an inner conviction of being unworthy, unwelcome, or both. And their experience of life reflected a host of negative expectations arising from these unconscious beliefs. If, in her earliest months of life, a baby had been left to sleep alone in a crib, had screamed her loudest while waving her arms and kicking her feet, and had not succeeded in interesting anyone to come to her rescue, she invariably went on to form such beliefs as Nothing I am able to do has the power to move others, I want people who do not want me, I must be wrong to want a response, I am wrong to desire a place in my mother's arms, or I should be ashamed of my desires.


Uncovering the Damaging Beliefs

Discovering the nature and sources of self-defeating beliefs became an important step toward liberation from them. My clients and I would begin by looking for an early memory, any memory. Some, it turned out, were recalled as happy events; others, as traumatic.

After a while, it dawned on me that my clients' early memories all had something in common, something that singled them out for recall from the vast ocean of formative childhood experiences. In each instance, the remembered event was an exception to the rule, and the rule was painful. Often, an incident thought to have been unhappy concerned a monstrous injustice suffered at the hands of one of the child's customary judges -- most often a parent, but sometimes a teacher or other authority figure capable of convincing the child of his or her essential badness.

One client, fully convinced of her essential wrongness, remembered that at the age of seven, she was entered into a painting contest at her parents' club and won first price: an ashtray. She felt cheated -- betrayed by her parents and their peers. How unfair it was to be told she was the best and then given a prize she could not possibly use or want, she explained with a note of outrage. I suggested that she must have cherished this memory to the exclusion of many others because, for once, parental authority figures had proved themselves wrong; they had given her a prize wholly unsuitable for a child. Evidence of their fallibility gave her hope that they might be wrong about her too, which mitigated the feeling of wrongness about herself that she had acquired upon their authority. The oppressive weight of her customary doubts about her own worth is what had compelled her mind to cling to this precious bit of evidence in her favor.

Another client, whose father had made a habit of pointing out his son's deficiencies at every opportunity, had a similar memory. The incident took only a few seconds, but was all he could remember of this entire fifth year. He was at a soccer game with his father, standing at the edge of the playing field, when a police officer came up and told his father: "You ought to know better than to stand there. Move back!" The father, with a guilty look, stepped back. At that moment, his unquestionable authority crumbled. He, too, could be found wrong and scolded, and could therefore be wrong about his son.

To my client, this memory was neither good or bad; it was "just an image." Yet, it was an image that had stayed with him for half a century, a glimmer of hope that this child was not so bad after all. And it told us how painful his forgotten experiences had been.


At times, the detective work followed a different course. Several clients, for instance, told me they felt fortunate to have had a mother who "lived only for me," "adored me," "loved to dress me up," or "cooked anything I wanted." Others said, "My father had only the most positive expectations of me; he said I was going to be a famous doctor and have all the things he never had," or "Daddy took me everywhere -- to ball games, the rodeo, anywhere I wanted to go," or "My dad said we were friends, and as I grew up, he told me everything that was on his mind -- things he could never talk about with Mother." The conscious belief was "I'm lucky"; the unconscious belief was "My role is to provide my parents with emotional support and no matter how hard I try to fulfill their needs, I always fail."

Overattentiveness given in an effort to fill the abyss left by a parent's own deprived childhood can be seen as pulling love, not giving it. A child does not know how to describe, even to himself, what he wants; and although his parent is paying attention to him, his feeling continues to be of want. He grows up discontented, very often "addicted" to this parent's unsatisfying presence and to trying to give the parent all he or she needs so that the parent will be able somehow, someday, to give him what he needs. What he really wanted was respect for who he was and a calm, competent, self-sufficient parent to care for him until he became mature enough to take care of himself -- a parent from whom he could move confidently toward independence. Unfortunately, the keeper of his unconscious beliefs may not even notice that the child is now a competent adult who can get his own ice cream. Recognizing this truth, too, goes a long way toward liberation.

Beliefs are formed in a child's mind by the parent's words, especially those expressed as absolutes rather than as opinions. And repetition aggravates the effect.


One client's mother had a habit of saying to his sisters: "You'll be sorry you teased him. When he is grown up, he'll be stronger than you and then you'll see what he does to you!" After we had worked together, this client wrote: "I always gave my mom a lot of credit for 'intervening' like that. During my work with Jean, I came to understand the uncomfortable truth . . . My mother was sending us destructive messages. My sisters were learning that when they grow up, the male person in their lives will be abusive to them; I learned that when I grow up, I will be abusive to the female person in my life. Now I can see that it has come true. Cloaked in a very subtle dynamic, it can be traced through all of my past relationships.

"It was tough to face and let go of what a fearful-hopeful part of me has clung to: that my parents were right. Yet, it took only a few sessions of serious reconditioning (making the unconscious beliefs conscious and reevaluating them for truth as an adult) before I would notice the almost mysterious effect of our work. A ripple effect, that originated in my middle, started to influence a lot of different areas in my emotional landscape . . .

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to describe such deep changes in words. I just felt good about myself. For the first time in my life, I began to feel equal to the world, equal to the stranger on the sidewalk, equal to the person I am in a relationship with. I had never known that sense, but it became clear to me that, as a human being, I had been equipped with that feeling long before I was conditioned away from it."


Moving Toward Transformation

My approach, then, goes like this: we do the detective work first, delving into the experiences that form the inner beliefs, searching out the facts, and reinterpreting and reevaluating the uncovered experiences. We then behave like lawyers, examining past and present experiences for expressions of the untrue beliefs, and we amass a body of evidence revealing what is true and what is not. The case we build becomes so strong, so persuasive, so convincing that it overcomes the old beliefs stored in the unconscious mind.

Replacing the untrue beliefs with true ones resolves the distortions that have prevented a person's spontaneous behavior from serving his or her best interests. The person then experiences a significant change in the quality of life, a real transformation.

One never knows at what point the changes will take place. When they do, though, they are changes in feeling, not only in thought. Feelings are physical, and so the changes are sensed in the body. A person will often dress differently, move differently, and start doing new things.


A lady who came to me in London reported a dramatic transformation before I had learned to expect such things. She had been born in an Asian country that, by custom, regarded a woman who bore no children as worthless. Her mother, who had been married for six years without issue, had at last become pregnant and was overjoyed. When my client was born, she was therefore greeted with great enthusiasm and much attention.

It was also the custom of her people to value male children far more than females. So when her mother produced a son about three years later, the little girl was all but forgotten. Throughout the ensuing years, she fought with her brother constantly, trying to control him, struggling to maintain her place as number one child, and never turning her back for fear that he would displace her. Later, as a middle-aged businesswoman living in England, she worked hard and built up a prosperous company, but often felt she was disliked and misunderstood by her employees, most of whom were men.

We had been working together for a few months, when she telephoned one afternoon. "Guess where I am!" she said. I had to admit, I had not the faintest idea. "I'm at the Tate! It's the first time since I started my business seventeen years ago that I have taken time off on a working day to go to an art gallery. I just had to tell you! I know why I have never felt I could trust my employees behind my back; we've talked about it enough. Today, though, I really know why I can, and they are taking care of the office without me. I feel like a new woman, free to go to art galleries or anywhere else I please."


As time went on, more rare and mysterious transformations occurred. One man, as a child of five, had watched his father murder his mother and two men he found in bed with her. The weapon was an iron bar. For years, the son refused to acknowledge the crime. Finally, he came to an abreaction group to try to face its implications. Here, he mentioned that up until the age of five, he had often been told that he was just like his father. And indeed, he appeared rough and tough. His language was so heavily peppered with four-letter words that one sometimes showed up in the middle of another word. And he was constantly leaving the room to smoke in the corridor.

After some discussion, we re-created the scene of the crime. He took the part of his father, and he chose two men and a woman to represent the victims. Armed with a length of foam rubber inscribed with the words Iron Bar, he stepped up to the designated spot and raised his weapon in the air. Suddenly, he stopped in his tracks and crumpled to the ground, laughing as though he might cry. "I don't want to kill them, " he said softly. "I'm not like my father. Not at all."

That terrifying belief dissolved at last. Knowing from within that he was not a murderer "like his father" was the one piece of evidence he needed not only to release the damaging conviction, but to let go of many of the offensive and defensive behaviors that had been held in place by that belief. His speech came free of obscenities, and he stopped smoking entirely, without a struggle. His realization of the truth had finally given him the freedom to be the man he truly was.


It became clear that to believe we are, and have always been, worthy and welcome, we adults have to understand that our parents were wrong. I therefore worried about reconciling my clients with their parents via the fashionable "forgive them" approach. Trying to forgive one's parents at the expense of living one's own life with the feeling of being forever wrong seemed an even less attractive proposition. As it turned out, the most helpful way was to assist my clients in gaining freedom from parental authority and in seeing that their parents were just as likely to be tragic victims of their parents' inappropriate behavior. The idea was simply to understand how mother and father came to behave as they did and thus strengthen our case against accepting that behavior as authoritative .

Happily, I have found that we need not make an effort to forgive our parents. When the Olympian authority figures are reduced to ordinary human dimensions, and when we no longer feel we must try to prove our worth to them, we experience a deep sense of liberation. At the same time, we become relieved of the frustration that has built up over years of trying to win them over, or trying to persuade ourselves that we no longer care, or even that we hate one or both of them.

When we no longer need to see ourselves through what we believe to be our parents' eyes, there is no further spur to resentment. We are free. All the unpleasant or unbearable irritations with our parents become superseded by a familiarity, a deep understanding of what we have all been through. And invariably there arises a new, easy compassion for the human-sized old dears.


Copyright ©1991 by Jean Liedloff


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