Chris L. Minnick, M.D.

The ‘Baby Core’ of the Personality

Introduction:

Mankind has always been preoccupied with his or her own experience. Philosophers have devoted their lives to understanding the meaning of “being,” “existence,” and “consciousness,” as experienced by humans. Freud added a second universe for us to ponder, the world of the “unconscious.” However, as he developed ways for thinking about this unconscious inner world, his model involved a considerable degree of abstraction as he talked of “instinct,” “id,” “ego,” “super-ego,” etc.

Less abstract for all of us, and therefore, perhaps more accessible to common sense, is the idea of having a “self.” So with that in mind, I would like to start this discussion of the “Baby Core of the Personality” with some thoughts about the “self.”

The Self as Parts:

In theory, we all have just “one” self. If someone wishes to make that case, I have no problem with that formulation. However, in life the idea of having just “one” self doesn’t seem to adequately encompass our own personal experience of ourselves in the world.

I think it is more accurate and useful to say that human beings seem to experience themselves as an assemblage of aspects, or as “parts,” as I would prefer to say. Most people, beginning in early childhood, have attitudes about how they feel they are “seen” in the world, combined with how they experience their own lives. These attitudes begin in relation to primary caregivers, but they also later develop in the context of school and peer relationships. This sense of “who I am” may be positive or negative, but it is usually the result of ongoing, repetitive experience.

So for example, a small child who is having a predominantly good early life, based on a good experience with mom and dad, might have an experience of himself as predominantly happy and “good.” In contrast, a child with too many siblings and not enough of the parental attention to go around might have an ongoing experience of feeling “jealous, short changed, and angry” as a core sense of self.

By middle childhood, a majority of children have found both positive and negative elements in their regular life experiences that become key to their sense of self. These attitudes are likely to accrue around specific experiences that are related to tangible qualities and characteristics the individual child sees himself as having or being. These qualities and capacities tend to be related to appearance, intelligence, coordination, emotionality, specific abilities, etc.

So, as a result of these accrued experiences, the average person would tend to describe himself as having some of the following characteristics: a grown-up self, a happy self, a lovable and loving self or an unloved self, an attractive self or unattractive self, an anxious self and/or depressed self or sad self, an athletic self or uncoordinated self, a funny self, a musical self, an artistic self, an angry or mean or bad tempered self, a selfish self, a jealous self, a needy self, a lazy self, a crazy self, etc.

At any given moment one of these aspects of oneself might be dominating one’s experience. Most of the time, people try actively to hold onto a sense of self that is pleasing to experience. Less commonly, someone may hold onto a view of himself that is more negative, but is often felt to be “safer” to have because it lessens the vulnerability to even greater pain or loss. This can be easily seen in teenagers who have decided that a negative sense of identity shields them from the constant emotional distress with which they are in an ongoing struggle.

Ultimately, the sense of being composed of disparate “parts of self” can be linked to the human tendency, which begins in infancy, to hold divergent or incompatible experiences in separate areas of the mind, perhaps the key prototype being the need to keep positive experiences separate from negative ones.

Memory Storage in Infancy and Early Childhood:

I need to digress at this point and explain what “neuroscience” can offer us in understanding these early states of identity as they relate to what can ultimately be called “the baby core of the personality.” There are two memory storage systems that are involved in early childhood, one operative before birth until the end of the second year of life, and the other only becoming adequately developed to be operative by the end of the second year of life.

The more primitive of these memory storage structures is centered around the “amygdala,” which is part of our phylogenetic inheritance from our reptilian ancestors. It stores memories as “feelings,” and these memories have a paradoxical characteristic in that they cannot be “consciously” recalled, but they can be “recreated” and “relived” in the outside world – all taking place “unconsciously.”

The second memory storage system – the one we would associate with memories that we can recall and think about – has the “hippocampus” at its center. These memories are more like what we usually picture when we think of the word “memory.” Because the “hippocampus” becomes mature enough to be operative only after the end of the second year of life, this fact explains why we usually cannot recall our childhood in any reliable manner before the age of three or four years, and often even later than that.

When I think of the “Baby Core of the Personality,” I am referring to “memories stored as feelings” in the amygdala.

[Note: I will elaborate on the “amygdala” and its relationship to (1) the “baby core of the personality” and (2) “paired relationships between parts of self and versions of mom and dad” in the ensuing sections of Module One. I will also elaborate on the relationship between the “hippocampus” and (3) “unconscious phantasy” as it is elaborated in later childhood.]

The Need for Order and the Need to Get Rid of Baby Pain:

This bit of grounding in neuroscience allows us to come back to infancy and make a distinction between (1) memory and (2) the infant’s natural reaction to mental pain. The distinction I have in mind is between “memories stored as feelings” in the “amygdala” in early infancy, which by definition cannot be consciously recalled via memory and introspection, and experiences related to mental pain that an infant or child would wish to “evade” in the form of denying his smallness, helplessness, dependence, etc.

As development progresses in childhood, the states of mind and experiences associated with infancy seem to recede from conscious awareness. I would surmise this is a function of the nature of memory in early infancy on one hand, and on the other hand the fact that so many of the key qualities and characteristics of being an infant are felt to be a one-way ticket to potential emotional pain.

Being helpless, understanding almost nothing, being utterly dependent on others for one’s very survival (which depends on these “others” willingness and capacity to “sacrifice” on behalf of an infant) hardly represents a state of affairs that anyone would stand in line for a chance to experience again.

There are two primary consequences of this painful state of affairs in infancy that I would like to highlight. One is that there is a need in early infancy to bring order to the chaos of life outside the womb. This order is achieved by trying to hold “good” experience (i.e. pleasurable) as separate and apart from “bad” experience (i.e. painful). This separation leads to a division or partitioning of “self” and “objects” (in psychoanalytic parlance, “objects” refers to people, not things), in which self and object are quite literally divided into “good” and “bad” aspects or “parts.” As will be described in a following section, these parts of self and object will tend to be “paired” and thus linked together.

This division into “good” and “bad” parts, which are generally held separately in one’s mind, will usually ultimately lead to the evacuation of the “bad” versions of self and object into the outside world, on a semi-permanent basis, via projective processes. This whole process will continue to be active throughout the lifespan. [Note: These projective processes will be greatly expanded in Module Two.]

The Sense of Self:

The second point I wish to briefly highlight, even though it is a very complex topic, is the individual’s personal awareness of the various facets of these aspects of self. It is useful to have a concept of a “center of gravity of the sense of identity.” This is an idea I first read about in Donald Meltzer’s invaluable book, “Sexual States of Mind” (which is more about character development and functioning than it is about sexuality).

In a nutshell, the idea is that at any moment of life, one can have one’s “experience of identity” lodged in any of the various parts of self, or even lodged in someone else’s identity (via projective processes). And this “sense of identity” can literally shift from one part to another on a minute by minute basis, a tendency that makes therapy with children such a daunting endeavor at times.

This “shifting” of the “center of gravity” of the “sense of identity” helps explain how we can have one “sense of self” one minute, and then have an entirely different “sense of self” take over the next, as if we had become an entirely different person. This shift can readily be witnessed in sports competition, where one is a triumphant winner (with phantasies of being big and grown up) and the other becomes the loser (with potential “baby” states of loss, smallness, humiliation, etc.).

Adult versus Infantile States of Mind:

Once we have a concept of these partitions of “good versus bad” or “adult versus infantile,” we can make sense of an interesting human paradox. Most people I know, including myself, like to pride themselves in being sensible, rational, reasonable individuals who see themselves as “mature,” developmentally speaking, and thus, only controlled by “adult” states of mind.

I would argue that something closer to the opposite is more accurate. That is to say that although most adults behave much of the time in a “mature and rational manner,” almost nothing we adults think, feel, or do in the course of our daily lives is left untouched by “baby” states of mind.

I mean to suggest that we are all regularly influenced, in the course of a day, by thoughts, feelings, and attitudes that are emanating from unconscious structures and states of mind that had their origin in infancy. Mind you, it takes some training and experience to readily differentiate “adult” from “baby” states of mind, unless the latter are rampantly out of control. Yet, in my office I spend portions of every session making that differentiation. It is no less so in my private life. The difference in my private life is that I am, or my family is, the primary focus of the need to differentiate “adult” from “baby” level thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

You might ask at this point, how does one distinguish a “baby state of mind” from an “adult state of mind”? The simplest answer, and one that is almost always correct, is that baby states of mind tend to be “out of proportion” to the reality of the situation at hand at that moment. Put in other words, the emotional reaction to the situation at hand is disproportionately strong or inappropriately minimal or absent. For instance, flying into a rage when one has a frustrating experience or having no reaction when someone important to one dies represent examples of excessive or inappropriately inadequate or missing emotional reactions. Both are “baby level” reactions, rather than emotional reactions emanating from an “adult part of self.”

Summary:

I find it useful in the consulting room with patients and in my daily life outside of work to think of us humans as having an array of positive and negative attitudes about ourselves, parents and family, and life in general. These began in infancy, in order to establish some order in the face of potential chaos. Humans seem to try to divide up and hold the various kinds of experiences in separate worlds. The most elemental division seems to be “good, pleasurable” versus “bad, not pleasurable.”

In turn, as experiences with caregivers accrue over time, one develops a feeling that certain feelings and behaviors elicit certain responses from those caregivers. These lead to the development of a core set of attitudes about oneself, which can be positive, negative, pleasant, painful, etc. Ultimately, those attitudes that predominate and are repeated over time become a “part of self.”

Each part of self may continue to “grow and mature” over time, or it may be stuck in a time warp and fail to improve and grow with experience. Those that fail to grow tend to be linked to an early, negative experience. Since this latter category of aspects of self tends to be impacted by the dual dilemma that on one hand the early life experiences stored in the amygdala cannot be consciously recalled, and on the other hand those that produced pain tend to be “split off” (i.e. walled off from experience and/or projected away from conscious experience) – thus creating a double whammy that leads to early life experiences that are painful being unavailable to be worked on and modified. Those early painful experiences tend to exist outside the realm of “learning from experience,” and this contributes to limiting the usefulness of these early experiences leading to emotional growth.

Arguably, much of the work of therapy is helping to sort out this differentiation of “adult” from “infantile” parts of self, as manifested in thought, emotion, and behavior. One goal of therapy can thus be conceptualized as aiding in the recovery of these lost parts of self, which were split off early in life but continue to have an ongoing and potentially problematic influence that is going on unrecognized as coming from one’s early life experiences.

The entirety of this website is about making sense of this differentiation so that the therapist can learn to “speak baby” as he or she works with the human personality. It is not a distinction that comes naturally to people. It is an acquired capacity for most of us, even though we live immersed in its constant manifestations in every area of life.

I hope it is becoming apparent why the phrase “The Baby Core of the Personality” is in the title of this website. It is simultaneously the spice of our lives and the bane of our existence.