As made evident by the sub-title of this website, object-relations and systems theory form the foundation of my theoretical framework. This is because, conceptually, the two represent the most basic abstractions of what most theories simply repackage: how things connect, relate to, and affect one another on a cognitive and emotional level. OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: I do not make this statement to be crass or in any way undermine the contribution various developmental theories have made to the field of psychology and the world at large. Quite the contrary, I enjoy and value the various theoretical traditions for their subtleties and nuances. Of course, I would argue that they have become “traditions” for the same reason great works of art are considered “great”; they accurately reflect some fundamental aspect of a universal relative to the human condition. In this way I consider most traditional psychological theories to be expressions or manifestations of various aspects of systemic object-relational dynamics.
Now for the fun stuff. We have discussed emotional imprinting and at least hinted at the importance of early childhood development. Let’s go a bit further. It’s no revelation that a concept of “self” logically requires a concept of “other” from which to distinguish itself.
We identify with our sensations, so that if a hungry newborn could speak it would not likely say “I am hungry.” Again, because the concept of “I” requires an awareness of “not I”. It is more likely a hungry infant would simply say “Hungry” and, lacking the conceptual sophistication to do otherwise, experience itself as whatever sensation it might feel at the moment.
As such, that concept of self doesn’t just logically REQUIRE a concept of other, it REFERENCES that other as a MEANS of self-definition. In other words, it is in the nature of the relationship as well as the nature of the “other” that the identity and meaning of “self” is defined. We learn who and and what we are from the quality of our relationships with others.
This is why, developmentally, the first three years of a child’s life are so critical: it is during this period that the most fundamental aspects of our cognitive and emotional framework is developed. We internalize the feedback we are given from others and use that feedback to assign meaning and definition to our most basic emotional functions – the most critical of which is, of course, empathy.
One of the more interesting aspects of this mechanic is expressed in the distinction between abuse and neglect. By definition, abuse typically happens in the context of a relationship – yes, the relationship is unhealthy but it is a relationship, nonetheless. Neglect on the other hand implies a lack of relationship and empathy. Point of interest: statistically, most children who are neglected are also abused, whereas most children who are abused are not necessarily neglected. Though this may seem a logical contradiction, it is not. The complexity of object-relational development and the human psyche are sophisticated enough to allow such contradictions to coexist in the form of emotional and cognitive dissonance. While it would be nice if the two contradictory messages cancelled each other out, they in fact perform something of a “double whammy” on psychological development. Loosely translating the two basic messages:
- Abuse: I am not worth protecting.
- Neglect: I am not worth feeding.
Referencing Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs provides a powerful illustration of the differences between the two messages.
Indeed, they are not even on the same level. Eating resides on a lower level of need than physical safety. This provides some insight into why neglect tends to be more damaging than abuse. Additionally, in the case of abuse, there is still a reaction and therefore a relationship. In the case of neglect, there is simply a void. In other words, a sick connection is still better than no connection at all. It is also interesting to note that sexual abuse corresponds to elements on the the lowest level, as well. OBLIGATORY DISCLAIMER: This is not to imply that any child neglected or traumatized before the age of three will grow up to be a serial killer. It is simply a generalization about the impact such events have in the context of early childhood development.
These are the basics of object-relations, in a nutshell.