Coronavirus Conversations: From “This” to “We” to “Me” and Back Again

Coronavirus Conversations: From “This” to “We” to “Me” and Back Again

Susan mentioned to me the other day that many people find it interesting to learn about the influences on my thinking about Self-Reg. Not just the biographical details, but the theoretical underpinnings of Self-Reg. The more I thought about this remark, the more I realized that it was time to say something more about the major influence on my thinking. Especially as I’m writing this on the day (April 27) that Stanley Greenspan died, ten years ago.

I began my training under Stanley in the year 2000. The first thing he had me work on was The Development of the Ego. I had already done some reading in psychoanalytic theory, but this was unlike anything I’d ever encountered: a bold attempt to bring psychoanalysis into the 21st century (the book was published in 1990) by grounding the theory of ego development in recent advances in neuroscience. (It was this way of thinking that led to the publication of the Psychoanalytic Diagnostic Manual in 2006.)

Stanley’s starting point is that the development of the ego originates in two amorphous states: “There is pleasantness” and “There is unpleasantness.” The baby acquires an undifferentiated sense of “We” from which she constructs a mental representation of her caregiver as a distinct entity, a “You” (for Buber, a Thou), and from there, a “Me.” The emotional core of the baby’s developing ego is shaped by these early We-interactions: so much so that if a caregiver reacts, say, to the baby’s angry outburst with anger of her own, or suddenly breaks off an interaction, the baby’s sense of self will be imprinted by these emotional tinges. She is at risk of growing into an adult who reacts negatively to her own feelings of anger with feelings of guilt or shame.

The psychoanalytic view of ego development is the exact opposite from what we find in moral or political philosophy. For the latter fields, the self comes first, and the problematic is how to move from “Me” to “We.” To the extent that child development is broached, it is in terms of a preformationist view of the child as miniature adult. Yet, as different as these theories are, they end up with a similar self-controllist conclusion. For the classical psychoanalyst, the acquisition of self-control to inhibit the unruly id; for the moral or political philosopher, self-control to get along with all the other ids. Stanley was challenging this conclusion by instituting a new way of thinking about the premise.

The contractualist philosophers assumed – and it was this assumption that Rousseau famously challenged at the start of the Second Discourse–that the theoretical problem we are confronted with is: How is social cohesion possible when we are dealing with a bunch of selfish and isolated egos? But from a psychoanalytic perspective the problem is: How can a strong and independent sense of self develop when a caregiver is overbearing? The same problem carried over into the dystopian fiction that flourished in the 20th century: How is it possible to maintain the sense of self in an authoritarian regime? The overbearing caregiver was to provide an endless source of material for the New Yorker; the overbearing government, fodder for novelists like Orwell and Zamyatin.

It is not just the primary caregiver, however, but all the Interbrains a child encounters growing up that imprint on her evolving sense of self. It is through these broader influences that what starts off as “There is unpleasantness” turns into “I am hungry” and from there into “I want this” and eventually into “I am this.” You might think that all that neuroscience could add to this scenario is a “locationist” prop, i.e., by showing how different neural systems – advancing from sub-cortical to prefrontal – come “online” at each succeeding step. But, in fact, neuroscientists – three in particular – revealed a deeper dynamic operating here.

The three in question are Paul Maclean, Alan Schore, and Stephen Porges. Combined, they shed important light on Greenspan’s view of the developing ego. Through their combined input, we arrive at the idea that the mental representation of You that the baby constructs is her first step on the road to self-regulation. It is a “You” that provides stress-relief. Not just a presence when “there is unpleasantness,” but a resource the baby turns to when she cannot manage a stress on her own.

To begin with, there is overwhelming urgency in all this: “I need some breast-milk and I need it NOW.” I remember how, with our own children, that first wail would have us madly dashing to the rescue. But slowly, unconsciously, the caregiver begins to build in delays. The baby learns that stress-relief is coming, and wailing will just make her feel worse. She learns to suck on her thumb or to look at something interesting to ease the stress of waiting. But self-soothing and self-distraction only work when relief comes within a reasonable time; otherwise, the likely result is learned helplessness.

“Reasonable” is, of course, infinitely variable; as is the baby’s experience of time. Both are a function of the baby’s physiology, the stress of the moment, the overlying stress-load, and the caregiver’s arousal state. The more stressed the baby, or the caregiver, the more attenuated the time factor becomes, and the more disjointed the dyad.

How, you must be wondering, does this bear on a “Coronavirus Conversation”? To begin with, let’s go back to the “f/e” model I mentioned last week: a series of stages in the development of the ego. At first, I wondered if there might be comparable stages in the development of self-regulation, operating alongside – if not inside– the f/e stages. But thanks to persistent pestering from Devin Casenhiser, I became uneasy with stage-model thinking. The big problem lay in the first “stage”: arousal regulation. What we were seeing at MEHRI was not a milestone that, once mastered, enabled a child to move on to the second stage (Engagement). Arousal regulation is an ongoing, and indeed, as I came to realize, a lifetime issue.

Thus was born Self-Reg.

For Self-Reg, the effect of heightened levels of stress is not simply that the individual regresses from, e.g., reality-based to magical thinking. The critical aspect of this regression is a relapse into maladaptive modes of self-regulation. E.g., from social engagement into needing instant relief. And if that relief is not forthcoming, there is a serious risk of slipping back still further into a pre-social, non-rational Brown Brain state. Not just eating the marshmallow but hurling the plate onto the floor.

Children display different modes of ego functioning as thus understood in the Marshmallow Task. There are those who self-soothe or self-distract to delay gratification; those who eat the marshmallow in order to alleviate the stress; and those who have a meltdown. We are seeing a similar pattern in how different individuals are responding to social distancing.

For some, rushing down to the beach is like eating the marshmallow. They are dealing with the stress of being cooped up by shutting off their minds to the possible negative consequences of their actions. Their objective is not so much to feel the sand beneath their feet as to remove a stress that has become intolerable. And the problem, of course, is that this is – to put it mildly — a maladaptive way of dealing with the stress of social distancing. Worse still is when someone descends into Brown Brain and rages about the impending “boogaloo.”

Self-Reg steps in here, not as a coping strategy, but rather a way of understanding and thereby growing from the stress. Take the Marshmallow Task: Our goal is not to build up a child’s stress-tolerance so that she can wait the full fifteen minutes to get the reward. (“Count to 60 fifteen times.”) Instead we start by questioning why this task is so stressful for this child. Were the task important enough (think math), we might study how to make the experience less stressful: e.g., by adding some distractors to the room; changing the type of seating; piping in some soothing music. But what is important above all else is our evolving understanding of the child: why she is so over-stressed, what serves to reduce her stress and dilate her sense of time.

The reason why reframing is so critical is because of the impact this has on limbic resonance. “Sensitive caregiving” is not about mastering new techniques to manage a child’s behaviour: it is about the effect on dyadic interaction when two hearts beat as one (literally, as it happens). Star Trek picked up on this theme as a bit of sci-fi that Vulcans perform; but, in reality, “mind-melding” is the essence of secure attachment. As opposed to insecure attachment, where two detached minds try to co-regulate as best they can while their hearts beat asynchronously.

Greenspan’s The Development of the Ego is about these two very different kinds of dyad: two different kinds of “We.” One is holistic: the symbiosis that Allan Schore writes about [Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self]. The other is atomistic: two separate egos that are trying to co-regulate despite the absence of harmony. In my last blog I wrote about the two distinct cultures that Ruth Benedict identified: collectivist and individualist. On Greenspan’s outlook, these are not just two different types of culture: they embody two different kinds of “We” at the societal level. The one represents a coming together in a shared affective state; the other, an attempt to stay together despite discordant affective states.

But, The Development of the Ego is not just about what is happening within the child’s mind: it is also about the development of our own ego through our understanding and interactions with a child. This is one of the most powerful lessons that I learned from Stanley, and it constitutes the very heart of Self-Reg: both partners in the Interbrain grow from limbic resonance. And just as our resonance with a child is transformed when we recognize the significance of her stress-behaviour and respond accordingly, so too our sense of shared humanity is enhanced when we reframe the behaviour of social distance protestors and strive to reduce communal stress.

There is fluid movement up and down the “f/e continuum,” depending on stress-levels and our ways of dealing with it. There is no fixed stage that limits our reflective or moral functioning; no maladaptive mode of self-regulation that cannot be improved. The ego is always capable of growth – or decline – depending on the type of relationships experienced. As is the social “We.”

It turns out that the progression from “This” to “We” to “Me” is fueled by empathy. And so too is the reverse.

In Memoriam, Stanley Greenspan, 1941-2010.

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Check out some of our previous Self-Reg Blogs & Other Resources Related to the Coronavirus.

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Self-Regging Our Way Through COVID-19, available to view in the Co-Reg Community

A message from our Executive Director, Susan Hopkins

By | 2020-05-26T07:47:46+00:00 May 26th, 2020|

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