It’s been a while since I’ve reflected on what makes grownups act like children, but with the US presidential campaigns kicking into high gear, this seems like a good time. Our conventional idea of an “adult” is a person who is rational and reasonable, reflective and responsible, who is emotionally centered, well-adjusted, and gets along with others.
We have a general expectation that children will grow into adults and act less like children as they enter maturity.
And our expectation is disappointed, again and again, not just by other people but even ourselves. Something happens that is hard to explain; and when it’s over we prefer not to spend time reflecting on what the hell just went down. Once the dust has settled, we’d rather move on and try to forget about it.
But then it happens again … and again, and again.
These strange behavioral episodes are what I call Neurotic Styles. Think of them as coping strategies we learned when we were children, ways of working around the dysfunction and deficiencies in our family system. From infancy and onward through the early years of childhood we needed to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy – what I have named our “feeling-needs” or “subjective needs.”
The taller powers responsible for our health and wellbeing were either first-time parents who didn’t know better, distracted parents who didn’t notice, absent parents who weren’t around, or abusive parents who violated our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Even the most attentive and caring parents slip up once in a while.
But it wasn’t all on them. We had our own selfish impulses and impossible demands that every conscientious parent has to somehow manage and train into socially acceptable behavior. We might have been particularly ungovernable, which would have taxed their patience and parenting skills, provoking responses that added new layers to the mess.
After all, domesticating an animal nature into a well-behaved socialite was no simple process – and never has been.
Our subjective needs were not negotiable. We couldn’t just skip over our need to feel safe, loved, capable, and worthy. Because they are about our need to feel a certain way in our nervous system and emotions (together generating our mood), it is possible that our external circumstances were fully adequate but still not enough because we had become so discontent, distressed, or depressed.
If there was in fact a sufficient supply of loving care provided to us, we might have had the additional demand that our parent (or whomever) make us feel safe because of some deeper insecurities we were carrying. This value-add of our anxiety motivated us to reach out and grab on to the other person in neurotic attachment, which are not conditions where love can take root and grow.
So our insistence that the other person make us feel safe actually interfered with our need to feel loved. See how that works – or doesn’t?
That behavior strategy of replacing love with attachment so we can feel safe is one common example of how we used our power to manipulate others. We may also have used our power to flatter and impress others in a misguided pursuit of feeling loved. Or we discovered that we could use our power to intimidate or seduce them and get what we wanted.
These are various “power plays” which, when successful enough and repeated on subsequent occasions, eventually got coded into our behavioral repertoire. They became our Neurotic Styles. Other Styles have less to do with manipulating other people than engaging in behaviors that helped us manage our anxiety, stay vigilant to potential threats, or retreat into ourselves for safety.
The important thing to understand is that, at least to some extent, these strategies worked in satisfying our feeling-needs, even if our family system wasn’t all that provident.
We were children back then: small, dependent, vulnerable, and weak in comparison with our taller powers. In order to get our needs met we found our way around. Our individual set of Neurotic Styles were incorporated into our developing personality, and we used them whenever we felt the situation warranted – although they were not really consciously selected so much as “triggered” by events around us.
But here’s the problem. Our personality as children was a complex of playful imagination, magical thinking, emotional reasoning, and these Neurotic Styles. Today this same complex lives on beneath higher processes of instrumental reason, logical thinking, and adult self-control – that is, until our “button” is pushed.
When that happens, our Inner Child breaks out and deploys a tactic of childish behavior, which may have worked when we were children but now only manages to turn heads, roll eyes, and convince others that we aren’t safe to be around.
For the past four years, Donald Trump’s Inner Child has manipulated the Grand Ole Party, a good swath of the American population, and undermined the establishment of democracy itself. In one interview after another, he shirks responsibility and passes blame, ignores or outright dismisses empirical science and objective data, loses his temper and calls people names. He seduces others into his inner circle and then excommunicates them with dishonor if they should dare contradict or challenge his opinion.
As the campaigns ramp up to November, the stress of it all – our tipping toward fascism, the ravaging waves of COVID-19 and continuing collapse of our economy, the rise of bigotry, prejudice, and violence on our streets, along with the now unmistakable (and undeniable) signs of unraveling ecosystems across our planet – all of it is making us feel threatened and helpless.
Our Inner Child is peaking out from under the covers, hoping that some taller power will arrive with a reassuring promise to protect us from the monster.
This is precisely when we need to get our own Higher Self into the game. There is real work to be done, including the repair of some serious damage to our race relations, community welfare, ethical integrity, and self-confidence. In November we must elect a fully functioning adult to presidential leadership, one who is self-possessed and genuinely concerned for the wellbeing of our families, neighborhoods, cities, states, nation and international commons, including the fragile yet still resilient web of life on our planet.
For this to happen, we need to be adults and do our part.