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Family Drama

“This Be the Verse,”

by Philip Larkin, 1971

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.

They may not mean to, but they do.

They fill you with the faults they had

And add some extra, just for you.

I remember the day my first-born son gave his older sister a severe tongue-lashing, his patience with her finally running out. I was proud as can be of his amazing verbal acumen, but finally disturbed, not just with how hurtful a wicked tongue can be, but in recognizing my own dark side, in the capacity to be so vicious with words. Symbolic acts of speech may not break bones, but they certainly can do damage. I still jokingly suggest to this son that while I may be responsible for any of a number of his flaws, most of them are dysfunctions of autonomy, so he is, unfortunately, the only one who can fix them.

Much of human uniqueness is produced by an extended childhood (documented extensively by Konner 2010). This means that our emotional physiology requires several decades to be shaped and channeled by the close and interdependent relationships we have with others. In the dependency of children upon family, and pre-eminently within the power differential under stronger and more experienced adult parents, our basic emotional scripts are shaped. Many of our deepest beliefs and social practices are well established in our childhood years, much of it in pre-linguistic and mimetic patterns of interaction (Donald 2002), but certainly well before affirmations of belief, or other “coming of age” rituals in many traditions. Well in place by this age are a number of emotional scripts, resulting from extensive early experience and conditioning, which are below the level of awareness, difficult to counter-condition, and likely to underwrite our belief preferences and resonances with different world-views. I have written scholarly work which describes this as subdoxastic, as below the level of beliefs, but what is not articulated or even spoken likely shapes and provides the emotional framework for what is.

The basic affects emerge in a common developmental sequence, from newborn distress patterns, through the enjoyment of early attachment, the fear and sadness of separation, loss, and novelty, and finally with self-consciousness, the second order emotions of shame and guilt. Along with pride, these second order emotions constitute the contraction and expansion of self-boundaries (e.g. “swelling with pride”). According to Nathanson (1992) healthy pride is the triggering of the enjoyment upon achieving an interesting or exciting goal. The concomitant experiences of competence or efficacy become integrated into personal identity. We are built such that these experiences are infectious when shared socially, a process that can be encouraged or discouraged during socialization, the primary agents of which are within our familial domesticities, most particularly our “mum and dad.” Diverse world-views may vary in the degree to which competence or efficacy may be integrated with identity. Pride is affiliative, it makes us public. Shame, on the other hand, attenuates enjoyment, when a pattern-mismatch is detected during interest or enjoyment, and it includes withdrawal, gaze-avoidance, blushing, and incapacities for speech. Shame is alienating. Mutual positive affect powers sociality. Shame is the modulator; it is what draws boundaries between us, and between different world-views. Shame separates us, it isolates us and makes us private, but it is what gives us an interior. Shame molds character, from the shameless, to the cautious, to the paranoid. Diverse traditions mold character differently. Though all encourage the observation of particular boundaries, what the boundaries are and the consequences of violating them will vary widely.