Post No.: 0341
Most of all cases of adult mental illness have their roots before the age of 14 hence it’s important that children are appropriately diagnosed and treated early. Stressors or risk factors during this early time can have a significant impact on a person several years down the line. But parents can be very poor at picking up the symptoms from even their own children (e.g. mistaking their teenager’s depression or anxiety for work-shirking laziness, or eating disorder as just a fleeting fussy phase of following a few fatuous but fashionable food fads) so parents must be both educated on the matter and vigilant.
If someone attempts to mock someone else by saying that their mental health problems probably developed because ‘their mother didn’t hug them when they were young’ then it’s potentially not a joke. Firstly, if they genuinely do have a mental health problem then that cannot be joked about. Secondly, studies have shown in both mice and cadaver human brains the negative epigenetic effects on the hippocampus if there was insufficient physical maternal (or presumably more generally ‘caregiver’, which could also include paternal) interaction when young. And thirdly, it’s quite low to attempt to mock someone for not having received much love when young!
Historical experiments on infant monkeys also proved quite starkly how touch and warmth are important to an infant monkey’s well-being when – between a fake mother monkey figure made from wire but which provided milk and a fake mother monkey figure made from wire but was wrapped in a soft comforting towel – infant monkeys will get some food from the first fake mother but will spend the majority of the time clung onto the second fake but fluffy mother, and will show clear signs of distress if this fake soft mother is taken away. These were experiments with monkeys, and humans aren’t exactly the same animal (conducting the same lab experiments but with human infants will never be ethical – by modern standards, using monkeys was highly unethical already!), but every human mother understands the distress their infants exhibit if they’re left alone for too long, even when they’re not hungry. A healthy upbringing involves far more than merely being provided food and a roof. Slaves and hostages get food and a roof.
One’s upbringing environment and events when young therefore matter immensely and should never be dismissed. Therapists will try to investigate a person’s past to understand their present mental health. If you think you had a tough upbringing with traumatic events and you don’t have a psychological disorder (except perhaps ignorance or arrogance?! Well there are treatments for these conditions too) then maybe what you thought was tough or traumatic wasn’t as tough as you personally think, and/or you luckily also experienced a lot of protective factors in your upbringing, which sufficiently counteracted those risk factors, and/or you luckily don’t have enough risk alleles/genes?
It all ultimately matters – every little detail in a chaotic but nonetheless cause-and-effect universe – our genetics, upbringing and life events. Who we all are and become are literally and ultimately the result of our genetics and every single moment that we’ve experienced in our lives so far – good, neutral and bad, with earlier events generally being more impactful than later events due to the increasing neuroelasticity of our brains as we age i.e. making changes to our brains that stick gets generally harder (although not impossible) as we grow older. This is the scientific perspective when we aggregate the findings from all of the sciences. One certainly cannot say that all of the harsh, physical and mental abuse sustained, especially when young, will not affect someone developmentally, and therefore in turn the person they will become as an adult. We are the products of all of our experiences interacting in combination with the luck of our genes. (Read Post No.: 0156 to understand the diathesis-stress model of mental health.)
You won’t comprehend the extent of how much racism or sexism (both implicit and explicit) a person can receive and how affecting it can be unless you have been racially or sexually discriminated against yourself throughout your life, for instance. You may have seen a snippet from the sidelines as an observer but you won’t have seen it all and how constant or severe it can be unless you were always there and were a member of a prejudiced group.
Some members of the ethnic majority of a country will in fact deny there is any discrimination at all, or think that it’d be ‘water off a duck’s back’ if they were ever discriminated against for their own ethnicity – but if you were the only child who was of a certain ethnic minority (or sexuality, disability…) in a whole school class or even entire school year and you faced periodic abuse in these conditions then how would you have realistically felt? It’s easy saying you’d have been fine, knowing that you had the backing of the majority, but it’s a far more vulnerable position to be in to be a lonely member of a minority who is surrounded by hundreds of members of the majority. If you are an adult now, it’s also easier claiming that you’d be fine now since you are an adult and no longer a young developing child facing racial abuse and being ostracised for the colour of your skin (or different sexuality, disability…).
When still relatively young and naïve at least, we generally assume that the experiences of our peers when young were roughly the same as our own experiences when young. The things we had and had felt when young, we assume others had and had felt when young too (e.g. that other parents still washed and ironed their clothes after they reached 11 too, that other children went on holidays in the summer too, that all other children received pocket money too, that Christmases and childhood in general was a happy time for everyone else too, that other children looked up to their own parents for any kind of support too because we could rely on our own parents); unless it couldn’t be hidden in private or it was explicitly revealed to us that others lived differently to us.
So don’t assume that everyone had, felt or did the same things as you. If you weren’t physically, emotionally or sexually abused when young then don’t assume everyone else wasn’t – even those close to you that you thought you knew. You can’t even assume that every adult has blown a candle off a birthday cake at least once in their life so far. You’ve only lived a part of one life and you’ve likely mostly only closely hanged around peers who were particularly similar to you too (e.g. from the same social class) out of the billions of potential permutations of lives out there. Don’t assume that you know how others were raised based on how you were raised – you may have been far luckier (and you logically will be one of the lucky ones if you are mentally healthy in a cause-and-effect universe because that means the sum of every detail in your life, starting from the start, and however it all adds up, added up to this). Well even those who came from the same types of neighbourhoods and went to the same schools as us might’ve had very different upbringings to us (e.g. due to ethnocultural or idiosyncratic family reasons).
We won’t know what’s ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ or not (e.g. regarding our upbringing, our private feelings) until or unless we somehow learn about it by comparing to enough other people in an open and candid way. It is understandably difficult for those who did experience traumas when young to speak so openly and candidly about those experiences though – they tend to be kept private hence why others may assume they’ve never faced anything that bad at all. So we open up to get support as well as to educate others that there are private lives different to their own, or perhaps to show them that they’re not alone.
We sometimes cannot rely on what people say or said at the time either – children who know they have different family lives to their peers can often make up stuff to tell their peers in order to fit in and not stand out and be bullied for it (e.g. that they did celebrate their birthday with a small party and received presents from their own parents, that they went somewhere on holiday during the summer break); and there could be many things they find uncomfortable telling even their best friends (e.g. the domestic abuse they received last night). So it requires us to be mindful of other people’s possible hidden backgrounds rather than jump to judgemental conclusions about them, and children should not only be seen but also heard otherwise no one may realise their pains and traumas until it’s too late. Meow.
Unless we get out of our own bubbles and learn about other people’s lives, we won’t tend to know any differently to our own life experiences and we’ll assume a kind of ‘false consensus’ with other people’s lives. We might not even realise we’re in a bubble at all, like a proverbial goldfish in a bowl. In some cases we can learn that we’re actually in the minority when we thought we were in the majority (e.g. leveraging our parents’ connections to get us internships); although if such people remain in their social bubbles then they may perpetually remain in the dark about the wider world. Thus there’s also the perspective of the wider world too, especially if we were raised in an affluent country in an affluent family. In some cases we can assume that everyone else was as unfortunate as us (e.g. that everyone has recurring thoughts of suicide); but more commonly, we assume that our fortunes are shared while we assume our desirable personality traits are more unique than they really are.
In the end, it’s wrong to assume that everybody is the same, that everybody likes or wants the same things or has experienced the same things when young. Not everyone covets riches, for instance. It’s wrong to even assume that everybody loves to eat, even though it would seem logical for every heterotroph to love eating because it’s essential for their survival – some people (who don’t have eating disorders) just view food as sustenance. It’s like those of us who assumed that everybody directly scrubbed their legs every time they showered, until we learned that there were many who don’t(!) What some assumed was 100% universal was apparently not! ‘Obviously’ to us might not be ‘obviously’ to someone else. (I ‘obviously’ lick myself clean but wouldn’t assume humans do too!) Your direct life experiences are just of one person – your own.
The main point of this post is to increase empathy for those less fortunate than us. Empathy is not so much about how you imagine you’d feel if you were in someone else’s shoes based on your own life experiences, but about how someone else feels being in their shoes based on their own life experiences. So if you want to understand others then don’t just imagine yourself in their shoes – research their life then imagine being them in their shoes. And then show them the empathy and care that everyone, no matter their childhood history or background, intrinsically deserves.