Pretend for a moment that you have been captured by terrorists. They shackle you up in their torture chamber, where you are confronted by their fiendish leader.
“So,” he sneers, “Are you going to cooperate? Or are we going to have to make you cooperate?” And he emits an evil cackle.
At this juncture, you are faced with two options:
Behave nobly, and stubbornly refuse to have any part in this travesty; or
Break down and sob like a child.
I suspect you’ve played this scenario through your mind at one time or another. Hollywood represents our collective unconscious, or at least our collective imagination, and this set-up arises with predictable regularity in action thrillers (including every James Bond movie ever made). It seems sensible enough to ask yourself what you would do in this situation, all the while knowing perfectly well you’ll never know for sure (unless – god forbid – it ever happened.)
The real question is – why do those two options spring to mind as the only alternatives?
The answer is that you contain two selves – the adult and the child. Under stress, you can either resist the urge to regress and stay conscious as an adult. Or you can permit stress to regress you, go unconscious, and return to the young child.
It doesn’t take terrorists to trigger this voyage back to infancy. The collapse fantasy, as I call it, lurks as a temptation in our minds most of the time.
One of my patients recently found himself on his knees, weeping and pleading with his partner to take him back. Her response, as you might imagine, was disgust and horror that this man she’d respected had collapsed before her eyes into a helpless child. His adult self might have realized you sometimes have to step away if you want someone to follow – but the child wanted what he wanted and was going to scream until he got it. Needless to say, it didn’t work.
Later, filled with remorse, he told me he didn’t know what came over him. When a patient tells me something like that – some version of “I don’t know what came over me” – I know he’s describing unconscious behavior. And when we go unconscious, the child – and the collapse fantasy – tends to take over.
Once the child’s in charge, here’s how things operate:
He experiences solitude as abandonment. An infant abandoned even for a moment in his cradle, if he registers the slightest need for care, will scream as though in mortal danger. For all he knows, he is. He is utterly dependent.
He goes victim and broadcasts his upset. He perceives his scream as his only means for survival.
He is impulsive and pleasure-seeking. He wants what he wants. Now. Put a shiny toy in front of an infant – he wants the shiny toy.
Essentially, the child is an infant – your earliest incarnation. The temptation to regress into that infant state is strong because it reproduces a time when you received total attention and care. All you had to do was register your desires – any impulsive desire – and it would be satisfied. Mom would come running – someone would come running – if you only yelled loudly enough.
My client, stressed by his partner’s stated desire to leave the relationship, succumbed to the temptation to regress, and began relating to his partner as an infant to a parent – weeping, crying, begging for the care he needed. He entirely forgot her needs – which only drove her further away.
The collapse fantasy haunts us – especially when we’re under stress. In fact, “nervous breakdown” is a code word for the collapse fantasy in action. That’s when you announce you are overwhelmed and can’t take it anymore – you are giving up…and they cart you away to the looney bin. I’ve run into this syndrome mostly with younger patients – adolescents or people in their early twenties. They “lose it” and do something crazy, or make a half-hearted suicide attempt – whatever it takes to end up in a mental hospital. At that point, in the vast majority of cases, they realize they’ve made a mistake (mental hospitals are not relaxing places.) That’s when they begin to see that the collapse fantasy doesn’t work as a life strategy. The help you really want – mommy – doesn’t arrive.
Why does the collapse fantasy present such a strong temptation? Consider the trajectory of your life, for a moment, in terms of loss. As you grew out of childhood, the first, profoundest loss was the total, unqualified attention of a parent. Have you ever watched a young child at a playground calling for his mother to watch him do some trick on the jungle gym? “Mommy. Mommy. Mommy! Mommy!! MOMMY!!! MOMMMMMMMYYYYYYYY!!!!!” …until she finally breaks off her conversation, turns, and acknowledges him with a wave.
As adults, we have to parent ourselves, and assume responsibility for our own needs (as well, perhaps as the needs of our children and even our parents.) That can feel overwhelming. It’s no wonder we unconsciously long for a return to the past.
The good news is that adulthood brings benefits as well as losses. It’s a trade-off in some respects, but independence can be sweet. It feels good to make your own decisions, and rely on your own judgment. If you’re not busy screaming for someone else’s attention all the time, you can begin focusing attention on yourself – and give yourself the care you need.