We judge each other as dispositioned towards negativity or positivity, scarcity or abundance, as if it is a chosen disposition. We imagine the concept of a glass half full or half empty as a perspective that people choose. We access people as being negative or being positive. We go so far as to consider each other’s perspectives on this concept an issue of morality. The thing is, the first time that disposition gets set is in the first few months of life.
Perspective Formed in Infancy
We come into the world with some of our own unique constitutional issues and personalities, as parents of multiple children will tell you. Nature is a powerful force in defining who we become as adults.
But nurture is also quite a powerful force. The environment and relationships and infant care children are exposed to in the first few months of life are their introduction to the world. It is how they learn about life and what they are conditioned to expect going forward.
Infants do not learn any of this with language we can later refer to. They do not even learn it through experiences they will cognitively remember and be able to use to later explain their world views. But the environment and interactions we have in the first few months of life will become how we know the world and what we should expect from it. There is no world for the infant outside their family in those first few months. There is no capacity to imagine different circumstances.
For instance, if the place we live in is particularly loud, we can’t formulate the concept of quiet. We don’t know that our place is loud and some places are quiet. The loudness just is. It just is what the world is.
Did We Get Enough of What We Need?
What we also learn is how our needs are going to be met. We have as of yet undefinable experiences, like hunger, wetness, or nameless dread. Those experiences are met with breasts or bottles, diaper changes, cuddles and cooing. And they are met with enough to satisfy the infant’s needs, or not so much.
We aren’t talking about occasional times when a parent may not have time or patience to feed their infant to satiety, or to cuddle them until they are fully content. We are talking about the countless times a day, day in and day out, every week and every month, into the years, that the infant/child has a need. Some infants are introduced to abundance, by dotting parents, who have the time, inclination and resources to shower them in cuddles and songs and just enough stimulation with touch and music and toys when they are restless, and in relaxed feedings that include soft swaddles and sways and talk and endless eye contact.
Such an infant grows up dispositioned to experience the world as likely to meet its needs. Unless later childhood or adulthood gives that child an extended experience of scarcity and insatiability, that child, when she extends herself into the world, will assume that she is going to be met in a satisfying way.
The opposite is also true. In a family, even a loving, well intentioned family, but one that isn’t able to sufficiently devote the kind of attention, time, attunement to the infant, the infant may not get enough of his needs met. He might be actually deprived, or just minimally sated. This might occur because of external stressors impacting the family, a crisis within the family, or maternal/paternal deficits of care in the parents lives that left them unable to find enough in themselves to satisfy the neediness of an infant.
Such an infant, without knowledge of a different possible reality, experiences the world as insufficient to meet its needs. In the disappointment and frustration of having its needs insufficiently met, it will likely even experience the insufficiently satisfying world as hostile towards its needs.
This is the infant that grows up to see the glass as half empty. He has no reason to approach the world with good will or with expectations that goodness will come to him. He would be disposed to approach the world with suspicion, possibly even some aggression in response to experiences of being deprived. As adults we would know him as negative and always anticipating the worst.
Being Negative or Being Positive: Deeply Embedded, but Changeable
Those first few months of life in our homes with our families is where we come to know the world as a good and abundant place or one where we are going to have to make do. But it doesn’t mean we live our whole lives with that world view. Just as an extended period of deprivation and hardship can change the world perspective of someone who grew up with abundance, an extended experience of goodness and satiety in later childhood or adulthood can similarly shift someone’s worldview.
In lieu of an extended period of overabundance that dislodges the very deeply embedded perspective of a glass half empty, those with this world view can choose a path toward the glass half full. It means not just noting when goodness comes their way but grieving a childhood that taught them otherwise.
Bottom line. Not good to judge folks who struggle with a negative world view, as they came by it honestly. And if you are the one who struggles to see the goodness the world has to offer, it isn’t your fault; but it is no fun and there is another way. Take the path. Owe that your history set you up. Don’t worry; you can both grieve your childhood and still be able to forgive your parents for their limitations.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
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