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Childhood Fixations

( Originally Published 1920 )

The seed of all mental disturbances is sown in our childhood years. Whether we hold with Freud that childhood memories, habits and repressions disturb our mental balance in later years, or assume with Adler that the neurotic adult simply draws upon his childhood memories for the woof of his fancies, the fact remains that one's childhood, directly or indirectly, determines the content and form of one's neurosis.

The problems of childhood are therefore the problems of the adult. To a normal, happy childhood corresponds a normal, happy adulthood. We cannot state that to an abnormal, unhappy childhood there always corresponds an abnormal unhappy adulthood, for most people manage to remain normal regardless of what they do or have to suffer at the hands of others; but we can state that to every abnormality observed in an adult corresponds some abnormal situation which dominated the subject's childhood.

The most fateful complication in a child's life and one whose consequences are recognized by analysts of all schools without any exception, is what Freud has designated as the Oedipus complex, or the excessive attachment of a child for the parent of the opposite sex, resulting in a more or less violent dislike of the parent of the same sex.

Freud called it the Oedipus Complex as an illusion to the well known legend of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who killed his father Laius and married his mother Jocasta.

Students of ancient religions and folk lore have noticed that the conflict between father and son, mother and daughter, constitutes the substance of thousands of mythological or popular legends. Psychiatrists have observed it reappearing in many forms of mental derangement.

Freud has stated that such an excessive attach-ment or "fixation" is unconsciously incestuous.

The Swiss school of analysts would rather believe that the fixation is purely symbolical, the boy selecting his mother, the girl, her father, as an ideal of authority, intelligence, power, etc.

Adler, of Vienna, on the other hand, believes that the incest situation is imagined by the neurotic as one of the components of his regression to a period of his life when he was absolutely dependent on one of the parents and did not have to face life and its struggles.

None of those three views should exclude the others. There may be a slightly sensuous attachment in certain cases, encouraged by caresses of the mother for the son and of the father for the daughter, in which there is a slight amount of veiled sexuality, each of the parents showing preference for the child of the opposite sex. But in many cases, Jung's and Adler's views appear very plausible.

To those three hypotheses we may add a fourth one: Imitation is probably the most potent factor in human and animal life. Like instinct, it probably resolves itself into a set of little understood physical, chemical and nervous phenomena, some of which have been elucidated only recently.

We are what we are because we have imitated some man or woman whose mannerisms, attitudes, mode of speech, and consequently, whose emotional life we have unconsciously reproduced.

As in the first years of our life we have no one to imitate but our parents, our parents are likely to become our most obsessing model or ideal.

This phenomenon presents many dangers. The normal child would be one who, up to the time of puberty, had imitated both parents without showing much partiality (admitting of course that the parents harmonized well enough not to create a conflict in the child's mind); who at puberty, would imitate the parent of the same sex, without exhibiting any hostility toward the parent of the opposite sex; and who finally would select secondary imitation objects outside of the family circle, thus building up a consistent and original personality.

The parental traits would be there, father and mother contributing varied qualities, and outsiders furnishing pleasing variations upon the parental type, introducing into the blend no discordant features.

There are too many cases, however, in which that happy situation is disturbed. Sickness in childhood may bring one child under the constant influence of one parent to the almost complete exclusion of the other; and so may the death or continued absence of one of the parents. One of the parents may for rather regrettable reasons, attract and amuse the child; a neurotic, eccentric parent will have more influence upon his children than his normal mate (circus freaks attract children more than athletes), etc.

Children coming home from the circus almost invariably imitate the freaks or the clowns, but even Freud would fail to drag a sexual explanation into that "fixation" which is often of long duration and incredibly powerful, considering the short time in which the children were exposed to the influence of their favourites.

Three hours at the circus may mean several weeks of attempts at performing certain stunts. A little boy of my acquaintance walked for several weeks like Charlie Chaplin after seeing him once.

In many cases, the Oedipus situation resolves itself then into an exaggerated imitation of one parent by the child.

A boy having selected his mother as the most perfect model, is bound to dislike his father who, not only is so unlike her, but wields too much influence over her.

If, on the contrary, he had selected his father as his exclusive model, he would dislike his mother, who is unlike the father and dominates him in certain respects.

The family romance of the neurotic girl would be similar to that of the neurotic boy.

Imitation explains as much as sexuality and rids certain details of the romance of their apparently sexual aspect.

The boy with a fixation on his mother, who constantly fondles her and has to be taken into her bed, is not attracted by any of his mother's physical qualities. He is, in all respects but one, a female who feels no embarrassment in close contact with another female and does not expect her to feel any embarrassment either. The sexual fate of such boys, who later in life are very indifferent to women and not infrequently passive homosexuals, confirms the suspicion that it is rather imitation of the mother and self-identification with her than repressed incest cravings which dominate their behaviour.

The many male and female neurotics who are attracted solely to married men and women are subjects with strong fixations who seek, not primarily one physical or mental type for which they have a special affinity, but a situation, which in their childhood years was normal and habitual. The father they loved had a wife, the mother they loved had a husband.

Their jealousy of their lover's wife or of their mistress's husband is what their dislike of the unloved parent was, not sexual but egotistical.

The boy with a mother fixation and the girl with a father fixation, will not only try to be like the favourite parent, but will on all occasions try to be as unlike the unloved parent as possible. (Clergy-men's sons.)

One boy I have observed was the son of a professional man, very conservative, prudish and snobbish to a degree.

His mother fixation had been nursed along by too much petting and fondling. At sixteen he still played in mother's bed mornings and evenings. At eighteen he showed absolutely no interest in girls and compared every girl he knew to his mother in a way most disadvantageous to the girl.

After a severe crisis at the time of puberty when he once attempted suicide, his opposition to every one of his father's ideas and plans for his future began to manifest itself very clearly.

The father was extremely conservative; the son embraced readily all radical beliefs. The father was conventional, the son unconventional in his behaviour and speech, and very slovenly in his way of dressing. The father was very settled in his habits, the son led the most irregular life, sleeping all day and loafing all night, having his meals at all times of the day or night.

His revolt against the father-image, symbolical of authority, caused him to be involved in difficulties with various teachers and finally to leave college.

In his sedulous avoidance of the father type he shunned all professional people and spent most of his time with menials and labourers.

His distaste for work, which prevented him from holding a position for more than a few days at a time, was in part an imitation of the comparative idleness of his middle class mother, financially dependent on his father, and in part an expression of dislike of his employers symbolizing the father's authority, and also a way of "getting even" with his father.

His constant schemes for getting-rick-quick and his passion for gambling were attempted flights front reality and a search for the line of least effort.

The struggle between his normal and his abnormal tendencies revealed itself in his variable attitude to his mother whom he at times overwhelmed with caresses and at times treated very scornfully.

Another neurotic with a decided fixation on his mother was unable to enjoy any food which had not been prepared by her or 'according to her recipes. Dishes which had never been served in his home during his childhood repelled him and when courtesy compelled him to eat of them, he generally developed nausea and vomiting. In this case, the mother fixation had not had any crippling effects as far as sexual cravings were concerned. He consorted with many women of different types but selected for his wife a woman of the mother type whom he constantly taunted by instituting unpleasant comparisons between her and his mother.

This man always voiced a frank hatred of his father and like the preceding type indulged constantly in dreams of get-rich-quick schemes which his restlessness never allowed to mature.

Besides heterosexual fixations or fixations on the parent of the opposite sex, we must consider homosexual fixations or fixations on the parent of the same sex.

They do not lead to conflicts as acute as those precipitated by the Oedipus situation. The boy with ,a father fixation is not impelled by his dislike of his mother to seek forms of behaviour which are eccentric or absurd, for, being a male, he will on all occasions act in ways different from hers. His dislike will be due to her dissimilaity to his ideal, which he will consider as an inferiority.

Very different from the boy with a mother fixation, the boy with a father fixation will not shun women but he will despise them and fear them. They will attract him as they attract the father he imitates but he will be more or less ashamed of yielding to their attraction. He will love them and torture them and the origin of many cases of cruel sadism is generally to be traced back to such a situation.

Both forms of fixation have a crippling influence on a human being's life. Clinging too closely to an ideal, he has a tendency to disparage all conditions which differ from the conditions under which he acquired a fixation.

The man with a mother fixation will regret the days when he still was his mother's little boy; when life's emergencies threaten him with defeat he may regress to the childhood level on which he then lived.

The man with a father fixation will follow the same deceptive line of least effort; there will be a difference, however. While the man with a mother fixation is likely to be a rebel, the man with a father fixation is generally a crusty conservative, a neophobiac, ranting over the good old days, old fashioned in every way, at times more conservative even than his father, for his father may have grown mentally while he lingers in the stage during which he acquired his fixation and still imitates his father as his father was when he himself was from five to fifteen years old.

A conflict between the parents results often in a severe conflict in the child's organism. Parents living in disharmony lack fairness, measure and dignity. Their hostility to each other makes them repellent to the child who is constantly in doubt as to whom to imitate. In certain cases a fixation on one of the parents may have disastrous effects.

B. M.'s parents never agreed and finally separated. B. M. realized her mother's mental inferiority and drew farther and farther away from her in childhood. She was extremely attracted by her neurotic father whose lack of kindness and erratic ways, on the other hand, repelled her. Her psychology has ever since been complicated by the following speculation: "I shall do this because my father would have done it but it is wrong for me to do it for my father was an unworthy type." The result has been acute hysterical suffering.

I shall mention in the chapter on the Love Life the various perversions due to maladjustments of the fixation type in childhood.

From a consideration of the mental growth of the child, one is forced to accept the conclusion that the presence of a male and a female in the household is absolutely necessary if the offspring is to be normal in later life. The child brought up by only one parent is likely to be one-sided or perverse.

Affectionate parents are a source of great danger for their children and so are those who do not know how to restrain their children's affection when it gets out of bounds.

Indifferent parents or the removal of the parents by death in the child's infancy cripple the child in another way.

Egotism of the positive, progressive, creative type is the most valuable human trait, the trait which differentiates man from the animals. A certain amount of self-love, self-confidence, self-reliance is absolutely necessary in life.

The child whom no parent has praised and who has been treated like an intruder, the orphan committed to some institution where teachers or keepers, however kind they may be, cannot lavish on fifty or a hundred children the love which individual parents would lavish on each of them separately, suffer from a certain sense of inferiority which often leads to negativism.

Such children do not know that they are important for they have never seemed important to any one. When herded in institutions they only have distant models for imitation, the few adults they could imitate being strangers separated from them by a wall of indifference. The result is often a stunting in mental and physical growth due to the wholesale imitation of children by children.

The solution of the fixation problem will not be within our reach until the phenomenon of imitation has been studied more completely. At present a few scattered observations made by biologists constitute the only material at our disposal. Those few and unrelated facts, however, are enough to make us suspect the tremendous importance of imitation as a factor in human development.

Autosuggestion - The General Formula

Play Of The Subconscious
Unconscious Mind
Fixation @ Wikipedia


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