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The first 2-3 years of life are so formative that the most fundamental and elementary ways that someone experiences and interacts with the world are set. Personality changes throughout life, but less and less so. How the child deals with separation from the mother and his or her own sense of self lays a foundation for all later development.
What qualities of being are required to move through the stages of development for the first 2-3 years of life? And what happens when some of these qualities are not fully present?
Basically, according to depth psychology the infant starts on a ‘merged with the mother state’ for the first 6 months or so. From there the baby begins a process of separating and individuating from the mother until 2-3 years old.
The merged state that the child starts with is like a childhood enlightenment. There is little sense of difference or separation. It has a blissful quality that is sometimes interrupted by physical and emotional needs. How these needs are dealt with sets an initial and immediate sense of how the world is basically or bodily. Safe, nourishing or not, at a very basic or bodily level.
The dominant quality and the quality required in this early stage is a type of blended merged love, where the mother’s psyche and body are shared with the infant. This makes entry into the world of conditions safe, gradual and generally pleasant.
If this merged love is not present or infrequently present or somehow dimmed then the baby will experience and begin to perceive the world in a less safe and positive way at the deep level of the body.
Next the child begins to differentiate themselves from the mother. The quality of strength is key here because he/she is separating themselves from the merged mother. Strength slowly begins to take over as the primary quality of experience, instead of the merged type of love. Ideally this is not strength in a contracted form, rather it is a bright uplifting yet relaxed feeling of capability.
If the merged state did not go well (needs were not met) then it is likely that ego has already taken on a more rigid and defensive structure. This naturally blocks out the natural feelings of goodness of reality because the child is more self focused toward a false self. It also sets the stage for the strength, which is needed to differentiate, to arise in an ‘egoic condition’. Additionally, trauma at this differentiation stage can cause the more rigid, being-blocking form of ego. Trauma at these early periods is particularly damaging for obvious reasons. Fundamental issues (around separation, survival, etc.) can centralize themselves in the blueprint for living which is being formed!
But let’s assume things go ideally in the merged state and differentiation happens ideally; the baby feels strong, able and happy. The next stage involves experiencing limitation, the limitations of his/her little body in the conditional world. If the mother, and to a lesser degree the father (most commonly) deals with the child’s attempt to remerge in a healthy supportive way, that both loves the child but encourages them to venture out strongly, then a quality of strength and ability will be added to a quality of merged safe love at the deep level of body.
If the attempt to remerge is not dealt with well the child will end up too merged with the parent or too separate and independent. If the parent clings to the child the child will stay more merged. If the parent rejects the child, then the child will be more separate. In either case the love quality of being or the strength quality of being is diminished to a type of enmeshment or separateness. In a typical “softy” or “meany” personality style.
Next the child individualizes and develops their own sense of individuality and personality. The primary quality here is individuality. This individuality is not based on egoic separateness ideally, but instead forms a unique personality that is fully connected to being. Any number of things can happen in this stage and cause the personality to become more contracted and further away from being. The contracted form of the individuality quality is something like the personality of ego (often called the false self).
Around four years old the child enters an Oedipal phase where each child develops a sense of their ‘boyness’ or ‘girlness’ and what this means. The child develops the ability to polarize love, and years later to romanticize love. This is furthered by the biological development. Freud was absolutely correct that a sexual self sense begins to form when a child realizes their gender and begins to integrate it into their personality. This sexual self sense, unless addressed, will underlie all romantic connections to follow. Of course, it will change and further events will influence one’s romantic ability, but one’s basic sense of one’s gender will underlie all of that.
Strength and love, as well as many other qualities become enhanced by these gender developments if they go well. Ideally the child has received the environmental support necessary to move through these stages while maintaining a connection to Being. In which case, one’s identity is in being, one’s individuality is an alive vibrant personality not a separateness, and one’s gender sense adds a thrill to life instead of some type of obsession or problem.