“There was a monster.”
The exact location of this monster varies. Sometimes the monster was in the room; other times the monster was outside. Sometimes the monster is on its way and hasn’t arrived yet. But it’s amazing how many bad things are caused by monsters.
Actually, it really isn’t all that amazing. It makes good sense from a developmental perspective. There’s a phenomenon among young human creatures called “splitting.” (It also exists among older human creatures in far more sophisticated ways.) Freudian psychologists initially considered splitting to be a psychotic function of repression, but object-relations theorists began to reclaim this as a far more common defense mechanism that develops in early childhood. Melanie Klein developed this in her work, describing the process in which an infant or toddler, developmentally incapable of tolerating the sensation of ambivalence, locates all positive feelings with a “good object” and all negative feelings with a “bad object.” These objects may change from time to time depending on the child’s feelings. Ronald Fairbairn went on to describe how this dynamic takes shape in a child’s projections on its parents. All parents, even the best ones, have moments of unavailability and distance. The child, completely dependent upon its parents for everything, cannot tolerate holding both good and bad feelings towards a parent, and so splits. Perhaps one parent is the “good” parent and the other parent is the “bad” parent. Or, even worse, the parents are “good” and the child is “bad.”
If all this psychodynamic theory is a bit thick and muddy for you, let me give an example that every parent has probably experienced sometime in the past two days. Did you scold your child for something (rightly, no doubt)? And did that child then run to your parenting partner for comfort? Voilà, splitting. Because your child experienced negative emotions at being scolded (which I’m sure he or she completely needed), you then became the bad parent. Your child can’t tolerate the ambivalence of feeling that you are both good and bad at times, so in that moment you are bad. Someone then needs to be good, and that became the other parent. This split might last a day or more; you may be the “bad” parent for a while. But you’ve probably seen the tables turn; just wait until your partner is the one who scolds, and then suddenly you are the “good” parent.
Splitting doesn’t always happen just with parents. Object-relations theorists derive their name from the foundational belief that young people develop their ego through their relations with various objects (natch). Does your child have a blankie or lovey or dollie she can’t sleep without? That’s a good object. All your child’s feelings of safety, security and love are transferred onto that object. When your child clutches her blankie at night, it literally feels to her as if she is clutching love and protection.
Which brings us to bad objects. A bad object carries all of the negative feelings a child experiences: shame, fear, insecurity, hate. Sometimes this bad object is a toy. Clues that a toy has become a bad object are: being thrown across the room, stomped on, or tossed in the trash. Perhaps this split might resolve, and then the child wants the toy back. Or, as is the case with my Curly Fries, the bad object might be something bigger than a toy. It might be something imagined, like an evil twin or the devil. Or a monster.
This type of projection in splitting is, as I stated above, completely normal for a three-year-old. It’s also, as I stated above, not terribly abnormal for an adult, either. The hope for mature development is that the ego becomes strong enough to incorporate a split into a state of held ambivalence. A toddler, however, isn’t quite capable of doing this at the level of sophistication of an adult (assuming, of course, a mature adult who actually does the work of ego integration). But toddlers do have a limited capacity to do this. Take this recent exchange between me and Curly Fries:
Me: What happened to your arm?
CF: Betty scratched me.
Me: Uh oh! Why did Betty scratch you?
CF: There was a monster in the room.
Me: Really? Betty scratched you because there was a monster in the room?
Me: So why did the monster in the room make Betty feel like scratching you?
CF: Because I took her toy away from her.
A-ha. Curly Fries isn’t quite capable yet of saying out loud, “I did a bad thing and I got scratched as a result.” She did feel that, though, deep down inside. And it feels awful. Who among us doesn’t have trouble holding the conflicting experiences of having done something bad and then getting punished for it? We feel bad for what we did to deserve the punishment and we still don’t like that we got punished. Isn’t it just easier to blame a monster?
It’s a tangibly powerful image, as well as a powerfully tangible image. Maybe there’s a monster in the room with you right now – don’t look behind you! Your own jealousy, anger, disappointment… do they ever make you do things you wish you hadn’t done? Stupid monsters, they’re so ugly and mean.
The trick is recognizing that those monsters are ours. It’s not an easy trick. I don’t do it for myself as often as I should, so I certainly identify with Curly Fries. Every now and then, when something happens that she doesn’t like – play time is coming to an end, for instance, or she has to try boiled cabbage at dinner – her eyes will grow wide and she’ll throw a finger over her mouth and say, “Shhh! There’s a monster coming!” Let it come, I say. I’d rather deal with the monster in the room than having it wreak havoc unchecked. Who knows, maybe that monster might be my friend after all.