Freud was reportedly asked about the definition of psychological health. His reported response was for a person to be able to love and to work. Some authors state this was more or less a throw away answer. However, Freud worked with enough patients to know what he was talking about.
Let’s explore this a bit. Certainly, there are other areas in life that can be impacted and troubled. Why did Freud focus on these two dimensions?
The Ability to Love
It would seem that the ability to love would be the most natural thing a person could do. However, there are many things that impact one’s ability to love and to love freely. In fact, they are so numerous we will only be able to touch on a limited number. Nonetheless, this should at least give some overview.
From the beginning (infancy and early childhood): John Bowlby studied human attachment initially in orphanages. He found different attachment styles that developed based on the infant’s regular interactions with her parents. Most kids (about two thirds) will develop a secure attachment. This is normal. The remaining third will develop problematic attachment.
One predictable style will be Avoidant attachment. These kids avoid attachment, because it has proved too difficult. Parents were regularly unavailable and the pain of unmet needs has proved too difficult. These kids have ‘decided’, if you will, not to expose themselves to the pain of unmet needs by becoming extremely self-sufficient. This negates the need for another person. If there is no need for another person, and one is self-sufficient there is less possibility of the predictable pain endured in infancy and early childhood.
At the other end of the continuum are children whose parent is inconsistent with their needs. These kids can develop a mental representation of not being worthy enough for their attention. This attachment style is categorized as anxious ambivalent. It is characterized by neediness and being anxious for attention from other. As they mature, they will tend to be dependent in relationships and struggle with the constant worry of not being good enough.
A more problematic attachment style is called disorganized attachment. A disorganized attachment style occurs when a parent or caregiver is abusive to the child. The child is caught in a dilemma: the parent or caregiver is the source of distress, which causes the child to want to flee to safety. Yet, this same person is also supposed to be the source of caring and safety. The abuse is ‘predictably unpredictable’. Sometimes, the child will dissociate from herself during the abuse. In that case, whatever happened during these times is blocked from the child’s consciousness. Often times, children in this type of system will develop few coping methods and an unorganized attachment style. These kids not only see their parent as a primary source of comfort but also their primary source of their fear. Later in life, this extends to other intimate relationships.
Other types of experiences in childhood can result in problems allowing one to love:
Various types of trauma may result in a child ‘deciding’ not to allow himself to love. These might include the loss of one or both parents, perhaps to migration, mental or physical illness or even death. A child, for example who is left behind in the home country while the rest of the family emigrates will likely bond closer with the grandmother/aunt/whomever she was left with in the country of origin. Sometimes it takes many years for the child to finally be able to join her family. Family relations (particularly nuclear family) can become quite disrupted. Parents can become very jealous of the love the child feels for the de facto parent in the ‘home’ country. Sometimes parents do not recognize the traumatic loss the child feels in being wrenched from the family in the country of origin.
It is not hard to predict that a child or teen who has had severe trauma among their intimate attachment figures will generalize later in life and may cause significant impact in their loving relationships and their willingness to trust.
Children who grow up with a mentally ill parent can end up with a wide variety of issues. The outcome will depend on a seemingly endless number of factors, for example the type of mental illness, other adults who may intervene and provide a moderating and stabilizing presence (or not). For example, a child whose parent has a personality disorder may grow up so wrapped up in trying to predict and appease the unstable world created by the parent that a basic trust is very hard to establish in later relationships.
If the parent has an active psychotic disorder, the child may grow up in a terrifying world. In adulthood, there may be a real fear of giving oneself over to another since that could mean losing oneself into a terrifying universe, which is foreign to oneself.
Kids who grow up having to constantly accommodate themselves to others (for example in the two examples above) often end up resenting the people whom they love because love and accommodation seem to them to go hand in hand. The problem becomes this love, too, becomes suffused with the resentment they perhaps could not even allow themselves to feel as they sacrificed significant parts of their childhood to the needs of an unstable or ill parent.
Parents who die can leave behind a child with many different questions. Some of which can include:
- Am I responsible? (Young kids can often feel responsible for things due to a developmentally normal ego-centrism).
- Did my parent love me? If so, (from a child’s perspective) why did they die? Or why didn’t they pay more attention before they died (for example in a person who was chronically ill and therefore unavailable).
- Can I trust that the other people I love won’t die and leave me? (Since the threshold of possibility has been lowered, it seems much more possible than for someone who has not endured this type of trauma).
There are also more mundane types of experiences that can impair the child’s ability to love or at least love freely. One example is a high conflict parental divorce. The child in this type of situation can often feel it is not safe to commit to someone or to trust. Moreover, if the child is forced to side with one parent there can be many complications (such as a guilty sense of secret longing, a conflicted sense of loyalty and/or a wondering if one or both parent(s) love him. If the child becomes a replacement partner for the unhappy parent, there can be a fear of engulfment in the parent’s overwhelming need. This fear of engulfment can result in an adult who finds he or she needs to maintain a distance lest they become overwhelmed in the partner’s neediness and they risk a possible loss of self.
Clearly this is not an exhaustive list, however this is a sample of the ways in which a person’s ability to love can be severely impacted by experiences in early life which threaten to repeat or otherwise result in a person making defensive maneuvers which impede the ability to give oneself and to love freely. Click this link to read another contemplation on the courage required to allow oneself to be known in an intimate and honest manner.
The Ability to Work
As with the ability to love, there are nearly innumerable reasons why this basic function could be impaired. The following are only a sample.
The ability to grieve the unmet needs of childhood. Part of growing up means a constant form of weaning. No one gets through childhood with every imagined desire met. The ability to provide for oneself also means (at least unconsciously) letting go of the hope that the parent will take care of you. Conversely, not ‘being able to’ provide for oneself means keeping the door open for the parent to continue to (have to) meet one’s needs.
Work requires the delay of gratification (since most people would rather do something other than work). It also requires the ability to have a clear enough mind to focus and not be overly concerned with one’s personal issues.
Having a job which is a challenge means one is willing to be competitive enough to push oneself. This also requires enough self-confidence to assert oneself and apply oneself. The ability to assert oneself requires enough comfort with aggression to know that one is not dangerous.
One learns to compete initially through dealing with siblings and through negotiating the Oedipus complex. Learning both one’s place in the world (as the child), but also learning it is ok to aspire and to compete are typical tasks of this period. Clearly, success in this period is also dependent on how all of this is handled by the parents/guardians in the child’s life.
Success in the work place requires the acceptance of authority as legitimate. You cannot expect to succeed at work if you don’t have at least some ability to tolerate working for a boss. Similarly, the ability to deal with coworkers begins with learning to deal with siblings or peers in childhood. The inability to accept authority or cooperate with peers will have a rapid and negative result for one’s career in the workplace.
While Freud’s statement may have been taken as a throwaway quip, it is easy to see how profoundly these two key areas of human experience can be disrupted by problematic childhood experiences and difficulties overcoming them. The accuracy of his remark was impressive. These are issues we see daily: people struggling to love, to be loved and to strive and work.