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Childhood Development – Holding Tight, Letting Go

As infants, we are everything. We are all-powerful and all-knowing, kings of the universe. Maturity is the relief of learning that this isn’t so. The constant, back-and-forth tension between holding tight and letting go serves a purpose. Two steps forward, one step back. Healthy human development is an excited and terrified, brave and embarrassed, determined […]

Lori Denman-Underhill
Lori Denman-Underhill uses the power of the press to raise awareness about endless causes.

As infants, we are everything. We are all-powerful and all-knowing, kings of the universe. Maturity is the relief of learning that this isn’t so.

The constant, back-and-forth tension between holding tight and letting go serves a purpose. Two steps forward, one step back. Healthy human development is an excited and terrified, brave and embarrassed, determined and disgraced jerky forward movement toward autonomy: selfness. A gut-level confidence about who I am and how I fit in to the world that I inhabit.

We are each launched forward into development, halting and uncertain, out of an “oceanic” sense of self. The term is credited to Sigmund Freud, the father of contemporary psychotherapy. Listening to his patients’ accounts of their earliest memories, Freud intuited that the pre-verbal child’s experience is global and undifferentiated. He suggested that our earliest awareness is all-encompassing, utterly me-centered, and lacking all distinction between self and not-self.


It makes sense. For weeks or months prior to birth, the fetus’s experience is oceanic — floating in an undifferentiated, seemingly timeless universe. There is no not-me. Hunger and satiation, pain and release, fatigue and rest are seamlessly connected. Mother and child are literally inseparable; physically and psychologically one. In this universe there can be neither holding tight nor letting go. That tension requires at least two participants. For an infinite moment, there is only one.

Ask any newborn and the answer you’ll hear is, “I am everything and everything is me.” (Of course, he’ll imagine that the question was his own.)

Our culture has long been embroiled in an impossible debate about if and when the not-yet-born human is biologically, legally, or morally a person. Politics and religion and the courts may someday settle the matter, but psychology has known the answer for decades: there can be no “self ” before that first and most traumatic experience of letting go.

Or even long thereafter.

Birth is less the landmark emergence of self than it is the shocking separation of need from need fulfillment. It results in an incomprehensible and intolerable and completely unfamiliar interruption of comfort. For the first time, hunger goes unfulfilled. Exhaustion occurs without rest. Pain strikes without relief. Need is separated from immediate satisfaction.

Before birth, there is simply no reason to signal need. After birth, an infant who fails to signal her needs will die. Thus, we have evolved in such a way that infants now express their needs, creating two contemporary realities.

Number one: Children are noisy. No matter how much sleep you lose, no matter how often you’re interrupted, this is good. Crying and whining and cooing are the cornerstones of communication. More than just language, communication is about relationships. Crying does more than express need; it asks for a response. Infants learn through repetition that crying brings food (or other relief), which, in turn, is associated with a particular person’s scent, touch, and appearance. Very soon, those same sensory cues bring pleasure even in the absence of need. is is the foundation of the child’s first attachment relationship.

Number two: the delay that occurs between need expression and need fulfillment begins to teach babies to delay gratification. Back in the good old days, the womb provided instant relief. Now need goes unfulfilled, at least for a time, which prompts screams and tears. This, in turn, prompts you as the parent to look for the remote, push pause, stand and cross the room to get a bottle, calling out soothing, melodic reassurances all the while.

“It’s okay, sweet nookums. Mommy’s coming. Who’s the most handsome boy on the planet? You are, of course!”

Sweet nookums associates that voice and that tone with food. Diminished discomfort. Satiation. Pleasure. Soon enough that voice will help to calm him, at least briefly, by association—even in the absence of food.

Hunger. Cry. Delay. Satiation.
 Pain. Cry. Delay. Relief.
 Need and need fulfillment are separate.
 Could it be that me and not-me are separate?
Not-me appears, then disappears. Appears, then disappears. This is where and when and how it all begins. Holding tight. Letting go.

Self emerges gradually out of this tension as a by-product of the back-and-forth, push-pull recurring tension between holding tight and letting go. Holding tight and letting go. Over and over and over again. As many times and in as many different ways as this drama is played out through the lifespan, it is never as powerful and complete and irreversible as when it first occurs in the terrible insult that is birth.

Do this: get a cup of water. Dip the tip of a finger in the liquid; then pull it out slowly and smoothly. The drip clinging to the end of your finger has an identity. Maybe not a name or a social security number, but a bounded separateness from the world in which it exists. If your vision is good enough, you can see the edges where the drip stops and your finger begins. The drip is discrete, separate, and autonomous.

Now gently wiggle the finger so that the drip falls back into the cup. You won’t see it, but there is a fleeting moment when the intact drip collides with the surface of the liquid below. If it were a coin or a ball or a rock, there would be a splash, but the object would maintain its identity. You could find it and retrieve it whole and intact. In or out of the water, the object would remain bounded and distinct.

Not the drip. The drip is immediately and seamlessly consumed. Its identity is lost. If you’d dropped a grain of sand back onto the beach, that particular grain might be indistinguishable and irretrievable, but its integrity would go unchanged. It does exist separate and whole somewhere amidst the crowd of other grains that make up the beach. The drip does not.

The drip hits the water and loses its identity. It becomes unbounded. If I asked you to find the same drip again, you’d reasonably raise a puzzled eyebrow and admit that the task is impossible. That unique drip no longer exists.

This is all of child development in reverse. The infant exists in that infinite, oceanic, and unbounded state like the yet-to-be drip in the cup of water until it is wrenched away at the moment of birth. The body demands separateness, but the self is unprepared. Gone suddenly is the perfectly climate-controlled, scuba-like, weightless comfort, complete with 24/7 maid service. Gone suddenly are the muddled sounds and muted lights.

The newborn is abruptly thrust into a world that startles, threatens, and moves. The warm bath that insulated and cushioned and nurtured is replaced by temperature and textures that scrape and chafe and burn. Where taste and smell were constant and indistinct, odors now assault and excite and repulse. Where sounds were muted, now they’re harsh. Some are familiar and soothing, but most clamor and clash. Where there was gentle weightlessness, floating in a bath, now there is motion and direction; jerky starts and stops.

All of these and more overwhelming neonatal sensory experiences mean separateness. Drip-ness. For the child, birth is the experience of being physically torn apart. An inalterable loss of an incomparable security. It is being thrust away from all that is familiar, safe, and tolerable and set adrift, left to cling in some shallow way to the lost part of self that will eventually be called Mom and, years later, might fully be accepted as a person separate and apart.

But our little science experiment with the cup of water fails in at least one important way. You lifted the drip away from the water in a single, smooth motion—as if the development from birth to autonomous self occurred in a moment. While these are the two endpoints of the process of growing up, the reality is quite different. In truth, the ninety years in between are marked by a million forward-and-back, forward-and-back jerks toward separation.

Hold me tight. Let me go. Hold me tight. Let me go.

Excerpt from Holding Tight, Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times. By Benjamin D. Garber, Ph.D. Unhooked Books, High Conflict Institute Press.