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poema e garota inglesEMOTIONAL SURVIVAL

For some time now, I have been coming across clinical questions, which have aroused my curiosity and resulted in this paper.

The first of these refers to the fact that after some time in therapy, we notice the existence of some nuclear scenes that seem to attract client associations like a magnet.

They appear to be matrix scenes, where something fundamental was initially structured as a defense for a traumatic situation.  Through time and use, they ended up becoming part of the client’s basic identity and character.

I will briefly describe four clinical cases to illustrate the point I am trying to make:

Client A – successful businessman, 34, depressed by marital problems.  He complains that since the birth of his first and only child, his wife has not paid him enough attention.  He suffers from bouts of physical violence that he cannot control, breaking objects at home and even hitting his wife.  In one of the scenes that he frequently brings up during his associations, it is dawn, he is five years old, and he hears his father beating his mother; in another scene, he is four, his mother is cooking and he is behind her, asking to be held.  His older brothers make fun of him, calling him “sissy”. (sic)

Client B  – An extremely good-looking young lady, 25, who lives in almost total social isolation.  She complains about depression and persecution by her colleagues, whom she considers her rivals.  Professionally, she never sticks to a job, as she feels a compulsion to go out with her bosses.  A little while later she is fired.  She says she wants to get married and be wealthy.  Among the nuclear scenes she brings up, I point out two: in the first, she is six years old and lives with her grandparents.  Her mother, who is a single parent and a domestic worker, comes to visit her on Sundays.  They are all having lunch together, and her mother decides to teach her good table manners, which she learned in her employers’ home.  The client feels belittled in front of the people her mother admires.  In the second scene, she is five or six years old and is going to ask for her grandfather’s blessing before going to bed.  She knows that her grandfather would not give his blessing because he always said that he would never give his blessing to the bastard daughter of a no good mother.  In this scene, the grandfather again humiliates her, repeating his bad treatment.

Client C – a 27-year-old man, in therapy for 5 years.  He shows generalized difficulties in making social contacts, leading a life restricted to home and work.  He has very few friends and has never had a girlfriend, even though he has fallen in love before and been interested in women.  He is often overcome by anger against those who for some reason do not trust him, saying that he admires the power that Adolph Hitler had to avenge himself against those he did not like.  In one of the scenes that are often repeated in his associations, he is four or five years old and his mother is fighting with him (he does not remember why).  He locks himself in the bathroom and bites the plastic shower curtain in anger.  When his mother catches up with him, she violently beats him on the legs with a stick until he bends over and apologizes, swearing never again to do anything that she does not like.  In another scene, the client is between five and six years old, accepts a toy from a watchman who takes care of a construction site across the street from his house, and ends up being sexually abused.  Only much later does he understand the fact’s significance, deeply regretting and afraid of being less of a “man” than the other boys.

Client D – a 35-year-old woman, important executive at a multinational company, reasonably good-looking who, however, complains of loneliness, an empty existence, and problems in social relationship.  She usually has boyfriends for only a short time and never knows the reasons why her boyfriends break up with her; she believes men are no good.  At home and at work she is seen as a troublemaker, stupid, and feels that these criticisms are extremely unfair because she “always does everything to help everyone” (sic).  One of the recurring scenes in her associations is her parents’ farewell when they emigrated from Europe when she was seven years old.  She wanted to cry but could not because her mother was very sensitive and would cry too.  She behaved like a little “controlled” (sic) adult.  In another scene, she is seven or eight years old and listens to her grandmother’s intimate secrets that her marriage is no good, insisting that all men are womanizers and unfaithful.

So, these four clients suffered various forms of child abuse: Client A used to see his father beating his mother; Client B spent her childhood hearing her mother was no good and neither was she; Client C was beaten until he would bend over from humiliation, and was also sexually abused; Client D was forced to listen to, without being able to understand, her grandmother narrate her most intimate confessions about affection and sex.

Those four people also repeat, in their own ways, the childhood drama:  A beats his wife; B became a “cheap woman”; C is, in his schizoid madness, a Hitler with unlimited power who can manipulate people as he “pleases”; client D’s love life confirms her grandmother’s opinion that “no man is any good” (sic).

In adulthood, the four dominated children from the past became powerful adults who beat, fight, manipulate, and kill (symbolically) people.  What happened?  Why do these people actively repeat what they passively suffered in childhood?  What happens in the human psyche that so strongly imprints these scenes as opposed to other memories in which the same people had been kind and gentle?  Why is it so difficult for a client to change his behavior, even if he has already understood this repetition?  Would we humans be like the birds, imprinting* emotional situations and running after tennis balls for the rest of our lives believing that they are our mothers?

On the other hand, when I ask these clients to dramatize their scenes and we start to research the locus, the status nascendi and the matrix (Bustos, 1994:63-77)[1] of their present problems, I always end up facing another set of facts that captivate me.  These scenes take place in early childhood, most often before seven years of age.

The content of the drama that they often bring up is of a child being frustrated and/or punished for some desire or mischief; and/or a child seeing someone at home not being respected, abused by an adult who exerts and abuses the power that he has.  There is an enormous imbalance of forces, and all that the child can do is passively watch the scene and submit himself to the adult’s power.

The child realizes that the adult is being unjust or abusive, feels angry but cannot do anything except submit himself.  This forced submission in turn creates feelings of shame, humiliation, and inferiority that will never be forgotten, in spite of all the efforts devoted to deny, hide, and/or change them.

In these moments of tension, the child will decide something secret, a type of pact with himself, which consists basically of an agreement for vengeance and/or rescuing lost dignity.  Something like:  “When I grow up and have the same physical power that the adults have, I will never allow this to happen to me or to people I love”.

In short, behind the difficulties of my adult clients, I started to perceive an almost systematic existence of a child with projects to avenge and rescue lost dignity.  And exactly because of the perseverance of this childhood project, it ended up creating the current difficulties in adulthood.

Like a scratched and warped record which spins incorrectly and always plays the same piece of a song, behind the current and real drama of adults there seems to be an internal dramatic[2] that repeats the childhood drama, except that frequently the roles are reversed.  The one who now abuses power and imposes humiliation and shame on others is the client himself.

Thus, over the past three years I have been going after these answers.  First, I began to read exhaustively all the literature available on narcissism, self-esteem, and psychology of the ego.  Finally, I came across an American approach (Melody, 1989), which describes the existence of a related pathology called co-dependence[3].  I also ended up coming into contact with studies on borderline personalities and narcissistic personality disturbances.

Within modern psychodrama, we find theoretical postulations by José Fonseca (1980) on identity matrix and more recently on identity disorders (1995:22).  These are added to those by Dalmiro Bustos (1994:63-77) on the concept of clusters and his emphasis on the three basic pillars of Moreno’s Philosophy of the Moment, locus, status nascendi, and matrix, which are the guideposts of my clinical understanding.  As for Moreno, besides his entire body of work, it is his courage, genius, and pioneering spirit that stimulate my spontaneity and will to create.

The ideas I will shortly reveal reflect how I currently understand these issues.


Human beings exert an enormous amount of power over one another, a power of life and death.  From a physiological point of view, human beings reproduce the same as all mammals and are born when they leave the mother’s uterus.  From a psychological point of view, however, their reproduction is totally unique and particular.  Psychologically, a human being is born little by little and not always completely, depending on his personal drive and luck to have parents who know how to manage his basic needs.

By basic needs, we mean those upon which a child’s physical and psychological survival depends.  There are two kinds of them:

PHYSICAL – a human baby is born extremely fragile and in need of physical care (food, hygiene, health, warmth, physical contact, etc.), without which it would die.  The focus is on What is done to the child.

EMOTIONAL – a human being’s basic emotional need and without which he could not survive is the need for dependence, to be able to count on others.  A human being is born completely unprepared, and will only be independent and with internal resources he can count on after many years (in the middle class of our urban culture, only after adolescence).  Here what counts are not having these physical needs met, but how this is done.

Furthermore, the first stage of our lives is pre-verbal and everything that happens to us depends upon the verbal and emotional de-codification that our mothers or caregivers will make.  Without someone who can mirror our needs and emotions we cannot know who we are.  On the other hand, the way this person de-codifies our messages ends up constituting what we are and is done according to his own background of emotional experiences.

The first caregiver or caregivers work as a kind of relational bridge between the child and the world.  They first occupy the place that the “I”[4] of the child will take later.  Before being “I”, we are “we”.  It is the relational, especially the relationship that we establish with our first caregivers, and is the cornerstone of our identity (Erikson, 1976)[5], which will reflect what will be our future expectations for relationships with the world.

“The way a child goes through his identity matrix is a parameter of how his adult life will be”, says José Fonseca (1995:22).  He is referring not only to the educational mother-child relationship but also to the emotional results of all involved relationships in this nucleus, such as the network of family relationships as well as biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors.

Love, respect, and confidence (self-esteem) that an individual feels for himself mirrors, in its turn, how his first structured relationships were and ultimately predicts how his relationship with the world will be.  Therefore, it is of paramount importance to study the peculiarities of this relationship of dependence.


To depend on another person means having to subject and submit oneself to this person’s will.  The one who is dependent is the fragile and impotent one in the situation, whereas the opposite is powerful and decides whether things will or will not happen and how and when they will be done.  On the other hand, to have people who depend on us is also not normally a comfortable situation.  It means having to sacrifice part of our time, space, comfort and independence in favor of that person.

If we ask our acquaintances and ourselves whether we as adults like having to depend on others, it is most likely that in 90% of the cases the answer will be no.  Also, the memories we have of situations of dependence are mixed with feelings of shame and humiliation.

Moreno (1946:296), when describing the function of the auxiliary ego in interpersonal relationships, points out that no matter how unified the auxiliary ego is to the client, this union is never complete because of organic and psychological limitations.  He says:

“A mother is an ideal auxiliary ego for the child she is expecting.  She remains so even after giving birth to the baby, whom she feeds and looks after; however a greater and greater organic and psychological distance appears after the baby is born.  The mother is an example of an instinctive auxiliary ego.”

We know today that nature does not give mothers exceptional patience, and that not all of them know instinctively how to offer their children a situation of ideal dependence (Badinter, 1980)[6].  Much to the contrary, what we normally find are impatient, tired mothers who try to quickly meet their children’s needs, so they can go out to work or do the things that attract their interests.

In fact, a mother’s availability for her baby will depend on extremely complex factors. For instance, her own childhood and the way she experienced her dependence on her parents; her relationship with her husband; the family’s cultural and socioeconomic situation; whether or not today’s society appreciates the mother’s role, etc.

We know through studies of infant morbid-mortality7 how many children survive beyond the first year of life, but we do not have the faintest idea of how many survive psychologically whole because we have no idea of what this means.

Our clients quite often complain about parents, talking about physical violence, psychological and sexual situations, and also lack of support and information.  Freud (1914:1901) first confirmed these complaints from clients, but on second thought denied them completely, attributing these abusive parents to the client’s fantasies.  Other approaches believe that to blame parents actually represents a refusal on the client’s part to take on responsibility for his own future.

Only in the last few years and due to knowledge from systemic therapy have we been able to start tracing the complex web of inter-family relationships and the nature of a phenomenon that could be called psychological contamination.  This means passing on from generation to generation fundamental needs in the basic dependence relationships that end up pervading the individual’s entire human relationship capacity.


To answer this question, I must first quickly describe a child’s four natural characteristics that make him an authentic human being and are very well summarized by Bradshaw (1988).

THE CHILD IS VALORIZED – a child is not born with self-esteem and does not have any notion of his personal value.  He will absorb this value from the outside in, according to the esteem and dedication that his parents have for him.  Early in life this may mean a special touch or look (Kohut, 1977) 8, constant and predictable presence, meeting physical needs correctly.  Through his development, devoting value to the other will progressively be transformed into more complex attitudes and which demand great maturity from the parents, such as allowing a child to try his growing independence without threatening him with withdrawal of love.

Margareth Mahler (1977), observing child development step by step over many years, describes mothers that cannot bear their babies’ gradual detachment.  They de-personify them, hindering their hesitant search toward independence instead of allowing and promoting gradual separation.  Other mothers with symbiotic characteristics will first closely hold on to their babies only to then push them prematurely to “autonomy”.

An extremely powerful way of pressuring a child into doing what parents want is to tell them “If you do not do this, mommy and daddy won’t love you any more!”  Another common way of playing with this power of attributing value to a child is to compare him to other children, making him feel inferior or superior to someone else.  To threaten a child with no longer having the love of adults who are meaningful to him is tantamount to removing this child’s value.  In other words, it consists of saying to him that he has no inner value but only relative value that is dependent on what he does or how he does it.

I think that one of the most difficult tasks in educating children is to establish limits, without however blackmailing them by removing their intrinsic value.  Most parents were brought up this way by their own fathers and mothers and consider this form of communication with the child to be natural and inoffensive.  If we think of an adolescent, frequently threatened with having his favorite pastime taken away from him if he does not get good marks at school, we can see how an old abstract value is over time turned into concrete objects, material goods, and money that will be given or denied, according to his behavior.

Whenever a child feels that he has no value to his parents, he feels ashamed and inferior because of this.  The “I” loves and respects itself when it realizes it is loved and respected.  On the other hand, the “I” hates itself when it realizes it is being rejected or left aside.  Many years of education under this system of manipulating the other through giving and removing value end up by creating adults who, like Client B, survive with a sense of faulty self-value.  They are people that either underestimate or overestimate themselves, becoming either excessively dependent on the other, without the autonomy of adult life, or excessively independent of the other (the kind that does not need anyone).

A CHILD IS VULNERABLE, SUSCEPTIBLE – he does not have a developed defense system (boundaries) and depends on his parents to protect him.  This lack of limits between the “I” and the “Other” makes children naturally egocentric and involved in everything surrounding them, explaining the world based on themselves.  For instance: “if my parents fight, it is my fault; if they are not with me, it must be because I am bad; if they work too much and are not with me, it is because I am worth less to them than their work.”  Parents have the arduous and double task of recognizing and respecting the right that children have to be owners of their own bodies, thoughts, feelings and behavior and at the same time guiding them toward a more realistic and functional perception of the world, limiting their egocentrism.

Gradual frustration of some of a child’s needs makes him realize that the other is not his intrinsic part.  On the other hand, whenever a child is frustrated he reacts with irritation, stubbornness and unpleasantness.  This is normal and parents must accept these aggressive impulses without letting themselves be personally destroyed by them.  Expressing emotion is one of the body’s physical needs in its quest for a homeostasis that has been lost.  If emotion is not expressed, it reflects back, returning to the child’s “I”.  In this way anger, for example, that cannot be expressed ends up returning to the “I” itself, creating self-destructive symptoms and attitudes.

Some parents cannot tolerate children’s impulses and emotions.  In fact, when emotions are very strong, adults are afraid of losing control of the child, and try to restrict him.  No one can put up with an enraged child or even with an excessively happy one.  They make too much noise, become overexcited and disturb us.  Many parents go too far in punishing (Client C) or threatening not to love anymore, as was seen before.

We frequently see clients who from very early on stop upsetting their parents and start pleasing them, trying not to make them too irritable or depressed (Client D).  There is an inversion of dependence: the child acquires the power of defining a situation and learns that his parents’ mood depends on his and not vice-versa.  These are “the very nice” children who help their parents and use their sensitiveness and empathy to serve others and, according to Alice Miller (1979), those who have a good chance to become psychotherapists some day.

The parents’ independence, together with the fact that they also have well-established limits, helps a child to separate himself from them and to have a suitable internal representation of himself and others.  When this does not occur, there possibly survives an adult who either does not know how to protect himself adequately in relationships or who cannot contain himself from being offensive to others (Client A).  It is still possible to think of the vacillating type who at times is extremely non-vulnerable, while at others shows extreme vulnerability.

A CHILD IS IMMATURE, IMPERFECT – he lacks coordination, drops things, breaks objects, falls, gets dirty, makes noise, puts his finger up his nose, fights in the car disturbing parents who are driving, asks to go to the bathroom at the most awkward times, etc.  In short, children act as children because they lack motor coordination, knowledge of their limitations, and do not know how to act when faced with difficulties, etc.

In many dysfunctional families where adults consider themselves gods who manage perfection (they never make a mistake and if they do they will never admit it or apologize), children are punished severely and are ashamed of making normal mistakes.  Children are expected to be more mature than they are, as if they had been born with a manual of information on life (Client A).

A client of mine can recall hours and hours of fear spent inside a dark bedroom, but cannot recall what she did wrong; therefore, whatever her mother wanted to teach her through punishment did not work.  Through fear, shame, feeling of inferiority and helplessness, the only learning that is internalized is that we, as human beings, are worth nothing (Clients A, B, and C).

Much information is necessary for a child to understand how life is.  He will learn by trial and error and/or through what adults teach, but above all, through how adults act.  We know today that children brought up by overly intolerant parents usually conform to the expectations, and later become perfectionist and controlling adults. They can also become deeply insecure adults who suffer too much when making a mistake and fear evaluations; or they can rebel, refusing to cooperate and even doing the contrary of what is asked of them.  These are the rebellious bad children who are a problem at home.

I usually tell my clients jokingly: – “Do what you want to do, even if your mother agrees!”, referring to this mechanism of “going against”, because what I find is that many adults do not even follow the rules they make for themselves, being incapable of any discipline.

Another inadequate way of dealing with children’s imperfections is by ignoring them, causing children to end up never learning that their behavior bothers and disturbs other people.  Thus, we also raise people who will be seen as nuisances and bores by society, simply because they are not aware that their behavior is abusive and disturbs others.

Finally, I think that one of the most valuable learning processes children can have is to be shown that from time to time everyone, including their parents, make mistakes and that almost always mistakes can be corrected or at least excused.

A CHILD HAS A CONCRETE AND RADICAL WAY OF THINKING – a child does not discriminate nuances among the qualities of people and objects.  Their concrete thoughts make them think in a polarized and extreme way: it is either good or bad, all or nothing, now or never, etc.  Gestalt therapists (Perls, 1973:46-48) described yet another peculiarity of the infant mind: the one of assimilating introjects, whole pieces of ideas, as if they swallowed food whole without chewing it.  Piaget (1926:54-74), in turn, shows us that only from 8 years of age children are able to understand separate experiences and assimilate differences.  Very young children believe that they are what others say they are and that is why they are really bothered when made fun of.

So, faced with these four child characteristics: valuation, vulnerability, imperfection, and radical thinking we can infer what basic dependence needs of a human being means.  It means to be able to count on parents who: make him feel precious, important and provide for his needs while still not independent; devote time and attention to help him define his own limitations and obtain information needed to deal with reality and his own needs; allow a child to express his aggressive and hostile impulses without destroying them or the child’s self-esteem, while at the same time allowing aggressive and hostile reactions to be expressed, respecting an intrinsic asymmetrical bond; allow a child to be a child to then grow up and become independent; be coherent, consistent, predictable people who teach and act in the same way; be fallible beings who admit their mistakes and apologize.

It is quite possible that when reading such a long list, the reader may consider me a demanding person, or that these ideal parents are everything but human and that one fourth of the characteristics described are already sufficient for a child to grow up reasonably normal.  However, I have noticed that for each deduction given to parents, one point is added to an enormous list of child abuse.

Children subjected to any kind of abuse or who have these basic dependence needs neglected only grow physically and socially.  They somehow continue emotionally humiliated, orphans, and harmfully ashamed claiming what they never had, trying at any cost to repair their self-esteem, dignity, and hurt narcissism.


Studies (Kreisman, 1989; Bradshaw, 1988; 1990) on narcissistic borderline personalities and co-dependence widen the concept of child abuse, whereas in the past it was almost limited to extreme events, such as sexual abuse.  Today, we consider that parents are abusing a child whenever they do not respect the hierarchy of the parent-child relationship, like when they do not protect the child or help him develop.

The parent-child bond pre-supposes a hierarchy whereby two adults decide to have a child who they will be responsible for until the child grows up.  There is a legislation that regulates this relationship, which is currently being reviewed in the United States.  I briefly list below some forms of child abuse:



It is the sort of abuse that is most shameful, more frequent than is imagined, and involves the whole family.  It involves not only the fact that one or both parents oblige the child to have physical sexual relations with them, but also subtle forms of abuse, such as:

SEXUAL INTIMIDATION – creating situations whereby a child sees or hears what he does not want to, what he cannot understand, or what makes him ashamed.  It is the case when children who, due to parents’ carelessness, overhear or see their sexual intercourse, or even the case of adult voyeurs and/or exhibitionists who observe their children sexually and/or undress in a sexual way for their children to admire.  Pia Mellody (1989) believes that sexual abuse occurs whenever a parent has a more important relationship with one of his children than he has with his spouse.  She refers to the fact that children need parents, not husbands, wives or admirers; many adults make it clear that they admire their children’s bodies, that they would love to be younger so they could date them, or that they are more beautiful, smarter and able than their spouses.

PHYSICAL CARE – for example the use of enemas or bathing older kids may be a form of disguised sexual abuse.  I had a client who dried her daughter’s vagina until she was 10 to prevent the girl from getting a rash, and only stopped this after undergoing therapy.

LACK OF SEXUAL INFORMATION SUITABLE TO AGE – for instance, not telling a girl she will menstruate, telling children that masturbation causes physical lesions, etc.  Children, mainly the very young, will not always know when adults have a sexual intention.  However, they end up invariably finding out, being ashamed and hurting their self-esteem.  Because they do not know sexual phenomena and think radically, they imagine terrible consequences for their future and feel they are doomed to a tragic end from then onwards.



Any kind of physical punishment – beating, spanking, pulling hair, locking in dark rooms, etc. – administered to a child or to someone else in the family while the child watches.  Kreisman (1989) shows that parents who beat their children were beaten when they were children (Clients A and C).



Results from a confusion of boundaries within a family and from a reversal in the natural order: the children look after their parents and not the other way round.  This is not only the case of children of alcoholics, seriously depressed people, etc., but it occurs in most families known as “normal”.  One or more children in the family are especially encouraged to be assistants to their mother or father, many times because this adult who is asking for help is fragile and cannot defend himself against some abusive situation inside the family.

The child takes on this special role not because he really wants to but to help his parents whom he depends on, and/or ensure their love, which may be lost if they are upset.  In a word, he does this to avoid loneliness and being abandoned.  Paradoxically, this efficient adult-child ends up having within himself an abandoned and hurt child.  As he looked after his parents so well, his own childhood needs were neither met nor respected (Client C).  Another form of emotional abuse is to disrespect a child’s will and impose that of his parents.  For instance, to make a child eat what he does not want to, put on clothes he hates, etc.

In conclusion, a child that does not have his needs of dependence met and respected suffers serious damage to his basic identity.  He goes on disbelieving in his own needs, judging them to be illegitimate, and seeing his own desires as shameful.  His infant egocentrism, added to the fact that he needs to maintain the ideals of the adults on whom he depends to survive, makes him frequently blame himself for his parents attitudes, such as: “It is me who is bad! I was bad! I am stupid! I have some serious fault, etc.”.  This will, with time, become a trait of the individual’s identity.

As abuse is a secret family topic, the child judges that he is the only one in the world living that situation, being therefore of less worth than other kids.  In these circumstances, the child also feels completely abandoned, orphaned and lonely because at the time that abuse or neglect occurs, there is no one to defend him.  He concludes then that there will never be someone on whom he can count, because if his own parents were not reliable, who else will be?


In all forms of abuse, adults either exert their power over the child, acting violently against him, or waiving themselves of the responsibility of looking after and protecting him.

Freud (1905:2508-2541) was the one who first identified automatic processes used by the ego for self-preservation whenever it suffers a severe shock.  However it was Anna Freud (1973) in her “Ego and Self Defense Mechanisms” who definitively introduced the question of psyche defenses to our present clinical thinking.  These defenses are ways that human nature has of protecting the child’s psyche from extremely intolerable situations.  This until he has better defined ego-like boundaries and knows how to separate what is his from what belongs to the other.  Some of these mechanisms are as follows: denial, repression, dissociation, depersonalization, identification with the aggressor, conversion, etc.

Indeed, a child’s violated “I” does not choose one or the other of these mechanisms to defend itself.  It uses many of them alternately or at the same time to form a defense system that is the most effective possible, which Winnicott (1982) brilliantly defined as “False Self System.”


In a desperate attempt to try and hide from himself the reality of abandonment and helplessness that he is experiencing, a child denies or substitutes his own emotions.  He creates an alternative way of being that he considers to be better appreciated by those with whom he lives and which does not have those shameful and faulty characteristics of before.  This superior being rejects the true being, often in a just as cruel or even crueler way than the child’s parents.  This includes the false self system which has the following characteristics.

It is always super human or sub human, perfectionist or stupid, victim, hero of the family or scapegoat, etc.  This is because the emotions that the defenses will fulfill are human emotions. Without these a person becomes something unreal, like a character in a book, for instance.  The roles played are as a rule pathological complements that the family requires.  There are always contrasting criteria involved, criteria that follow the child’s radical and absolutist line of thinking.

Shame and lack of protection in childhood are the basic motivations for creating any of these polarities.

As soon as the false self is structured, the real self is buried and forgotten.  With time the person loses the awareness of whom he really was, as well as the memory that he had created a character for himself.

The false self-function is two-sided: while it protects an abused and neglected child, it also tries to satisfy some of those neglected needs that the child himself denied.  For instance, a child may attract attention by hurting himself, by getting sick, by refusing to eat or by being the best student in the classroom.

The repressed and denied parts of the ego are projected in relationships and constitute the basis for much hate and prejudice.  They can also be seen as a split personality or multiple personalities (this happens with people who suffered physical and sexual violence).  It creates a feeling of unreality and chronic depression for the loss of a part of oneself.

The false self is also followed by a system of constant self-observation and vigilance because we must make sure the rejected parts do not surface and make us feel ashamed or inferior.  We are dealing with tortuous self-conscience that has a paralyzing internal effect.


Parents frequently justify their attitudes to children saying that they are doing their best and believe this to be the best way to bring them up.  In fact, I do not think that parents are lying; maybe some are but not all.

Indeed, we know today that the interpretation of how to raise a child depends less on rules that psychologists or educators establish as healthy and desirable, and more on the parents’ emotional structure and on how they were raised.

This is the phenomenon that I called “Psychological Contagion”, and Freud  “Compulsion to Repetition” (1905:2508-2541).  It is a complex, unconscious process in which, even as adults, we try to satisfy our infant needs and to rescue our wounded dignity.

Our children and their infant attitudes are seen by our wounded internal children as torturers who submit and force us to do things we do not want to.  For this reason, we punish them.  While children we were only capable of defending ourselves using our infant defense tactics9. These are the tactics which, though inefficient against the adults who abused us, we repeat against our children, perpetuating these abusive characteristics10 from generation to generation and within the family.

 In fact abusive, authoritarian, and unconfirmed behaviors occur in all contexts of our lives. They are not only multigenerational but also intergenerational. Moreno (1992, p.225) uses the concept of sociometric proletariat to talk about isolated, neglected, and rejected groups whose feelings are nor reciprocated. We humans are specialists in the creation of these “sociometric proletariats”; because of this for example we are so afraid of presenting our ideas at conferences.

This is the “broken record” that repeats the same part of the song.  Someone has to gently remove the needle from the scratched area and show the client that this damage could be repaired, mended or covered, but it will not stop existing.  On the other hand, the future is full of records that can still be played if the needle is removed before it gets damaged.


In my life, psychodrama has meant the best technical assistance for mending “scratched records” that I have ever found.

I believe that human psyche is structured around a narcissistic economy; from the day we are born until probably the day we die, we try to determine who we are and what “our value” is to others and ourselves.  Over time we may or may not modify our value criteria, but we will always be people who search for value.

For me, this is the intangible part of the “I”, which is behind the role.  And I am not as sure as Moreno (1992:185) 11 about which of the two parts comes out first and creates the other. I think that this search for intrinsic value is part of human nature, but I will talk about this at another time.

The drama of the wounded child that many of us maintain inside ourselves relates to a time in our lives when our narcissism was weakened.  Our psyche then went into action in all its spontaneity to repair the damage done.  We created a specific antibiotic for the problem that assaulted us and kept it up like a precious stone, thinking about using it each time that another threat to our self-esteem appeared in our way.

However, the antibiotic’s expiration date passed and somebody needs to convince our hurt child that his medicine is old and that it must be thrown away.  In fact he already knows this – that is why he turned to therapy.  However he doesn’t know how to use another medicine, so he sticks to the old one.  Talking about it is not enough.

I think that there is nothing more alluring for a child, even a sick and depressed one, than giving him a new toy or suggesting a different game.  I know this because I worked12 in a children’s ward for terminal diseases for a short time and they would play with me.  The game’s “as if “ decentralizes our basic identity and for some time we can forget who we are, our pain, the illnesses we suffer from, and how we can prevent them from reoccurring.

Furthermore I can be whoever I choose in a game, from a gentle princess to an angry Hitler.  Whoever I choose to be, the fact is that for a few seconds, I stop being myself.

As I see it, one of the strongest therapeutic forces of Psychodrama is exactly in proposing techniques, by means of an elaborate warm-up, that will free a person from his basic identity and enable him to see beyond what his own eyes could not see.  In the role of another person, I can see and speak of things that in my own “I” I could not.  Moreover, the “as if” concretizes situations, affections and personalities that otherwise would be mere abstract ideas, without sufficient embodiment to involve anyone.  For instance, through Psychodrama we can characterize and concretize our child within, talk to it, exchange roles, etc.

Through open scene dramatization or internal psychodrama, using all classical techniques and following the transferential chain of client associations (Perazzo, 1987) 13, I find it quite easy to bring these childhood dramatics to the surface.  I have learned through experience that therapy as it is practiced can only start when a client repeatedly identifies this child and starts to take it seriously.  He will no longer go on blaming others for his problems and will start to assume responsibility for his shortcomings.

On stage, the drama that starts to be played is not so much between a client and his social atom but between himself and his own parts and fragmented characters, each one a holder of a part of his own infant defense system.

My greatest problem at present is to help clients make agreements with their hurt child within, because like all children they are stubborn, obstinate, and do not negotiate when not getting what they want.  Except that no one can give them exactly what they want – the past does not return.  An adult client must, at all costs and like a tolerant and persistent parent, help his infant side to deal with frustration, to make agreements, rationalize in less extreme ways and express his dissatisfaction in a less angry way.  This is what I understand by re-matrix and what Moreno (1992:153) means when he defines spontaneity as the “driving force of an individual towards a suitable response to a new situation, or a new response to an already known situation”.

I invent games, adult-child confrontation situations, ask clients to write letters to their child within, encourage role playing and metaphor creation, and assimilate techniques from other approaches.  In group therapies I propose meetings with all the clients’ hurt children . . . in short, I love seeking new ways to help people in this task.

However what I really know to be effective is to offer, through the client-therapist relationship, respect and acceptance, consistence and commitment, along with the therapist’s emotional capability toward the client’s real drama.  These are magic potions and Moreno was a master of them.  In this existential meeting I am 100% Morenian.

When she was in Brazil in 1993, Zerca Moreno (Cukier, 1994) began her speech saying that within everybody lives a hurt little child and considered the urgent creation of schools for parents a preventative and public health matter.

I was exhilarated when I heard her and thought to myself: Would Moreno agree with this, if he were alive?

I will never know the answer but can find out what you, who represent the modern psychodramatic movement, think.  I am waiting for your answers.


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  • * Konrad Lorenz, 1973 Nobel Prize winner, conducted an experiment with geese, discovering that these animals’ first vital experiences create patterns of behavior that last for the rest of their lives.
  • [1] Dalmiro M. Bustos is an Argentinean psychodramatist, director of the J.L. Moreno Psychodrama Institute in São Paulo, Fortaleza, and Buenos Aires.  (See also the footnote on page 73  concerning the Morenian concepts of : locus, status nascendi, and matrix).
  • [2] I used the expression “internal dramatic” to differentiate the drama that occurs intrapsychically between the client and his wounded child within from his adult life drama and from the real relationship as he lives them today.
  • [3] Co-dependence: the name was coined to describe the dynamic of families of alcoholics in which the families themselves became dependent on the illness.  Over time, the term became more wide-ranging and refers to problems of “normal” families who, however, do not help their members to be autonomous and independent, maintaining a permanent mutual control.
  • [4] “I” is used here in the most common meaning of the word.  I purposely did not use either the term “Ego” nor “Self”, so as not to enter the psychoanalytical definitions and academic discussions about this theme.  “I” is the way that people normally refer to themselves and is the name of the central axis of an individual’s identity.
  • [5] Erik Erikson defines identity as an interpersonal process.  He says: ” The meaning of the ego identity is the confidence to internally have one single thing, a continuity . . . and this is achieved through the predictability and continuity of what I mean to the other.”
  • [6] Elizabeth Badinter, in her book ” L’Amour en Plus”, shows how a mother’s love for her baby is influenced by the cultural value of the roles of mother and child.  In the 18th century, court parties and public executions infatuated French society, and children were given absolutely no value.  Very few women breastfed and cared for their children personally, despite the papers at the time publishing high infant mortality rates among children brought up by their breastfeeding servants (25%).  Badinter is radical when she says that handing over a child to a servant for breastfeeding is a form of disguised infanticide.
  • 7 According to the C.E.A.D.E. Foundation, 1992 for every 1,000 children, 26 die before reaching one year of life
  • 8 The shine of a mother’s eye, according to Kohut
  • 9  What I call infant defense tactics are all of those described by Freud and Anna Freud, besides Winnicott’s False Self System, seen through the eyes of a child, with the infant characteristics that I described above.
  • 10 In fact abusive, authoritarian, and unconfirmed behaviors occur in all contexts of our lives.  They are not only multigenerational but also intergenerational.  Moreno (1992, p.225) uses the concept of sociometric proletariat  to talk about isolated, neglected, and rejected groups whose feelings are nor reciprocated.  We humans are specialists in the creation of these “sociometric proletariats”; because of this for example we are so afraid of presenting our ideas at conferences.
  • 12 The Children’s Institute at the Hospital das Clinicas in São Paulo, in the children’s ward on the 4th floor.

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