Why familiarity is so appealing and strangeness so unbearable?

The moment of birth emerges. The baby is born. The parents are so happy. They are delighted that the birth went well, their baby is healthy and all his limbs are intact. The mother too feels fine. Now they are gazing at their child with love, and compare what they see now, in the present, to the hitherto imagined baby. Do they like the color of his eyes and hair, his face, and the shape of his body? Is he good looking? Are they disappointed? Is his skin is wrinkled? Does he look like them? Each one of the parents is searching for some familiar hints in his child. How will they establish their unique family, will it be more like in the mother’s family or the father’s family? A mutual learning process ensues, and the parents try their utmost to become familiar with their still-unfamiliar newborn baby, his facial and bodily displays and affective expressions, while their baby intensely seeks indications of something familiar in his parents, presumably some sensation first experienced and subsequently preserved from his time in the womb.

During these typical moments of unbearable strangeness, which are often glossed over or even denied, the parents tend to scrutinize their baby for familiar hints of his belonging to them. One can thus hear them saying: “His eyes are just like yours; his cute nose is like your mother’s; his skin and the color of his hair are similar to mine.” In this way they befriend the otherness of their offspring and gradually restore each other’s strained or injured self-familiarity. Their newborn baby’s smooth and relaxed face, his big eyes, and even the spasms of his facial grimaces—all stir their hearts, which brim with happiness with him, and steadily evoke a sense of complete wholeness and perfection. They sniff and savor his distinctive and addictive odor, are proud of and adore him. They hold in their arms their most cherished self-asset, the fruit of their love, which confers on them the title of mother and father, the privileged and happy parents. The unbearable strangeness of their newborn temporarily dissipates, and each parent revels in the opportunity to restore and sustain some of his or her family legacy.

Inevitably, the parents again experience unbearable strangeness when their baby cries and they feel unable to help him. The first month of the newborn baby’s life is perhaps the most difficult for him and for his parents, as they don’t yet sufficiently recognize each other’s separateness, as well as the evolving attachment behaviors and common signals. From time to time the parents’ happiness may shift to feelings of strangeness, and they may wonder whether they have the necessary parental skills and wisdom to care for their baby. In their distress they may turn to their own parents for support, or to a doctor, nurse or psychologist; experiencing pain and shame in needing the help of a stranger to better comprehend their own flesh and blood. The sense of familiarity draws them to their baby, while the sense of strangeness distances them from him.

During the first ten days of Barak’s life, his parents said he was a quiet baby who “cries only when something, such as stomach pains, is bothering him.” A few days later Barak was crying in his crib and his mother couldn’t identify the cause. “He’s not hungry or wet and cold, so what’s bothering him?” Feeling helpless, for a fleeting moment the irrational idea crosses her mind: “Have we lost our peaceful baby?”—an idea that indicates unbearable strangeness. Finally, the mother sees that Barak’s tiny hand is pressed under his body. She changes his position and he immediately calms down, as does she, her maternal self-esteem rehabilitated and her self-familiarity restored from her narcissistic injury of being so helpless in the face of his need and utter dependency upon her.

What takes place on the newborn baby’s side? For the newborn the womb is still a familiar self-space. Thus, when he hears similar sounds or feels similar bodily sensations to those he first sensed in the womb, he usually focuses his attention upon them. These sensations reverberate in what I referred to as the newborn’s “narcissistic immunological network,” which is available as memory traces. These memory traces serve as emotional perceptual containers for new, albeit similar, sensory experiences and perceptions. This narcissistic processing of self-recognition is essential for our acknowledging and identifying our true Self, who we really are.

Let us examine this important occurrence of the newborn sensing the non-self. At birth, the newborn is propelled into a different and strange world, one in which he undergoes a sharp transition from a closed constrained space without any foreign presence, into a boundless space where he is surrounded by strangers. His mother was prepared for this happy moments for several months already. But no-body prepared the fetus toward his birth. He suddenly emerges to the new and unknown world, he experiences a crucial unprepared changes. All these experiences of unfamiliar stimuli provoke a sense of non-self strangeness that overwhelms his peacefulness.

As mentioned, memory traces of the newborn’s experiences, particularly from the period in the womb, reverberate in his present experience and serve as a frame for sensing familiarity or strangeness emanating both from within and from the figures around him (narcissistic processing). I suggest considering the sense of the unfamiliar as being on a continuum of emotional changes and strangeness from the sense of the familiar self. The sense of self-familiarity thus refers to a subjective sense of the familiar self and serves as frame of distinction between the sense of the ‘self’ the “ME” the True Self and the sense of the ‘not- me/self'” triggered by the appearance of a stranger.

The newborn baby is susceptible to almost-familiar sensory experiences and emotional stimuli, and no less to just hints from the familiar, hints of changes and strangeness. During these vulnerable moments the baby’s inborn healthy narcissism is triggered to resist or even expel these strangeness sensations sensed as not-me/self. What this means is that the other, the not-me/self, may be experienced as a stranger threatening the sense of well-being and familiarity, evoking resistance which injures and undermines the sense of peacefulness.

Throughout these moments that the newborn experiences the sense the not-me/self, he may withdraw into his familiar self-space, like a flight to sleep, as a familiar sensual demarcated place of well-being— his own familiar self-space.

Along with the baby’s interaction with the not-me, with the stranger, his inborn narcissism is constantly triggered to identify and recognize traces of familiarity both within himself and outside the subjective self. Narcissism is activated to preserve his familiar sense of the “ME/Self” vis-à-vis any hint of strangeness stimuli that feel alien to him. The outcome of this calibration might be recognition of this not-me/self as a familiar not-me/object (almost familiar), eliciting libidinal attraction and enabling object relations. This not-me/self might also be decoded and perceived as a stranger not-me/self (major differences from the familiar) provoking alertness, resistance, narcissistic injury, shame and stranger anxiety—that is to say, preventing relations with it, whether positively imbued or not.

Children, just as adult, react along the days in the same manners. The more we are able to disclose hints of familiarity in strangers, and in ourselves, recognize our True Self, the less we are vulnerable to the otherness. The more we are vulnerable to any change from the familiarity and recognize and manifest our False Self the more we are tending to discrimination, intolerance to the otherness and even racism. We are all attracted to hint of familiarity and resist changes, strangers and otherness.

[1]Ronnie Solan, Psychoanalyst- PhD Clinical Psychology-psychotherapist. Working with children, adults, couples and supervisions. Author of the book: The Enigma of Childhood –The profound impact of the first years of life on adults as Couples and Parents www.ronniesolan.com/EnigmaOfChildhood ronnie.solan@gmail.com

Citations from my book The Enigma of Childhood p.111-114

Posted in Healthy Narcissism