Most of us are used to thinking about our life and how it progresses from the outside. We look at what we have accomplished and done, our family, our friends, our work, our daily routines and interactions. We tend to think about our lives as made up of the events that happen to us daily, and we evaluate it on the basis of how those events have transpired. But that is not the whole story. At least not when it comes to how we go about living. There is a most important internal world, made up of our history and the relationships that we have internalized, and this is the powerhouse that runs what we actually do in our life. This internal world is made up of personal memories, significant others (and things) and the emotions and feelings related to them. It holds our relational memories. Think of it as the heating and cooling system of your house – it provides the climate for everything, yet you are rarely aware of it – unless it gets too hot or too cold!
Our inner world develops early on, and initially it is made up of sensations. Warmth, wetness, colors, sounds – physical sensations. These sensations are either uncomfortable or pleasurable. They are responded to and modulated by those who take care of us, and thus, if we have hunger pangs in our stomach and someone feeds us, we are satisfied and calm. If someone does not attend to us, then we have to manage a state of discomfort on our own. And we are not equipped to do this as infants. It is almost impossible to do this on our own when we are babes. As we grow up, these sensations are relabeled with language (hungry, sad, happy, etc.) and then relabeled again through the lens of our experiences with significant people in our lives. Thus relational memories begin to populate our internal world.
Yes, our internal landscape begins to develop at birth and is a compilation of early relationships that have left their imprint on our being. Good and not so good. Our internal world is made up of real others (our parents, caretakers, siblings, teachers, places and things etc.) and our experience of them, our emotional reactions and feelings which become the fabric of the relational memories that have been taken in. So our internal world represents our intake of interactions and relationships as they have been experienced and understood at an implicit level. In psychological parlance we refer to our internal world as populated by objects (people and things) that have had an impact on our development. These internal objects can be good, bad or mixed, eliciting feelings, emotions and memories that make us feel in those specific ways even when they are triggered by other situations and people in our life. It follows that the more internal good objects we have, the better prepared we are for the relationships in our adult life, and vice versa. Our internal world carries our attachment code – the very chemistry that moves us in and out of our relationships and interactions in the world.
While people, and particularly caretakers, figure significantly as the major players in our internal world, we also form significant attachments to things (other objects). Thus, for some of us it may be our relationship to reading, dancing, music, the ocean, food, etc. Things or places that by nature of our interaction with them become significant objects because of the way we use them and how their use makes us feel.
Ours is an internal theater that is densely and idiosyncratically populated, its particular actors and relational configurations laying down the structure of our future perception and experience of ourselves and ourselves in interaction with others. Our external life is largely determined by our internal life. This is why psychoanalytically informed psychotherapy takes time to understand personal history and one’s relationship to it. Connecting the dots between memories, feelings, emotions and thoughts as they are represented in our internal world and played out in our external life is often what happens in the early phases of therapy, where a relational context is laid out between patient and therapist in which personal experience can be understood anew. Once this interpersonal context has been established, the patient-therapist relationship provides the stage for our internal theater to unfold and be re-experienced. This time perhaps with the opportunity to understand, question and reconsider what our life has been about and what we would like it to be.
First published on Dr. Ceccoli’s blog, Out of My Mind, on August, 27, 2012.