Strong emotions: meeting your 7-year-old self
I remember watching an early episode of Professor Robert Winston’s ‘Child in our time’ series on the BBC and being dumbstruck when Professor Winston gave the following fact: the adult personality is largely formed by the age of three. A few years later I attended some training on child development and was similarly struck dumb by another fact: our beliefs about ourselves and the world around us are largely formed by the age of seven.
It appears that, between the ages of 0 to 3, the emotional pathways that are laid down in our brains like well-trodden footpaths go on to become our dominant emotional pathways in adulthood. Our seven-year-old beliefs, far from emerging for the first time at that age, are in fact the ‘crystallisation’ of our dominant emotions in more complex form - a process that gets well underway between ages three and seven as we acquire the intellectual ability to make sense of who we are and the world around us.
An implication of these findings about human development is that whatever happens after the age of seven will be symbolic of what was laid down before we reached this key age. So when we feel any strong emotion, be it positive or negative, we are ‘meeting our seven-year-old self.’
If we are unaware of this process – and most of us will be - then we unconsciously repeat and reinforce our dominant emotional pathways and beliefs as we get older. This means that as adults, when in the grip of a strong emotion or belief, we are effectively navigating our way through life with our seven-year-old selves in charge. In this sense, therapy can be seen as the means by which our adult selves attempt to amend, adapt and alter our three-year old’s emotions and our seven-year-old’s beliefs until they better meet our adult needs.
None of us are wearing the same fashions as adults that we wore as children and yet few of us update our ‘mental’ fashions until we are forced, through necessity, to do so. A great deal has been said in recent years about the brain’s elasticity and our ability to ‘rewire’ it, so while the implications of the two facts this article started with are profound, we are not fated to live by them.
As adults we can look back at our three- and seven-year-old selves and see that they were not responsible for the emotions and beliefs we ended up with. At that age responsibility can surely be laid at the door of the adult world.
If someone does end up with negative dominant emotions and beliefs at age seven then, as an adult, they can feel an understandable sense of unfairness. Effective therapy, in providing adults with the means of establishing adult emotional pathways and adult beliefs, is one way that a difficult start can be put behind us.
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