Chapter 3 – Childhood trauma revealed in family, religion, and government

Early experiences in the family

Thus far, we’ve examined the nature of our internal world, the meanings of mental freedom and mental enslavement, how we can gain and surrender self-responsibility, and the nature of domination systems. Additionally, we’ve touched on some of the resulting manifestations of these things in our culture. Let’s make them more explicit now, in terms of institutions, beginning with the family.

Nearly everyone is familiar with being ruled over in childhood. In our culture, it seems to be a forgone conclusion that what a child thinks, desires, and feels carries less weight, is less important, than what caregivers think, desire, and feel. This invariably leads to an immense amount of frustration and suffering, because children also have needs for visibility, autonomy, choice, empathy, and respect (among others), and when these go mostly unrecognized and unmet, frustration and suffering occur in abundance. Yet, most people believe that family strife is part and parcel of parenting, so parental questions tend to pertain to what kind of (and how much) ruling of children is necessary and proper for them to mature into responsible adults. Questions seldom pertain to the nature of such ruling and whether children need to be ruled at all.

We know from our previous investigations of conformity and obedience that this is a dangerous methodology for us to adopt unquestioningly. When it’s seen as the best way to do things in society (as are typically all things done presently), then we aren’t invited to challenge our current knowledge—and to challenge fears and distrust about our nature.

To give us a profoundly personal idea of how different things will be when “power-with” rather than “power-over” strategies are used by parents toward children, we’re going to explore a list of psychological questions. They can be considered a child’s wish list—in fact, your inner child’s wish list. Understanding the nature of this list will set the stage for exploring still more psychological aspects. The following twenty-four questions were formulated by self-esteem psychologist Nathaniel Branden, and they can be found in full context in his three books Breaking Free, Honoring The Self, and The Six Pillars Of Self-Esteem (published in 1970, 1983, and 1994, respectively). [17] [18] [70] Branden discussed these questions in a group therapy setting in Breaking Free, which I read on the Complete Liberty Podcast episodes 165, 167, and 170-174. [35] I’ve commented here after each one for clarification:

1. “When you were a child, did your parents’ manner of behaving and of dealing with you give you the impression that you were living in a world that was rational, predictable, and intelligible? Or a world that was bewildering, contradictory, incomprehensible, unknowable?”

These queries raise our awareness that the world can be most clearly understood in a noncontradictory way. Each of us grew up wanting adults to make clear sense of things and be consistent with words and actions. The main reason that we, as children, ask “Why?” is not to pester parents. It’s to determine the nature of things, such as identity and causality, so we can function with more comprehension. We endeavor to quench our curiosity in our youth and make sense of things we experience.

Unfortunately, adults can promote a variety of troublesome contradictions, which don’t exist in objective reality. This can be traumatizing for small reasoning beings who depend on adults for rationality, predictability, and intelligibility. When parents aren’t as connected with their emotional world and the needs for empathy and consistency in these matters, both they and their children suffer a lot as a result. Oftentimes with little cognizance of its impact, parents can portray the world as a kind of haunted house with distorted mirrors for children to peer into. In this portrayal many scary or inexplicable things can appear at unpredictable (or even predictable) times.

2. “Were you taught the importance of learning to think, the importance of developing your mind, the importance of becoming a rational being? Did your parents provide you with intellectual stimulation and convey the idea that the use of your mind can be an exciting pleasure?”

In her novel Atlas Shrugged, philosopher Ayn Rand noted that your mind is your basic tool of survival. [19] Our physical capabilities pale in comparison to the feats our minds can perform. Therefore, the above questions pertain to how much your survival tool was honored by adult caregivers. Each of us wanted to learn a great deal about the world when we were young, and we wanted adults to trust the functioning of our minds to do so.

Further, we wanted adults to share the joy we felt about the use of our minds to figure things out and discover many more things. Needless to say, a zest for thinking and learning might’ve become hard to maintain when we didn’t see many adults expressing such zest themselves, or when they didn’t encourage our own discovery process.

3. “Were you encouraged to think independently, to develop your critical faculty? Or were you taught to be obedient rather than mentally active and questioning? Did your parents project that it was more important to conform to what other people believed than to discover what is true? When your parents wanted you to do something, did they appeal to your understanding and give you reasons for their request? Or did they communicate in effect, ‘Do it because I say so’?”

Such questions bring to mind our previous exploration of social psychology experiments and the cultural memes of obedience and conformity. It’s a safe bet that most of the subjects in those studies didn’t as children have their sense of independence and autonomous functioning fostered by caregivers. More than likely, they were trained to conform and were taught that truth isn’t something their minds can objectively discern on their own, absent some “authority” telling them supposedly what’s right and what’s wrong.

Likewise, demands were probably the norm too, instead of requests that came with an understandable rationale (and with the option to understandably decline). A top-down manner of interacting with children tragically leads to a belief that being mentally active and questioning isn’t very important, or even key, to living well. Hearing “Because I said so!” early in life is akin to hearing “Because it’s the law!” later on. Both stances lead to more obedience and conformity, instead of independent thinking and more life-serving behaviors.

4. “Did you feel free to express your views openly without fear of punishment?”

This remains one of the biggest obstacles to self-expression and self-assertiveness in general. When the disapproval of others is combined with punishment, it leads to traumatized, stillborn selves, or as psychologist Marshall Rosenberg noted, “nice, dead people.” [20] Persons who were threatened and punished as children tend to live as adults in ways that don’t fully serve their individual lives and well-being.

As a consequence, many adults believe that children won’t take parents seriously without threats of punishment, including withholding rewards or taking away things. They might point to the alter ego of authoritarian parenting—lenient parenting—to support their belief. Of course, both types fall way short of meeting both children’s and parents’ need for respect. What can really help children to become healthy adults is a psychologically integrated parental understanding of what’s abusive and what’s neglectful toward children, which includes parents’ examination of their own childhoods. Imagine having been free as a child to express your views openly without fear of unwanted and harmful effects from others. Without such fear, we can much more easily meet our needs for honesty, authenticity, and openness.

5. “Did your parents communicate their disapproval of your thoughts, desires, or behavior by means of humor, teasing, or sarcasm?”

This question considers your parents’ ways of disapproving as well as interpreting your self-expressions. Did they take you seriously? Nearly all parents I’ve encountered sometimes have difficulty taking their children seriously. Adults may turn encounters with children into a circus act to entertain them. Or, they may exhibit a depressing or scary mood around children, or an anxious one. As adults, especially when we haven’t processed our own childhood trauma, we can become detached from our own pure sense of child-self—disconnecting from the early times when we were innocently trying to express our thoughts, desires, and actions around adults.

When I was a toddler, for instance, I got a sizable dose of teasing from my father. My parents’ college-level education was no protection from this. Sadly, we live in a culture that contains a lot of put-down humor (the central theme in scores of sitcoms, by the way), and this can detract from seeing each other’s dignity. Of course, enjoying humor and seeing the funny sides of life and of humans are indispensable aspects of living well, and a foundation of trust and respect enables humor to be truly nourishing. Teasing becomes mockery without firmly established trust and respect, and it can make the cultivation of self-worth and the belief in oneself, especially as a child, much more difficult.

When individuals aren’t taken seriously as children, it can also result in win/lose interactions subsequently in the adult world, especially when adults don’t expend the time and effort to heal their own traumatic childhood experiences. So, imagine if you had been taken seriously as a child—imagine how your view of self and the world might’ve formed in that respectfully enriching context. This is a wonderful context that you can foster for yourself as an adult now.

6. “Did your parents treat you with respect? Were your thoughts, needs, and feelings given consideration? Was your dignity as a human being acknowledged? When you expressed ideas or opinions, were they treated seriously? Where your likes and dislikes treated seriously? (Not necessarily agreed with or acceded to, but nonetheless treated seriously?) Were your desires treated thoughtfully and respectfully?”

With these questions, we’re really at the foundation of the human psyche and its functioning. Of course, all the other questions relate to these as well. Our social world is so immersed in the memes of obedience, and thus inauthenticity, that it’s oftentimes difficult to grasp just how different childhood can be when these questions are answered in the affirmative. Indeed, a new psychology can emerge across society as a result. This is the future of humanity we’re talking about, which can arise when enough individuals choose it and promote it, inducing a tipping point in society.

What tends to impede realization of the immense value of affirmative answers to these questions is the thought that we’re supposed to play roles. Some are supposed to play “parents,” and others are supposed to play “kids.” Parents are supposed to be “in charge,” maintain “authority,” and especially strive to be “good parents,” according to various cultural expectations and demands. Kids are supposed to be, well, just “kids,” seemingly untrustworthy, reckless, inept, and unable to do most things that parents do for them, but should do things that parents demand of them. Any actual disabling of children’s abilities tends to be fostered by all the labeling and role-playing. It becomes self-fulfilling prophecy.

These roles we can play have very little to do with our genuine sense of self; they oftentimes detract from connection with and expression of our authenticity. For instance, imagine if your parents had wanted you to call them by their first names, instead of “mom” and “dad,” not as a way to distance themselves from you or disown you, but as a way to indicate equality—equality in personhood, equality in respect of thoughts, desires, feelings, and needs. Indeed, being treated equally in dignity and in significance of opinions, ideas, likes, dislikes, and desires means the world to children (and to adults). Essentially, it provides the most visibility, which is a vital need for formulating a healthy self-concept. While overt decoupling from parental labels might not be necessary, it’s nevertheless a useful thought-experiment that can enable us to challenge the role-playing that detracts from our individual humaneness.

7. “Did you feel that you were psychologically visible to your parents? Did you feel real to them? Did your parents seem to make a genuine, thoughtful effort to understand you? Did your parents seem authentically interested in you as a person? Could you talk to your parents about issues of importance and receive interested, meaningful understanding from them?”

Getting our need for psychological visibility met has a profound impact on self-concept, on worldview, and on connections with others. The importance of being seen for who we really are can’t be overstated. Unfortunately, it becomes quite compromised when roles are being played in the family. When the mental mirror that parents provide for a child reflects doubts about his or her own efficacy and worth, including moralistic judgment of his or her choices and behaviors (and even presence in the family), then genuine recognition of self and supportive, empathetic self-understanding tend to be jeopardized.

If we don’t challenge our assumptions about conforming to various systems, then we can fashion distorted funhouse mirrors and even haunted house mirrors for children to look into psychologically, as they try to ascertain who they are and what’s possible to them. So, self-concept is best formed with a clear and accurate connection to reality (both inner and outer reality), and this is fostered when adults provide clear and truthful psychological mirrors.

We can better cope with the troubles in family systems by making earnest efforts to understand ourselves as adults. Being authentically interested in oneself is a prerequisite to being authentically interested in others. For all its cultural acclaim, self-sacrifice can’t foster this process of genuine connection. Remaining immersed in a world of superficialities and role-playing simply forestalls healing and growth. Yet, we can see how these strategies may have arisen in us as we experienced them in family environments—which gets us back to the vital work of challenging those systemic assumptions.

8. “Did you feel loved and valued by your parents, in the sense that you experienced yourself as a source of pleasure to them? Or did you feel unwanted, perhaps a burden? Or did you feel hated? Or did you feel you were simply an object of indifference?”

These poignant questions raise some additional issues. Since parents’ interactions with their children are reflections of how parents learned to interact with themselves and others from a very early age, the immensity of the problem here is twofold: Parents tend to be disconnected from what’s most alive in them (in terms of their feelings and needs); and, their children tend to view this disconnection as normal. From this, children can ascribe guilt to themselves by drawing the tragically incorrect conclusion that something is wrong with them. They can develop a sense of shame about not being fully wanted and appreciated by their caregivers. Perhaps they might believe that they are a burden or unimportant, or that they are someone to be distrusted, neglected, or even hated.

Our culture tends not to help parents become more self-connected. Having a solid integration of mind and body (realizing that the mind is what the brain does) entails being in touch with and willing to convey feelings in a way that’s respectful of our own needs and the needs of children. For instance, how did your parents handle disagreements and conflict? Did they tend to take full responsibility for their thoughts, feelings, needs, desires, and actions, or were they prone to accusing, criticizing, blaming, and shaming?

Ultimately, it’s incredibly difficult to experience others as sources of pleasure when one’s own self isn’t fulfilled and one isn’t feeling resourceful, skilled in the practice of self-responsibility. Oftentimes, parents get immersed in many issues that compromise their ability to experience and share more enriching ways of being, and both they and their children tend to suffer the results. So, to heal from this and grow psychologically entails cultivating a key aspect of happiness, which is to experience oneself, others, and the world as pleasurable in healthy, self-esteeming ways.

9. “Did your parents deal with you fairly and justly? Did your parents resort to threats in order to control your behavior—either threats of immediate punitive action on their part, or threats in terms of long-range consequences for your life, or threats of supernatural punishments, such as going to hell? Were you praised when you performed well? Or merely criticized when you performed badly? Were your parents willing to admit it when they were wrong? Or was it against their policy to concede that they were wrong?”

These questions relate to much of the content of Alfie Kohn’s books, such as Punished By Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes [21] and the already-mentioned Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards And Punishments To Love And Reason. [10] Kohn cites a plethora of empirical evidence about the harmful nature of treating other humans in subhuman ways, i.e., merely as stimulus/response creatures, or essentially unreasoning animals.

Unfortunately, when children point out the unfair goings-on in the family, usually more punishments are in store for them. It’s immensely tragic that so many children experienced, and continue to experience, such things. Again, this is largely because their parents had similar experiences when they were children, as did their parents, and so on.

The thinking paradigm of “morally right” versus “morally wrong” has been with humanity probably since prehistory. When parents don’t like something that children are saying or doing, they have a couple basic choices: They can be authentic about their own emotions, including what might be triggering from their past, as well as relate the troubling incident to specific needs that we all share and help children to realize the benefits and drawbacks of particular strategies; or, they can crack down on them for being “wrong” in some way and disobedient, even using aggression against them. Along with the latter decision, parents can also invoke the mysticism of religion, to frightening and disorienting effect, such as the fury of hellfire and damnation. Power-over tactics tend to be the mainstay of religious dogma; you’re supposed to doubt your own mind and either obey or be condemned to some sort of hellish existence (and hellish non-existence, as if that were possible).

All of us know that punishments have quite significant costs on everyone involved. As Marshall Rosenberg has noted, ultimately you can’t get other persons to do something they don’t want to do, and punishing disobedient behavior only makes them wish they had done it, because they don’t like punishment. But, then, they might also make you wish you had not begun this process! By sacrificing the need for respect, punishment leads to severe resentment, which can lead to revenge tactics, which can lead to more punishment, and so on. [20]

We can call intimidation, punishment, and revenge a coercive cycle that’s unfit for reasoning beings, but it’s what most people have been taught as the primary way to try to get their implicit needs met. It reflects the thought that people are generally “selfish” (meaning here, “bad” and inconsiderate) and thus can’t be trusted with their own choices. When we scrutinize the carrots-and-sticks model of interaction, we can more clearly see the many needs that it sacrifices, first and foremost, respect.

As noted in the very title of Punished By Rewards, rewards and praise are a special form of punishment as well: A person can stand in judgment of another person by praising and rewarding him or her, and this can foster a power-over dynamic. Of course, rewards and praise are popular, so most of us have a lot of experience here too. We’re used to expressing what we like about someone, or about what he or she said or did, in such terms. Elements of extrinsic motivation can be attached to them, so they can go beyond simple expressions of appreciation, acknowledgment, and enthusiasm.

As a great deal of research indicates, whenever our intrinsic motivation is displaced by extrinsic motivators, we lose part of ourselves—the centered and balanced part. Being fully connected with what’s alive in ourselves needs to be the main goal, rather than trying to live up to others’ expectations in order to get rewarded by them (or not get punished). Deferring to others’ judgment can lead us away from our authentic selves and into the realm of conforming to norms and abiding by orders set forth by “authorities,” lest we get disapproved of and punished. The experiments done by Milgram and others involved a similar operant conditioning process, in which the punishment of shocks was delivered to supposedly teach learners a lesson.

The last part of Branden’s 9th question set above speaks to the fact that parents are fallible beings, not only capable of making mistakes but also capable of being comfortable with making them. Parents can struggle mightily with conveying their basic (guiltless) fallibility to their children. As noted, “wrong” in our culture is a quite loaded term. It can be interpreted as an indictment of one’s capability and worth—i.e., an indictment of one’s self-esteem. So, this is one reason why parents in particular might choose to live in bubbles of rightness.

No matter what, when anyone in the family system resides on a moral pedestal, a power-over dynamic can arise—and thus inequality of respect. Helping children become completely comfortable with their mistake-making process means honoring the same process within ourselves, which entails honoring our own learning process and capability to achieve useful and helpful things.

10. “Was it your parents’ practice to punish you or discipline you by striking or beating you?”

The affirmative answer to this question remains in disturbingly high numbers in American culture; some surveys claim upwards of 90% of caregivers hit their children (euphemistically called spanking). It’s no surprise that parents who were punished as children tend to punish their children similarly. This meme can get readily passed on, although adults who didn’t view themselves as deserving of such treatment when they were children might be less likely to inflict it on their children.

Of course, aggression is an overt form of punishment, one of the many ways that the power-over dynamic can be expressed. In his book Unconditional Parenting, Kohn explains the prevalent “conditional parenting” model that fosters such win/lose interactions. Few of us are strangers to this model, of which being a “good boy” or “good girl” (or conversely a “bad boy” or “bad girl”) is part. Living up to parents’ expectations and trying to please them (or not displease them) are other parts. Experiencing love withdrawal if expectations are not met is yet another.

Many factors are involved when a parent reaches the end of his or her rope of resourcefulness and decides to aggress against a child. Feelings of exasperation, frustration, impatience, overwhelm, and annoyance can lead to a volcano of anger erupting. Subjectively feeling victimized can lead to actions of external domination. Once again, this behavior pattern was likely modeled in the parent’s early life too. Being overpowered and rendered helpless, internally and/or externally, is the nature of a traumatic experience, and the practical response to danger (fight or flight) has no real outlet. Some may have even been taught that physically punishing children must be done in a relatively calm way, rather than in an angry way. This supposedly gets a different point across—that the parent has not lost control, but is nonetheless determined to “discipline,” i.e., physically overpower and dominate the child. Regardless of the mood of the administrator of punishment, it’s supposed to motivate children by inducing fear and pain. Powerless rage is a devastating byproduct, often unacknowledged and repressed (for survival purposes early on), which can manifest in all sorts of tragic ways throughout life. [80]

The term discipline comes from Latin, meaning “to teach.” And what sort of concept of justice is being taught to children with the punishment model? One that’s opposed to actual restorative justice (a topic in chapter eight) and that continues to generate traumatic experiences. A great deal of psychological evidence shows that people do not become more emotionally mature and self-responsible when they punish or are subjected to punishment, regardless of age. The main message conveyed is that you had better obey “authorities” or you’ll have hell to pay. Punishment is thus an attempt to make those being punished wish they had done exactly what they were told; they’ll behave “better” next time, the belief goes.

Needless to say, “Do what you’re told, or else!” is not a phrase that supports or promotes independent reasoning or self-esteem. Instead, it traumatizes and fractures the minds of persons, fostering a society filled with fearful conformity and rebelliousness.

11. “Did your parents project that they believed in your basic goodness? Or did they project that they saw you as bad or worthless or evil?”

Branden’s meaning of basic goodness here can be equated with fundamental human worthiness. However, common thoughts of “good” and “bad” humans reflect moralistic and religious judgments. Rather than viewing persons as conceptual and emotional organisms who are trying to meet their needs using differing strategies, the age-old good/bad model of characterizing us simply views black and white, like in films with heroes and shady characters wearing their respective hats. As Milgram’s experiments and many others have indicated, we have the capacity to accept or reject destructive behaviors, which may be more or less difficult for each individual depending on the environmental, social, and psychological context.

Religions tend to promote stark contrasts—heaven and hell being the ultimate ones. “Original sin” sets a grim stage for human nature too, telling people that something is wrong, flawed, or broken within them, and that “bad” tendencies and desires must always be held in check. As a result, many endure a vague or distinct sense of guilt, while others act out its evaluations in costly ways. Like beliefs of heaven and hell, original sin’s falsity robs persons of their actual potential as precious, irreplaceable individuals on a wondrous planet.

When a child internalizes a message that he or she is not good enough or not quite fit for existence, or that there is something evil about him or her, we can predict the severe self-esteem struggles. It may take many months or years as an adult to repair one’s view of self (and, by extension, of others) to enable integrated, resilient, and happy functioning. Fortunately, there are psychotherapeutic techniques that we’ll explore later to facilitate this process of healing and growth.

12. “Did your parents project that they believed in your intellectual and creative potentialities? Or did they project that they saw you as mediocre or stupid or inadequate?”

As in all aspects of parents’ relations with children, belief in the efficacious functioning of children becomes much more difficult when parents don’t believe in their own efficacious functioning. As Branden has articulated in his various self-esteem books, the process of honoring our self-worth as children (and then as adults) becomes jeopardized when it’s called into question, particularly by parents. While we likely all experienced this damaging process, each of us, by virtue of existing, by virtue of taking simple breaths of air, is worthy of experiencing inner well-being and happiness. Such a simple yet psychologically profound realization can broaden our horizons.

Regardless of how much self-knowledge, integration, and inner resourcefulness you’ve yet to gain, fundamentally there are no complex mysteries to decipher here in order to begin honoring your self-worth. In this sacred realm, there are no expectations to live up to, no demands to capitulate to, no hoops to jump through, no tests to pass.

Yet this is typically not how we’ve experienced the topic or been trained to view it. If parents had their own intellectual, emotional, and creative potentialities doubted when they were children, and they haven’t processed this trauma, then their distorted self-concept can get conveyed to their children. Conversely, if parents had their own intellectual, emotional, and creative potentialities honored when they were children, then their wholesome self-concept can get conveyed to their children. No matter what happened early on, however, parents can consciously focus on the cultivation of a healthy self-concept for themselves and their children.

Oftentimes, because as children we don’t have the experience, the knowledge, and the skills of adults, any explicit or implicit opinions by others that we are somehow mediocre, stupid, or inadequate, can be internalized. Such labeling is definitely disabling. This of course opens the door to massive exploitation throughout life, including power-over and punishment dynamics, yielding obedience to orders from “authorities,” be they parents, priests (or gurus), teachers, employers, or law enforcers. Diminished self-actualization tends to stem from weakened belief in our fundamental dignity and our ability to individuate.

13. “In your parents’ expectations concerning your behavior and performance, did they take cognizance of your knowledge, needs, interests, and circumstances? Or were you confronted by expectations and demands that were overwhelming and beyond your ability to satisfy?”

The process of trying to live up to others’ expectations is typically rooted in our experiences as children, when survival, safety, support, acceptance, even love, tragically depended on how we adjusted to the expressed needs of parents. We might’ve acquired a sense of learned helplessness from not living up to parental expectations and demands, so our ability to be resilient and resourceful with our own life processes got hindered, which didn’t bode well for us in adulthood.

In contrast, attuning to the needs of the child entails empathizing with his or her mental perspective and fostering an environment that nurtures rather than overwhelms. Imagine what it would’ve been like, as a child, to have your knowledge, needs, interests, and circumstances fully recognized and appreciated. A world of such empathy and understanding is a world every child naturally desires and seeks. This is a world we all can love and in which we all can be loved. Now is a time to cultivate a compassionate view of ourselves, especially since we have much more capability and resources to do so.

14. “Did your parents’ behavior and manner of dealing with you tend to produce guilt in you?”

The emotion of guilt, like all emotions, represents a combination of feeling and evaluation. Yet guilt, along with shame and to some extent anger, is in a different class, because it arises from the premises of domination thinking, i.e., moralistic judgment. The thought of doing something “wrong” or “bad” contributes to the emotion of guilt, in addition to shame, which is the thought that one is “wrong” or “bad.” People’s reactions of anger, blaming, and shaming augment these thoughts of rightness and wrongness. Additionally, the assumed premise is that a diminished view of oneself is necessary to somehow atone for one’s actions as well as one’s “badness.” And of course, the doctrine of original sin only perpetuates this premise.

We’ve probably all heard the parental injunction “Now, say you’re sorry.” Unfortunately, such a pressured process only indirectly connects us to important needs, such as for understanding, consideration, fairness, and respect for others. Because of the judgment of one’s actions or even oneself as bad or wrong, the direct and genuine connection with such needs is oftentimes lost, and the need to respect oneself tends to be lost too.

Moreover, underlying the journey of the “guilt-trip” is the premise that one should do what is “right and proper” according to another’s views—rather than to reflect on the needs for doing what’s objectively healthy and helpful, in line with sound principles. Of course, when one rejects the guilt-trip and doesn’t abide by the “should” statements, one’s efficacy and worth are still called into question by another. Behind all emotions of guilt and shame lies a view of self as being dubious in worth, not really good enough to deal with matters effectively and appropriately.

15. “Did your parents’ behavior and manner of dealing with you tend to produce fear in you?”

Fear is arguably the most debilitating emotion. It can bring even the thought of life-enriching activities to an abrupt halt. It can suspend rationality. It can thwart achievement and stall self-actualization. It can also lead to harm of self and others, when aggression is used as a tragic salve. We know that fear can be triggered in many ways. Unmet needs for safety, security, respect, understanding, self-esteem, and many others can give rise to feeling fearful.

As children, we tend to fear the disapproval of our parents and their punishments, including their withdrawal of affection, support, and love. Trying to live up to their expectations can become a way of life, with fear as a guide. Moreover, when children are taught to be “God-fearing,” they are experiencing an extension of this tragic process. Rather than being attuned to our vital unmet needs, we are supposed to look to an “authority” for approval, to appease and to follow. Naturally, this doesn’t effectively resolve the fear, so the cycle of fear continues.

One of the most important things we can learn as children is that we’re living in a knowable universe, a cosmos that’s open to our curiosity and investigation—which means that we can make sense of things. Living with dread is not our natural condition. Living with confidence and courage is, which includes the courage to face our fears, empathize with them, and understand them. Joyful self-expression comes naturally to us as children, and we don’t need to lose that way of living because of domination systems.

16. “Did your parents respect your intellectual and physical privacy?”

Oftentimes, being a young member of a family entails having your privacy go out the window. Children in our culture are typically not considered equals with adults in terms of what they can keep to themselves without fear of reprimand. As expected, the less trust that parents have in their children, the less trust that children have in their parents, and then the less that parents honor their privacy.

The fact of the matter is that each person, no matter how small, has his or her own perspective and need for space. Children try to nurture these too, and the more that parents trust them, the more likely transparency will exist in their relationship, in which children feel safe and even eager to communicate aspects of their inner and outer worlds. Mutual respect and understanding then replace battles of the wills and mutual suspicion. This tends to lead naturally to more interpersonal trust and to more sharing.

17. “Did your parents project that it was desirable for you to think well of yourself, to have self-esteem? Or were you cautioned against valuing yourself, and encouraged to be humble?”

Hebrew doctrine tells us that “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Of course, haughty behavior doesn’t mean confident and respectful behavior. It seems that nearly all religions teach persons to be self-sacrificial, not to be “full of oneself” (as if one is supposed to be partially full, or empty, or filled with something else). It’s a widespread phenomenon that needs some explanation.

When parents or other adults scold children for being “selfish,” they usually want them to share something with others or consider other points of view. Yet this way that grown-ups express their desires for interaction and empathy tends to hinder children’s capacity to do so. To believe that children can value themselves too much or that they can think too well of themselves is like believing that they can be too healthy or too happy. When we scrutinize the underlying message of this belief—that others are more important than yourself—the contradiction becomes glaring.

You’re an individual, and others are individuals too. Each of us needs to integrate a self-concept that entails a realistic and honorable assessment of ourselves. Having a healthy self-concept includes wanting the best for yourself as well as the best for other selves, who need to have healthy self-concepts too.

Self-esteem is the evaluative aspect of self-concept. So, if our self-concept contains estranged or diminished parts, even repudiated ones, along with defensive ones (supposedly in service of self-protection), then our self-esteem will suffer accordingly. To value yourself is to value your capacity to enrich your life, which leads to interacting with others in ways that value them as well. Children can integrate the message that it’s desirable for them to think well of themselves—to value themselves. This enables them to naturally express empathy toward themselves and toward others. Therefore, they don’t need to be taught through judgment of their character to be “moral” persons. Rather, trust can be placed in them to flourish as nature intended.

18. “Did your parents project that what a person made of his [or her] life, and what you specifically made of your life, was important? Did your parents project that great things are possible to human beings, and specifically that great things are possible for you? Did your parents give you the impression that life could be exciting, challenging, a rewarding adventure?”

“Self-concept is destiny,” as Branden has noted, and parental influences tend to shape this destiny, as does our culture (which of course shapes parental influences). Perhaps your parents portrayed productive achievement (a.k.a., “work”) as some sort of drudgery or self-sacrificial, dutiful process. As economies lose prosperity due to erroneous political philosophies and harmful policies, this view tends to be expressed more often. Perhaps your parents even conveyed the idea that an exciting or adventurous life is “unstable” and only for allegedly crazy people or weirdos, or maybe just for celebrities.

Seeing life as an exciting adventure that you can embark upon also entails having a sense of control over your own destiny. This means not attributing your particular circumstances to “luck” or even “the law of attraction,” but rather to the metaphysical laws of identity and causality. We can distinguish what’s important from what’s not and take informed actions to improve our lives. Our fate need not be sealed by a detrimental model of life that we might’ve experienced as children. We can venture into a new realm that involves full belief in our ability to make the most of our own individual lives. This means casting aside the various psychological and existential scripts that we were probably given, so that we can create our own thrilling stories.

19. “Did your parents encourage in you a fear of the world, a fear of other people? Or were you encouraged to face the world with an attitude of relaxed, confident benevolence? Or neither?”

Upon reading the works of Ayn Rand and other Objectivists (including Branden) in the 1990s, I encountered discussions of the psychological necessity of an empowered and certain metaphysical worldview, stemming from the laws of identity, causality, and noncontradiction. I remember reading the following excerpt from a poem titled “The Laws of God, The Laws of Man” by English poet A.E. Housman, which was offered in psychological contrast to metaphysical certainty: “I, a stranger and afraid in a world I never made.”

In order to avoid being such a fearful stranger, the Objectivist point was to have a logically integrated view of one’s self-concept and reality. Yet when we examine Housman’s poem in full context, we can have compassion for such a plight, since domination systems have contributed to so much of it:

“THE laws of God, the laws of man,

He may keep that will and can;

Not I: Let God and man decree

Laws for themselves and not for me;

And if my ways are not as theirs

Let them mind their own affairs.

Their deeds I judge and most condemn,

Yet when did I make laws for them?

Please yourselves, say I, and they

Need only look the other way.

But no, they will not; they must still

Wrest their neighbor to their will,

And make me dance as they desire

With jail and gallows and hellfire.

And how am I to face the odds

Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.

They will be master, right or wrong;

Though both are foolish, both are strong.

And since, my soul, we cannot fly

To Saturn nor to Mercury

Keep we must, if we can,

These foreign laws of God and man.” [22]

A world full of jails, gallows, and claims of hellfire is challenging enough for adults to make sense of, let alone children. The fear triggered in children by a mixture of religious and secular laws can be immense. Rather than creating supposed order and safety, such a matrix indeed disempowers individuals from respectfully and compassionately minding their own affairs. Demands and punishments detract mightily from our ability to make the most of our lives.

Again, life need not be about suffering and being fearful. But maybe that’s how it seemed to your parents and to their parents before them. Fear of other people can arise for the very reasons that Housman related. When your own independent will isn’t appreciated by others, especially by parents, practically every encounter might be seen as a threat or danger. A complex mix of self-alienating memes can also give rise to a fear of strangers or “foreigners” (xenophobia). Racism is yet another form of this fear, in which nonessential human characteristics are deemed of the utmost importance, to be judged according to predetermined standards.

In contrast, we can transcend such fears by viewing others with an attitude of confident and trusting benevolence, which also enables us to appreciate their own possible distress and fear. Other people are reasoning beings as well, yearning to meet their own needs; therefore, they can be seen as reflections of ourselves, albeit with sometimes different sets of strategies. Ultimately, we are all in a process of flourishing on a planet that allows for nearly limitless opportunities for enrichment and growth.

20. “Were you encouraged to be open in the expression of your emotions and desires? Or were your parents’ behavior and manner of treating you such as to make you fear emotional self-assertiveness and openness, or to regard it as inappropriate?”

For the vast majority of children, self-expression around adults can be at times a dangerous prospect. Recall the sentiment “Children are to be seen and not heard”—not exactly a welcoming invitation to convey what’s alive in you. Though such a stance might be becoming less common, it nonetheless tends to arise out of parental frustration. Adults’ needs for space and consideration tend to arise from the way that children express themselves and their timing of such expressions.

There’s a statement I’ve heard from nonviolent communication trainers that, ideally, parents could use two hours of empathy for every hour of parenting. When parents aren’t feeling resourceful in relation to dealing with their own stressful emotions, especially in terms of connecting them to their underlying needs, their motivation to understand and support the emotional expressions and desires of children becomes significantly reduced.

Parents who were themselves trained in the process of moralistic judgment can be prone to shaming children into more desirable behavior. Being told that one’s self-assertiveness is not appropriate and must be curtailed typically leads to driving the self underground, where it can tragically express all kinds of unmet needs. So much intrinsic motivation and emotional expression are thwarted with the power-over methods of conditional parenting and coercive schooling. The cost is truly incalculable.

So, being attuned to and conversant with what we desire and being comfortably adept at emotional expression are still major challenges for our species. Yet we can as individuals learn and cultivate them as essential practices. Emotions are roughly half our mental world, after all, so the more we comprehend and communicate them, the more connected, integrated, and genuine we can become. Then, the quality of our connections increases greatly as well.

21. “Were your mistakes accepted as a normal part of the learning process? Or as something you were taught to associate with contempt, ridicule, punishment?”

As noted previously, fallibility is something that our species also continues to grapple with. Other animals make mistakes too, of course, but they don’t possess conceptual self-awareness and, thus, they don’t experience shame and blame themselves and others on account of errors. If our goals are to limit mistakes and to correct them, then subjecting this learning process to criticism, contempt, ridicule, and punishment is pretty counter-productive. Guiltlessly correcting mistakes needs to come as easily as making them. It’s way past time to dispel notions like original sin that deem one’s mind problematic and untrustworthy in principle, irrespective of how much one tries to prevent and correct errors.

There’s an instructive phrase in the tech start-up community—fail early and fail often. In this realm, and correspondingly in the realm of living in general, failing to achieve exactly what you want simply indicates where you can go next, what you can try instead, in order to improve and succeed. In other words, mistakes are important facts to notice that can point us in new directions. Because mistakes are natural to the process of living, they enable us to use our minds in a continually self-correcting way.

When adults, parents in particular, completely believe in the efficacy and worthiness of children, our world can become a much more understanding, encouraging, and supportive place. We will then not be hobbled by dysfunctional thoughts of our basic fallibility.

22. “Did your parents encourage you in the direction of having a healthy affirmative attitude toward sex and toward your own body? Or a negative attitude? Or did they treat the entire subject as nonexistent?”

By the time we reach adolescence, we’ve seen such a disturbing amount of violence (at times mixed with sex) that one wonders how anyone can mature in a healthy way. Religion typically treats sex as something forbidden, base, dirty, and sinful. Both Western and Eastern religions tend to emphasize selflessness as a virtue, which entails a distancing from one’s desires and “pleasures of the flesh,” including sexual ones. They preach that the body and its senses are not to be entirely trusted and embraced. And they normally expound that carnal pleasures lead to mayhem, cruelty, and despair.

Typically, being comfortable with one’s body and sexuality is related to how comfortable one’s parents were with them. Parents are basically models of what being human is all about. If they feel anxiety or embarrassment about explaining to children how they were made and exactly where they came from, a puzzling message is sent.

I once heard on a podcast a hypothetical scenario for people to consider, which reveals a lot about our culture. A mother or father walks by a living room where a child is watching a video screen that’s showing either something sexual or something violent. Now, which video on that screen do you think would provoke more of a concerned response—a hard core fight scene or a hard core sex scene? It’s likely the latter.

Children are often sent the bewildering message that consensual (and clearly pleasurable) sex is obscene, and they must be sheltered from the nature of it, while nonconsensual (and clearly unpleasurable, at least for the victims) violence is not obscene, but rather fine to view. Hence, behavior that naturally brings persons immense amounts of enjoyment ought to be censored, but bloody conflict is supposedly a normal part of life and usually needed for heroism to be expressed (notice the widespread use of video game violence to attain a sense of release and empowerment).

What’s actually needed in the realm of sexuality is straightforward communication of information in a manner and context that children can integrate comprehensibly and healthily. Unfortunately, much of the seemingly limitless eroticism that the Internet offers us reflects various distortions, and these stem from a culture that tends to keep the wonderful nature of sexuality underground, or taboo in polite company. As a consequence, many tragic expressions of early unmet needs can arise, and the joys of sex from the standpoint of equality, respect, and romantic love can become minimized or undervalued.

Undoubtedly, the world of human violence models for children a world without peaceful relations and respectful boundaries. Yet, children’s needs for respect, trust, and understanding can be met as they mature by providing useful information about these crucial matters of the body and mind.

23. “Did your parents’ manner of dealing with you tend to develop and strengthen your sense of your masculinity or femininity? Or to frustrate and diminish it? Or neither?”

Masculinity and femininity are words that can have emotional charge and be steeped in cultural bias. Objective definitions for them can be hard to formulate, other than what pertains physically to male traits and female traits. Beyond the physical differences, learning, memes, and culture intrude. After all, what’s considered masculine in one society may be considered feminine in another, and vice versa. For an eye-opening analysis of the biases we can acquire in this realm, check out Cordelia Fine’s book Delusions Of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, And Neurosexism Create Difference [23] as well as Warren Farrell’s book The Myth Of Male Power: Why Men Are The Disposable Sex. [24]

Each person, whether a he or a she, is an individual, with a mind that basically consists of awareness, thoughts, images, memories, feelings, desires, values, beliefs, and both physical and psychological needs. How each person decides to express these aspects is up to him or her. Suffice it to say that parents (and adults in general) markedly benefit from exploring their own “roles” of gender acquired from society, lest they pass them onto children uncritically. For instance, pointing out feats of strength and conquest doesn’t really explain masculinity any more than pointing out nurturing gestures and sociability explains femininity.

24. “Did your parents encourage you to feel that your life belonged to you? Or were you encouraged to believe that you were merely a family asset and that your achievements were significant only insofar as they brought glory to your parents? Were you treated as a family resource or as an end in yourself?”

Viewing yourself as an end in yourself, rather than as a means to someone else’s end, is probably one of the most difficult tasks in a culture that’s rooted in an ethics of sacrifice. Few parents were taught when they were children that their lives fully belonged to them—so, the intergenerational transfer of self-sacrifice continued.

When children are treated as inferiors in the family, all kinds of control measures and interruptions in their own choice-making and learning processes seem justified. Even though learning to make helpful choices for oneself (including in relation to others) is of paramount importance, conditional parenting methods tragically discourage this.

When children are sent the message that they aren’t trusted and thus aren’t in charge of their own learning processes—for example, of learning when (and how) to eat, sleep, bathe, or understand something—then among other tragic things we can expect battles of the wills, or “autonomy wars,” as Marshall Rosenberg called them. Additionally, an internal struggle arises for adults about when to begin relinquishing control and perhaps when to stop punishing children for disobedience. During the teenage years, most parents indeed shift their perspective somewhat, though they might retain various power-over aspects, which once again reflect distorted views of children’s efficacy and worth.


Perhaps you felt some distress and worry as we covered the profound questions posed by Branden about your childhood. These emotions mean that your subconscious mind is noting the questions’ significance. Of course, your answers to them have implications for your interactions with children today, as well as for how you relate to your child-self, which is the part representing the constellations of memories from those early times. Please have compassion for these feelings and others that you experience, because they are helping you to connect with needs for integration, safety, and meaning, among others.

Realize that at any point in time as an adult, you can begin to repair the trauma that you experienced and may be reliving in various ways. You can remedy the distorted beliefs and outdated behaviors formed from your experiences of not getting your needs met early on. Such a healing and growth process attunes you to meeting the needs of yourself and of children presently. In the realm of the psychological, the way out is through. In a real sense, all of us are invited by our interactions to make sense of our past, to come to terms with it in relation to the present. The practice of living consciously proves to be key.

The Art Of Self Discovery is a psychotherapeutic workbook written by Nathaniel Branden, which was designed to help each individual comprehensively explore his or her inner continent, namely the subconscious realm, using sentence completion exercises. [25] Since it’s been out of print for many years (though it and Branden’s other books may be back in print soon), I made it available as a downloadable ebook on my counseling site. [35] To work through all the exercises in this book might take a month or two, depending on how much spare time you have each day or week. Needless to say, the insights and integration that are possible from it are well worth the time and effort.

Also, variations of cognitive behavioral therapy (e.g., trauma-focused CBT) have been widely credited in and out of clinical settings with enabling persons to feel better about themselves, improve their outlook on life and relationships, and assist in their quest to live happily and successfully. A myriad of techniques can assist us in becoming more integrated and accepting of ourselves. As noted in my podcast series on trauma (episodes 209-212), [35] psychodrama and psychomotor therapy particularly help process traumatic memories and behavior patterns in healing ways. They accomplish this with role-playing, guided imagery, working with sub-selves (i.e., subconscious facets of mind with beliefs and emotions from life experiences or stages, particularly one’s child-self), and consciously connecting with feelings and needs. These techniques enable us to attune to what’s really been troubling us and learn new strategies for healing and growing.

As we’ll explore in chapters six and seven, self-compassion, self-empathy, and self-acceptance help us attain self-knowledge, generating self-understanding and thus inner peace. Covering such crucial psychological aspects allows us to paint a portrait of ourselves in the world that will invite us to smile more often and feel more hopeful and excited about realizing our wonderful dreams.

Family comfort dynamics

In order to live in a society of respect, we need to focus on the psychological dynamics operating in the family system. Answers to Branden’s questions can become affirming of both parents and children—which means, life-affirming for everyone in society. As we’ve explored, many of the things that were modeled for us by parents tended to miss much of what can be modeled. For new modeling to happen, individuals need new information, new perspectives, new insights, coupled with the motivation and action-oriented ambition to make it happen.

Related to our presently domination-oriented culture and specifically to family dysfunction, Branden shared some other important thoughts:

“For the majority of children, the early years of life contain many frightening and painful experiences. Perhaps a child has parents who never respond to his need to be touched, held and caressed; or who constantly scream at him or at each other; or who deliberately invoke fear and guilt in him as a means of exercising control; or who swing between over-solicitude and callous remoteness; or who subject him to lies and mockery; or who are neglectful and indifferent; or who continually criticize and rebuke him; or who overwhelm him with bewildering and contradictory injunctions; or who present him with expectations and demands that take no cognizance of his knowledge, needs or interests; or who subject him to physical violence; or who consistently discourage his efforts at spontaneity and self-assertiveness.” (p. 8) [79]

These are the tragic effects of a world in which self-knowledge, self-empathy, and self-improvement aren’t held as firm priorities by adults. Of course, words such as “never,” “constantly,” “continually,” and “consistently” might not be completely accurate in the above experiences, since unpredictability and inconsistency of loving gestures mixed with abuse and neglect tend to be more typical in families. But such adverbs were likely used to identify with the child’s main experience of traumatic, overwhelming emotional distress. In these scenarios parents reenact the same psychological and behavioral predicaments that they experienced when they were children; again, typically parents learn and adopt similar strategies as their parents, and they pass these on. Despite the abundance of self-help and relationship books now available, the fundamental dynamics are just not widely understood, integrated, and distributed yet. And what is known is generally not being fully implemented in people’s lives.

Ultimately, bringing a baby into the world requires no profound insights about one’s own childhood and especially how one’s traumatic experiences tend to be re-expressed or reenacted. Tragically, we can disregard the journey of self-discovery and thus inner-healing, and we can overlook the profound importance of an earnest reassessment of our beliefs and premises about self, others, and the world. Then, unless some catalyst gives rise to curiosity and the intrinsic motivation make things better for all involved, history simply repeats itself.

We sometimes hear adults, who are feeling discontented and irritated, speak yearningly about the prospect of “required parenting courses” for their peers. Yet, we know that requiring something doesn’t foster intrinsic motivation. Just look at all the mandatory counseling that people are subjected to by judges in governmental courts. More power-over tactics don’t work; they don’t help us along the path of internal growth. Instead, they’re a quite costly way to convey dismay and disappointment about problematic circumstances that stem from past patterns.

So, how do we foster more life-enriching decisions by those who become parents? Essentially, by understanding and empathizing with what led them on their path that did not include strategies for gaining more awareness and concern for universal needs. The questions formulated by Branden can be a very useful place to begin that process of empathetic understanding—for every person was once a child, a precious part of self to relate to with love, compassion, and support.

Given the nature of domination systems, we humans have proven time and time again that we can become comfortable with being ruled by others and/or ruling over others. We can derive temporary comfort from not expending effort in integrating a new perspective. Respectfully asserting our own worth and honoring the worth of others can be challenging at times in this culture. As children, given our disempowered circumstances in a conditional parenting environment, we tend to formulate strategies of self-comfort and self-protection. We learn relatively quickly the various ways of coping with power-over dynamics, and we tend to maintain them over time.

Yet, the more children are respected and encouraged to make their own choices, the less comfort they’ll find in relinquishing aspects of self-responsibility—for that would be uncomfortable for their liberated minds. The usual conflicts that children have with parents early on (and later with various “authorities”) demonstrate that shutting down parts of self isn’t a natural process for us.

To develop a sense of empathy for the psychological circumstances of most adults also means to have compassion for our own upbringing, grieving the loss concerning so many needs that simply went unmet. Costly strategies of relating to self and others can be seen as ways to dissociate from lots of early pain, sadness, fear, anger, and confusion. To transcend past strategies entails compassionately understanding the reasons for their adoption early on and reassessing their usefulness in the present. The needs for ease, comfort, and stability, for example, don’t have to come at the expense of self-assertiveness, independent thinking and acting, choice and autonomy.

Perhaps one day all persons will have the helpful knowledge gained from a new culture that’s oriented around intrinsic motivation and self-responsibility. This will undoubtedly contribute to the dissolution of domination systems. While this seems so different than the present, life-enriching changes can and do happen. Let’s now inspect some more tragically typical institutional predicaments in which we find ourselves.

Religion and unquestioned traditions

How many churches and other places of worship are in your community? Some American towns and cities seem to have at least one of them every few blocks. Most of us are aware of what goes on inside churches, for instance, but oftentimes what goes on inside individuals’ minds inside churches remains unexplored.

We naturally desire to find and associate with others of like mind, which enables us to obtain some semblance of visibility. We seek and gain a sense of community, belonging, and familiarity. We also want to know what life is about and what constitutes “the good life.” Stemming from our domination-oriented upbringing, however, we also tend to be trained in what it means to be a “good person” and how to avoid being a “bad person.” Religion, especially as promoted by places of worship, offers such things.

As we might know, abiding by religious rules can be just as disempowering to oneself as abiding by parents’ rules. Normally, if your reasoning capacity isn’t completely honored, if you’re told that you must accept various premises on faith, then feelings such as anxiety, confusion, frustration, alienation, and insecurity tend to arise. Such feelings are in need of compassionate inspection, yet because our culture is so dissociated from the emotional world of humans, these feelings are usually minimized with arguments from authority and traditional behaviors.

Feelings that indicate inner turmoil, for instance anxiety and conflict, are usually not logically explored in the context of religion. Too many cognitive stumbling blocks and too many unanswered questions seem too overwhelming to inspect with sufficient clarity. So, instead, pretense may set in, to replace authentic exploration of what’s happening emotionally and why. This can take the form of adults offering many prematurely answered questions, along with many incorrect answers, which impressionable young minds may have major trouble reconciling.

When we don’t objectively integrate something important—such as the nature of reality, the cosmos, and our place in it—our cognitive efficacy is stifled. Yet this is what happens when we find ourselves being ruled by a religion or more specifically a religious group and its tenets, in which our initial feelings of frustration, anxiety, and confusion—which stem from our need for clarity—are buried under heaps of messages from sermons and scriptures, commandments of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.” Typically with religion, major philosophical premises continue to go unchecked, in the name of assuring belonging and comfort once again and, ironically, being more at ease with one’s uneasiness and doubt.

When we study how children become religiously minded, we can see the same systemic patterns that happen in all families that use power-over tactics. The value that children ascribe to church or religion typically reflects their needs for belonging, to stay connected with others and, of course, to meet and have fun with new persons. Some meaning is gained as well, albeit in a context that doesn’t make complete sense, in which the given answers beg many more questions. Yet, children are seldom told that we can get such needs met in less costly and more enriching ways, in which sacrifice isn’t involved.

Most of us know from either personal experience or eyewitness testimony what typically happens when a child defies parents’ wishes regarding, e.g., church attendance or, further, defies acceptance of the family’s religion and its beliefs. At best, he or she experiences some withdrawal of love and at worst is harshly punished—in some dogmatic cultures even to the horrific point of death. Since love withdrawal can be a form of punishment itself, we again see the domination system in effect with the memes of religion.

Yet, what if children could disagree with their parents about their religious beliefs without fear of reprimand or punishment and losing connection? Then, honesty wouldn’t be so scary. Such dissent, after all, entreats parents to check the same premises that their children are checking. Even though children check such premises in a less philosophically comprehensive way, they’re nonetheless valid checks. Children are naturally adept at noticing inconsistencies; early on, our process of reason disfavors suspension of itself.

On this subject in the novel Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s character John Galt stated the following:

“Do not say that you’re afraid to trust your mind because you know so little. Are you safer in surrendering to mystics and discarding the little that you know? Live and act within the limit of your knowledge and keep expanding it to the limit of your life. Redeem your mind from the hockshops of authority. Accept the fact that you are not omniscient, but playing a zombie will not give you omniscience—that your mind is fallible, but becoming mindless will not make you infallible—that an error made on your own is safer than ten truths accepted on faith, because the first leaves you the means to correct it, but the second destroys your capacity to distinguish truth from error. In place of your dream of an omniscient automaton, accept the fact that any knowledge man acquires is acquired by his own will and effort, and that that is his distinction in the universe, that is his nature, his morality, his glory.” (p. 1058) [19]

Our knowledge is gained through a reasoning process of identification and conceptual integration via our sensory-perceptual system, which gives rise to evaluation and emotional integration. Any proclaimed or self-appointed “authorities” can only gain their knowledge in this same manner. No one has access to an existence apart from the one we’re in; it’s as connected to us as the air we breathe and the gravity that secures that air and ourselves to the planet. As much as we might like to have an intrinsic or innate form of knowledge, any time we try to contradict our conceptual nature, we pay a price. We are constantly attending—consciously, subconsciously, and unconsciously—to the reality of our life circumstances, which entails honoring our ability to discern what’s valid from what’s not, what’s useful from what’s not, and what’s helpful from what’s not.

Assuredly, we can trace a mystical view of the universe, be it religious or new-age, to its origin in the family and the wider cultural system. In this realm we encounter feelings of confusion, fear, anxiety, anger, and pain about not getting our needs met for clarity, understanding, and meaning, among others. As noted, instead of remaining dissociated from these traumatic childhood experiences, we can heal them and then embrace our revived fascination and enjoyment with the wonders of reality. These wonders are all around us, nearly begging to be inspected and experienced.

Rather than close ourselves off in a separate world via wishes or someone else’s fanciful pronouncements, we can channel our creative capacities into further understanding nature and all its puzzles and challenges. This entails embracing the discoverer within us, the aspect of self that asks “Why?” and seeks real answers to that timeless question. This part of oneself flawlessly reflects the children we once were, filled with passion about thinking, wondering, and learning, with boundless inquisitiveness.

Envision what our lives can be like without hockshops of authority in our world, which perpetuate terribly restrictive, frustrating, confusing, frightening, inexplicable, and anxiety-ridden experiences. Our lives can make complete sense to us, and there’s immense comfort in that—a life filled with rationality, predictability, comprehensibility, and all the curiosity that flows from that context.

Indeed, this is a vision of the future of humanity we’re talking about, and it exists within each of us, with every waking moment when our minds conjure up that question “Why?” and then proceed to discover a new truth.

Being ruled as “citizens”

We’ve covered a lot of internal dialogue thus far, but even without it, all of us can notice how unfree we are, at least on some level—as we find ourselves doing what we’re told to do, not only as children but also as adults, by other adults working for an age-old institution called government. We’re being ruled as purported citizens, who have purported allegiance to a legal fiction called the State; in return, this legal fiction is supposed to protect and provide for us, even though such protection and provision entails coercing us on a daily basis.

No “social contract” of statism can respect persons and their property, because in this paradigm voluntary agency simply isn’t allowed; instead, we’re threatened with punishment (fines, imprisonment, and even death) if we don’t obey the “laws of the State.” So, we gain no real protections for our lives and well-being by having such a system. If you’ve read Complete Liberty, then you know that our political world, much like the rest of our cultural world, is filled with spurious notions and illogical concepts, a.k.a., things that don’t make sense.

Assuredly, we’ve been handed another raw deal by our culture here, and this one is supposed to be endured from birth to death. A few people might be incredibly fortunate to have been reared in a family context that didn’t exercise any methods of domination. Yet even for this likely tiny minority, adulthood affords no such freedoms. Again, everyone is required “by law” to comply with the institution of persons called government—which essentially means adults issuing orders to fellow adults and seeking to punish them for noncompliance. Most of this system’s supporters believe that all hell would break loose if persons did not obey such laws and instead just did what they really wanted.

We experience such a political contradiction on an ongoing basis, for example with every sales tax, parking ticket, license fee, or police arrest for a victimless “crime.” At this point, or likely before this point, virtually all students and professors of law and political science end serious inquiry. Asking why this system exists in the first place is typically frowned upon, mainly because it disturbs the not-to-be-questioned status quo and thus triggers discomfort. Such is the self-perpetuating nature of a human system.

For some wider and deeper context, let’s explore aspects of the genesis of this system supposedly designed for the “common good.” The history of civilization, which began many thousands of years ago, has been a history of statist control and punishment of people.

While the advantages of the new ways of life with civilization’s emergence were many, some led to potentially greater social problems, ones more destructive than those previous in primitive groups. Surpluses of goods and increasing populations, in the absence of logical political philosophy, invited a new form of barbarity. After the Stone Age, the Bronze and Iron ages arose, yielding more effective implements for agricultural, domestic and commercial use—and also for war. What followed for millennia up to the present day was a variety of dynasties, dominions, reigns, and conquests too numerous to mention here, but all containing the theme of using politically centralized power-over strategies—namely, coercion and punishment.

Formerly with distinctively more mobile bands, tribes, and to a lesser extent chiefdoms (which were more structured and somewhat hierarchical in social order), much of the violence had consisted of smaller feuds. Though hostility and revengeful tactics and raids of reprisal were sometimes widespread, large-scale wars could not be sustained in primitive economies. Further, the actual conquest of other domains was not usually practiced, because societies were relatively unproductive, thus having little to offer the conquerors. [26] However, larger resource-rich communities offered greater reasons for aggression. As Historian J.H. Plumb put it:

“Loot was no longer merely women and hunting-grounds, but citadels, treasure and, above all, the labour of peasants. Since the very dawn of civilization, war—with its concomitants—plague, famine, and devastation—has been woven closely into the fabric of human society. And this, too, has influenced the growth of societies in remarkable ways. Societies bent on war need not only specialized, or partly specialized, castes or classes to wage it, but also a heightened consciousness of their social group, a self-identification with a cause or a God, to strengthen resolve for the final personal sacrifice. Ideologies are contemporaneous with the sickle and the sword. Courage is easier with belief and so is labour. And so religion was needed not only to explain and sanctify by ritual the mysteries of fertility but also to provide both social discipline, social consciousness and social aggression. From this time war and belief were linked for humanity’s torment.” (p. 24) [27]

How ironic that beneficial economic changes have given rise to such harmful societal outgrowths, or rather, offered more opportunity for them. Wars and their concomitants have basically disrupted and wrecked the very structures and practices for people’s well-being. Yet to say that people are naturally driven by such things as greed, hatred, and power over others—a variation of Freud’s “aggressive instinct”—is to overlook crucial developmental factors. Our exploration of the nature of our species thus far alerts us to the contradictions. In many parts of the world today, war-torn conditions aren’t much different than those in the distant past. Only the weapons and technologies have changed and, coupled with population increases, have enabled the slaughter of tens of millions of individuals during the last century alone.

The plain fact is that humans are animals quite capable of making life far more difficult than it can be. With our capacity to make life wonderfully positive comes our capacity to make life an incredibly torturous hell. Our species has often succeeded in needlessly cultivating the latter, via systems of domination.

With the formation of civilization came the formation of the abstraction known as “the State,” which manifested itself as a ruling body of persons that presided over and controlled the affairs of “the people.” Since civilizations had larger populations, thriving commerce, and especially surpluses of goods, some individuals found it convenient to fashion institutions to govern these new enterprises. Governing was often in exchange for coerced “services,” such as construction and maintenance of so-called public works and the formation of a military. The statist system was supposed to protect people from foreigners who possibly wanted to conquer their communities for the wealth they provided. [28]

So, militaries could now be used to enforce the laws and edicts of the rulers to accomplish various ends. Rulers often kept military members loyal not only via coercion, but also by providing them particular benefits and maintaining collectivistic ideologies. Political theorist Albert Jay Nock wrote of the attitude that tends to develop:

“An army on the march has no philosophy; it views itself as a creature of the moment. It does not rationalize conduct except in terms of an immediate end. As Tennyson observed, there is a pretty strict official understanding against its doing so; ‘theirs not to reason why’ [‘theirs but to do and die’]. Emotionalizing conduct is another matter, and the more of it the better; it is encouraged by a whole elaborate paraphernalia of showy etiquette, flags, music, uniforms, decorations, and careful cultivation of a very special sort of comradery.” (p. 27) [29]

The formation of the statist system required more than a military system that discouraged self-responsibility and philosophical reflection. The creation of conflicts, and at the same time unified beliefs and goals, were necessary to form governing bodies—for example, different classes, different castes, different enemies, promised safety and protection, sense of community, desire for someone to lead, and the like. High concentrations of people may have augmented threats of (or desires for) external conquest and, accordingly, the desire for hierarchical internal development and cohesiveness.

On account of States arising from many complex societal conditions, they have taken many forms. Lawrence Krader, a scholar on the subject, wrote the following: “There have been and are city-states, empire-states, theocratic-states, tribal-consanguineal states, nation-states, centralized states, and decentralized states; autocratic, oligarchic, and democratic states; states stratified by class, caste, and social estate.” (p. 4) [30]

While primitive groups at times squelched expressions of individualism and discouraged new thinking, essentially keeping persons in conditions of subsistence-level functioning with basic barter arrangements and coerced altruism for tens of thousands of years, governmental power structures in civilizations used persons as expendable parts for more destructive and harmful schemes. Slavery became an oppressive way to get various projects accomplished, fulfilling desires of some at the expense of the dignity and lives of many. Thus, people were treated as means to others’ particular ends, i.e., as sacrificial animals.

Those not enslaved were still relegated to a subordinate role, however, now to the “welfare of the community”—meaning, to the statist system. Many lived as peasants under the influence of various empires, kingdoms, fiefdoms, and manorial systems. In exchange for “protection,” they paid their “dues” by providing goods and services. [31]

Obviously, many aspects of these societies in civilization were no step forward in psychological and political progress. Even though they assisted in the generation of more trade-based, money-based, and industrial methods, which facilitated economic progress, oftentimes the scale of misery and massacre was a hundredfold. Political theorist Murray Rothbard commented on the “black and unprecedented record of the State through history”:

“No combination of private marauders can possibly begin to match the state’s unremitting record of theft, confiscation, oppression, and mass murder. No collection of Mafia or private bank robbers can begin to compare with all the Hiroshimas, Dresdens, and Lidices and their analogues through the history of mankind.” (p. 4) [32]

And with the advent of civilization, orthodox religions also formed. They were often utilized by statist rulers, monarchs, and emperors to advance methods of destruction. Now enemies were to be crushed, other so-called states and their encompassed lands were to be conquered and seized, communities were to be obliterated, and countless individuals were to be snuffed out, with the supposed moral backing of the “Will of God” (hence, holy wars that continue to this very day).

Rather than paint romantic pictures about the cultural diversity and interesting ways of life of various peoples throughout the history of civilization, let’s identify the essential characteristic of these societies: rule by governmental force. Indeed, the primary crime of statism consists of using coercion to attain various ends. The statist system’s plundering of countries, communities, and civilizations has gone hand-in-hand with (and has been funded by) the plundering of people in its arbitrary dominion. While private individuals might be prohibited from using aggression against others in their communities, those operating as “the State” continue to live by a different standard, one that’s inconsistent with justice. Crime was and still is a term ascribed not only to aggressive actions of individuals (such things as robbery, rape, and murder), but also to violations of laws, statutes, regulations, and provisions by government. The coercive actions and punishments imposed by those in the enforcement arm of government are commonly viewed as necessary and proper by those upholding this system. 19th Century individualist anarchist Michael Bakunin pointed out this longstanding legal inconsistency:

“What is permitted to the State is forbidden to the individual. Such is the maxim of all governments. Machiavelli said it, and history as well as the practice of all contemporary governments bear him out on that point. Crime is the necessary condition of the very existence of the State, and it therefore constitutes its exclusive monopoly, from which it follows that the individual who dares commit a crime is guilty in a two-fold sense: first, he is guilty against human conscience, and, above all, he is guilty against the State in arrogating to himself one of its most precious privileges.” (p. 141) [33]

As noted, offensive force is an inherently anti-social act. Whether used in a primitive tribe or in an advanced civilization, aggression is inimical to human life and to harmonious social interactions. Aggression is no less destructive when it’s declared “legal” in a statist system, such as the practice of extortion widely known as taxation. Nock noted the workings as follows: “The State is not…a social institution administered in an anti-social way. It is an anti-social institution, administered in the only way an anti-social institution can be administered, and by the kind of person who, in the nature of things, is best adapted to such service.” (p. 183) [29]

Like all systems, being immersed in the statist system from birth adapts humans to it. For various psychological and sociological reasons, people throughout history have tolerated coercive harm done to themselves and others. Essentially, they’ve matured not realizing the value of themselves, of their individual minds and persons. Like today, some might’ve had a vision of how things can be altered for the better, of new possibilities, but they were unable to rid their lives of tyranny.

By inspecting the developmental side of social organization, we can see how “politics” really happens. Moreover, we can see that the factors that contribute to the rise of the tribal mentality and statism—both being forms of collectivism, which doesn’t fully honor individuals—are still very active in civilization. This framework of historical understanding helps us grasp the full context of our present circumstances.

Learning about history can be the first “red pill” we take (to see the real reality, as in The Matrix), provided that our source material isn’t statist in nature. As we grasp these basic truths, we indeed begin to see the real reality in relation to the matrix of coercion in civilization. To recognize that we are not considered self-owners, and to understand the various implications of this, can be a hard pill to swallow—especially since we in America were taught that we live in the land of the free and home of the brave, with liberty and justice for all.

The domination system of politics is represented by the concept of the State. Despite being invalid, it’s still commonly believed to be necessary and proper for social order, to ensure human well-being and safety. However, like all major concepts of domination, it can be disputed and rejected as contradictory—to splendid personal and societal benefit. This is part of the waking-up process.

The invalid concept “citizen” is an outgrowth of the notion of the State; again, it assumes a duty of allegiance to the State, which allegedly has some sort of duty to protect citizens, despite overwhelming evidence (and even “Supreme Court” rulings) to the contrary. Rather than protecting us from harm, the statist system robs all of us of our property and coerces us into doing things that we otherwise would not do, with everyone suffering as a result.

Clearly, inner freedom and individual liberation matter a great deal in the realm of valid political philosophy. To live freely in this realm means to discern what’s useful for getting needs met without human sacrifice. This waking-up process would be much easier if most of us weren’t educated in, and thus heavily influenced by, governmental schooling. Spending a substantial part of one’s life in a context that doesn’t challenge status-quo political premises—that doesn’t invite learners to ask key questions, especially about the nature of submission to “authority”—can make discerning and speaking truth a monumental task. This explains why so few have broken free from their early conditioning and programming, be it in the family, church, school, or politics.

Governmental destruction of self-actualization

Self-actualization concerns the process of fulfilling one’s needs and desires for enrichment and capacities to grow and flourish. Let’s consider the twofold nature of the destruction of self-actualization by the concept and institution called government. The first is the tangible, material aspect, much of which was described above in the tragic tale of human history. When people are coerced out of their time, money, and effort to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise do, or prefer not to do, costly sacrifices are happening.

Though French political philosopher Frederic Bastiat was himself a believer in government, he’s famous in libertarian circles for the story of “the broken window fallacy.” Essentially, this means overlooking the opportunity costs of unproductive and often counterproductive governmental diversions of energy and resources from a marketplace. As outlandish as it may sound (especially if they are your windows) some believe that breaking windows, either actually or metaphorically, makes the economy better by creating jobs for window manufacturers and installers.

Regardless of whether windows get broken by a tornado or by vandals, human effort and resources will need to be expended to replace them—which are human effort and resources that would have been used elsewhere in the marketplace if no breakage had taken place. Unfortunately, the institution of government tends to break various useful things, not to mention increase the potential for mutually assured destruction. The broken window fallacy looms catastrophically large in policies for warfare. Trillions of dollars have been spent over the last few decades alone to devise more effective ways of killing fellow human beings and destroying things, with the declared intention of keeping us safe and secure.

Perverse incentives arise from making money coercively rather than earning it in voluntary trade; trillions of dollars have also been spent doing things that private owners simply would never have done, due to market incentives. Taxation and monopolistic control of the money supply continuously drain society of its prosperity. Complete Liberty delves into much more detail about the crushing costs of governmental memes on entire economies, diminishing or ruining countless individual lives, businesses, and creative systems.

The other aspect of the twofold nature of the destruction of our self-actualization by government pertains to the idea itself, i.e., the notion that it’s a useful and necessary way to “oversee” and “regulate” people’s lives in civilization. In fact, without the belief that government must exist for proper social order and well-being, all the devastation wrought by this institution of persons would not occur.

Given the things that we’ve covered in this book thus far, the answer to the following question becomes quite apparent: Why do individuals tend to believe that they need to be controlled and directed by other people (called government) in civilization? Because that’s how things commonly operated in our families, and that’s all we’ve ever known. The very idea of government is the quintessential manifestation of a culture using power-over strategies, which means a highly distrustful culture. Unquestioning obedience to this idea truly leads to the impairment of our capacity to self-actualize as individuals in a technologically advanced society.

Those who become millionaires and even billionaires in our present culture still only exercise a small fraction of their creative and productive potential; their endeavors and enterprises do not take place in a free marketplace, and the vast majority of them (what those in the Occupy movement call “the 1%”) unfortunately seems to be okay with that. To the degree that outdated and incorrect ideas about human nature fill their minds—for instance, that we can’t be trusted to provide for ourselves and each other, that we must be punished if we don’t obey “laws,” that we must be coerced out of our time, energy, and money to support a domination institution, that we must believe in collectivistic abstractions such as “public property” and “nations,” and that we must perpetuate coercive systems—to the degree that they think all this, their reasoning remains hindered, their empathy is drained, and their flourishing remains vastly diminished.

Ultimately, the red pill that opens our eyes to the actual reality is something for all of us to take, from the hourly part-time worker to the CEO, from the cop and judge to the coerced jury members. In many respects, the choice to take it is just as much a process of healing childhood trauma (e.g., confusion, pain, and fears) as it is remedying various contradictions in thinking. False beliefs commonly originate in childhood, after all, and unfortunately they tend to have major staying power in the mind. Yet, as the character Sofia in the film Vanilla Sky noted, “Every passing minute is another chance to turn it all around.”

No one needs to remain mired in processes of the past, be they ancient or just a few decades old. Presently, we can see more and imagine more than our former selves can, due to having more experiences, more knowledge, and more integration. This is in line with recognizing that self-worth and self-efficacy are our birthrights, along with happiness. Let’s now delve more into the experience of childhood in order to put adulthood into clearer perspective.