Early developmental conflicts, the mother's desire, and the father's 'law'

Published on 5 February 2023 at 14:16


Energy psychology modalities tend to focus on trauma – on the significant events that have shaped personality development, creating core implicit beliefs and internal working models (implicit procedural memory), and ego-defensive strategies. Whilst such formative events are clearly important, this emphasis can obscure the role of fundamental dynamic-developmental conflicts stemming from early experiences concerning questions of how to be loved and yet still follow the path of one’s own desire and autonomy.

One mother told her young son that he must always work hard at school, or he would have to work as a ‘dustman’ (an old and derogatory term for a refuse collector, connoting the lowest status person – as in Tommy Steele’s 1960 song My Old Man’s a Dustman) and that he would ‘smell’ and she would ‘disown’ him. He grew up to be compulsive in his pursuit of academic success, and also obsessive about personal cleanliness and the use of male perfumes. Along the way, he also managed to fail significant exams – expressing his unconscious rebellion against his mother’s demand.


There are two fundamental questions that preoccupy young children (in addition to the other fundamental one of “Where do I/babies come from?”). These are: “What does my mother want of me?” and “What does my father want of me?”.

Humans are social beings who form attachments. However, the infant and young child have to manage not only his or her attachment needs and desires, but also the desires of the mothering one and her state of mind, which are in turn coloured by the child’s own projected desires, emotions, and phantasies. Typical problems the young child, and later adult, face include:

  • My mother wants me too much – she wants to eat me. Therefore, I must avoid close relationships
  • My mother needs me – without me she will suffer, be lonely, or may die. Therefore, I must never leave her
  • My mother is indifferent to me. How can I evoke my mother’s love and desire? I must aim to be whatever she desires
  • My mother sees me as an extension of her. Therefore, I must be an extension of her or have no connection with her
  • My mother is crazy. Therefore, I must be crazy with her in order to remain connected
  • My mother wants to kill the authentic me. I must ‘kill’ myself in order to stay connected to her

All these dilemmas – stemming from the fundamental question, ‘what does my mother want?’ - are influenced and complicated by the concurrent relationship with the fathering one, or lack of it. In optimum circumstances, the availability of the father offers a benign developmental alternative to the mother, a triangular space in which desire, rivalry, connection and rejection, flirtation, and powers of manipulation can all be explored in relative safety. The child may desire possessive intimacy with mother or father but is reassured by the perception that the parental figures desire each other. This safe developmental space may be seriously distorted in any of the following conditions: there is no fathering one available; the father is not a benign and idealizable boundary-giver, but is brutal, rejecting, or a figure of contempt; the mother conveys that her desire is for her child and not the father, perhaps conveying contempt for him; the father expresses and enacts sexual desire for the child. In any of these conditions, the child may be drawn back into the dyad with mother, a prisoner of her desire and perceived need (Diamond, 2018). These conflictual dilemmas - with their elements of domination and restriction, control versus helplessness, and subjection to the other’s desire - may later become sexualised and may contribute to sexual dysfunction and BDSM practices (Kohut, 1971; 1977; 1996; Stoller, 1979; 1986).

When the child identifies with either the mother, or the mother’s image of the child she desires to have, then he or she may experience a superficial good self-esteem – but this will correspond to a false self that is disconnected from the authentic unknown self. This state of false pleasure-in-the-self may in some cases contain delusional potential, since the child then has not separated out from the infantile assumption that reality is determined by the image – that reality is imaginary and thus can be whatever is imagined and asserted. In such circumstances, it is the image that is cathected rather than reality, and the person’s energy will be channelled into protecting that image (we see this amongst some of our contemporary politicians).


Many of the difficulties that lead people to seek psychoanalytic help stem from their efforts to resolve the twin questions of ‘what does my mother want of me?’ and ‘what does my father want of me?’ – along with the core emotions and anxieties that result from the ensuing conflicts. These are structured by the oedipal triangulation (or failure) in early development (Mollon, 1993), which in optimal circumstances enables a psychological space within which desire and autonomy can be explored. In less benign conditions, a child may be trapped in a state of anxiety, caught between the dangers and conflicts in relation to mother and the dangers and conflicts in relation to father.

For example, a man experienced his mother as smothering in her desire to maintain closeness to him, an inappropriate intimacy that had during his adolescent become somewhat overtly sexual – thus, her desire was overwhelming and unmanageable for him. He had needed the loving support of his father to provide an alternative, but his father tended to be critical, scornful, and humiliating. He felt he could never be what his father wanted. As an adult, the man was fearful of being possessed by a woman, but also in continual states of rage with himself, in identification with his father, berating himself for his many supposed failings. He felt constantly restless and anxious, just as he did as a child when neither mother nor father could provide a safe attachment.

Another common feature of these developmental patterns is that the perceived desires or needs of the mother and the father may be incompatible. For example, a man had felt that his mother wanted him to be gentle and ‘girlish’ (she had wanted a girl baby), but he felt his father wanted him to tough and masculine and was scornful of his ‘sissy’ qualities; she was also denigrating of his father. He felt anxious and confused about his identity and nature. During therapeutic work he had a dream in which he viewed a group of rough workmen with contempt, but then realised he needed their help to repair his motor bike.

In another case, a woman had felt that her mother needed her to stay close and look after her, protecting her from her father’s emotional abuse and neglect. She felt her father was also needy and wanted her to stay close to him and admire his masculinity and join him in denigrating her mother. Later the parents divorced. She felt torn between them. In her patterns of relationships with men, she felt she had to be in the role of nurturing the other, but behind this she felt rage and her own repressed need. Sometimes she wondered whether her needs might be met more in a homosexual relationship – but when she tried this, she felt claustrophobic.

These conflicts can become particularly severe when there is incestuous abuse. A woman was sexually abused by her father, a head teacher. This malign secret was completely at odd with the image the parents projected outwardly of a respectable and happy family. She felt she must conform to this image, sensing particularly that the truth of her father’s behaviour was not something her mother could tolerate knowing. During her early adolescence she developed severe anorexia, and her mind became deeply dissociated between knowing and not knowing about her father’s abuse of her. The anorexia aborted aspects of normal pubertal development. In later adult life, she became a prostitute. She never told her mother about her father’s abuse of her.


It is a common feature of early development that a child may form a kind of contract in his or her mind in relation to the mother’s and father’s desires. It might be something like “If I be what my mother (or father) wants, a kind and sweet girl who is not demanding, then I will be loved and nurtured”. Later in life, when she is abandoned by her partner, she feels betrayed not only by him but more deeply by life itself. She kept her part of the contract, but life did not. The presence of a contract is sometimes revealed when a person encountering pain and difficulty exclaims “What am I supposed to do now?” – as if appealing to an authority with greater knowledge of the contractual rules of life.


Within the framework presented here, it is possible to see that in many cases the core psychodynamics shaping a person’s life unconsciously can be relatively easily discerned and understood in terms of answers to the fundamental questions of the parental desires. In traditional psychoanalytic psychotherapy, these are explored over a long period of time, but with energy modalities we can work with more precision and with less need for the theatre of the transference. With energy work we can address the problems directly within the person, which is where they are located, rather than having the conflicts, phantasies, and fears played out in relation to the psychotherapist.

We can ask simple questions, such as:

  • What do you feel your mother wanted of you?
  • What did you feel your father wanted of you?

These two are the fundamental and most important ones. Other questions might include:

  • Were there ways in which it seemed impossible to please both of them?
  • What would happen if you failed to meet their desires for you?
  • Did you try to be what they wanted – or did you rebel? In what way?
  • What did you feel in relation to these parental desires?
  • Did you feel that your mother/father wanted you to follow your own inherent path or to follow an agenda they had pre-prepared for you?
  • Did you feel that your mother/father would be pleased or envious and disapproving if you achieved greater success or satisfaction in life than they had?

Such questions can also be enhanced using kinesiology muscle testing/energy testing – thereby bringing the body and deeper mind more into the conversation.

The answers to these questions will reveal the core conflicts and intense emotions that shape the person’s life and relationships. Once they are clarified, the various components can be addressed using any energy psychology modality. One of the advantages of acupoint tapping (as opposed to other modes of EP) is that in addition to clearing emotional charge from relevant memories, it also facilitates the flow of ‘energy and information’ – i.e., free-association. Moreover, once the subtle energy system has been activated, the previously rigid psycho-energetic structures become much more soft and able to dissolve.

In my own practice, I also make use of Blue Diamond Healing (Mollon, 2022) procedures towards the end of the session, when much has already been clarified and addressed with acupoint tapping and/or work with chakras. This often provides a deeper healing and resolution.

Phil Mollon

Psychoanalyst and Energy Psychotherapist


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