Societal Immaturity: Failed Limit-Setting and Regressive Destabilization

John Oakley Beahrs

“Immaturity” is failed developmental maturation—an incredibly complex concatenation of biological, individual, and social interactions that are well described but poorly understood. Maturation proceeds along both functional and relational dimensions. Functionally, children proceed from utter helplessness toward mastery/competency, from immediate gratification to the frustrations of long-term planning, and from multiple untapped potentials to a focused personal identity. Socially, they proceed from passive to active control, from excuse to increasing responsibility, and from entitlement to reciprocity. These progressions are all desirable, but perilous. Active control can fail. Failed responsibility can evoke humiliating shame or punitive guilt. Failed reciprocity can mean relationship disaster. In summary, it’s “Grow up only at your own risk!” There’s always pull to go backwards, “regression under stress.”

A whole society can be considered “immature” either in proportion to the number of immature individuals within it, or considered as a single organism as a whole. Ours is said to qualify in both ways—more regressed individuals within, and ever-lessening overall competency.1 How might such arise, what maintains it, and what to do about it? I suggest that one common factor reigns paramount in the current milieu: supportive nurturance is insufficiently counter-balanced by limit-setting. Correlates are promoting entitlements over obligations, not enforcing the expectations needed for social stability, and reinforcing the passive coercion that’s often hidden within trauma victims’ perceived helplessness. Common to all, are unwillingness to voluntarily abstain from trauma-driven gratifications that become addictive, and the societal destabilizing that follows.

Maturation Requires Nurturance, Limit-Setting, and Social Reinforcement

Newborn infants are entirely dependent on their caregivers, who in turn are shaped by others through complex interactions and social contagion. Infants’ distress is as aversive to others as it is to themselves, and calls for nurturant relief through caregiver feeding and soothing. Distress is accompanied by adrenalin-like neurohormones in all parties, and its relief, by internal opioids.2 These processes drive infants’ crying, caregivers’ nurturing, and third parties’ regulating behaviors. Infants thereby wield intense passive control through the coercive effect of their distress, and all parties’ drive to provide relief. Maturing individuals let go of this control, but only slowly—in favor of active agency, responsibility, and reciprocating with others. This cannot proceed through nurturance alone.

Limits are also needed, as all real parents quickly discover—i.e., setting and enforcing age-appropriate expectations. Children cannot be allowed to play with fire, run into busy streets, assault others or break laws. Protection often means imposing consequences, which is aversive to the limit setter and others as well as to the child being constrained. Limits are collaboratively implemented by parents, civil authorities, and social norms that evolve by direct and indirect peer reciprocity.3 Contemporary society is failing abysmally at this function. How and why? I suggest that a natural asymmetry between nurturing and limit-setting is in play.

Nurturing feels rewarding, but limit-setting aversive—to recipients, providers, observers, and ultimately society itself. Considering this, then, to enforce limits and impose consequences must require sufficient psychosocial bedrock to contain this aversion. The enforcers must enjoy (1) confidence in their limits’ necessity and goodness, and (2) a supportive social consensus, grounded in self-defining social norms.

In the U.S. prior to 1965, all of this was easy to follow and well understood. To illustrate: as a 1950s pre-teen, I was arrested for bicycling toward a forbidden tunnel. The officer threatened to notify my parents! Accepting my plea for mercy, he kindly drove me to a better locale and offered some useful advice for continuing my journey.

Consider some embedded presumptions within this seemingly innocuous interaction: (1) children respect and fear parents’ authority; (2) parents are expected to enforce consensus behavior standards; and (3) society’s norms and civil authorities are supportive. Without any of the parties knowing one another, these consensus norms were simply taken for granted. Moreover, they worked—helping us correct economic tyranny, enact conservation, ride out a great depression, win two world wars, mandate racial equality, and land men on the moon. It’s hard to imagine this success without these norms’ presence and quality.

Things soon fell apart, and continue to unravel. Diverse factors converged to destabilize these norms. Psychosocial trauma now plays a dominant role.

Trauma versus Infantile Helplessness

Psychosocial trauma accompanies utter helplessness in the face of a mortal threat to one’s existence—to both oneself and one’s self-defining intimates. “Traumatic affect” resembles infantile distress in its maximally aversive primitive quality, both being coupled with arousal driven by adrenalin-like neurohormones. Similarly contagious, it also pulls on others to offer relief. But unlike infants, such “relief” sometimes backfires—with increasing distress, passive coercion, abdicating responsibility, and refusing to accept the obligations of citizenship. On a large scale, regressive symptoms can come to dominate. Whence this paradox?

Traumatic affect differs from infant distress in two key particulars: (1) trauma is addictive as well as aversive; and (2) victims retain pre-developed agency that purposefully impacts behavior, though hidden. Failing to address these factors is widespread, and disastrous.

Traumatic Addiction and Sensitization are Self-Reinforcing

Trauma is both addictive and aversive. Freud struggled unsuccessfully to understand victims’ compulsion to keep re-enacting the very traumas that they were trying to avoid.4 Recent data explain. Trauma concurrently stimulates both the maximally aversive adrenalins and the self-soothing endogenous opioids. The former act like methamphetamine, with ever-lower “doses” needed to achieve the same effect. But one becomes addicted to the opioids.5 So here we stand. If one re-enacts the trauma, one becomes ever more sensitized. But if one abstains, one suffers from withdrawal symptoms that also activate the adrenalins. There’s no escape, unless one voluntarily abstains from re-enacting. Then, the trauma response slowly subsides—probably through learned suppression by one’s prefrontal cortex.6 Re-enactment emerges with a dominant role in the perpetuation of trauma, and is subject to voluntary control. Amazingly, it is not listed among PTSD’s defining criteria, nor is voluntary abstinence recommended in most treatment protocols. But it’s available as an option, as is abstaining from addictive drugs.

Pre-developed Agency Accompanies Posttraumatic Helplessness

Pre-developed competencies don’t disappear after a traumatic event, but often go into hiding—“dissociation.”7 This hidden agency remains active and purposeful, though seemingly “unconscious.” Two levels of experience now concur in tension: (1) perceived helplessness, and (2) the pre-developed agency that remains active but concealed. Other parties usually respond selectively—to either the perceived helplessness, or the still-active but hidden agency. This selective attention leads to untoward effects that are profoundly relevant to both clinical practice and societal wellbeing. Three in particular are accompanied by regressive destabilization, all of them able to reverse the maturational process.

1. Posttraumatic polarization may arise, between people who selectively respond to only one or the other pole of such duality.8 Victims’ “advocates” selectively “validate” their perceived helplessness and demonize alleged victimizers, like families of distressed infants. “Deniers” instead react against the coercive aspects of accusers’ hidden agency, for example, defending accused parties’ presumption of innocence. Even when interests are shared, they often end up at each other’s throats—humans’ “need for enemies.”9 The consensus social norms that are essential for maturational limit-setting inevitably come crashing down.

2. Regressive dependency sometimes follows from well-intended therapeutic nurturance or attempted rescue. Such may feel good at the level of perceived helplessness, but concurrently threatens the hidden competencies that are most needed in order to mature. This paradoxically increases anxiety, thence the perceived helplessness, often with increasing distress and acting out against the “help” on offer. “Malignant regression” follows, with ever more infant-like behavior and symptomatic deterioration. Better to challenge the hidden agency, although asking for more responsibility is often resisted strenuously by both these clients and the social system.

3. Passive coercion can escalate when others fail to contain purposeful but hidden aggression. For example, some patients demand inappropriate favors at threat of suicide or violence, putting their treaters in serious binds. Just as with military aggression, appeasement often leads to escalating demands, and in extreme cases can reduce a care provider to utter subservience.10 Adding to this peril, applying counter-force can resemble fighting fire with gasoline, also leading to traumatizing escalation.11 Standing firm against this assault is needed, rather than either appeasement or counter-traumatizing. Just how, is a difficult challenge. How and why have all of these complications been escalating so much within the contemporary United States?

Fear of Fear Itself

During the mid-1990s, I asked a robust World War I veteran to compare the stresses of growing up then and now. His reply: “We had it easier. We knew that life’s rough, bad things happen, and one best plays the hand one’s dealt. You guys have that crazy idea that things should be perfect.” In other words, the bumps and bruises of everyday living are no longer accepted as such, but defined as catastrophic and thereby experienced as such—for example, hurt feelings and “micro-aggressions.” We’re sensitized. After the attacks of 9/11, the Institute of Medicine defined traumatic sensitization as a top societal concern, and challenged us to rebuild resilience to life’s vicissitudes.12 Otherwise, we make ourselves too much like infants, and more vulnerable to terrorists. Instead, we’re amplifying our vulnerability. Those data that could best help us minimize trauma, treat posttraumatic symptoms, avoid unintended complications, and limit trauma’s epidemic spread go largely unattended. Helplessness is omitted from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) “Category A” stressors. Re-enactment is not among PTSD’s defining criteria, despite its central self-reinforcing role. Trauma’s contagion likewise goes unstated, as does its social malleability. Victims’ responsibilities are minimized in treatment manuals, even though only they retain the locus of control for therapeutic change.13 Polarizing and regressive treatment hazards are also minimized. We often uncritically “validate” victim narratives, which can amplify their coercive force and exclude more salutary alternatives. Untestable accusations, presumptions of guilt, and intractable conflict often follow. Fraudulent trauma narratives are ratified on an unthinkable scale, adding to our traumatic sensitization.

So considered, it is tempting to fault my chosen profession of mental health. I do so only as “enablers” of trauma, like families who unknowingly promote their members’ addictions while complaining of them. We risk amplifying posttraumatic symptoms at many levels through efforts to fulfill well-accepted therapist duties; for example, ratifying victim narratives, to promote a therapeutic alliance; yielding to passive control, from duties to protect; and potentially regressive emotional nurturance in order to “feel therapeutic.” The social force of these incentives is truly awesome, and only ill-defined fine lines separate them from more beneficial alternatives. I recommend that more attention be given to traumatic re-enactment, the extent to which it can be voluntarily interdicted, and the associated responsibilities of all parties—including society itself. But we’re only microcosms of vast societal processes well beyond ourselves. Where to, then?

How Did This Happen?

Until the 1960’s trauma was “just life”—“bad things happen, learn from them, deal with them, make the most of things.” But several momentous events converged to change this perspective. Hitler and Stalin brought us face to face with human evil on such a colossal scale that it could no longer be accepted as “just life.” Jim Crow racism led us to see this in ourselves, replacing American pride with “blame America first” mores. The Vietnam war led to many students’ and professors’ soul-searching. Pulling the other way, people sought ever more “human potential” without consensus limits. A tacit consensus was emerging: “all evil must be eliminated, all trauma!”—i.e., traumatic sensitization on a massive scale.

For a while, traditional norms stood firm against protesters’ demands. But legitimate authorities soon suffered their own crisis of confidence, could no longer enforce prevailing norms without questioning their own fairness, and then caved to the counterculture’s regressive demands. Gone were our self-defining norms, particularly within the new educational establishment where the counterculture’s takeover was most complete and most trauma-driven. Unbalanced entitlements then fed a regressive destabilization that continues right to the present.

Victim protection added on. In 1962, a seminal paper on the “battered child syndrome” so shocked decent citizens that all fifty states soon required mandatory child abuse reporting.14 Before then, criminal law had served the role of protection against victimizing. But no longer, with society’s self-limiting norms on the ropes. Special victim groups were entitled to extra protection—child protection, affirmative action, sexual harassment doctrine, disability law. Two vital questions go unasked: (1) do they serve their intended purpose?, and (2) what are victims’ personal responsibilities? I’m skeptical of the first, and the second is currently taboo.

My deepest concerns are the potentially regressive effects of unnecessarily legitimizing perceived helplessness, passive control by unfalsifiable accusations, and rejection of mutual responsibility without examining all of the factors involved.

Genuine equality requires equal responsibilities, as well as equal rights.15 Stating this self-evident fact is often demeaned with attributions such as “Bigot!!!” and many synonyms. A new form of discriminatory inequality has emerged—one that’s regressive, not maturational.

Rebuilding the Missing Limit-Setting Functions

To mature from infantile helplessness to mastery/competency doesn’t “just happen,” but requires limit-setting—first by parents, then teachers, and ultimately by social norms and the law. Nurturing feels good to its agents, recipients, and society, while limit-setting feels aversive to all, and today may also evoke society’s censure for allegedly “blaming the victim.”

Many questions emerge. What distinguishes the “positive” nurturance that opens doors to maturation, from that which unintendedly fosters regressive dependency and deterioration? What kinds of limit-setting lead recipients to feel safe for growth, as opposed to oppressed? When does yielding to passive control lead to uncomplicated relief of some distress, as opposed to appeasement that fosters ever more symptomatic coercion? So far, we sense that these maturational vs. infantilizing poles differ, but we don’t yet have clean answers.

Hypotheses follow. Nurturance is salutary the more that it relieves distress without tacitly fostering dependency, and regressive the more that it undermines hidden strengths or falsely implies that the nurturer is indispensable. Limit-setting is salutary when limits are imposed consistently, confidently, with respect for others’ personhood, and perceived as fair.” Passive control dilemmas vary with the stakes, who is in control of what, and are among the most difficult of all social dilemmas—at all levels from families through global politics.

One dimension of maturation is particularly counterintuitive, but essential to both our current regression and its correction. Contrary to the popular myth of ever-expanding “human potential,” maturation is a progressive narrowing of one’s potential toward optimum constraint. Infants can develop almost any which way, with no one choice being intrinsically “correct” or “better” than many alternatives. School children learn the essence of almost all subjects—basic math, science, history, humanities. But as they grow, they narrow their potentials so that a mature adult selects but one career and one mating partner, among countless others that might be equally desirable. Without this self-limiting process, one fails to mature. Unlimited “human potential” exemplifies this—a paradox aptly labeled as a “tyranny of choice.”

Decisions are needed to (1) voluntarily do something at other things’ expense, and then (2) accept the associated responsibility, which is often almost as aversive as being limited. Chemical dependency is paradigmatic for its difficulty. Only voluntary abstinence will allow one’s mature capabilities to re-optimize. This applies equally to addictive patterns of trauma, such as self-mutilation or repeated abusive relationships, from which voluntary abstinence is rarely asked. With posttraumatic polarization, regressive dependency and symptomatic coercion, the challenge extends to all parties—trauma victims, helpers, and societal norms as a whole.

Critically re-examining victim narratives is equally important, and particularly difficult within our victim-reinforcing milieu. In treatment, one can invite clients’ third parties to follow up sessions and elicit their separate narratives, keeping a close lookout for egregious victimizing and taking corrective action if/when identified.16 When not, more typical, maintain the presumption of innocence both to promote justice and avoid extending the traumatizing.

Several strategies can help change our perceptions from helpless victimhood to autonomous agency. One is to shift social services from a fiduciary toward a “contractual model” between consenting adults, which replaces entitlement with reciprocity and can be done on a case by case basis.17 Another is to enforce the responsibilities of all citizens, with only age-appropriate exception. Even psychiatric patients have well-defined legal duties, for example, though under-enforced.18 My own clinical style was often to enhance agency by challenging clients to define their personal identities: “Who are you? What do you stand for? Where are you heading?”19 Try it yourself—it’s hard to avoid defining some maturational constraints.

As a whole, contemporary society faces a comparable challenge—redefining its foundations. Large scale passive coercion is most challenging within higher education. Something stronger is needed than rational argument, corrective data, or moral appeal. These have all been tried, and are like water running off a duck’s back. The “recovered memory controversy” of the 1980s-1990s may offer a prototype. Untestable “memories” of alleged child abuse were being “recovered” in suggestive therapies, uncritically “validated,” and alleged perpetrators presumed guilty even decades after some alleged event. Families were broken, and clients regressed on a massive scale. As today, regressive destabilizing seemed immutable. But accused families and memory researchers unified, organized, and fought back. Within only a half-decade the courts were ruling in defense of family integrity and the presumption of innocence—successful limit-setting, in a heavily pro-victim milieu. Similarly coherent advocacy is needed today, to defend the self-limiting checks and balances of liberal democracy. At the present, tens of distinct organizations are trying—but going every which way. I recommend that they join hands in strong unified advocacy. A recent judgement against an egregiously coercive liberal arts institution suggests that courts may be open to defending the responsibilities of maturation.20

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