Psychological Adaptations During Gestation

An infant in the womb is extremely open and sensitive to the energies that encompass her. She may experience her environment as joyous or traumatic, depending on the quality of feeling she receives from her mother. She is ordinarily deeply affected by the mother’s emotional, mental and physical state.

She does not have a sense of being a separate individual, of having a separate identity. As a result, she does not recognize the difference between her mother’s experiences and her own experiences. “When mother is unhappy, that is how I feel” is commonly reported during prenatal regressions.

For instance an infant responds to the emotional energy of an unhappy mother. Her reactions are experienced at a fundamental level, as body responses, rather than thoughts. She then forms an adaptation to the unpleasant atmosphere that envelopes her. This adaptation provides a way of coping with her mother’s emotional energies. Depending on her predisposition, she may adapt in one of various ways: by pulling back and becoming overly self-reliant, recognizing that her mother is not available to support her; by deciding to emotionally and physically assist her mother after birth; or by reacting against her mother, and, after birth, focusing her attention toward her father. Or she may choose still another adaptation.

The adaptations will often strongly influence the emotional patterning and personality development following birth. As the infant matures into adulthood, she develops a more complex personality, a defined structure for responding to life experiences and for initiating actions. She becomes more individualized and develops her sense of self. Nevertheless, she frequently contains at her core the primal emotions associated with her intense experiences while in the womb. The prenatal infant self remains influential in the adult.

I have listed below five significant adaptations that I have found to be common among prenatal infants:

1. Becoming Self-Reliant

An adaptation made by some prenatal infants, ordinarily those who have not received nurturing from their mother, and lack the feeling of being protected by her, is to take responsibility for themselves, even to the extent that they sometimes become aggressively self-reliant. These infants do not have a feeling of being in a supportive, caring world, and so strive to confront life through their own isolated efforts.

2. Assuming Responsibility for Parents

An adaptation that other unborn infants make is to take responsibility for the distressed or burdened parent(s), making an inner commitment to assist them. The infant is prompted by empathy. On a more subtle level she is also prompted by her survival instinct, since she needs her parents to survive. Often, these infants feel a sense of guilt for burdening the parent(s).

After birth, some infants actively help their parents by emotionally supporting them, trying to keep them from being distressed. Others, more passive, become “good children.” They restrain themselves so that they are untroublesome and wellbehaved. The pattern often carries into adulthood, when these people seek out others to “rescue.”

3. Withdrawing from Life into Safety

In contrast, some infants may do the very opposite and withdraw from parents and life into an inner isolation. They separate themselves from the emotional currents of the family. Although they do succeed in cutting themselves off from distressing emotions, the positive emotions of love, nurturance, and belonging are cut off as well. Many of these infants become adults who live in their minds, poorly connected with the life energies of the body—energies of love, expressiveness, sexuality, creativity, etc.
For them, the world of emotions and feelings is a foreign one.

Often without even knowing or fully registering it, they live in deprivation and they lack loving relationships.

4. Selective Response

A fourth response consists of rejecting the specific source of pain. For example, an unborn infant may reject the unloving mother and form an emotional alliance with the father. This rejection may later become generalized; thus, a son who rejected his mother may become an adult who is distrustful and disconnected from all women.

5. Compensatory Responses

When conditions in the womb are difficult, the unborn infant may adapt by making a compensatory response. An example of such a response would be a determination to become successful in life. This adaptation enables the infant to maintain a forwardmoving, extroverted energy, rather than becoming closed down or introverted. When young, those who have adapted this way often strive to get good grades in school; later they seek recognition through professional status. However, a fragile self-esteem often
underlies their drive for achievement. Their self-worth is conditional, dependent upon success.

There are other forms of compensation, as well. I have shown that in cases where children are not of the gender desired by their parents, they may try to compensate by developing the kind of personality their parents might want them to have. Others in like circumstances choose a different adaptation, such as emotionally withdrawing from an unaccepting parent. The adaptation chosen is a personal response; infants in like circumstances make different choices.

The Value of Adaptations

The above adaptations provide the unborn infant with a means of dealing with the stress she feels in the womb environment. When the stress seems extreme, her responses might be called “survival” adaptations.
The adaptations we make often strongly motivate us, after birth, to develop skills and abilities that are highly beneficial to us. For example, the determination to succeed—a compensatory adaptation–is likely to lead a person to develop qualities such as persistence, self-reliance, mental acuity, and expressiveness.

We reach a point in our lives when we outgrow our patterns and are ready to expand beyond the limitations of a particular adaptation and life orientation. When our adaptation has led us to develop positive qualities, a smooth transition into a new way of functioning is more likely.

When we have developed negative qualities, we are sometimes pressured to change because of unhappiness. Let me provide an example of this. An infant in the womb makes an adaptation to withdraw from the emotional energies of life (adaptation
#3, above). She establishes a way of functioning that allows her to feel safe and in control of her life. Having removed herself from the currents of life, she may later in life feel lonely and isolated; life may feel meaningless. When her life becomes unpleasant enough, or a vision of a happier life becomes enticing, she may be impelled to expand beyond those limitations. A new phase of her development will begin.

Soul Perspective

The adaptation that an infant makes depends on her innate character, that is, a genetic or constitutional propensity toward certain kinds of responses. As we strive to overcome the limitations that result from our adaptations, we develop desirable personal qualities: effectiveness of action, personal power, creativity, the ability to communicate, love of others, empathy, awareness, understanding, etc. From a soul perspectivG all of our experiences, including difficult prenatal experiences, are prompted by our deeper purpose in being here, our personal evolution. Our adversity encourages us to develop those skills that enable us to achieve happiness, fulfillment, and self-realization.

Michael Gabriel (1992). Voices from the womb. Appendix B.