One of the things that makes human beings great is our astonishing capacity to learn. We’re always picking up new things and correcting earlier errors. But there is one area where it seems so hard to acquire new knowledge and change: emotional life. It’s when we’re very small children, between our first day and around our eighth year, that our emotional hard drives are encoded. It’s in this period that we learn whether we can trust, whether we like ourselves, whether we can be open, where blame belongs, what to do when the world hurts us, how much we can tell others of what distresses us, what degree of directness can be tolerated, and how much of our naughtiness – and excitement – can be witnessed and forgiven. Unfortunately for humankind, a catastrophic amount can go wrong here. Despite all the improvements in early infant care that’s taken place in the last century, without anyone really meaning for this to happen, it remains pretty easy to pick up some really unhelpful lessons in these early years way before we really understand what’s going on. We may acquire a lack of trust, an excessive fear of humiliation, a deep shame about our bodies, very indirect patterns of communicating, and an inability either to be close to someone or tolerate a measure of distance from them. We might assume that these failures can simply get corrected just like an early error when doing quadratic equations. And yet, we’re likely to realize, especially the older we get, how stubbornly encoded the faults in the hard drive really are. This can feel absurd and humiliating. There’s an understandably impatient view that one should, of course, get over one’s childhood. We’re liable to get impatient with people who are maybe close to 50 and still talking in wounded terms about their parents, now long dead, who said something a little humiliating to them decades ago. But this is impatient brustness with the patterns laid down in childhood is no good. It may simply be wisest to accept that there will at points be a furious, unhinged inner five year old who’s gonna take charge of us, refuse to see the controls and attempt to cause mayhem. We should know that we can be enduringly and deeply wounded by the past and should therefore, when we can manage it, find words to warn those we care about what living with us is actually going to mean. The great learning of twentieth century psychology, which has still been only patchily assimilated is that those early years are, emotionally speaking, simply everything. It would be so much easier if it weren’t like this but a die is cast then that can almost never be reshaped. We are more or less the life-long prisoners of dynamics that may have been set in motion half a century ago by parents who weren’t even mean just under inner pressure. It’s a sobering situation that calls for humility, forgiveness, constant vigilance over one’s own conduct, polite warnings to others and a very black sense of humour.