I use the development maturation model to explain why and how the Holmes brothers developed their unique approach to emotions.
In the process I also delve into what their emotional management strategies can tell us about their mother’s parenting skills and I speculate if “Mummy” did have some kind of psychiatric problem.
My area is psychiatry rather than psychology. Analysing healthy people like Sherlock and Mycroft is purely for fun and not to be taken too seriously.
Thinkers and Feelers
The development maturation model is a psychiatric theory that is in the process of being investigated by some child/adolescent psychiatrists in the UK. It’s still very much in the developing stages and may ruffle more than a few feathers when it’s published. The main tenants of this theory may sound very familiar to anyone who has studied psychology and psychologists might think it's all a load of rubbish that they disproved years ago but...I'll soldier on anyway.
A very disturbing statistic is that the majority of children who are murdered by their parents are under 12 months old. Most people would find this horrific and tragic, but a bunch of psychiatrists have decided that it’s also significant. They suggest that in the first year of life babies learn how to “cope” with their primary care giver’s parenting style by managing their own emotions. The broad strategies adopted as an infant are hard-wired into our minds and form a basic template for how we manage our emotions for the rest of our lives.
I am over simplifying everything but there are two broad categories of template: thinkers and feelers. These terms can be misleading – they have nothing to do with intelligence or emotional aptitude.
All babies want attention and they get this by crying. Parents, on the other hand, as a general rule would prefer if their babies cried less often. So how do you achieve this? Millions of parenting books have been written on the subject ranging from “leave them alone” to “cuddle them at all times”.
In our modern world very few people can actually achieve the goal of “cuddling your baby at all times” so more commonly we see “the leave them alone” approach or “inconsistently cuddling your baby” approach.
The theory is a parent who consistently does not engage with an infant who cries or who consistently shows up late in response to the infant’s crying (after the distress has peaked) tend to foster the thinker adaptation. The infant learns to suppress its own emotions in favour of the parent’s because crying does not produce the outcome it wants. Only by being “considerate” does the infant get the reward of attention.
This may explain why teaching babies to “self-sooth”, as some parenting books call it, can be very successful. If you let the baby cry for a bit before you pick it up, it eventually learns to stop crying so often. The trick is consistency because if you are not consistent you get an entirely different outcome.
Parents who don’t respond consistently to crying encourage the infant to amplify its emotional distress because eventually they will cry loud enough to force the parent to give them attention. The parents may be attempting the “leave them alone approach” or the “cuddle them at all times” approach but they all fail to do either consistently. This environment fosters feelers –infants who amplify their own emotions and give undue importance to their own well being.
In later life, the theory suggests that feelers and thinkers carry on developing their emotion management skills along different paths. Both paths can lead to very well adjusted or very poorly adjusted adults but when the poorly adjusted ones develop psychiatric illness their responses to therapy can be different.
Thinkers become adults who manage their emotions with active thought. Instead of merely accepting that one feels emotions, they have the tendency to internally over-analysis and judge their own feelings. The most important thing about thinkers is that they do not put great significance in their own emotions. They prefer to cater to the emotions of others. Sadly, these are the people who will put on a brave face, comfort others and never truly tend to their own emotional wellbeing.
The existence of thinkers may be why CBT for depression only works in about 30% of suffers. CBT tries to get the patient to think about why they are depressed and then to “think” their way out of the depression. Unfortunately for thinkers – they became depressed because they analysed their emotions too much, more analysis doesn’t help, in fact some people feel much worse after CBT.
Feelers become adults whose lives revolve around their own feelings. Don’t get me wrong, these people are not anymore “in touch with their feelings” compared to thinkers. They are merely much more self-centred on the emotional front. They put a great deal of significance in their own emotions, and will often over amplify displays of emotions that they feel are important.
In theory CBT works wonders for feelers with depression, because they don't analyse their emotions enough. Taking a step back and logically assessing their emotional quagmire may help them step out of the downward spiral of depression.
Sherlock and Mycroft
At first glance one might say that both Holmes brothers are thinkers not feelers but I would argue that only Mycroft is a true thinker.
Mycroft shows true emotional reserve whereas as Sherlock has an emotional barricade of “keep out” signs firmly erected around his heart. Mycroft has an introvert personality and is given to internal analysis. Everything we have seen so far shows a man who is very self-aware, whereas Sherlock is far less inclined to think about his own emotions. Mycroft certainly fits to the criteria for a man who will suppress his own emotions in favour of another’s (in this case Sherlock).
There is nothing pathological about being a thinker; it can help to oil the wheels of many important relationships. Most thinkers are wonderful, selfless people, who do become perfectly well adjusted members of society.
Sherlock, I would say is a definite feeler. Remember, feelers aren’t any better at managing their emotions than thinkers. They merely refuse to self-analyse. They do not feel the need to justify their emotions or to suppress them for the sake of other people.
Sherlock definitely displays plenty of (negative) emotions. Many people have found him to be “cold” and “detached”. I would argue that he is nothing of the sort. He just doesn’t display positive emotion on a regular basis because for him, anger, frustration, contempt etc. are the emotions that he experiences most often and chooses to amplify. We do see Sherlock displaying and over-displaying many different forms of emotion (think: irritation at the Met Police Force, the strops he throws when he is bored, the joy he displays when he is given a case).
The problem with Sherlock is that he over amplifies the wrong emotions without any consideration for others. (Think back to the absolute joy he displays when he finds out there is a serial killer on the loose in ASiP)
This is not because Sherlock doesn't understand that his displays are viewed in a negative light; Sherlock is fully aware of his impropriety as given the correct motivation Sherlock can initiate appropriate emotional displays (think: Sherlock genuinely apologizing to Molly at the Christmas Party in ASiP).
On the contrary, Sherlock simply does not want to bend his own emotions to accommodate social norms or the emotional needs of others. This is a classical trait of a maladjusted feeler.
Sherlock is definitely maladjusted. There is nothing inherently wrong with being a feeler – most feelers are nothing like Sherlock. They are well adjusted, caring members of society and, with the right techniques, they can help us all become more in touch with our emotions. Some feelers win adoration for their over-displays of emotion (think certain famous actors).
You Know How it Always Upset Mummy
Not all children in the same family develop the same adaptive template. Parents do change their parenting style over time and after gaining experience. I would argue that in Mycroft/Sherlock’s case their differences are significant because they are so very different in terms of their emotional management strategies. It wasn't just the first 12 months that set them on divergent courses but it certainly plotted the trajectory.
Mycroft is seven years older than Sherlock and I think something happened to their primary caregiver in between. Mycroft, on the surface, is a perfectly well adjusted man.
Sherlock is completely different: on the surface he appears to have a myriad of problems e.g. emotional immaturity, poor social skills etc. but he also doesn’t have any true psychiatric problems apart from some schizoid personality disorder traits
Out of the Holmes Brothers Sherlock appears to have received most of the emotions problems and Mycroft seems to have got off relatively unscathed.
What made Mummy switch from a seemingly successful consistent parenting to inconsistent parenting? (Assuming she didn't palm them off the wet nurses when they were born. It's not very likely because even Queen Victoria's daughters breast fed their infants and that was in the 1880s)
I propose that between Mycroft and Sherlock, Mummy developed some psychological or psychiatric problems that made her emotions unstable. I’m sticking with Mummy because neither brother has even mentioned their father, so she appears to be the driving force in their early lives
As I have very little understanding of psychology I’m going to talk about possibilities for a psychiatric illness.
I personally think Mummy might have just become depressed (with atypical features). Depression is incredibly common in women (particularly woman with young children, but this is separate from post-natal depression).
Not everyone who is depressed becomes consistently sad and unresponsive when depressed. Some people are able for a few hours each day to engage and perhaps feel some slight enjoyment in activities. This makes diagnosing depression very hard in these patients, so Mummy may never have been offered any medical help. Mummy could have been quite emotionally liable (switching between very low mood and somewhat normal mood several times during one day). Infant Sherlock, who was utter dependent on his mother for attention, was subjected to a great deal of inconsistency depending on how her mood was at any given moment.
I don’t think Mummy had bipolar because emotional liability is uncommon in bipolar (though there are ultra-rapid cycling forms). Most manic, hypomanic or depressed episodes tend to be consistent and last for months.
If Mummy continued to be atypically depressed throughout Sherlock's childhood, this might explain why he has such great difficultly forming emotional connections with other people. His mother's moods may have been entirely illogical and completely inconsistent. Perhaps this is why both Mycroft and Sherlock become obsessed with deduction - though I doubt they would have had much success with their mother. Mycroft at least had perhaps five or six years of consistent parenting from his mother, which is enough to protect him from developing severe emotional maladjustments (and psychiatric personality disorders). Sherlock had no such luxury.
I am of the firm opinion that both brothers were sent off to boarding school at age 7 as is the norm in the social stratum occupied by the Holmes family (Holmes Family Fortunes) (A Good Old Fashioned Education). Mycroft may have escaped before Mummy really deteriorated leaving his younger brother as an infant to bear most of the resulting problems.
Thus when Sherlock entered boarding school, he was already displaying symptoms of emotional maladjustment and failure to emotionally mature and found it very difficult to make a success out of his boarding school life (Explaining Sherlock's Sherlockness). Boarding school might have further compounded his problems due to its rigid nature and lack of personal attention.
Side Note - The Voices Outside Your Head
In a previous meta I have pointed out how Sherlock has traits of schizoid personality disorder, which is a much better diagnosis for him than Asperger’s (Schizoid not Asperger’s). Schizoid PD occurs more frequently in families with one or more members who have schizophrenia.
I do wonder if Mummy developed schizophrenia, though it is less likely.
Psychiatrists have known about schizophrenia for over a century but there is a still a great social stigma attached to the term (which may be why Mummy never sought a diagnosis or treatment). Many lay people think schizophrenics are permanently psychotic and have violent hallucinations that lead them to murder other people. This is emphatically not true. Most commonly people with schizophrenia have only auditory hallucinations (not voices inside their head, but voices coming from the outside). These voices are seldom menacing – but they can be judgemental and unpleasant. It’s a bit like being constantly followed around by invisible friends giving a running commentary on everything you do. It’s distracting, annoying and people become understandably paranoid but very very few people are actually violent.
The drugs that were available for schizophrenia in the 1970s were really dirty drugs with horrid side effects. If Mummy did ever get treatment I doubt she fully complied and therefore continued to have breakthrough episodes of psychosis. I imagine when Mummy was psychotic she would have been very inconsistent with responding to Sherlock – particularly if there were voices making her doubt whether she should attend to him or not.
List of Other Metas