(Sixth in a series. You can read the last post here.)
Liz is nervous about entering my therapy group.
“But I don’t know why,” she says.
“I do,” I answer.
“There’s a secret reason for this feeling most people don’t realize,” I say. “When we enter a new group situation we expect the group to treat us as we were treated in our family of origin.
“If our family provided safety and acceptance, we unconsciously expect that from the group. But if our family abused us, we expect the group to abuse us too. If our family was critical or judgmental, we expect the group to be the same. If our family ignored or neglected or dismissed us…. You get the point.”
“Jesus,” mutters Liz, who grew up in an alcoholic family. “No wonder I’m nervous.”
“Right,” I say. “This makes group pretty scary for some people, at least when they start.
“But it’s also an opportunity for real therapy.
“Group provides a chance for what I call a corrective emotional experience. When we find that the bad thing we expect to happen doesn’t — that this group is actually nothing like our family, that here we can actually be ourselves and still feel safe and get our needs met — the kid inside us begins to heal.
“And we come away from group feeling just a bit more adult.”
That last word — adult — is a good way to describe the most adequate any of us ever feel.
True adulthood is much rarer than we suppose. It’s one thing to grow up in external, superficial ways; it’s another to feel adult inside. We look at others living their apparently grownup lives — with their grownup bodies, jobs, houses, money and accomplishments — and think surely they must feel like grownups. But all the people I know well admit to feeling anything like that.
They feel like kids wrapped in adult bodies.
They look forward to feeling as old as they actually are.
We feel this way because of the famous Inner Child you’ve heard about. This is the part that never entirely grows up. I see it as a collection of wounds — unmet needs, expressed feelings, unanswered questions, unresolved doubts.
We each have a Kid inside, whether or not we talk about it.
And most of us treat the Kid pretty badly.
“Most adults are ashamed of the Kid,” I wrote in Monkeytraps.
They perceive it as a weakness, a flaw or vulnerability. When the Kid makes an appearance — gets scared or cries, for example — they’re embarrassed. Shut up, they tell it. You make me look ridiculous. Shut up and go away.
This is no accident. It’s the result of being parented by adults who largely forget what it felt like to be powerless, puzzled, and surrounded by giants. And of schools which cram kids into classroom, ignore their needs for freedom, fresh air and play, regiment their behavior and test them into obedience. All of this taught them This is how you treat a kid.*
In therapy we have to decide what to do with this part of us.
I tell clients there are three steps to healing the Kid.
First, you stop the abuse. You bring the Kid out of the closet, stop calling it names, stop shaming it when its feelings come up. This takes a conscious decision and, usually, some external support like that provided by a therapist or therapy group.
Second, you get to know the Kid. What are its needs? What are its wounds? What didn’t it get when you were its age? What scared or traumatized it? Answers to these questions are essential to understanding what triggers the Kid now. Again, to do this work seriously requires a conscious decision, and external permission and support.
Third, you help it grow up. You do this by helping the Kid do things most kids are not permitted by the giants that surround them: tell the truth, express feelings, cry, rage, swear, be funny, be silly, be selfish, play, say No, ask for help, ask to be held. You look for ways to listen for what the Kid needs and, if possible, provide it.
These three steps make up the process of what I call adulting.
The goal of adulting is not to eliminate the Kid, or even get it to grow up all the way. Neither is possible. Each of us is fated to carry some childhood wounds forever. This is sad, and normal.
No, the goal of adulting is simply to help us treat the Kid with compassion and understanding, and to heal what wounds that we can.
It is not.
Such work is necessary to reduce the long-term emotional crippling every kid suffers when compelled to follow a Plan A.
We all have work like this to do.
Sadly, most of us will never do it.
We won’t take the time, won’t see the need, or, most probably, will just be too scared.
“To suffer one’s death and to be reborn is not easy,” wrote Fritz Perls.
Still, neither is the alternative, which is to go through adulthood feeling less than adult.
And so inadequate. Not enough.
Which, as I’ve been suggesting throughout this six-part series, is nothing more than a destructive and unnecessary lie.