The person in the grip of an old distress says things that aren’t pertinent, does things that don’t work, fails to cope with the situation, and endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present.
~ Harvey Jackins
I can only guess, of course, whether someone with whom I am working received inadequate attunement from their mothers.
But occasionally I meet people who make me suspect that might have been the case.
They tend to be people who seem forever at war with their feelings.
Like Alan, a quiet man whose marriage is failing because he’s so disconnected emotionally, who works all day and then goes home to pore over paperwork at his kitchen table, so turned inward that he can barely sustain a conversation in session, and whose frustrated wife complains that “even when he’s there he’s not there.”
Or Bonnie, a chronic people pleaser who always looks tired, seems surrounded by people who discount or abuse her, and who worries constantly about falling back into the suicidal depression which overwhelmed her twenty years ago.
Or Cate, an attractive educated woman who keeps drifting into relationships with emotionally unavailable men, spends months trying to get them to love her, then blames each failure not on the man but on her own unworthiness.
And Dustin, a recovering alcoholic stuck in a ten-year affair with a married woman who gives him less and less time and attention, but whom he refuses to leave because “she’s the only woman who’s ever made me feel like someone loved me.”
Harvey Jackins’ phrase —
endures terrible feelings that have nothing to do with the present
— is a perfect description of each of these people.
Each is trapped in what I’ve called the Kid Trance: an emotional life dominated by how they felt when they were helpless children.
The Trance is an agonizing place to live.
Its defining characteristic is a tendency to perceive and treat ourselves as we were perceived and treated by our parents. If they abused or neglected or judged us, we abuse or neglect or judge ourselves.
And if our parents had no clue about how to deal with difficult feelings, we too are left essentially clueless.
What we do, then, is retreat into the ways of coping we discovered as children.
We may disconnect and distract ourselves from feelings, like Alan. Or exhaust ourselves trying to win love and emotional feeding, like Bonnie and Cate. Or cling desperately to someone we think capable of meeting our emotional needs, like Dustin.
There’s another reason the Trance is agonizing: shame.
Psychologist Russell Carr writes,
In the absence of a sustaining relational home where feelings can be verbalized, understood and held, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing.
Whether it comes from being actively discouraged from identifying and expressing feelings (Big boys don’t cry) or from lacking a model for even noticing them, the inability to process feelings cannot help but leave us feeling flawed, broken, inadequate, and cut off from other human beings.
Why cut off?
Because, in our shame, we won’t see relationship as a safe place in which to feel or reveal ourselves.
We may not even believe in the possibility of what Carr calls a sustaining relational home.
And this is one serious wound.
“Trauma is a basic fact of life,” writes Mark Epstein.
It is not just an occasional thing that happens to some people; it is there all the time. Things are always slipping away…. The healthy attachment of a baby to a “good-enough” parent facilitates a comfort with emotional experience that makes the challenges of adult life and adult intimacy less intimidating.
Relationship is the adult’s secret weapon for handling such challenges, a life jacket to keep us afloat, a safe harbor to which we can retreat from storms.
Without it we can’t help but feel adrift, vulnerable to emotional waves that threaten to drown us, “traumatizing us again and again as we find ourselves enacting a pain we do not understand”(Epstein).
And with no life jacket or safe harbor available to us, we have no choice but to turn to the illusion of control.
Russell Carr is quoted by Epstein (see below).
Mark Epstein. The trauma of everyday life. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Harvey Jackins is quoted by John Bradshaw, in Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child. New York: Bantam, 1990.
There is no cell of our body that does not have a wounded child in it.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
There is another kind of unfinished emotional business which predates the kind I just described (see “Shit”) and prevents us from feeling and functioning like grownups.
It is rooted in the way our mothers responded to us when we were infants.
Mark Epstein explains it in his book The trauma of everyday life (Penguin, 2013), drawing on the seminal work of British child analyst D.W. Winnicott.
Here’s a simplified version of his explanation:
One of the most important jobs a mother has is to teach her child how to identify and handle feelings. She does this by modeling a combination of empathy (Oh, you’re having a feeling) and reassurance (Everything will be fine). Anyone who spends any time observing mothers with their children sees this happen over and over.
Oh, you’re wet and uncomfortable? Here, let’s get you changed.
Oh, you’re hungry? Let’s warm up your bottle.
Oh, you hurt yourself? Here, let mama kiss it.
And so on. This ability to pay attention to and respond appropriately to the infant’s emotional experience is called attunement.
“In this state,” Winnicott writes,
mothers become able to put themselves into the infant’s shoes, so to speak. That is to say, they develop an amazing capacity for identification with the baby, and this makes them able to meet the basic needs of the infant in a way that no machine can imitate, and no teaching can reach.
Mom’s attunement is essential to the infant because it models for the child how to attune to itself. The basic message is Here’s what you do with a feeling: You respect it. You pay attention to it. You figure out what it’s telling you, and you respond.
Attunement provides a kind of emotional container — an experience of holding, attention and safety — which the infant absorbs and, eventually, learns to provide for him/herself.
But what if the mother is unable to attune to her infant?
What if something else is occupying her attention or draining her energy? What if she is exhausted, or sick, or depressed, or frightened, or angry, or being abused, or self-medicating with some substance?
“An infant who is held well enough is quite a different thing from one who has not been held well enough,” writes Winnicott.
You see two infants: one has been held…well enough, and there is nothing to prevent a rapid emotional growth, according to inborn tendencies. The other has not had the experience of being held well and growth has had to be distorted and delayed, and some degree of primitive agony has to be carried on into life and living.
What Winnicott calls primitive agony is the experience of being left all alone to deal with incomprehensible and uncontrollable feelings.
This is not an experience that simply drains away over time.
Instead those afflicted carry it into adulthood, as I understand it, in two forms.
One form is a chronic background anxiety, which occasionally erupts as a fear of breaking down, “losing it,” going crazy.
The other form is an inability to deal healthily with their own feelings.
(To be continued.)
Mark Epstein. The trauma of everyday life. New York: Penguin, 2013.
Thich Nhat Hanh. Reconciliation: Healing the inner child. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.
D.W. Winnicott. Babies and their mothers. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.
Whatever we don’t own, owns us.
~ Carl Jung
Among recovering people, and in the lexicon of nearly every therapist I know, the single most common word used to describe unfinished emotional business is shit.
Not surprising. It’s a good metaphor.
Actual shit is a waste product, what’s left undigested after our systems process nourishment.
Emotional shit is what’s left undigested after human beings process (or can’t process) emotional experiences.
Actual shit is smelly and unpleasant. So is emotional shit.
Actual shit, when it collects inside you, makes you very uncomfortable. So does emotional shit.
Releasing actual shit is an enormous relief. Ditto the emotional version.
The biggest difference between them is that most people instinctually know what to do with actual shit.
They know they need to expel it from the body on a regular basis. And they know that if they don’t they’ll get sick.
But many people don’t know that about emotional shit. They think the way to handle it is to hide it, keep it inside, store it up.
Then they don’t understand why they go around feeling shitty.
They’re emotionally constipated.
Constipation produces all sorts of symptoms, like anxiety and depression and anger and addiction. Also high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, gastrointestinal distress and exhaustion. Also arguments and violence and child abuse and divorce.
What has this all to do with what I call the inner Kid?
Because this is the main way inner Kids gets wounded.
We’re not born constipated. We’re born healthy little animals, able to trust what our bodies tell us and automatically expel waste products. Then in childhood we begin hearing messages like Quiet down and Big boys don’t cry or Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about. Surrounded by giants on whom we depend for food, shelter, love and security, we have no choice but to follow such instructions.
And why, exactly, does emotional constipation make us feel shitty?
“When feelings are denied or kept inside there is typically a buildup of physical tension,” Paul Foxman explains.
An accumulation of such pressure leads to anxiety, due to fears of losing control emotionally. That condition also triggers anxiety because of its physiological similarity to the fight/flight response, which is normally associated with danger. Thus our personality creates a paradox in which we deny feelings to prevent anxiety but experience anxiety when we deny our feelings.
One more consequence of constipation is worth noting:
It makes it impossible to feel like an adult.
Being adult means being strong and healthy enough to be yourself. That includes being able to notice your feelings, even the smelly ones, and take responsibility instead of hiding them. Taking responsibility means learning to express feelings in appropriate ways, ways that leaving you feeling stronger, not constipated.
Hiding feelings is what kids do. So no matter how old we are, to the extent we feel compelled to hide our feelings from others, we are going to feel like kids inside.
Adults can, in the jargon of recovery, own their shit.
There’s more to adulthood than this one ability, of course. Owning your shit doesn’t automatically make you a grownup.
But you can’t start growing up until you start owning your shit.
Foxman, Paul. Dancing with fear: Overcoming anxiety in a world of stress and uncertainty. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.
All of us start out weak in the hands of the strong.
~ Allen Wheelis
So why is understanding the Kid part so essential to understanding ourselves as adults?
Because it reminds us of where we came from, and what happened to us there.
It reminds us that we started out helpless, totally dependent on the big people around us.
That we had no choice about adapting to those big people.
That this adaptation occurred not just on the surface of our personality, but seeped down to the very core of us.
That, like a lie you tell so often you come to believe it’s true, this adaptation came to feel not like something we did but something we are.
In other words, that it left us confused at the deepest level.
“We are hypnotized from infancy,” writes Willis Harmon. “We do not perceive ourselves and the world about us as they are but as we have been persuaded to see them.”
“Nearly all human activity is programmed by an ongoing script dating from early childhood,” is how Eric Berne puts it.
“We build up our selves out of our defenses but then come to be imprisoned by them,” Mark Epstein explains. “This leaves us feeling dissatisfied, irritable, and cut off. In our misguided attempts to become more self-assured, we tend to build up our defenses even more, rather than disentangling ourselves from them.”
That last quote points to the main reason we need to understand the Kid part of us:
Until we do, we can’t understand how we — or people we care about — get emotionally sick.
By sick I mean afflicted with the most common symptoms people bring to therapy: anxiety, depression, addictions, unhappy relationships and parenting problems.
I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t suffered from at least one of these.
They all flow from the childhood adaptation I’m talking about, one which splits us into two selves — one public, one private — and starts a war between them.
This self-splitting is called neurosis, and I’ll say more about it later.
Here it’s enough to point out what should be obvious: that a personality at war with itself is unlikely to be a very healthy or happy one.
Adult health and happiness depend on rewriting the script, emerging from the trance, and escaping from the defensive prison to which childhood consigned us.
You simply cannot be an emotionally strong adult so long as you’re carrying around a weak wounded Kid inside.
Or as Carl Jung put it, “Whatever we don’t own, owns us.”
Berne, Eric. Quoted in James, Muriel & Dorothy Jongeward. Born to win: Transactional analysis with Gestalt experiments. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1971.
Epstein, Mark. Going to pieces wihtout falling apart: A Buddhist perspective on wholeness. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.
Harmon, Willis. Old wine in new wineskins. In Challenges of humanistic psychology, ed. J. Bugental. New York: Magraw-Hill, 1967.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The portable Jung. Ed Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Wheelis, Allen. The path not taken: Reflections on power and fear. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1990.
When childhood dies, its corpses are called adults.
~ Brian Aldiss
For thirty years I’ve been talking to clients about what I call the inner kid.
Occasionally one asks what I mean by the term.
“It’s that part of you where you store unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unresolved conflicts and unanswered questions,” I usually say.
They usually nod.
Not one has ever said No, I don’t have one of those.
That might seem odd, given the lack of attention and respect we generally pay to this most secret part of us.
Then again, it doesn’t.
We all know we’re damaged, wounded and crippled in some way.
The inner kid gives us a way of talking about it.
“In every adult there lurks a child,” wrote Carl Jung in 1934,
an eternal child, something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education. That is the part of the human personality which wants to develop and become whole.
Other writers echoed Jung’s view of the child as the source of all human potential and authenticity:
[The Child is] that part of each of us which is ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled; it is our Real Self — who we truly are. (Charles Whitfield)
It is who we are when we were born, our core self, our natural personality, with all its talent, instinct, intuition and emotion. (Margaret Paul)
All the people we call ‘geniuses’ are men and women who somehow escaped having to put that curious, wondering child in themselves to sleep (Barbara Sher)
The most potent muse of all is our own inner child. (Stephen Nachmanovich)
Most of the time, though, when we talk about the Kid inside, we define it in terms of how it gets damaged.
In order to survive in our world we have all denied the Child within to one degree or another. And this is also abuse. (Lucia Capacchione)
When the Child Within is not nurtured or allowed freedom of expression, a false or codependent self emerges. (Charles Whitfield)
There is no cell of our body that does not have that wounded child in it. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
That is why we dread children, even if we love them. They show us the state of our decay. (Brian Aldiss)
This view of the Inner Child as a casualty has become nothing less than a cliché, embraced — or at least wrestled with — by hordes of people trying to recover from all sorts of emotional maladies, everything from addiction, anxiety and trauma to depression, spiritual crises and bad relationships.
Why do we discover this essential part of us only through suffering?
Once we’ve discovered it, what should we do with it?
Are the damages done to my inner Kid even repairable?
If so, how can I repair them?
Those are questions I’ll answer here in coming weeks.
I’ll do it by exploring five premises to which twenty-five years of practicing therapy have led me:
1. Everyone carries a kid inside.
2. Everyone’s inner kid gets wounded.
3. Wounded inner kids become what we call adult children.
4. Adult children are addicted to control.
5. By fighting this addiction we can heal the inner kid and start living like grownups.
As I said, the idea of an Inner Kid has become nothing less than a cliche of recovery.
That’s a good thing, I think.
Because it is the single most useful metaphor I know for understanding human beings.
Cappacchione, Lucia. Recovery of your inner child. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1991.
Jung, Carl Gustav. The portable Jung. Ed Joseph Campbell. New York: Penguin, 1980.
Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free play: Improvisation in life and art. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1990.
Nhat Hanh, Thich. Reconciliation: Healing the inner child. Berekely, CA: Parallax Press, 2010.
Paul, Margaret. Inner bonding: Becoming a loving adult to your inner child. San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1992.
Sher, Barbara. Wishcraft: How to get what you really want. New York: Viking Press, 1979.
Whitfield, Charles. Healing the child within: Discovery and recovery for adult childre dysfunctional families. Pompano Beach, FL: Health Communications, 1987.