The Plan B Talks
I recently began a new group for adult children of alcoholic, narcissistic, abusive, and otherwise dysfunctional families. In this group I’ll be giving a series of talks about how we’re all shaped by our families of origin and what we can do about it. It’s been suggested that my readers might find these talks useful, so I plan to publish the talk notes here. The series continues with (Talk #3) Tranced: Inner kids & adult children. Questions and feedback welcome.
The child is in me still and sometimes not so still. ~ Fred Rogers
We’ve been talking* about the need to free ourselves from our families of origin in order to grow up emotionally.
We can’t do either without addressing our Inner Kid.
That means we need to acknowledge the Kid, accept it, figure out what it needs from us, and do our best to parent it.
Adults who never learn how to parent the Kid end up feeling permanently kidlike.
The Inner Kid
So what’s the Inner Kid?
Occasionally someone asks me this.
I usually answer, “It’s that part of you where you store unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts.”
Usually they nod.
Not one ever says No, I don’t have one of those.
That might seem odd, given the lack of attention we generally pay to this most secret part of us.
Then again, it doesn’t.
Since we all know we’re damaged or wounded in some way.
The inner kid gives us a language for talking about it.
In my work I tend to encounter each client’s inner Kid in two forms: as the source of that person’s hidden authenticity, and as the source of his or her hidden wounds.
Authentic means real.
The Kid is the source of feeling, honesty, spontaneity, joy, creativity and growth.
Carl Jung wrote,
In every adult there lurks a child, 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 have echoed Jung’s view of the child as the source of all human potential and authenticity:
[The inner 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)
[The inner child] 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)
I also think of the Kid as the animal part, the part of us that has healthy instinctual reactions to what it experiences.
Occasionally when a client is trying to make a difficult decision, I’ll suggest they visualize each of the two alternatives they face. Then I ask “What does your stomach want?” That’s my way of checking in with the Kid.
Usually the stomach tenses when the person thinks of one alternative and relaxes when they think of the other. That’s the Kid, voting.
The Kid is that part of us that knows what we really need and isn’t afraid to tell us.
Unfortunately most of us have been trained not to listen.
Here’s where the wounds come in.
The inner Kid is the part of us that gets driven underground by socialization – i.e., when we’re trained to live with other people.
It’s the part that gets told
Don’t pee in your pants, use the bathroom,
Don’t eat that cookie, it’s almost dinnertime,
Stop yelling, you’ll wake your father,
Get up, it’s time for school,
Don’t you take that tone with me,
Don’t cry or I’ll give you something to cry about,
Why can’t you be more like your big sister?,
and so on.
Socialization is necessary, of course. We all have to adapt to our environment in order to survive.
But the process of socialization inevitably creates psychological and emotional wounds.
It basically splits us in two parts: a public part and a private part. Or more accurately, an adapted part and an authentic part.
This self-splitting is called neurosis, and it’s inescapable.
No one survives childhood without some splitting.
Which means no one survives childhood without accumulating unexpressed feelings, unmet needs, unanswered questions and unresolved conflicts.
And no one avoids carrying these wounds into adulthood.
Adult child is a term we use to describe this phenomenon.
In my last talk I defined adult children as people still living according to Plan A – the set of adaptations they developed as children.
Here’s another definition:
Adult children are grownups who still feel like kids inside.
Maybe not all the time, but under stress.
This happens because, under stress, adult children enter the equivalent of a hypnotic trance.
In that trance they forget they’re grownups and experience themselves as the kids they once were – scared, angry, confused, helpless, overwhelmed.
The worse they were wounded as children, the more powerful this trance is.
Anyone who’s ever experienced a panic attack knows what I’m describing.
So does any adult who’s ever felt him- or herself regress to age six in the presence of family members.
These feelings are what R.D. Laing was describing when he said, “We are all in a post-hypnotic trance induced in infancy.”
To some extent, we are all of us adult children.
So why is all this inner Kid/Adult children stuff important?
Because it’s essential to understanding ourselves as adults.
It reminds us of where we came from, and what happened to us there:
~ that we started out helpless, totally dependent on the big people around us.
~ that we had no choice but to adapt 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.
~ that as a result it left us confused at the deepest level – confused about who we really are and how to be in the world.
This confusion lies at the root of the most common problems 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 being tranced, from feeling like kids trapped in adult bodies, from having inner Kids we don’t know how to care for and listen to.
Adult health and happiness depend on emerging from the trance, escaping from the defensive prison to which childhood consigned us.
You simply cannot be an emotionally strong and healthy 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.”
Steve Hauptman is the author of Monkeytraps: Why Everybody Tries to Control Everything and How We Can Stop (2015), available here, and the forthcoming There I go again: Monkeytraps for Adult Children.
* (Talk #1) Three metaphors, and (Talk #2) There I go again: Families and Plan A