I have a brilliant young client who, in a burst of insight, offered the following in a recent session:
"When you spend all of your time nurturing your inner child, you are that child."
Man, he is so right.
In this particular instance, the young man, we'll call him 'Tim,' was referencing his own mother, who had suffered some degree of negligence and abuse as a child. For many years, Tim felt badly for his mother. She was so highly anxious. She had been emotionally brittle his entire life. She would lose her temper at a moment's notice. She was often frightened to leave home.
So, being a 'good boy,' Tim would try and comfort her. He often found her to be inconsolable, grief-stricken by a loss he could neither see nor understand.
In retrospect, Tim realized that his mother leaned on him heavily, even as a young child. He was expected to be a rock, a foundation for her ever-crumbling sense of self. Now in his late teens, Tim is fully aware of how unfair it was to expect this kind of support from him, and how ill-equipped he was to deliver. In the meantime, his mother was symptomatic to the point of atrophy. She would hoard, over-eat, diet, quit jobs. The house would at times be filthy. Appliances would fail, and languish in disrepair for years. From a shockingly young age, Tim would be charged with shopping for groceries, answering the phone, repeating egregious, cover-up lies to grandparents, friends and neighbors.
His entire life, Tim has been confused by his feelings toward his mother. Her pain became his world, managing it his mission. Yet somewhere deep down, he always felt deeply ashamed of himself for feeling ashamed of his poor, wounded mother.
But Tim grew up, and recognized something askew at home relative the world around him. And at some point, he tired of it. All of it. He tired of compensating for his mother's ongoing anxieties, and her refusal to truly acknowledge or address her issues in any direct or constructive manner.
Now, Mom has a therapist. In fact, she has had a therapist for the past thirty years. Thirty years! And for all of this time, she and her therapist have been conspiring to process and heal the wounds of her youth. This quest is brutal, exhausting and circular. It is also unquestionably endless.
Tim wonders aloud how his mother ever plans to move beyond this point, and then realizes that she never intends to do so. This is it. This is her life, a life that had initially been foisted upon her, unwittingly and terribly. But now, it is a life she chooses, every moment, every day. And she has created a carefully-selected support system for her stasis.
I am a psychologist, a clinician. I like to think of myself as an empathic guy. But I fear sometimes that our well-intentioned conception of the "inner child" is both a grave disservice and a grand illusion. If we are always healing, we have selected a built-in excuse, possibly sub-conscious, for opting out of anything adult. Instead, we are forever hurt. We are irreparably wounded.
We are victims.
Now, I swear I do not intend to minimize anyone's traumas, especially if they took place, as so many often do, during childhood. The problem is, we can spend a lifetime revisiting injustices suffered decades ago. And in doing so, we miss the present. We are predestined to miss the future.
The victimization that comes with inner child healing is rife with future regret.
So, I pose this challenge to anyone engaged in the lifelong process of nurturing the inner child: nurture your inner adult. Allow yourself to revisit the past. Process the pain. And then get a life.
And I mean this not in a flip, dismissive way, but quite literally. Because whenever we are victims of the past, we are not living. We are not present, nor are we available, ever, to ourselves or anyone else. We are simply powerless.
The inner adult is an especially important concept for those of us who are parents. If we cannot resolve our early internal injuries, then we certainly cannot parent. Instead, we are children. We require parenting. We demand it from everyone around us. We are insatiable. We are effectively crippled, after all.
And our children grow up much like Tim, emotional tightrope walkers, guessing when the winds may shift. The children of the victim are not allowed to explore the world with safety. They know no safety. They know little joy. They are the future wounded, sure to feel the need to nurture their own inner children once awareness of their neglect becomes apparent.
To bring a happy child into the world, and make them unhappy. Is that okay? Under any circumstances?
So, nurture your inner adult. Be strong, powerful and present. Work to become whole. This is where the healing is, the greatest kindness the suffering can bestow upon herself.
Growing up is the ultimate salve for the wounded soul.
Follow John Duffy, Psy.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/drjohnduffy