When we least expect it one raw nerve snowballs into an avalanche. Getting dressed for a party, asking someone for a favor, or rushing to an appointment, we suddenly find ourselves caught in a powerful undertow of anger, or victimization. Our nasty thoughts shock us, and trigger waves of shame as we doubt our ability to manage our own reactions. Driven by this turmoil we lash out at others or turn inward, venomously attacking ourselves. Disturbed emotions can make us miserable, disrupt the harmony of our relationships and the success of our careers.
Memories of helplessness and needs
What are these unwanted feelings that seem to awaken from some secret corner of our mind? As we look closely we recognize the echo of child-like cries for help, expressing old hurt feelings that have been pushed down so far we can barely recall their source. Discovering these childlike needs and frustrations inside us comes as a surprise to most of us, who think we have long since left our childhood behind. But as we tune into our own inner cries, we realize that we covered our early memories under layers of coping and forgetting.
Our pain, buried alive, erupts from deep within the well of our unconsciousness to demand our attention. When it emerges, its raw, untamed energy overpowers us, and at surprising moments, we find ourselves fighting off the frustrations we felt as children. Our body pours out fight-or-flight hormones, and our beating heart and fluttering stomach now “prove” we’re in danger, turning even an insignificant event into panic or rage.
Destructive coping strategies
We develop strategies to survive these uncomfortable feelings, but many of our methods create new problems. Willfully blocking our bad feelings, we also stifle the flow of good ones. Becoming rigid and lifeless, we wonder why we’re depressed, why our relationships seem shallow, and why we feel unable to enjoy life.
To dull our pain, or to pry ourselves out of our shell we may turn to drugs and alcohol, but then the substances themselves tear apart the fabric of our lives. And substances aren’t the only way we hurt ourselves. We try to kill the bad feelings and stimulate good ones through overeating, gambling, thrill seeking, promiscuity, and other activities that leave us feeling worse afterwards than before, and hurt the people in our lives. We may wish we could cut down on food, or alcohol, arguing or running away, but every time we try to change, we come face to face with the bad feelings we were trying to escape in the first place.
Avoiding unpleasantness is a natural and healthy factor in making decisions. But tiptoeing around internal land-mines limits our options. For example we may move far away from home to distance ourselves from our family and past. Or we may avoid authority, taking only jobs where no one tells us what to do. The hallmark of running away is that it doesn’t provide a goal to run towards, and so avoiding our inner pain can take us in directions that have little constructive value.
If we organize our life first and foremost to avoid inner issues, we need to stop and reconsider our strategy. We can improve our lives by slowing down, turning around, and facing the demons inside us. The best, most enduring solution shifts our focus, so that instead of running away from our agitation we seek to heal it.
How to grow and heal
How can we ever grow out of childhood pains that seem to be woven into the very fabric of our mind? While we can’t turn back the clock to relive those early years, it is possible to begin healing in the present. Instead of stuffing our pain back down into secret caves, or defending our right to act out like a child, we can work more actively to heal childhood hurts.
The first step to gain insight into our confused and complicated feelings is to pull aside the coverings, look under the surface, and remember their source. Like historians of our own lives, we reconstruct the way our parents treated us, the way they related to each other, their hopes and fears, our interactions with siblings and other significant people during those formative years, the way our family related to neighbors and extended family, and many other parts of our past.
By piercing through our walls of coping and forgetting and looking fearlessly at our history, we begin to realize how powerful these memories continue to be. We realize the connection between the things that frustrated us as children and the things that frustrate us now. By finding frustrations and missing pieces in our foundation, we empower ourselves to deal with them now. Remembering our childhood opens up channels of communication between parts of ourselves that have been cut off for years, allowing us to connect the dots and find meaning in the silhouettes of our own inner mysteries.
Childhood frustrations arise in many ways
From our first breath, our parents had the responsibility to protect and raise us. They were our introduction to the world, and from them we learned the most intimate lessons about who we are and how we should be. Their ideas had an enormous impact on the way we developed, and just as important as the things they taught us was the way in which they were taught.
They might have been permissive, allowing us to roam freely without applying pressure or offering much guidance, leaving us to make so many mistakes we ended up feelings like failures. Or they might have been rigidly fixed in their ideas about what rules we were supposed to obey, outraged when we expressed our individuality. We could only survive by staying within the prison of their will. They might have had emotional vulnerabilities that we learned to tip-toe around. Or they may have been preoccupied with their marriage or job, or they were in the habit of dumping their personal tension on us, or they were ill or injured, or were influenced by substances. There are an unlimited number of reasons we didn’t receive a safe, nurturing attentive, healthy childhood.
As we peer into the past, we may feel we are being disrespectful to our parents by examining their actions too closely. After all, they worked hard and sacrificed. But we’re not looking to blame them. We just want to understand the raw humanity that makes us who we are, and to do so we must get beyond the saints or sinners view of our parents and understand them clearly. As we seek healing, we may also be blocked by other uncomfortable feelings we would prefer to avoid, such as the humiliation of childhood helplessness. Or we may have never let go of the childhood fantasy that we caused our family’s problems. This guilt hangs over us like a deadly threat, waiting to consume us in self-blame. Allowing these obstacles to control us keeps us imprisoned. To grow, we need to face ourselves, understand and forgive.
Revisiting old patterns
As children we learned from our family and environment and did our best to develop coping skills that made sense in that environment. But some of the things we learned as children now block us from a fulfilling life.
Our parents were human, so when we became upset, they may have reacted by becoming upset themselves. When they were upset, the tables were turned, and instead of them comforting us, we ended up comforting them. This taught us that letting other people see our emotions resulted in upset people and more work for us. Or when they became upset, they may have lashed out at us, and punished us for “ruining their day.” Their anger taught us that expressing emotions is dangerous.
To protect ourselves from this danger, we withdrew from our own feelings, an unnatural and difficult challenge, but one which we found necessary for our survival. Now as adults we are emotionally distant, and don’t know how to open up to others, or to enjoy our own feelings.
If we felt isolated as children, we may have coped with our need to be heard by bottling ourselves up. Or if we felt threatened as children, we may have learned that acting out aggressively was the only tool that kept us feeling in control.
We learned our most powerful lessons by watching our parents. When they became angry with each other or with us, we were taking notes, learning when anger is normal. If our parents used anger instead of calm discussion, we are likely to follow in their footsteps. The lessons about anger we learned as children express themselves in our relationships as adults. We may use anger to get our way or to vent creating tension in ourselves and in our relationships.
Anxiety and fear may have been perfectly normal in the world of our childhood, but now we wish we could set these uncomfortable feelings aside. Or growing up in chaotic households with alcoholic or otherwise severely disturbed parents, we learned that the world is unsafe, and no matter how we behave, no one is consistent and no one can be trusted.
When a small infant becomes agitated, his parents baby-talk, rock and hug him to calm him down. Over time, he learns how to apply these techniques to calm down his own emotions. A satisfying life requires skillful self-soothing, and if we’re not good at it, we suffer.
To improve the quality of our life, we can learn many techniques to soothe agitated emotions. For example, when the going gets tough, we can go for a walk or talk to an ally. Creativity is a powerful balm to soothe our troubled soul. Deep breathing and deep muscle relaxation soothe our nerves, as does listening to soothing music and praying. Affirmations are especially useful to help us sail gracefully through rough water. By preparing and rehearsing statements that comfort us and reassure us we can give ourselves the advantage of positive thinking and encouragement.
Relationships present special opportunities for wounded children
Childhood pain was associated with the intimate relationships with our family. When we enter intimate relationships in adulthood we bring these family lessons with us. Because these pressured feelings about intimate relationships started in childhood, they are expressed in childish ways. We pout, we hold grudges, we wish for change and manipulate rather than asking. Our pressured thoughts seem so real to us we are outraged if our partner doesn’t read our mind and satisfy all our needs. These self-involved unrealistic demands didn’t solve anything when we were children nor do they work as adults. In fact, they inevitably create more tension and defensiveness and reduce the safety of our relationships.
If we don’t heal these deep patterns, we may be doomed to repeat them over and over, in this relationship and in future ones. Even if we are sure that our partner is causing all our problems, we may be horrified to discover ourselves caught in similar situations with new partners. The problem is that with each partner we bring our own unresolved needs, and apply our own unrealistic and ineffective methods of satisfying them.
To get out of this trap, we need to understand our needs and frustrations. By exploring our childhood we come to terms with unresolved feelings. Instead of looking to our partner to resolve all of our pains, we can do our own work, and heal through a process of soul searching, forgiving and letting go. As we lighten our inner burden, we become more open and accepting of our needs, and can communicate our needs clearly, enabling us to enter into an open harmonious partnership.
Our efforts to grow accelerate when we learn to work with instead of against our partner. Through couples counseling we learn about each other’s wounds, and then work together to heal them. We let go of our childish methods, and start to use adult thinking. We turn disagreements into opportunities for mutual benefit, looking at the good of the couple as being just as important as the good of the self. Our discussions draw us closer to a solution, and instead of defending ourselves against attacks, we find ourselves working constructively, increasing the safety and mutual support of our relationships.
We learned most of what we know about raising kids by watching our own parents. So it should come as no surprise that the way we raise our own kids often closely resembles our childhood, even if we feel deep shame and resentment about our upbringing, and intend with all our heart and might to raise our children differently.
Simply rejecting the frustration of painful memories isn’t enough to turn us into great parents. A task as complex as parenting requires deep insights and effective techniques, and so, rather than focusing on how we don’t want to raise our kids, we would be better served by learning more about what we do want. Through books, tapes and workshops we can gain insights that help us raise our children and become more effective parents.
In addition to learning child-raising techniques, we must learn about ourselves. As parents we are in an extraordinarily powerful and intimate relationship with our children, so naturally the frustrations we harbor from our childhood affect the way they grow up. By openly examining our past we can find and nurture the unfulfilled needs of the child within us, allowing us to more freely nurture our children.
Revisiting our family of origin
Our interactions with our family were forged when we were helpless children. No matter how compassionate our parents were, we were aware of the enormous power imbalance between us and them. Now that we’re grown up, when we’re with our family we may be reminded of the power they held over us and return to feeling small and helpless.
Instead of running away from these feelings, we can seek deeper wisdom about ourselves by revisiting these family members, and getting to know them on a more level playing field. By discovering the adult dimension of these powerful, formative relationships we allow our inner child to become wiser and more mature. This may bring peace and closure, and help the whole family find new, healing patterns.
Returning to the family may not work for everyone. If they or we are not ready for change, we may continue to dance in the same destructive embrace that caused our pain in the first place. For some, this becomes a toxic dependency that continues to re-injure painful wounds.
When we feel trapped in toxic feelings about our family, especially if we are adult children who survived abusive or alcoholic parents, we can find relief in Twelve Step programs such as Adult Children of Alcoholics, and other adult-children support groups.
Growing up with deep enduring childhood pain in our heart is more common than we may realize. Sadly, the more we avoid the pain, the more we are at its mercy. When we are finally ready to face that pain, we may discover it is an opportunity to raise ourselves to new levels of self awareness and acceptance.
By openly acknowledging our emotions, we learn new more effective ways of handling our feelings and achieving our goals. We connect more productively with the people around us. And we learn to heal our child-within. By learning how to soothe and nurture ourselves, we can react more maturely, giving up the pain of the past and engaging more healthfully in the present.
See Also: Affirmations, Aggression, Assertiveness, Boundaries and intimacy, Breathing, Couples Counseling, Self-esteem, Self-talk, Shame and Guilt, Soothing, Twelve Steps
Healing the Child Within : Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families by Charles L. Whitfield
Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child by John Bradshaw
Codependent no more by Melody Beattie
Adult Children of Alcoholics by Janet Geringer Woititz
Yes, your teen is crazy! Loving your kids without losing your mind by Michael J. Bradley
The relaxation and stress reduction workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay