PSYCHOLOGYTODAY - Destructive behavior takes various forms: from subtle self-sabotage and self-defeating patterns to passive hostility to severe self-destructive symptoms, violent aggression and, sometimes, evil deeds. Commonly, destructive behavior in adults bears the impetuous, impulsive quality of childish petulance or narcissistic temper tantrums. Or an infantile neediness, dependency, and dread of abandonment. Or an irresponsibility and angry refusal to be an adult: the "Peter Pan syndrome," or what Jungians refer to as a puer or puella complex. The archetypal Jungian notion of the puer aeternus (male) or (female) puella aeterna--the eternal child--provides the basis for what has come in pop psychology and self-help movements (see, for example, the writings of Dr. Eric Berne, Dr. Alice Miller, or John Bradshaw) to be known as the "inner child." What exactly is this so-called inner child? Does it truly exist? And why should we care?
To begin with, the inner child is real. Not literally. Nor physically. But figuratively, metaphorically real. It is--like complexes in general--a psychological or phenomenological reality, and an extraordinarily powerful one at that. Indeed, most mental disorders and destructive behavior patterns are, as Freud first intimated, more or less related to this unconscious part of ourselves. We were all once children, and still have that child dwelling within us. But most adults are quite unaware of this. And this lack of conscious relatedness to our own inner child is precisely where so many behavioral, emotional and relationship difficulties stem from.
The fact is that the majority of so-called adults are not truly adults at all. We all get older. Anyone, with a little luck, can do that. But, psychologically speaking, this is not adulthood. True adulthood hinges on acknowledging, accepting, and taking responsibility for loving and parenting one's own inner child. For most adults, this never happens. Instead, their inner child has been denied, neglected, disparaged, abandoned or rejected. We are told by society to "grow up," putting childish things aside. To become adults, we've been taught that our inner child--representing our child-like capacity for innocence, wonder, awe, joy, sensitivity and playfulness--must be stifled, quarantined or even killed. The inner child comprises and potentiates these positive qualities. But it also holds our accumulated childhood hurts, traumas, fears and angers. "Grown-ups" are convinced they have successfully outgrown, jettisoned, and left this child--and it's emotional baggage--long behind. But this is far from the truth.
In fact, these so-called grown-ups or adults are unwittingly being constantly influenced or covertly controlled by this unconscious inner child. For many, it is not an adult self directing their lives, but rather an emotionally wounded inner child inhabiting an adult body. A five-year-old running around in a forty-year-old frame. It is a hurt, angry, fearful little boy or girl calling the shots, making adult decisions. A boy or girl being sent out into the world to do a man's or woman's job. A five or ten-year old (or two of them!) trying to engage in grown-up relationships. Can a child have a mature relationship? A career? An independent life? Yet this is precisely what's happening with us all everyday to some degree or another. And then we wonder why our relationships fall apart. Why we feel so anxious. Afraid. Insecure. Inferior. Small. Lost. Lonely. But think about it: How else would any child feel having to fend for themselves in an apparently adult world? Without proper parental supervision, protection, structure or support?
This is the confusing state of affairs we so frequently see in seekers of psychotherapy. It is not dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality), but rather a far more common, pervasive and insidious sort of socially sanctioned dissociation. But if we can recognize this problem for what it is, we can begin dealing with it, by choosing to become psychological--not just chronological--adults. How is this accomplished?
First, one becomes conscious of his or her own inner child. Remaining unconscious is what empowers the dissociated inner child to take possession of the personality at times, to overpower the will of the adult. Next, we learn to take our inner child seriously, and to consciously communicate with that little girl or boy within: to listen to how he or she feels and what he or she needs from us here and now. The often frustrated primal needs of that perennial inner child--for love, acceptance, protection, nurturance, understanding--remain the same today as when we were children. As pseudo-adults, we futilely attempt to force others into fulfilling these infantile needs for us. But this is doomed to failure. What we didn't sufficiently receive in the past from our parents as children must be confronted in the present, painful though it may be. The past traumas, sadness, disappointments and depression cannot be changed and must be accepted. Becoming an adult means swallowing this "bitter pill," as I call it: that, unfortunately for most of us, certain infantile needs were, maliciously or not, unmet by our imperfect parents or caretakers. And they never will be, no matter how good or smart or attractive or spiritual or loving we become. Those days are over. What was done cannot be undone. We should not as adults now expect others to meet all of these unfulfilled childhood needs. They cannot. Authentic adulthood requires both accepting the painful past and the primary responsibility for taking care of that inner child's needs, for being a "good enough" parent to him or her now--and in the future.
At least in the sort of psychotherapy I practice, the adult part of the personality learns (and this, like much of therapy, is a learning process) to relate to the inner child exactly as a good parent relates to a flesh-and-blood child, providing discipline, limits, boundaries and structure. These are all--along with support, nurturance, and acceptance--indispensable elements of loving and living with any child, whether metaphorical or actual. By initiating and maintaining an ongoing dialogue between the two, a reconciliation between inner child and mature adult can be reached. A new, mutually beneficial, cooperative, symbiotic relationship can be created in which the sometimes conflicting needs of both the adult self and inner child can be creatively satisfied.
Has your adult self spent time with your inner child today?
This is an excerpt from Dr. Diamond's forthcoming book Psychotherapy for the Soul: Thirty=Three Essential Secrets for Emotional and Spiritual Self-Healing