Inner Parenting - Blog#16 - 10 May 2019
Humans are among the most vulnerable creatures on Earth at birth. We are totally helpless, dependent on a nurturing mother for survival. Our emotional vulnerability and dependency continue for well over a decade, and to a lesser extent, throughout our lives. Attachment is crucial to the welfare of mammals, and although it dances with the complementary skill, autonomy, throughout the lifespan, our emotional welfare plummets without healthy attachments. If we are lucky, we are blessed with loving, nurturing parents and grandparents, and become healthy enough to attract a healthy lifelong romantic partner. If not, we struggle.
Even if we do have parental, marital, and social connections to nurture us, we sometimes experience losses and insecurities that leave us feeling raw and needy. If we have developed religious faith, we have an ever-present divine source of nurturance available to soothe us in times of need. God, however we conceive of Him or Her, is a higher power whom we can turn to for love, wisdom and guidance at whatever hour, 24/7. All we need to do is maintain a close relationship, via frequent prayer, and proactive moral initiative, to have ready access to this incredible resource. But some of us are troubled by faith. We seek evidence before believing, and find it lacking. As a result, our ability to access God’s gifts is compromised. What are we to do?
Secular spirituality, otherwise known as spiritual atheism, is a sometimes poorly understood nonreligious approach to spirituality. Concisely articulated, it can be viewed as a celebration of consciousness and connectedness. It focuses on the spiritual emotions of awe, gratitude, humility, love, and existential joy. We count our blessings for the gifts of life, consciousness, love, and an awesome universe to unfold our life within. We connect with lovers, friends, and the “All,” without the need to connect with unproven spirits, or the belief in disembodied consciousness (spirits such as gods, ghosts, and souls).
Our mental health, and spiritual connectedness, both require solid attachments. We must attach both externally and internally. We benefit from nurturing external attachments to our parents, friends, and a healthy lover, and a feeling of connectedness to humanity, nature, and the universe as a whole. But internal attachment is crucial as well. Self-esteem is a fundamental building block for a healthy personality. If we were not nurtured by our parents sufficiently, or experience abuse or frequent rejection elsewhere, our downloading of this external negativity may leave us feeling adrift, disliking and disconnected from our self. Our religious friends, facing similar circumstances, can pray, and bathe in God’s love (unless they conclude that even God doesn’t love them). We must find an alternative route: self-nurturance.
We can acknowledge that prayer works for our religious brethren, but question its supposedly theological mechanism, and suggest an alternative psychological explanation of its effectiveness. From a secular angle, prayer can be viewed as an export/import business, where the raw materials of self-love and internal wisdom are exported to the supernatural factory, where they are dressed up in infallible divine garb, and then re-imported with confidence. This is a divine end run around self-doubt, and a means of substituting an illusory external connection for a deficient internal connection. From this viewpoint, prayer is a confidence booster that provides an unwitting, indirect access to distrusted internal wisdom and untapped self-nurturance, cleverly disguised as infallible divine guidance and love. From this secular perspective, we have all that we need within us to soothe ourselves when distressed, or to access our intuitive and rational wisdom when facing difficult decisions or dilemmas. The question is how to access these internal resources, or, stated differently, how to harness the power of prayer internally. Allow me to digress for a paragraph or two in the service of this question.
If you haven’t been sufficiently loved and nurtured by others, it is difficult to do so for yourself. It is hard for us to nurture people we dislike, and hard to internally self-nurture if we dislike our self. The task is to develop self-compassion. Notice that when we dislike someone’s behavior, we tend to become more tolerant when we discover their early injuries, and understand how their damage produced their objectionable behavior. We all produce objectionable behavior of our own, all the more so if our childhood injuries have been intense. If we can muster compassion for the injured child within us, we can become more understanding and nurturing to our self, and improve our internal attachment.
But we are all motivated to reduce internal pain, and therefore we tend to suppress those negative emotions, and the memories that drive them. It is not unusual to hear victims of childhood trauma tell me that they have little recall of events before their teens, and they sometimes do so in a monotone voice, having suppressed their memories and numbed their feelings from being abused and traumatized. Other times, their emotions are out of control, when unresolved issues get triggered and suppressed emotions surge up and flood consciousness. The need for self-soothing is obvious, but the ability to do so is compromised, especially if they have self-protectively cut themselves off from the trauma victim, their childhood self. Short-term benefits (e.g., numbing negative emotions via suppression) are often followed by long-term deficits (e.g., being disconnected from the part of yourself that most needs healing). This is where trauma survivors need courage, to face the feelings and memories associated from their trauma, and to re-own and love the child-self within. Those of us who have suffered only garden-variety trauma, without any major abuse, are more fortunate, but still may need to learn self-nurturance if we harbor low self-esteem or practice negative self-talk.
The inner-child route to self-healing is an ego-state approach that attends to three ego states or subpersonalities, and improves the interaction between them. We all like to feel that we are unified, though we all have different sides or parts of self. The inner child ego state contains our true feelings, needs, and desires, our childlike spontaneity and playfulness, and our childhood memories and injuries. Our codependent self includes our defenses against these injuries and vulnerabilities, and our recognition that others have feelings and needs as well. The higher parent is the internal equivalent of a higher power, containing wisdom, love, and understanding. The higher parent guides a healthy balance between the self-centered inner child and the other-centered codependent self, to avoid the extremes of narcissism or codependent negation of the self. The higher parent understands and nurtures the wounds of the child self, appreciates the efforts of the codependent self to deal with those wounds, but seeks healing strategies that are less defensive and less self-defeating.
Regardless of whether you are doing full-scale child within work in a therapeutic setting, this approach can be used for self-nurturance. The trick is to be aware of your ego-states, and to access your higher parent in times of distress, allowing this part of yourself to soothe your vulnerable feelings (child self), substituting this self-nurturance for any defensive acting out, compulsive behavior, or self-attack. But some of us are far better at nurturing others than our self. If so, the trick is to respond to our self as if we are someone else, someone we care about deeply. Maybe you are a parent, or can at least imagine yourself as a parent. Think about or imagine yourself at your best as a parent, very much on top of your game, exuding love and wisdom as you respond to your child’s distress. Now you are in your higher-parent ego state. Imagine now that your own child self is your actual child, that you have been separated from him or her years, and you are coming back to soothe wounds suffered in your absence. Feel the compassion you exude as you hold and soothe your child. Yes, he or she may have made mistakes while responding to distressing events, but you will guide him/her toward better choices, and toward self-acceptance, because we all make errors when reacting to abuse, rejection, and novel circumstances. You forgive him/her, and encourage self-forgiveness, while developing better skills for the future. If you can do this for your child, at least when you are at your best as a parent, then you can do so for yourself (even if you have to first pretend that your child self is your own beloved child). Gradually, you will learn how to identify and shift into this higher-parent role when needed, just as your religious friends learn to use prayer to shift into the flow of God’s love.
Thus, we have two ways to access nurturance and wisdom in times of emotional vulnerability and distress, religious and parental. In the absence of religious faith, we can use the parental route. After all, a higher power is simply a projection of the higher parent in the first place. Our own experience of parental love, or, our ability to soothe our own child, is the core skill to be accessed when we need self-soothing. If our religious brethren can take a different route, more power to them. We all have to get there, one way or the other.
For more on inner parenting, other self-nurturance skills, and a variety of spiritual and psychological subjects, check out Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available in print and e-Book on Amazon. Chapter Highlights of Beyond Atheism are found at edchandlerandbeyond.com.