The Gift of Therapy and Parenting the Inner-Child
When I became a parent, I felt determined to do things differently. I thought that being a “good parent” meant protecting my kids from the hurt and disappointment of a deeply dysfunctional world. It’s a common sentiment amongst parents to want to give our children a better life than the one we had. In recent years, I’ve come to realize how so many messages we hear about parenting are so incredibly flawed.
The more we look at how we parent, the more we recognize the unconscious desire to make up for the past. Being a parent in today’s world can be like trying to climb Mt. Everest with a broken leg. It’s not impossible, the scenery is incredible, but it’s going to hurt more than you can imagine. The feeling of pain and powerlessness is part of the process of being in a relationship, and yet we put so much energy into trying to avoid the pain. Therapy offers an invitation to look at how we learn to compensate for the emotional wounds we experienced as children, and to recognize how our wounds are still impacting our relationships today.
Despite my training and the years I’ve spent helping parents untangle the web of fear and anxiety in relationship with their children, when it came time for me to take on the role of “Dad,” I did exactly what my parents did and their parents did before them. We all wanted to be better than the last generation, but we are each carrying the anxiety and the defenses of the people who raised us. The old refrain, “I never meant to hurt you” is something I hear a lot in my line of work, and it reverberates in the memory of childhood.
The truth is we hurt the people we love by hiding and minimizing the feelings we had as children. The gift of therapy and engaging in a therapeutic Intensive allows us the time and emotional space to recognize that what was once necessary for our survival as children has the power to unravel our lives as adults.
During a recent Intensive, a participant described an important truth: In order to experience love, we must have the courage to feel pain and sadness. We must learn how to feel the pain without needing to control it. The need for control is hard wired in childhood and often grows stronger in our lives as adults. The ping pong battle between anxiety and control and the false safety of avoidance is a conditioned response that’s deeply rooted in the human experience
Control and avoidance are the legacy of compensatory behaviors that were passed down to us like a family heirloom. Therapy offers a pathway for understanding the burdens we carry and the way we unconsciously give them to our children. It’s easy to underestimate the power of the unconscious, and the innate ability that children have to detect the feelings that their parents are hiding. Generation after generation learn to survive by carrying the emotional wounds of their parents and transmitting an unconscious need for control. This is why therapy exists, and why we don’t need a diagnosis in order to benefit from it.
Generational trauma and the ways we learn to compensate for it is the birthplace of pathology. It’s our job to understand the birth story of our anxiety and to recognize the parts of ourselves that we are hiding. In her seminal book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller wrote, “Experience has taught us that we have only one enduring weapon in our struggle against mental illness: the emotional discovery of the truth about the unique history of our childhood.” In the process of participating in a therapeutic Intensive we learn how to heal the child inside.
Taking an active role in our own healing gives us a chance to break the spell that has been cast over the family tree. We learn that healing the child who lives inside us is a path towards freedom. As a therapist, I often remind parents of the importance of “doing your own work.” Parents who engage in their own therapy provide the strongest predictors of lasting change and favorable outcomes for children in treatment. Doing our own therapy is the “enduring weapon” for the battle between love and fear, and the little child in each of us who was taught to seek control in order to feel safe.
As Fred Rogers once said, “The child is still within us and sometimes not so still.” The emotional truth of our childhood is very much alive and present in our relationships today. There is no magical toolbox or checklist of parenting strategies that can replace the power of self-awareness. Therapy teaches us to stop looking for external solutions to internal problems. The clues about why we feel anxious, avoidant, and insecure and why we overcompensate can be found in the puzzle pieces of our history. Therapy gives us a chance to put the puzzle pieces back together.
Ram Dass once famously said, “If you think you are enlightened, go spend a week with your family.” It’s humbling to feel the depth of what goes unspoken in the family system. As parents, we think we are trying to help our children when so often we are still tending to the child who’s inside of us. This is why doing our own work is so essential. None of us go through life without being hurt, and yet it can take a lifetime to learn how to feel our own pain; this is the true journey of healing and learning how to love.
Learning to feel and learning to listen is the foundation of what we do in therapy; this is the path that allow us to show up in our relationships with courage and vulnerability. Going to therapy or engaging in a therapeutic Intensive provides a place to re-experience the child inside who yearns for love and understanding. There is no better place to experience the gift of therapy and to do the work that is necessary to revitalize the relationship with Self, and deepen the connection with the people we love.