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Discussion

Are parents responsible for how their children turn out?

Your children are not your children.

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

Kahlil Gibran

“I blame the parents”, is a common judgment, often muttered under the breath when in the presence of a badly behaved child or young person.

This kind of judgement highlights why being a parent can bring up a lot of anxieties, when it comes to what sort of person the child develops into.

And it can be a heavy burden, if a parent believes that he or she is responsible for “negative” character traits or behaviours, or for a child’s seemingly unhappy disposition.

But sometimes I believe that parents can take too much responsibility and can even beat themselves up for not being good enough.

Donald Winnicott, a pioneering paediatrician and psychotherapist, came up with the idea of the “good-enough” parent. This referred to the parent who provides a good-enough environment in which the child feels loved but is also given healthy boundaries.

It’s important to recognise that this does not mean parents can’t make mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable – perfection is not possible. The idea of being good enough gives us permission to be imperfect and to be compassionate towards ourselves as parents.

I remember one mother, who was distressed when she saw her daughter behave in an insecure and “needy” way, convinced she had passed this onto her. Even if there was some truth in this, it would have been passed on in an unconscious way. We cannot help but pass on messages to our children through our own behaviour.

But judging ourselves harshly as parents is not the answer, I believe, as long as we have done our best given our own conditioning.

In any case the kind of person a child develops into will depend on different factors. Good-enough parenting is one factor, while inherited characteristics will be another. As the child gets older, peer pressure will play an increasing role as will the values in the society or culture the child grows up in.

But I believe there is also something else at play, which is harder to describe or measure. I’m thinking of the mysterious force which makes each person the unique individual they are.

Sure, we can look at children and make sense of their characters by referring to how they have uncle John’s creativity or mum’s dancing ability. But in his book The Soul’s Code, James Hillman talks about the guiding force that all humans are born with. He uses the analogy of the acorn becoming an oak, arguing that every person arrives in the world with a possible calling or destiny.

Hillman argues that modern psychology has become reductionist, attributing a child’s obsessions or “pathologies” to poor parenting or genetics.

A different response would be to welcome the uniqueness of each child, even the parts that cause us pain or discomfort as parents. Perhaps we could then trust that the child will find its way in the world, following its own calling or destiny.

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Individuals

Is it ‘selfish’ to have needs?

Clients will often seem puzzled when I ask them what their needs are in life. Some will even deny they have needs at all or regard it as somehow selfish to acknowledge them.

Those who find it difficult to recognise their needs are sometimes those who spend much of their lives focusing on others, on trying to keep everyone else happy.

But I would say that having difficulty in recognising our needs and getting them met in an appropriate way applies to many of us – not just people who have been brought up to deny their own needs.

This is an important issue because we all have legitimate needs and just because we ignore them they do not disappear. In fact, when we ignore them or are unaware of them these needs will still be directing our behaviour at an unconscious level.

Beyond the very basic needs of food, shelter, safety, warmth and so on, our needs include:

 

  • Physical touch and affection
  • Sex
  • Time for relaxation
  • Understanding
  • Respect
  • Belonging
  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Fun and play
  • A spiritual life/sense of meaning
  • Friendship/companionship
  • Love

I think the reason many of us find it hard to identify and express our needs is because this was dangerous for us as children. We may have got the message, implicitly or explicitly, that our needs and wants were a bother to our parents.

For women there is also society’s message that they should be giving to others and be putting others’ needs (children, family) before their own.

 What happens when we fail to recognise or communicate our needs?

As stated above, if we ignore our needs they do not just disappear but will come out in unforeseen and often unhealthy ways.

For example, the person who doesn’t feel they have the right to ask for some down time when they get home from work may end up snapping at his or her partner or children.

Psychologist Pia Mellody describes how a child whose needs were not met appropriately can grow up into a “too dependent’ adult or an “anti-dependent” adult.

The too-dependent adult expects other people to take care of their needs and wants and does not take responsibility themselves. The anti-dependent, however, is unconsciously afraid to ask others to help meet her needs because that would make her feel vulnerable. She thus finds it difficult to be in a truly intimate relationship.

In her book Facing Codependence, Mellody says: “Not tending to one’s needs and wants appropriately is often connected to a feeling of low self-esteem (shame).”

The solution to this is gradually becoming aware of one’s needs and wants and finding ways to communicate them to others. As part of this process the individual will need to tackle the toxic guilt or shame that may arise when he begins to value his needs.

 

 

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Individuals Men

What is sex addiction?

Sex addiction is a term that can invite scepticism – you may think of the movie star who cites it to explain his numerous infidelities. “It’s not my fault – it’s the addiction,” he protests.

While there may be some people who use the idea of sex addiction as a way of avoiding responsibility, there are many more who feel caught in a self-destructive but seemingly compulsive behaviour. It is a behaviour that can wreck relationships, drain bank accounts and even destroy careers.

For these individuals, more often men than women, an addiction to sexual acting out of some form is a sad reality. It can take the form of internet porn, the exchange of sexually explicit photos and messages on social media (sexting), paying sex workers, endless affairs or sex with strangers.

In this context “acting out” refers to sexual behaviour that has become a way of unconsciously avoiding painful feelings. In other words, the sexual behaviour has become a defence mechanism to deal with underlying pain, in the same way that an alcoholic uses alcohol or a gambling addict gambling.

What makes it sex addiction is the individual’s experience that, even though they recognise the behaviour is damaging their lives they feel unable to stop.

Sex addiction is a growing problem.

Never has it been easier to use sex to escape difficult problems or emotions. There is an almost infinite supply of free online porn of every kind, while the internet also makes it much easier to research and contact sex workers or find others to engage in sexually explicit chat or the exchange of images.

Psychosexual therapist Paula Hall, in Understanding and Treating Sex Addiction, identifies three kinds of sex addiction.

  • Trauma-induced – this includes sexual or other forms of abuse. It also includes major losses, such as the death of a close family member.
  • Attachment-induced – this happens when the child lacks a secure attachment to parents or caregivers. When attachment is problematic the child can grow up feeling insecure and find it difficult to soothe themselves when difficult feelings come up. There may be attachment problems if the parenting of the child is too harsh, too emotionally distant, abusive or neglectful. Or if the child is separated from parents for long periods.
  • Opportunity- induced – this refers to addiction that is not necessarily rooted in early trauma or attachment problems, but caused by easy access to internet porn, cyber sex, etc. The much greater accessibility of these, thanks to the internet, has led to an increase in this kind of sex addict, says Hall.

There may be an overlap between two or more of these categories.

The key issue in all this is that the individual realises that his or her use of sex is causing major problems in their life – and they can’t seem to stop. Frequently, the problems they bring to therapy may be about anxiety or depression or about how the use of sex has damaged closed relationships.

Although sex addiction has almost certainly been around for centuries it is only in recent years that it has become more recognised. “Advances in brain research and neuropsychology have helped us understand the nature of both chemical and behavioural addictions and appreciate the links with childhood experience and trauma,” says Hall.

 

 

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Discussion

The importance of acknowledging your Shadow

We all have a psychological Shadow. By this I mean those parts of us which we hide, deny or repress. Sometimes we may be aware of our Shadow, but much of the time we hide it even from ourselves.

But it is vital that we try and get to know our Shadow, or at least parts of it, because otherwise it can play an extremely unhealthy role in our lives.

So, what is the Shadow and how do we know about it? The idea was developed by Carl Jung and the Shadow basically refers to those parts of ourselves that do not correspond with how we like to see ourselves.

For example, we may like to think of ourselves as honest, respectable and hardworking and criticise those who are not like this. Almost inevitably there will, therefore, be a part of us that is (or could be) dishonest, disreputable and lazy. It is not that we need to act out our dishonesty or laziness necessarily, but more that we can acknowledge that we contain those parts within ourselves.

If we cannot accept all the parts of us, including the ones we judge as “bad”, we will project these unaccepted parts onto others and judge them.

This process is an unconscious one. We are mostly unaware of what we are rejecting within ourselves, as it has usually been going on since we were children. So, if as a child we were shamed by parents when we were too exuberant, we may have put that part of us in the Shadow in order to win our parents’ approval.

As a child this is not a conscious decisions, it’s just something that happens, so as we grow up we don’t even realise that we have disowned our exuberance and that it is in our Shadow.

But we may notice that we judge harshly those who we experience as being “too” exuberant.

The way we judge others, particularly, those people who really annoy us is usually a clue to what is in our Shadow. Another way we can learn about it is through our dreams. So, for example, being pursued by a tiger in a dream could represent how we run away from our own anger or wildness.

The Shadow can never be completely known. It is, by its nature, mysterious and unconscious. But we can get to know parts of it and own those parts instead of judging them in others. The more we can do this, the more integrated and whole we become.

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Discussion

Healthy guilt vs toxic guilt

Many of us feel guilt a lot of the time – at promises we’ve broken to others or ourselves, at things we’ve done or not done.

But there are two different kinds of guilt. One is healthy or appropriate guilt, in which we have behaved in a way that goes against our beliefs and values. With this kind of guilt we can usually acknowledge what we’ve done wrong, make amends and move on.

But there is another form of guilt that is unhealthy or toxic, in which we have done something that goes against the messages we got from someone else, often as a child.

There is also an overlap between feeling guilt and feeling shame and I will cover shame, which also has a healthy and a toxic side, in another post.

When it comes to guilt, if I am angry and shout at my wife I may feel healthy guilt afterwards because that action goes against one of my values, which is treating others with respect. I can then say sorry to my wife and take responsibility for not repeating the behaviour.

If I become angry with my wife and feel guilty that is likely to be an example of toxic guilt, possibly caused by getting the message as a child that I am bad if I feel angry.

 Judging feelings as good or bad

Much of the toxic guilt we feel is to do with having certain feelings, but I believe that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ feeling – feelings are feelings and all human beings experience the full range of emotions. It is what we do with the feelings that is important.

So, if we notice we are feeling guilty about having certain feelings, such as anger, sexual desire or sadness, we may want to think about where we got the idea that having these feelings is ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’.

There is a lot of toxic guilt around feelings like anger, sexual desire and sadness, because many of us were brought up in families where one or more of these feelings were taboo. To gain love and approval from parents we may have learned to push these feelings aside, to repress them. Or, in the case of sexual feelings, to have fought against them.

These core beliefs, which are often unconscious, include: “I don’t have the right to feel or express anger”, “I must put a smile on my face and not feel sad” or “Feeling sexual desire is dirty.”

Perfectionism

People who experience a lot of toxic guilt often feel that they must be perfect, that they are not allowed to make mistakes. Again, it is worth questioning where this belief came from. One possible source of the need to be perfect is the child who did not feel loved by his parents and so spends the rest of his life trying to make up for that by being perfect.

I would argue that these core beliefs that certain feelings are ‘wrong’ or that we are not allowed to be imperfect are not part of our intrinsic self but are external beliefs we have internalised, and that’s why they are linked to toxic guilt.

Psychotherapist David Richo, in How to be an Adult, argues that healthy guilt arises when we have stepped out of “our own truth”, the internal bodily wisdom that helps us distinguish experiences that actualise or do not actualise our potential.

Toxic guilt, on the other hand, is when we have disobeyed an injunction or command that was imposed on us. Unlike healthy guilt it is not lifted by acknowledgement and making amends but hangs around. It leads to an inner conflict, not balance.

As Richo says, it is probably impossible to get rid of all our toxic guilt, but what we can do is take a sceptical attitude when we feel this kind of guilt. We can allow it to be present but not let it dictate our behaviour and instead look beneath it at what negative self-beliefs we may be carrying around inside us and which do not really belong to us.

 

 

 

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Couples Discussion Individuals

The value of allowing conflict

Most of us are taught from an early age to avoid conflict. We are taught to be polite, to be sensitive to others, to hold back any “negative” feelings.

Of course, it is generally good to be polite and to think of others. But if this becomes a habitual way of avoiding any conflict or disagreement this way of living can drain us of passion and energy.

This is particularly true in close relationships, where a desire to not upset our partner or friend, can leave us sitting on uncomfortable thoughts or feelings. This can lead to an underlying resentment.

Danaan Parry, author of Warriors of the Heart, says that we have got the message as children that conflict is not okay, it is dangerous and should be avoided: “ Furthermore, we are taught that if you avoid it, if you pretend there is no conflict when there really is, then it will all ultimately, ‘go away’. “

The problem is that conflict, when ignored, does not just “go away” – it goes underground and festers.

I often see couples in which one or both partners is holding back difficult thoughts or feelings because they don’t want to “rock the boat”. But when certain feelings or thoughts become taboo it can affect the entire emotional quality of the relationship and passion can begin to slip away.

I often hear clients say they avoid conflict with their partner, or with others, because they are worried they won’t “win” the argument, that they are not articulate or clever enough to justify their feelings.

But part of learning to allow conflict is letting go of the need to be right. It is getting away from an “I’m right, you’re wrong” perspective and moving towards a more open, less judging stance in which we are both allowed to express strong feelings and feel heard by the other.

As Parry says, it is only when we let go of the need to be right at all costs, that we can genuinely listen to the other person. But it is very difficult to let go of this need to be right because in some sense we feel identified with our opinion or feeling and that we must defend it or else look stupid.

In allowing conflict in our relationships we also need to allow ourselves to be emotionally touched by the conflict.

That may mean acknowledging that we may be feeling some sadness, fear or vulnerability, as well as anger. It may mean acknowledging that we have a range of different, sometimes conflicting, feelings.

Trying to find a solution too quickly can detract from the value of simply allowing these different feelings to be present. When we can lean into this emotional uncertainty, instead of resisting it, something new can emerge.

John Welwood, author of Journey of the Heart, says that recognising these different parts of oneself can be difficult to do: “Yet if I can stay on this edge where I don’t know what to do, without falling back into some old pattern – such as blaming her, justifying myself, or denying my anger – then for a moment my awareness flirts with new possibilities.”

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Discussion Individuals

How we can unconsciously treat others the way we were treated

The biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs reveals him as an extremely talented but complicated individual. This was true as much in his personal life as his business career.

Jobs was adopted as a baby and knew very little about his birth parents. His birth father was 23 when Jobs was put up for adoption. Although Jobs did not know much about his birth father, when he himself was 23 he seems to have unconsciously repeated this emotional wounding, by fathering and abandoning a child of his own.

The story suggests that history can repeat itself, often without us realizing. One of the goals of psychotherapy is to help individuals stop repeating the same old patterns of behaviour – patterns that may have been absorbed in some way from childhood, or even from earlier generations.

In simple terms this means that we often treat others the way we were treated. If we were raised by parents, or caregivers, who did not show us real empathy and love it will be difficult for us to treat our own children – or ourselves – in an empathic and loving way. And that can have very serious knock-on effects when it comes to sustaining close relationships in adulthood.

At the extreme end, parents who are aggressive and hit their children often produce individuals, particularly young men, who are prone to using violence. In Why Love Matters, psychotherapist Sue Gerhardt points out: “The child comes to expect violence from others and doesn’t hesitate to use it himself. He attributes hostility to others even where there is none because he has become highly sensitised to expect violence.”

This theory extends to other forms of treatment. If we are criticised a lot as children we will often become critical of others (and ourselves) as adults. Similarly, if our vulnerable feelings are dismissed or devalued as children we can grow up suppressing these feelings in ourselves and criticizing others who show them.

Ultimately, the response to this predicament is not about blaming our parents, although we may need to give a place to legitimate anger and sadness over what we did not receive. It is more about taking responsibility for our own lives but in a compassionate and loving way rather than a “stop whingeing” stiff upper lip way.

In psychotherapy it is the relationship between therapist and client that can help in this process as it enables individuals to get in touch with, and accept, feelings that were dismissed or crticised when they were growing up. This supportive approach can help the individual understand that they are not fundamentally flawed and have the capacity to develop new ways of behaving and relating.

As Gerhardt points out, the therapeutic relationship can help the client rebuild neural pathways in the brain that affect emotional experience, although this process is a lot slower for and adult than it would be for an infant.

“It is not enough to organise new networks in the brain by offering new emotional experiences,” she says: “For these networks to become established, the new form of [emotional] regulation must happen over and over again until they are consolidated. But once they are….some degree of real healing can be achieved.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Discussion

Why no therapist can take you further than they themselves have travelled

One of the most important criteria when choosing a therapist is finding one who has travelled their own path and faced, if not completely worked through, their own difficult issues.

They don’t need to have everything perfectly resolved, even if that were possible. But they do need to have done the hard work of looking at themselves in their own therapy.

Good therapy will have helped them become more aware of aspects of their own Shadow. The Shadow is like our blind spot and is the parts of ourselves that we have unconsciously rejected. It may include vulnerability, anger and sexuality. It is not uncommon for us to see these rejected parts of ourselves in others, and to judge them.

The danger of seeing a therapist who has not done their own work to a deep enough level is that certain areas of the client’s life may subtly become “off limits”, at an unconscious level, in the therapy room.

Danaan Parry in his book Warriors of the Heart tells the story of his therapist who was puzzled about the fact that clients brought all kinds of issues but no one ever came to see him about sexual problems.

He asked for feedback from his clients and one told him she felt very comfortable with him, he was a good listener, made good eye contact and gently encouraged her to go deeper. But she told him:  “However, John, whenever I bring anything up that has to do with my sexuality – all the blood drains out of your face!

“It’s fascinating because nothing else changes. You still maintain eye contact, you’re still a good listener, your body language stays open, but your face turns absolutely stark white…and I get the clear message from you that it is not okay for me to talk about my sexuality.”

This feedback enabled the therapist to explore more deeply his own issues around sex and he realised that an incident when he was shamed by his mother as a child over a sexual incident had made that area of his life very uncomfortable. But he had not realised how he was communicating that discomfort to clients.

This story shows the importance of therapists having done their own work in therapy but also continuing to be curious about where their blind spots might be because it is never possible to become completely free of them. This ongoing work can be done by the therapist in their own therapy or in clinical supervision.

I was reminded of the importance of this area recently when reading a book by child expert Margot Sunderland about using stories to work therapeutically with troubled children. She says it can be tempting for some adults to make the story have a happy ending, even though the child has left the ending unresolved.

“For example, the listening adult may say, ‘No, don’t leave the little peanut in the gutter – let’s find it a nice home to go to.’ This is an example of the adult’s need to make everything all right, when maybe by leaving the peanut in the gutter the child is trying to communicate his feelings of hopelessness.

“This is a common problem when the…listener (usually out of conscious awareness) is running away from her own hopelessness, despair, grief and so on.”

So, seeing a therapist who has not done enough of their own psychological work can make the therapy less rich and less effective.

Instead of unconsciously giving permission for the client to bring whatever they need to, the therapist can turn into an advice dispenser or a rescuer who needs the client to behave a certain way.

Further reading

Warriors of the Heart, by Danaan Parry

Using Story Telling as a Therapeutic Tool with Children

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Men

What are men unconsciously seeking in internet porn?

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“The soul often manifests itself in the sexual areas of life.”

Thomas Moore

Internet porn is an increasing issue among the male, heterosexual clients I see, and one that can cause a lot of shame as well as impacting on intimate relationships.

Some couples and individuals may have a comfortable relationship with porn and it may be something they enjoy making a part of their sex lives. But for many men it can become something secretive and taboo, which they turn to not simply because of the pleasure it offers but also as a way of escaping difficult feelings.

The easy and free accessibility of internet porn (and the range of sexual activity one can view) means that it can quickly become an instant hit for men who are not feeling good about themselves.

When the need for that ‘hit’, for that escape, becomes a regular way of handling difficult feelings internet porn use can become a problem both for the individual and his partner if he is in a relationship.

For me the interesting part is not just what a man may be escaping by using internet porn, but what he may, unconsciously, be seeking.

To explore this one must ask the individual what he is drawn to in the experience, how he actually feels in the midst of it. Male clients tell me they feel excitement and passion when they are lost in internet porn, that they enjoy the secretive and rule-breaking atmosphere.

Some also feel they are giving themselves a treat or reward and even that they feel somehow nurtured by or attended to by the women they watch engaging in sex.

For some men there is also a pleasure in seeing women treated in a dominating, or even humiliating, way sexually and this may be tapping into unresolved angry feelings towards women that go back to childhood.

Part of the work with these clients is about exploring with them what the porn gives them and whether that is a sign that there is something missing from the rest of their lives and relationships. If they feel excitement and passion using porn, is there a boredom or flatness in the rest of their life or relationships? If so, how can they bring some excitement into other areas of their life?

I would be interested in what might be holding the man back from bringing these energies into his life. Did he grow up with the message that it was somehow not ok for him to express excitement or passion, for example?

If the man feels somehow looked after or attended to by the women in porn videos, does this mean he feels that is lacking in his other relationships with women? Can he ask for these needs to be met in other relationships and can he begin to look after or attend to himself in healthier ways?

For the man who is aroused by women being dominated or treated in a humiliating way I would be interested in how he felt his childhood excitement, anger and sexuality were treated by women. Did he feel those parts were not acceptable and did he feel humiliated by his mother or other females when he showed those energies and emotions?

What I’m aware when I hear the stories of men who have problematic relationships with porn is how the activity, as well as an escape is also a movement towards something.  This ‘something’ is often about feeling alive, connected to one’s excitement, feeling connected to and accepted by a woman.

Even the man who is drawn to porn that demeans women is, in a distorted way, trying to establish a connection with the feminine. If those feelings of anger and powerlessness, with regard to women, can be made more conscious they can then be worked with.

As psychotherapist and author Thomas Moore says, in his book The Soul of Sex, many of the people who came to see him had sexual concerns, “which eventually were revealed as containers of the central mysteries of the person’s life.”

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Discussion Uncategorized

Acknowledging and honouring our losses

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”

– Macbeth

A few years ago I moved from a large city to the smaller town where I now live. There were many good reasons for this move, and overall I am happy with the change.

But as well as the gains there are also losses – looser connections with old friends, a less cosmopolitan and ‘sophisticated’ mentality, poor public transport.

It is sometimes difficult for me to give a place to these losses, as I can tell myself I need to be positive about the move if I am to be happy in the new location.

But unless we are able to acknowledge and make a place for the losses in our lives, it is paradoxically harder to ‘move on’.

Nancy Newton Verrier, a pioneering writer on adoption, says that loss is not well understood in our society: “We tend to deny its importance on many levels.”

She gives the example of a couple who get married – this is a happy occasion and yet there is always also a loss involved for those individuals, notably their independence. Similarly, when a baby is born there is joy but also, for the couple, a loss of what their relationship was and an adaptation to becoming a family.

In her book the Primal Wound Verrier says: “There is no permission in our society to recognise in each of life’s transitions the polarities between gain and loss or joy and sorrow. We are expected to be happy, sing songs…but never to mourn.”

The difficulty is that, if we cannot allow ourselves to acknowledge the losses that often accompany the joys and excitement of life changes, we cannot truly give ourselves to life.

Novelist Tim Lott makes some interesting points about loss and having children in his recent Guardian column. He points out that watching one’s child grow up means feeling a continual series of losses (as well as joys), as they move from dependence on you to semi-independence, culminating in the final loss when they are old enough to move out.

He says: “I sometimes wonder if the pain of seeing them grow up is merely an echo of one’s own pain – the loss of childhood we all had to go through.”

Our discomfort around loss is understandable. Feeling our losses brings up sadness and, in some cases, anger.  But if we hide our losses (and these feelings) from ourselves we are inviting trouble.

Feelings like sadness that are repressed have a nasty habit of making themselves felt in other, less direct ways. These include depression and illness.

In therapy there is often a lot of work around grieving early losses, what therapist John Bradshaw calls “original pain feeling work”. This refers to the losses we all suffered, to greater or lesser degrees, as children. These include not being accepted for who we truly were or, in some cases, emotional, physical or sexual abuse.

Acknowledging and grieving these losses is not about becoming a ‘victim’, but rather about mourning the losses the child experienced but was not able to mourn at the time. Rather than victimhood, this process can lead to empowerment because it brings us into a deeper and more compassionate relationship with ourselves.

It involves, says Bradshaw in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, “making contact with the lonely inner child…this child is that part of us that houses our blocked emotional energy.”