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John Bradshaw – championing your inner child

This is a great talk by psychologist John Bradshaw about the inner child, in which Bradshaw talks about the importance of “championing” that part of ourselves. This idea is developed in his book Homecoming, published in 1990.

Bradshaw, who died in 2016, was from Texas and has the style of a Southern preacher in his public talks.

In this talk Bradshaw talks about the importance of doing what he calls, the “original pain” work in order to move on from the the pain of the past. In other words, we need to grieve it.  By grieving our past pain we can begin to reconnect with the inner child and then to champion it and parent it.

Part of this process of personal growth, says Bradshaw, is often finding a support group. For him it was a 12-step group. This group is almost an alternative family but it needs to be a non-shaming place.

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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.”

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Couples

Why couples need to parent their own inner child

Only you can re-parent your inner child. No-one can do it for you.’

–       Lucia Capacchione, author of Recovery of Your Inner Child

A common theme in couple therapy is when each partner criticizes the other for the same thing. They may complain that their partner is too ‘needy’, not loving enough or too controlling.

When you actually look beneath the surface, however, it often turns out that both partners share similar feelings of low self-worth. Deep down they don’t feel lovable and don’t trust that their needs will be met.

They also feel shame in acknowledging this to themselves, let alone to the other person.

What can then transpire is that they, unconsciously, seek to get their partner to be a ‘parent’, giving them the unconditional love and understanding they lacked in their own families. When they don’t get this idealised love they feel disappointed and angry with their partner.

A useful prism to view these relationships through is that of the inner child. For many, more skeptical, people the concept of the ‘inner child’ has become a cliché of therapy. But in my work with clients I find it an extremely valuable way of helping people understand their behaviour and feelings.

So, what or who is this inner child? He or she is that part of you that feels like a child and can behave like one – in both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ways. The inner child is often a part of us that we are uncomfortable with and that we can disown. This is because it can represent our more vulnerable and sensitive feelings.

But rejecting this vulnerable part of us also means rejecting our spontaneity, passion and playfulness.

A relationship in which both partners are, without realizing it, carrying a wounded inner child is one that will usually feel unsatisfying and frustrating to both parties.

This is because each partner is not really taking responsibility for looking after their own inner child. They aren’t listening to what its needs are and finding appropriate ways to meet those needs. Instead they are looking to their partner to be the perfect parent they never had.

The first step in healing this dynamic is for each person to become aware of their own wounded inner child.  With this new knowledge they now have an opportunity to grieve what they did not receive as children.

Often a person with a very wounded inner child grew up in an environment in which basic emotional needs were not met. Part of the process of nurturing one’s inner child as an adult is to grieve what was missing from one’s childhood.

Paradoxically, getting in touch with the sadness, anger and grief over what one did not have as a child can open up the possibility of coming into relationship with that loss and moving on.

Therapist and author John Bradshaw describes the ‘original pain work’ that people with wounded inner children need to do. What he means is feeling the sadness and anger of the child who was not properly cared for.

He says: ‘Grief is the healing feeling. We will heal naturally if we are just allowed to grieve.’

Further reading

Homecoming – Reclaiming and Championing your Inner Child. By John Bradshaw

Recovery of Your Inner Child. By Lucia Capaccione

Embracing Each Other. By Hal Stone and Sidra Stone

Healing the Child Within. By Charles Whitfield

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