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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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Therapy with soul

“Any therapy which does not address the issues of soul must remain superficial in the end.”

James Hollis

Although the word “soul” has religious connotations, when I talk about bringing soul into therapy I am talking about taking a deeper view, which embraces the mystery of a person’s life and the problems they may be struggling with.

This means is that, as a soulful therapist, I try and resist the temptation to ‘fix’ the problem in a superficial way. Often attempts to resolve problems quickly do not last as the symptom returns in the same, or a different, manifestation.

Instead of seeing a client’s struggle with, say, addiction, depression or sexual problems as a symptom to cured I am interested in what this particular symptom may be saying about the person’s life and their unconscious longings and fears.

That does not mean ignoring the symptom. We need to, and the client will insist, that we attend to the problem he or she is bringing. But it does mean that we also look beneath the presenting issue to what else may be going on in that person’s life journey.

A major part of working soulfully is engaging with the shadow, which is what Jung called that part of ourselves that we reject because it does not match our self-image. The shadow often contains anger, jealousy, selfishness, lust and other ‘negative’ feelings.

Jungian therapist and author James Hollis describes working with soul in his book Swamplands of the Soul. He argues that it is the difficulties in our life – the compulsions, the  depressions, the anxieties – that mould us and create meaning. But we need to look beneath these symptoms, he says, and feel the feelings that are being covered.

He says; “Without the suffering, which seems to be the…requisite for psychological and spiritual maturation, one would remain unconscious, infantile and dependent. Yet many of our addictions, ideological attachments and neuroses are flights from suffering.”

If we are able to explore what feelings are being covered over by addiction, depression and anxiety we often discover anger (or even rage), sadness and grief. These feelings can seem so raw and frightening that we are afraid to touch them.

But, as therapist John Bradshaw says, “You can’t heal, what you can’t feel.”

A soulful approach takes us down, down into these feelings, down into the shadow. It asks what what meaning or purpose, if any, there may be in these feelings and related experiences. What it does not try and do is superficially ‘cure’ the symptom.

One way of giving painful experiences, such as abandonment or abuse, some meaning beyond our personal experience is through stories, myths and archetypes (universal symbols or patterns of behaviour).

In his book We’ve had a hundred years of psychotherapy and the world’s getting worse, archetypal psychologist James Hillman gives the example of a man who, as a child. was abused by his father. Hillman opens up the possibility that this experience could be seen as a kind of initiatory experience, a way of understanding archetypal/universal themes concerning rage between fathers and sons, vengeance and submission.

By re-framing the experience in this way, “I’ve moved the memory, somehow, from just being a child victim of a mean father. I’ve entered fairy tales and I’ve entered myths, literature, movies. With my suffering I’ve entered an imaginal, not just a traumatic, world.”

While I agree, up to a point, with Hillman my concern is that this approach is not used to bypass the legitimate rage and sadness that the victim may feel. It may be necessary to first experience the victim feelings before being in a place to explore the mythical or archetypal elements.

But what I think Hillman is pointing at is our tendency to rigidly judge our experience as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Yes, being treated abusively is clearly ‘bad’. It affects our self-esteem, our ability to form trusting relationships and so on. But there may also something in that experience that forms our character, that perhaps gives us an extra sensitivity to other people’s suffering or that encourages us to seek an outlet in creativity.

As Hillman says: “Wounds and scars are the stuff of character. The word ‘character’ means at root ‘marked or etched with sharp lines,’ like initiation cuts.”