by Jennifer Newton Martin, LPC
Have you ever wondered what counseling would be like: what you might talk about, how you might describe yourself so that the therapist wouldn’t judge you, how you could explain yourself so that the therapist would know, like you, that there was nothing wrong with you? Have you ever thought about the individuals around you who struggle with things like depression, anxiety, or absurdly flamboyant personalities and felt somewhat relieved that you weren’t “like them”? Have you known someone who lived through chaotic or traumatic childhoods and found yourself thinking how lucky you are to have not had something like that happen to you? Maybe after you hear stories that are blatantly traumatic or devastatingly unfortunate you find yourself revisiting your past and feeling grateful that your childhood was pretty good and that your parents, although not perfect, could have been much worse. Perhaps you even pride yourself on the maturity you clearly have for being able to recognize that you “had it pretty good” and for being someone who can look on the positive side and express your gratitude for the sacrifices your parents made for you. After all, your parents would be proud of you for focusing on the positive side of things.
The Internal Dialogue Reel
I think that most of us can relate to these sorts of internal conversations and experiences. Interestingly, I imagine, that even those of us who came out of extraordinary dysfunction or faced a variety of childhood challenges or difficulties, can look around us and feel grateful that, by comparison, our stories aren’t “all that bad”. We, as human beings, are gifted with an extraordinary and uncanny ability to downplay our own feelings and recreate the past with memories that exclude the painful parts of our experiences. From the time we are born we look to others to let us know what feelings are appropriate and acceptable to feel, which ones will make people like us more or like us less. With the exception of infancy, quite likely the only time in our lives that we feel free and uninhibited to wail when we experience discomfort of any kind, we spend most of our lives building up an exquisite manual of permissions for how, when, why, and what we are allowed to feel. Our parents begin teaching us this as soon as we have the visual capacity to process facial expressions.
Human Growth and Development and Self-Concept
After merely a year or so into our existence we begin the process of increasing exploration of the world. We learn to venture further and further away, frequently returning to our adults for permission, help, comfort, and validation. In a matter of merely months after our birth, language has already entered the picture and words begin to define not only our external experiences, but also our internal ones. The voices of those around us become the reel of dialogue that cycles through our minds day in and day out, sticking with us long after we leave the care of our parents or caregivers. For the first part of our life we are continually seeking the permission and approval of our caregivers and we willingly or unwillingly, depending on our personality, succumb to their discipline and criticism. If that discipline and criticism is harsh or unreasonable, we listen to their justifications and we let their voices override and minimize our internal experience. Often we let those justifications not only minimize our feelings, but we also let it initiate a life-long war with ourselves between the part of us that desires to be tough and unfeeling, immune to the words and behaviors of others, and the child-like part of us that deeply yearns for validation and approval, to be seen and known and valued by others that we care about.
“Often we let the justification of others not only minimize our feelings, but we also let it initiate a life-long war with ourselves between the part of us that desires to be tough and unfeeling, immune to the words and behaviors of others, and the child-like part of us that deeply yearns for validation and approval, to be seen and known and valued by others that we care about.”
In adolescence, our peers begin taking the place of our parents as our primary social support. We remove some of the focus we had put on winning over our parents and begin seeking to replace them with friends and romantic partners, all the while carrying with us the internal dialogue between us and our parents. We look to others to prove to us that we are okay and acceptable and we hope that they disprove or validate the version of ourselves that we carry in our heads, based on the words of our first relationships. Maybe we enter adulthood with an inflated version of ourselves, narcissistic and selfish, and peer and romantic relationships become a source of pain as we are faced with a challenge to the version of ourselves our over-praising parents handed us. Much more likely than this, however, is that our entire adult relational life becomes a series of attempts to have early wounds healed and early messages disproven. In adulthood, we launch ourselves into an eternal search for the relationship that will re-parent our hearts. We want mothers who will nurture, accept, and comfort us and fathers who will see us, protect us, and call us the thing that he most values: strong, capable, beautiful, successful, cherished, loved.
The Relationship Dilemma
Relationships really are the ultimate dilemma in life. Our relationships with others in many ways “seal the deal” when it comes to our own beliefs about ourselves. All of our insecurities and all of our painful awareness of our flaws are either confirmed by others or, if we are so lucky, are challenged by others when they approve of us not once but continually, despite all of our imperfections. We spend most of our lives, consciously or unconsciously, trying to forget the messages we received from our parents early in life. Every time that someone later in life insinuates or calls us out on our imperfection, those early parental voices are right there in our minds echoing the voices around us. Perhaps those messages we received early in life were blatantly stated or perhaps they are messages we received from the things that weren’t said. Either way, we often carry them with us for the rest of our lives. Underneath every strong and capable client that I have ever worked with, there is a child desperately seeking an experience that will set them free from the internal dialogue between themselves and their parents. As people retell the stories of their families, almost universally, behind all of their attempts to prove to me that things weren’t all that bad, I hear the voice of a child longing to be set free from the pain that they carry.
I don’t believe that people ever stop grieving over what they wish they had experienced as children. I do, however, believe that a common truth holds, and that is this: when we are children we need our parents and caregivers to meet our needs: We depend on them, and usually them alone, to provide what we need physically and emotionally. However, we eventually grow up. We no longer need to depend on them to meet our needs. We can now go out into the world and potentially find much healthier individuals to meet our emotional needs. We can also make a conscious decision to name the messages that we received, that we disagree with, and we can choose to renounce them. We can develop a new internal adult voice who speaks to us with all of the care and compassion and nurture that we needed growing up. We can become the parents that we didn’t have. We can affirm ourselves, validate ourselves, defend ourselves, and we can see ourselves for who we really are – no parental approval required.
I hope that you, like all of my clients, can find the true gold in yourself and that you can find others in your life who can truly see you and value you for who you are. The best thing that you can do for yourself is learn to validate your own feelings and to fight against the temptation to minimize what you feel and think into a “more acceptable version”. Many times, if you had parents who minimized your feelings, you walked away with the message that you are more acceptable to others if you dumb down your reactions to things, hide your “unpleasant” feelings, like sadness or anger, and don’t need those old wounds to heal. However, the reality is that we all have those wounds that need to be healed and we, ourselves, play a big, big part in how that healing comes about. Our relationship with ourselves is potentially the most healing relationship that we can have, and because we are the only people that we can control, we have the absolute best odds of being successful in our efforts to change when we are the primary change agents.