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Monday 11 July 2016

Forget the Inner Child. What about the Inner Adult?

Sometimes steering is important.
In the book How to be Miserable: 40 Strategies You Already Use, we acknowledge the grinding tedium of the quest for a better life, and provide tips to adopt a more miserable one instead. Those recalcitrants unwilling to relinquish the upward path can always do the opposite…

One sunny spring day in the early 1990s I was walking the hospital grounds with a colleague on one of his periodic cigarette breaks between clients. We were talking about the then-fashionable concept of the inner child, based on the idea that many adult problems are the product, at least in part, of trauma and shame from childhood. It is a reasonable and useful concept.  
"I don’t know,” he said. “More of the people I see need to find their inner adult, not their inner child.”

It sounds as though he was slagging his clients, making one of those remarks that sometimes flow from the mouths of clinicians on the edge of burnout.

He wasn’t. He was one of the most compassionate – and effective – clinicians I have had the pleasure of working with.  He was making a valid point.

Sometimes we run into emotional trouble when we lose track of our childhood selves, our true desires and interests, the sources of energy and drive in our lives. We base our behavior entirely on the demands of the moment, the expectations of others, or the norms of our society. As we do so, the life leaks out of our lives like helium from a balloon. We have become, to use a half-joking psychodynamic expression, disconnected from our ids. Therapy consists of an effort to become id-connected once more.

But often a disconnection with our childhood self is not the problem – or not the main one. Instead, our lives have gone astray because we have handed control over to our emotions and impulses, allowing them to determine our course and actions. The therapeutic mission is to get our hands on the tiller and steer.

Everyone’s life wobbles.

We fantasize about finding the key to existence, the one true path, the inner sense of direction that will allow us to relax and coast without constantly having to adjust our course.

This is a lost cause. Just as the direction of a sailboat needs constant adjustment if one is to reach one’s destination, our lives require conscious attention as we notice ourselves slipping to one side or the other.  My colleague was not speaking only of his clients. He was acknowledging a general principle of existence.

I can detect it in my own life. Sometimes my mood begins to go astray because I have been too relentlessly focused on the demands of my life. I have been managing the clinic, ensuring the taxes and recordkeeping are up to date, mowing the lawn, and behaving like an overly responsible adult - doing nothing for the sheer fun of it. It is at times like these that I need to go on an Easter egg hunt for the inner child.

Just as often, however, the problem lies in the other direction. I have been putting off responsibilities, allowing needed repairs to go unattended, and allowing chores and paperwork to build up until they are overwhelming. The problem of these times is not to access the inner child, but to develop a stronger relationship with an equally important aspect of the personality: my inner adult.

The inner adult is the part of all of us that enables us to override our immediate impulses. To say "Why yes, I would like another beer. But no, I don’t think it’s a good idea so I’ll pass.” To take the car in for an oil change when we would rather sit and surf the Internet. To get ourselves to exercise when we would prefer to do almost anything else.

We need both: the inner child AND the inner adult. For the past 40 years in psychotherapy we have tended to emphasize the former, and to treat the latter as more of a barrier to be overcome. The inner adult is regarded as the inner schoolmarm, or the inner party pooper: a conservative, anal, soulless advocate of conformity and boredom.

Perhaps it is this demonizing of the inner adult that accounts for the frequency with which its absence sabotages people’s lives. After all, if you have been told for decades that if it feels good, you should do it, this can become one of your guiding and unquestioned life principles.

If the id or the inner child is the source of energy, drive, and selfish pleasure, then how can downshifting its balancing force be a road to misery? Take a look at the difficulties for which people seek out therapy.

  • The overindulgence in mind altering substances. 
  • The inability to control impulsive anger. 
  • The tendency to put one’s life in the control of fears that one knows to be irrational. 
  • Difficulties getting to work on genuinely held but often difficult life projects. 

These are the mission specialties of the inner adult. It is the inner adult who leaves the marshmallow on the plate until the experimenter returns with the second one. It is the inner adult who opens the calculus textbook when The Simpsons is on. It is the inner adult who strives to understand your partner’s point of view instead of simply lashing out.

It is even the inner adult who does the hard work of therapy, facing fears and difficult truths, building gradual change, and excavating past the settlement of life’s demands in search of its balancing force, the inner child.

So to be miserable, view adulthood as the enemy. Ignore the importance of fortitude, reliability, courage, and dedication. If it doesn’t feel good every moment, don’t do it. View the child and adult as implacable enemies rather than as partners in the creation of a fulfilling life.

In sailing, port and starboard are both essential principles. Ignore port and indulge only starboard, and your journey will be in circles.