Category Archives: parenting

From the therapy room: Freeing the inner child

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Although I mostly work with adults, much of my work concerns children. Yes – children of all ages – toddlers, shy pre-schools, unruly sulky teenagers. These children come to me hidden within adult bodies and desperately needing help. I already wrote more than once about the importance of healing your inner child to set yourself free to lead a happier and a more fulfilling life as an adult. You may check out:

Healing our inner child

Redeeming the sparks or Children frozen in time

Recognizing Childhood Trauma

This blog post, however, is extra-special, as here I hand over to one of my clients who tells about a transformational encounter with his inner child that happened during one of our sessions. We used a technique that I call ‘time-travelling’ and that I found to be very effective in rescuing lost children (and lost adults!). It is a very moving and powerful story and I am grateful to the author for sharing it with us.

Let the sand flow!

For many years I was creatively blocked, as if something was frozen within me. When people talked of “feelings”, I had no idea what they meant. It was like a foreign language. It was if they were all in the normal world together, and I was isolated, having somehow missed that day at school. Looking back now it seems as if something was struggling within me, like a bird beating against a cage wanting to break free. But setting it free was frightening. The conflict produced terrible headaches that stopped me in my tracks, forcing a movement in a new direction, and eventually, very reluctantly, prompted by an osteopath, I decided to try therapy. It turned out to be an incredible journey for me, still unfolding, but I won’t talk about it all today. I want to talk about one little episode to which I kept returning over and over again through many sessions.

One day at school (I must have been about 4 or 5) I’m in a sand pit with some friends. We’re throwing the sand around, and I take a cup, fill it full of sand, and pour it over my ears. I’m amazed at this experience. It feels so wonderfully pleasurable, the smooth flow of the sand, almost like water, but more exciting in its sense of material weight pressing in, the warmth enclosing me, and every moment of the flow so fascinating in its own way. I can feel every individual grain of that sand – each one is different, unique, itself, felt so sensitively – and yet it’s all still  connected, all one, simple and easy. I can’t let go of the feeling all day. Can’t wait to get home to my Mum and Dad so I can share this wonderful thing, this brilliant new secret I’ve discovered with them. As soon as I get in the door, I tell them in a rush, so excited I can hardly get the words out.

In the silence that follows it slowly begins to dawn on me that something is not quite right. Then I notice my father’s grim face and my mother’s eyes wide with fear.

“You were pouring sand over your… ears? Let me look at them.” She gets hold of me, pushes away my hair and twists my ear rather sharply, causing me to gasp in pain.

“Do you realise you could have damaged the inside parts – they’re very delicate – and become deaf for your whole life?” says my Dad. “You never think, do you? Nothing matters to you, you’re so irresponsible.”

Mum looks away from me, almost tearful, and so very disappointed, as if our world has collapsed. “Make sure, you never do it again.”

After this the sand instantly transforms from a thing of joy and beauty to one of stressful anxiety and danger. And with that a nagging crippling fear enters my heart. It is a fear of letting go to the creative flow within me, something of my very own, just experienced simply for its own pleasure.

“Are you seeing that sand pit now?” The voice of the therapist reaches me.

“Yes, I do,” I reply.

“And the little boy, is he still there?” says the therapist.

“Yes, he is there .. he looks rather sad .. and alone..”

“Why don’t you talk to him?” urges the therapist.

“What do you mean?” I simply don’t know how to do this.

“Go and talk to him!” she coaxes.

“And what shall I say?” I need my lines worked out in advance, I always have.

“Don’t worry about that .. just talk to him, he needs you.”

The therapist wants me to dive in and connect, take a risk. The boy sits listlessly in the sand pit, absently trailing his hand through the sand. I approach, and stand watching, my mind frozen with confusion. It’s hopeless.

“I don’t know what to say to him.”

The therapist reassures me. “You do, look, he is so sad ..”

I decide to at least have a go. “Hello.” The boy mutters something, looking away. “How are you?” No response from the boy. “Look, it’s alright to play with the sand, but you must be responsible ..”

The therapist intervenes. “Is that how you talk to a child!?”

The hopelessness bubbles up. “I don’t know how to talk to a child!”

The therapist replies. “You do!”

I kneel down to the child’s level, at the side of the pit, and start trailing my hand in the sand like he is doing. “It’s nice isn’t it?”

The boy mutters “I can’t …”

I reply “You can’t do what?”

The boy looks away again “Play …”

I escape back to the therapist. “But I can’t tell him it’s alright, it’ll damage …”

The therapist still refuses to give me my lines, trusting me to do it on my own. “Just connect with him, communicate…”

I turn back to the boy, with a bit more confidence. “Ok .. what’s the matter?”

The boy replies “I can’t …”

I continue to trail my hand in the sand, mimicking his movements. I try and connect. “You know, it’s so nice … I like playing with the sand, I’m always doing it …”

Something is changing in me now, I’m getting him, this boy — I’m somehow with him, on his side, sensing a leap I might take.

The boy looks briefly hopeful, but then shuts down. “Adults don’t play.”

I more boldly pour the sand, higher up my arms and on to my neck. “I do.”

The boy is shocked. “You can’t do that!”

I continue to pour the sand, with obvious calm enjoyment. “Why not?”

The boy becomes tearful. “I did it, poured it all over me once, it was lovely .. but they say I can’t.”

I slowly move my hand towards him and tip some sand gently down his upper arm. “Who says?”

The boy replies. “Mum and Dad.”

I gently ask. “Why not?”

The boy whispers. “It’ll damage my ears, I was bad …”

I slowly move my hand full of sand up to his ear, and let a little trickle down it. He flinches slightly, but feels the pleasure again. “Look, isn’t it lovely?”

I then trickle sand over my ears as well. “You can’t .. adults don’t ..” the boy says.

I continue to steadily trickle the sand over our ears. “I do”, I tell him.

The boy is unsure, but doesn’t move away. He’s sensing the initial thrill the sand gave him, once again.

I feel I’m getting it now, really connecting. “They don’t understand about sand, about play,” I tell him.

The boy sadly acknowledges this now. “No ..”

We hold each other with a calm and warm eye contact. “That’s alright,” I say quietly.

The boy is still unsure. “Is it?”

I feel I’m truly with the boy now, feeling with him effortlessly. “They just don’t get how lovely it is, like we do”, I tell him.

The boy smiles. “No.”

We now begin to tip the sand over our ears and bodies with increasing abandon. I tell him. “I do it every day, it’s beautiful.”

He stares at me in wonder. “Do you really?”

I feel strong and sure. “Yes! I even carry a big can of sand with me in my rucksack, so I can do it anywhere I happen to be! And I’m not deaf!”

The boy laughs, thrilled. “Will you come back and play with me again?”

I’m loving this now. “Yes, whenever you want.” And I know I will.

I feel so different after all this. Well, to put it simply, I do feel, at last. The adult me had liberated the boy from his frozen state — he’s stepped in finally, and healed the wound his parents had inflicted, by telling him not to trust the flowing ‘sand’ at his heart. This was about giving the boy back his power, and celebrating it. And I’d been freed up too. By allowing the boy to live and breathe fully within me, I’d also allowed the mature me to fully release the breath I’d been holding for so long, and start to stretch my wings. I’d told the boy this, and so made it ‘real’, so now it’s as if I always am carrying a can of sand, in my rucksack, always available, and safe, magical, easy, and flowing.

The sand was a powerful early experience of sensuous pleasure, which was quickly stamped out, labelled dangerous, meaning I came to shut it down, locking it tightly within. Later anything similarly big and pleasurable, like sex, became a problem. But now the boy and the man are together, far more, in all their experiences, through going back and re-visiting the sand pit, and having it out together. They’ve found each other once again, these lonely wanderers. Now they are available to each other, the boy and the man, at their most vulnerable times – the boy helping the man play, and the man giving the boy mature guidance — to keep the sand flowing. They relish the presence of each other now, each being bigger because of the unique and fascinating difference of the other, that they are intimate with, and have strongly included, but refuse to pin down and second guess. It’s basically a simple and strong love affair between the boy and the man, each letting the other off the hook for what they are, each giving the other free reign in every fresh moment. It makes life continually open and exciting, and magically rich.

At last I can start to calmly and fully enjoy each grain, each moment of my experience, as unique and incomparable, letting go and feeling it without anxiety. This contrasts with a frantic rush to a destination point I’ve been obsessed with, so I was never really living at all. In particular I feel this to be settling on a sexual level, where each moment of the experience becomes more normal and comfortable, as I give myself permission to fully be where I am and live it. This also liberates the climax, through it mattering less, to be all it can be, so the intense joy of it can flow more comfortably into everything. So I come to feel that all my experience, however mundane, has a sensuous pleasurable quality, as if now the sand never stops flowing. One cup of sand, continuously flowing, a whole thing. And yet its flow is actually made up of tiny individual grains, each fully felt as a unique moment, and so also separate.

Perhaps there are experiences like the sand in many of our early lives, lying frozen, ready for our return, so they can thaw, and flow once again.

It was terrible headaches that brought me into therapy. They haven’t gone completely yet, but they have definitely lightened and softened. Some of that old oppressive pressure has released, amidst a sense of cooling soothing flow – very like the early joyous experience of the boy in the sand pit..

Self-love and selfishness

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When I speak of self-love many people say “But isn’t it selfish to love one’s self?”

When I first came across the concept of self-love my reaction was exactly the same.  It took me years to really grasp the difference between selfishness and loving one’s self. I believe the confusion stems from the complexity of the idea of love, in general, as well as from a common distortion in our upbringing.  We are taught to respect other people’s needs and feelings but are not taught to respect or even understand our own. This is because much of our upbringing aims at creating a person who would conveniently fit into society, rather than at helping one to become a fulfilled, self-sufficient, independent individual.

Thus, for instance, when a boy of four runs around in a supermarket the mother scolds him for disturbing other people. While it is true that the comfort of other shoppers ought to be respected, the disciplinary “lesson” often takes place without consideration of the physical and emotional needs of the four-year old. Perhaps it would be better not to take him shopping at all because at this age he is unable to stand still in a queue or walk quietly alongside his mother. In reality, however, this is not always possible. And thus the suppression of the natural needs of a child begins, and his subconscious begins to pick up a message that there is something wrong with him, and that the needs of others should be respected while his own natural needs do not deserve the same consideration. This message, reinforced many times in diverse situations, becomes ingrained in a child’s psyche. This child then grows into an adult who believes that his or her inner needs are of no importance, in comparison with the needs of other people.

This is just a small example, but it allows us to trace how imperceptibly, without any major trauma, our ability to recognize and respect our inner needs can be undermined. Sometimes this happens through the lack of differentiated psychological insight in parents. For instance, in my childhood I was repeatedly told by my father that I was selfish when I refused to share sweets with my little sister, a year and a half younger than me, or would not play with her instead of my friends. When as a young adult struggling with self-esteem I confronted my father about this, he replied: “Yes, I told you that because I did not want you to grow up selfish.” This was, apparently, his preventative care. And such well-meant measures may affect us for years to come.

So what is the difference between selfishness and self-love?

Through my many attempts at explanation, I have found it helpful to draw an analogy between caring for one’s self from the point of view of a child and caring for one’s self from the point of view of a loving and supportive parent. In the examples above I have highlighted some mistakes commonly made by parents. Presently, I would like you to think of an ideal parent model; of a parent who is a psychologically aware, mature and caring individual able to offer a child unconditional love combined with healthy boundaries.

Selfishness in this analogy is similar to a child’s idea of fulfilling his/her needs (for the sake of brevity I will continue to write using the masculine gender). As a child’s awareness of his needs, in a holistic and long-term context, is not sufficiently developed, he will frequently confuse gratification of his desire with what is good for him. For example, he may want to eat half a kilo of ice cream. That would be taking care of his craving, but not of the actual needs, of his health and wellbeing. Or imagine a child of five or six who takes a toy from a friend and does not want to give it back because he has taken a fancy to it. In the short term, this child may fulfill his desire, but in the long term – especially if he continues to behave in this way – he risks losing his friends.

I hope I am making my point clear. I am trying to say that being selfish, in my perception, amounts to the inclination to obtain immediate gratification of our desires, regardless of the long-term consequences for our emotional and physical wellbeing. And while striving for this gratification we can also hurt other people. While I don’t yet have children of my own I have been spending a fair amount of time with children of my friends.  This has given me plenty of chances to observe their thunderous struggles with their “I want it NOW!”

I often empathize with them as I recognize it within myself, even though at a different level. More often than I would like I recognize the little child within me who screams “I want it NOW!” And it takes the mature, parent-like part of myself to help that child realize what attitude or action would really be in her best interests.

Now, the caring parent who is aware of his/her child’s needs may sometimes say no to the child for the sake of the child’s health or emotional wellbeing. This restriction, however, would be based on the understanding of the child’s developmental needs, challenges and desires. It would also come with an expression of acknowledgment and an appropriate explanation in a form the child will understand. If such a parent has to reprimand the child for some misbehaviour, she/he would make it clear that it is the behaviour that is being “bad,” not the child himself. And, of course, discipline would be followed by forgiveness, so that the child would stay confident that his parent’s love is always there and that it is ok to make mistakes, because this is how we learn. And making mistakes does not make anyone a bad person; it only shows us the direction in which we need to develop.

When parents take care of their children in this way they validate the children’s feeling of self-worth and create a nurturing environment in which children are free to grow as persons, gradually developing the awareness of their own needs, of the needs of others, and how these two sets of needs interrelate.

Parenting our selves in such a way is what I would call self-love. This love is a form of caring that is based on the recognition of our value as a human being and as a person; it presupposes the acknowledgment of our needs, desires, wants, challenges and struggles; it knows how to forgive and how to encourage; it appreciates our individuality and tries to create conditions that would be best for our personal growth and wellbeing.