The Child in You Wants to Find a Home
Everybody needs a place where they feel protected, secure, and welcome. Everybody yearns for a place where they can relax and be fully themselves. Ideally, the childhood home was one such place. For those of us who felt accepted and loved by our parents, our home provided this warmth.
Many people, however, associate their childhood with largely negative experiences, some even traumatic. Others had an unhappy childhood, but have repressed those memories. And though people may attempt to repress or, as an adult, downplay childhood experiences of insecurity or rejection, there are moments in everyday life that will reveal how underdeveloped their basic trust remains. They have self-esteem issues and frequently doubt that they are welcome and that their coworkers, romantic partner, boss, or new friend truly likes them.
Those who lack a home on the inside will never find one on the outside. They can’t tell that they’re caught in a trap.
The negative influences are what primarily plague us as adults. After all, the child within us works hard not to relive the humiliations and injuries it suffered during childhood. At the same time, this child still yearns for the feelings of security and approval that came up short back then. These fears and desires are active in the recesses of our consciousness.
An example to illustrate: Michael loses his temper every time his partner, Sarah, forgets something that’s important to him. She recently forgot to buy his favorite kind of chips while grocery shopping, and he completely flipped out. Sarah was stunned—to her, it was just a bag of chips. To Michael, meanwhile, it was as if the world were ending. What was going on?
Michael doesn’t realize that it’s his inner child that feels disregarded and disrespected when Sarah forgets something important to him, even if that’s just a bag of chips. He doesn’t know that the reason for his rage isn’t Sarah and the forgotten snack, but rather a deep wound from the past: namely the fact that his mother did not take his wishes seriously when he was a child.
If each were attuned to what their inner child desired and the pain it felt, though, Michael and Sarah could share these insights rather than fighting superficially about a forgotten bag of chips or an overly critical remark. They would certainly get along much better, growing closer instead of attacking one another.
This is not to say that people who had a happy childhood and gained basic trust are just strolling through life without a care or problem in the world. Their inner child has also sustained certain injuries, because there is no such thing as perfect parents or a perfect childhood. In addition to the positive influences gained from their parents, these people have also inherited difficult traits that can cause problems later in life. These issues may not be as obvious as Michael’s outbursts. Perhaps they struggle to trust people outside the family, or dislike making big decisions. Maybe they would rather play it safe than go out on a limb. Whatever the case may be, negative influences from childhood limit us, hindering both our personal development and our relationships.
Ultimately, this applies to most people: only once we have met and befriended our inner child will we come to recognize the deep desires and scars we carry within ourselves. Only then can we accept this part of our soul, and even begin to heal to a certain degree. As a result, our self-esteem can grow, and the child within us will finally find a home. This is the prerequisite for forming friendlier, happier, and more tranquil relationships. It is also the prerequisite for leaving relationships that are bad for us or even make us sick.
The Shadow Child and the Sun Child
The shadow child encompasses our negative beliefs and the associated oppressive feelings of grief, fear, helplessness, or anger. These give rise to defense mechanisms, or self-protection strategies, which we develop to deal with these feelings—or better yet, to avoid feeling them at all. Common self-protection strategies include withdrawal, keeping the peace, perfectionism, aggression and attack, or vying for power or control.
The sun child, on the other hand, embodies our positive influences and feelings. It epitomizes the happy child in its spontaneity, adventurousness, curiosity, abandon, vitality, drive, and zest for life. The sun child is a metaphor for the part of our self-esteem that remains intact. Even people carrying a lot of childhood baggage have healthy parts of their personality and experience situations in which they don’t overreact.
It should be quite clear at this point that it’s the shadow child part of our psyche that always causes us problems, especially when we are unaware of it and have therefore never reflected on it.
The Four Basic Psychological Needs
Before the author explains how Michael—or rather, you—can change old patterns, I’d like to examine the four basic psychological needs more closely. As you read, try to develop a sense of how your sun child and your shadow child have been shaped by your own basic psychological needs.
The Need for Connection
Parents can hinder a child’s need for connection by means of neglect, rejection, and/or abuse. Neglect occupies a broad spectrum, of course.
When a child’s need for connection is unfulfilled, it can have a range of effects on psychological development.
In most cases, the child’s ability to form connections is impaired. As an adult, this person will either avoid (or habitually destroy) relationships, or develop clingy behavior, depending too heavily on romantic partners and other relationships.
The Need for Autonomy and Security
Autonomy equals control, and control equals security. When we talk about “control freaks,” this describes the behavior of individuals concerned about their own security, because deep inside (and dictated by their shadow child), they feel insecure.
Children’s need to develop autonomy can be thwarted by their parents. Overly protective, controlling parents who impose too many rules and boundaries will hamper their child’s emerging independence. Over the course of his development, the child will internalize the fearfulness and excessive control he observes in his caretakers. Later in life, he may impose limits upon himself because he so deeply doubts his own abilities.
The Need for Pleasure
Some parents are overly rigid in limiting their children’s feelings of pleasure, whereas others spoil their kids. Even later in development, a child’s need for autonomy and the experience of pleasure remain closely tied. When Mom says no candy before dinner, she is hampering her child’s experience of pleasure as well as their need for autonomy.
If the needs for pleasure and autonomy are too strictly regulated in their youth, people (or rather, their shadow child) may later develop abstemious and compulsive behaviors that reflect how they were raised. Or, in an effort to distance themselves from their parents’ influence, they may grow up to become undisciplined and indulgent in the pursuit of pleasure. On the other hand, if a child is spoiled, as an adult they may struggle to rein in their desires.
The Shadow Child’s Self-Protection Strategies
When we firmly believe our internal influences—in other words, when we unknowingly and thus entirely channel our shadow child—we also try very hard to suppress the shadow child, or at least to behave in a way that minimizes the number of negative beliefs we can sense. We go to great lengths to prevent others from realizing how inadequate we truly feel. We develop so-called defense mechanisms, or self-protection strategies, to shield ourselves from our shadow child’s negative feelings and thoughts.
Repression could be considered the “mother of all self-protection strategies,” because ultimately, any form of self-protection boils down to repressing the things we don’t want to feel or acknowledge. Every other self-protection strategy—from perfectionism and being a “control freak,” to “helper syndrome” or the desire to keep the peace—serves the purposes of repression.
When I repress my problems, however, I am unable to work on them. And if I repress them for too long, it can lead to an accumulation of problems that can no longer be overlooked at a certain point. The self-protection strategy of perfectionism, for instance, can lead to exhaustion or total burnout.
Projection and Feeling Like the Victim
we just discussed, repression can be considered a universal self-protection strategy that provides the basis for all the others. The same could be said for projection. Projection is a technical term in psychology, and it means perceiving other people through the lens of our own needs and feelings. For instance, if I feel insecure and inferior, there’s a good chance I’ll project strength and dominance onto other people. It’s also common for us to project the experiences we had with our mother or father onto our romantic partner. If our mother was overly controlling, for example, we might feel easily controlled by our partner, because we unconsciously assume they’ll be like Mom. Or if I’m actually kind of a cheapskate, I’m quick to suspect the same of others. We can also project positive feelings and wishes, though. If I had a picture-book upbringing, I might naively assume that the world is full of people who are just as good and reliable as my parents.
Perfectionism, Obsession with Beauty, and Yearning for Recognition
People who are insecure about their self-worth usually live their lives on the defensive. They don’t want to provide any open targets. Perfect means flawless. Perfectionists run the risk of overexerting themselves—after all, from the inside, a hamster wheel looks like a career ladder. The problem with this strategy is that “enough” doesn’t exist. There’s always something higher, further, better. These people are in constant pursuit of their own demands.
One form of perfectionism is an obsession with beauty. When working on our external appearance, we can be very targeted with our approach. Calories and pounds can be quantified, hair dyed, and products purchased. By contrast, the shadow child’s buried self-doubt is difficult to grasp, making it harder to combat. This is why so many insecure people project their personal fears onto their external appearance, because there are concrete measures they can take to change their looks.
People employing either of these strategies will try incredibly hard to gain recognition and approval among their fellows.
In praise of this strategy: Those who yearn for perfection are fighters by nature. You are strong, diligent, and disciplined. These are all powerful characteristics, which is why this strategy has helped you make it this far. You have every reason to be proud of yourself.
First aid: You have decided to protect your shadow child by not giving anyone reason to criticize you. This strategy has helped you succeed in life, but you’re in danger of running yourself into the ground. Besides, this strategy will not grant you access to your shadow child. Brainstorm shorter, less stressful ways you might go about comforting your shadow child. With the help of your inner adult, come to realize that the whole success-and-recognition thing primarily plays out in your mind. You might even be nicer if you loosened up a little. Also remember that your shadow child will always demand a “stronger hit,” so in the long run, you won’t find your peace with this strategy.
Keeping the Peace and Overadjustment
Like perfectionism, the drive to keep the peace and make everyone happy is a very common self-protection strategy. They’re often simultaneously at play. Both strategies protect the shadow child’s extreme fear of rejection
In praise of this strategy: You make a tremendous effort to get along with other people and not to hurt anyone. This makes you kind, lovable, and a great teammate, because you often put yourself and your needs second to those of the group.
First aid: Your shadow child wants to remain as hidden as possible, making it hard for others to tell where they stand with you. Let your shadow child know that it’s welcome to show its face every now and then. It’s allowed to stand by its desires and needs. You won’t lose appeal in doing this—you might even earn points, as you become more emotionally available and transparent to your contemporaries.
People who suffer from so-called helper syndrome protect their shadow child by offering to help other people they perceive as being in need. These people’s good deeds make them feel stronger and more useful. Helper syndrome is therefore considered one of the most socially acceptable self-protection strategies. The problem is that helpers tend to attach themselves to people they can’t help. They can get caught in hopeless projects, especially when the “person in need” is their partner. They tend to select partners who demonstrate clear flaws. Helpers see themselves as a knight in shining armor, riding up on a white horse to liberate their partner from misery and making them—the helper—invaluable to their loved one. Best suited to the partner role are people with emotional issues, those suffering from addiction or a physically debilitating condition, or individuals on the brink of financial ruin.
People with both feet on the ground, meanwhile, elicit feelings of inferiority in helpers, because they don’t need any help. The equation helpers establish in relationships amounts to “You need me, so you’re not going anywhere.” The problem is that this equation rarely works out. Helpers exhaust themselves, fighting a losing battle. They refuse to admit that at the end of the day, their influence over their target is minimal. If our partner is unwilling to make any changes or accept some responsibility for their own troubles, even the most ironclad advice won’t help. The dynamic of dependence is thus reversed: as the helper, we wanted our partner to depend on us, but we now depend on them, because we can neither help them nor leave them.
This dilemma is so tricky because the shadow child thinks it’s our fault that our partner is the way they are. After all, our partner’s problems don’t affect them alone—we feel the strain on the relationship, too. Helpers are often mistreated by their partners. Our own needs for attention and affection are chronically shortchanged. Our shadow child’s fears that it is worthless and bad are thus confirmed. In an effort to disprove this belief, our shadow child will keep fighting for our partner, in the unshakable hope that they will change and treat us better. In this battle, though, helpers are caught, hook, line, and sinker.
The Control Freaks
People who crave control focus not only on optimizing themselves, but will also keep a close eye on their partner and other family members. Control freaks demand to be kept informed of their loved ones’ activities, because they trust other people as little as they trust themselves. At its height, this distrust can escalate to delusional jealousy. Many a relationship has fallen apart due to one of the partners’ overly controlling habits. Excessive control can also negatively impact children’s development.
Control freaks are compulsively self-disciplined, in order to maintain control over their health and/or appearance. In this case, the shadow child is projecting its inner vulnerability onto the body. In extreme cases, this can take the form of hypochondria. Similar to the obsession with beauty, the body provides an object for projection that is more tangible—and thus easier to control—than the nebulous fears of destruction that lie beneath.
Your need for control often stresses you out, as it does those around you. It is especially important for you that your shadow child gain self-confidence. And a little more faith that everything will work out in the end. Try to be more joyful and calm. Team up with your inner adult to remind your shadow child that it is adequate, just the way it is, and doesn’t always need to try so hard. Allow yourself to take regular breaks, and reward yourself for your accomplishments.
Aggression and Attack
We’ve all been in that situation where the person we’re with unexpectedly snaps, and we’re left wondering what we did or said that was so bad.
People who tend toward impulsiveness often suffer from it, too. Once the rage dissipates and they return to their adult-selves, they realize that they overreacted. The problem is that impulsive anger is very hard to tame. If someone wants to rein in their impulsiveness, the interventions must target the rage and its prevention. Prevention has to start at the injury itself and is thus one of the core objectives of this book. I’ll be
In praise of this strategy: You don’t take crap from anyone. You’re very strong and know how to protect yourself. You’re a fighter. Your impulsiveness also makes you very lively—it’s never boring when you’re around.
First aid: Your shadow child is easily offended. It too quickly feels it’s been attacked or treated disrespectfully. Try to stay with your adult-self, thus remaining at eye level with your contemporaries and allowing you to respond in a rational, appropriate way. It can help a lot to prepare yourself for situations that could set you off. Analyze the role your shadow child—with its skewed perception—plays in this, and separate it from your inner adult. Your inner adult must keep the upper hand at all costs.
Flight, Withdrawal, and Avoidance
Running away from ourselves or others doesn’t necessarily mean disappearing into solitude. People can also flee into activities such as work, hobbies, or scrolling through social media. Diving into activities serves the purpose of distracting us from our main problem. We might not even be aware of what we’re doing, since these distractions suppress the underlying hardships the shadow child is suffering.
Distraction” can also be a very useful way to get out of a funk. If the distraction causes the actual problem to grow rather than shrink, however, it would be a better idea to face the issue directly. The first step toward accomplishing this is to acknowledge that we have a problem—this is the most important, most fundamental measure in problem solving.
In praise of this strategy: It makes sense to flee or withdraw to protect your shadow child when it’s feeling overwhelmed. You’re taking care of yourself and divvying up your strengths to help.
First aid: Although withdrawal is a very useful self-protection strategy, it can also mean you’re often running away from “ghosts.” But you really don’t need to hide.
let your shadow child know that it’s adequate and, most important, that it’s allowed to assert and defend itself. Once you start advocating for your own rights, desires, and needs, you’ll discover that you feel much freer and more self-confident in your interactions with other people.
People with a narcissistic personality learned early in life to suppress their shadow child, which felt worthless and miserable, by adopting an ideal second self. Narcissists do whatever it takes to elevate themselves above the average, to create this ideal self. They go to unbelievable lengths to be something special, because their shadow child feels the exact opposite. In order to contain their shadow child, they strive for outsize accomplishments, for power, beauty, success, and recognition. Narcissism thus encompasses a host of self-protection strategies, including, unfortunately, the denigration of other people. Narcissists have an eagle eye for weakness in others, which they’re quick to call out. They cannot stand weakness in themselves, nor can they tolerate it in others. By focusing on others, however, their own shortcomings disappear from view. Their criticism elicits the same feelings in the people around them that they hope to avoid themselves: deep insecurity and inferiority. Victim-offender reversal is particularly pronounced with narcissists.
In praise of this strategy: You exert tremendous effort to perform well and look good. This requires an incredible amount of power and initiative. You’ve probably enjoyed a great deal of success in life, and you can be proud of that.
First aid: Your self-protection strategy requires a lot of energy and constantly leads to stressful situations with the people around you. Be aware of the fact that all your efforts to be something special won’t heal your shadow child. You can only heal your shadow child once you fully accept it. Stop fighting your supposed weaknesses and accept that you are simply human, like everyone else. Only then will you be able to relax—for maybe the first time in your life.
Your Reality Is What You Make It
you’re looking to break from your childhood programming—read: to become happier—you must acknowledge the fact that you, together with your shadow child and its beliefs, construct your own reality. This means that your problems—provided they’re not uncontrollable twists of fate—result from your subjective perception of yourself and your surroundings. The one thing you have to understand is that you are free to reshape your own perception, thoughts, and feelings. You probably don’t believe me. After all, we so often experience our feelings as forceful and inescapable. And starting in childhood, we’re accustomed to there being only one—that is, our—reality. For this reason, the author wants you to deliberately examine how extensively your negative beliefs influence your feelings, and how extensively your self-protection strategies permeate your everyday life.
The reason these childhood systems have such a deep impact and operate like a subjective lens can be attributed to the fact that our brains learn through conditioning: the more often we have a thought, perform an action, or experience a feeling, the more real these things become, as the neuronal stimulus-response link created in our brain, or our consciousness, deepens. The more often the neuronal connections in our brains are fed by the habitual repetition of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, the wider they become, expanding into data superhighways, whereas the space for alternative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors is limited to a tiny footpath, at best.
Once more for good measure: You construct your reality yourself, and this process will continue to run automatically and unconsciously—until you notice it.
As soon as you do, you’ll be able to alter your reality, along with your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. This is current brain science, not some esoteric exercise.