For years in therapy, if I felt hurt or misunderstood in a session, I pretended I didn’t. I pretended to E, of course, because I couldn’t let her know what a selfish, irrational, overly sensitive and bad-tempered baby her client was; that would be too embarrassing! I realize now thought that I often pretended to myself as well. I told myself I’m not really upset, or it’s no big deal, or I shouldn’t be silly.
Well, those were the old days. Those were the days I was polite and accommodating and swallowed my sadness, hurt or dissatisfaction. Not any more!
I write it as though I’m now a brat throwing temper tantrums in therapy, and to be fair, that’s not the case. But even though I’m still (reasonably) well behaved, it is different. These days, when the moody, frightened, needy, or angry very young inner child in me awakens, I pay attention to her, and I let E see her too.
What kinds of exchanges bring out my raging inner child? If I were to make a quick list, it would start of course with any time E leaves or in unavailable. I’d have to throw in times she slides away from responding with empathy and instead starts to talk at me from a place of philosophical existentialism (“ultimately we are all alone”–ugh). Any time she even hints that she thinks I should be getting close to being done with therapy, or be done with processing some particular trauma that, in my mind at least, still looms large. Even little things like starting a session late or mistakes in bookkeeping can really awaken all the fears and furies (She doesn’t care! I don’t matter! She’s important to me, but I’m nothing to her! )
For one of these reasons or another I’m not even remembering just now, I can sometimes feel my inner child wake up and stamp her feet. I don’t like that! It’s not fair! And recently, I notice a change. I no longer have the instinctive reaction to ignore that worked-up little girl, or to bury her or to pretend I don’t hear her. Instead, I feel myself turning toward her to ask, what’s going on, little one? I try to talk to her the way, in my best moments, I responded to my own children when they were little, and the way I believe children in general deserve to be treated.
It’s taken such a long, long time to truly believe in my heart that it’s okay for that little one to exist. It’s okay for a middle-aged woman to have (some) emotional reactions like a toddler. It’s okay to feel those emotions. It’s not necessarily okay to act on them (as in kicking my feet against the furniture or trashing E’s office). But it’s absolutely okay to fear abandonment. It’s complete okay to feel rage when it seems like my therapist is not seeing me. I don’t have to be ashamed or hate myself for having those feelings; I don’t have to beat them back with a stick.
Instead, I can take a few moments to notice and acknowledge those emotions. I can allow them to be there. I can even act as the advocate for the distressed child. I can tell E, “Ooh, ouch, my very young self heard that as rejection,” or “I think a younger version of myself needs to know you didn’t do [x] on purpose…” Okay, to be honest, it still feels a bit awkward. But it doesn’t feel like I am breaking open my rib cage and exposing my heart, the way it did the first time I tried it.
It also works so much better than some of the things I used to do. For example, it used to be if I felt hurt (like when E mis-remembered something about an assault I experienced years ago), I would try to bury it. But I wasn’t always successful, so instead I’d end up checking out, pulling away, turning cold to E. Then she would wonder what was going on, and some of her ways of trying to re-engage me wouldn’t work, or they’d even make me more angry or upset. Go directly to rupture. Do not pass Go; do not collect $200.
I also used to go home sometimes and burn myself. It was a punishment, I think, for wanting something (to be seen, to be cared for) that I believed I didn’t really deserve. It also served as a (temporary) release of built-up tension. But it never really made the distress go away.
I can see now that it’s so much more productive to let the feeling exist and to express it. “Shit, that really touches on my old abandonment fear.” That’s something E can hear and can address. In fact, when we met last week, the week after I’d opened up about my rush of attachment anxiety, she gave me a very sweet card she’d written, specifically addressed to the Little One. It was sweet and reassuring. It told me she’d come back from her vacation, as she always had, and furthermore listed some specific things she’d noticed about my adult wise-woman self that made me capable of providing good care to the Little One. She expressed her commitment to continuing to work with me, to helping my adult self become ever more skillful at tending to these pressing internal needs. It felt really validating to read those messages.
Therapy is not like real life, of course. I can’t expect my colleagues or friends or even my very understanding husband to write cards to the Little One. It’s not appropriate in every setting to say, “I experienced some early developmental traumas, and what you said just triggered some of the related emotions, so would you please pause and reassure me?” (I have to laugh just imagine saying that on a Zoom call for work.)
But what I’m finding, little by little, is that I have a growing capacity to notice when some version of my inner child is struggling, and I can help her myself. Maybe that help is simply, I see you, and I see your distress. I’ll carry it with my to therapy on Wednesday. Until then, do you want to sleep hugging the pillow? Or maybe I can write in my journal, offering some reassurance. Or perhaps I can plan a phone date with one of my sisters each week during E’s upcoming vacation; with my sisters, I usually feel seen and understood. I can recognize that a lot of the distress is fear of being invisible, unimportant, and unlovable. I can find ways to reassure myself that yes, the fear is real and painful, but the truth is I am not invisible, unimportant, or unlovable.
I guess what I ultimately want to say today is that I used to think something was terribly wrong when I felt these young, irrational terrors or rages. I was afraid of them. I tried not to see them, or rejected them, hid them, avoided them. But that never helped me feel better. Increasingly now, I notice them, and I pay attention to them. I don’t judge them or beat them back. I try to meet the emotion with the kindness I would want to give to others, as much as I can. What a difference; what a relief.
This, I think, is real self-care. Bubble baths, massages, and time to read a book–those things are sweet luxuries, of course. But you can do those while hating yourself, which mean you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. But taking time to notice and attend to all your emotions, even the juvenile, unreasonable or embarrassing ones–that, for me at least, is transformative and deeply healing.
Great post! And wonderful progress in therapy. Interesting what you say about not being able to say it to other people in other scenarios e.g. zoom. I agree there are many that might not be appropriate but I’ve found the times I have had a brief conversation with someone about it in a work context, people react extremely well (probably because it makes me seem a lot less awkward and difficult, and gives us both a path through). I use the “when you said …. i felt/heard …..” approach a lot e.g. “when you said ‘see me’ in your email, I felt like I was in trouble” and that works well.
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You know, what you say here is very wise. It is true that I probably won’t trot out my raging inner child and her needs at a work meeting. But it is also true that there are appropriate ways to articulate the needs of that child to be seen and acknowledged, or the needs of other parts for respect, support, or whatever it might be. It’s really about just using the appropriate language for different settings.
I think the very explicit practice in therapy of recognizing and allowing all emotions feels different, but maybe it’s only different in how explicit and how many personal details are appropriate to share.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment; you’ve given me more to think about.
This is an area in my own healing that has been recently begging for my attention. I have been very dismissive of these feelings, so I can really relate to all of your initial resistance. It is really encouraging to read how transformative this work has been for you. Thank you for sharing. 💕
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Thank you for saying that! I’m learning more and more that when I write honestly about my emotions, even the super messy, embarrassing ones, I find out that others experience something similar. It’s so validating. It’s been an important way for me to learn that it IS normal, it IS okay to have these feelings. And the more I believe that, the better I feel overall.
So I hope you will also try out being nice to the pouty, irrational, very young parts of yourself. They deserve love, too.
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Yes, I am just beginning to recognize how important and healing this can become. I have so much to learn, but I definitely agree – the validation of others along the way can help make us feel a bit more normal while digging into this messy work. Thank you again for bravely sharing. 💕
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I’ve found this to be such a challenge as well! I’ve also learned over the years to welcome that child to session. E sounds like she’s really ready to welcome
Her too. I’m transitioning to more occasional therapy now but one of my goals moving forward is to drop the prétende and be as honest as I can about what is going on for me, even if it’s juvenile. It’s so hard! But as you point out doing it therapy means it doesn’t have to happen in zoom meetings! I remember a faculty meeting where I was badly triggered and sat there having an internal parts monologue with my wounded child. 😂😂
I’m so amazed by you, and far you have come. 💗 When I have feelings, thoughts, or reactions that I know are not a grown up response, it is embarrassing and definitely difficult to share. I’m so glad that your inner child is getting the reassurance and acceptance that all your parts deserve.
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Hi Alice, it’s so, so nice to hear from you again! And thanks for your kind comments. It’s been a long road, and I won’t pretend that there aren’t a lot of struggles still, but I feel good to have come to this place where I can accept that I can have irrational, childish emotions. I can recognize and accept those emotions and even attend to them, as long as I don’t let them make all the decisions for the adult me.
One thing that helps me a LOT is to say, “one part of me, a childish part of me, is stamping my feet and objecting to [whatever].” By calling it a part of me, instead of just saying “I hate this!,” I feel like it keeps my adult self in charge, so it’s less embarrassing to admit. I mean, obviously I wouldn’t admit all these feelings to everyone, but I’m okay now with admitting them to E, and maybe even sometimes to a few others (my sisters, my husband).
I am absolutely sure you can do this, too. You know a lot about your inner child and her struggles. It’s perfectly okay to let her be a child about thing sometimes.
Looking forward to hear more about how you are doing. xxoo
I think you should be very proud to have come to this place of being able to accept the child and all her feelings! It is a huge deal to get to where you are!