Self-Esteem and the Inner Child

Self Esteem and Self- Ownership
I speak to many adults who talk a lot about their “inner child” or “wounded child.” These terms are pretty pervasive in the self -help literature and most people know what they think they mean when they use them. Some of my professional friends have studied a framework called IFS (Internal Family Systems) the terminology they use is similar, but not exact. IFS talks about “parts,” their angry part, or their scared part or their hurt part, etc.,
Generally, I think we are all talking about the same thing. We are talking about childhood wounds that came as a result of inadequate parenting and insufficient nurturing when we were young. When parents (what neo-Freudians call the object) are not available for providing adequate nurturing of babies and infants, the children experience loss and anxiety. They begin to develop accommodations that later become defense mechanisms that help them survive this anxiety. These accommodations are what Psychiatrist David Winnicott calls the False Self. The False Self is a projection of a persona that we learn to use when we are in danger, anxious, or afraid. It is a projection that we learned as a child makes us feel safe. There are so many False Self characters that are added to an arsenal. There are funny ones like the class clown, angry ones like the bully, silver tongued devils who come and put amusing repartee in our mouths, so that we can appear to be what we are not. What the world cannot know is that we are frightened, anxious, and wounded children.
As we grow and mature, these False Selves become entrenched and habituated to the degree that we often do not realize they are not really “us.” We become trapped by the script that they reflexively recite in their efforts to continue to make us safe, even when these scripts no longer are required, and even when they have become damaging. What I tell my students and my clients is that as we grow and mature we become more sophisticated. We develop higher- level defenses that are more complex and require the expenditure of more energy to allow us to present ourselves in the larger world. Our world is no longer limited by our childhood helplessness, and our dependency on the object, to nurture us and make us safe. The theorists believe that we are always looking to return to this state of nurturing and to once again merge with the object in the symbiotic way that existed in the womb. They refer to this as “merger hunger.”
So the story goes, that we are searching for our “object,” our “moms,” so that we can reestablish the safety of the womb and have all our needs meet automatically and instinctively without having to work at it or be anxious about it. That, of course, never happens. Nor can it! So, we develop False Selves, as an art form to allow us to function, and perform in public, while we privately agonize about our inability to find our mommies to take care of us. We try to manipulate others into meeting these needs. We seek out mates, who our unconscious tells us, will meet those needs. When those mates are not able or willing to meet our every need and make us feel safe and loved at all times, relationship problems develop.
As we encounter the patterns in our relationships, our defenses kick in and when our anxiety becomes too great for our False Self to manage, we regress to what are called primitive defenses.
Primitive defenses are those we developed at an early stage of life, ergo: primitive. They are less sophisticated, and they require less energy to utilize. At a young age, we learned to globalize these defenses and use them in response to all forms of danger. So now, as adults, when our more mature defenses do not work, we descend to the level of primitive defenses and become the “wounded child” of our youth and infancy. Whatever personality projections this child learned to use in order to make himself/herself safe is what we once again resort to. This is another reason that the patterns of our relationships and our lives seem cyclical. We are trying to reenact the play, and utilize the script that worked for us when we were children, and helped us survive.
When I find clients who are trapped in the projection of a pattern of inner child or wounded child pain, I try to teach them that the only way they can ever heal and stop repeating the pattern in their relationships is to develop a real self. Not a false self a la Winnicott, but a real self. Call it a “part” if you want to, but by this, I mean a grown up strong capable self that is self -aware and self approving. What you must do is learn to listen to all your inner voices and figure out how you can use your personal skill repertoire to reach the goals you have in life. You cannot cry for your mommy to come and fix it. If it is going to be fixed, YOU have to be the one to do it!
This means you must give up one of our favorite childhood maxims: “It’s not fair!!!”
There is no such thing as fair. Fair is not a concept that exists in the real world. It is entirely a fantasy projection of very young children. Yet, I hear adults in pain use this phrase constantly. Life is not fair. It never has been, it never will be. As Albert Ellis says, “Why shouldn’t it happen to you?” Life is not going to be fair, but it is going to happen. You can build an adult self that believes in itself, that has the ability to test reality and to behave according to its chosen and self -authored script, or you can allow the automated childhood scripts of your “parts” to self -implement. You can develop an adult that will “nurture and protect” the wounded childhood parts of yourself. You can develop positive self -esteem based on real capability and not false praise by magical others. And, you can choose a proactive approach to life.
If you do not choose to do these things, you will be trapped in a universal childhood of the wounded inner child and repeat your relationship failures over and over as you seek to merge with your childhood object. If you choose to keep your wounded inner child, you will always be a victim. Grow up, put on your big boy pants. Challenge life with reality testing and positive self esteem which is real and objective. Give up your False -Self projection and paddle on down the stream of life.

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