The Children Within
So many of my clients are tormented by voices from the past. These people are not psychotics. They are in touch with reality, but with too much of an abusive reality from their early years.
They remember all to clearly the abusive things that parents and significant others have said and done to them. Abusive treatment, criticisms and insults have a disproportional and resonating impact upon how children grow to think about themselves, how they expect others will view them, and how they expect to be treated by others in the future...and most often these expectations are harmful.
An old idea in psychology is that we come to see ourselves through the eyes of others. By extension, we also come to see ourselves on the basis of how others describe us, how they say we look, how they say we think, and how they say we behave. But influences from others are even more subtle than that.
Young children are naturally egocentric. They assume that things occur because of them, or that they are specifically related to them. Also, young children are not able to see the world from the perspective of others.
When a child is treated with neglect or abuse, they naturally think that is is because of something about them. They do not naturally consider that the problem could be a parent who is ill, mentally disturbed, drug or alcohol addicted, or just mean and sadistic.
As a result, children treated in neglectful or abusive ways often come to view themselves as being unlovable, flawed, unworthy, unlovable, and without value. Or, Sometimes they can defend against these bad feelings by putting up the defence of narcissism (I am perfect and something is wrong with everyone else). Any of this is very destructive to a child's future psychological development.
Of course the truth is that, normally, there was nothing wrong with the child. Rather, something was very bad wrong with the neglectful or abusive parent or significant other.
To children, parents are all powerful and all knowing...they are God-like in stature.
It is natural for the child to assume that the problem lies with themselves, even though it normally does not.
Many years ago I thought that treating "the child within" a person was a bad idea. I have come to know that I was wrong. People who are depressed, anxious, and/or suffer from mood swings and report feelings of low self-esteem have very often learned to think and say very abusive things about themselves, to themselves and to others about themselves.
Their own thoughts and their own voices hurt them very much. The abusive voices and events that they recall, over and over again, continue to hurt them long after they happened.
As the child sees it, "if my parents or loved ones did it, or said it, it must be right and true"! This is the great misunderstanding. Moreover, when the adult has been informed of this misunderstanding but they will not give up that perception, it then becomes a great lie about themselves, or a great self-deceit.
How would you feel if someone you loved and cared about very deeply frequently came to you and told you that you were stupid, dumb, ugly, would never amount to anything, should be ashamed of your self, or can never do anything right, etc.. Do you think this could hurt your self-estee or impair your ability to meet and greet people, and to take chances to become all that you can be?
Abusive treatment by significant others could make you extremely vigilant and distrustful of how others are seeing and thinking about you. It could cause you to negatively interpret the many well-intentioned harmless, but ambiguous, things that people do and say to you.
When our interpretations of life-events are paranoid in nature, it can be that our past abuses at the hands of others have taught us to expect more such treatment in the future. This sets up a vicious cycle in which we participate. When we are anxious, depressed, untrusting, and angry others who we meet, they sense that and withdraw from us. They may even be critical of us. This can then become proof to us of our own basic flawed nature and also that the world is full of bad people.
It is not easy to accept that within all of us are the perceptions and voices of the children that we once were. If we were loved and well treated as children, they will be enjoyable to listen to. If our child selves were abused and neglected the thoughts, perceptions, and voices of 5, 10, or 15 year-olds (frozen in time) will disrupt our peace with very negative and abusive recollections that are transformed by us into devoutly believed current events.
The abused children "that reside in" many adults cannot think like adults. They must be repeatedly and patiently corrected, even lovingly reprimanded if necessary, to stop the negative characterizations of themselves, and by extension, the adults in which they reside.
The adult must teach the children within and themselves, "no--it was not you, it was them!"; "You did not cause them to abuse you, they did bad things to you because of the problems they had!"; "You did not cause the divorce, one or both of them did!"; "You did not run away because you were a bad child, you ran away to escape abuse!"; "You are not a dumb person, your grades got worse because you were depressed and anxious and this normally interferes with learning!"; "You didn't start to use drugs and alcohol because you were a bad person, you did that to medicate your pain and sadness!". "These are mistaken beliefs, but children normally make these mistakes!"
"There was nothing wrong with you, it was them! Don't listen to them, listen to me, you are a good person, you are doing a good job, keep it up and you will be doing even better!"; "Say these things to yourself and listen to yourself, you are telling the truth!"
Of course, this is all easier said than done. But if troubled adults will stop propagandizing themselves about past abuses, and if they will teach "their children within" the correct perceptions of their abusive pasts, the pain and distress can lessen and life can become much more enjoyable.
For those who struggle with such demons from the past,it is important to do these things and also to locate and work with a skilled Cognitive Behavior Therapist to learn many other techniques to help them achieve happier lives.
Dr. Tom, 1/15/09