February 12, 2008 Inner Child
“I blame it on my parents,” is often quoted with a very bitter and mocking tone, implying that the whole idea of the wounded inner child is a joke in the hard science of psychology. Certainly, here in America in 2008 the focus appears to be more on medicine, morality and model behavior. It is sad indeed because I think there is something to this idea of the inner child. Often people become adults without growing up or growing beyond their childhood experiences. They model their parent’s behaviors and don’t change their views, not even if would benefit them or their children greatly.
This week I’ve read three books by the German psychologist Alice Miller. I might never have heard of her except when I typed in the key words “Nietzsche” and “child abuse,” her name popped up. I wanted to see if my hunch about Nietzsche was correct, and, according to Alice Miller, it was. I requested Miller’s books through interlibrary loan to read on this further.
Alice Miller explores Nietzsche’s childhood in her 1989 book, The Untouched Key. Nietzsche’s caring father died and he was left to be raised by his very pious Christian mother and two Aunts. They may not have beaten him, but they were very rigid and controlling. They expected the very sensitive little Fredrich to be a picture of perfection. His thoughts and feelings didn’t matter, only the appearance of an upstanding Christian citizen. He wasn’t allowed to be himself and that is mental abuse. Miller felt that Nietzsche’s philosophy was, in essence, a defense against Christianity and Morality, but he never dared attack the one person who forced these ideals down his throat. Nietzsche might have been healthier and not gone insane if he had dealt with his miserable childhood head on.
I am surprised Keith Ablow didn’t mention Alice Miller. If he did, it was in passing and I missed it. In any case, Miller is an advocate for Living the Truth. She is 100% against repression. Not only does she believe in tracing adult misery from childhood, she believes that forgiveness can be overrated. She calls forgiveness, “A quasi-religious ritual that cements guilt.” I agree with her to some degree, but not completely. I see how being forced to honor thy father and thy mother (as discussed in The Body Never Lies) can be detrimental. No one should be forced to do something they don’t want to do. Nor should they be asked to deny their own pain and anger in lue of supposedly doing the right thing. Sometimes the broken parent-child relationship cannot be fixed. Some things can’t be undone, not even with compassion and understanding.
I would add that compassion and understanding are important. I don’t think that they are worthless in the face of abuse. You can feel sorry for the abused parent and understand why they did what they did without trying to create the relationship that you never had. People can change, but they don’t very often. No child should feel guilty for not being able to tolerate their parents. It is quite healthy to keep your distance if the problems are unresolved. Distance doesn’t equal a damming attitude. Compassion can be exercised from a cool distance instead of a warm embrace. Just because you understand doesn’t mean you condone or deny those experiences in order to repair the damage done.
It took me a long time to come to that conclusion on my own.
Sadly, Psychology has been heavily influenced heavily by Christian morality. It doesn’t allow for alternative views or methods. Freud feels that the child is partly to blame because of their early desires. He creates an atmosphere of guilt for the abused child. Blaming the victim is common and modern psychology supports that original prejudice. Original sin, although rarely named, underscores our views and experiences. We are made to feel inadequate and imperfect by not only society, but our therapists. Alice Miller calls such problematic thinking “Poisonous Pedagogy.” It is taboo to be aware of our powerlessness. We dare not admit that society thrives on the war of wills.
The abused child must regain his or her sense of power and premature forgiveness keeps the child feeling helpless. Repression is a natural defense, but it must be overcome in order for the child to grow up and grow beyond their experiences. So long as the victim keeps seeking out victimizers, nothing will change. The only way to stop the repeating pattern is to deal with what has caused the initial sense of powerlessness. The cause is always rooted in childhood—somewhere.
That is not to say we should blame our parents entirely. No one is perfect and parents are bound to make mistakes. Pointing fingers and harboring grudges isn’t healthy though. Some mistakes can be overlooked or overcome, but no one should expect a child to be okay with grave physical or sexual abuse. A healthy relationship with your parents as an adult hinges on rather the damage was major or minor. Like any relationship, the parent-child relationship takes work. Sometimes it just isn’t worth the pain. Other times, an open dialogue will do the trick. Every person is different. The is no on template to preach by.
Alice Miller was hailed by some as revolutionary, but dissed by others as downright ridiculous. Some people thought who claims were merely common sense and added nothing new to the world of psychology. Others felt she wasn’t scientific enough in her hypothesis. Conservative and traditional people attacked her for being too soft and declared her silly. They stuck to their right to ridicule and abuse their children. Bible passages were misquoted to support a parent’s right to discipline. Plenty of people saw nothing wrong with how they were raised and how they were raising their children. The backlash against Miller and her supporters is why the “inner child” is often met with mockery rather than respect.
While genetics, brain chemistry, personality and personal choices all play a role in shaping how we function or dysfunction, parents cannot be let off the hook completely. Our parents created us, gave us life and were supposed to protect us. The problem lies within the balance of power. If a parent abuses their power, then they should be held accountable. We all have moments of selfishness, but it shouldn’t get in the way of protecting our children.
Violence begets violence. Compassion begets compassion. Your personal history may be likely to repeat itself, but you have the power to prevent it. Knowledge is power. Learn from your parent’s mistakes as well as your own. Don’t blame, but become a better person instead.