On my morning walk today, the goons and goblins were out in full glory, Halloween decorations fronting the lawns of my in-town neighborhood. One particular display caught my attention–four faux headstones fronted by skeletons rising up from the ground. One struck a chord. It read, “I’ll be back!”
Oh yeah, I thought, as I reflected on an issue that’s been haunting me for weeks, an emotional wound I buried in childhood, that for the most part, doesn’t wreak havoc on my life anymore. But despite my belief that I’d thoroughly exorcised this demon, come to find out, it still hadn’t vanished completely.
The haunting started a few months ago over a conflict with a friend. She was struggling with her own issue, and to be honest, I didn’t want to hear it. I knew I should be supportive and draw on my inner caregiver, but another part of me, a childish part, felt angry and resentful. I don’t want to help her! I don’t want to prioritize her needs when she’s not paying attention to mine.
I knew these childish thoughts and feelings oh so well. I’d been listening to my internal rants for years. They’d come and go, like ghosts in the night, most often when a friend or lover was caught up in him or herself and seemed indifferent to what was going on with me.
No more, I thought! I must assert my needs and wishes more often. I must stop reacting childishly and choose a different way. Yet despite my desire to do so, I felt fear within my bones. Would I be criticized? Rejected? Or worse yet, abandoned? Of course these weren’t my grown-up thoughts. They’re the thoughts of a vulnerable child. According to Hal and Sidra Stone, founders of the Voice Dialogue method, the vulnerable child within us embodies our sensitivity and fears. Its feelings are easily hurt and it generally lives in fear of abandonment.
Abandonment issues are exacerbated in homes where parents/caregivers were emotionally wounded themselves. Children, being exquisitely sensitive to their surroundings, sense their parents’ unmet needs and typically make a choice, albeit unconsciously, to subjugate their own desires and take on the caretaker role.
The late John Bradshaw, renowned for his books and PBS television programs, concluded that this process is the reversal of the natural order. In his book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, he wrote: The caretaker role is strangely paradoxical. In an attempt to secure parental love and avoid being abandoned, the child in fact is being abandoned. Since the child is there for the parent, there is no one to mirror the child’s feelings and drives and to nurture the child’s needs.
To break the spell, we must encounter our fears, both past and present, and face their causes courageously. It’s essential to take a step back, stop re-acting out of anger, and instead, tend to the vulnerable child within us with love and compassionate care. Only then will we see what’s lurking behind our walls of self-defensive. Only then will we be able to communicate our needs in an emotionally healthy way.
Tears will fall first, if we’re willing to feel them, as mourning is required to heal the haunting hurts of our childhoods. In addition, wrote Alice Miller, acclaimed psychotherapist and author of The Drama of the Gifted Child, we must speak out against our mistreatment, confronting our parents in an inner dialogue to discover and validate our real needs, past and present.
Now you may be thinking, “My parents didn’t mean to hurt me.” Of course they didn’t! They were doing the best they knew how. But that doesn’t mean that you and I didn’t endure significant losses, most especially the loss of being who we were meant to be: the loss of our true selves.
Facing the pain that we buried away not only liberates our true selves, but also releases our gentle spirit, the essence of a vulnerable child who knows how to care without caretaking, love without condition, and confront without controlling in order to feel safe. You see, this spirit knows that our vulnerable child is not the only one hiding in the darkness; it recognizes that our loved ones are hiding there too.
There’s so much more I could write about how our personal histories shape our present relationships, but it’s time to conclude with the words of a man whose own history is haunting, whose poetry is healing, and whose music forever lives in our souls…
A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself – and especially to feel, or not to feel. What you happen to be feeling at any moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to – letting a person be what s/he really is. Most people love you for who you pretend to be. To keep their love, you keep pretending – performing. You get to love your pretense. It’s true, we’re locked in an image, an act – and the sad thing is, people get so used to their image, they grow attached to their masks. They love their chains. They forget all about who they really are.
Rest in Peace, Jim Morrison. Rest in truth (even if it scares you) my dearest friends.