We are born our true selves, the unique, precious person we are meant to be. As infants and young children we do not know this. We need others, specifically our parents, to reflect to us our beauty and goodness. We need them to love and affirm us in a way that, over time, we begin to absorb the message and it becomes our permanent experience, “Yes, I am valued, unconditionally regarded in my uniqueness.”
Because of their limitedness and imperfection, and at most times without conscious intention, this reflection of the beauty of our unique true self does not happen or happens only partially. To the extent that it does not happen, we are wounded, the wound taking the form of emotional pain that we carry and which festers within us, secretly influencing our ways of relating and being towards others and precipitating compensatory patterns of behaviour that hinder our freedom to grow in our ability to love ourselves and others.
No one is immune from this woundedness as no one has perfect parents. None of us have had the experience of having our unique beauty and goodness reflected back to us to a full extent. Contemplating this can be difficult in the sense that it can evoke areas of sensitivities in both the adult-child and the parents. How do we sit with this reality that we are, over generations, impacting on one another, in ways that contribute to our woundedness? In it being unavoidable and beyond our ability to control or remedy, can we be okay in acknowledging this, and embrace our human condition.
The wounded child within
So even though we might not be consciously aware of it, we are all wounded. Figuratively speaking, we carry a wounded child within us in the form of an emotional memory of how we experienced life in our childhood. This memory is recalled and the accompanying emotions felt when we, in the present, experience others relating to us in ways that remotely resemble our experience in our first relationships, that is, with our primary caregivers.
We spend our lives trying to ignore that inner child because the emotions that he carries are uncomfortable and painful. However, the cost of disowning him is high. Firstly, the wounded child within is our true self. Ignoring and disowning him prevents us from becoming more and more our unique true selves. Secondly, as adults we have developed ways of both limiting our consciousness of that wounded child within and behaving as though we are not vulnerable and broken. These habitual ways of avoiding our pain can take the form of compensatory patterns of behaviour that are detrimental to our growth and limit our ability to relate to others in a loving way.
Understanding our woundedness
Infants, when they enter this world are programmed for love. They are solely dependent on their parents or significant others to supply that love. In one sense we could say that they are ultra-sensitive to the nuances of love or lack thereof. Each day, they are recording within themselves their experience of love. The language of that recording is emotions. For example, if they are ignored, disregarded, experience themselves as a burden, they will feel about that. If they experience their emotional state as being unimportant or minimized by others, they will feel the emotions that go with that experience of feeling insignificant and not valued. If they experience the need to be loved by their mother or father at any given time, and can’t have this need fulfilled, they will feel about that. If they experience being abandoned physically and emotionally, they will feel the emotions that are congruent with that experience. Conversely, if they experience themselves as valued and regarded, with their need to be loved prioritized above anything else, they will feel the feelings that accompany that experience. This congruence between experience and felt emotion ought not to surprise us. This is common for adults too.
We only have to hear adults share about their personal experience of divorce or separation, or the loss of a loved one to be in touch with the child’s emotions in those experiences of emotional and physical abandonment. Those that have been through these experiences in adulthood will testify to the intensity of the emotional pain. Why would it be any different for a child? Even more so, with their cognitive faculty yet to develop, they can’t reflect upon and evaluate a situation and grow in understanding as to why things are the way they are in their home environment. They can’t look for more complex or deeper meanings. They absorb everything at face value, respond to everything emotionally, and begin to build within themselves a memory of their first experience of the world and people; their first experience of love.
The interplay between needs and emotions
We come into this world, with three predominant instinctual needs – a need for security (survival), affection (esteem), and power (control). For the child to have a permanent and deep sense of their goodness and value, these needs need to be fulfilled optimally. The child, being helpless and vulnerable, cannot fulfill these needs separate from or outside their relationship with their primary caregivers. In this sense, we can also call them dependency needs. The child depends on the significant others around him to fulfill these needs. These needs overlap and are entwined with one another, collectively describing the quality of love that the young child needs in order to experience a deep, permanent sense of self-worth.
The need for security encompasses the need for a stable, predictable environment, one in which there is constant others; significant others that are tuned in and focused on the child. The child feels safe and secure when the parents do not expose him to situations that are developmentally inappropriate for him. Given their sense of his vulnerability as a child they know that specific situations would be over extending him emotionally. We can imagine the child verbalizing, “How I feel is important to others. I can trust my feelings. I can indicate how I feel in a situation and significant others will listen and regard me.”
If this need for security is not sufficiently fulfilled, if day to day life in his environment is characterized by others being oblivious of his needs and his vulnerability, or others being preoccupied with their own needs and activities, he will feel emotions in response to that experience. The specific emotions could be fear, insecurity, tentativeness, uncertainty, anxiety.
Considering the need for control, it is the child’s need to shape the responses to him, to feel empowered in determining the quality of response to him, not because of what he has done but just because of who he is in his being. Can we try to get in touch with the child’s experience and imagine his inner thoughts if he had the ability to reflect, “I am a precious, valued and regarded. Even though I can’t put my own needs forward, because I can’t verbalise them, I don’t need this ability because everyone around me is respectful and considerate of my needs. I have influence and control over my environment simply because I am.”
If this need for control is not sufficiently fulfilled, the emotional response for the child will be one of anger. He will try to express his anger through screaming and crying, but if his feelings are not regarded and nothing changes, his emotion is repressed, and a feeling of helplessness and/or depression can ensue.
The need for esteem embraces the other two needs. A child is born with the capacity to receive love, and the need to be esteemed, to have his goodness affirmed. He might describe his experience as such: “I experience others attending to me, loving me unconditionally, affectionately nurturing me in my unique beauty and my goodness is validated.” If this need is not met, if the child only experiences attention and care when the significant others feel like attending to him, the child will experience the emotion of sadness and grief. However, in this pre-verbal stage of development, the young child can only communicate his feelings by crying. “I am distressed. I don’t why. This big world into which I have come doesn’t feel so comfortable for me.” The degree of comforting and nurturance that he experiences helps to consolidate an inner experience of being precious and valued, worthy of being focused on, worthy of taking up time, reinforcing a deep sense of being regarded in his being.