“Having pure intentions, steadfast goals, and an unwillingness to consider that you might be wrong is the formula for some of the worst evils mankind has ever wrought...” —Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty
Young children often have complete certainty that they are right, and no amount of logic or sharing other perspectives can convince them to even consider a different view. They can be exceedingly reactive to even small slights, loath to admit mistakes, unwilling to listen to anything that contradicts their feelings, and convinced that anyone they dislike is a very bad person.
Growing up is a complex process of transforming from being certain that one’s emotional world is at the center of the universe to creating a network of relationships; from being unrestrainedly emotionally reactive to being capable of critical thought and proactive engagement; from being a person who needs constant care to being empowered to operate in the world competently, and care for not only oneself, but others. Maturation also includes learning to recognize how our actions can provoke unintended reactions, and that reactions (not only others’, but also our own) can be outsized for perceived offenses.
In the last half-century, American culture has suffered from an increasing tension between the competing psychologies of victimhood and empowerment. Given our unique history, our sometimes caricatured “rugged individualist” ideal, and our cutting-edge behavioral science, American culture in the 21st century should be one of empowerment – particularly on college campuses where the latest findings in the sciences are quickly disseminated. But despite tremendous progress toward social equality, we’re caught in the grips of a kind of perverse, adaptation of umbrage. It now takes smaller and smaller slights to provoke the extreme indignation that was once reserved for the truly reprehensible – culminating in “micro” offenses eliciting monumental outrage.[i] We are midwives at the birth of what sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning call victimhood culture.[ii]
Victimhood And The Inner Child
In the 1980s and ’90s the “inner child” was a popular psychological construct. It was proclaimed that each of us spends most of our time as a “false,” “inauthentic” or “co-dependent” self, rather than as the “inner child” (the true self). At our core, the proposition asserted, we are all traumatized children, forced to hide from our abusive parents, our “critical inner parents” or both. In becoming adults, according to the theory, we somehow lose the ability to act in ways in which our true nature – our child-nature – intended for us to act. We no longer have access to that beautiful, unspoiled, creative force (the inner child) who, “dwells at the core of our being.”[iii] We become (gasp) “predictable adults.”[iv] Psychotherapists and laymen alike seemed to accept this proposition uncritically, and the movement gained momentum.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines a child as “an immature person.” When we experience distress or discomfort, it often seems easier to operate in a childish way than to call on our adult selves. But by operating from the place of a child we deny ourselves the sense of pride we can take in mature growth and development, and we miss out on the sense of achievement we find when we overcome obstacles and reach goals. Pop-psychology’s Inner Child phenomenon robbed adults of the joys of emotional adulthood, and instead kept them planted firmly in perpetual psychological childhood.
However, once we are adults, our inner, “True Selves” must be adults if we are to reach our potential in the real world. When we understand the value of maturity, we can benefit from recognizing the opportunities for growth and development throughout the many stages and challenges of adulthood. If the latter part of the 20th century was the era of the Inner Child, I propose that the 21st century be the era of the Inner Adult.
Parenting Your Inner Child
We each have an “Inner Adult”––the part of us that is ultimately competent, successful, strong, alive and fulfilled. Once we are chronologically adults, this is our Real Self––who we truly are. Using illiberal postmodern mental gymnastics (such as what we’ve seen at some elite liberal arts colleges), we can learn to ignore, stifle or deny our Inner Adult. When this vital part of ourselves is not honored, a fragile, disempowered self emerges that can often feel victimized and exploited rather than competent and purposeful. This “false self” avoids taking ownership of actions. When we make mistakes, this false self blames others, blames circumstances—it finds some way to feel victimized and avoid accountability.
Huge elephants become docile by being firmly chained when they are too small to break away from their shackles. Psychologist Martin Seligman found that in the same way, without enough experience overcoming obstacles, people can become pessimistic, perpetual “victims.” They feel disempowered, believing that the world acts on them rather than experiencing the reverse. Conversely, optimists are people who have learned to view problems as temporary setbacks, and routinely take steps empower themselves and create solutions.
The Inner Child is the eternal “victim” who feels incapable of even confronting problems. The best the Inner Child can do is appeal to a parental figure to make things better. But as the late Rev. Peter Gomes used to say, “There is no such thing as an easy, fast, or cheap solution to any problem worthy of being called a problem.”[v] And the Inner Adult, on the other hand, takes on the challenges of finding solutions by owning the problems. With the help of your Inner Adult, even problems worthy of being called problems do not dehumanize or invalidate you.
If you are capable of looking at problems as temporary obstacles that you, yourself, can overcome, your Inner Adult will not be hard to find. If, on the other hand, you prefer to play the blame-game, it may be time to help your Inner Child grow up.
[ii] Campbell, B., & Manning, J. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative sociology, 13, 692-726
[iii] Capacchione, L. (1991). Recovery of Your Inner Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[iv] Capacchione, L. (1991). Recovery of Your Inner Child. New York: Simon & Schuster.
[v] Reverend Peter Gomes, addressing the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival 2008