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Child Development

Child Self? Adult Self?--Who's Running the Show?

How to achieve a well-integrated self.

When the adult part of you is in charge, your thinking is governed not by emotion but reason. Your behaviors are prudent: assertive yet restrained. Your decisions thoughtful and deliberate. On the other hand, when your child self is running the show, the daily drama of your life plays out in markedly different fashion.

In this case, what you're likely to manifest are behaviors that are rash, ill-conceived, and predominantly in the service of immediate gratification. And the principles guiding your actions are rooted in personal experience up to (let's guesstimate) age 10. Holding sway over your not-very-rational decision making is an impulsivity that regularly threatens to embarrass, humiliate, or otherwise get you in trouble. And probably the most harmful consequence of your adult authority falling prey to your pleasure-seeking child self is the increased possibility of sliding into addictions. Addictions that can range from unhealthy, pathologically embroiled relationships, to excessive drinking and drugging, to unbridled binging, shopping, sexing, or gambling.

Clearly when the adult part of you capitulates--or "defaults"--to your more juvenile self, your life can be thrown seriously off balance.

In working with therapy clients over the past 30 years, I've come to see many (if not most) of their problems as reflecting unresolved childhood issues, which invariably compromise their adult functioning. Unless I'm able to assist them in confronting and finally resolving these enduring conflicts, they're simply unable in the here-and-now to live as contentedly, or effectively, as they yearn to--and are potentially capable of. In their heads (or hearts) they're still somewhere back in childhood. So they're in constant jeopardy of overreacting, or underreacting, to situations in the present. Because many of their actions are still ruled or regulated by out-of-date programming, under stress they're likely to employ tactics to handle their difficulties that are no longer appropriate. These relatively primitive strategies may have been necessary originally--given their limited coping resources back then. But now they're typically anything but helpful.

In this regard, much of my work as therapist has been to motivate such individuals to appreciate that their optimal functioning requires them both to recognize and overcome such childhood impulses, inclinations, and defenses. They need to grow more fully into their adult selves, tackling what they might earlier have felt compelled to evade. And they need to replace their earlier behaviors with more responsible ones (though, hopefully, without feeling overly deprived either).

Even though, initially, they may not feel sufficiently prepared to relinquish these no-longer-suitable behaviors, it's essential that they muster the inner strength to evolve beyond their child self. Simply put, their task is to integrate what, rationally, they now know about their adult capabilities with a lingering sense of fear, inadequacy, stubbornness, or defiance. And these feelings may be just some of the emotions that up to the present have led them to vacillate--self-defeatingly--between child and adult.

Unquestionably, embarking on such internal confrontation requires a good deal of courage. For individuals working on themselves must experiment with new behaviors that--to their "fixated" child self at least--may still feel undesirable, or simply beyond them. It hardly matters that their adult self may regard such behaviors as plainly beneficial, and that they do in fact possess the resources to implement them.

For instance, as an adult they might know perfectly well that it's detrimental to seek respite or escape from what's troubling them by smoking marijuana daily. If in fact that adult self were in charge, they might occasionally smoke marijuana when getting together with friends but (given all its associated risks) hardly permit themselves to become "attached" to it. But if their child self is running the show, they'll routinely be driven to choose this immediately pleasurable (or pain-reducing) outlet.

It can actually be quite useful to confront addicts about their chemical/psychological dependencies in just these terms. For if challenged, how many people would be comfortable declaring--not just to the other person but to themselves--that they'd prefer to live their lives in accordance with the dictates of their kid self?! Most individuals aren't very happy with themselves when they're obliged to consider the possibility that their lives have been mostly in the grip of an unruly 10-year-old.

Aware that they can begin to turn over executive control of their being to their more adult self, over time they're more likely to select feeling good about themselves over simply--and momentarily--feeling good (or less bad). In most things psychological, endeavoring to induce a state of well-being through chemical short-cuts doesn't really do the job, except temporarily. For what virtually all of us need is to feel that within ourselves as adults we have the resources to conquer adversity and lead joyful, satisfying lives.

Doubtless, it can be awfully tempting to do drugs--or any activity that helps us avoid common anxieties associated with being a full-fledged adult. After all, who wouldn't feel at least a little inclined to ingest something that simultaneously alleviates nervousness and induces feelings of euphoria--not to mention allowing us in our heads to return to the more carefree days of childhood? But if as an adult we're to develop ever-broadening feelings of confidence and self-respect, it's indisputable that much of the time we need to forgo what our kid self might prefer and adhere to the job at hand. We need, frankly, to recognize that acting like an adult is in many ways work--and that, rightfully, play comes after work (rather than being substituted for work).

It's in effectively applying ourselves to various developmental tasks that eventually enables us to achieve the positive self image we all crave. So if--unawares--we typically allow the child part of ourselves to take over, we blunt the personal growth that, in turn, would empower us to feel good about ourselves. Whether it's screaming at someone who's just offended us; gorging ourselves on a restaurant dish overloaded with fat, sodium, and sugar; or shirking a distasteful, but obligatory, work assignment, regularly yielding to childish impulses inevitably leads to lives full of frustration and discontent.

In an earlier two-part post, "Feeling Good Vs. Feeling Good About Ourselves," I went into considerable detail about how pursuing the former objective may immediately give us what we want but, sooner or later, will defeat us. On the other hand, acting so as to feel good about ourselves gives us what we really want: high self-regard and a deep appreciation, even love, for ourselves based on our demonstrated ability to refrain from impulsive or reactive behaviors. For these are just the behaviors that impede us from turning our dreams and aspirations into reality. Even if it's something as relatively uncomplicated as reaching our ideal weight, knowing that we were able to show enough self-discipline to transcend our raw appetites can't help but improve how we feel about ourselves.

Another post of mine, "From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing," clearly distinguishes between these two markedly different ways of taking care of ourselves. And once again, indulging ourselves--whether it's through playing video games for hours on end, or undertaking a shopping spree so extravagant as to almost guarantee breaking the bank--can be viewed as a flagrant expression of our child self.

On the contrary, self-nurturant behavior--consciously "executed" by our adult self--is something completely different. Here we're ensuring our vitality, health, and happiness by, for instance, eating foods that are at once tasty and good for us, exercising to the point that our body is fully energized and in top form, and cultivating relationships that stimulate, enrich, and fulfill us. Immediate gratifications are replaced with much longer-term satisfactions, and momentary excitement with far more enduring joys, comforts, and inner tranquility.

So ultimately there's not much of a question about what's better for you. If you want to avoid the negative, longer-term repercussions of being driven by your exclusively fun-loving, or anxiety-avoiding, child self, you simply have to embrace the various challenges--and sometimes, even ordeals--of being a competent, responsible adult.

Or, to put it somewhat differently, even as you're constantly searching for ways of allowing your child self to come out and play, the single best way to show your deepest caring for that child is through exerting greater self-control: The self-control necessary to accomplish what will make both the child and adult parts of you proud--proud of your now highly functioning, and at last well-integrated, self.

NOTE: If you know anyone who might possibly benefit from this post, kindly consider sharing it.

© 2011 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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