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“Feeling Aliveness” Through Our Body and Soul

Helping Kids Retain Their True Self

British child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott deepened our understanding of the struggle for authenticity by explaining the significance of a child’s bodily communication as an expression of his true self. Far from something confined within the mind, Winnicott’s notion of the true self relates to the very functioning of the infant body, which expresses a baby’s natural inclination. The psychoanalyst observed that the parent’s response to her child’s need for engagement, expressed by the cries and behaviors that are his primary means of communication, has a deep impact on the development of the child’s true self. According to Winnicott, the questions we must ask are: do we recognize, engage, and support the actions of our children, or do we oppose them? Do we acknowledge their personal efforts to connect and express their needs, or do we respond to them only in some adult, generic, socialized manner? Do we reconstruct, redirect, or replace their authentic actions and voice? Winnicott emphasizes that a child’s behaviors, cries, wiggles, testing out body parts, reveals his true self. The caretaker can either affirm, support, and encourage this identity, or destroy it by denigrating, ignoring, or outright rejecting it. The adult’s reaction to the child’s attempts at self-expression is, therefore, critical to the development of the child’s sense of himself in the world.

Winnicott observes that emphasis of conformity and intellectualization develop the false self. Through his induction into a world that rewards people for compliant behavior, the child begins to suppress emotion, intellectualize, and rationalize wounds suffered by his true self as a result of his conformity to expectation. So, for example, if the child’s formative experiences suggest that his behavior conflicts with the behavior of others, the child will deduce that something is “bad” or wrong with him. This intellectualization ultimately “seduces” the psyche away from its intimate relationship with the soma, creating a mind-body divide. Compliance with social forces that suppresses emotional, physical, and sexual expression leads to the individual’s alienation from his own inner qualities, emotions, and desires. People become removed from the actions of life and engage instead in the world of ideas that are disconnected from experience. The effects of that initial split are ongoing and far-reaching. We talk about living rather than actually living; our religions and beliefs may teach goodness and life, but these are not part of genuine experience.

Some of the most pleasant exchanges I shared with my infant children occurred when we played our own simple version of “follow the leader,” each having a moment to lead. As we lay together on the floor or in bed, I would gently mimic their gestures and sounds. During these moments, they were the center of my universe, and their delighted responses assured me that they knew this. Child’s play is serious work indeed. Our attunement to our children helps them to feel recognized and valued. Attunement is our primary attentiveness to another; it evokes mutual awareness, harmony, and responsiveness. By communicating to our children, expressing attentiveness and reaffirming their self-expression, we produce mutual feelings of connection. And when doing this, no one can tell whether it’s the adult or child who is enjoying the exchange more. Contrast with this, then, the relationships established by parents who perceive their child as a possession rather than a person, an object, plaything, or treasure they must isolate, protect, or control.

Winnicott’s true self affirms a fundamental axiom: that the whole person is an intricate combination of the body, mind, and soul. Initially, before we have verbal language and other tools, we may express our self fundamentally through our body; yet these expressions have a lasting effect on development of our emotional qualities of self and soul.

Winnicott explains that when the child’s true self, the expression of his genuine inclination by means of his physical being, is disturbed or frustrated by the imposition of the adult’s will, the infant subordinates his needs to those of the caretaker. While this, at times, may seem to exemplify every parent’s fantasy and delight, it does not support the child’s adjustment to the world as a separate being. Winnicott argues convincingly that when children abandon their natural inclinations in order to follow after their parents, the rewards they receive only nurture their false self. In this way, the false self (pretension) dominates the true self.

Both as an infant and further on in life, when a child cannot get what he genuinely needs, he will take whatever he can in its place. We observe such compromise and reductionism in adolescents’ compliance with social pressure regarding the word “love,” which some understand as mere physical, sexual pleasure. Although an adolescent may desire a deeper union and connection, many may not feel prepared to express more than their basic physical needs in order to comply with a peer-supported notion of love. By contrast, with possession of the true self, the child feels greater self-assurance and probably less readily subjugates his or her own genuine choice. Winnicott, of course, does not assert that compliance is necessarily a bad thing; rather, within the healthy expression of the true self, compliance is an element of conformity. Nonetheless, the point remains that in order to strengthen the child’s authentic self, the parents must respond in ways that acknowledge and affirm the infant’s/child’s bodily, authentic communication—his or her message.

While only some of us are parents, all of us are former children, and can reflect on how our parent’s resolution of these concerns affected us. The balance we seek cannot be found in the extremes of either conformity or rebellion. Many people had “warned” me to “enjoy” my children while they were young, “because once they’re teenagers, it’s all over.” Putting aside the natural angst of adolescence, we must remember that “every action creates an equal or opposite reaction;” if children are essentially controlled or squashed by their parents, whether consciously or not, it follows that as teenagers and adults their character may be reactionary, suppressed, or damaged. Acceptance and support throughout a child’s life, from playpen to adolescence, produces authentic lives rather than the disturbing reactions of control and unilateral dictates.

As parents, we must encourage our children’s awareness of and comfort with their body, as they begin to integrate it with their mind and soul, and we also must be sensitive to the complex and various ways in which each child experiences this process. This is a lesson I adapted to the temperaments of each of my children. Throughout their infancy, I engaged on their terms, in play that they created and shaped, beginning in infancy as stretching and tickling, mimicking, and tactile fun and, by age two, balancing on my hand, standing in trust, straight up in the air. Such trust is the basis for lifelong bonds that shape space for understanding and creating their unique worlds to which we as parents can be honored visitors.

John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com, https://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban.

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