Some say we have an “inner child” — a part of ourselves that’s “emotional,” vulnerable, and open about its wants and needs. Lots of personal growth work is about accessing and nurturing this “inner child” part.
Personally, I’m not a fan of the term “inner child.” In our culture, it’s usually seen as a criticism to label someone or something a child. If I call you “childish” or “childlike,” I’m basically saying you’re weak, spoiled, selfish, irrational, and so on.
I think I’ve got a better name for this vulnerable, emotionally open part. I want to call it the “inner adult.” After all, doesn’t it take maturity and courage to step up and say what we’re feeling, and what we need and want?
I don’t know about you, but expressing desires and emotions can be scary for me. It can feel risky to tell someone that I want to spend time with them, that I’m angry with them, that I love them, or something along those lines. It took a lot of growth for me to get comfortable being that open.
Our Culture Has Adulthood Backwards
Of course, the conventional wisdom says the opposite. It seems the ideal adult, in our culture’s eyes, is emotionally closed, and never asks for anything. We’re supposed to be tough and self-sufficient, and “never let ‘em see us sweat.”
Self-development, from this point of view, isn’t about learning to express what we feel and want — it’s about acquiring money, credentials, and other stuff, so that we’ll become “important” and others will start giving us what we want even though we don’t ask for it.
Ironically, though, this “superman” or “superwoman” image is often just a manipulative strategy, developed in childhood, for getting our needs met. The idea is that, if we look invincible and “unemotional,” we’ll please our caregivers, and they’ll give us the love and attention we crave.
That invulnerable façade is really a ploy by a scared kid who fears that his parents will criticize him for expressing his needs, and thinks they’ll only care for him if he impresses them with his need-lessness.
It Takes Maturity To Be Vulnerable
What usually passes for “adulthood” today, I think, is really a deep-seated insecurity and immaturity. It’s the qualities we tend to see as “childlike” — openness, vulnerability and curiosity — that take real wisdom and maturity to develop.
To be clear, I don’t mean to say that, in order to grow, we should imitate children. We don’t need to throw tantrums or grab stuff we want from other people. One important distinction I think we come to see with age is the difference between telling someone what we want, and using force or acting out to get it. Children aren’t always aware of that distinction (though, of course, adults aren’t always either).
My point is that self-development, in many ways, is about unearthing the parts of ourselves we buried because we learned, as children, that they weren’t acceptable. A big part of “growing up,” I think, is rediscovering who we’ve always been.
In a few months, I’m starting a graduate program in psychology. I’m thrilled that this is finally coming together, and that I’m going to build new skills that will help me do my work.
When I considered writing about this, I noticed both a desire to share my excitement with the world, and a bit of anxiety about announcing my plans.
This didn’t make sense at first. Why would I feel reluctant to tell people about big news in my life?
After a little pondering, the reason became clear. If I told you I’m going to grad school, wouldn’t I be admitting that I still have more to learn? That I don’t “have all the answers”? And if I don’t have all the answers, why should people want to read what I write about personal development?
Do You Like “Answers” or Authenticity?
But then, a question occurred to me: what kind of writing do I like to read? Do I like articles that give me a list of 100 things I should do to succeed, be happy, or something else? Or do I prefer writers who are willing to let down their guard with me, and tell me what’s really going on with them?
It didn’t take a lot of reflection to answer this one. When another human being lets me really see them, in all their perfect imperfection, that’s a greater gift to me than all the “tips and tricks” out there put together.
And doesn’t it stand to reason, I thought, that if I like honest, vulnerable writing, other people might appreciate that too? I mean, I’m an unusual guy and all, but doesn’t it make sense that you and I might share some of the same tastes?
Giving Ourselves Permission To Be Human
At a deeper level, I’ve found that, when someone genuinely shares with me — particularly if what they share involves a “negative emotion,” an insecurity, or something like that — that actually helps me do my own “inner work.”
This is because, when they tell me about one of their foibles, quirks, or hangups, I feel a sense of permission to have my own hangups as well. I feel my own worries about looking imperfect melting away, and more compassion for myself and others.
This is why, recently, I’ve tended toward exploring issues that feel embarrassing or difficult in my writing. I’ve been doing this in the hope that, the more of my own truth I share, the more others will start feeling free to share their truth. (Not that I find going to grad school embarrassing — I think it’s pretty cool.)
The View From The High Horse
In keeping with this theme of honesty, I’m going to mount my high horse for a moment, and say I’d like to see the self-development blogosphere move in this direction too. I think we could all stand to give each other a little less advice, and offer a bit more of our personal experience. Nobody’s really “got all the answers,” and it would be a relief, at least for me, if we could just admit that to ourselves and each other.
Anyway, this has been my long-winded way of breaking the news that I’m going to grad school. :) I’m looking forward to more learning and growth, and to contributing to others’ growth in whatever ways I can.
After my last post, I thought of a few more things it’s helpful to consider when deciding whether to pursue a career that strongly interests us. Like I said before, I’m not specifically coming out for or against seeking the work you love — that’s a decision each person must make for themselves based on their own wants and needs. I’m pointing to questions it’s important to ask when making that choice.
Doing work we’re deeply engaged in usually goes hand in hand with being vulnerable — exposing parts of ourselves it feels risky to share. If you’re a blogger, I’ll bet you’ve experienced this sense of vulnerability when writing on something you strongly cared about. “Do I really want people to know I feel this way?” you may have found yourself asking.
Often, revealing these parts of ourselves feels risky because they’ve been criticized or ridiculed before, and they feel fragile. If you were told “no one thinks you’re funny” when you were little, allowing your sense of humor to emerge in something you’re writing is likely to feel unsafe. Someone might make a similar comment, and then you’d be forced to relive the pain of that old wound.
The Perks Of Disengaged Work
This points to a reason why many of us are doing jobs that don’t deeply engage us. In most jobs, we don’t need to bring out tender parts of ourselves to do our tasks. You don’t usually have to expose your sense of humor, your compassion, or some other vulnerable aspect of yourself to draft a PowerPoint, plug values into a spreadsheet, or review documents.
I know many people who prefer this approach to work. After all, they risk getting hurt enough in their personal relationships — why bring that vulnerability into what they do for a living? And it’s okay with them if working feels mechanical, because they find exciting things to do in their off hours. As the saying goes, they work to live — they don’t live to work.
Can You Separate “Work” From “Life”?
Although it’s easier in some ways to “work to live,” that approach, like anything, has drawbacks. For some of us, when we don’t bring all of ourselves to our work, we’re nagged by the worry that we aren’t giving our gifts to the world.
To take my earlier example, it’s true that, if you do work that doesn’t require you to express your sense of humor, you don’t take the risk that someone will criticize that part. But by locking that part away, you also keep people from enjoying it — you deny people a gift.
Also, the idea of “working to live” — disengaging from your work, but showing up fully in other activities — sounds good in theory, but the reality is messier. You can’t work for 8+ hours a day with a detached, emotionless attitude and expect that not to spill over into other parts of your life.
I know this from experience. I took pride in the work I did as a lawyer, but I wouldn’t exactly say my most vulnerable parts shone through in it. I spent my working days in a cool, rational headspace, which was ideal for what I did. The trouble was, I found myself, out of habit, slipping into this mindset with friends and loved ones — relating to them like they were colleagues or adversaries.
If you do something you really care about, you’ll almost certainly have to let others see parts of you that you normally keep under wraps. This involves a risk, but also a great reward, because offering all you have to give brings a feeling of aliveness that’s exhilarating.