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Psychological Healing
in the Catholic Mystic Tradition

Questions and Answers

I have been a Christian (now Catholic) for about 15 years and have experienced a lot of emotional healing compared to where I was before, which was a deeply unhappy almost-alcoholic with a history of disastrous relationships. Today I am a lot better after many years of prayer and seeking God, but I still carry substantial emotional pain and I am hoping for a breakthrough.
      My family was not Christian and was very dysfunctional, which had been passed down the generations. My parents were narcissistic, emotionally abusive and neglectful and sometimes physically abusive. They had few friends or family so I had little support from adults and so was very isolated and unhappy as a child. I left home with no ability to discern my own emotions, other than intense rage/pain when it surfaced, or to have closeness with people, and I had successive brief romantic relationships that were incredibly painful when they ended. I find attachment theory helpful to understand my issues—I am both very anxious to have an attachment and am avoidant of attachment: a “fearful avoidant”, which is a pretty miserable place to be.
      Through much painful work I have dug down and exposed intense hatred, anger, rage and wishes for revenge towards my parents. I have tried to express this in writing and in prayer and I think it has lessened, but it is still there. My feelings of intense pain at abandonment and rejection come up whenever I am in a romantic relationship.
      I know I have deep and intense longings for love—for attention, for positive regard, for time, for physical affection, that have existed since I was a child. This can make me needy and tearful in a relationship and ultimately selfish—God has been showing me the difference between this and real love. And yet I still have that need, and it often overrides my behaviour and good intentions, as it is powerful and overwhelming.
      Sometimes I connect with God’s love and it is a blessed relief. Yet somehow it doesn’t stop me getting into relationships with very avoidant or narcissistic men who are neglectful and abusive. In the last one, it was obvious that he was not capable of being kind, caring or supportive, he even warned me of this, but I was so attracted to him that I went on regardless, and unsurprisingly it has ended with a lot of pain. I am very tired of being lonely and really want to heal further.

Outline of the Answer
• Something Missing
• The Problem with Romantic Relationships
• As a Child Sees Things
• The Fullness of Healing

 
Gou have done good work in trying to face the emotional wounds inflicted by your parents. Yet, like many people, you have encountered the fact that something is still missing in the healing work. Nevertheless, even though it has been missing, your description of things has pointed to it; that is, because the problem has “existed since I was a child,” the solution to the problem requires thinking like a child rather than as an adult. Thus what has been missing in your healing journey so far is your ability to see things as a child sees them, with imagination and awe, rather than make constant attempts as an adult to solve the problem with adult methods of logic, reason, and control.

 
The Problem with Romantic Relationships

Consider, then, that romantic relationships are really just an adult method to try to acquire the experience of being given the attention, positive regard, time, and physical affection that you as a child needed from your parents. Furthermore, because your parents were abusive, you unconsciously have been seeking relationships with which you are familiar: abusive relationships. Following the path with which we are accustomed is a common human tendency; in some cases it can work well, as in following the same route when traveling from one destination to another or in following the same routine when doing chores. In cases of psychology, however, the tendency to follow the path to which one is accustomed can be a stifling impediment that leads to disaster. For example, someone might constantly get angry when encountering a frustrating obstacle, rather than surrender to God and ask for help in enduring and solving the problem; or, someone might constantly seek comfort and companionship from an abusive person when feeling the distress of being alone, rather than seek prayerful connection to God. Such tendencies are behavioral patterns that easily lead to psychological dysfunction.

 
As a Child Sees Things

Therefore, at this point let’s look at things as a child sees them. A child will see only the aching need for something, the fear of not having it, and the desperation to get it. In this desperation the child will not consider danger because the child cannot comprehend danger. Essentially the child will run—often recklessly—to whomever or whatever holds out the promise of attention, positive regard, time, and physical affection. This is why a child will get into a car with a complete stranger who offers candy. The (seeming) promise of a “friend” will override all prudence. If you can understand this tendency of a child to run to a “friend,” then you can understand your adult behavior. You run to men, especially abusive men, because a child part of you sees only the hope of a “friend.” It’s the child part of you, not your adult reasoning, that gets you into trouble. When led by the child’s desperation, you would likely jump into bed with the devil himself if he smiled at you.

So let’s say that again: When led by the child’s desperation, you would likely jump into bed with the devil himself if he smiled at you.

  
The Fullness of Healing

Consequently, for the fullness of your healing it will be necessary to consider what has been missing so far: your ability to consider the child’s fear and desperation while also providing parental guidance to that child. It may sound odd, but for you to heal from the wounds afflicted on you by your parents it will be necessary for you to learn how to be a parent to your own inner child.[1] When the child gets fearful and desperate, you can say to the child, “I understand how much you want a friend. I understand that you are afraid, and  this person who seems to be a friend is really dangerous for us, so I won’t allow us to get involved with him. Instead, I will show you where there is real friendship: in God’s love.”

Hence, the task of healing is to face and accept the emotional pain of your childhood. The lack of attention, positive regard, time, and physical affection were constant painful wounds of your childhood that you suppressed with your desperation to find acceptance from others. Essentially, you grew into adulthood while leaving the wounded child locked in an emotional prison and languishing in torment. If you listen to her now and accept her, she will be freed from her prison and will start to grow. She won’t grow up as an actual child grows up, but she will grow up into a contented child part of you who, with childlike wonder and delight (rather than with anguish and distress), will share all of your adult activities and relationships with you.

So, rather than your trying to connect with God’s love as an adult still separated from your childhood pain, listen to the child within you, allow the child to cry, and then show the child how to pray with you. Be a parent to her. Teach her and show her how to connect with God’s love just as a good parent would teach an actual child.

 
Attending to the Child Ego State

Below are some suggestions for making and maintaining communication with an ego state. In all things, let the children know that you are not afraid of them and that you will not reject them.

Prayer. As with all life changes, start the change by praying for it, because if you really want something, you will be asking for it constantly. So pray daily for the courage to face the child part’s pain and listen to it.

There can be several ego states in a person. The most common ego state is the little child who holds early childhood emotional pain, but also common is a teenage ego state who holds the frustration and rebelliousness of trying to find a place in the world. There can also be ego states that derive from associations with family members as well as other influential persons in your life. In short, getting to know yourself really is a matter of getting to know the truth of your personal history.

Be careful not to identify with the child’s feelings. Whenever you listen to the child part or just feel the child’s pain, remember that the child part is a part of you and not the entirety of your being. It’s somewhat like using a computer: you may be using a word processor application, but it is not the only application on the computer; if you make the window smaller, you can see that other applications are available. Thus, however intense the child part’s pain may be, it belongs to the child, not to all of you; that is, the pain of the child part is just one “window” of your entire being. The child part is depressed, not all of you; the child part is angry, not all of you. If you keep this is mind, you will be able to listen to the pain of the child part, but you can receive it and understand it with an adult wisdom, especially the wisdom that comes from the Catholic faith. Then you can say things such as, “Yes, it hurts, and it seems overwhelming. Yet you don’t have to be afraid. Together we can get through this. I can guide you and protect you as you heal from your pain.”

Teach self-discipline. In dysfunctional families, parents will commonly manipulate a child with bribery; that is, in order to keep a child quiet, they will give the child material things that the child has not earned through personal effort. The psychological result of this bribery is that the child will not learn the discipline necessary to set goals and work to achieve them. As an adult, such a person will often encounter opposition to productive work, to household cleaning, to using restraint with such things as food, alcohol, and caffeine, and to avoiding harmful things such as tobacco and drugs. The child part will demand, “I want what I want and I want it now!” It will yell, “No! Don’t tell me to wash the dishes!” Or, “I want chocolate cake [or a cigarette or a glass of wine or marijuana]! Don’t tell me I can’t have it!” Or, “I need pornography and masturbation! They’re my friends! You can’t deny them to me!” Now, the problem here is that if you give in to the demands of the child part, you will be inflicting onto yourself the same damage that your parents inflicted on you: a failure to teach self-discipline. Thus it will be important for you, as a gift of love, to teach the child part two aspects of self-discipline. First, that some things (such as overeating, tobacco, drugs, and masturbation) are wrong and for psychological and spiritual health must be avoided. Second, that care of the self and the environment are necessary for psychological and spiritual health and can be accomplished with goal setting and reward; that is, “If we can clean the house and finish the business project, then we can [do something fun].”

Memories of the past. In everything you do, there will be memories of the past connected with current activities. Note that these memories have two aspects: an innocent suffering in silence, which characterizes early childhood, and a learned angry reaction to injustice, which characterizes later childhood. Therefore, when these memories come to mind, it will be important for the wise, adult part of you to say to the child ego state, “Go ahead, let your tears speak. In the past, you were frightened, alone, and helpless. But I am with you now, and I will show you how to get through the pain without falling into anger and revenge.”

Writing. You can use writing to get to know the child part. It’s best to use handwriting, as in a journal, rather than a computer. First write a question to the child part. Then relax, prayerfully calm your mind, and allow the child to speak through writing. As you get accustomed to the procedure, you can communicate with the child part on a regular basis; use this procedure to allow the child part to tell the story of the past and speak about emotional experiences, both about the past and about all things in the present.

Meditation. In addition to writing, you can communicate with the child part in meditation. This is an imaginative process whereby you sit quietly, enter a prayerful, relaxed state of mind, and visualize scenarios in which you interact with the child part. In this process you can learn from the child, and the child can learn from you.

Daily events. Important characteristics of a child are a sense of awe and wonder as well as a sense of fear and confusion. So in all the things that you do on a daily basis, be aware of the child part’s perceptions. You might be walking to get somewhere, but the child might notice a butterfly on the flowers. You might be praying the Rosary, but the child might be more interested in playing with the beads. You might have to do work, and the child might feel bored and want to play. You might have to go out at night, and it may not cause any distress to you, but the child might be frightened of the dark. You might have to provide a service to someone that is simply mundane, but the teenage part might feel oppressed by authority. It can go on and on. The basic idea is to be always aware of other ego states, rather than be preoccupied only with your adult conscious thoughts. And then, go beyond simple awareness: learn to be curious about the child part’s perceptions and “talk” about them as an aspect of understanding, guidance, and protection.

Pay attention to your dreams. When reviewing any dreams that you remember, keep in mind that all the various characters in a dream can refer to parts of yourself. Thus if you dream of children, it could be telling you something about the child parts of you. Be curious about that, and be willing to talk about it with the child parts.

 

Who wrote this web page?
 

Notes.

1. This term “inner child,” though often a cliché in modern psychology, is technically called an ego state. See my webpage about Personality and Its Disorders for an explanation of this term.

 


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