Healthy living means acknowledging our feelings but letting our values lead us
The “parts theory of personality” posits that there is no one unified “I” within us. It sees us as a collection of different parts. Individual theories offer different ideas of who these parts are, how many there are, and what their functions are, but almost all “parts theories” believe we have one or more inner child parts and one or more adult parts.
A couple of decades ago, it was common for the child parts to be idolized and prioritized. Statements like the following were a common outcome of therapy: “Therapy helped me realize I’ve never done anything for ME. My whole life has been of service to others. It’s my time now. I’ve told my husband he can raise the kids — I’m leaving. I need to find out who I am. I’m no good to anyone until I do that.”
This therapy client came away with the idea that her inner child had been unfairly suppressed by an oppressive home and/or culture. She set out to right the wrong by claiming her right to self-fulfillment and abandoning what she perceived to be her burdens and responsibilities. It was her “Me Time” now.
Because of therapeutic outcomes like this one, therapy was frowned upon by our rabbis not so long ago.
Similarly, it was only a few decades ago that living a life of “shoulds” was considered extremely unhealthy by the therapy world. “Don’t ‘should yourself,’” the therapist would tell his client. “You deserve to be free and happy.” According to this belief, the “shoulds” come from parents, teachers, and society and are imposed upon a victimized child part. “Follow your heart,” the healers would say. “Be true to yourself.”
The implied message was that authenticity is the prime virtue, and authenticity resides within the child ego state. If others have to suffer broken hearts and broken lives because of your authentic choices, so be it — a small price to pay for the opportunity to be true to your inner self.
Supremacy of Feelings
At that time, feelings — the domain of the inner child — were seen as the path to fulfillment, accomplishment, love, and happiness. They were thought to represent the untainted truth, the most honest expression of ourselves. “I don’t love you anymore,” everyone said to their spouses, speaking their honest feelings as they filled the divorce courts. There was an acknowledgment that we have feeling parts and thinking parts, emotional parts and value-laden parts, but primacy was given to feelings.
In part, this inner child adulation was a reaction to an earlier emotionally unsophisticated world where everyone lived only to fulfill their duties. If they had feelings, they didn’t show them. Happiness didn’t matter, sadness wasn’t acknowledged, anger and fear were to be suppressed. Indeed, the emotional part of a person was seen as the enemy, but of course, there was no escaping it. Unexpressed feelings rerouted into the body to become pain and disease.
It’s no wonder that the first step of recovery was to raise up the suppressed inner parts and dismiss their oppressors. It made sense that the child parts would need to be rescued, affirmed, and validated. It didn’t make sense, however, that they would be elevated to leaders within the personality. These parts are, after all, too young to navigate adult challenges.
Balance, Wisdom, and Torah
Feelings provide information and motivation, enrich our relationships and our life experience, and bring us closer to Hashem through love and awe. However, in order to live a good life — a life of meaning and purpose, value and worth — we have to make sure that the parts of us that think, plan, see consequences, uphold responsibilities, hold values, respect rules, and engage in other very adult tasks are assigned leadership roles. Inner child parts live for how the moment feels. They have no larger vision, no accountability. They aren’t old enough to lead the way.
This is why we’re so privileged to have direction from Above. The Torah is our trusted source of “shoulds” and “should nots,” our resource for values, responsibilities, and duties, our map and our guide for a healthy and successful life. While the world around us still often puts their child parts at the helm, we’ll never make that mistake. Our adult parts — those parts of ourselves closest to Hashem — will lead us to a life that not only feels good, but actually is good.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 840)
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