Your Most Important Relationship Is Between Your Inner-Parent and Inner-Child

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.
Jul 2 · 5 min read
Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

My wife, Cindy, has taken part in many sharing circles. A sharing circle usually consists of one person talking about whatever they want while the others listen, don’t interrupt, and attempt to hold the one who is sharing with unconditional positive regard. In twelve-step groups, like AA, Al-Anon, and ACA, the rules are explicit about there being “no cross-talking” allowed. No cross-talking means that when one person is communicating, the others don’t.

Cindy has extensive experience in a slightly different approach called Circling. In Circling, crosstalk is allowed, but any communication is witnessed by the whole group and the group is tasked with holding the container. If one person is sharing and another starts to attack or shame them, then the other members of the group will intervene. However, In Circling one member of the group will usually take the facilitator role. Cindy often takes this role because she’s a trained and experienced Circling facilitator, trains others in Circling facilitation, and is also trainer of trainers. She’s facilitated the Circling train-the-trainer (T3) course at Integral Centered.

I’m about to describe a challenge that Cindy recently faced, and it might be surprising after what I just wrote above, but I think it shows that we can all struggle, given the right circumstances.

Cindy was taking part in another kind of sharing circle in which she was faced with negative regard while she was sharing. As she attempted to reveal what was truly happening for her, two women who apparently had decided that they don’t like Cindy started sneering and rolling their eyes at her. While others in the circle must have witnessed the behavior, nobody spoke up and addressed it. Cindy herself did not say anything, but simply continued to persist with her share. In that kind of environment, continuing to be vulnerable is self-destructive.

When I heard about this, I felt a lot of anger. Both Cindy and I had plowed so much time and effort into this particular group only for Cindy to then be treated with contempt. This sneering and eye-rolling was just a part of a larger pattern of bullying by these two women.

After a lot of time spent listening to, comforting, and reassuring Cindy, I imagined being in that situation myself and I told Cindy how I imagined that I would have responded. Shortly after the sneering and eye-rolling started, I would have said, “Okay, I’m going to stop sharing right now because there is something more important going on.”

I would have looked around the group and asked, “Who else is seeing what I’m seeing with these two?” Since there were some people who could not see these two women’s faces, because they were sitting behind them, I might have added, “You guys can’t possibly see what I’m seeing. These two seem to be sneering and rolling their eyes at me.”

Then I would have addressed them directly, “I know that this is supposed to be my time to share, but it seems that you two are needing to share something more urgently right now. Since that was getting in the way of my sharing, I think it would be best for me, for you, and for the group if you can get it off your chests. What’s going on?”

I then realized that what I was describing is the ability to take care of and to validate my own inner-child. The child part that is speaking in the circle has an accompanying adult part that protects the safe space for my child part, and for the child part in others. It’s taken decades of therapy, meditation, and purposeful practice to be able to self-advocate like this. While my example was only hypothetical in this instance, I have experienced this effective self-advocacy in action.

Even though Cindy is great at holding space for others, holding their inner-children with unconditional positive regard, in situations like I described above she struggles with self-advocacy. As a tuning fork will vibrate when in the presence of sound near its resonant frequency, her internalized self-critical parent comes alive when in the presence of similar sentiment being directed at her. Then she goes into a shame spiral, thinking I’m bad, I did something wrong, or I deserve this. The reality is that she did nothing wrong apart from trusting the wrong people to take care of her. She has only ever been kind and giving to these people; she has gone out of her way to protect them and to take care of them.

So why do bullies pick on certain people and not others? I hypothesize that they sense, or discover, that some people will not advocate for themselves and will not fight back. Then, these people who lack self-awareness and are riddled with negative self-talk are able to feel a momentary sense of control and relief by projecting the parts of themselves that they reject onto the other and then shaming them.

The is the archetype of the scapegoat (from the Hebrew: עזאזל). The tribe symbolically imbues an innocent goat with their perceived sins before ritually killing it, hoping that this will, finally, rid them of the aspects of themselves that they will not face and integrate. But this never works; it only deepens the denial and delusion that underlie the problem. By the way, Jesus of Nazareth was literally a human scapegoat.

After all the work I have done on myself, and with clients, it has recently been abundantly clear that recovery and integration is not about just discovering the inner-child. The inner-child is usually staring us in the face all the time. The inner-child is what we usually label as the problem, in ourselves and in others. The real work of growing up and differentiating from our families of origin is the internalization of a more adaptive and unconditionally positively regarding parent, a parent that welcomes and validates whatever the child-essence is presenting, whether that is loneliness, sadness, shame, fear, anger, happiness, contentment, or excitement. The real depth work is developing an adaptive relationship between these inner parts, led by the parent part and informed by the child part.

The same self-advocating adult part that provides validation and support internally ushers us through life, placing us in situations where our inner-child, our essence, is most valued and appreciated. The healthy inner-adult will also calmly and confidently erect healthy boundaries against those who would otherwise violate us.

I have been modeling some of this healthy parenting for Cindy and she has been utilizing and internalizing it. She also does the same for me. This is the opportunity that intimate relationship presents. Ideally, each partner can fill-in for the other’s parenting gaps. When one person is struggling to self-parent, the other can demonstrate a more adaptive approach.

My assignment for you now is to notice the quality of the relationship between your inner-child and inner-adult. How conflicted or how harmonious is it?

Duncan Riach, Ph.D.

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An engineer-psychologist focused on machine intelligence. I write from my own experience to support others in living more fulfilling lives | duncanriach.com