A House Divided: The Persona, Inner Child & Shadow
We were born whole, ready to be our authentic selves and give our all to life. Inevitably, the development of our true selves was interrupted and redirected. We were domesticated by family, teachers, peers, and society. If we’re lucky, and many of us are, something happens to shake us awake, and we realize that we’ve fragmented and abandoned our authentic selves to fit in. This can feel painful, demoralizing, and depressing. It makes some of us weep while others feel enraged. It’s a tremendous opportunity to reclaim wholeness.
As we fragmented ourselves to survive, many aspects were formed. They are all valuable, important, and worthy of inclusion. Think of a 1000-piece puzzle or a family within. Every piece and every person is integral to being whole.
“Most of our tensions and frustrations stem from compulsive needs to act the role of someone we are not.” —János (Hans) Selye, M.D., The Stress of Life
Well-meaning (and other) people taught us who to be and how we should think and behave. They taught us to suppress the emotions, desires, behaviors, and qualities they didn’t want us to have or develop. Through their approval and disapproval, we each created a persona that helped us gain acceptance and reduced rejection and criticism. This is the version of ourselves that we present to the world–the mask we wear.
“Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, only coping mechanisms a person acquired in childhood.”― Gabor Maté, When the Body Says No
The Inner Child
We all have an inner child, a childlike aspect of us that retains memories of happy and sad times and childhood joys, fears, wonder, curiosity, creativity, and shame. It retains past wounding and can take over when we’re triggered.
“The wounded inner child contaminates intimacy in relationships because he has no sense of his authentic self. The greatest wound a child can receive is the rejection of his authentic self. When a parent cannot affirm his child’s feelings, needs, and desires, he rejects that child’s authentic self. Then, a false self must be set up.”― John Bradshaw, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child
Many of us had outright unloving experiences as children. The people we counted on for our survival may have failed to nurture, protect, or guide us sometimes or often. It was painful, and if we felt overwhelmed, we may have suffered trauma.
Most of us didn’t have the capacity to help ourselves through childhood traumas. We coped as best we could. Our inner child may carry unhealed wounds that cause us to feel anxious, insecure, or burdened without understanding why. Many of us had “okay” childhoods and believe we are trauma-free.
What is Trauma?
“Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside you”― Gabor Maté, The Myth of Normal: Trauma, Illness and Healing in a Toxic Culture
Many experiences can be traumatic, and what is traumatic for one person may be more, less, or not traumatic for another. Generally, we can sort trauma into three types. The examples below are not inclusive.
Big-T Trauma is what we typically think of when we hear the word. Being the victim of or witnessing child abuse, sexual assault, war, murder, violence, accidents, torture, terrorism, and other terrifying events often leads to big-T Trauma.
Little-t trauma includes events that we often diminish in importance but can dramatically impact our self-worth, security, physical and mental health, and ability to thrive in life, relationships, and work. Little-t traumas can include being raised by immature parents or emotionally unavailable parents, betrayal, abandonment, divorce, dog bites, medical and dental experiences, rejection, humiliation, chastising, ridicule, etc.
Little-t trauma occurs even in loving families. A pregnant, sick, stressed, or otherwise distracted or unavailable caregiver may have left you feeling distressed because your need for connection and care went unmet.
A helpless infant left to use its only means of survival (crying) to exhaustion may well feel its survival is threatened. If you were an infant when “crying it out” was recommended by pediatricians, you may have experienced trauma.
Enduring racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, oppression, injustice, discrimination, poverty, poor healthcare, and homelessness are some examples of systemic trauma.
Virtually of us were exposed to potentially traumatic experiences. Let’s normalize and destigmatize it and embrace opportunities to heal.
“I can simply tell you that all of us need to be aware that trauma has a twofold potential: it can be the catalyst for creative change or the cause of self-destruction.”― John Bradshaw
To cope with being forced to conform and to carry on after traumas, we rejected and abandoned aspects of ourselves that we perceived as undesirable, unlovable, inappropriate, embarrassing, wrong, stupid, scary, ugly, bad, etc. Sometimes it was what we needed to do to be okay in the moment. These disowned, suppressed and excluded parts make up our shadow and can manifest in destructive, hindering, and sabotaging ways.
“I define a ‘good person’ as somebody who is fully conscious of their own limitations. They know their strengths, but they also know their ‘shadow’ – they know their weaknesses. In other words, they understand that there is no good without bad. Good and evil are really one, but we have broken them up in our consciousness. We polarize them.”–John Bradshaw
Healing: A House Divided to A Home United
The inauthentic persona, inner child, and shadow can undermine, sabotage, and weaken us and prevent us from feeling safe and secure in ourselves.
Exploring our persona, inner child, and shadow is a journey of self-discovery and personal growth. By recognizing our persona as a mask created for protection, we can begin to rediscover our authentic selves. Embracing our inner child allows us to relieve them of their burdens and reconnect with their treasures. By recognizing and integrating our shadow aspects, we can heal wounds and give ourselves the gift and experience of total acceptance.
“So self-acceptance does not mean self-admiration or even self-liking at every moment of our lives, but tolerance for all our emotions, including those that make us feel uncomfortable.”― Gabor Maté, Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder
Healing begins with introspection, awareness, and non-judgmental acceptance of all aspects of ourselves. Every part of us deserves inclusion, every part has value. As repressed parts are reclaimed and accepted, we become freer, more authentic, secure, spiritually connected, and empowered.
We reclaim our wholeness.