I’ve often written that the essential task of attending to our four realms of Self in order to find wellness and equanimity, and that in order to do this we need to have a loving, competent and clear inner parent at the helm of psyche. Just as kids feel safe when there’s an attuned parent sitting at the head of the metaphoric dinner table, so our inner characters – our Anxiety, Judgement, Fear, Jealousy, Critic, Taskmaster, Good Girl/Boy, Resistance – feel safe when there’s a loving, clear, attuned parent at the head of the table of psyche.
Just as a loving outer parent listens to and honors a child’s needs yet pushes them past their comfort zone when necessary, so a loving inner parent brings compassion and intense curiosity to our inner world while making sure that we don’t fall into the realm of indulgent pain.
Just as a loving outer parent carves out time to drop down into the present moment and connect eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart with their child without distraction, so the inner parent recognizes how essential it is to create long pauses in the otherwise run-on sentence of our increasingly fast and busy days so that they can listen with full presence to what’s needed. This means that phones are turned off or placed in another room. It means that we hush the voices – the work, the calls, the emails, the bills – that pull us away from the dropped-down time of presence. We cannot feel safe, loved, or worthy if the parents in our lives – both outer and inner – forget how to listen.
In addition to listening and holding, the loving, wise parent is the part of ourselves that sets boundaries and limits. It’s the part that says “yes” to this (yes, I’m going to exercise now even though I don’t “feel” like it) and “no” to that (no, I’m not going to drink alcohol tonight because I know it will cause me to wake up feeling anxious tomorrow). It’s the part that can make decisions and trust those decisions.
Who sits at the head of your table? Is it Fear? Anxiety? Judgement? The following common statements can indicate that you’re struggling to invite a solid, loving wise parent to sit at the head:
- What if I start to feel my sadness and pain and I fall into a deep depression? In other words, what if the sadness takes over and I can’t get out of it?
- What if I take one of Sheryl’s courses and I learn that I have to leave my loving, wonderful partner?
- I just heard about a couple who separated. What if that’s my story?
- If I have a thought it must be true. If I have a feeling I have to act on it.
- What if I have an affair?
- What if I’m gay?
When you have a loving parent at the head of the table, you can feel your difficult feelings – sadness, jealousy, disappointment, anger, frustration, loneliness, boredom – without being swallowed by them. With a clear parent at the helm, you can learn about relationship anxiety and trust that the ultimate choice about whether you leave or stay is yours and yours alone; in other words, if you don’t want to leave your loving relationship then don’t! Likewise, while there are many things in this life that are beyond our control, having an affair is entirely within your control. If you don’t want to have an affair, don’t have one. When you trust that you have an adult driving the car, you know that your thoughts are simply thoughts and that there’s a cavernous divide between thoughts and actions.
How do you strengthen your Wise Self? As with all inner parts, it’s like a muscle, which means that the more you use it, the stronger it becomes. Every time you consciously recognize that you acted from a place of clarity and wisdom, your inner parent becomes stronger. In fact, it’s the recognition itself that strengthens this muscle, for just as kids need their caregivers and mentors to witness and acknowledge their intrinsic gifts and strengths, so do our inner characters need to be acknowledged. Every time you engage in inner work of any kind, you strengthen your inner parent. Every time you exercise even when you don’t “feel” like it or move toward your partner despite the fear-walls that try to keep you separate, the inner parent grows stronger.
A concrete exercise that can grow your inner parent is to begin to regularly and consciously name the other characters in your psyche that vie for the position at the head of a table. I recommend drawing a long rectangle on a piece of paper, write “Loving, wise Self” at the head, and fill in the rest of the seats with the supporting cast members of your inner world, the parts that make a lot of noise: Fear, Loneliness, Judgement, Arrogance, etc. When you engage with any of these parts, you do so with the resolute commitment to keep your Parent at the head of the conversation. We make room for Judgement, but we don’t let it run the show. We explore the churning waters of Fear while the Parent holds the tether on solid shore.
Many people who find their way to my work believe that they don’t have an inner parent at all, yet when I ask them if they’re able to offer sound advice and a compassionate ear to friends or family members, the answer is unanimously yes. If you can listen to others, you can listen to yourself. If you can access a voice of wisdom and clarity for others, you can find that same place inside yourself. But because you likely learned to externalize your sense of Self and rely on others for reassurance and guidance from an early age, this muscle has grown weak. Now it’s time to strengthen it so that you can sit at the head of your table without fear of the parade of thoughts, feelings, characters, and decisions that define a human life. For it’s not the thoughts or feelings that create the problems; it’s how we respond. It’s the inner parent that chooses how to respond, and it’s that one micro-moment that makes the difference between becoming caught in the undertow of anxiety or finding freedom.
How have you strengthened your Inner Parent? Who are the characters that sit at your table of psyche? I invite you to share in the comments section below.