She paused again: "I would. And of course I'd want to help her."
"Of course you would; that's the kind of person you are. OK, now ask that part if there's a picture or memory that goes with this feeling of rage."
The image that came up was a childhood scene: her father and brothers are watching a football game while she and her two younger sisters are playing together. Perhaps uninhibited in their play, perhaps wanting attention from someone, they inadvertently run in front of the television. There's a shout that startles them, then her father grabs a piece of plastic pipe from under the sofa and starts to beat them with it, and the older brothers join in. Suddenly, it's much more exciting for these men to listen to the screams of three little girls than to watch the football game.
"And when you see that scene, what happens in your feelings and your body?"
"I feel scared, but even more, hurt. Why do they hate me so much?"
"Notice that feeling of scared and hurt and the question, 'Why?' coming from this young girl. Where do you feel it in your body?"
"Around my heart. It's so heavy and sad."
I asked her to notice what happened if she placed her hand just where she could feel the heaviness and sadness. "Notice what happens when she feels your hand there. Let that little girl know you're here with her." Her tears began to flow.
"She was so alone. My mother and older sisters just tried to placate them. No one was there for her."
"Yes, no one was there: she was so little and so alone," I echo, "and what happens inside if you turn toward your heart and say the words, 'I'm here now'?"
"Do I say that to myself? Or to her?"
"See what happens if you say it to her directly so she knows you're really there."
Marcia turned slightly as if talking to the child and then said, "I can feel her relaxing-not so tight. Before, she was so tense-scared, I guess."
"Yes, it was pretty scary to be a little girl all on her own in your family." By echoing her words in a tone of warmth and compassion, I helped her connect to her innate capacity for care and connection. By helping her find the words and gestures that "speak" to this child part, I helped her deepen the capacity to connect internally to disowned parts that would otherwise act out or "act in" (implode). Her face was soft as she continued to sit with her hand over her heart, lost in conversation with her little-girl self, whose normal needs for loving attention had become so dangerous in her troubled family.
We ended the session with some "parenting tips" from me about the importance of thinking of this part like a small foster child she'd just taken into her home. I reminded Marcia that if she were this child's foster parent, she'd be continuously aware of her vulnerability to feeling frightened and alone, and would keep her close by at all times. To capitalize on her motivation to work with the anger, I emphasized that the angry part wouldn't have to come to the little girl's defense, like a protective older sibling, as long as Marcia was taking care of her.
Awakening the Inner Adult
The next week, it was a much softer Marcia who arrived for our appointment, with none of the usual depression, wary resignation, or bitterness I'd become accustomed to seeing in her. When I reported on my immediate impression of the shift in her, Marcia laughed and drew the outline of a baby carrier across the front of her body: "Think it might have anything to do with the fact I've been carrying the little part with me all week? She's always right here now-over my heart."
Despite days when her judgmental part berated her efforts to connect to the child part and others when the teenager thought this whole baby carrier thing was "bullshit," Marcia continued when she could to imagine carrying her younger self across her heart day after day, and a gradual transformation unfolded. Rather than being traumatically triggered by her husband and children, her family now evoked a new level of gratitude and caring. The feeling of failure as a mother had been connected more to a depressed, hopeless part of her than to a resourceful, wise adult who could use her own mistakes to grow into a more caring and resourceful parent. She began to take delight in making each child feel special, whether by teaching her son to play tennis or taking her 11-year-old daughter shopping or cuddling the youngest one and reading her stories. Aspects of her younger selves began to emerge as adult capacities and creativity: the purchase of a "fixer-up" home led her to begin designing interior spaces, as she'd once done as a child, cutting out pictures from magazines; taking golf and tennis lessons connected her to once longed-for athletic accomplishments; developing friendships with other mothers counteracted the shame and sense of "not belonging" of her depressed part. Embracing the most wounded part of her had transformed her relationship to herself and those she loved.
Marcia's story tells us much about what can happen when we welcome parts we've disowned, dissociated, or designated as enemies. Perhaps because she was a mother, it was easier to attune to the attachment needs of her parts and meet them. Many other clients have similar moving moments of connection to their younger selves, followed by backlash hostility or intellectualization; some fail to recall such moments at all; some become scathing or skeptical. But when we're clear that their self-hatred and alienation from themselves is nothing more than a survival strategy held by younger selves, that deep within them lives a compassionate heart and a wise mind, capable of embracing these wounded parts, most can be gradually persuaded. In the meantime, I patiently model warmth and openness to each and every part, even the ones who threaten, like suicidal or devaluing parts, welcoming all their voices in therapy like honored guests.
Whatever the range of variation among clients in their resilience and ability to make use of the transformational possibilities of therapy, experience has shown me that when it comes to awakening self-compassion and self-love, simpler and more repetitive is usually better. Just the other day, my client Dan asked, "Do I have to love myself to get better? Because if I do, I think it's hopeless."
"Do you love animals?" I asked.
"Do you hate children or do you feel for them?"
"Of course, I feel for children-what kind of monster would I be if I hated kids?"
"OK, then there's no obstacle to your becoming the person you were meant to be. All you have to do is to be open to the young, wounded children inside you instead of hating them or ignoring them. Are you up for that?"
"Yes," and then there was a pause: "but I don't have to love myself, do I?"
"No, just the kids inside you."