You know that part of you which tends to panic, fall apart, go ballistic, or hide under the bed when things get overwhelming? Be honest, it’s there. We all have it inside us. As children it was more or less our modus operandi whenever life brought us more than we could handle. If we were fortunate to have caring and competent adults around us, we learned how to borrow on their strength, perspective, and wisdom to make it through – with less of the drama.
In order for us to deal effectively with the various situations of life, social neuroscience is discovering just how much the immature brain and nervous system depend on the frontal cortex of parents and other adults, with its executive functions of contextualization, critical reasoning, impulse inhibition, risk management, and objectivity. They are literally our taller powers, archetypes of the higher power in religion that we may continue to worship and rely on for security and meaning well into adulthood.
As we matured and our own frontal cortex came more online, we developed ways of handling the challenges of life without needing someone else to take charge, fix the problem, and calm us down.
What we were as children now lives on as our “inner child,” with our own adult “higher self” in control and calling the shots. Our higher self can see the bigger picture and take the longer view on things. It encourages us to do the harder thing when it’s the right thing to do. It’s the part of us that seeks to understand others and the world around us, so we can get along and cooperate for the happiness we all want.
To get the whole picture in front of us, psychologically speaking, we need to mention a third part, besides the rational higher self and emotional inner child, which is actually what we first came into life with (or as), and this is the “animal nature” of our human biology – the genetic codes, temperamental predispositions, unconscious instincts; the sentient, sensuous, and sensual body with its primal and irrepressible will to live.
It’s where our existence is deeply rooted in the complex web of life, with its imperatives of survival, adaptation, reproduction, and keeping our species in the game.
Our animal nature provided the brain and nervous system that were gradually shaped by our emotional experiences in childhood (the inner child) and eventually fully activated in all its executive glory as we became adults (the higher self).
Each part (aspect or dimension) of our psychology has its own “real estate” in the brain’s anatomy: a brain stem and basal structures dedicated to our biological survival, a limbic system specializing in building emotional bridges and walls to the social environment, and a wrap-around cerebral cortex with its frontal talents for objective reasoning, problem solving, rational thinking, and self-control.
Millions of years of evolution in consciousness are represented in our brain’s triune architecture.
Coming back to where we began this meditation, with our inner child, we can now put the more developed picture in place. The inner child is where an emotional record of our personal history is stored, along with all those recycling habits and strategies for getting what we want. Below it lies our animal nature with its “brute” impulses and survival needs, obsessed (though not consciously) with staying alive.
And above our inner child is the higher self – and I’m careful here not to say “your” or “my” higher self, since the question remains open as to whether this more enlightened dimension of ourselves is, in fact, properly online and doing its job. We all have an animal nature and inner child, but only some of us are living by the light of a rational, reasonable, responsible, and reality-oriented wisdom of our higher self.
I am not intending to portray such illuminati as emotionally disengaged or intellectually divorced from their bodies. Science has also found an inherent dependence of rationality on emotional development, and of our emotional integrity on the deep composure of our body’s nervous state. This foundational (or better, existential) security translates upward into healthy attachment, which in turn provides emotional and interpersonal support to the social construction of meaning.
Too many of us are stuck, for whatever reason, in the antics and tantrums of our inner child. Especially in these stressful and uncertain times, it feels like the world is collapsing around us and we can’t see our way through. First it’s one thing, then another – and then another. By the time we think things might have settled down, the market crashes, the oceans rise, and the ground cracks open.
I just said that we are stuck for whatever reason, but the general cause is already well understood. A deeper insecurity has the effect of supercharging our emotional attachments with unconditional demands and unrealistic expectations: that our partners should manage our feelings, that other people are responsible for how we feel.
But of course, it is impossible for any relationship to live and grow under such demanding conditions, with the end result that our anxieties and frustrations get exponentially magnified. As a consequence, a lot of us are missing the stabilizing factor of healthy communal bonds, a shared understanding that we are all in this together, and of knowing that, together, we can make it through.
We find ourselves circling the drain into depression but refuse to take any responsibility for our role in getting there – once again.
We can’t even seem to talk respectfully and reasonably to each other, making constructive dialogue virtually impossible given our suspicions about other people – which are really outward projections of our own inner conflict, between the part of us that’s childish and self-centered, and the part of us that should know better and could do something about it.
American politics today has become a helter-skelter playground, where the inner children of what should be reasonable adults have taken over and are threatening to run democracy into the ground.
Until our higher self is able to calm our own inner child, we will keep looking for excuses that pass off responsibility for our words and actions to someone else, or to circumstances that we claim left us no choice.
If we want to live in an adult world, we need to start acting like adults.