Alice Miller: Remembering the child in us

I was referred to Alice Miller’s writings by Arthur Silber’s blog. Silber uses the concepts of the repression of childhood as a springboard for comment on political repression in the public sphere, in cogent long essays.

Subsequently I picked up Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child. I may have read this back in the 70’s or 80’s as I seem to remember bits of discussion about Miller’s work from then. I was particularly struck by this statement:

I understand a healthy self-feeling to mean the unquestioned certainty that the feelings and needs one experiences are part of one’s self. This certainty is not something one can gain upon reflection; it is there like one’s own pulse, which one does not notice as long as it functions normally.

Miller of course as a psychotherapist knows how rare this is, that by and large we all have some form of suffering in our childhood and some repressed content in our psyches. As I think back on my childhood I realize that I was told many things that required me to negate my instantaneous emotions and reactions and to be what my mother deemed ‘good’ instead. On several occasions my mother would wash my brother or my mouth out with soap when we said something she labeled ‘bad.’ I must have been about 8 or 9 when she did it the last time and I tried manipulating her back to get her to stop. I said, “Mmm, that soap tastes good! Can we use this all the time when you want to wash out my mouth in the future?” It worked, she never did it again. I don’t think my younger sibs ever had to bear that particular indignity. Rebellion is the first step to reclaiming your self, but also perhaps changing the grounds of the relationship.

But rebellion is a starting state. The recovery of the true self is a life long process. In this we mine our old and repressed memories. In this process going over the same old thoughts leads to insight, if we can approach them through either a trusted witness, like a therapist or a coach, or through deep individual work.

About 10 years ago I went through a life review with a coach. We worked through my whole life memories year by year, a page for each year of my life. We then pasted them up in order on the walls of the room we were using for the weekend. It allowed me to see the continuity, the themes, and the hand of God in the whole. And it helped me gain perspective on the story of my childhood. I had a deep connection with my mother, but she was a woman who had her own problems, most probably dating from her childhood. My father was distant, logical, analytical, an engineer, who has difficulties expressing emotions.

I still struggle with subsuming my own emotions and reactions in relationships. Where I should express my needs or emotions more directly. But on the other hand the experience makes me ready to confront manipulation and call it out when it occurs in business settings. I can dig into a situation and pull out the essential interests of both sides, unless one side is being duplicitous. In that case I can generally point out the attempt to deceive and evaluate the transaction with that information in mind.

I guess I am still trying to get to that sense that the feelings that I experience really are a part of myself, and not to try to ‘be someone I am not’ for the sake of  ‘saving’ someone else’s feelings, or the relatiohship.

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