There are parts of myself, eras of my life, and things I’ve done that I simply can’t bear to remember. Scenes that embed themselves into my deepest memory banks and lodge themselves under my skin. I try not to revisit the images, relegating them to the corners of my mind, preventing the inevitable shame attack. Ever had one? For me, a shame attack begins with an intense, internal “you shouldn’t!” decree, followed by a burning sensation in my chest that spreads to my face, causing the top of my head to tingle, and accusations to ricochet inside my mind. In a word, it’s awful. Avoiding shame became ingrained to the point I wasn’t even noticing the attacks. Once one started, I would push the part of myself that had caused it as far to the margins of my being as it would go, in punishment. I’ve started awakening to the idea that it’s neither useful nor sustainable to fragment ourselves like that, if we seek happiness of the sort that is derived through self-integration.
Yes, I’m on a major existential kick lately. And I am fully aware of the privilege inherent in having the time and energy to tackle the existential. It’s a luxury, no doubt about it.
I understand that I’m made up of the sum of my experiences, and embody the latest iteration of my past selves (this lifetime, I don’t go in for reincarnation). I’ve started thinking of this collection of selves as the inner family.
My family of origin is made up of three people. We didn’t do much with our extended families, mostly choosing to invite friends into the triangle. Our dynamic is exactly what you would expect from a three-sided shape–an odd number and its inherent consequences. My immediate family is the two of us, not counting the cats. My friend family is a loose collective of a dozen or so people, none of whom are necessarily related by friendship to any others besides me.
My inner family, however, is big. It’s at least 35 people, if I account for one self per year. Sometimes it’s even larger, when I acknowledge the facets within the selves, or the shards of experience each past self contains. We’ve been through a lot, the inner family and I, and our survival depends on us sticking together. Together, we can solve problems I can’t within my other families. I’ve found that attending to the needs of the inner family makes my interpersonal relationships easier, and the boundaries between myself and others clearer.
It looks like this: an exceptionally lonely 15 year-old stuck in her room on a dark, cold, rainy night. No driver’s license, no one answering her calls, no plans, no inclination to go out into the weather. She’s the sort of depressed that causes fatigue and restlessness at once. It’s awful. She feels isolated and friendless, which causes a brutal episode of self-critique. Her feelings become mine in present day if I go too long without connecting with friends.
A third grader who struggles with impulse control is thrown out of the classroom to sit in the hall alone for the second time this week. She fears disconnection from peers and disapproval from adults most. At the same time, she contains a fierce anti-authoritarian streak, which causes her to act out and lose control of her behavior. Her feelings inflame my cheeks with shame when I’m criticized at work.
A drunk 28 year-old can’t stop texting and messaging a guy she’s dependent on for emotional security–outside her marriage. She compulsively makes plans all over the city with anyone and everyone she knows, seven nights a week. Any time she pauses, the desperate need that threatens to consume her expands, setting her in motion, no peace, no rest. She’s living so far outside herself she’s lost in a fog of confusion. Her fog creeps into my current consciousness if I don’t take enough time to myself, to expend the energy I draw from social interaction.
I used to push these past selves as far away as I could, relegating them to the cold margins. I was angry and ashamed of their shortcomings and the ways they had failed me, developmental stages be damned. They sucked, and I was never going to be as weak as they.
Then I had a therapist who encouraged me to connect with the self who had gone through the worst of whatever I was experiencing in the present moment. At the time I went right back to the 15 year-old, and my therapist asked me, so if she was standing here in front of you, would you beat the shit out of her the way you are inside? I was aghast. Of course not! I would never treat someone so vulnerable that way, especially someone so young who doesn’t know better! Oh. She didn’t know better. She couldn’t do better. Right. And thus began an inventory of and acquaintanceship with the inner family.
I’ve discovered a deep well of gratitude for the selves that came before. They struggled and fought and ate shit and created self-protective structures and persevered, all of which brought me to this moment. Without their work, I wouldn’t be here. So I draw them in. I bring them into the center of the family, where all 35 (or more) of us live together with equal importance and status. And when I start to push against myself for feeling or thinking or reacting a certain way, I root around inside for the self who relates the most to the current predicament and put her at the very center. I surround that self with the collective love and understanding of the inner family, and there she remains until I’m out of the problem. When the inner family is an integrated whole, the solutions and opportunities reveal themselves. My outlook becomes positive and I know I can handle the challenge, because I have the support of the inner family lifting me to new heights.