Do You Feel Like an Adult?

I was doing some IFS with an old friend yesterday, and when I told her to imagine what her adult self would say to her ten-year-old child self, she said that her problem was that she didn’t feel like an adult.

I primed the pump with some wisdom I’ve heard from her over the years, and she mostly took it from there. Still, it was an interesting situation for me. I think one nugget of IFS theory that I’ve heard is that if the subject of the process doesn’t have a strong enough “Self”, the facilitator can lend his. That advice has largely informed how I’ve dealt with similar situations as well.

But, at least in her case, the problem wasn’t that she didn’t have an adult self to draw on, it was that she wasn’t in touch with it–she was too blended with the child.

The majority of the people I work with are hyper-analytical types whose challenge is usually more about gaining access to strong emotions, and having high bandwidth communication with their child parts. They don’t tend to get stuck trying to figure out what to say to the child parts once they’re there.

So I tend to forget about the opposite problem, but I know I experience it myself regularly!

Here’s some advice to try out in situations where you’re too caught up with your young emotions to take useful action:

  1. Notice the situation. Acknowledge to yourself that you’re stuck in a place of feeling overwhelmingly sad, helpless, ashamed, or afraid.
  2. Remind yourself that you do actually have an adult self that you can access.
  3. Also remember that it’s actually impossible to be there for the child in a compassionate way if you’re thinking of yourself as the child. It doesn’t work. You may be afraid of losing touch with the intensity if you unblend, and I’d say that’s a valid concern. But merely sitting with the intensity doesn’t help much. Witnessing it and moving through it does.
  4. Visualize your child self from a 3rd-person perspective. See yourself from the outside feeling upset, and ask yourself how old the part that’s upset is. Imagine looking through adult eyes at the kid.
  5. It can help to sit or stand up straight and feel your feet touching the ground. Put your feet on the ground if they’re not there already.
  6. Start saying wise and comforting things to yourself, preferably out loud. Often, once you get started you’ll find that you know just what to say.
  7. If you get stuck, it can help to emphasize to yourself that you’re responding just as you would to a real child in that situation. If you found a child crying, you wouldn’t break down and cry with her. 

My intention for myself this week is to remember the process I described above and use it when feeling overwhelmed before seeking support from other people.

Seeking support from others is still important and awesome though, and that’s what I’d recommend doing if you’re upset and it’s not working to be there for yourself internally.

  • > If you found a child crying, you wouldn’t break down and cry with her.

    No, but this is sometimes exactly what I do when I find my wife crying. Any thoughts?

    • How does she react when you do that? Could be it’s working for the two of you, but my heuristics mostly point towards trying to have at least one “adult” around when one person is triggered. I could say more if I had more context. How does this usually play out?