Therapist at the Institute for Personal Change (retired) and
Co-Author of Where Freedom Begins: The Process of Personal Change*
People often turn to psychotherapy because they suffer from anxiety or depression, and a sense of dissatisfaction with themselves and their lives, even though things may look great from the outside. They experience a lack of connectedness, an inability to love and to be loved. There are many different explanations for what is “wrong,” and how to go about changing it, but there is not agreement on what constitutes a “cure.” A widely experienced therapist put it very simply: “If I can just help my clients to genuinely accept themselves and feel good about themselves, I consider it a successful therapy. All other changes are based on that.”
What a strange situation, that so many of us should feel alienated, not only from other people, but from ourselves. Why is it that, no matter what level of apparent success we achieve in the world, some of us tend to feel that something is basically wrong?
Children Need Love
Let’s try looking at it this way. A young child is truly helpless – totally dependent on its parents. A small child not taken care of will simply die. The only protection children have is their parents’ caring. From the beginning, having or not having love and approval from Mother and Father is literally a matter of life or death.
Given a fully secure and nourishing environment, each child would grow like a flower or a young animal, to his or her full potential. But babies only feel safe and nourished in an environment of total acceptance and love. They experience anger and disapproval as a deep threat. To feel safe enough to be free to become themselves, children need to receive unconditional love.
Even good parents suffer from their own anxieties, their own frustrated needs and feelings of unworthiness. Their son or daughter is a part of themselves. How can they love their child fully, if they do not love themselves? And, of course, many parents have serious personal problems which they act out upon their children.
When Children Don’t Feel Loved
But the children can’t know the real causes of the negative messages about themselves that they receive from their parents. They only know that they are not being accepted and valued for what they are. Therefore, they come to believe that there is something wrong with them and that they must somehow change themselves to become acceptable to these parents on whom they are so utterly dependent. They try to become like their parents by adopting their parents’ attitudes and behaviors, or they try to fulfill the open or silent admonitions they are given, to become what they think their parents want them to be. Sadly, it is often their mother’s and father’s fearful or resentful behavior that is adopted, but the intention is always the same: “If I become like you, then will you love me?”
For some children, when they become aware of the painful truth that there is no way to get the kind of love they need, rebellion begins. If they can’t get love, they must have attention as a substitute. Other more compliant children never do rebel, but continue year after year repeating their parents’ behavior. In mid-life a man looks in the mirror, or hears his own words, and thinks in despair, “Oh, my God! I am my father!” Or a woman realizes that, even as an adult on her own, she still can’t enjoy sex because her mother always believed that it was somehow nasty.
The original behavior adopted in the attempt to gain mother’s and father’s love (usually not in only one traumatic situation, but in patterns repeated thousands of times throughout childhood) becomes so ingrained that it feels like part of ourselves. We find ourselves unable to break free from these patterns. The child inside us still feels that sometime, somehow, if we keep on trying, we might finally do the right thing, and mother and father will finally love and approve of us fully.
Our Self Destructive Behaviors
It is the often unrecognized conviction that we must have mother and father’s approval before we can really begin to live that makes us cling to our behaviors, no matter how self-destructive we may know them to be.
We learn not to hear our inner child’s weeping or raging, we learn not to listen to the messages from our own bodies. We often don’t know what we are feeling, nor even what we really think. We still experience the world as threatening our fragile self-esteem, as mother and father did when we were children; we feel each critical remark as an attack which means that we are not loved, and therefore are in danger. We don’t trust our own inner selves.
Finding Our Freedom
How do we learn to let go of this destructive reenactment of our childhood relationship to our parents? When we try to give permission to our inner child to experience and release its anger about the suffering our parents caused us, our intellect comes and points out that, given their situation, they probably were doing the best they could. When we try to experience understanding and compassion for our parents, the grief and anger of the child within refuses to be ignored. We are caught in the middle: angry, but guilty for our anger, compassionate, but in constant pain.
The goal of the Institute for Personal Change is to help us find our freedom and really experience that our lives belong to us, not to our parents. The way in which this goal is achieved is to go back through our childhood histories and discover exactly how we learned to be the way we are. After we recognize how we, originally so vulnerable and open to love, were taught so much negativity, our inner children are given total permission and opportunity to express the grief and rage which have been held back so long. When all of this is let out, when the child truly feels cleansed and victorious, and experiences his or her own freedom and power, then it is time to move past anger, and to find a deep compassion for and fellowship with the people who were our parents in this life. At this point we are ready to forgive them, and in forgiving to be able to find forgiveness and acceptance and consistent love for ourselves. From this solid base, we are then truly able to change and grow.
The Process For Personal Change
This understanding of the problems we face in achieving the happiness we deserve forms the basis of the work at the Institute for Personal Change. The Process for Personal Change differs from other forms of psychotherapy most particularly because it is taught like a course. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, and takes a specific time (two months) to complete. Each client has his or her own individual therapist, and is also part of an intense and supportive group experience.
The Process uses many different methods to reveal and to change the childhood programming that is still running each client’s adult life. These methods include extensive writing assignments, guided imagery, physical release of anger and other experiential work – all within a setting of compassionate support. Many aspects of the self are encouraged to reveal and express themselves: the emotional, intellectual, physical and spiritual. By the end of the Process, clients come to experience themselves as truly “whole” – often for the first time in their lives.
It is now offered by a staff of highly qualified therapists and teachers at the Institute for Personal Change. The Process for Personal Changes has the “skillful means” to move people far beyond the limitations of their childhoods, to a place of deeper contact with their inner selves, new personal power, higher self-esteem, and a greater capacity for love.
The roots of our troubles in relationship lie in the wounds sustained in childhood. Nearly all individuals desire intimate relationships, whether in romantic, family or friendship situations – yet many stave off, frustrate and automatically defend against the very closeness they desire: to know and be known, to love and be loved.
Fortunately, the automatic defensive behaviors learned in childhood can be transformed.
The Process of the Institute for Personal Change provides a format for that transformation. Through knowledge of our wounds, through beginning to heal ourselves, we come to realize that as adults we can take responsibility for knowing and loving ourselves. Only with this attitude can we be open to trusting our vulnerable hearts and psyches to the give and take in relationship.
The Process explores the roots of your own behaviors that prevent intimacy, how they probably were acquired, and assists you on your path of transformation to healthy, loving relating.