Good Girls, Good Boys

Many of us, when we were growing up, worked hard to be “good” and win our parents’ approval. We learned to be obedient, or cute, or smart, or tough, and to anticipate others’ needs. These Good Girls and Good Boys still live inside us as we go about our adult lives.

Often I find that my Good Girl is activated in social situations. I want to please others and smooth things over, even if my own needs are neglected.

Of course, I have other inner children who also have desires—attention, space to grow, independence. If Good Girl is in charge too much, I feel obscurely frustrated because my needs are not being met. I may feel that other people are pushing me around—but really, it’s my own dynamic!

So what do we do about these Good inner kids? It’s important, I think, to give them a lot of credit. My Good Girl enabled me to get through a difficult childhood that included incest and secrecy as well as parental distance. I honor her earnest and steady work. But sometimes I need to ask Good Girl to stand aside so that my Inner Adult can assert my legitimate wants, even if other people don’t like it.

Growing Yourself Back Up, by John Lee

What’s great about this little book is that it identifies all kinds of situations where people spontaneously regress into childish behaviors. Maybe a guy in the car behind me at a red light blows his horn and nudges forward as soon as the light turns green. His behavior makes me feel ridiculously helpless, because he mimics my father’s arbitrary anger. Or a friend calls to cancel a date and I spiral into fear that no one loves me. These out-of-control feelings are typical of regression.

The book distinguishes between “trance regression” and “conscious regression.” “Trance regression” is the kind that happens when we are triggered into an unconscious replaying of old roles—or you might say, our Inner Children come forth and start acting out.

“Conscious regression” happens when we decide to go back to some old hurts and feel what it’s like to be that wounded child again. This can be vital for uncovering emotions, understanding them, and healing.

Why do we regress unconsciously? It has a lot to do with fear. In a chapter on responses to fear, the author illustrates the basic responses of fight, flight, and freezing in vivid and useful examples. There’s one part I don’t agree with. When he illustrates freezing, he cites calm, quiet states like being at peace in nature. I think that’s plain wrong—I experience the freezing response not as peaceful but more like catatonic.

I think that Lee’s simplifications tend to make it look like we can snap out of regressions quicker than we can in real life. My booklet, Caring for the Child Within—A Manual for Grownups explains more about taking the time to heal that scared inner child. Nonetheless, I found Growing Yourself Back Up a helpful and unique book that shows how often people regress and how to cope with it.

After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, by Nancy Venable Raine.

I just finished reading After Silence. I’d borrowed it from a friend and I confess I put off reading it because it looked difficult. It was, but it was thought-provoking and important, too.

Raine begins with the story of her rape, which was a stranger-rape that happened when she was at home. I didn’t ever read all of this graphic chapter, but I read the rest of the book.

Two things are vital about After Silence: Raine’s descriptions of the many effects on her life, and the way she details the process of silencing. Society does not want rape (or child abuse) victims to tell their stories. Friends ask them to “get over it,” or “not carry it around” — as if someone who suffers an experience like that can just shed it like a wool coat and walk around being “normal.”

Shortly after Raine published an account of her rape in the New York Times Magazine, she attended an up-scale dinner. A woman complimented her on her writing but then said, “But let’s face it, no one wants to hear such terrible things.” Raine bravely describes how this remark stopped her for weeks — her writing ground to a halt, her confidence lost. Instance after instance from her own life and from the press all show how strongly, even violently, people shy away from knowing about “such terrible things.”

For those of us who have survived terrible things, it’s all the more important to get our stories out there to let society know that we are here and we are not going to fade out quietly.

Conflict and the Inner Child

Before I could talk, I learned my family’s patterns of conflict. Every child does this. Behind those large innocent eyes, the baby’s brain is storing up gestures, tones of voice—who shouts, who shrinks back. I learned that my father made scary noises and stomped around. My mother got quiet and would not speak.

Even after I worked for years to heal from the sexual abuse I experienced, these preverbal patterns remained frozen in me. In situations of conflict, I took one of those paths: fighting like my father, or fleeing like my mother. In public and professional settings, I was often tough and sometimes confrontational. In more intimate settings, I felt like a marshmallow. (I exaggerate. I get on pretty well and have good friends, but always inside me there’s been this fear of dealing with conflict.)

I’m beginning to get the sense of a third way, that is not fierce or fearful but could show a certain confidence. Maybe I can express my feelings and my observations as a “simple” extension of my being. Maybe I can approach friends with whom I’m having difficulty and tell them how I feel—with care and maturity, but truthfully. This sounds stupid as I write it, simpleminded and obvious, but it goes against all my old training. Maybe this child can finally grow up to be confident.

Writing As Therapy - III

Why Writing a Memoir is Different from Writing a Journal
My memoir concerns the six years of my life in which I was starting to come to terms with a memory of sexual abuse. In writing it, I had to carve and craft those confusing years into a story for a reader. It’s the reader who brings the writing to life, as Ursula LeGuin said in her essay “Text, Silence, Performance” (in Dancing at the Edge of the World ). The memoirist needs to bring the story into shape and then hand it over to the reader to supply the reactions.

Perspective is vital, as Judith Barringon said. Part of the job of a memoirist is to bring a longer view to the writing, musing about the meanings of her/his experience—whether those musings are explicit, or simply implicit in the framing and selection of the parts of the story.

The reader deserves a well-shaped story that gives meaning to a life, or at least where we see the consequences of events and decisions.