My parents did the best they could. Better than the best they could. 

As a child, I knew I was physically safe and provided for. Dad played basketball with me. Mom made dinner. We ate together as a family. Christmas wishes were granted.

Given the deficits in their upbringings — Mom’s mother was an orphan, her dad an alcoholic; Dad’s father had severe schizophrenia — I see the hand of God at work enabling my parents to give to me and my sister far more than they were given.

So what do I make of this great aching void inside of me, the sense that I am unworthy and unlovable? Clearly, it wasn’t my upbringing. It must be me. 

Stuffed Anger

From childhood on, I have experienced searing insecurity and desperate longing for love and validation. This I chalked up to what Scripture calls the flesh,” the old self full of sinful habits for which there is only one remedy: death.

And how I’ve tried to kill this part of me I labeled as the flesh.”

Through forceful inner dialogue, I attempted to silence any longing to be seen and known. Such desires, after all, must be selfish. I berated the part of me that was insecure and anxious. Saint Paul said, I punish my body and enslave it,” so I figured this was the Scriptural method for killing — I would punish myself and enslave any desire I saw as bad.” In actuality I was stuffing these desires. And, of course, stuffed desires don’t go away. They grow and mutate into something else. Usually anger. 

So I stuffed the anger. 

Eventually, that has to go somewhere, too. It either explodes externally as rage or sexual sin or the like; or it implodes into anxiety and depression. For me, it was the latter. 

It took a long time to see this because I hid my anger well, at least from myself. 

In my early twenties, through a job doing tech support house calls, I befriended Harry, a physically disabled retired psychologist. Harry had spunk. He was rough around the edges and didn’t refrain from speaking his mind. During one visit he spun his wheelchair around and told me flatly: You’re a very angry person, Brian.” I laughed. Didn’t he know I was in complete control of my emotions and could stop my anger” before it started? It took me a decade to discover old Harry was right. Longer still to get to the heart of the matter.

During my late 20s through early 30s, my wife and I had three kids: two girls and a boy. When our boy was five, I noticed I treated him differently than I had his older sisters at the same age. If he didn’t behave, I went through the right motions to correct and redirect, generally not raising my voice or acting harshly. But my heart would disconnect from him in the process. There was a coldness in me, an emotional distancing, as if he wasn’t worthy of love and connection until he straightened up.

I’d heard about having an inner child,” the little part of you that holds onto childhood memories and emotions. It dawned on me that I treated my son the way I had been treating this little boy inside of me. In reality, I was kinder to my son. I didn’t berate or belittle him as I did the little boy inside me. It became clear that I could only love my son to the degree that I loved, and allowed Jesus to love, the broken little boy inside of me. 

But why was this little part inside of me so broken? 

Traumas of Omission

This brings me back to the start: examining my childhood. And this is where the statement, My parents did the best they could, true as it was, kept me from identifying the wounded boy inside. 

Until recently, my internal monologue went something like this: 

Some people have real childhood issues. They were sexually and verbally abused, they witnessed murders, they were malnourished. And what’s your problem, Brian? That your mom didn’t have the capacity to be emotionally present? That you felt like your dad was disappointed in you? Give me a freaking break. Get over yourself and grow the hell up.

Because of that internal script, it took an intensive counseling retreat for me to see that I had traumas of omission in childhood. After I recalled what seemed to me innocuous parental shortcomings — shortcomings my parents couldn’t help but pass along because of their own parents’ shortcomings — the counselor asked, Can you admit that this is a big deal?” Three days into my sessions, I finally said yes. 

It was the t” word throwing me off. Trauma is for abuse and wars and famine and earthquakes, I thought, not for people who didn’t emotionally bond with their mom. 

I learned, however, that while traumas of commission are obscene and obvious, traumas of omission are insidious and hidden. I want to avoid comparison — traumas of commission always seem much worse and this is what kept me so long from seeking healing. But downplaying traumas of omission doesn’t make them go away. Just like traumas of commission, their untreated effects can wreak havoc on the soul. And I also learned that you simultaneously honor parents while recognizing places they did not — could not — give what you needed. 

Recognizing that I have traumas of omission has led to new ways of approaching the parts of me I want to change, new ways of treating that wounded little boy inside. 

Don’t Kill What Needs to Be Healed

Here’s what I discovered: It’s vital to distinguish between thoughts emanating from the old sinful self and those from the wounded inner child. This requires help from the Holy Spirit and often help from a professional therapist. 

If a thought is indeed coming up from the old sinful self, a self that needs to be put to death,” I’m not the one who needs to deliver the death blow. Jesus already did. 

Romans 6 deals with this masterfully: We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing.” And while Paul says in Colossians 3 to put to death” sexual immorality, impurity, and so forth, this has nothing to do with self-loathing or self-punishment. In fact, the best way to kill” these things is not to focus on self or sin, but to focus on Jesus and what he’s done. In fact, one translation renders Colossians 3:5 as consider the members of your earthly body as dead to sexual immorality…” It’s one thing to slay a monstrous beast, quite another to live into the reality that he’s already slain.

On the other hand, if there is insecurity, unworthiness, or shame welling up inside, a little boy crying out to be safe and known and loved, this is not something that needs to be killed but needs to be healed. 

Some of my biggest spiritual breakthroughs have come through guided imaginative encounters, where Jesus looked at me — as he did in many Gospel stories — with those burning eyes of love. My heart has heard” him say that I am his friend, felt” him hold me. I’m reticent to write about these things. It’s so intimate. It’s also somewhat subjective, and subjectivity is anathema for traditions that focus on doctrine and understanding to the exclusion of encounter and experience (like the one I grew up in). But it is through our senses and our imagination that the wounded child inside is healed and secure attachments are created. I have much to learn about all this, but already I’ve experienced lasting fruit of the Spirit from such encounters.

One last thing. Without a deep and secure attachment to a good God, some spiritual practices can simply be unhealthy coping mechanisms and attempts to gain God’s acceptance. Just as training for a marathon on an injured leg would cause further physical injury, training in godliness” with untreated heart wounds can cause further spiritual and emotional injury. Getting healing for our inner wounds and becoming securely attached to God allows spiritual practices to be means of grace instead of harm. 

As I close, a blessing is bubbling up:

May you not try to kill what needs to be healed,

and may you have wisdom to know the difference.

May you not apply force where tenderness is needed.

May you not be ashamed to get the help you need from mental health professionals.

May you have friends who can walk with you through the Valley of the Shadow and, when you are sick, rip open the roof to lower you into the presence of Jesus.

May your imagination be a holy sanctuary for encounter with the living Christ.

May your wounded inner child find acceptance and healing in the eyes and arms of Jesus.

And may your heart be securely attached — like an oak — to the Father who loved you before you were, loves you where you are, and is loving you into who you already are in Jesus.

Photo by Kim Teves on Unsplash

Text First Published August 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org August 2022

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