What is not so commonly talked about, even in therapeutic circles, is the concept of an Adapted Child ego state. This concept refers to the strategies we learned in our families and in our culture. This part of us is primarily interested in survival and in “getting along.” As children, we learned the skills and developed the internal structures that make this possible for us.
As we grow, these structures become part of our “personality”. They may work well, or not so well, in our families, culture and society. These adaptions or structures become “who we are”, a major part of our ego identity. If they work well in the culture we live in, our ego identity and the culture are a “good fit.” We will have little reason or motivation to question this “fit”.
If our survival adaptations work poorly and we struggle to find our way in our culture, we may bump along barely making it. Various forms of anti- or a-social behavior, addictions and other compulsive behaviors are examples of more destructive survival behaviors.
Here’s the thing – good fit, poor fit or bad fit – our survival adaptions, initially learned as small children, are usually characterologically hardened into place by the time we reach “adulthood.” AND they are limited, constricted and distorted forms of who we would have been had we grown up in a perfect world that supported our being “all we can be” rather than required us to focus on survival.
While each of us learned different strategies to adapt and survive, the point is that this Adapted Child ego state is NOT the sum total of who we are, much less who we can be. It is the furthest our family and our culture have been able to bring us on the journey to being fully alive.
Thanks to John Bradshaw, and a host of other writers, the concept of the Wounded Child (ego state) has become part of the consciousness of many people over the last twenty to thirty years. As an individual recognizes and acknowledges their wounded child, their understanding of their own and others’ behavior increases dramatically. This understanding has led to deeper compassion for the wounding and pain that so often drives the difficult, confusing and sometimes destructive behavior we experience in ourselves others.
At worst, the recognition of our own and others’ wounded child can be used to excuse or justify bad behavior and provide a rationale for not behaving in a grown-up fashion. “After all, what can you expect of me? I had such a terrible childhood!” Also, part of the resistance to growing up can be the attitude that, “Look, given the cards I was dealt as child, I am doing the best that I can.”
In brief, while we recognize the importance of the concept of the wounded child, we also recognize that this concept has led, in some circles, to a backlash against psychotherapy. The thinking is, “It’s better not to delve into one’s childhood and wallow there, making excuses for oneself. It’s better to concentrate only on goal-setting for one’s future.”
What is not understood in this frame of reference is that, when’s one’s present life is contaminated by unresolved childhood issues and survival strategies, any attempts to construct a better future will be built on a faulty foundation and likely will be unsustainable.
From this understanding and awareness psychotherapists have evolved methodologies for addressing and healing the wounded child in themselves and in their clients.
A major reason why growing up is unappealing and difficult for most adults is because what we mean by “growing up” is not clear. Up until now, a conceptual framework for growing up as adults has not existed – at least, not one that is not incredibly complex and confusing. Most adults assume that they are grown up – or at least as grown up as they are ever going to be. They do not realize that they are spending a large part of their lives and their life energy in what we call an “Adapted Child” ego state or level of functioning. In our work, we define growing up as understanding and moving out of Adapted Child into a Functional Adult ego state.
In our next post, we will begin by reviewing the more commonly understood concept of the Wounded Child and then explain its relationship to the crucial additional concepts of Adapted Child and Functional Adult. An understanding of these simple, yet fundamental, concepts leads to a clarity that is currently lacking in our culture and our society about the nature of being a true grown-up.