Aware Parenting, development of the self, and repression

When I first came across Aware Parenting, one of the first things that I was amazed to learn, was that babies can heal from stress and trauma from birth onwards.  Trained as a psychospiritual psychotherapist, I had believed up until then that repression, splitting and denial were part and parcel of childhood, and could only be let go of, and with difficulty, in adulthood, through psychotherapy or body psychotherapy.

More than ten years later, I am revisiting this amazement.  Most healing paradigms have yet to integrate the findings of parents practising Aware Parenting - that is, when babies are held and listened to daily by loving parents able to be present with, and attune to, the myriad of feelings that all babies experience, then repression, denial and splitting are not necessary.

In practice, since most parents have emotional blind spots themselves, what this looks like is attunement to a proportion of their baby and child’s feelings, with some other proportion of feelings still being repressed.  However, with each generation, this proportion of repressed feelings thus can decline, and quite radically with each generation.

Bringing together these different fields, that of the psychospiritual context, (which includes the pre-personal, personal, and transpersonal, as well as most psychotherapies, models of body armouring, and so on), and the Aware Parenting context (which is that all babies have feelings at least from birth onwards that can be heard and released), we come to quite a different conclusion to many other perspectives.

The conclusion is that repression of feelings, armouring of the body, and splitting off from painful experiences is not a necessary condition of developing from baby to child to adult.  And that we don’t need to wait until adulthood to reconnect with our more authentic self hidden underneath such patternings, sometimes collectively referred to as the “false self”.

Instead, the more a parent can be present with her own feelings, and differentiate between his baby’s present-time needs and his need to express his feelings, the more she will be able to be present with her baby’s feelings.  When her baby experiences being held and being attuned to and listened to, he is able to simply be with and express his feelings.  The more his parents are able to do this, the less he needs to repress.

When a parent has a blind-spot, which means is unable to be present with a feeling in himself, for whatever reason, then he will simply be blind to that feeling in his baby.  Thus his baby will not experience being held and heard in that feeling, and will need to repress it  in order to experience safety.  Repression in Aware Parenting is called a “control pattern”.  When a baby represses a feeling because in this way, he has several ways of doing this.  Often he will repress it in the way he is unwittingly taught by his parents.  

For example, if a dad distracts himself from his feelings, he is likely to do something similar with his baby when she is upset.  This might mean jiggling a toy in front of her, or taking her to show her something interesting.  She learns to similarly take her attention outside of herself, and may start to look around at lots of things when upset, or move from playing one toy to another.

If a mum eats when she is upset, then she is likely to feed her baby when he is upset.  Thus, he too will learn to deal with his feelings in this way.  When feelings arise, he will indicate that he wants to be fed.  The mum, already clouded in her own perceptions of her body states, confusing hunger from emotional states, will believe he is hungry and will feed him.

If a dad represses his feelings through movement, then he will tend to read some of his baby’s feelings as a desire for movement, and will rock, or bounce, or move his baby.  His baby too will learn that when certain feelings arise, movement dulls them, and so will move whenever those feelings do arise.  

If a mum talks when she is upset, without actually feeling the feeling, she will tend to talk in that same disconnected way with her baby when she is upset.  This often happens with mothers and their baby girls, who then also learn to talk when upset but without being connected to their feelings.

These active-type mechanisms of repression can be accompanied by tension in the body, which in certain psychotherapeutic models might be called armouring.

For example, any of these could be accompanied by tension around the eyes, to hold off the tears; tension in the jaw, to hold off rage; tension in the pelvis to hold off fear; tension in the shoulders and arms to hold off rage or powerlessness.

In addition, some control patterns are simply picked up by the baby, either unwittingly copying a parent, or simply as a way to disconnect with the feelings that her parents are unable to hear.

This includes, sucking a finger, thumb, or hand; clutching onto a soft toy; clutching onto a blanket; or repetitively scratching herself.  

These “control patterns” or repression mechanisms, shift and change as the baby grows, if the underlying feelings are not expressed with loving support.

In traditional developmental psychology, some of these mechanisms have been seen as necessary developmental stages.  For example, Donald Winnicott wrote in detail about “transitional objects”, which were things like soft toys which a child clutched on to.  This was seen as a healthy and necessary development from attachment to the mother towards  individuation.  From an Aware Parenting perspective, we would see that when a baby or child clutches onto a soft toy in a certain way at certain times (for example, when being left by a parent), that this is not a healthy developmental progression, but rather, an indication of the arising of painful feelings, and the child has experienced that the parents are not able to be with such feelings, and thus he is himself not able to be with these feelings.

So, the more we as parents are able to be present with the full range of our own feelings, the more we will be able to hold, contain and be present with our baby’s feelings.  As he moves through different states, we can meet his needs, such as for closeness, food, protection from overstimulation, and also listen to the feelings which he has every day.  As we listen to his confusion, fear, sadness, excitement, joy, and wonder, he is able to move through them without disconnecting from them.  The more we can do this, the less he needs to repress anything.  This means his body remains relaxed and alert, without a build up of tension.  He is free to make eye contact.  He concentrates for long periods.  He sleeps when he is tired and wakes when he has slept enough.  He sleeps with a relaxed body.  He moulds into being held.  He is interested in his world and excited to learn.  He is present and alert in his body.  There is a sense of awareness in his body.  

The more we are able to do this, the more he stays connected with his unique inner-sense and innocence; able to be connected with his own truth and inner direction.  In psychotherapeutic terms, the development of his egoic structures more accurately reflect his authentic self.  As he becomes an adult, he is much less likely to suffer from the pain which occurs when the developed self is discordant from the authentic self.  Who he “thinks” he is, and who he senses he is, from the inside, are more congruent.  The more accurately we, as his parents, have read and responded to his feelings, states, and preferences, the more congruent those two are.  As he moves into later stages of development as an adult, this greater congruence will mean he has less “baggage” that was not his, and was not him, to get rid of, before feeling that sense of congruence between inner and outer, and before offering his true gifts to the world.

I believe that the more we are connected to our own inner-sense, and the more we trust, and live, from this, the more we model this for our children, and the more accurately we are able to see who they really are.  Each time we disentangle and differentiate what are our feelings, preferences, and beliefs, from that of our child, we free them from carrying something that isn’t, and never was, theirs.  The more we live our lives true to ourselves, connected with who we are, the more we are able to support our children in flourishing in their own unique and beautiful ways.  

Thus, being a parent is a sacred task.