Best way to bring up children

Boundaries with Love – the best way to bring up Children

The ideal parenting, and indeed the ideal relational stance generally, is – reasonably consistent boundaries maintained with love.

With children this is relatively simple. We insist on our version of what the boundaries are whilst maintaining a loving attitude, even in the face of rebellion of what ever sort. This does not mean that a situation “has to be talked through” in an endless way, it is simply about as a parent insisting on getting one’s way, with love. Endless explanations for a young child can be another form of bullying. This ideal is obviously easier where there is time and space and energy and patience. Much more difficult when exhausted on a chaotic and rushed school morning. But the more that this way can be practised and brought into daily life the easier it becomes in difficult situations.

No child is born “bad” or “negative”, yes, they come with a whole set of characteristics, but these are just natural dispositions. Any persistent negative patterns that emerge are always the result of trauma of some sort (trauma in its widest sense). Negative patterns emerge when a child does not get the love, support, attention and boundaries it needs.

Boundaries maintained with anger are obviously less “bad” than trying to maintain them with violence or even perhaps where there are no boundaries at all. No boundaries leave the child in a very scary place that in the end leads to a deeply self-destructive sense of self. The child ends up behaving negatively because the parents don’t care, and it is alone when it needs their help, knowledge and attention. It doesn’t have the resources to get its needs met alone, and so ends up blaming itself for being bad. But anger and violence end up with the same result, with the child internalising that they are “bad”. But anger and violence and abandonment are themselves reactions to unaware unbearable feelings generated by trauma with all its insecurity and fear. An adult’s anger happens for many reasons, but often it is because there is no confidence of getting one’s way without recourse to escalating levels of intensity. There is not sufficient trust, or learnt skill, in simply insisting that “x” happens or ”y” stops, with as much perseverance as necessary, whilst still holding our heart open with love.

Real magic happens if this can be practiced. Children want boundaries, they want love, and given them, they are naturally much more cooperative. There is no absolute moral code that says what boundaries are needed, (apart from the Golden Rule of treating other’s as you wish to be treated). This is about personal preference. In their book “Families and how to survive them” Cleese and Skinner argue that more boundaries lead to greater conformity, fewer boundaries to greater creativity. I think there is some truth in that, but I think this difference diminishes when boundaries are implemented with love. This is the crucial aspect that allows the child to flourish.

Sometimes there needs to be the threat, or introduction, of consequences, but it seems to me that this is a last resort and represents something of a failure of love and a failure of the authority that naturally emerges from being able to stand in front of your child, with love, presence, trust and confidence, insisting on your “reasonable” rules. Obviously, to a point the fewer the rules the easier life becomes, but there is a balance here because too few and trouble develops, as above. Children who have experienced reasonable consistent boundaries find adjusting to the world much easier.

What is “reasonable consistency”? It seems to me that rules are made to be broken to some extent. To be obsessive about their implementation can give the message that they are more important than the child and they can end up feeling crushed by their weight. Not consistent enough and they become meaningless. So, balance in everything is, as usual, the key.

What gets in the way of us being able to treat our children with love, consistently?

The fundamental aspect to this is about how our own “trauma” leaves us with insecurity and this plays out in various ways. The more insecure we are, the more likely we are to find aspects of our child’s behaviour unacceptable. The other, (related) “Golden Rule” is that it is always those things that we criticise, reject or judge in the other that are what we have not yet leaned to face in ourselves.

The first and simplest form of this is that we tend treat others as we have been treated. If our parents shouted at us, the pain and hurt of those experiences get stuck within us waiting for an opportunity to come and be expressed in some way. The automatic, unaware, projection of this hurt happens when we shout at our children (or grandchildren in my recent case). If we can face this buried hurt consciously, feel it and allow it, we then heal it and our behaviour changes. Sometimes simply facing our responsibility for our behaviour is enough.

Another facet of this is how through having been wounded in our childhood, we took in the message that we are “bad” or not good enough in some way, then we become hyper sensitive to messages from the world that press this still sore wound. This includes when our child is rebellious or angry with us and we then over-react before we have time to think. It is amazing how many us react from un-reconciled childish places within ourselves. It might also be that a child is sulky or sullen or upset or lying or etc., etc., and we react angrily. Again, it is what we find unacceptable in them is what we have been punished for and what we still hold the pain of, inside us in an un-aware way.

We can struggle to trust our children and trust in their development, when we don’t trust ourselves. Again, this is about our own insecurities causing up to be overly fearful, anxious, reactive or controlling. Learning to trust in love takes practice, especially if we have not been shown it during our own childhood.

But what to do with our anger? This is often the big question. Here is where awareness is key. If we can really see that our anger is ours and that it comes from the hurt we have stuck inside us, we can let it go. No amount of “shoulds” or “oughts” or self-blame, or blaming others can help us, changes has to come organically, from seeing what is going on in ourselves and taking responsibility for it. Regret and apologising, as well as self-forgiveness, are healthy parts of this process as we slowly come to terms with knowing ourselves better. Through forgiving ourselves for being the way we are, we are letting go of the belief in our own “badness” (or whatever word fits best here). When we can forgive ourselves, we can forgive the other. Then, eventually we can stand in the face of situations, which previously would have had us over-reacting in some way, whilst holding both love and boundaries in a flexible and creative and adult way. Love is wonderfully creative given half a chance.

It is important that we don’t artificially shut down our anger in a repressive way. It almost certainly better to allow it than squash it within because of some “should” that anger is “bad”. This just leads to it leaking out in other pernicious ways. It is healthier for children to see spontaneous behaviour, rather than overly controlled and managed behaviour which can cause deeply confusion and double messages. Children also need to see that actions and behaviour has consequences, even if they are over-reactive consequences at times. Stopping our anger consciously and taking responsibility for it with self-compassion is a very different process that flows from awareness, not repression.

Our over-reaction might also be in the form of the withdrawal of love, or to impose some other punishment or other. The same applies here, awareness is the key. Really seeing what we are doing, or want to do, and where that comes from within ourselves, is what makes the difference between reacting with a closed vengeful heart, and bringing love to heal the situation. First, we need to start healing ourselves, then it is possible to heal any rifts between ourselves and our children (or grandchildren, or any other relationship).

This is all about our journey towards finding our confidence and trust in our own being. The only solid ground to build this on is self-knowledge. When we are no longer afraid of what we have inside us, we can face the world with greater equanimity, we can love ourselves and our children more authentically and unconditionally. The same goes for respect, so often our children become projective functions of ourselves, we interpret them as if they were the same as us, a part of us and we judge them as we judge ourselves, we don’t respect their difference. When we respect ourselves, we can respect the other, we can respect and allow difference.

What is Psychotherapy?

To me, the basic premise is that people are good. All our negativity and destructiveness, needs to be understood in terms of compensatory processes emanating from our insecurity, which is, in turn, caused by trauma in its widest sense. Many of our difficulties revolve around our inner conflict, which is the direct result of this trauma which happens when pain, hurt, fear or distress that was too much to bear is repressed. This process splits the self into parts and we are then cursed to live in conflict ourselves. Depression, anxiety, anger, addictions and compulsions of all sorts, relationship difficulties, all flow from this basic insecurity of the self, created by trauma.

Accepting this view means that psychotherapy is about helping people to slowly heal the splits in the self and undo the compensatory insecurities caused by trauma. It is about helping people to find their freedom through supporting greater awareness and understanding of how things are along with taking increasing self-responsibility. Therapy works with nature’s healing force to help us become who we really are underneath our insecurity. It is about being supported to become the fullest, most integrated and appropriately mature expression of ourselves we can be. The aim implicit in this is to live increasingly consciously in the here and now and in tune with our deepest nature.

I think the question of what our “deepest nature” is, is the biggest question in psychotherapy (as well as philosophy and politics). I see this as being about Consciousness, Love and Energy and how they are the basic constituents of the ‘here and now’ and our ‘being’. The ‘here and now’ is a transpersonal space full of Goodness and mystery, full of the essence of life itself, full of our connectedness to every aspect of our environment. It is this that provides our sense of meaning.

It is the wounds and deficits from the lack of love that cause our problems and disconnectedness from life and this shows how it is Love that is one of our deepest needs, and how Love underpins all human life, and indeed, somehow, the whole universe.

Our therapy journey is through symptom relief, to self-understanding, to self-responsibility, to realising that “What’s in the Way, is the Way” (Mary O’Malley), i.e. to being able to consciously use our difficulties to grow and heal in the face of each bit that crops up. Using our difficulties to grow rather than avoiding or tolerating them. This process of slowly healing through ever greater self-awareness enables us to find compassion for ourselves and others, to love ourselves. It is towards freeing ourselves from fear and eventually towards letting our hearts, mind and body open sufficiently, to enable us to let go of our ego. Then, even in the face of death there is no fear, only Love and Consciousness and Energy and we can let go into death fully reconciled.

Our journey is a psycho-spiritual-energetic one. To begin with we need to give a lot of attention to our ‘psychology’ to understand ourselves and our motivations. Our wounds and insecurity are often very deep and with many layers, taking potentially decades to get to the bottom of. For this work we need to allow our hearts to crack open to the depth of our hurt, we need to understand ourselves and the world, and we need the support that comes from developing our consciousness of our body, in whatever form it takes, e.g. meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, etc.

Perhaps most of all we need to practice the process of making what we are subject to (i.e. what we are experiencing emotionally), into an object of study and inquiry. We can only do this by attending to our here and now experience, our ‘what is’. Later in our journey, we can focus more directly on the spiritual dimension of increasingly letting ourselves go deeply into the ‘here and now’. The closer we live to this present moment, with our awareness, our open heart and our embodied energy, the more ‘alive’ and connected to life we are, and the more we can trust and let go of anxiety or whatever it is that keeps us avoiding, now. Connecting deeply with the here and now brings presence and spontaneity and trust and meaning.

We often try for all this prematurely, before we have really understood our psychology and its motivations. Then, it is our ego trying to obtain something for itself that is beyond it. This is usually part of an avoidance strategy referred to as “spiritual bypassing”, i.e. using a spiritual connection to try and avoid the difficulty of facing trauma of some sort. It then becomes something else that needs to be seen and let go of.

Through attention and care the three elements of head, heart and body can open and connect to each other, we need this to develop the self-support that we need to face and transcend the depth of our insecurity. We need both ‘push’ (as in working on our compulsiveness) as well as ‘pull’ (opening to the deep wish for, and resonance with, Life, Love and Consciousness within us). We need to “to do”, i.e. to work hard, as well as “not do”, i.e. to be and let go.

At what point psychotherapy ceases to be relevant on this journey is a piece of string question. Obviously, it is usually more needed at the beginning, but when it ends is unknown. As Kornfield made clear (in “After the Ecstasy the Laundry”), even those whose are lucky enough to have found great spiritual freedom can still need psychological help. Wilber (in “The Religion of Tomorrow”) describes how there are potential pitfalls all the way along our journey, until we reach full enlightenment.

This shows what Wilber and many others argue, that our journey is “psycho-spiritual” one, i.e. that our developmental processes is about both “growing up” and “waking up” and that these cannot be separated without huge loss. If we limit psychotherapy to helping people “grow up” we are missing a whole aspect of human experience. Just as when spiritual traditions focus solely on “waking up” they also lose an essential aspect of human nature. We need both, each supports the other in a full development. Attention on “waking up” to the here and now allows us to see and face our phenomenology reality, healing our trauma and understanding ourselves enables us to live closer to the here and now. As ever, we need both ‘doing’ and ‘being’.

This is my argument for Psychotherapy needing to embrace both “growing up” and “waking up”, which means that as therapists we need to be practicing both ourselves.


Jim Robinson October 2017

The hope of Love

In response to the recent trouble in Charlottesville USA from white nationalists, Obama, in a celebrated tweet, quoted this passage from Mandela’s autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin or his background or his religion…

People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

This is the message at the heart of the broadly humanistic understanding of our psychology. People are not born with negative or destructive tendencies in any shape or form. Love is indeed our more “natural” state, we are born “good”. So, where does all this negativity come from? How does it become so prevalent in human beings?

It is clear to me that what creates hate and all the negative aspects of ourselves is trauma. Even an ideal upbringing cannot be perfect, our developmental journey as humans is so long and complex that it is impossible for all its stages and transitions it be negotiated without ruptures at some point, and over so much time, accidents are bound to happen. Of course, most upbringings are far from perfect and far too many are horrendous. Hate begets hate.

Trauma is the process whereby deep wounds have to be repressed and internalised because they are too much to process at the time. Whenever this happens the self is left with some insecurity, there is a place inside us that is too difficult to face and therefore has to be avoided and defended at all costs. The power of this comes from the original self-protective reaction that could not face the trauma in the first place, there is bound to be much hurt, pain, anger, fear or distress there.

Trauma is behind every judgement (of self or other), every should or ought, every avoidance or angry reaction, every anxious or depressive reaction, every closing down or turning away or refusal to face the facts of life. It is behind all our insecurity and lack of trust.

But the “good news” is that underneath people are good, and as the quote above says, it is possible to be “taught to love”. This is the work of therapy and spirituality, to facilitate the undoing of trauma and our consequential insecurity, so that we can increasingly open to and live in our “natural” state of love. This has obviously always been the aim of therapy generally, but to me it is more explicitly and more clearly articulated by the emerging “psycho-spiritual” approach to human development. (See, Ken Wilber, John Welwood, Almaas, Richard Harvey, Jill Hall, Mary O’Malley, Relational Change, many within Gestalt and other therapy traditions, and many others.)

To achieve this goal of living closer to love, we need a combination of both psychological and spiritual work. We need to face our traumas and slowly heal ourselves as well as opening ourselves to the love and support that only the transpersonal can provide.

As a therapist, I do largely see generations slowly healing. Adults are not as badly traumatised as their parents; their children are not as traumatised as they are. The goodness at the heart of human nature gives me hope and optimism, as does the experience of connecting to the transpersonal level of life in the depth of our “here and now”.

Anarchistic Democracy

I recently watched a BBC4 Storyville documentary by Carne Ross called “The Accidental Anarchist: Life without Government” (23/07/17). I’m very grateful, the film “blew my mind” as the saying goes. It blew open the doors to seeing that maybe globally we are on the verge of a transition from old fashioned ‘hierarchical democracy’ with its roots in the middle ages and beyond, into non-hierarchical or ‘anarchistic democracy’. I find this profoundly exciting.

It corresponds to my understanding of human nature around how people are fundamentally good and self-repairing. We all need a bit of help from time to time, but the impetus within us is so strongly towards health, towards growth and autonomy and freedom. What holds us back are often all the legacies of authoritarianism, of power and control which created, and still creates, so much of the trauma in society. From this come all sorts of internalised de-powering shoulds and oughts and insecurities and self-restrictions.

Our old-fashioned hierarchical democracy in many ways still embodies the pre-democratic structures of power and wealth. Everything is top down and designed for control. This is still the legacy of kings, of the aristocracy and religion, it is still the legacy of the privileged selfishly hanging onto wealth and power by controlling people through violence. Still the legacy from “people are born evil and have to be made good”. That people cannot be trusted and will turn all to chaos and violence and degeneration if left to their own devices. This is a profoundly patronising and entropic view of human nature, which I am sure is not true. Life and human consciousness are not entropic, it is trauma and its consequences that causes the appearance of this at times. But trauma can be, and is being healed, and the freer society is, the more it can support this. It is clear to me how hierarchical perspectives are quite simply becoming more and more untenable to post-modern consciousness, to people re-claiming their freedom. It is amazing to suddenly see so clearly how the old perspectives are crumbling before our eyes.

This film argues for, and shows, that it is possible for us to trust human beings to organise ourselves in healthy and creative ways. Real democracy is so near, we just need to stop believing in top-down power and then suddenly “the emperor has absolutely no clothes”. Local community action can take power away from the centre so quickly and easily in the right conditions and circumstances.

Institutions can transform and the ones that are ripest for this, it seems to me, are state run institutions, especially schools. Schools are surely some of the craziest and most anachronistically dictatorial structures in our society. How do we expect our children to blossom in such madness? Teachers and pupils could just turn around and say we are going to change this school into a democracy and just do it. What an exciting and creative education might then be possible, showing children how real democracy can work. Much of the stupid hierarchical pressures of control through testing and leagues tables could be let go of. Who would care where such a school was in the league tables if it was buzzing with fun and creativity and learning how to learn, rather than the emotional and intellectual straightjackets of the present arrangements. Teachers enjoying their work, pupils really engaged … “heavens forbid!”.

Schools are perfect because property ownership is not such an issue and they are to some extent self-contained units. Universities are also good candidates but more difficult because less localised, hospitals would be trickier but surely not impossible. Police service, prisons and armed services are also ripe for change. But the heart of change though is surely within local communities. This needs a re-visioning of local government structures, as for example what has been happening with Frome town council. Local government can be transformed by local engagement and activism fed by the creativity that comes with taking back power from centralised control. Local communities taking back control of looking after those in need within it, sorting out local problems, local power generation(?), finding ways to support creativity and connection. Online networks are already forging the way, with the net ready and able to scale things up and share best practice.

Power is energy! By re-claiming or taking power, we gain energy. The inner and outer are intimately connected, each effects the other, and we obviously need to attend to both.

Our need for Philosophy

There was a lovely article today (9th Jan 17) in the Guardian arguing for philosophy to be taught in schools. It is from the point of view of enabling and teaching the young to think in preparation for a working life that will increasingly need flexibility, due to many factors including the computerisation of so many jobs.

I’m enthusiastic about philosophy generally because I see it as being about taking responsibility for ourselves on the intellectual level. By this I mean it points towards the possibility of understanding ourselves, our lives and the world as a creative process, one that integrates with our physical and emotional perspectives into a meaning whole. Philosophy separated from these connections becomes sterile and meaningless, it loses its way disappearing up its own backside in over-intellectualisation.

It is through understanding the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of our functioning, through seeing what it is that drives to do what we do and be the way we are, we start to understand our nature and its developmental potential. So, I don’t see philosophy as separate from self-reflection, we can only understand human nature and how societies work by understanding our own nature.

When we get down it, our ability to live with understanding and purpose and intelligence and consciousness, is about finding our way to living ever closer to this present moment. The alternative is to live un-aware and asleep caught up in lots of mechanical compensatory compulsive processes which come from our conditioned past with its fear of the future.

If we are to live free from self-justification, self-recrimination, making the other or self ‘good’ or ‘bad’, living as a victim always wanting more, or something else, or always wanting to escape from our lives, living in fantasy or regret, unsatisfied and defeated, then we need to find a way of changing. And change only comes through the paradoxical process of support and challenge, or self-awareness and taking self-responsibility, of desperately wanting to change but finding ourselves almost powerless to ‘do’ change. The forces which keep us away from living in the here and now are powerful and it only through deepening our awareness of them, of facing them, that we slowly work our way to the freedom of living here and now.

Through this process, we see that all our experience is meaningful, that there is cause and effect, that every difficulty can be used to make another step towards greater consciousness, that we do have the potential to develop towards freedom and that life is amazingly meaningful as we more and more glimpse the possibility of ‘Being’.

An essential part of this process is the need to live in question, to live questioning our experience and challenging our assumptions and pre-conceptions and our attachment to them. This is where a training in philosophy can be so beneficial. Being challenged to think for ourselves is such an exciting and liberating process. Instead of schools being about learning boring ‘known’ facts it has the potential to be a wonderfully creative force in adolescent’s development.

We relate to the world through our head (intellect), heart (feelings and emotions) and through our bodies. School could provide a training in using all three and especially in how to connect them up. Each needs the other two in order for the experience to be full and meaningful. What is the value in physical training without understand and feeling, emotional development without understanding and embodiment, intellectual training without feeling and practicality? Philosophy is interesting when it relates to our experience of living, to real questions that affect how we live and relate and how the world is structured.

When ideas are studied in this way they have the power to change us. We are inherently hugely powerful meaning making machines and given the resources of a holistic joined up self (i.e. not too much trauma which splits the connections between our parts in its need to maintain unawareness), development in one area will affect the whole of the self.

So, I am all for joined up, thought provoking, philosophy in schools. How can we have a well-functioning democracy without people being able to think for themselves? We are currently seeing the danger of moving towards a “post-truth” world of prejudice and reaction. We need more leaders who openly engage in this task of philosophy, in attempting to articulate what the meaning of human existence is and how it relates to our social priorities and to our amazing potential for development. The West needs to develop a culture that is more passionate about philosophy than it is about consumption.

As Maslow made clear, this is only possible after our basic needs for security, food and shelter have been satisfied, and for too many the basics are not safe enough. But there is also a chicken and egg problem here, as there is with any process of change, where because of our trauma we mistake life difficulties for emergencies, which then causes us to get stuck. I just hope that our inherent Goodness will find a way through.

Therapy for Weight Loss

Yesterday (13th October) the BBC’s “You & Yours” Radio 4 program had a section on  the success of therapy for those wanting to lose weight.  It was a clear endorsement of therapy’s effectiveness in the long term, which is the “gold standard” for Weight Loss methods. All other methods have incredibly high long term failure rates.

Having a space where people can be supported and their strengths valued is in itself very helpful. A space where a person can be allowed to be themselves, where their negative aspects can be accepted and they can be helped to see that these are a consequence of their ‘wounds’ rather their inadequacy or ‘badness’.

There are nearly always unconscious or semi-conscious emotional reasons behind over eating. This can be feelings of deprivation and deficit that remain from an impoverished background  along with an associated lack of self-worth. It can be comfort eating to fill a huge hole left by abuse or neglect or some accidental happening which leaves such heavy legacies of negative self-value.

What is clear is that all our self-destructiveness comes from our wounds and if this can be made clear and seen for what it is the level of self-hatred diminishes and relapses can be accepted much more quickly and kept smaller. This self-acceptance builds new confidence in a virtuous circle, empowering the person to try taking small steps day at a time and building from there.

Self-knowledge is the way that change really happens organically and permanently. Therapy helps people to look at themselves differently and in a new way, a more objective way. The task is always to make an (non-engulfing) object out of what we are subject too so that we look at our reactions, our behaviour, our bodies, our thoughts and feelings in a more objective way that opens the door to self-acceptance and self-compassion.

To find this we need to be prepared to take responsibility for ourselves, and we need to be supported feel that we are worth making the effort for. Development is always a combination of support and challenge and growing through the middle of our insecurity is the challenge for all of us in some form or another.