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By Maria Sylvester, MSW, CPC
“What if you were to be the person you needed when you were younger?”
I’ll occasionally wonder this out loud to a coaching client who is experiencing emotional distress. I wait and watch. Typically, I witness a subtle shift — a moment of quiet, yet profound, transformation. The anxiety, angst, emotional struggle, defensiveness, or blaming ceases. There is a pause. Then comes a smile of deep recognition and knowing. A smile of relief. This relief manifests because my question reminds the person sitting across from me that they are not powerless, but rather powerful.
I get the privilege of observing clients in moments of expanded self-awareness all the time. This simple idea — the possibility that one could be the person they needed when they were younger — can shift a a person from a state of helplessness to personal empowerment and freedom.
I’m always amazed and deeply moved when a client, reflecting on the notion that they could become for themselves what they wished from another, then heads emotionally in exactly the right direction for their healing. There is clear recognition of how they might think, feel, or do something in a new way. They step into a place of exercising personal strength. This is because quite often we know, at our core, what is necessary to change within or for ourselves. We have insight on how to fill an emotional void because we can vividly, often viscerally, remember what is missing. We know what we long for. We’ve felt the familiar ache for years. Honoring it feels quite validating.
Registering the Ache
Sometimes, unfortunately, the ache of remembering is an excruciatingly painful knowing. When I’m asking a client to “be that person,” they first have to register where, at the hands of another — whether intended or unintentionally — they didn’t have someone looking out for them. Instead, perhaps in the presence or the absence of another, they were emotionally wounded, or neglected, misunderstood, devalued, abandoned, abused, overlooked, not seen or acknowledged. These woundings, whether nuanced or extreme, result in a person feeling disconnected from themselves. The disconnection from and the burying of the authentic self occurs because a person has to wall off layers upon layers of emotional reactions simply to survive.
Woundings such as these tragically often occur in childhood, before the younger self has developed strong enough emotional resources and capacities to not be completely overwhelmed by the traumatic event. Instead, the child is flooded with painful feelings. If left alone during the experience or abandoned afterwards, the trauma is intensified. Adults, too, can undergo equally disturbing events — experiences that leave the individual longing for meaningful connection, empathy, support, and comfort from another to help make sense of and mitigate the pain. Holding, containing, and integrating big feelings is a challenge for many.
The search for a rescuer or comforting presence is a normal one. The desire to have someone “be with us” when we are suffering makes sense, is completely understandable, and can be incredibly helpful. The only problem is that all too often, the reassuring, nurturing someone isn’t available in the moment. Registering our aloneness in these moments can feel risky, threatening to take us back into excruciating memories.
Yet adults, with more developed emotional, intellectual, and reasoning capacities, can bring more expanded or abstract meaning to past traumas. An adult, for instance, is better able to appreciate the fact that it was a parent’s depression that made them inattentive and unavailable, rather than the belief that they were an unlovable, undeserving child. As adults, we can learn to initiate parts of our own healing process. We learn to self-sooth with words, gentle comforting activities, or most significantly, by developing the ability to feel all of our feelings in our body without running from them or making up stories to think them away. The ability to turn within, to successfully hold, contain, and navigate our emotional landscape, is to discover the power of who we can be for ourselves. It is profound.
It is part of the magnificence of the human condition that when genuinely supported, encouraged, and — if I may dare say — given “permission,” a person can truly return home to themselves, learning to embrace and step into their resilience and personal agency. I marvel at this. I coach for these moments. For they are moments of getting to stand alongside another amazing soul as they awaken to their core self. This is where true aliveness resides!
To reinforce core strengths, I’ll sometimes remind a client that they can be their own “sweetheart” to themselves. They can talk to themselves lovingly, saying, for instance: “Sweetheart, you are scared and anxious right now, but I’m here with you. I’ve got your back. Remember, you’ve got skills now you didn’t have when you were younger.” There is great healing embedded in these simple, gentle conversations with oneself.
As another example, let’s consider a person overwhelmed with acute social anxiety. They struggle to regulate their reactions and emotions because they have moved into fight-or-flight mode — racked with jitters, a pounding heart, and racing breaths. In these situations, I might suggest that the individual gently remind themselves that saying hello to a stranger does not equate to a life or death threat, even though their body sensations seem to be triggering such a warning. In other words, I guide the client lovingly back to themselves, so they can harness their logic and emotional knowing.
Tears of recognition and quiet joy often follow the kinds of caring directives I just described. This is because the person realizes, on a deeply experiential level, that being there for themselves can work wonders. And then, to further cement and consolidate their emotional learning and expanded self-awareness, we’ll talk together about and celebrate how self-empowerment feels — physically in their body, as well as in mind and spirit. This, my friends, constitutes an experience of transformation.
When one can be for themselves the type of person they needed when they were younger, utilizing core internal strengths to buffer the emotional struggles inherent in a difficult moment, there is relief. A dynamic, fundamental aliveness gets sparked. Accessing one’s internal resources and personal initiative is always healing.
So, dear readers: if you are longing to feel more vibrant and alive in your life, it is time to take yourselves to task. How might you return home to yourself and experience, right then and there, the person you needed most? Not sure? May I suggest you start with “Sweetheart…”
Maria Sylvester, MSW, CPC is a certified Life Coach in Ann Arbor, MI who loves empowering
adolescents, adults, and couples to live from the HEART of what really matters to them so that
they can bring their fully expressed, vibrant selves into the world. She has a special gift for helping
women reclaim their feminine power, and embrace their radiant, sensual, sexy spirits. Their lives
transform. They soar into their mid-life magnificence!