Because our minds are so complex, psychoanalysts often use metaphors and analogies to try to describe them. Freud described the mind as being layered like the topography of the earth—the conscious tip of the glacier is above the water’s surface, and there is a deep unconscious beneath. He also likened the psyche to a horse being bridled by a rider—the id (horse) needing to be mastered by the superego (bridle) in the hands of an effective ego (rider). Indeed, it feels that way sometimes. I sure know what it’s like to try to rein my impulses in!
For me, the analogy that has helped me best make sense of the life of the mind is Melanie Klein’s picture of the psychological world being like an internal family with a baby at the center of the action. Having worked with both young children and adults, Klein observed that we human beings tend to carry the impulses, feelings, and fantasies of our babyhoods with us into later life. She believed that, as adults, we all are under a lot of pressure from an internal baby part of ourselves that is frightened, confused, and in great need of help to figure out how to make it in this big, scary world of ours—a baby who longs for consolation, comfort, protection, safety, and ultimately love. The internal baby needs us to develop more mature parts of the mind—an internal mom and dad, if you will—so that there is a more grown-up someone inside to help the baby deal with life.
This analogy explains a lot for me. If I think about my difficulty getting out of bed when the alarm clock goes off in the morning as being like my inner baby’s wish to avoid the painful challenges of the day, I actually feel a little bit more compassionate toward myself—and am capable of having a bit more discipline, too. I can see how I need an internal mother or father who firmly but kindly says, “Come on, time to get up. It won’t be so bad. You’ll feel better once you wipe the sleepy dust from your eyes. It’ll be okay.” And so the baby-me reluctantly gets up and gets going, and soon feels more awake and capable thanks to the inner parent’s nudging.
In my last post, I wrote about how challenging it is to accept reality as it is—and also how helpful it can be. This week, I hope to get you thinking about this idea through the lens of the internal baby-internal mother analogy. That picture helps me when I think about having to face a lot of things in reality that I don’t want to face—things far more difficult than getting up in the morning. Things like dealing with conflict, standing up for what I think is right, tolerating unfairness, being patient in the face of hardship, leaning into emotionally painful experiences, weathering periods of helplessness, taking my medicine when I need it, biting my tongue, or swallowing humble pie.
We all need an internal mom or dad who can help us face difficulties in life. For me, that is a picture of maturity—not the absence of childlike feelings and fantasies, but the ability to cope with them effectively. Maturity comes when the internal mom can say to the internal baby, “It is what it is. It’s not perfect but it’s not so bad. And even when it is bad, you can face it. I’ll help you. We’ll do it together.” For me, that’s a pretty good picture of maturity—compassionate discipline towards oneself.
We hope for this kind of dynamic between parents and children in external life. Parents help children develop, teachers help students learn, psychoanalysts help patients grow. The work is to take these helpful outside experiences with others and set them up inside as a relationship with ourselves. Part of the wisdom of psychoanalysis is that, just as external experiences help shape our inner worlds, so internal experiences help shape our outer worlds. If we can develop a good relationship between our baby-selves and adult-selves in our inner worlds, we carry that to our outer lives as we are more able to learn through experience, become stronger, reach further, and develop our potential.
Put simply, a well-functioning internal family means more success in life, as the inner parent turns to the inner child and says—with a smile but in all seriousness–“Put on your big girl panties, and deal with it!”