Say you're unhappy: unsuccessful in human relationships, perhaps, or addicted to drugs, alcohol, sex, food, work or gambling. You're unfulfilled, guilt-ridden, perfectionist, isolated, suspicious, tense, unable to tell anyone how you feel or what you want.
That's not the real you, according to Towson physician and author Charles Whitfield: It's your "false self," the person you created when the child you used to be went into hiding from parents who were chaotic, addicted, abusive or otherwise unable to provide proper nurturing.
Finding and healing your true self, the inner child that Dr. Whitfield describes as "ultimately alive, energetic, creative and fulfilled," has become a popular therapeutic concept in recent years. Starting Thursday, Dr. Whitfield will chair a three-day conference called "Healing the Child Within" at Baltimore's Hyatt Regency Hotel.
A similar theme will be explored in "Family Masks," a drama about the problems of adult children of alcoholics that will be performed this weekend by Splitting Image Theatre Company.
The concept of emotional development frozen in childhood can explain some aberrational adult behavior, according to Trish Gaffney, clinical director of recovery programs at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.
For example, "If you get called on the carpet by your boss, and you cry for the next three days, that's not your adult responding -- it's your child," Ms. Gaffney explains. "Or if you were sexually abused at age 8, and someone approaches you in a sexual way when you are an adult, you freeze with terror.
"Or if at age 8, you were expected to run the family, you will probably grow into an adult who never knew you had a right to say, 'No' or to have your own experience," she continues. "You will be a compulsive helper, and only feel safe when you are helping, because that's how it was then."
Other ways people try to compensate for the void include substance abuse, chronic overwork and eating disorders. "We try to fill it up with anything, with people, places, things, behaviors, experiences, but it usually doesn't work because they're not the cause of the emptiness," says Dr. Whitfield. "The cause is that the true self has gone into hiding."
Healing means finding the inner child, coaxing it out of its hidey-hole in the psyche, allowing it to express its anger and grieve over its losses, and providing it with the love, approval and nurturance it didn't get from its parents.
In recent years, healing the inner child has become talk-show fodder; its best-known spokesman is John Bradshaw -- Houston-based therapist, author, host of a couple of PBS series on dysfunctional families. Bradshaw workshops are famous, or perhaps infamous, because of the adults who come, clutching stuffed animals, to find and restore their inner child.
It may look like just another feel-good fad, packaged in some new psycho-babble that assures us we're all OK; that it's our parents and their parents before them who made the big mistakes.
"It's romanticized," says Dr. John Steinberg, director of chemical dependency programs at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "But a lot of people who are sick need to be approached at a level that recognizes their inability to stop hurting so bad."
Ms. Gaffney says it helps with substance abusers: "Many of my clients find that it echoes their experience."
And Baltimore psychologist Richard Schreder, who is also speaking at the conference, points out ancient and honorable antecedents for the idea.
The inner child is one of the recurrent psychological motifs that Swiss psychologist Carl Jung dubbed "archetypes" because of their appearance in contemporary descriptions of dreams as well as ancient myths.
As used today in therapy, it assumes "a background where the child was essentially deprived," explains Dr. Schreder. "In households where parents won't tolerate free expression or where there's sexual, physical or emotional abuse, or where there's alcoholism, children have to grow up too fast. They deny their feelings, their needs, their spontaneity, because they learn to be on guard very early. They learn to placate other people.
"They are often very sensitive to other people's needs, but when you ask what they want, you draw a blank. When they try to come home to their own needs, there's no one there," he says. "One useful way to personify what's missing is to learn to relate to the inner child, to relate to themselves."
Dr. Whitfield, who describes himself "an adult child of dysfunctional parents," first became aware of the inner child concept at meetings and conferences in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and has since written two books, "Healing the Child Within," and a sequel titled "A Gift to Myself."
"I realized the child within is the true self, the true identity, the soul, the heart, the existential self. I started applying it to my work assisting people in their recovery, and it worked better than anything else I had tried. It worked better in my own life than anything I had tried," he says.
Although Dr. Whitfield was trained as an internist, his practice is now devoted entirely to helping people heal their inner child.
It is a three-stage process, he says, in which they first identify and get the appropriate care for their disorder or disease, then get into the work of recovering their inner child, and finally connect in a spiritual way "to the god of their own understanding.
"We are not bad, sick, crazy or stupid," says Dr. Whitfield. "We were just wounded."
Registration for the "Healing the Child Within" conference can be done on a daily basis, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, beginning at noon Thursday. The fee for Thursday afternoon's program is $65; Friday's is $110; Saturday's is $95.
For information about time, place and tickets for "Family Masks," which will be performed in Harford County this weekend, call (301) 838-6000 or 879-2000, extension 333.