Fulfilled Relationships: Evolving from Adaptive Child to Functional Adult

Apr 22, 2024

Greetings to all fellow seekers of healing and self-discovery,

We all carry relational wounds. In order to navigate this wounding, we unconsciously develop an internal Adaptive Child. It’s inevitable that none of us escapes childhood without experiencing disappointment, hurt, feeling overwhelmed, or being left alone at some point. These relational traumas can occur to varying degrees; through subtle occurrences, continuous subtle occurrences, or a more significant event. Our minds and bodies retain imprints of most events from our past because our evolution wired us to prioritize survival and learn from experiences, especially negative ones. Our neurobiological reactions to triggers are inherent survival mechanisms meant to keep us safe. However, if these reactions become too frequent or extreme, as can happen after trauma, they interfere with our capacity to engage in healthy adult relationships. The key to individual and relational healing lies in learning to manage our nervous system’s reactivity.

We often react to the triggers from the space of the Adaptive Child which was created for survival. Something in the past was too much, too intense, and too rapid. And we couldn’t cope with this situation or express our feelings. We store those events in the body, and we learned coping mechanisms of avoidance, dissociation, attacking, aggression, withdrawal, attachment, etc. Those are, in some ways, our gifts that help us survive and can guide us in adulthood to grow and mature. We are often fed up with repeating the same patterns, hurting someone or oneself. To mature and grow, we need to start bringing more awareness of the Functional Adult to heal past wounds.

Exploring the Three Parts of the Psyche:

Our psyche is multifaceted, much like in the Internal Family System (IFS), we recognize individual parts. Similarly, our psyche consists of three integral parts:

The Wounded Child: This part bears the scars of abuse or neglect. It embodies a very young, vulnerable, often pre-verbal aspect of our psyche living in the past, typically flooded with feelings of lack of love, worth, self-esteem, and shame. Life feels intimidating for this part.

The Adaptive Child: As the second part in development, the Adaptive Child was created for survival, intending to protect the Wounded Child. Developed when we learned to adapt our feelings and behaviors in response to the world, it encompasses learned emotions like guilt, fear, depression, anxiety, envy, and pride. Also known as the Manager, this part adopts specific strategies for survival, a defense mechanism that was once useful but can impede our ability to respond consciously in adulthood. Responses may include attacking or leaving in the face of shame, numbness, avoidance, toxic relationships, limiting beliefs, inner criticism, isolation, or withdrawal.

The Functional Adult: This is the last part to develop, with the brain reaching full maturity around the age of 26. At this stage, we gain the capacity for compassion, understanding, and a broader perspective on life. The Functional Adult allows us to comprehend the relational field between us and the external world. It represents the conscious part of the brain that aids in decision-making, reflection, and contemplation on our story. It enables us to see reality as it is, stepping out of the egoistic small self we might have perceived in childhood. We begin connecting with a broader consciousness, seeking deeper connections and answers.

Transitioning from the Adaptive Child to the Functional Adult:

To engage the Functional Adult, our focus should be on working with the Adaptive Child rather than the Wounded Child. By involving our bodies (soma) and minds (psyche) in evidence-based trauma treatments, we can learn to relate to others from our most thoughtful, mature self. The potency lies in psychosomatic treatments and embodiment, allowing us to self-soothe the hijacked parts of our brain and autonomic nervous system until we feel calm, collected, and connected.

When seeking relationships, our goal is to be connected, centered, intimate, and feel safe. Only then can we respond and interact respectfully from our Functional Adult part. Without the presence of both connection and protection, we struggle with self-esteem and boundary issues, shame, and unhealthy reactions from the subconscious mind. When triggered, our Adaptive Child parts behave as if in a fight for survival, resembling the reactions of immature children.

For me, spiritual growth involves understanding that everyone has triggers, including our partner, family members, friends, colleagues. Our partner grapples with their reactions too. While we can’t change our partner, we can influence them by changing ourselves to become more grounded in our Functional Adult. This transformation is the cornerstone of mature and functional adult relationships. I am noticing in my own personal journey that opening intimacy and vulnerability often depend on one person owning their feelings and having the courage to express themselves fully. When we can be vulnerable and expose ourselves, meaningful, fulfilled relationships are created, based on trust and loving presence. Where each of the partners meets as an individual being, this also creates a third being which is the relationship itself.

Centering and Grounding Practices for the Functional Adult:

Somatic connection to our body is key to being present with the responses of the Adaptive Child. Body and breath keep us in the present moment. Centering and grounding practices help us move beyond the responses of the Adaptive Child to act from the state of the Functional Adult. Let’s distinguish between Grounding and Centering:

Grounding: Involves connecting with the physical reality around us, the relational field outside our body, utilizing our five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Our bodies are physically part of the living planet, subject to its forces. Grounding establishes realistic connections to the present moment, fostering emotional regulation. It provides a solid grasp of reality, keeps our thoughts in check, restores a sense of self-regulation, and helps us escape the shared spiral of the freeze state.

Centering: Focuses on interoception, the felt sense, and awareness of inner sensations in the body. It’s a movement towards the inside, the center line. We become centered when we establish awareness of our middle line. Our bodies have a physical center, and the goal of centering practices is to develop a strong relationship with our core, intending to make choices that align with our true being. When strong emotions, like shame, arise, they have a powerful impact on our emotional body, altering the brain’s chemistry and causing specific thoughts and behaviors to emerge that “throw us off” our center. Centering practices reconnect us with our bodies, bringing us back to adult consciousness.

Now, let me invite you to a short practice to help reconnect with your body and feelings:

Find a Quiet Space: Choose a quiet and comfortable place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit or lie down in a relaxed position.

Focus on Your Breath: Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Inhale slowly through your nose, feeling your lungs fill with air, and exhale gently through your mouth. Focus your attention on the sensation of your breath.

Scan Your Body: Bring awareness to each part of your body, starting from your toes and moving up to your head. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort. As you breathe out, imagine releasing tension and letting go of any stress.

Grounding Visualization: Imagine roots extending from your body into the ground, like the roots of a tree. Feel a sense of connection with the Earth, grounding and stabilizing you.

Focus on the Present Moment: Bring your attention to the present moment. Notice the sounds around you, the sensation of your breath, and the feeling of the air on your skin. Let go of thoughts about the past or future.

Return to the Breath: If your mind starts to wander, gently bring it back to the breath or your chosen focal point. Be kind to yourself and acknowledge that it’s normal for the mind to wander.

Reflect: Spend a few moments reflecting on how you feel after the meditation. Notice any shifts in your mood, energy, or overall sense of well-being. Consider making centering meditation a regular part of your daily routine to experience its long-term benefits. Remember, meditation is a personal practice, and you can modify these steps to suit your preferences and needs. Dedicate 5-10 minutes daily for Centering and reconnecting to the Adult self.

With heartfelt compassion and dedication,

Nisarga Eryk Dobosz – BBTRS, BCST, CI, MER, LOMI

About Nisarga Eryk Dobosz:

Nisarga is an esteemed member of the BBTRS®️ faculty and holds expertise in Compassionate Inquiry, along with being a practitioner of Myofascial Energetic Release and Biodynamic Craniosacral techniques. His passion lies in global teaching and group facilitation. Nisarga reveres the human body as a sacred temple, advocating its treatment with the highest degree of respect and admiration. This philosophy underpins his work, resulting in a pinnacle of true craftsmanship rooted in a profound desire to comprehend and trust the body’s boundless potential for self-regulation and self-healing.

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