Picture the following scenarios:
It’s late at night, and you’ve got a looming deadline for work — yet, instead of getting your work done, you’re scrolling through social media, or mindlessly watching TV.
You’ve promised yourself you’d start eating more healthfully, but can’t resist that morning stop for fast food on the way to your job.
After a fight with your significant other, you stop to do some shopping and find yourself mindlessly filling your cart with items you don’t need, but can’t seem to help purchasing anyway.
If you’ve found yourself repeatedly in any of these situations, you may be struggling with that most bedeviling of obstacles: self-sabotage.
In her newly reprinted book Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage and Healing from Abandonment, Susan Anderson aims to help you get to know the culprit behind your behavior, and begin a program to get yourself on the right track.
Anderson, a psychotherapist with more than thirty years of experience helping patients heal from trauma, has come up with her own name for the part of your psyche responsible for self-sabotage: the outer child. According to Anderson, the outer child is responsible for some of the most frustrating behaviors we experience: addiction, procrastination, overeating, lack of self-care, hoarding, and relationship problems. So what is an outer child, and why do we need to get it under control?
Anderson breaks her model of the psyche into three parts: what she terms the little self, the outer child, and the adult self. The “little self” (also referred to as “inner child”) represents our core emotional needs. Meanwhile, our outer child works to protect the little self from all of the emotional damage spanning our earliest memories up to the present, including trauma.
Then, Anderson writes, our adult self serves the role of managing the outer child while prioritizing care for little self. When the adult self “abandons” the little self and lets the outer child manage day-to-day behavior, that is when self-sabotage occurs.
While separating the psyche into these three functions may sound confusing, Anderson provides plenty of guidance (along with supportive exercises) for doing so. Early in the book, I did find the chapters blaming the outer child for all of our bad behavior a bit off-putting. However, as I progressed through the exercises in the text, I came to see that doing so was an important part of healing and understanding these three different selves.
The exercises Anderson prescribes mostly involve writing and visualization, and she correctly cautions that the writing exercises will not work unless we actually write out her dialogues and responses. Some of the dialogues can seem a bit silly at first, but Anderson provides strong examples from her own workshops to demonstrate their usefulness.
After outlining her basic concepts about the three selves, Anderson provides chapters focused on common struggles, such as overeating, overspending, trouble in relationships, and depression.
Even if you don’t buy into the concept of the outer child, there is plenty of excellent advice and research in this book. One of Anderson’s most powerful ideas is that our current behaviors are strongly tied to events we experienced in the past — but ones we may not clearly remember. Anderson draws on research to explain that the amygdala, which holds our earliest memories of emotions, develops before the hippocampus, which holds circumstantial evidence of events in our lives. This may explain why we react to circumstances we may not even recognize as past traumas. By acknowledging these reactions, Anderson posits, we can begin to control them and repair our lives, regardless of the traumas we may have experienced in the past.
Anderson also drives home an important point for any long-term self-improvement program: It’s not enough to understand and explain the behaviors we want to change; we have to take concrete steps to re-route our brain’s wiring to make the positive changes we want.
Rather than embarking on a large-scale quest for change, Anderson advises, it may be more effective to take small steps each day. When completing her dialogues and exercises, she acknowledges, it will take several months before you’ll see noticeable changes in your behavior.
In all, I found this to be a great, useful read. Anderson provides a wealth of research to back up her ideas on trauma and the brain. And it took some extra time for me to get through the book, but that’s because I did try some of the exercises, which is part of the point. Keeping a so-called outer-child notebook handy while reading is helpful. There is a lot to absorb.
Anderson also does a nice job of bringing the outer child back into the picture at the end of the book. This way, ideally, after you’ve done some work, your three selves can function together as one conscientious person: you.
Taming Your Outer Child: Overcoming Self-Sabotage and Healing from Abandonment
New World Library, February 2015
Paperback, 296 pages