Adam Blatner, M.D.

November 18, 2007

The “inner child” complex of images is really an aggregate of elements, including positive qualities of spontaneity, vulnerability, sensuality, exuberance, innocence, exuberance, imaginativeness, playfulness, vitality, and so forth. Because of the vulnerability, though, people often psychologically “amputate” (repress, split off, compartmentalize) certain other of these qualities in order to maintain positive relationships with significant others—usually parents, but also teachers, ministers, or the peer group. This splitting leaves the personality depleted, without access to certain sources of psychic energy. Psychotherapy or healing often involves re-connecting the whole self with these split-off parts.

A complicating factor is the fact that many qualities in the mind overlap, and some of these are more problematic—egocentric, with short-term time sense, simplistic modes of thinking, vulnerable to being caught up in illusions. Allowed free rein, these childish qualities create what I’ve joking called “the inner brat” complex. Thus, there is child-like-ness, expressing many positive qualities that we would do well to sustain and develop throughout our lives; and child-ish-ness, expressing more negative qualities that we would do well to modify or channel as part of maturation. A realistic approach to healing includes helping people redeem their child-like-ness while also learning to identify and transform their child-ish-ness.

Actually, you can’t “get rid” of these childish elements, these expressions of “the inner brat,” but you can catch them and modify their influence. The first step involves identifying these elements, and that can be helped by considering a number of fundamental illusions that children entertain. Unless they are recognized for what they are—illusions, not reality!—, and replaced by more mature attitudes, they can drive a number of immature patterns, neuroses, personality disorders, and so forth. This paper will note some of these primary illusions and consider their nature. When you’re aware of the nature of these as temptations, you can better counter them. The illusions include:
   1. Life should be fair.
   2. Life shouldn’t be so difficult.
   3. Life shouldn’t be so complicated.
   4. I can have it all.
   5. My stuff is mine.
   6. I’m better than you.
   7. Why now instead of later?
        7a. I want it now, I can’t wait till later.
   8. Either / or. One way or the other. No in-between.
   9. Strength is Violence
 10. I shouldn’t have to compromise, make trade-offs, pay for things
       ( ...and as one grows older, one encounters the following challenge (to be discussed more in a separate paper):
               What?! Change my consciousness?”


These complexes generally constellate as language becomes a tool not only for communication with others, but also as a way to communicate in the service of self-adjustment, to offer oneself solace, to foster accommodations. This occurs around the ages of three to six, peaking around age four to five. Around this time in life, according to Alfred Adler, children come to some provisional “conclusions” about four implicit questions: (1) Who am I? (2) Who are other people? (3) What is the world and life about? and (4) In light of the answers to the previous three questions, what is the best way to adapt to it all? These decisions are also influenced by many intrinsic and extrinsic factors, such as temperament, abilities, and family background, among others.

The problem is that this “schema” (using Piaget’s term but applying it also to the psychodynamic sphere as well as the cognitive function) needs to be revisited every few years. This is because the ability to think in more complicated and discriminated ways—again Piaget and other cognitive and developmental theories apply—allows children to move beyond their primal illusions and the immature thinking with which they are applied.

Think of an analogy to a computer. Our thoughts may be the software, but the way we think would be equivalent to the operating system. Both need to be periodically updated, and in truth, increasing amounts of consciousness and explicit intentionality need to be used in doing this!

What many people don’t appreciate is that this process of figuratively updating the programs and systems, of maturing, goes on not just one reaches adulthood, but throughout adulthood. Erik H. Erikson’s psychosocial stages give a hint to the nature of this process, extending Piaget’s insights. Erikson’s schema doesn’t fully describe how middle-aged adults can and should think in more mature ways than young adults, and how later-aged adults should also think in certain ways that are more mature than middle-aged adults. There is not yet a consensus on such details, but consider the obvious: More sophisticated thinking is needed to cope with more complex jobs, marriage, parenting of young children, parenting of older children, politics, developing a sense of deeper meaning in life, and so forth. The thinking for each stage requires greater discernment, recognizing more nuances, considering the big picture, including a wider “circle of caring,” thinking about longer-term goals and consequences, knowing about a wider range of different options, and so forth.

We should recognize that there are also forces operating that inhibit the process of maturation. “Spoiling” children, in Adler’s concept of spoiling, allows them to continue their illusions into later childhood and perhaps beyond. The culture as a whole—politics, preachers, and advertisers, especially—pander to childish illusions and desires, imply that they are reasonable and should indeed be satisfied.

The most powerful inhibition is an innate desire to sustain the best of both worlds, to enjoy the prerogatives of childhood while partaking at the same time of the privileges and status of adulthood. The mind is a devious and amazingly clever monkey and can generate a wide range of compromises and disguises that feed this dual desire. Part of this process could be good—I want to encourage the redeeming of the child-like qualities, because they can compensate for the increased discipline involved in relinquishing the child-ish qualities. I want you to have fun and enjoy life, but to find ways of doing it in a more mature fashion.

Alas, the culture and the mind often doesn’t know how to distinguish between child-like and child-ish, and this can make trouble. One of the more significant adjustive maneuvers is called “compensation.” Used wisely, this can be most positive. You can’t always have what you want, and sometimes you discover that if you get it you don’t really want it, or it’s more of a problem than you’d bargained for. But you can find other things that can often be more adaptive and fulfilling in the long run—compensating in a good way. A not-so-good way, though, operates like this: In a given complex role, at work, in a relationship, you may play a number of sub-roles. In some of these role components you may be competent, perhaps even highly skilled, outstanding. The self-deception arises when you over-generalize your success and overlook the possibility that there may be a certain number of role components at which you are marginal or which remain underdeveloped or for which you have no talent.

Part of maturity involves knowing that you will have faults and weak points, and you are not so prideful as to ignore the task of identifying them. Then you can learn those skills in a remedial fashion, or perhaps even delegate these role components to others. (One bit of wisdom I heard impressed me: Find out what you do not do well and don’t do it.)

In other words, there is a temptation to assume you are “mature enough.” Beginning in the pre-teens, kids begin to think they know what they’re doing; this illusion intensifies through adolescence. Indeed, they are becoming more competent in a variety of ways! However, there is a corresponding tendency to slip into denial about the ways they may lack competence.

Role theory offers some help in this: I envision role theory being taught in high school and college as part of a core curriculum on practical psychology. If people know they aren’t just “smart” or “dumb” as an all-or-nothing quality, they can begin to more realistically assess their own range of strengths and weaknesses. Integrating the right kinds of pride in achievement and humility without humiliation is part of maturity.

Another part of maturity, though, involves some awareness of and development of ways to counter the primal illusions mentioned above. Let’s review them in greater detail, then:

Life Should Be Fair

It begins with a confusion of how it is and how we want it to be. A number of early adjustive maneuvers (in psychoanalysis they’re also called “defense mechanisms”) operate this way: I want it to be so, so it is so. It is too! Is too! Repetition, assertion, inner shouting: I’m not small, I’m big! I’m not wrong, I’m right! I’m not weak, I’m strong!  The maneuvers called “identification with the aggressor,” “undoing,” and others work this way.

Fair is a word-concept complex used to cope with envy and jealousy. These emotions were learned even before language, if one had the stress of coping with the birth of a younger sibling and the de-throne-ment of the sense of special-ness and access to attention of the only child. Kids will use all sorts of reasonable concepts to their own purposes, and the idea that things should be fair is one of these manipulations. This concept embodies the adjustive maneuver of rationalization—the delight of discovering something that makes parents give you more of what you want.

Life Shouldn’t Be So Difficult

Well, kid, Life is Difficult! These words began Dr. Scott Peck’s best-selling self-help book in the early 1980s, “The Road Less Traveled.” It is an important statement because, although on one level it seems obvious, many if not most people, deep down, have not really accepted this truth! There remains a sense of oppression, as if “they” are making “it” harder than it has to be for all sorts of mysterious and perverse reasons. There must be an easier way.

To some degree, a bit of this feeling can be sublimated—turned into something sublime, positive—i.e., creative dissatisfaction. Much of human progress is due to the working out of realistic ways to make life easier, inventions, procedures, not having to “re-invent the wheel.”

On the other hand, if this illusion is managed in a childish fashion, less mature coping skills are employed: denial, passive-aggressiveness, avoidance, sulking, excuse-making, blaming, devaluing (Why should I learn it? It’s dumb!), and so forth. Since it becomes an unconscious given that life should not rightly be so hard, there should also be some way that “they” can make it easier, if they only would. “They” refers not only to parents and teachers, but also “society,” “the government,” and even God! The only problem is how to plead, manipulate, blame, sulk, complain, and maybe even exaggerate the depth of despair and victimhood, so that “they” will take pity and make life easier. (The idea that “they” haven’t a clue how to make life easier is literally inconceivable to the immature mind—which is why we need to periodically make conscious efforts to become more mature and less bound by our illusions!)

Life Shouldn’t Be So Complicated

A variation of difficulty, this illusion also takes the form of believing that the important truths are simple; if one can identify them, everything falls into place, gets easier. The idea that important truths are indeed complicated and subtle is resisted, as is the truth that when these truths are indeed understood, what happens is that things become a little easier, but other things become more subtle and complicated! Lots of adults haven’t acknowledged this, because it implies a need to continue opening their minds, learning, and experiencing the humility of the degree of their ignorance. It takes a bit more maturity to realize that the complexity of nature and life shouldn’t be taken personally—it really reflects our collective ignorance. Also, a more constructive response to all this might be a cultivation of the experience of wonder! Relax and enjoy it!

I mentioned, though, how primal illusions are pandered to by politicians and others. If only— that phrase, “if only” is big in primary illusion thinking—you vote for candidate X, he’ll make it all better! It’s really simple. Get rid of “them”! They might be government, business, unions, certain minorities. Get rid of them and it’s simple. It really is, trust me! If you listen to your inner childish feelings, you can feel the tug—Boy, I’d love to believe that! It hurts my mind how complicated it is. Make it be simple!

“You know, it really is simple,” this voice says. “It’s the intellectuals who are to blame; the academics, they’re trying to make it seem complicated just so they can feel superior. It isn’t really complicated. They should stop trying to cloud the picture. Just put it in simple terms!” Alas, there is a germ of truth to many of these accusations. Often that’s all it takes to feed a deep illusion. But it’s just a little germ; the truth is that even if you simplify as much as you can, truth is still pretty complicated, even for very smart people. The problem with this illusion is that it persuades politicians, theologians, and others to over-simplify, which distorts the real nature of the situation. When people play to the illusion, it reinforces the illusion. If “they” package it simple, dumb it down, the problem is that folks want more, they want other things to be simple, too. “It’s not fair that they make it so complicated, so difficult.”

I Want It All

And why not? Why can’t I have it all? It seems as if others get it all. Look at the rich people! Look at the people on television! They have these interesting and glamorous lives, exciting. They don’t have to work a lot. When they do work, it’s a whole lot more fun than school and the place I work. And the advertisers tell me I can have it all. If I were only better, if I buy their product, that should do it. Getting things will make me happy, fill that empty feeling deep inside.

I want to party and have fun! That’s what’s fun, getting drunk, loaded, having sex, getting high. Hooray. Others get away with it! It’s not fair that “they” don’t let me have fun too. I want to see the world, I want to have my own private jet! I want lots of sexual partners. I believe I can have it all. I want a career and marriage, kids and status, fame and fortune. The people on television have it, and I should be able to have it too.

And when I’m old, I feel let down, ripped off, because I didn’t really live enough, I didn’t really make my mark. Is this all there is? What’s it all about? What’s the meaning? There must be an answer! Who’s holding out on me!?

A more mature alternative releases this greedy-grasping. Buddhism is so right on for this primal illusion. The skill of letting go needs to be learned from mid-childhood on. You can’t have it all, and you can contain that frustration. It may feel like you’ll die with frustration, but you can handle it. You won’t believe me until you’ve done it a fair amount, even made a bit of a habit of letting go. Guatama Buddha discovered you don’t have to overdo letting go—that’s what he called “false austerity.” There’s a middle way.

My Stuff Is Mine

This is tricky, because there are some realistic and positive elements mixed in, certain natural tendencies that can be developed in a mature fashion. There’s a place for private property, for its conscious use and enjoyment. There’s a place for the idea of possession. It’s when it becomes a basic attitude, over-generalized, applied unconsciously and to all sorts of things, it becomes darker.

The illusions of possession are also often mixed with a corresponding illusion of scarcity. If I have it, you can’t have it. No sharing. Kids around the age when this primal illusion gets going really struggle with this. It also overlaps into the problems of best friends. If he’s my friend, how come he seems to be enjoying playing with you right now more than his wanting to play with me? (Forget that I was playing with someone else just now. The point is he’s mine, and you can’t have him.)

Freud noted that sometimes this spills over to the family situation and gets mixed with sexuality, and called this the “Oedipal complex.” But that was his own problem; where he was right is that kids are dealing with the problem of having to relate to two or more other playmates at a time and this can stoke the whole experience of what it means to possess. Associated feelings include jealousy and  betrayal, and there are many mind-games and interpersonal manipulations and games that evolve around these interactions.

Erich Fromm, a psychoanalyst writing mainly in the 1940s through the early 1960s, focused on the depth psychology of “having,” of what possession means to people. Books are filled with the implications. The concept of having and property involves too few words, for example. We don’t differentiate between a person who owns a small farm and one who owns a million acres of forest land. Why shouldn’t the latter be as free as the former in doing what he wants? Chop down all the trees and sell them if he wants—it’s his “property.” Why shouldn’t someone who owns the only factory in the area exploit the workers as much as he’s able—it’s a “free market,” isn’t it? Are there more subtle ways of addressing these problems? Must it be “either-or?”

I’m Better Than You

It’s natural for kids to go through this stage, and really, all the others. The challenge is to not get stuck, to continue to mature, to revise these complexes. Kids think a bit all-or-nothing, and so they have to be a winner if they’re not to feel like a loser.

Our culture introduces a lot more competition a lot earlier than many other cultures. Some anthropological checking it out can be instructive. So grownups in Western culture feed this primal illusion, that winning, being number one, is good, is necessary. We think that without this edge kids won’t learn how to use effort. This is nonsense—children will work at developing a skill for the intrinsic pleasure of mastery. You don’t have to stoke this inclination.

There’s a more mature way. Alfred Adler, again, has shown a way—he called it “community feeling.” Let’s all of us win. You don’t have to be one-up in order to have fun, and we can all have more fun together without so much of an emphasis on one person being “the best.” In so many mature situations in life, “better than” simply doesn’t work as a source of positive socialization. (In some it still operates, granted; the point here, though, is that the cultural media, the mainstream discourse, the word isn’t out that competition and one-up-ness is a foolish and illusory way to get a temporary high, a rush of “nyah nyah nyah,” and denies the ugly and negative feelings this sub-system generates.)

It’s not just competitiveness—and cheating—that gets stoked by this illusion, but also bullying. We’re in, you’re out. We’re “exclusive,” as if that were a good thing. “You don’t belong, get out. Why don’t you go back where you came from!?  I sure told him, didn’t I? Yeah, you told him. You don’t believe me? I’ll go hit him, that’ll show you how brave and strong I am. You’ll be impressed that I’m the strongest. I’ll prove how tough I am, I’ll go shoot someone!” It all feeds the primary illusion, the need to be better. Adler called it the drive for superiority, a compensation for an inferiority complex, but it’s not real superiority in the sense of being mature, capable; rather, it’s the illusion of being better, and it’s a destructive one.

Again, there are some roles in which the game of competition can be useful, the feeling of striving, and so forth. We’re talking about allowing it to be an unconscious guide to life, not just to certain consciously chosen activities.

Why Now Instead of Later?

Childish thought patterns are poor at appreciating the constraints of time. If I’m busy doing something I like, or if what you’re asking me to do (or what I realize I need to do) seems onerous, I want to put it off. It’s a form of denial. Procrastination is part of this.

A corollary involves the opposite: I want it now, and it can’t wait till later! That urgency is a mid-childhood continuation of what was experienced in the early pre-toilet-training years. Maturation involves learning that I can contain my desire, even let go its urgency. (Further maturation involves learning to even let go of a given desire!)

For the problem of procrastination, the antithesis is the appreciation and acceptance of the functions of discipline and will. For the problem of urgency, the antithesis is “containment.” Again, there are many seeming adults who are remarkably competent in a number of roles, but who have significant delays and immature residuals in other roles. Becoming really great in some things does not confer expertise or maturity on other things automatically, or by osmosis. You need to assess each role in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of each role component.


Children are just learning the language, the names of general categories, and until they master these, it is only confusing to speak to them about nuances, sub-types, and so forth. Rules need to be simple and clear. Part of moral development is the shift to becoming aware in the teen years that there are circumstances that require exceptions, modifications, stretching of rules. (And, alas, some adults still haven’t made this maturational advance in certain roles.) Either-or thinking, then is necessary and normal in early-mid childhood. The problem comes with becoming a bit fixed in this mode and not being challenged to learn to attend to more complex problems. As one matures, there are more experiences, more categories, and the growth of the idea of sub-categories, or different types. In our changing and multi-cultural postmodern world alternatives have increased significantly.

Interestingly, faced with stress, some people regress—a psychological dynamic that refers to a reversion from more mature and differentiated thinking to less mature, more rigid reaction patterns of thought and belief. This fits with the aforementioned theme that life should be simple, and an unwillingness to accept that it really isn’t. Operating in concert with that simplistic desire, you’re either good or bad, for us or against us, and so forth.

Interestingly, much if not most of wisdom operates in a mid-range, with fewer absolutes, and even fewer extreme positions. True maturity requires an exercise of continuing responsibility, continuing discrimination, comparing the needs of the moment with one’s most mature, most highly discriminating values. This requires work, and it’s more tempting to just give in to wanting to strike out, substitute angry irrationality for constructive negotiation, and so forth.

Strength is Violence

When you’re a little kid, you don’t know how to negotiate, and diplomacy is beyond your capabilities. You may have learned a few manners on the surface, “please” and “thank you” kinds of phrases, but when push comes to shove, well, those are the words---push and shove---that are the operative determinants. A little bit older and you don’t have to use violence; you can just threaten it! Kids also learn less overt forms of intimidation: I won’t be your friend any more; the silent treatment; dramatic turning away and playing with others; mean looks and glaring; spreading untrue rumors; giving away secrets—the ways we can intimidate and manipulate others increase significantly with the ingenuity of mid-childhood. Ingenuity is not the same as maturity.

In our wider culture, alas, the consumerist and political environment colludes with these immature attitudes. We see violence as the major theme in movies and on television, and war as a national policy. Diplomacy—which is the actual form of more mature strength—cannot be appreciated by those stuck in more immature mind-spaces. Anyone who has half-successfully raised children through the teen years knows that diplomacy requires a real refining of skills. (Raising teenagers is itself a major challenge that can advance the maturity of their mid-adult parents.) But emotionally, to many, negotiations, tact, diplomacy, not requiring the other party to “lose face,” recognizing that a power struggle tends to evoke even more resistance—such complex concepts seem like being wishy-washy, a push-over. In truth, they are a greater strength, but immature people don’t see it.

The problem, of course, is that this widespread and unconscious attitude perpetuates domestic, civil, and international violence, and it is a form of great folly and immaturity—not strength. Yet the myth and illusions of strength pervade the culture and are one of the most influential themes for people in therapy and their personal growth.


The child is used to being nutured, given to. The concept of earning things takes a while to sink in, as does the concept of having to pay for things. That one must share, give and take, take turns—these ideas also begin to sink in, but for many, there is an imbalance: Their lives have too much being given to—leading to a sense of entitlement, that they should be given to—and too little demand for payment, for co-responsibility, for conditions.

The confusion of love and unconditional nurturance is part of this problem. We need to learn that unconditional love should involve only part of the process of rearing kids, not all of it. Also, this part should continue, but at an ever-decreasing level. Balancing it needs to be conditional love—or, not really love, but pride. I may care about you however immature and incompetent you may be, but I am proud of you only when you have achieved the next step in your potential, when you have striven, exerted effort, discipline, good will, exhibited love, faith, responsibility, and other positive character qualities.

Archetypally, this may be recognized as mother-love and father-love, though in truth parents of either gender should deliver a bit of both types. Kids need more father-love the older they get, having their rewards be associated with responsibility rather than need. There’s a continuing need for a sort of a base-line caring and respect, more mother-love—no matter how old the child grows. We all need both kinds as grown-ups, too, from our social networks, but one type should not be allowed to overly dominate.

So, getting this, knowing you need to learn to give as well as get, pay for what you buy, keep a budget, and so forth—the point is that many young adults still haven’t learned this deep down. They may acquiesce, but deep in their heart that spoiled entitlement still broods resentment.

Recognizing this, we need to watch for it, and when it rears up, not slap it down, but acknowledge the resentment as childish, and gently re-direct it by affirming a more mature way to cope with the demands of life.


Ten primal illusions have been described. Perhaps you can suggest some others—I’m open to your feedback and input. These are deep attitudes that easily can continue to fester and drive subtly neurotic behavior. I see them operating in many if not most adults of all ages, and worse, I see advertisers, politicians, preachers, and others pandering to these illusions in order to get more money and allegiance. For the species as a whole to advance, we’re going to have to grow past these illusions, to renounce them explicitly and relinquish them. We need to learn that some ways of thinking are childish, and other ways are more mature.

There is a companion piece that takes this approach further, titled “What?! Change my consciousness?” The point is that, yes, you and I need to change our consciousness, and we need to do it periodically, and that’s what growing up and meaningful living is about! It needs to be recognized as a reality rather than an external imposition from some oppressive authority. We need to learn to recognize that maturation involves many changes, including addressing all those aforementioned illusions.

More, we need to learn to put this process into a more dynamic-process kind of wider belief system. For me, that is that humanity is only maybe 25% evolved, and it is a deeply spiritual responsibility to continue to evolve. To me, the image is that we are in spiritual kindergarten and someone has given the kids real loaded guns to play with! Yikes! We need to develop the psychological, social, moral, and spiritual maturity that corresponds with our technological capacities. Identifying clearly the temptations of regression to immature illusions and patterns of thought can help counter their influence.

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