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Baha’u’llah has charged us with creating unity everywhere in our lives. Sometimes, though, our inner wounds get in the way.
A very young me internalized “I don’t belong” from relatively simple experiences like being excluded from friend’s birthday parties and being sent to my room as a punishment. More deeply I internalized it was better to not belong as closely to my family after my mother almost died and her attention was focused on my younger baby brother. It seems to be a common human experience to have an inner child voice born from reacting to early challenges, especially those that involve rejection, severe criticism, or disconnection.
Our inner-child voice operates, often unconsciously, and interferes with connection with others when we are adults, especially if we seem to be experiencing rejection or disrespect from someone. I see it in my work as a relationship educator and coach based in the United States, in friends, and in myself. For some, the inner operating phrase is different: “I’m not good enough”, “I’m invisible”, or “I don’t matter”. But the outcome is the same: disconnection and disunity with people that we really want to be close to. There is hope:
The bright rays of union will obliterate the darkness of limitations, and the splendors of heaven will make the human heart to be even as a mine veined richly with the love of God. 1
When “I don’t belong” is operating and in charge, I cautiously enter activities and events. I stand off to the side and survey the space and decide whether to participate and in what way. Connecting with others is a “maybe”. Interactions are likely to be polite but a little cool and distant. There is an automatic barrier to letting anyone in very far or reaching out to them. I often interpret words and actions of others as critical, and I defend myself to avoid being hurt.
In a family situation, it can devastate our happiness and unity when each of us acts and reacts with our inner child who feels we don’t belong, are not valued, or are not seen and heard. Something a partner does or does not do can unconsciously trigger these feelings. We can then automatically react with an intense mix of grief, anger, and fear. We react as if our partner’s actions or inactions are a loss of love and acceptance from someone close to us. The reaction is strong because the past and present are comingled, and unconsciously there is a reminder of a childhood wound. However, our intense reactions can then cause others to resist connection with us–just when we need their compassionate accompaniment. It becomes a vicious cycle of wounds.
Sometimes the prompts to react are simple. I remember a time when my husband kept putting the incoming mail where I often sat to eat a meal. I got angry every time he did it, out of proportion to what was happening. When I realized that I was interpreting his action as telling me I didn’t belong there, I was able to dismantle my reaction and even laugh about it. I also bought a basket for the mail.
Unity with a marriage partner and family are vital for our well-being:
Note ye how easily, where unity existeth in a given family, the affairs of that family are conducted; what progress the members of that family make, how they prosper in the world. Their concerns are in order, they enjoy comfort and tranquility, they are secure, their position is assured, they come to be envied by all. Such a family but addeth to its stature and its lasting honor, as day succeedeth day. 2
I can look back and see how “I don’t belong” has also affected my involvement in the Baha’i community at times. Often it has shown up as “I’ll just do my own thing”. Individual initiative is commendable, and there is a place for it in service, but being able to act along with others is a vital part of unity-building.
The power of action in the believers is unlocked at the level of individual initiative and surges at the level of collective volition. … Even though individuals may strive to be guided in their actions by their personal understanding of the Divine Texts, and much can be accomplished thereby, such actions, untempered by the overall direction provided by authorized institutions, are incapable of attaining the thrust necessary for the unencumbered advancement of civilization. Individual initiative is a pre-eminent aspect of power; it is therefore a major responsibility of the institutions to safeguard and stimulate it. Similarly, it is important for individuals to recognize and accept that the institutions must act as a guiding and moderating influence on the march of civilization. 3
I often carefully choose where to belong. However, there is an underlying defensiveness and protective reaction that is never far away that knows at any point someone could do or say something to kick me out. It has me seek validation and encouragement from others at times, so I know it’s safe to keep being involved. It’s good to examine how “I don’t belong” or our other internal phrases show up at home, work, and in community. When do we make choices from a pure wish to serve? When do we make choices as part of striving to belong? When is it a mix of both?
I see with others at times that they step into the Baha’i community, but they withdraw after looking for and observing “evidence” that reinforces their inner voice. When we focus on creating unity, it helps us to counter this tendency. This is one of the beautiful aspects of the core activities. Everyone belongs, everyone has a place to serve and can serve at their own pace, and everyone can create connections.
In a family, we co-create unity with our marriage partner and our children. It’s an organic process, so forcing it doesn’t work. We create a sense of belonging with another person during courtship, and this is a time when we intensely see and hear each other. Then we enter marriage believing that this belonging and visibility will be eternal. We can breathe and relax a bit. Yet, underneath there still lingers a fear that we really don’t belong, that our partner doesn’t really value, see, or hear us. When our partner asserts their own history, identity, behaviors, wants, and needs that are different from our own, it can seem like evidence that something is wrong, and perhaps we made a poor partner choice.
To survive, we can try to have our partners be more like us, we can get angry with them, and we can try to consult with them. But how can true unity be created when we don’t recognize what’s underneath in ourselves that is interfering? Part of justice is the ability to “see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor.” 4 Baha’u’llah also says that the “purpose of justice is the appearance of unity.” 5
Of course, many people will need professional help with the process of healing childhood emotional wounds. However, we can all raise our awareness of when our inner phrase affects our interactions with others. We can each assure our inner child that she or he belongs to God, has a place in the world, and is loved and accepted. This helps us stop interacting with others from a childhood-place-of-insecurity. It helps us heal when we express love, patiently nurture bonds of connection, and help others know us and be with us. We can be courageous and let others know when we need a hug or words of affirmation that we do belong, and that we are seen and heard.
Abdu’l-Baha is a gift to us as we grapple with these inner voices that sabotage our best selves and unity with others. He consistently set a place at the table for everyone, poor or wealthy, black or white, educated or illiterate—all were welcome at the “banquet table of the Lord.” 6 His way of being with others from a place of love and acceptance, truly seeing and hearing them, helps me to make choices to connect and belong. I can choose to walk into a room and radiate love instead of caution, and it creates connection and unity.
Susanne M. Alexander is a Relationship and Marriage Educator, author, and coach with Marriage Transformation®( www.marriagetransformation.com; www.transformationlearningcenter.com; www.bahaimarriage.net). She is a faculty member for the Wilmette Institute Relationships, Marriage, and Family Department online courses (www.wilmetteinstitute.org). Susanne has been single, dating, engaged, married, divorced, and widowed. She is a child, stepchild, parent, stepparent, and grandparent. All of this has given Susanne a diversity of experience to share! She is originally from Canada and is married to a wonderful man in Tennessee, in the United States.