Understanding our inner child
Many times when we have had a difficult childhood or trauma, we develop certain coping strategies and survival techniques that later in life no longer serve us. We are not always conscious that the hurt and wounded child within us is still very much at the forefront and requires our immediate attention. This makes sense if we consider that only an estimated 12% of our life and our knowledge is in our conscious awareness, in contrast to 88% that is in our unconscious awareness.
We may have denied or not been aware of how much our childhoods have had an impact on us. We may dismiss it because we believe it ‘wasn’t that bad’, ‘others have had it worse’, ‘I was never hit’, I wasn’t sexually abused’... we may still be that child that in order to survive cannot see our parents as they were and not wish to see them in a bad light.
This isn’t about blame, this is about owning the fact that something has had an impact and that everything results in consequences. This isn’t about comparing but acknowledging that we all have a right to feel the way we feel and that many things can be damaging. Everyone feels and reacts and experiences things in different ways, all are valid.
Childhood difficulties occur due to many diverse reasons:
- Bad experiences at school.
- A single event trauma.
- Cultural shame.
- Emotional neglect.
- Emotional abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Physical abuse.
- Psychological abuse.
- Living with domestic violence.
- Having to grow up with absent parents.
- Living with a parent who is ill.
- Losing a parent... and any situation that causes wounding.
Sometimes, we can come to believe that if we survived and it’s in the past then it no longer is relevant but burying it doesn’t resolve it.
What happens is that the wounded inner child never leaves us, our bodies change and transform regardless of whether we are ready for that psychologically and emotionally. Our bodies will develop into an adult body and time waits for nobody. This means that we can feel like children trapped in an adult’s body. We don’t instantly wake up the next day having turned 18 and 21 and become adults, by law only. When we have had a difficult, traumatic and painful childhood our development and growth gets compromised. Therefore, those stages of development have not been completed. Adulthood like anything is a process. So that lost, afraid and lonely child can be found within.
Imagine a five year old or a 10 year old thrown into adulthood, having to be an adult in the world, form adult and romantic relationships, take on a job and all the responsibilities that come with being an adult? How frightening must that be and seem? Can a child deal with this all? With the adult world all alone, having to fend for self?
So it is any wonder that things may go wrong? That the inner child may look for partners to meet their unmet and unresolved needs, that they become more vulnerable to predators? That they may develop self-sabotaging or self-destructive behaviours? We act out because it has never been worked out.
These wounds can then manifest in psychological conditions such a:
- low self-esteem
Self-care may be hard to do due to the fact that as children, we may not have learnt how to comfort and soothe our own emotions or learned healthy ways around this. We may have not had our sense of self and feelings reflected back to us. What happens is that the hurt inner child within creates havoc in our adult life and takes the driver’s seat.
The inner child is calling for attention, for compassion, for resolution, for the love and nurture it craves for. Yet many times as the child-adult we have learned to dismiss, ignore, and abandon this part of self. We can end up doing to ourselves what was done to us.
We may have a hard time loving self, being comfortable within our own skin, accepting praise, knowing our boundaries and rights. We develop low self-worth, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence. We seek these from others unable and not knowing how to give to self. Yet all these, have the prefix ‘self’ in front of them because only we can give ourselves these gifts.
Yet like the child, there can still be that sense of dependency on others, or independence so great that we don’t let anyone help us or let them in. Just like we can trust people all too easily or not at all and push others away. Both resulting in desperation later for all that has been deprived and all we have deprived ourselves off. Our needs can become greater than our wants; leading us to accept the crumbs.
Other issues that develop are many, amongst these:
- All or nothing thinking.
- Control issues.
- Being over-responsible.
- Neglecting our needs.
- High tolerance of inappropriate behaviour.
- Soft or rigid boundaries.
- Fear of abandonment.
- Difficulty handling and resolving conflicts.
- Straying away from the actual core issue.
What also can happen is that our self of ‘I am’ is lost. We are made to live as a false self. This is due to the fact that nobody was there to reflect feelings, identity and thoughts back to us. We may have been parentified (when a child is expected to take on the role of a parent). In cases like this, as John Brandshaw states: “no one gets to be who they are. All are put in service to the needs of the system”. Use is abuse and the child is being used.
One technique that the inner child and the child uses as a coping strategy is called ‘magical thinking’. We hope and believe that if we prove we are good enough, pretty enough, the perfect partner, successful enough, obedient enough, that we will be finally noticed and loved and protected. This can be seen from the social conditioning in particular with females of a prince charming saving them from their own helplessness and misfortune. Yet, we need to find the hero inside ourselves. Know that we have the power within us.
As Carl Rogers stated, conditions of worth are placed on us as children.
‘Conditions of worth are transmitted to the child, who learns that s/he is acceptable or lovable if s/he behaves, thinks and feels in certain ways’ (Tolan, 2003: 4).
What these do is put pressure on us as individuals to feel and behave in particular ways, even when contrary to how we feel. This can be found to still haunt us by societal expectations later in adult life. Where society tells us to be who we are and expects us to be anything but ourselves in order to feel valued. This is seen by beauty standards, competition in workplace etc.
Recovery and healing of our inner child requires us to integrate the inner child part and our adult part. To learn to be that healthy role model and protective, loving and nurturing parent to self. To develop our own self-love and compassion. To listen, hear, validate, comfort, nurture, love and give attention to that part of us; that wounded inner child who needs us to reclaim it. It needs to feel valued. We must also grieve our lost childhoods and our unfulfilled developmental needs. We must embrace our original pain by embracing the child within us. It also requires us to start from scratch and learn who we are (our authentic selves), to take those baby steps all over and support ourselves as we do to that journey of healing and self-discovery.
As Ron Kurtz said: “The child wants simple things. It wants to be listened to. It wants to be loved... It may not even know the words, but it wants its rights protected and its self-respect unviolated. It needs you to be there”.
Healing is a process not an event. An exercise you can try out is to draw or write about how you feel. Connect to your inner child by either drawing with the opposite hand to the one you draw with, like a child not thinking about how it should look or be or producing a great picture. This is not about being an artist. Just owe the drawing. Let that inner child communicate with you. With writing again, use the opposite hand to the one you write with, this is to feel like a child would and write a letter to your inner child expressing what you would like it to know. You can also ask a question by writing it down as an inner dialogue. Use the dominant hand to write as an adult and the other hand as the child responding. This can take time, as the inner child needs to feel safe. If we criticise it or feel hostile to that part of ourselves it may not want to be there or come out.
Remember that when we harshly punish self or criticise self we are doing this to our inner child and if we wouldn’t say nasty or hurtful things to a child, we need to recognise that we too matter, we too deserve our love and our inner child is asking us not to abandon it but to finally put it at peace. Only when it feel s safe that our adult part can look after it, love it, and will protect it, will it start to take a back seat and heal.
Your inner child needs you. It is precious and lovable.
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About Antonella Zottola
Antonella Zottola is a qualified integrative MBCAP counsellor. Antonella's private practise is held in Sale and is called Rising Phoenix. Antonella also has a PGCE and teaches counselling; in addition she gave a presentation held by the BACP on domestic violence. She is in the process of writing a book(s) and writes many articles.