As soon as anyone hears ‘Inner Child’ it’s 99.9% guaranteed fact that they will roll their eyes and mentally disengage and pretend to placate the other participant in the conversation.* But why is this? Like many spiritual buzzwords, they’re easily misunderstood and thus even easier to make fun of. Spirituality in itself is widely misunderstood as a hippy-doused lifestyle comprising of mystical rocks and voodoo magic, when that’s simply a stereotype. But that’s a whole ‘nother conversation for another day – right now I’m going to talk about our inner child and yes, even if you don’t believe in them, you have one too.
*ok I made that up
As a disclaimer, I definitely won’t articulate everything as scientifically as many psychologists do, but offer my own interpretation and experience of books I’ve read and what I’ve learned about this topic thus far. This is a great video to fully understand the concept.
During the 3rd lockdown, I got my hands on the hotly anticipated book by Dr. Nicole Le Pera: How to do the Work. The title in itself is enough to send anyone running for the hills, but I speak not just for myself but millions of people when I say it’s mind-shifting. One of the chapters talks about the inner child, what it means and how we can nurture it.
Our inner child is just that. It’s a manifestation inside of us of who we were as little kids and that shows up in our day to day adult lives in myriad ways, unfortunately leaning more towards the ‘bad’ side of the spectrum. It’s a manifestation of our core beliefs that we picked up as a child, our fears, our experiences, our trauma, our learned behaviours and ultimately, our responses to how we initially perceived or experienced anything. Le Pera describes it as ‘the lens through which we see the world based on past experiences’.
As children, many of us experienced trauma, whether big or little. While a death of a family member, car crash, natural disaster or house robbery are all traumatic, the trauma of not having basic needs met, not feeling seen or heard by a caregiver or growing up in an unstable, boundary-less household can leave just a big of an impression on your inner child. Having your experiences invalidated by an adult (‘That didn’t happen’, ‘Stop crying’), being told to behave a certain way (‘That’s not how we do things’, ‘This is a family secret’), or simply witnessing parents unable to process emotions healthily (storming out, yelling, adult trantrumming) can have a significant impact on how your brain perceives things at that young age, where our brains are sponges and take everything to be the truth. Because of this, we will adopt these similar behaviours when our emotions are activated as adults because of what our emotional intelligence was modelled on as a child. We know no different, until we do.
Essentially, what is not addressed – your emotional wounds – you will carry through and project in your thoughts, beliefs and behaviours as an adult. For example, you may adopt fear-based beliefs of scarcity or lack because there was never ‘enough’ for you when you were younger or you were not seen or considered – a basic need of all children who are unable to look after themselves. Perhaps a sibling was prioritised over you, perhaps your parent was an addict and so that consumed all of their attention or maybe you were bullied and made to feel insignificant, but no one knew. All of these experiences (and more!) can then lead to defensive, reactive, impulsive behaviours when you feel threatened as an adult (or with any emotion for that matter).
Say you’re out with your partner one day and you catch them checking someone else out. This activates your inner child’s wounds, making you feel as small and unconsidered as you once did. That feeling is manifested in the need of being seen, causing you to lash out or have the inability to regulate negatively active emotions at all (rage, anger, panic, anxiety). This then may lead to impulsive behaviours to numb those wounds (substance abuse, addictive behaviours as coping mechanisms, sometimes even physical violence), which is inevitably followed by shame. Perhaps an example that’s grasping at straws, but ultimately, for any adult who hasn’t ‘met’ their inner child’s needs or explored unhealed emotional wounds, this familiar but vicious cycle continues whenever that person is triggered throughout the day – and depending on the scale of the ‘wound’, anything could be triggering. But how on earth do you start with healing a wound so mammoth?
Brace yourselves, I’ve got another spiritual buzzword for ya. Reparenting! Check out this video from Le Pera on the topic for a more comprehensive breakdown.
There’s another misconception with this word because it implies that our parents did a terrible, shitty job and we need to start all over again. This isn’t the case at all. You could have been raised in an immaculate home with no conflict at all and could still benefit from this. Reparenting essentially is the act of guiding yourself through difficult emotions and learning to feel comfortable with discomfort or pain using sustainable ways to self-soothe (as opposed to relying on addictive behaviours or crutches, like drugs, food, online shopping, sex, your phone etc). It’s the compassionate act of noticing your feelings and asking yourself: “What does my inner child [read: most vulnerable part of me] need right now? Why are these feelings of (insert here: rage, anxiety, fear, sadness) coming up?” If you ask yourself those questions when you feel yourself stuck in those familiar cycles, watch how your life changes. Once you become the objective observer, the ‘wise parent’ to your ‘inner child’, you can make informed, healthy decisions to move forward instead of blindly repeating impulsive, reactive and often damaging behaviours over and over and not understanding why things aren’t changing in your life.
Say, for example, your best friend bails on you again. Understandably, you’re fuming! She’s done this so many times before and you feel unconsidered because you’ve set aside time for her in your busy schedule and you’ve missed out on something else you could’ve been doing. It feels like you are giving more to the friendship than she is. When you reparent yourself in this moment, you give yourself the opportunity to pause, notice and rather than reflexively fly off the handle as you may have done previously. By reparenting yourself here, you can remain calm by asking yourself: “What am I feeling right now?” And answering those questions objectively. “I am feeling rage because I don’t feel considered. I feel this friendship is not reciprocal. I need to distance myself before I reply and communicate that I am hurt.” When you give yourself that space, when you listen to what your inner child needs (through what is being manifested in your present emotions), you are able to give yourself (and others) the grace which is the foundation to all emotional healing. Perhaps that same friend was feeling anxious and overwhelmed and couldn’t bring herself to leave the house.
So if you find yourself stuck in these reactive cycles of anger, anxiety, shame, rage, any kind of ‘hot’ emotion, or better yet ‘cold’: regret, doubt or depression, seek to connect with the most vulnerable part of you who has been there waiting for you for so long.
We’re all tender humans who have experienced pain. But once we acknowledge that that pain has manifested as our inner child, we can begin to start healing those old emotional wounds that are keeping us stuck in these cycles. Be curious; see how your present really is a reflection of your past and know that that isn’t you – it is simply who you’ve been conditioned to think you are since childhood.
Right. Time for a stiff drink after all that. Congrats if you made it this far!