How well are you parenting your inner child?
The concept of the inner child is a long-held psychological tool. It describes a part of us that has emotional wounds (most likely from childhood). It's stuck in an immature or unhealthy response pattern because those wounds need healing.
When we notice our inner child responding to a situation (usually via an over-reaction or an odd or inappropriate reaction) it's a sign our inner parent needs to step up and do his or her job.
And what if there's more than one inner child (which is probably the case for most of us)? Things can get crazy, quickly.
Here's your quick start guide to parenting your inner child/ren.
Who is this inner kid anyway, and where did she come from?
In case you didn't spend your 20's (and 30's...and most of your 40's) reading self-help and pop-psych books like I did (#totallyreasonable) let me break down what psychology has known about you, and all of us, for a very long time:
Being a child is a risky business and most of us don't escape childhood un-traumatised.
We coped by learning ways of being in the world that would avoid our being hurt or scared or vulnerable again - or so we thought.
These coping mechanisms are really just ways to avoid feeling overwhelming feelings.
As kids, it makes sense to develop ways to avoid overwhelming feelings. We didn't have the maturity or ability to handle big feelings and understand them. But as adults, avoiding feeling feelings isn't healthy. It prevents us from growing into whole people, who have full emotional access to all of ourselves.
The only way to release our inner child's big emotions is to feel them.
The point of having feelings is to feel them. Our bodies store them away, often creating physical issues in the process. While adults do have the capacity to feel big, scary feelings, we still carry the fear, hurt and vulnerability that we felt as children around these emotions. So instead of feeling them, we continue to use the coping mechanisms we developed as children. This allows us to avoid feeling them and, consequently, keeps us safe from further harm. Or so the inner child thinks.
We're often not good at seeing the signs we have an inner child's panicked response to triggered emotions.
Humans are great at fooling ourselves. We think we're fine, we're doing fine and our emotional responses are fine. Signs you have emotions that you're not feeling:
- Crying at things on tv when other people don't
- responding to a situation with intense anger when you know it doesn't warrant it or others tell you you're overreacting
- physical pain or illness flares in a particular situation
- over-use of alcohol, food, work, exercise, sex, drugs, shopping, gambling, violence, tv, or any other activity you know isn't good for you but you just keep doing it.
Glennon Doyle calls this your 'easy button', because it's your quick go-to for avoiding a hard emotion. Here's a great article she wrote about easy buttons.
Parenting this inner child
There are a few things to remember that will make this parenting the inner child gig easier.
You don't just have an inner child, you also have a calm, inner parent inside you
Yep - thank the lord for that. We all have access to a calm, wise, inner parent to help love and care for our inner children. And that inner parent is the exact parent your inner child needs. You have everything you need to heal, right there inside you. You've just gotta access it (NB: easier said than done - #lifelongjourney)
Access your inner parent by calming the mind, resting the body and finding a deeper part of you
Meditation. It's true - it's probably the secret to everything (sorry, it was never 42). In this case, it's the only way to access your calm, wise core self. You may never have experienced the calm, inner part of you if no one ever taught you how. Just closing your eyes and taking some deep breaths is a great start. I have a meditation mini program coming up - sign up ready for when it starts here.
Let your inner calm parent talk to your inner child
It sounds a little crazy, and that's ok. (Make that your new mantra). When you feel the reaction of your inner child rising up inside you, remember you're really just running away from a feeling. But you are very capable of feeling feelings now that you're an adult. If you've been practicing meditation and connection to your inner parent when things aren't triggering your inner child, it'll be easier when they are.
And when they are, become the loving parent to that freaking out child. Take the child on your knee (in your imagination...don't go grabbing the nearest actual kid to role play with) and speak soothingly, nurturingly, to your inner child. Listen to what your child is saying, what they're scared of and what they need to feel safe.
Here's how that might go:
"Hey sweet heart, what's wrong? I see you're freaking out and really scared. Tell me what you're scared of, what are you feeling?"
"I'm freaking out because you just said yes to doing a presentation next week. AGHGHGHGH!!!"
"I know, doing a presentation is a bit scary. It makes me nervous too. I'm afraid I might look silly or people will think I'm dumb. What are you afraid of?"
"You're gonna die!!! You're going to say something and then everyone will laugh, they'll know you're a fraud. We'll be humiliated, we'll be so ashamed and embarrassed. You'll never recover. We're going to DIE!!!"
"Sweet heart, take a deep breath now. I know those things feel very scary. We've had things like that happen in the past, haven't we? It was horrible. I don't want to feel that way again either. But I also know that I am capable of giving a presentation at the meeting - or I want to be. And I have to learn to do it. People might laugh, but I think we can handle it. It's a workplace, the boss will step in to stop people disrupting the meeting if they laugh. And if the boss puts me down in front of everyone, I know others will be feeling sympathetic toward me. I'm a grown up and I know I can handle that."
"I don't know...it could be BAD. We could DIE. Everyone could hate us and never talk to us again. Aghghaghag!"
"What do you need me to do to help you feel brave enough to do this with me?"
"I need to know we'll be OK."
"Well, I promise you we'll be OK. If everything bad happens, I'm still here. I can cope. We can be strong. We can learn from what we got wrong and do better in future. We can ask for help in learning how to give a presentation. We can talk to our friend Mary, who'll be at the meeting, and tell her how scared we feel. She can be a support in the room and after the meeting. Mary is nice, she'll still be our friend, even if everyone laughs. We'll be OK. Does that feel a bit better?"
"Yes. A bit. Not a lot."
"OK. Well I'm going to sit here and hold you a bit longer. And you know what, I love you so much. I love you bigger than the whole world. And I'm going to take good care of you. Sometimes bad things happen, but I'll never leave you. We're in this together and we've got each other's back. You're trying to protect me - thank you so much - and I will protect you. I need to do scary things sometimes. That's what being a grown up means. But it also means I can make smart choices and not do things that are crazy risky. This isn't crazy risky. A presentation is just something I need to learn to do. We'll be OK together. You and me forever. And we've got lots of people who love us - people who will help us if we feel sad...like Jo, and Ben, and Emma. We can ask them for help if we need to. We're OK. We're doing really well. We're going to be just fine. I love you so much."
Building the Trust of your Inner Child
Remember you've spent many years ignoring this child, letting him or her run like a wild thing in your life. It'll take time to build trust and a bond of safety between your inner adult and child. Don't expect things to be perfect immediately. Keep up this practice and say kind things to yourself, like the final paragraph of the sample conversation above, often.
Remember: your inner child needs love as much as an actual child.