Sometimes my friends and I like to discuss very important topics, such as words we hate. Turns out I have an aversion to a whole lot of words.
Like to try a sample?
Tender (okay, just ew). Foodie (congratulations, you like food). Rural (um, no one can pronounce you…go ahead and try, I’ll wait here). Succulent (no, it’s not…it’s a very nicely cooked steak…or maybe you have a new plant).
Inner child work.
Obviously three words but real talk, inner child work, the very sound of you just gave me the creeps. Maybe I thought you would be a little bit too (oh my God don’t make me say it) tender (blechhhhh) for my liking…or maybe I had only heard about you from therapists I didn’t particularly vibe with (okay okay I get it, you’re SUPERRRRR empathetic and nurturing…my inner child loves you but my adult brain needs you to use your adult voice). Whatever the reason, I had you pegged as cheesy, impractical and likely ineffectual.
I see your three words and raise you three more: I am sorry.
Inner child work has been a gamechanger for me, both personally and professionally. As I have found ways to connect with this therapeutic process, I have discovered that it is one of the most efficient, meaningful, and profound ways of healing unresolved pain and teaching clients to understand and meet their own needs.
So what is it? Inner child work has its roots in Jungian Psychology and the archetypes of the subconscious mind. Carl Jung believed that universal, mythological characters – archetypes – reside within our collective unconscious and represent deep, emotional aspects of the human experience. We all have an inner child because we have all been babies and we have all been children. And while we have physically outgrown these stages, there are emotional, psychological, and unconscious aspects of our childhood experience that are still very present within us.
Consider your physical body. In this moment, mine is 37 years old. I haven’t really done anything special to make this happen, aside from inconsistently taking vitamins and basically trying not to die. Time automatically ages us but it doesn’t automatically mature us. Physical growth just happens. Emotional and psychological growth always involves intentional effort.
Most of the time I adult pretty well: my emotional age matches my physical age and my behaviour appears deceivingly normal. Other times, I am emotionally a five year old girl walking around physically disguised as an adult (don’t be fooled by the emerging crow’s feet…I am 30 seconds away from a full on tantrum).
In a sense, we are a compilation of all of the ages we have ever been. A part of each and every one of us is still five years old. Twelve. Sixteen. There is even an aspect of ourselves that continues to experience our own birth (cue the instinctual impulse to scream because life can feel way too bright and noisy and cold and we still don’t like being grabbed by strangers).
As with other archetypes and sub-personalities, the inner child brings us blessings and challenges. On a good day, our inner child encourages us to be curious, playful, creative, intuitive, spontaneous, and affectionate. On a not so good day, our inner child can talk us into feeling self-centered, impatient, ignored, unloved, powerless, insecure, guilty, shameful, and not good enough.
SOMETIMES we feel our inner child being triggered and recognize an emotional reaction that is immature and disproportionate to the situation. In such circumstances, social norms and basic personal aspirations of self-respect motivate us to check ourselves before we wreck ourselves (i.e. Thank you, Linda, for selfishly taking the last doughnut in the break room and thus definitively ensuring I won’t be having one. My adult face is going to smile at you and tell you it’s totally fine, but internally my three year old self is experiencing an overwhelming urge to chuck that empty box on the floor and call you names.)
OTHERRRRRRR times we aren’t even aware that our inner child is being triggered and without this awareness, we have no filter on our behaviour (aka let’s skip the checking of ourselves bit and proceed directly to the wrecking of ourselves.) We temporarily forget we are adults and we become totally dysregulated. We lose our shit. We act out. We run and hide. We feel totally broken and helpless.
When we allow our inner child to act out with our adult body, it’s less than flattering. Maybe we ugly cry. Maybe we throw something in frustration. Maybe we whine. Maybe we refuse to do what we are being asked to do. Maybe we scream. Maybe we DO call someone names. Maybe we beg someone not to leave us. Maybe we even hit.
Sometimes we don’t act out…we act in. We feel devastated by something trivial. We believe no one hears us or takes us seriously. We think we can’t do anything right and that nothing we do is ever good enough. We are overwhelmed by fear and anxiety. We worry we aren’t safe enough. Aren’t loved enough. That we…just…aren’t…enough.
In varying degrees, we have all experienced childhood trauma, and most of us haven’t properly mended the hurts we suffered growing up. What I love about inner child work is that we don’t have to completely resurrect these traumas in order to heal them. Rather, we simply learn to communicate with this fragmented part of ourselves…we learn to listen compassionately to the innocence of our own unmet needs, fears, and insecurities…and we learn to step away from unconscious patterns of self-sabotage and embrace true healing and empowerment.
The little girl in this photo is me. She’s still me. I’ve taught my adult self to see her…to hear her…to take care of her. I know when her feelings are hurt and she needs reassurance. I know when she isn’t having enough fun and needs to listen to my horrific singing or laugh at a poop joke. I know when she feels too rushed and needs me to slow down. I know when she feels scared or overwhelmed and needs to hear me say, “Don’t worry. I got this.”
I love you, kiddo. You can ride with me any day. I just won’t let you drive.