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The "I Feel Like a Child" Syndrome

Do you sometimes feel as though you're really a child inside?

Key points

  • People internally "harass" themselves by identifying with a self image that is as uncertain and self-critical as it is out-of-date.
  • Confusing oneself in present day with an earlier, less capable self can lead one to overly rely on others or shy away from responsibility.
  • Giving one's inner child fresh data to help invalidate its negative self image can help upgrade their sense of self like nothing else.
phototrips/123RF free image
Source: phototrips/123RF free image

If our various child parts are not fully integrated into our adult self, we're likely at times to feel like a child inside an adult's body. We won't be able to feel truly grown up because our basic sense of self hasn't sufficiently evolved into the actual adult we've become. Our chronological age, our body, our mind may all say "adult" . . . but our psyche nonetheless continues to say "child."

To put it more concretely, when present-day circumstances tap into old, unresolved doubts or fears—that is, distressful feelings that may go all the way back to childhood—we'll experience ourselves in the same way we did in the past. (And to be honest, looking back at our lives, which of us hasn't many times felt unsure, or defective, or unsafe?) If we haven't yet managed to "assimilate" the growth or maturation that typically characterizes our current level of functioning, then questions we had about ourselves during an earlier stage of development will resurface, leading us to feel insecurity that may no longer accurately portray our actual resources.

In the past, caught up in the struggle to find ourselves and our place in the world, we may have had good reason to doubt ourselves. But such self-skepticism may no longer be fitting. All the same, various circumstances may prompt us to be besieged by this suddenly revived self-mistrust or apprehension—and quite independent of the possibility that now we may well possess the wherewithal to deal with the kind of problem, or problematic person, that originally overwhelmed us.

It's probably universal that former negative beliefs we had about our limitations (limitations probably congruent with where we were developmentally), can yet hinder us from seeing ourselves as the more or less competent, resourceful adults we've become. And although we may well have become more self-confident, as long as that insecure "child fragment" still residing within us hasn't been made privy to all the changes we've accomplished since that fragment was us, then stressful situations will continue to make us vulnerable to the same insecure feelings that "afflicted" us in growing up. On such occasions, we'll internally "harass" ourselves by identifying with an image of self that is as uncertain and self-critical as it is out-of-date—an image that has been (or should have been) superseded by now.

Experiencing ourselves at a core level as though we were still children is apt to render us indecisive, helpless, or prematurely impel us to suspend our efforts on a task, pursuit, or even relationship. In the moment, confusing our present-day self with an earlier, less capable self, we may also—regressively—be driven to look for another person to rely on (reflecting old dependency needs); or shy away from accepting a responsibility that now seems intimidating and makes us feel overwhelmed (reflecting our insecure inner child's need for external direction and authority). In short, our brain has been hijacked, sabotaged by that earlier part of us who was never quite able to "merge" with the adult we eventually became.

When we speak of "getting our buttons pushed," what we're really talking about is a circumstance that's provoked us principally through re-stimulating old doubts and anxieties. Our emotional equilibrium is temporarily thrown off balance; we feel compelled to go into a self-defensive mode. And this irresistible impulse to protect our suddenly re-experienced frailty can take many forms, some of them not particularly obvious. We might, for instance, be driven toward aggressive verbal combat (the best defense is a good offense); or we might strive ardently (even desperately) to justify ourselves, or we might feel a tremendous pull toward retreating from this upsetting situation altogether.

At a deep, unconscious level the here-and-now scenario may make us feel almost as though our very survival is at stake. And, reacting in accordance with these overblown feelings, we may well come across to others as overly dramatic, or "overplaying our hand," or (to them, inexplicably) fighting for our lives--especially since the apparent stimulus for our hyper-reactive response may actually be quite minor.

To provide a clinical context for what I've been describing theoretically, let me present a couple of examples of what I've come to regard as the "‘I feel like a child' syndrome."

One case (of many, many cases) involved a client of mine forced to take on the responsibilities of parenthood before, psychologically, he felt ready to. He spoke to me about his uneasiness in this demanding parental role, and about his seeing himself as insufficiently prepared to father, not just one but two young children (and girls yet!). He felt "stressed out" by these unrelenting feelings of not being adult enough to handle such a responsibility. His fundamental sense of self simply hadn't caught up with his current-day position in life. But the essence of his anxiety really related to deeper feelings of insecurity, feelings that harked back to the insecurity that plagued him when he was growing up.

He also felt that others saw him in a favorable light that didn't at all match the subjective reality of his own massive self-doubt. It seemed almost incredible that he could convince others that he knew what he was doing when he couldn't at all convince himself. Distraught and feeling like a fraud, he was unable to see himself as old enough, or mature enough, to be doing what in fact he was doing—especially after he got divorced and was awarded primary custody of his children. Though hardly visible to others, his self-doubt gnawed away at him. Outwardly, he may have behaved appropriately in all this, but internally he couldn't see his behaviors as anything like a true, spontaneous expression of who he felt he actually was.

Another client regularly got her buttons pushed, and was made to feel like a child, when she spent time with her critical mother, or when superiors at work were judgmental toward her. As in the above example, this client—despite her considerable talents and achievements—hadn't been able to adequately integrate her already well-demonstrated adult competence. And so old feelings of insufficiency and trepidation would crop up whenever someone in authority (or someone whom she couldn't help but assign authority to) seemed critical of her. Experiencing herself as somehow being attacked, her old insecurities and self-criticism would be re-awakened. And she'd find herself feeling utterly deflated (at times, even devastated) her composure for the moment totally shaken.

Again, when her words or behavior seemed to be called into question, ancient child parts of her that felt deficient would re-emerge, and feelings she thought she should certainly be over by now would return to torment her. In such situations, she felt "like a little kid," and she talked about how hard it was to see her present-day self as possibly having as much authority as those whose criticisms of her might be based less on her performance than their own particular bias—or, in fact, their own unresolved childhood issues.

Even when she was consciously aware that criticism from a superior was without merit, she still reacted as though there must be something wrong with her for having received the criticism in the first place. It was as though the immediate, precipitating circumstance forced her to regress to her child self, during which her abusive parents constantly made her feel she was somehow to blame for whatever tensions existed in her blatantly dysfunctional family.

It's probably true for most of us that when we visit our families, our parents exhibit a special knack for making us feel that we never really did grow up. After all, many (if not most) parents struggle to relinquish the parent-child relationship that over the years may have come to define their bond with us (and maybe their own identity as well). So treating us as the adult "equals" that in time we did become can be exceedingly difficult for them. If we still have self-doubting child parts submerged within us, parts that have yet to be subsumed by the adults we are today, our caretakers are the ones most likely to bring to light these not-grown-up segments of self; inducing us to feel (and react) in ways hardly representative of our present-day relationships with others.

The remedy for what I've been describing has mostly to do with coming into our own authority as adults. We need to realize that whatever feelings of insecurity may still bother us probably have a lot less to do with the facts of our adult existence than the self-doubts best viewed as "holdovers" (or remnants) from childhood. And one experiential method to help "loosen up" this stuck child deep within us—as well as to facilitate that child's getting over these original feelings of fear, inadequacy, or powerlessness—is through undertaking some sort of internal dialogue.

What I frequently suggest to the people I work with is that when a present-day situation re-stimulates, or "hooks," a child part of them—and in a sense leads that child part to take custody of their adult self—that they explore (through their mind's eye) what this child looks like. Spontaneously, what picture do they have of their earlier self? How old is the child? What might the child be wearing? Just where are they? What's going on?

Is there a specific scene or circumstance that dovetails with what that sad, hurt, or angry child is somehow making them feel so intensely right now; that is, as relates to the recent situation currently troubling them? If so, what is it about the present experience that's reminding the child of the past one? How are two somehow analogous? Who's in the past scene? What's being said? How is it affecting them? And what are the physical sensations that get revived when they identify with this earlier, upset child self?

Returning to the present-day provocation, I ask them to re-vivify that part of themselves that may have over-reacted in the moment.

Moving to the more "formal" internal dialogue work, I suggest that my client—going back in time to take the child away from the distressing (or even traumatic) experience—ask their child self just how they interpreted the disturbing situation they were in so many years ago. How did it make them think about themselves? Not good enough? Not smart enough? Not fitting in? Weak? Then I have my client tell their upset child part that they've grown up, grown up to be part of the competent adult that's now returned to "rescue" them and help them revise their falsely negative (and out-of-date) view of themselves.

I have the client show the child pictures of themselves by degrees (or years) getting older and older until, eventually, they see themselves as having grown into the adult the client is today. As Shakespeare had the skeptical Othello demand of Iago the "ocular proof," since seeing is believing, that child part of the adult will in time begin to see that they've been trapped in a memory which, till now, has made their self-disparagement or fear chronic. Giving the child fresh data to help invalidate the negative image they formed about themselves so many years ago will help upgrade their sense of self like nothing else. In fact, the process I've just described is extrapolated from a comprehensive therapeutic approach aptly named "Lifespan Integration."

If we engage in this kind of disciplined work on ourselves, such an endeavor will help enable us to evolve into the fully integrated adults all of us, consciously or not, aspire to be. And the very essence of our evolution depends on our ability to access, make peace with and then fully integrate that insecure, self-doubting child that has constrained us in our lifelong journey toward self-actualization.

© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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