Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Discovering and Healing the Inner Child

Softening the heart and re-emerging from trauma.

In the therapeutic process, the heart softens as the client discovers that it is safe to let their guard down and let go of their habitual defenses. This is a scary and vulnerable act for someone who has been chronically abused and occurs as they learn other skills to protect themselves.

Allowing oneself to open up, trust again, and get close to others becomes the ultimate act of faith and courage. The client commits to the therapeutic process because somewhere inside there is still a light that shines in the darkness — a light that gives them hope, an inner knowing that was never extinguished, a belief that there is a better way of living and being in the world. With all that child abuse survivors have endured, many are able to hold onto the dream of a better life.

Zara Walker/Stock Snap
Child with Light
Source: Zara Walker/Stock Snap

As many of my clients have come to learn, the defensive stance that worked to save them in childhood serves as an obstacle in adulthood. The chronic defensive postures used to protect and defend oneself are now interfering with their ability to be spontaneous, to laugh and play easily, to have meaningful, sustaining, and life-affirming relationships.

Annie’s long-standing defenses and inability to trust were created many years ago and acted to protect and shield her from an immense amount of pain and sadness. As a little girl, it was a brilliant coping strategy that helped her survive in a home where the adults drank and fought, and life was unsafe and unpredictable. In our therapy sessions, Annie told me that she was aware that her depression held her captive to the past and stopped her from moving forward, being courageous, and becoming the woman and mother she dreamed of being. As a young mom, Annie wanted to make changes in her life and she recognized that her dark emotions and thoughts (as she referred to them) were holding her back and interfering in her relationships. In particular, they impacted her relationships with her daughter and with her life partner.

In group therapy, Annie was able to experience the value of being vulnerable, to speak her truth, and share her feelings. In fact, to trust and to allow herself to be vulnerable and open with others in reciprocal nurturing relationships helped to set her free from her past.

Annie’s fear was that if she allowed herself to experience her sadness and grief, it would swallow her up. She said that her sadness was like “being in an empty well, a black hole." As she told the other members of the group, she was afraid that if she let herself feel the darkness and despair she would “never come back.”

Shallow breathing serves the purpose of slowing things down, numbing out, managing, and dampening feelings. In order to re-emerge from abuse, survivors need to learn to breathe differently than someone held hostage to their painful childhood. As group therapy continued, Annie began to breathe more deeply and to experience her emotions. At first, the feelings came with sadness and fear which made her anxious. Over time, she learned to experience those feelings and befriend them. She was able to go back and contact the inner little girl who held those feelings, to talk to her, nurture and support her.

When she was able to find and listen to her inner child and manage her feelings, Annie felt stronger and more confident. Through this process, Annie was learning to cultivate compassion for herself. As her compassion grew, Annie’s heart was able to soften and she was able to re-emerge from the shadows where her little girl had been hidden and silenced.

Every tear Annie shed and every word she spoke and shared about her past with the other women in the group helped Annie to let go of the pain. Coming to terms with her abusive childhood was the process that started to open her heart and make room for compassion and self-love.

Love was not a word Annie liked. As a child, closeness meant losing yourself and she had lost herself many times in her house growing up. She lost herself every time she was silenced from expressing her feelings, every time she realized that those around her could or would not be able to help her. She lost herself every time Uncle Mark (her perpetrator) came to visit and she was pressured to hug and kiss him.

Annie experienced chronic developmental trauma. Part of her healing entailed finding the self that was silenced and learning how to express her feelings without fear of retribution in an environment of understanding. In a group of women with similar histories, Annie learned the paradox of our lived experience — even though our hearts are wounded in relationship, healing the heart also needs to occur in relationship, starting with the relationship to ourselves.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


Gil, T. (2018). Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children: Mothering. Resilience, and Protecting the Next Generation. New York, NY: Rowman & Littlefield.

More from Teresa Gil Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today