Do you roll your eyes when you hear someone use the term “inner child?” There may actually be a psychological explanation for the urge to run when your inner child is conjured, but you may not want to heed that urge.
The inner child is so common in pop psychology and culture that just hearing the term can make you raise your guard, thinking “Someone’s trying to manipulate me.” I’m not saying that reaction isn’t wise. We are guarded about being manipulated for a reason: I think we sense that the concept of inner child actually connects with something in us: a deep vulnerability we would rather avoid.
It took time for me to stop cringing at the idea of the inner child. I snobbishly saw the term as an amateurish fad, infantilizing believers and making them dependent on the charismatic people hawking it. It wasn’t until further into my clinical training that I started to realize that sophisticated psychoanalytic terms such as “true and false self,” “fixation,” and “regression” were based on the concept of a child self we experience in the present. The fancy terminology helps clinicians intellectually distance themselves from a simple and overwhelming truth: We all carry an inner child who can be hurt and triggered. Adults—even therapists—can be very uncomfortable with the idea of children in general, let alone being thrown back into our own past, a sometimes vulnerable and painful experience.
In this respect, trauma theory and therapy can shed a lot of light on the need to be “too cool for the inner child.” Think of cool figures in popular culture like Steve McQueen or Charlize Theron. They’re both compelling by being detached, like their minds are elsewhere, not too involved ... cool. In trauma terms, you could say "cool" characters are a bit dissociated from frailty, fear, weakness. Dissociation refers to a kind of disconnecting from the self or a part of the self. Especially with childhood trauma, children forget a traumatic period of time as a way of protecting themselves from the traumatic memory. And adult clients commonly don’t remember periods of childhood which were difficult or even traumatic. Without saying everyone has childhood trauma, we can say that everyone has a childhood with tough moments: feelings of dependency, helplessness, frustration, and of course, scary vulnerability. It just feels better to forget that stuff, and so in a way, we all dissociate from it as we get older and embrace being an adult. Glad that’s over!
But here’s the thing: We need our inner child or child selves in order to feel whole and fulfilled. Child selves carry core foundational emotions telling us what we need from others and from life. Feelings like joy, playfulness, love, nurturing care, sadness and loss, shame, pride, hate, and anger all have roots in core childhood experience. And that experience stays in our memory and psyche as a touchstone in our adulthood. If you want to know about your needs and how and why you feel, you have to talk with your inner child about it. So it’s definitely in our interest to be open-minded about checking in with our inner child. But how to get over the cringe?
Trust. If you can connect with someone you trust, who you know will be sensitive and supportive and won’t laugh or be uncomfortable, you might be more willing to talk about childhood memories, childhood desires, regrets, rejections, and disappointments. Imagine having someone who will sympathize and validate those experiences, and help you expand them into deep emotional fulfillment in present-day adulthood.
Child selves are the cornerstone of schema therapy, with such modes as vulnerable child, neglected child, playful or rebellious child, and angry child making up the most common. As a schema therapist, I help clients understand which core emotional needs were poorly met in childhood, and how the child modes are triggered in present day. Though it may seem abstract, this approach can offer surprisingly practical results.
For example, people who have problems with procrastination often have a rebellious child mode. A rebellious child mode represents unmet needs for recognition and validation. Procrastination is a way of sending and repeating a signal of needing attention. So in therapy, we connect the rebellious child to, say, a client’s memory of achievements going unrecognized by parents. Then I will just speak directly to that child self from the time of the memory. What did you really need? What would it have looked like to get that need met? How would you have felt differently about yourself? This allows my adult client to feel those needs in the present and connect with their fulfillment. We establish a dialogue between adult and child selves, leading to a new self-awareness, confidence, and a totally different motivation around work.
So the next time you encounter the idea of your inner child, try to let that skeptical or cynical “too cool for school” side take a break, and see what other emotions you connect with. You may find it leads to important and helpful insights into what you are really looking for.
Reach me at my website.