We all have an "inner child," a term therapists use to refer to that part of your identity that is free, spontaneous, and creative and also completely impulsive in getting needs met. If you spend time with a 2-year-old, you can easily see their inner child — they are full of joy in the moment and tell you directly what they want and how they feel. Of course, sometimes dealing with a toddler is akin to trying to manage a terrorist. They can express their negative feelings with irrational tantrums or have the tenacity of a pit bull when pursuing the object of their immediate fancy — regardless of adult protest. As children develop into adults, the inner child becomes less obvious and takes a backseat to adolescent and eventually adult maturity.
Those basic needs of the child, however, are all still present. Sigmund Freud theorized that the mind is composed of the "Id," "Ego" and "Superego." The id represents our basic instincts and drive; the superego operates as a moral compass over the id. As children develop, the ego becomes more and more refined in the task of mediating between the id's urges/impulses and the superego's quest for doing 'good' for the long term.
When emotionally overwhelmed, people tend to regress and revert to childhood strategies to get their needs met. When the mind is overloaded, it is natural to look for immediate gratification. It's at those times that the id or inner child might wreak havoc on your relationships, or even your life. People who are chronically overloaded with stress, life transitions, medical conditions, or chronic relationship conflict may rely on childhood strategies to get their needs met.
Allowing your inner child out too much means you are constantly indulging your immediate needs and you never get to see that you can tolerate not getting everything just your way all of the time. A "little self" becomes an adult who inside feels weak and terrified but projects strength by using rage as ammunition. As you see you can tolerate distress and improve your relationships without these tactics, you will no longer need "little you" to handle your adult issues. This leads to increased confidence and positive feelings of self-worth.
Here are four examples of destructive "Inner Child" dynamics and how they can wreak havoc on your adult life.
1. The Tantrum King/Queen: Think of the child who every time she doesn't get what she wants cries, screams, wails and, if that's not enough, throws herself on the ground. If you are an adult Tantrum King/Queen, you have serious difficulty accepting "no" from your partner or your partner may feel he/she has to walk on eggshells in your presence. People may give you what you want simply because they are afraid of your emotional reactions. Some who fall into this dynamic do not even realize they are doing so — they genuinely feel upset and can't help but to express it. If you are doing this on a regular basis, every time you find yourself fretting about a need not being met, take 10 minutes before you respond to your partner. Step back and remind yourself that even though you are feeling something very intensely, you do not have to act on this feeling. Do something to distract momentarily — breathe, take a shower, go for a quick walk, try to take the edge off the emotion — then revisit your original feeling and see if you can either let it go or communicate it with less intensity.
2. The Manipulator: It's astonishing how good little kids are at tricking adults into giving in or giving them what they want — "but you said I could!" or "I have been good all day!" They naturally find ways to get adult sympathy so that they will receive what they want. There is nothing pathological about this tendency as it is in part the ego's attempt to balance the id and superego. Of course, children grow out of this as they become better able to sublimate some of their immediate needs without having to use manipulation. In adulthood, however, some fall victim to still using manipulation as a way to get every need gratified or out of a fear of being direct with people. Constantly demanding and contorting things to get one's needs met feels burdensome to others and can result in rage on the part of your partners. If you fall into this dynamic, instead of manipulating your partner to give you what you want or to make him/her do what you want, try to tolerate not getting what you want or state your needs without trickery. The more you do for yourself and talk directly with your partners about what you need and why, the less you will rely on manipulation.
3. The Good Soldier: This dynamic describes when a person is so intolerant of conflict or upset that they continually put on a brave/happy face even when their internal feelings may be more complicated. Think of the child whose home life is hostile or unsafe, but at school the child is functional and competent — the child may appear fine and uncommonly resilient. Adults who fall into this habit often have secret lives outside of their committed unions. This is the person who, seemingly out of nowhere, tells their partner they want to divorce/breakup. The partners of good soldiers are often shocked and want to work on the problem, but the good soldier is gone before this can materialize. Good soldiers are afraid of conflict and work so hard to make others happy that they neglect their own feelings. If you notice yourself doing this, try to be more real with those you care about; test the waters, there may be more room for the real you in your adult relationships than you think. If there isn't, consider going into couples therapy so a trained professional can help you talk about your more complicated feelings and help your partner to hear you.
4. The Rebel Without a Cause: This inner child dynamic describes an adult who is behaviorally acting out in his/her adult relationships. Just as teenagers sometimes get their needs met on the sly so as to not have to deal with parents or authority figures — sneak out of the house, stay out late, say they are one place when they are actually at another, practice promiscuity, substance abuse — the adult uses these same means to get a fix outside of his/her committed relationship. When they feel bored, upset, frustrated with their partner, instead of talking with them about their upset, they act out behaviorally. A person caught up in this dynamic may be involved in affairs or have a tendency to have a secret life that their partner knows nothing about. The Rebel Without a Cause is similar to the teenager in that they never actually grow up and tell themselves "no" to adolescent proclivities. If you are a "rebel," know that continuing this way will burn you out eventually, either physically, emotionally or financially. Destructive behavioral habits can be broken. Start being your own best parent and tell yourself "no" to things that are going to make you feel worse later.
How to keep "Little You" in check
When going through difficulty, it is natural to momentarily regress and not handle yourself as maturely as you normally would. Be aware, however, if you are chronically relying on one (or more) of these strategies to get your needs met with others. It may ease your immediate need but will lead to other long-term problems in your relationships. In particular, operating as a child in your adult relationships means you are not allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
Experiencing the pain of hearing no, working toward compromise, or tolerating the difficulty of a conflict means you are allowing yourself to be vulnerable in your relationship. If you are always immediately gratified there is no frustration, and without any tension, relationships stop growing and stagnate. Your partner may stop being his or her real self and simply operate in a robotic way with you. As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, without the shared experience of vulnerability there is no room for emotional intimacy.
Instead of playing games or letting "little you" dominate your adult relationships, talk directly with your partner about how you are feeling, what you are afraid will happen, what you are hoping will happen and what is hard for you to tolerate about them or about yourself. I know this sounds hard for some, but it keeps couples connected and happy for the long term.
Copyright Jill Weber, Ph.D.