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Attachment and the Search for the Inner Child

Use the idea of the "inner child" to reprogram your emotional system.

Key points

  • If your emotions are out of sync or way stronger than what the situation calls for, then you may need to do some inner child work.
  • The goal of inner child work is to write a new life story that works better in terms of how you perceive the social world and react to others.
  • Using computer metaphors, you can view the inner child as a program and your adult self as the loving parent who's rewriting the program's code.

Do you have recurrent dysfunctional patterns in your relationships? Maybe you get triggered easily and have intense emotional reactions in response to your friends, coworkers, or romantic partners. Or maybe you go numb and lose interest just when a relationship is getting started. Maybe you feel chronically bitter and resentful because you think others look down on you or you just don’t fit in.

If the intensity of your emotions and reactions are out of sync or way stronger than what the situation calls for, then you may need to do some inner child work.

Although the concept has been used by psychologists since the 1970s, the “inner child” was popularized in the 1990s by John Bradshaw in his book, Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child.

I met John in 1991 at an all-day workshop on the inner child and did my own inner child work years before I even started thinking about becoming a clinical psychologist. The process helped me break free of the feeling of dread and hopelessness that had pervaded my life and that I had come to believe I could not escape. It taught me that:

  1. I could feel happiness and purpose simultaneously with deep sorrow (so I could stop running from feeling sad).
  2. I could be the author of my life as opposed to living out a sad, lonely story assigned to me in childhood.
  3. My emotions were experiences that I had control over, not some unalterable truth.

At its core, inner child work involves creating an imaginary child using meditation, creative visualization, and narrative (writing and storytelling) techniques. The child represents the young person you once were. It (they, he, she) carries your unhealed wounds and unmet needs as well as your spontaneity, joy, and forgotten dreams. You can heal the child by re-parenting it, using your supportive and loving adult self to provide comfort and protection/security. Through developing a healed inner child, you can step out of some of those intense emotional reactions, maladaptive behaviors, and self-criticisms that plague you as an adult.

If you look at your entire life and try to heal it, the process can seem overwhelming. It is like a computer operating system trying to rewrite itself. It is hard to rewrite yourself if you are the program doing the writing. But if you view yourself as a computer operating system, you can rewrite some of your sub-programs.

The inner child can be viewed as a sub-program, and the operating system can be viewed as the parent. The inner child sub-program is one that enhances your emotional experiences to be sure that they are not overlooked by the operating system in making its executive decisions. It also acts as antivirus software, pervasively scanning the social environment and other files (memories) and programs (attitudes, thoughts, and ideas) for threats (e.g., fear of abandonment or being smothered). It simultaneously looks for resources that will sustain and protect it (friends and romantic partners) and recommends actions (behaviors) to the operating system.

When the program is strongly activated by a threat cue, it may temporarily take over the operating system and enact drastic behaviors to protect the system from harm (e.g., acting out with intense jealousy or anger, shutting down, and rejecting others). Remember, the inner child is only worried about present harm… it is not concerned with the long-term consequence of its actions.

The inner child program is not reality-based. It only knows what you feed it (scary thoughts of abandonment or failure going in = strong emotions and poor behaviors coming out). In childhood, the program was written using the inputs from your parents and your social world. It was designed for that world. But as a present-time adult, you can go back imaginably and give that child a new type of relationship and less scary input data (e.g., you are safe and will not be abandoned, brutalized, rejected, or smothered)

Today, I use inner child work with many of my clients in the context of doing attachment-based therapy (although, admittedly, it isn’t for everybody). After exploring and clarifying the childhood patterns that have shaped and impacted their adult experiences, clients need to know that there is something they can do about it. Inner child work provides a tool to get there. The goal of inner child work is to write a new narrative or life story that works better for you in terms of how you perceive the social world, feel emotions, and respond to others.

Some people can suspend disbelief and readily do inner child work. Other people are more skeptical and worry that it might be some “touchy-feely fantasy stuff” that reminds them of a codependent therapist on a Saturday Night Live skit.

Here are some of the principles and processes underlying this type of experiential work:

  1. Your limbic system is made up of a set of brain structures involved in processing emotions. But, the system does not know what is real. It only knows what you feed it. These brain structures (e.g., the amygdala) function largely below the level of conscious awareness. They get input from your thoughts and your perceptions of the outside world. But those perceptions are filtered and skewed before they are processed in your limbic system. If you change the input, you can change the output and emotional reaction.
  2. Your brain is in more than one place. The cortex (where conscious thought resides) can be the caring, guiding parent, and the limbic system can be the impulsive child. The limbic system does not know that the imagined love and support you are creating in your conscious brain is not real.
  3. Memories are reconstructions, not perfectly preserved videotapes of earlier events. Just because a past experience was painful does not mean that you need to re-experience the pain every time you bring up the memory. You can imagine alternate endings that leave you feeling more empowered and intact.
  4. When you visualize or daydream about an experience, you are creating a new and very real memory. Do you have any memories of dreams you have had? The dream never happened in the physical world, but you have a memory for it (including emotions and experiences). To your limbic system, it doesn’t matter if it was a dream or really happened. They are all just memories. So, daydream on purpose to lay down new, more adaptive memories and experiences.
  5. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have clear and specific memories of early childhood. The inner child developed in the past and will look (probably) like your past self. But your interactions with the child while doing inner child work are happening in the present.
  6. Writing a new story and imagining it clearly is the same as writing a new computer program.

Just like a computer operating system can be upgraded with new programs to work better, your inner child can be reprogrammed in a way that will support the kind of experiences and relationships you want to have today. Having had a difficult childhood is not a life sentence for dysfunctional relationships in adulthood. Inner child work is one tool that can give you the freedom to change.