Your inner child can be your best ally.
Last Sunday, over brunch with friends, the discussion turned to the pros and cons of psychoanalysis and therapy, and the topic of the inner child came up. A few people in the party mocked the idea, and one proclaimed that the inner child was “something immature people use as an excuse to not grow up”. As I walked home after the meal, I found myself wondering about the inner child’s bad rep, and why the term, when it is used, is so often used facetiously or negatively.
As self-help jargon becomes a part of our everyday language, the term “inner child” has evolved to represent some sort of mischievous but victimized, psychic imp. As a concept it’s been parodied in Hollywood films such as “Big” and “Drop Dead Fred”, and by characters such as Dr. Evil’s Mini-Me in “Austin Powers”. For many people, the inner child is pseudo-scientific myth. Or worse, hocus-pocus, something best kept in the same box as imaginary friends, fairies, mermaids, unicorns and Santa Claus. Something to pull out to “get-on-the-level” with real kids when you’re in their company perhaps, but otherwise a bit of a self-help joke.
Mulling over the inner child’s relevance to adult life, it occurred to me that perhaps brunch guy’s negative opinion has more to do pop psychology overload, and skepticism educed by the increasing number of quacks working in the self-help industry than it does with his own personal experience with inner children, his own or other peoples.
While I can understand why he — and other similarly rational-minded folks — would be cynical about inner children, I have found my own inner child to be a very practical psychological and spiritual tool for self-improvement and creative growth. Through personal experience, I’ve come to know my inner child, not as mere myth or psychological symbolism, but as a powerful part of my personality that enables me to live a creative, authentic, and spiritually meaningful life.
So what exactly is an inner child?
What is an Inner Child?
According to Merriam-Webster, an inner child is defined as “the childlike, usually hidden part of a person’s personality that is characterized by playfulness, spontaneity, and creativity usually accompanied by anger, hurt, and fear attributable to childhood experiences.” The idea grew from psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s “divine child archetype” and psychiatrist Eric Berne’s Parent-Adult-Child model of transactional analysis theory, evolved into what New Though spiritual leader Emmet Fox called “wonder child”, before it was named “inner child” by self-help evangelist John Bradshaw in his 1990 book “Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child”. Since then, it’s become a metaphor for childhood trauma and healing in psychological counseling. Audra Ekeinde-Jimenez and Katherine Tineo-Komatsu at Columbia University’s School of Social Work however, see the inner child is our “supposed original or true self.” If Ekeinde-Jimenez and Tineo-Komatsu’s claim is correct, then we’re probably doing ourselves a great disservice when we deny or ignore our inner children.
When I was seventeen, I was diagnosed with a number of psychological disorders, including adult ADHD, substance abuse disorder, and clinical depression. After trying different approaches to recovery, my psychiatrist sent my parents and I to see a family therapist. He explained how dysfunctional family dynamics sometimes create children who are “scapegoats” — a role he deduced had fallen upon me — and he believed that my “symptoms” were in part caused by being trapped in this role. He suggested that we all attend family counseling with a therapist named Shawna. It was at one of these therapy sessions that I first heard about my inner child, who according to Shawna, was wounded. As a rebellious, belligerent, therapy-averse teenager, the idea of the “inner child”, “inner parent” and “inner adult” sounded like mambo-jambo. I had already been inside two psychiatric hospitals and seen half a dozen psychologist, psychotherapists and counselors at this point, so everything Shawna said just sounded like the usual psychobabble used to construct an illusion of order for the disordered.
Shawna asked me to do an exercise. I was to get a notepad and a pen. I was to divide a page of the notepad into two columns. On the right column, I was to write down a question with my right hand. Using my left hand, I was to write down a response to the question on the left column. Essential, I was to talk to myself using pen and paper — the perfect activity for a clinically insane budding writer. My curiosity was piqued, so I gave it a shot.
According to Shawna, the dominant right hand would express the thoughts of my rational inner adult — my consciousness as it correlates to my biological age, and as it exists in the present moment. My left hand would express the thoughts of my emotion-and-instinct-led inner child – my consciousness as it was before it went through the processes of education and socialization; the way I was in the world before I hit puberty.
“Hello, are you there?” wrote my right, “adult hand”.
“I hate you. Will stab you with this pen.” Came the labored reply from my left, “child hand” in awkward pre-school-like writing. (naturally as I am not left-handed).
“Why do you want to stab me?” I asked.
“Cos you’re mean. You hurt me. I don’t like you,” said the child.
And this was how our relationship began.
Soon after, I started having dreams of this inner child. In one dream, she was a three-feet tall, Ewok-like being that scurried into the kitchen of my parent’s home every night to steal food from the fridge. Her face and entire body was covered in long hairs and she moved like a frightened animal. In that dream, all the members of my family were hunting her down so they could kill her, and she had to go into hiding. She ended up hiding in a child-sized casket inside my sister’s closet. (One might reason that this was because her first experiences of chastisement began when her parents had their second child and she had to become a “responsible big sister”) I found her and heroically drove a wooden stake in her heart like you do with vampires, thus saving my family from the disgusting marauder. But when I looked through the curtain of coarse hair covering her face, I noticed that she had sad human eyes, my eyes.
In another dream, I was inside a claustrophobic broom closet mopping up a pool of blood on the floor. I then shut the closet door, locked it and hurried towards a train station to catch my train. It was night and I was alone in the station. I heard footsteps and soft moans, and knew I was being followed by the ghost of the eight-year old girl I had murdered and locked in the broom closet. I was terrified and rushed towards the train to get away from the ghoul. The image of the Ewok-like creature and the sad dead girl from my dreams haunted my waking thoughts, and I sensed that they were personifications of this so-called inner child that I had recently made contact with through Shawna’s journaling exercise. I began to feel pity for this creature and wanted to get to know it better. So I relinquished my wooden stake, unlocked the broom closet and offered a cookie to this entity dwelling in the dark places of my psyche. She came closer, became less fearful and soon we got to know each other.
Over time, we began to talk. Not out loud of course, but in my head. I did most of the talking at first, she jumped around like an ape and made growling noises. Slowly I won her trust. We became friends, and she started to tell me a little about what she thought and how she saw the world. Rather than denying her, punishing her, or silencing her, I started speaking more gently to her and doing my best to make her feel welcomed. I allowed her to yammer on about whatever she wanted even if I didn’t agree with her or she didn’t make any sense.
Today, she’s become my best ally. She’s helped to restore my sanity and assisted me in living a full, peaceful and productive life. She’s taught me how to have meaningful and authentic relationships, and how to relax and have fun. She’s helped me to embrace my creative potential and to write passionately. She’s encouraged me to be healthier, and to lead a more well balanced life.
Because most of us have wounded or troubled inner children, this part of our personalities tend to be surreptitious, skittish, and defensive. Sometimes obnoxious or belligerent. Often fearful of being judged, criticised, controlled or abused, they often crouch silently within us, or rage when we feel threatened, and are usually isolated and disconnected from our more evolved adult consciousness. I’ve learnt however, that there is a way to draw out the inner child, and communicate with him or her so that they become able-assistant rather than an elusive antagonist. Here are some the steps I took to stay connected with my inner child.
Every morning, I meditate for at least ten minutes. I focus on my breathing, Breathing in for six seconds, holding my breath for four seconds, then exhaling for eight. As my mind quietens, I can hear a small voice that isn’t concerned with gaining worldly approval, that isn’t too fussed about “getting it right”, and that’s not too bothered with the day’s “to-do list”. Unlike myself, this voice never feels rushed. It moves at a leisurely pace, and doesn’t watch the clock. I try to pay attention to this voice. This is the voice of my inner child, the part of me that’s spontaneous, and that wants me to engage with the day in the most joyful and authentic way possible.
· Dialoguing in a journal
What began as the right-hand, left-hand conversation suggested by Shawna has since evolved into a method of journaling where I ask myself a few key questions that help to activate my inner child’s voice and gain its cooperation. These questions are carefully chosen to illicit emotional rather than intellectual responses. This is because emotions are the language of the inner child. Here are examples of questions I’ll ask myself when I journal.
Question: How are you feeling today?
Question: Is there anything making you feel fearful, angry, guilty, ashamed or sad right now?
Answer: I am scared and angry because I feel useless. I don’t know why I’m even here.
Question: Why do you feel this way?
Answer: Because I don’t like to sit for long periods and do work.
Question: What do you feel like doing today?
Answer: Just talking, and maybe strawberry ice cream.
Question: What do you not want to do today?
Answer: Sit at the computer all day and do your stupid work.
Question: What are you most happy about?
Answer: That I have you to talk to and be with.
Through our conversation, I now know:
My inner child wants to feel useful, and it wants to be in my company. It wants be heard (“just talking” is what it wants to do). It doesn’t want to sit in front of the computer all day because it feels restless, but it also feels conflicted about this because it wants to be of use to me, and it wants to please me. It also wants strawberry ice cream.
Armed with this knowledge, I can now begin negotiating with my inner child through the processes of reeducation and incentivisation.
My inner child is most willing to appear and engage with me if it knows it’s been given permission to play. When I say play, I’m talking about all those fun activities that my adult self would view as frivolous, “naughty”, or a waste of time. For me, these activities include playing “Candy Crush”, reading celebrity gossip magazines, looking at images of Victorian fairytale illustrations or exotic travel destinations on the web, taking long walks with no destination in mind, playing with puppies all morning, or coloring Mandalas in my Mandala coloring book. When I’m doing something that isn’t work or a chore, my inner child becomes curious, comes to inspect and is willing to interact with me. So I usually set aside some time for play each day to lure her in.
Negotiating a Truce
You and your inner child have very different wants and needs. You value order, goal achievement, security and status. Your inner child values chaos, daydreaming and fantasy, freedom and pleasure. You like to read and acquire knowledge through books, TV and other people. She just wants to hug and touch things that feel good, see new sights, attend to new sounds, and eat things that taste good. You take a long-term view on life, whereas she’s all about immediate gratification. You are civilized, she is savage. You are polite, she is crass. You like facts, she like images. You think things through, she feels things through. You care about your place in the world, she believes you are the world. Is it any wonder the two of your didn’t get along before therapy?
· Montessori-style re-education
One of big difficulties in my childhood years was focus. I did not enjoy school because I was often bored and had difficulty paying attention to what was going on in the classroom. Naturally, I received a lot of flak from both my parents and teachers for this. As a pre-pubescent, I got in trouble a lot for skipping or disrupting classes. My psychiatrist put me on Ritalin for a decade. But since making peace with my inner child, I haven’t had any problems staying focused for long periods without medication because I’ve found a new way to encourage my inner child to pay attention, absorb new information, and develop our skills.
Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori believed that when children can choose activities of their own volition and engage in these activities in well-prepared, supportive environments, they have the best chance of optimal physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. While visiting the insane asylums in Rome, Montessori observed the mistreatment of children with intellectual disabilities and began creating a new form of pedagogy in 1907 known as the Montessori method. This method is still used today, and there are presently around 20,000 Montessori schools around the world.
The cornerstone of this method is respect, which is crucial in helping children to develop autonomous learning and positive self-esteem. According to Montessori, children are autodidacts because they are thinking beings who are naturally curious about their environments, and who therefore cannot help but learn. “We acquire knowledge by using our minds; but the child absorbs knowledge directly into his psychic life,” wrote Montessori in 1966. To help the child draw from this psychic life, she believed that the teacher should “follow the child” and build “a favorable environment, both physical and spiritual, to respond to these needs.”
Montessori believed that when given autonomy, the child can then go into a blissful, contented, highly focused mental state that Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi later described as “flow”.
Growing up in Singapore, a place where much of my education involved memorizing notes prepared by teachers, being policed by teachers and parents as I did my homework, and being shamed when my grades were not as good as my peers, I developed an aversion to learning. I shut down, and rather than absorb new information, I spent a great deal of my time in the classroom daydreaming. The only subjects in school that I enjoyed were art and English composition, when my inner child was given minimal instructions and allowed to sit quietly alone and create new things with her imagination and child-like reasoning skills.
After my mental health crisis, I discovered that I could best get into a state of flow when I was writing. It was the one activity that both my inner child and me seemed to agree on. So I took on the role of a Montessori teacher, following instead of controlling my inner child. While I don’t dictate what or how she should work, I do tell her where and when to work, which creates the “well-prepared, supportive environments” that Montessori stipulates. As we both worked together to develop our interest and skills in writing, I ended up getting a degree in journalism, and becoming a professional writer. The year we became allies was also the year when a London publisher published a memoir we wrote titled “Rotten Jellybeans: Tales of Girlhood Misadventure”. Today, I write short fiction, something that I wouldn’t be able to do without her.
· Rewards as incentives
I have a quid pro quo relationship with my inner child. I give her what she needs and she gives me what I want. If I want her to exercise at least three times a week and eat nutritiously, then she needs to know that she’ll get to eat that particular burger that she’s craving at that specific restaurant she loves on the weekend come rain or shine. If I want her to be charming and not get drunk at a business dinner, I’ll have to make sure she gets to watch that crappy B-grade horror movie she wants to. If I want to stay focused and work on writing that lawn mower operation manual, then I need to promise her a short holiday once the project has been completed.
In any intimate relationship, we know what our friend or partner likes and doesn’t like, and we compromise so that both parties can coexist in harmony. The same is true with my inner child. Because we value and are motivated by different things, and have different strengths and weaknesses, we work best together when we both feel we are getting a fair deal in the partnership.
· Provision of Social Support
Like a real child, your inner child will benefit from socialising with other people’s inner children. I’ve been lucky because I’ve always gravitated towards friends and partners with childlike dispositions, and this helps my inner child to develop more fully. People who are in touch with their inner children are young at heart. They’re the ones who aren’t afraid of looking or sounding goofy in public. They’re the ones who are either naturally relaxed or unabashedly nervous, angry or sad if they’re having a bad day. They’ve upfront and not afraid to show their feelings. They are inquisitive, honest, and sometimes easily excitable. They almost always have high levels of mental and emotional energy, and can become quite animated when talking about something they feel strongly about. If you find one of them, see if you can get to know them better, so your inner child can become friends with their inner child.
People who have a good relationship with their inner children speak a different language from those who are cut off from theirs. They see not with the eyes of the world, but with the eyes of the soul. They are very sensitive to their surroundings, to what other people are thinking and feeling, and they hear all the things that have not been said with words. Time spent with a good friend or partner’s inner child helps your inner child flourish. Playtime with friends can also be used as a reward to encourage your inner child to continue cooperating to help you achieve your life goals.
How You’ll Benefit From This Relationship
I believe that the inner child is childhood preserved. While most of us have had painful, confusing, and sometime plain horrific experiences in the early years of life, for the most part, childhood is a time of innocence, a time when we are being our truest selves. For the inner child, death and permanent loss hasn’t yet become a confirmed fact, so when we move through our lives with her, we are able to act with less fear, and be a little braver than we otherwise would be.
If you can convince your jaded and cynical adult self to be open-minded and gentle enough to let your inner child in, good things will come. Since meeting and befriending my own inner child, I’m able to better manage my time, my attention, my emotions and my relationships, because I’m no longer wrestling with the will of a hurt, defensive and bratty saboteur who wants the opposite of what I want. Today, by honoring my inner child, I’ve become more optimistic, more imaginative and productive. I’ve become less judgmental, angry and fearful. I’ve become more forgiving and content. And, I’m much more fun to be around!
Michele is the author of “Without: Stories of lack and longing”, and blogger at confoundingconditions.com and thefinickywanderer.com