Inner child work is commonly found in pop-psychology and self-help books. This concept is believed to have originated from the psychologist, Carl Jung, in Jungian therapy and is utilized among various other therapy models practiced today. Carl Jung proposed that the “child archetype” is the first milestone in the process of individuation, or forming the “Self”. The idea behind inner child work is acknowledging that despite our grown, adult bodies and the many years that have passed since childhood, we were all children at one time and that child within us doesn’t just disappear as we age. The child within us is thought to be part of the subconscious that has been picking up messages before we even developed logic or reason. It’s understood to hold emotions, memories, and beliefs from the past as well as hopes and dreams for the future. Having a healthy connection to your inner child can be the difference between feeling playful and full of compassion in life versus feeling controlled by your emotions and frequently engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors.
Unfortunately, the ways in which we were hurt or had experienced trauma in childhood was never our fault, but now as adults, we have the responsibility to heal. This realization can be difficult to process and accept. I make sure to explain to my therapy clients that taking accountability for our healing does not mean we were to blame or were responsible in any way for what was done to us. By the age of eight, many of our core beliefs and ideas about the world are formed, yet this is at a time where our brains have not developed logic or reason. From birth to age seven we have an ego-centric view of the world, meaning, we interpret everything that happens in our environment as being linked to, or caused by us. Since no parent or caregiver is perfect and will undoubtedly miss opportunities to meet our needs, emotions such as hurt, confusion, and disappointment are stored in the primitive part of our brain. Yes, that means even if you've felt as if you had an overall happy and healthy childhood, those memories can live in the subconscious and follow us into adulthood, impacting how we interpret and react to present-day situations.
Next time you find yourself having an over the top or irrational reaction to a present day situation, it may well be that your inner child is present and controlling the show. Feeling activated or triggered serves as an opportunity to reconnect to yourself in a loving and compassionate manner, and to become curious to what your inner child’s needs may be in that moment. Being able to recognize these core wounds and unmet needs is the first step in healing our inner child. The process of healing your inner child can often include “reparenting” your inner child, which simply means giving yourself what you desperately needed from others (eg. adults or caregivers) as a child.
Signs your Inner Child needs Healing
Having large reactions (i.e. out of proportion to the situation) frequently.
Self-sabotaging behaviors such as picking fights for no reason, procrastination, using drugs or alcohol to cope, and people-pleasing.
Having a difficult relationship with family.
Self criticism and low self esteem.
Chronic mental, physical, and emotional problems.
Repeating unhealthy patterns in romantic relationships.
So, how do we begin the work of healing our inner child?
Be open to connecting to yourself in an entirely new way. Learn who you were during your childhood years. What were your interests? What brought you the most joy? Keeping a photograph of yourself (age seven or younger) nearby to glance at daily can be a helpful reminder to connect with your childlike self dail. Or you can use it to be curious about what you may have been going through at that age. For example, what were your biggest worries at the time? What was going on at home?
Try speaking to yourself like you’d imagine a loving parent would. It could be as easy as “ I’m here now, you don’t have to go through this alone.” Become curious about what your needs are, especially during moments of feeling triggered. Often what our inner child needs from our adult self is to hear what we didn’t get to hear as a child.
After communicating with your inner child, you will likely intuitively discover some unmet needs. This is the time to provide yourself with whatever physical, emotional, or spiritual needs are necessary. It is also important to nurture our inner child by making time to forgo adult responsibilities and roles, and lend permission for more play in life. This could be making more time for the things you used to enjoy as a child, but have learned to outgrow due to societal norms.
Upon first learning about these concepts, you may have a variety of reactions, including skepticism. Given societal conditioning to “grow up” and “act like an adult”,, we don’t often learn the benefits of connecting with our childlike self and the value in routinely incorporating play into our lives. For many, it can be an emotional journey to find compassion for younger versions of ourselves, so it is important to go at your own pace and work with a licensed therapist if difficult-to-process emotions or memories arise.
Erica Basso is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist practicing statewide in California. She helps guide women in overcoming anxiety, perfectionism, and imposter syndrome. Learn more at: www.ericabassotherapy.com