Individual therapy can provide a powerful medium to do the deeper work required to help people who are stuck in the past and struggling to thrive in the present. “Inner child work” is one avenue for this where the therapist gently guides the client to their emotional experience during the time period of the primary wounding; childhood for many. When emotional needs are unmet, it’s common to shut off from the sadness, despair and loss associated with this. Defensive strategies are employed (that serve well) that as an adult no longer work well.
We are shaped by our primary relationships not only by experience but how our brains are wired as a result. Research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (Daniel Siegel, MD) has demonstrated that though negative experiences of unmet needs can result in our personal alarm systems (the amygdala in our “reptilian” brain) sounding off inappropriately, the brain can rewire itself with new experiences.
Let’s talk a bit about unmet needs…
In therapy, whether individually or in a couple dynamic, I pay close attention to indicators of unmet needs as children. This often shows itself as deep mistrust, fear of abandonment, sensitivity to criticism, poor self esteem and other signs. There are often very good reasons why the person sitting before me looks at the world through the lens they do. A combination of biology, unmet relational needs and the ensuing wiring of the brain can be a cocktail for a great deal of internal and relational distress.
How does one get to the seed of unmet needs, particularly in many cases when there have been very efficient defense mechanisms in place for protection? Very cautiously. It’s a careful unfolding or peeling back of an onion that will likely bring forth previously cut of emotion. It’s imperative that safety is established in this work.
When the time is right, a useful question to get to the deeper layers is:
“As a child, what did you need from your dad (or mom) that you didn’t get?”
Many people have never pondered this question and why would they? For some, it can be quite painful. Those who had felt secure in their environment and well attached to their parents or primary caregivers, likely not.
I often have the client do a letter to their mother or father from themselves about what they needed and didn’t get – at a particular age in childhood. People often are surprised at how emotional it can be to not only do this letter – but hear themselves read it aloud in session If one can start to look at what experiences and core beliefs about themselves, others and the world they have internalized, they are often solidly on the road to healing. If self-compassion can take the place of shame then you are really on the way.
The hardest part is often facing what the experiences must have been like for you as little boy or girl, which means breaking through some of your well constructed and useful defensive mechanisms. But as difficult as this inner child work can be emotionally, it can lead to freedom like you’ve never known.