In some photos of myself as a young child I looked sad. As I stare into my own eyes in some of the pictures from back then I see melancholy and pensiveness. Distance. Ambivalence. A little girl inside her own head. Of course at that time I was not aware of any of this as as adult brain might be. But I know know. My 47 years has been spent understanding, gaining wisdom, healing and becoming an expert on myself.
Though I aged in years, the little girl inside me was sometimes in charge. And until I understood what that meant, I struggled emotionally and in my relationships. Thankfully, after a lot of personal work and growth, things have shifted very positively. As it turns out, I am a therapist by profession. And I like to believe that my personal experiences makes me a better therapist.
You can grow and change too.
When your inner child is running the show, some of these faulty beliefs may be why:
- I’m not good enough.
- People will leave me.
- I’m not lovable.
- People can’t be trusted…and many more.
The beliefs are deemed “faulty” because they likely developed early in life based on how important people in your life showed up for you. The quality of your attachment to your parents or primary caregivers is a big piece of the puzzle but there are other factors such as unrelated trauma, treatment by peers in the school years and significant events that challenged your sense of self and expectations of how others would treat you.
The inner child is the little boy or girl inside of you who lived through those experiences and though you are an older person now, still has a voice. This voice shows up in behaviors that initially were learned as a wise adaptation to the circumstances but as an adult, don’t serve you well anymore.
Some behaviors that might indicate your inner child is driving the bus:
- You lash out in ways that causes others pause. (Because of a belief that people can’t be relied upon and you must protect yourself?)
- You are focused on people pleasing and giving that people seem to take only, leaving you resentful. (Because your self worth comes from external vs internal validation?)
- You abuse alcohol/substance. (To ease the pain?)
- You avoid contact with people. (Because you fear that you will not be accepted?)
Think of your inner child as truly a little version of you. Find an old childhood photo of yourself and spend some time looking at it. Identify with him/her. What was going on with that child? Did he/she feel safe, loved, prioritized and empowered? Were there conditions put on that child to receive love? Did somebody hurt that child?
When you behave in ways that haven’t been productive or struggle to stop vicious cycles in unhealthy relationship, it’s often because the “little you” is acting up. The child needs to understand once and for all that that he/she is ok. You as your adult self might need to help with that.
Put your inner child in the back seat and fasten the seatbelt.
One exercise you can do, that I do with my clients is, imagine you are in a bus with your wounded inner child. There is no one but the two of you. The child is behind the wheel driving the bus wildly, careening with screeching around corners. You are a row back hanging on for dear life. You realize of course that you are the one who should be driving. Your inner child is out of control.
(Consider the possibility that every time you act in ways that push people away, hurt them or you, or generally sabotage yourself emotionally or in your relationships, that your inner child might might be driving the bus. Could the upset reflected in her driving sometimes mirror your behavior?)
Once you have fully imagined the chaos of this scene, imagine that you find your way to the driver seat, put your hand gently on his/her shoulder and help the child stop the bus. You pick up the child and bring him/her to the row behind the driver, gently strapping them into the seatbelt. Once secure, you return to the driver’s seat and make your way down the road, slowly and safely from the brain of an adult who knows better.
In this exercise you have separated your adult you from your inner child in your mind’s eye, provided soothing to the child (a part of you) and regained control of the situation (the emotions and behaviors that don’t serve. You are essentially soothing yourself and being compassionate to the part of you that has been hurt in some way for so long.
Family of Origin Work
Family of origin therapy addresses our earlier wounds, helping to identify what’s at the root of your distress, understand how you adapted to your circumstances and to resolve what blocks you. Many people behave in dysfunctional ways that clearly don’t serve but are clueless as to why. A little bit of insight to even the possibility that there are tangled roots in your emotional, psychological and spiritual root system can be the seed you need to move towards making positive change.
Inner child exercises are only part of the process of this type of therapy.
If this type of therapy resonates with you and you feel it would be useful for you to begin , there are some options. The most effective will probably be seeing a therapist specializing in family of origin work. If therapy isn’t your cup of tea or is not affordable to you, I have written a mini guide to get you thinking about your family of origin issues in an easy to follow framework.
Learn more about Family of Origin Work: Untangle Your Unhealthy Roots.1