When you realise that overwhelming feelings can belong to you but not belong to you now or as the person you are today, it really is possible to soothe them in real time. Often these feelings belong to childhood, and turning to those child-feelings with gentleness is of huge benefit. So why does the term ‘inner child’ make me cringe?
I am a therapist/counsellor, so I should have no problem urging people to get in touch with their ‘inner child’. Pretty much everyone is currently familiar with terms from what you could call ‘therapy culture’, and the ‘inner child’ is a prime example. The expression, though, actually causes me to cringe slightly and possibly involuntarily roll my eyes.
This doesn’t make a lot of sense, as I work all the time with people for whom the concept is helpful, and indeed I sometimes introduce it to them myself. When people are overwhelmed by feelings and reactions that seem to happen ‘to them’ out of the blue, feelings that either they don’t fully understand or seem utterly irrational, they are usually experiencing feelings that are familiar from early childhood, and stepping in now as an adult to take care of that child who is somehow still wailing from abandonment or howling in fury thirty years on can be of immense benefit. It really is possible to carry a wound all your life without ever being entirely aware where it came from. In fact, it may never be necessary to find out exactly the moment when it was first felt, but once you’ve made contact with it as belonging to you, but not belonging to you now, or to you as the person you are today, it really is possible to soothe it in real time.
Thinking of the feeling as belonging to you when you did not have the psychological structures or skills to deal with it, leaving it lingering, unresolved, makes it easier to be non-judgemental, even gentle with ourselves. And it’s this attitude that really helps. The fury we vent on ourselves for ‘being stupid’, for imagining things which we know full well aren’t true and driving ourselves into a frenzy about them, for caring furiously about people think, including people who we don’t even like and whose opinion we set no stock by, the merciless way we castigate ourselves for being jealous, for being down, for being ‘unproductive’ or for not being perfect — this is not the way we would want to treat a child. A child seems to always have intrinsic worth and deserve protecting. Seeing ourselves in that light can be a radical step. Treating our ‘stupid’ parts with gentleness, finding a way of taking care of them rather than constantly insulting and rejecting them, is far more likely to result in their giving up their ‘stupid’ activities, because at the end of the day it’s not much fun for them either. They can stop yelling and creating havoc in your life, just because they feel better.
So, tracing the things which we think and do and feel which we don’t like, which cause stress and pain, back to childhood worry, fear, rejection or sadness can be really helpful. Recognising the feelings as originating in early experience, however, does not necessarily entail having an entire person slotted inside us, like a set of Russian dolls. It is not that we are split into several whole people, co-existing; rather, it is more that elements of experience seem to get ‘stranded’ sometimes when, for whatever reason, they aren’t understood or resolved at the time. This is usually a failure of the adults around, in leaving the child alone to try and understand or resolve a difficult feeling in isolation. This pattern can persist, and just the act of turning now, as an adult, to the feeling the child once had, which remains inside, is enough to break the isolation.
So what’s my problem with inner children?
The difference, I suppose, in using the term ‘inner child’ and actually getting intimate with our ‘old’ feelings is the one between labelling the world to make things seem comprehensible and workable, and experiencing life in all its glory and mess. It’s the difference between a world made of defined parts and roles and a more fluid one. What makes me cringe is the assumption that we can put a big, messy, nuanced, meaningful experience into a container called, say, ‘my inner child’ and perform a particular operation in order to get the desired result. It makes emotional experiences seem ordered, logical, predictable, safe and ultimately simple — which flies in the face of human experience.
At the same time, there is something quite predictable about the results. I find that the process of communicating with myself as a child, when the need arises, and with a gentle tone, is invariably helpful, and I have seen the process happen hundreds of times. So maybe I am unwilling to face how ordered and predictable human experiences really are. A topic for another day…
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