Have you ever paid attention to the little voice inside of you? The one that might remind you of your younger self? No matter how old we grow, we carry our younger selves within us day-to-day. Perhaps our hurt 5-year-old self shows up when our best friend doesn’t answer our phone call, or our misunderstood 15- year-old self comes out when we don’t see eye to eye with a colleague. Caring for this younger version of ourselves is what inner child work is all about.
As we tread our individual pathways in life, we acquire emotional baggage. Some of it is easy to recognize but some is baggage picked up when we were very young, which is often hidden deep within the subconscious. The inner child or child within can harbour decades of old hurt that can cause you to react to situations and people using childhood pain as a context. This means that sometimes your reactions have less to do with the situation at hand, and more to do with things you experienced long ago but have not forgotten. The inner child is an important piece of your emotional makeup. It can be playful, spontaneous, intuitive, and spiritual, but can also be fearful, distrustful, and critical. Painful childhood experiences can negatively affect the adult experience. Healing the inner child addresses your child-self’s wounds and frees your adult-self to make decisions based on the present.
What does “inner child” really mean?
Our inner child is a representation of ourselves at multiple points in our childhood, and we can have inner children from various ages. This part of us is very much connected to our natural enthusiasm, curiosity, and creativity we experienced as actual children. When you get in touch with your inner child, you can connect with their qualities and experiences at the time. You can even physically feel how they felt.
As children, we are also very impressionable, readily absorbing what our environments and caretakers teach us and how they treat us. Inner child wounds, or attachment wounds, can occur when there is either a traumatic event or chronic rupture without repair. For children, a rupture without repair can look like crying out for help but being unheard by an emotionally unavailable caretaker. Ruptures also happen in our daily lives throughout adulthood, “from when someone forgets to hold the door open for us at the store or when a friend doesn’t say hi to us.”
Another example is when your partner suddenly becomes busy with work and doesn’t have time for the big night out you’d planned. While you know they’d prefer to spend time with you, you still feel rejected and frustrated. Your disappointment manifests in a childlike way, with you stomping off to your room and slamming the door. Considering what happened through the eyes of your inner child can offer some valuable insight in this scenario. You realize your partner’s sudden need to work made you feel just as you did when your parents canceled plans, playdates, even your birthday party, because of their busy schedules.
In this way, listening to the feelings of your inner child and letting yourself experience them instead of pushing them away can help you identify and validate distress you’ve experienced — an essential first step toward working through it. How we internalize our emotions determines if the experience stays a wound or if it becomes processed right there. In adulthood, we have a chance to heal our wounded inner child and create the safe, secure inner and outer environments our younger selves always wanted.
What is inner child work?
Inner child work, also referred to as inner child healing, is a way to address our needs that haven’t been met as children and heal the attachment wounds we’ve developed. We all have a younger part of ourselves that was “never quite loved the right way or the way they needed as a child.
Inner child work, like any type of inner work, involves creating a space where your subconscious is allowed to take the lead. Inner work is the act of going inside ourselves, to explore our true feelings and parts of us that may have been rejected and labeled as “inappropriate” or “too much” by others. By allowing ourselves time to go within, we begin peeling back our everyday coping mechanisms (being avoidant, numbing of our feelings, etc.) and are able to fully accept and integrate our subconscious into consciousness.
There are steps you can take to gently begin healing your inner child. Working with your inner child is very much like solving a mystery, and the first step to unlocking that mystery is analyzing your own behavior. Ask yourself why you are attracted to certain people, why you react the way you do in particular situations, and what makes you feel helpless, scared, angry, or lonely. As you do so, remember that there is nothing wrong with your feelings and that there is no shame in being influenced by your inner child. Ask yourself how those feelings have been influenced by past experiences. Then mentally revisit your childhood. Visualize yourself as a child. Feel what your child-self is feeling. Finally, approach him or her and offer comfort in the form of a hug infused with positive, loving energy. In doing so, you are both healing and letting go of the wounded child’s pain.
Why is it important?
Many people grow up in less than optimal family environments. Even if our childhood was ideal, we are likely to inherit trauma from generations before us. That is why alcoholics face an unfair disadvantage, since they inherit the genes of their alcoholic parents. We all have wounds to confront and the journey of becoming an adult involves retracing our childhood and making peace with our early life. Can you identify with this narrative? Did you grow up in a stable family environment or did you experience any childhood trauma?
The journey of becoming our true selves requires revisiting our childhood wounds and seeing them through the lens of compassion and forgiveness. It involves attending to our vulnerable parts that we have neglected. So why is this important for self-transformation and self-improvement? Many of our problems stem from our early development, according to developmental psychologists. Depending on our attachment style, this will figure dominantly in adulthood, if we haven’t healed our inner child. This shows up when we are triggered in relationships and recall past hurts. Because we are unconscious to our wounds, we believe the pain is occurring now.
For example, if you are emotionally triggered and cannot control it, it may be a triggered event instead of a reaction to something taking place now. This sentiment is echoed by author Liz Mullinar in her book Heal For Life: How to Heal Yourself from the Pain of Childhood Trauma where she explains: “Remembering that a majority of all emotion comes from childhood, it is a really good idea to check whenever you are angry if it is about what is happening right now or is it reminding you of someone or something from your childhood.” For instance, a young man had a strained relationship with his father growing up, owing to his stern disciplining. As an adult, he might have experienced anger he couldn’t control and traced it back to his childhood. However, he ignored it until it affected his relationships.
Most of our difficult emotions stem from our childhood. When we experience these emotions, we must notice whether we are being triggered by a childhood experience or something in the present moment. It is beyond this article to explain how to heal and transform our childhood wounds. Moreover, I invite you to work with a trained therapist or counsellor, if you identify with this message. It may be difficult working through our childhood wounds on our own because we are likely to re-traumatise ourselves and remain stuck in our wounds. The key is to take the journey into ourselves, knowing what we experience may be unpleasant, but in doing so, we release the negativity and hurt from the past. By healing our inner child, we discover our true self hidden behind a facade of the wounded self.
This wounded self-masquerades as an archetype in the form of: victim, soldier, hero, etc. We will carry these archetypal wounds throughout life without knowing who we really are, since we have identified with our trauma for so long. It becomes our new identity, and healing can be difficult without a shift in awareness. We must learn to become who we really are and not the characters we play. Are you beginning to get a sense that who you are is an intricate web of personas buried within your unconscious mind? It can take a lifetime to discover our true self and we ought to be kind and compassionate with ourselves throughout the healing journey. If this is something you identify with, I recommend journaling and observing your emotions regularly. Note your predominant mood and the situations that affect you. Consider your difficult emotions, as signposts pointing you to heal your inner child. It is once we undertake the journey into our inner child, that we discover the essence of our true self, beneath the concealed self.
Give meditation a try
Those questions you asked your inner child? Meditation can be a great method of opening yourself up for answers. Meditation has plenty of benefits for physical and emotional health, but a few of these relate directly to inner child work.
For one, meditation boosts mindful self-awareness, teaching you to pay more attention to feelings that come up in daily life. Greater mindfulness around your emotions makes it easier to notice when specific situations trigger unhelpful reactions. Meditation also helps you get more comfortable with unwanted emotions.
Children often have a hard time naming uncomfortable emotions, especially when they aren’t encouraged to express themselves. They may repress or bury these feelings to avoid punishment or earn praise from caregivers for being “good” or maintaining control.
Meditation helps you practice acknowledging and sitting with any feelings that come up in your life. When you get used to accepting emotions as they come, you’ll find it easier to express them in healthy ways. This helps validate your inner child’s feelings by sending the message that it’s OK to have emotions and let them out.
You can also try loving-kindness meditation below to send feelings of love to your child self. Visualization mediation is a useful tool for picturing your inner child, or even “visiting” them as your adult self.