When I talk to my clients about their “inner child,” I often get strange looks and furrowed brows. They may be aware of the idea through the media or pop culture, but not when it comes to working with their OWN inner child. This woo-woo therapy concept then goes from being innocuous or funny – to downright confusing.
How do you identify an ego state?
What the hell is that anyway?
How do you care for a part of yourself that doesn’t exist in the flesh – a part that vanished years ago?
This blog post is my attempt to answer those questions.
You see, our inner child is something that I believe every single one of us is walking around with. We are all carrying multiple parts of ourselves that we picked up on our developmental journey. Therapists call these parts “ego states." An ego state is a concept of segmentation of someone’s personality. In other words, we all have different “parts” of our personalities that serve different functions (kind of like an inner committee or house of representatives). They all serve different purposes, develop from different stages of our lives, and frustratingly, don’t always get along or have the same needs.
More on ego states in a later post, but for the purposes of understanding the inner child, you just need to know that it’s the part of you that developed when you were a small child (probably before the age of 10). Everyone’s inner child is different, however, it’s usually the part of you that feels the most dependent and anxious. It also likely holds the wounds of a time in your life when you weren’t able to comprehend the world yet. Kids are egocentric, which is appropriate developmentally, but unfortunately, it can cause deep wounding. Many times, children assume that problems in their family system or their world are their fault, when they are truly only bystanders.
How do you know when your inner child is acting up? How do you know when the inner child is asking for your help?
· Ask yourself if your feelings are making logical sense. Often when we're experiencing “kid feelings,” our rational mind doesn’t line up with what we are feeling inside. This makes sense if you think about the fact that our prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain where rational thought develops – isn’t fully formed until way beyond childhood. If your feelings are beyond explanation, and you feel them overwhelmingly nonetheless, it’s likely these are “kid feelings.”
These feelings may even be connected to experiences you had when you were pre-verbal, thus giving them an “I don’t have words for this” quality. These feelings are like memories. They don’t belong to the reality of the present moment, but they feel every bit as real as the first time we felt them. It’s our job (by our, I’m referring to the conscious adult ego state we create as we develop our coping skills. I refer to this as your “authentic self”) to create an inner dialogue that will soothe the child within us. Remind yourself that you are safe and ground yourself in the present moment. Bring your prefrontal cortex online so that you can soothe the little one inside who is remembering something that feels overwhelming.
· Pay attention to your language and tone. Listen to the voice in your head. Is it whiny? Does it sound impatient or small? Is it terrified? Or does it fear being alone? By doing this, you can look closer to see if this voice mimics the qualities we usually find in children. We’ve all been there (you know you have). You’ve heard yourself whine about the store not having your favorite drink, or felt the urge to pout when something disappointing happens. This is your inner child.
We can get to know our ego states extremely well by paying attention to their unique language and tone. Each state will have nuances and subtle differences that will help you to identify which ego state is currently talking. You can then take into account that particular ego state’s role and why they might be active. For instance, if the inner child is active, you might hear a soft tone that uses fear-based or dependent language (I can’t, I won't, I don’t want to, etc..)
Once you get to know your inner child, you will begin to realize what her needs are. They often are needs that weren’t met during your childhood. You can then begin to meet those needs by recreating your childhood experiences in your adult life.
Did she never get to play? (Yes, I’m going to be captain obvious with this one) Then you need to get your butt out there and have some fun! Was she hurt or frightened a lot? This is critical for all of us, but especially for those who experienced trauma. You must commit to impeccably compassionate inner dialogue. I know that’s not easy, which is why having a therapist to help you is often necessary. Did your inner child feel like something was wrong with her? Then it’s up to you to make sure you treat yourself with respect and avoid people who might send the same message that she received in childhood. None of this is rocket science, it’s actually quite simple. But simple doesn’t mean easy.
Be gentle with yourself as you learn more about your inner child. And remember, this part of you needs nurturing and reassurance. All kids do. Little people are brought into this life with no guidance, and they rely on those bigger and wiser than them. They look to adults to provide a safe space that reassures them of their worth so they can feel confident to go learn and explore. You might not have received this safe space as a child. Many of us don’t and no one had a perfect childhood. That’s why it’s so critical that we take the responsibility of getting to know and caring for our inner child.
She’s every bit as real today as she was when you were young. That little one with the big eyes and pigtails may be grown now, but her essence is active deep within you. The more you see her, and treat her (you) with the love you would give any child – the closer you get to home.
“We are all just walking each other home.” - Rumi