My Inner Children
During one of my last sessions with my therapist in Denver, he gave me a handout to read titled something along the lines of “Tending to the Wounded Inner Child”. I, of course, never read it, because...what the hell? “Inner child”? If ever there was something that seemed as stereotypical therapist gobbledygook, it would be that. Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
When I arrived at treatment, I was thrilled to find that they had much of the therapy that I knew and had already experienced, such as Mindfulness, Somatics, and EMDR. As an adjunctive, my primary therapist decided that Somatics would be the best fit for me, to which I was also thrilled. But I never dreamed that it would help me to discover my own inner child. Much less three of them.
The first Somatics session I had was brutal, in a great way. After our introductions, she asked me how I felt, and I said that I wanted to cry, though I didn’t know why. By the end of the session, I was balled up, hugging a teddy bear in a death grip, and sobbing. But that wasn’t the cool part. The cool part was how the therapist saw the link between present-day me and 14-year-old me, and just how much this visceral feeling came from the very same feelings I had at that age. And more than that, she asked me “What can you say to your younger self? What does he need to hear?” And oddly enough, the answer came almost instantaneously: “You are lovable. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
After some journaling, self-introspection, and a few more Somatic sessions, I came to the realization that much of what’s inside me that I’ve been trying to label for years is captured perfectly by inner children. Specifically, I recognized three distinct ages:
- Age 12: the “little screaming child”; Anxiety
- Age 14: the sad voice; Depression
- Age 16: the critical voice; Self-loathing
It’s more than “I felt that way at that age”, it’s that there’s part of me now still stuck that way. For years, therapists have referred to my self-judgment and harshness as a “critical voice”, but to know that it’s a scared, 16-year-old kid is quite revolutionary. During treatment, I was asked to paint what my inner critique looked like; on one side of the paper, I drew what it used to be: a giant black form with menacing red eyes. On the other side, I drew myself at 16, teeth clenched from anger but also from tears.
But by far, the biggest help that inner child work has done for me has been self-compassion. While I was in treatment, I was given the challenge to go a few days using third-person in all self-talk in my head. The psychology is that it gives you enough distance to frame your thoughts in a new way, that your brain works differently when working with “I” than with “Jon”.
It’s the same with inner child work. It’s really hard to be compassionate on myself. But if I close my eyes, feel the inner 12-year-old inside me, how scared he was then and how scared he still is now, it’s a helluva lot easier to be compassionate. There’s an ability to notice my own innocence, my own feelings regardless of how I internally judged them against the frame of reference.
This all might be coming off as a bit mental. I get that. I don't really believe that I have children inside of me, in any physical or metaphysical sense. Instead, it's way to look at the problem and look at myself from a different angle by kind of re-experiencing myself at critical ages. And the reason this all happened in Somatics is that (my words:) a large part of somatics in regards to trauma is that emotions and sensations are held trapped inside the body. Lines up pretty well with a snapshot-in-time oriented Inner Child work.
At the same time, that distance it provides also lets me communicate more clearly with the part that isn't an inner child: the part in the present. The 26-year-old me. I call him my Present Self. It's he who is trying to push forward every day, living life to the fullest, and it's he who is the one who must respond when an inner child is seizing control.
I must say, the Present Self was the most amazing thing to come out of the inner child work. Because it's there; I'm not just a gigantic wad of trauma from my past. There's a part of me that pushes on every day, trying to live a fulfilling life; if there's something that keeps me going, then I can't be 100% mental illness.
And there's a sense of power in the Present Self. It comes from that distance I mentioned earlier: that I can tap into my Present Self, see my inner children through the eyes of a 26 year old and have compassion. Understand them, like I wish I was understood at that age. Help them by telling them what they need to hear. My Present Self actually gets outraged when something triggers a negative response from an inner child. They're just a child. Why should they be put through this? And with that outrage comes action. Agency. I'm not frozen, not all of me. I am the Protector of my younger selves; yes, I am those younger selves as well, just as much if not more. But there is a part of me that is capable of doing what I never thought I could: loving myself.
These are all good things, though very hard to get out of my head on writing.
The ultimate goal of this work is not to keep myself separated, but rather to reintegrate it into one thing. It's a method of therapy, not to be taken literally. Like I said, it gives that distance needed for my own self compassion. Above all, it's visceral more than intellectual. It's a widely accepted therapy tactic, to be sure, but it's much more of a way to feel my way through a situation -in a Somatic sense- rather than "If X, then Y, else Z". It's not good enough to simply push away the negative emotions or to deny them. I must feel them, but if I can feel them with the support of an older figure (my present self) that I'd always wanted, those sensations change. They become an open door rather than a locked one. And damn, have I had a lot of locked doors.
The bad news is: I've not been keeping up with it since Treatment. Meditation plays a key role in many things for me, and that includes inner child work. I haven't been able to "tap in" to the Present Self and so the self-compassion has atrophied. But it's still changed me. When I do remember to practice it, especially in dark situations, I find that it cuts right through to the heart of the issue. When I don't use it, things revert back to "the norm"; the Critical Voice becomes a dark angry cloud again. It -along with DBT- are the two things that I learned in treatment that were most important to practice, and I have not.
There are so many different ways to look at a problem and there is no one "right" answer. For me, inner child work is immensely helpful because....well, it just is. If I could choose what was helpful for me in overcoming trauma and mental illness, I'd just choose chocolate, buy some stretchy pants, and call it a day. The reason this works isn't terribly important. At least not to me; maybe it is to psychologists writing books. What is important is that it -even in small amounts- has been a massive change in the way I experience my life. I don't see it as a means to an end; I'm not pretending there are inner children because it makes it easier or something. Practicing it however often -months, weeks, days- reminds me of the existance of my Present Self, the existance of a desire to live life fully, and a compassion toward myself for many of the horrible things I've had to go throuh when I was younger.