By Rachel Samson
According to Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, within each one of us, there is a young suffering child. We often try to ignore this wounded inner child because it is associated with the pain and suffering of our past. We push our feelings and memories deep down inside so that we don’t have to feel the pain. But even when we ignore our inner child, he or she does not go away. Often the emotions from our unresolved past spill out into our current life during our interactions with the people closest to us. It is almost as though we are unconsciously reenacting scenes from our childhood in the present. When this happens it can seem to the outside world like our emotional reaction is out-of-proportion to the situation itself. These big feelings are a clue that our inner child may have been activated.
Consider for a moment, the woman who was abandoned by her father when she was a small girl. When her boyfriend goes away for work, she experiences panic attacks and is unable to sleep. On some level, there may be a fear that her boyfriend will abandon her, too. When we consider our emotional reactions in the context of our history, they often make perfect sense. In therapy sessions, I often find myself saying to clients, “Of course you feel that way! It makes perfect sense that you would feel this way given your history”. In order to make sense of our life story and to grow in wisdom and compassion, we must learn to listen to and care for our inner child. When we ignore our inner child, we miss opportunities to heal. Seeking out the support and guidance of a mental health professional trained in addressing unresolved childhood issues can help you on your journey to healing your inner child. There are also a number of self-care practices we can incorporate into our self-care routine that can help us to nurture our inner child in our daily lives.
1. Recognize your inner child with mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of bringing our attention-our awareness-to the experiences happening right now in the present moment. Mindfulness helps us to tune-in to our thoughts, feelings, memories, images, and bodily sensations – it allows us to come home to ourselves. Simply taking some time each day to slow down and come home to our body provides us with the space to become aware of our inner child. You may begin by focusing on your breathing and then widening your attention to include the rest of your experience. When you connect with your inner child, it is important to meet him or her with openness and curiosity. What is he/she feeling? Was there a recent situation that triggered these feelings? Does something about this situation resemble a similar situation to one in childhood? What does he/she need to feel secure right now? We may notice feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, anger, shame or any number of other feelings. It is important to try to be open to all of these feelings and to listen to them carefully and with compassion. Mindfulness is about simply noticing what is there without needing to change anything. If your inner child is sad, simply breathe in and say to yourself “there is sadness”. We also want to ask ourselves, “what can these feelings teach me?” Reflecting on our feelings in this way provides us with an opportunity to make sense of our feelings and experiences in the broader context of our life narrative.
2. Embrace your inner child with tenderness. After you have become acquainted with your inner child, it is important to try to cultivate an attitude of compassion and tenderness towards him or her. Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and what you have experienced. Rather than resisting the feelings associated with your inner child (our past), you want to just allow the feelings to be there. Imagine holding that little child and embracing him or her tenderly. Don’t worry if this doesn’t come naturally to begin with. That’s perfectly normal. If you find you are having difficulty embracing your inner child, imagine someone else (real or fictional) who is safe and nurturing holding your inner child tenderly. The important thing is that this vulnerable part of you is met with tenderness and care. That is what we all need, as children and as adults.
3. Engage in soothing dialogues with your inner child. Once we have learnt to listen to our inner child, we may like to practice offering him or her soothing statements (the nurturing version of “positive self-talk”) when we are feeling vulnerable. Here are some examples:
Inner Child: I feel alone and anxious.
Adult: (Breathing in) I know you feel anxious. (Breathing out) I am here now. I will not ignore you, I will stay right here with you.
Inner Child: No one cares about my feelings.
Adult: (Breathing in) I know that hurts. (Breathing out) I care about your feelings and it is my job to take care of your feelings and find good people who also care about your feelings.
If you get stuck with what to say to your inner child, think of what a nurturing parent or friend would say to a small child who is sad or scared. I recall using this practice after a break-up in my mid-twenties. The adult me knew that ending the relationship was the right decision to make but the child within me felt anxious about separation and wanted to reach out to my ex-partner. I noticed the feelings of anxiety and recognized this as my inner child. I stood quietly in the sun coming through the office window and said to myself, “I know you are anxious and want to reach out to him but the relationship is not good for you. I am here with you”. I needed to repeat this several times that day and the one after that and the one after that, but the practice allowed me to recognize the pull of my inner child and to soothe the feelings of anxiety that were arising.
4. Seeking therapy with a trained mental health professional.
While the above mentioned steps can be a useful part of self-care and a way to begin becoming more aware of our inner child, many people will need the support of a trained mental health professional to guide this process. Many mental health professionals are trained in helping people to address and heal from unresolved childhood issues. Take your time and do some research to find a therapist or service that feels like it will be a good for you. Attachment-focused therapies and Schema Therapy are examples of therapies that place special emphasis on addressing childhood issues and helping people learn to get their unmet attachment needs met in order to live a more fulfilled life.
If you didn’t receive the emotional nurturance and care you needed as a child, you may have learnt to cope by shutting down your emotions and disconnecting from your vulnerability. As an adult, you may have left those experiences in the past but continue to cope with painful feelings by shutting them down (only to have them spill out when you least expect it). You may not have had the opportunity to heal your inner child or provide him or her with the nurturing that was needed. Remember, in order to nurture our inner child, we must begin by listening to him or her. He or she has been waiting.
Disclaimer. This content in this article is not, and should not be taken as, psychotherapy or psychological advice. If you are experiencing a mental health issue, please seek professional advice from a mental health professional or a medical specialist.