Exploring our inner child

In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play

Friedrich Nietzsche

Recently I was dabbling in one of my favourite pursuits, a bit of collage. My hobby is not only an outlet for my creativity but also a time for my inner child to be in charge. I make an absolute mess, often sitting on the floor surrounded by my various art materials (including sparkly tape, colourful tissue papers and lots of glitter (am such a magpie). I deliberate what to materials to use, biting my lower lip, with furrowed brow, getting excited when something catches my eye. Following Nietzsche advice, through collage, I give my inner child a valuable opportunity to play. 

So, what exactly is the inner child and why does it matter so much?

The what

The inner child represents a significant part of our unconscious which holds all of our childhood impressions; the good, the bad and the ugly. The concept was originally conceived by Carl Jung and then later picked up by Transactional Analysis (a type of therapy centred around exchanges/games in relationships). Inner child work is now common in long-term therapy. 

Every single one of us has an inner child, as we were all children once. Most focus, in therapy, is on the parts of our inner child which carry negative qualities or experiences such as trauma, neglect, low self-esteem or mistrust. 

As an aside when I say trauma, for children, this doesn’t have to mean something very extreme or sudden. We are so fragile when we’re young, that much smaller events can have a massive impact, such is our unavoidable limited perspective.  

No childhood is perfect, and no parent is perfect. Ruptures, where things go awry, happen. The important aspect is to repair the rupture. Not to leave the mistake without any form of resolution, (be it through apology, discussion, reasoning or soothing). Leaving a rupture unchecked, opens up a space for the child to derive a reason for themselves. For example, a parent is late to collect their child from school because of bad traffic, if not repaired, the child may internalise my parent doesn’t love me enough to remember me; I am unlovable, forgettable and unimportant. 

When we are children, like it or not, we are at the mercy of our primary caregivers. Children are incredibly impressionable and will absorb their environments, quickly learning how best to get their needs met.  The way we’re treated as children soon becomes the blueprint for every later relationship in our lives. 

And just to make clear our inner child doesn’t just consist of negative experience, there is good stuff too. Psychotherapist Stefanie Stahl describes there being two version of the child within us. One she calls the Sun Child which embodies our positive feelings and beliefs, including elements of spontaneity, adventurousness, curiosity and vitality. Our Sun Child is innocent and creative. For example, when I am doing my collage art work my Sun Child is certainly present and playful. 

The other version of our inner child Stahl calls the Shadow Child. This encompasses our negative feelings and beliefs which could include aspects of helplessness, grief, loneliness or anger. In order to protect/manage our Shadow Child we develop certain defences such as perfectionism or being a people pleaser. 

And it’s important to realise that when we ignore or repress our Shadow Child, we also put our Sun Child into hiding.  They come as a package.

The why

Am hoping it’s already becoming clear why getting to know our inner child is so important to our emotional health. As the fabulous psychotherapist Philippa Perry explains “if we don’t look at how we were brought up and the legacy of that, it can come back to bite us,” especially if we chose to become parents ourselves. 

Accessing our inner child allows us to find the roots of our issues we currently face as adults. Until then, our inner child remains in our unconscious, directing our lives without our knowledge. Our young wounds transform into destructive behaviours towards ourselves and others, such as abuse, violence or addictions.

Repressing or ignoring our inner child doesn’t make it go away. It is always within us, trying to get our attention. We can never run away from ourselves. 

Our inner child (as with all children) asks for care and love. Confronting our young pain can feel overwhelming and pretty scary. But avoiding these important parts of ourselves only prolongs our suffering. Through this work, we give our Sun Child it’s time to shine. We unlock our curiosity and wonder and our limitless capacity to love. 

Connect, listen and nurture

When I think of inner child work, I am often reminded of Alexander Milov’s sculpture (entitled “Love”) made for the Burning Man Festival in 2015 (see pic above).  For me this piece brilliantly encapsulates the power of inner child. We see two adults together but with their backs turned to one another, both in pain with their respective inner children reaching out to connect with each other. 

How can we connect, listen and nurture our inner child? 

The first step is to acknowledge that our inner child exists. Sometimes this is easier said than done. Some adults who have had to cope with a lot in their childhood, have locked their younger selves very far away to deny and avoid their pain. 

Once we’ve brought our inner child out from the shadows of our unconscious, we need to start listening to our inner child and to get to know them better. Our aim is to understand how they feel and what they need from us.

There are lots of different ways to get to know our inner child. Below is just a summary of ideas I have picked up over the years, used with my clients and for myself.

Looking at photos of our younger selves can help draw out stories from childhood.  Family photos can be incredibly revealing, looking at the placing of members, who smiles and who doesn’t, who is present and who isn’t etc. 

Recalling books, we used to read a child, films we loved or games we used to play or childhood artefacts such as teddy bears can also help add colour to our inner child. Even better is to actually do some of the activities we enjoyed as a child, this really can invite our inner child into the present.

Visualisations can also be useful to connect with our inner child. A visualisation is normally where we relax, get comfortable, steady our breath, close our eyes and focus within and are normally guided by a specific script and we see what images, sensations, feelings etc come to us. Visualisations can bring up a wealth of material and can inspire us to respond creatively (say through a drawing or a poem). Guided meditations can be found on the internet. I also recommend psychotherapist Stephanie Stahl’s book The Child in You which contains lots of exercises about how to get to know our inner child. 

Writing with our non-writing hand can help us also. If you can imagine the handwriting looks just like a child’s. Plus given our difficultly with just holding and using the pen, it can help us feel like a child and stops us using convoluted language or complicated sentences. This type of exercise can be especially impactful straight after an inner child visualisation. 

Once we have gotten to know and listen to our inner child, the next step is to provide them with what they need emotionally. To nurture our inner child. This process is called reparenting. We essentially step into the role of the nurturing parent for the child within. We can never get rid of the original wound that was created when we were young, but there is great healing in getting to know our wounds and giving our inner child the love, care and compassion, they need.  Through this our inner child will no long reside in our unconscious, acting out to defend our young wounds. Instead, it will become a part of us we know well and cherish.

I hope I have conveyed how precious and vital this kind of work can be. Stahl summarises it perfectly by describing the unknown wounded child as homeless and that through our connecting, listening and nurturing, “the child within us will finally find a home.” 

Photo by Rod Long on Unsplash

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