There is a cause and effect relationship between what happened to the child that we were and the adult we became.
Our relationship with others reflects how we see and treat ourselves. Eastern philosophy teaches that the world is as you believe it, and in the West, psychotherapists say our view of the world is revealed in the phenomenon of projection. To an unconscious mind, if we see it- we are it.
When we get into a new intimate relationship, all those earlier years of emotional conditioning come to the surface. These unconscious responses, developed when we were merely innocent children, are the result of our experiences with our “First Loves” – our mothers, fathers, or any other caregivers who were close to us. If, for example, your caregivers were affectionate, you are probably comfortable with affection as an adult.
If all your needs were adequately met as a child, the adult-you has a healthy, robust, curious, and spontaneous response to life. We call this a healthy Inner Child, and everyone deserves one.
If all of those needs were met properly, you won’t be interested in this article.
But if you had unmet needs, or were abused or neglected by one of those “First Loves” in a significant or recurring way, it left a wound. You may never notice this hurt but it is certainly there. It determines your actions and shapes your life. Or you may not think those things bother you anymore because, after all, you had to survive. But all you probably accomplished was to learn to mask those wounds, kind of like a Band-Aid, to get on with the task of growing up.
Without any conscious awareness, you created a core issue, and the underlying motivation of your life would be to avoid this hurt by building a good defense strategy. You tried to be perfect, or maybe you tried not needing anything. Whatever the defense, it’s not the real you.
You can try to ignore this wounded part of yourself and most of us do try. After all, we are grown up, shouldn’t we act grown up? Who would want a sniveling little whiny brat hanging around the office, or in our grown up relationships?
But try as we might, the kid shows up anyway. It’s usually seen as an overreaction, or you may feel it as a freeze-moment: everything turns fuzzy and muddled and you can’t think straight. The next time this happens, ask yourself how old you feel. You’ll see. It’s the kid.
The good news is we can heal this wounded part of ourselves by building a new relationship with our own Inner Child. If the messages we got as little kids were negative, then there was a misunderstanding. With supportive compassion, we can correct those mistakes.
How this happened is simple. Children feel responsible for the things that happen to them. Our caregivers were our God/Goddess. Since the all-powerful can’t make a mistake, we concluded that, when something was wrong, “it must be me”. This feeling of fault marked our earliest relationship with our selves. At the core of our being is the Inner Child who believes that he or she is unworthy, unlovable, defective, or not good enough.
Take Betty for an example. She plays the ex-wife of Don Draper in “Mad Men”. In the latest episode, her partner couldn’t understand why she seemed to get so upset suddenly and for no apparent reason.
Of course Betty didn’t see it that way. She thought it was reasonable to be angry with her son, Bobby, because he “wrecked a perfectly wonderful day”.
Was it really so horrible that Bobby thought the lunch with two sandwiches was for him? Anyone watching the scene would know it was an innocent misunderstanding. He had no intention to cause harm. But for Betty, Bobby’s decision to share the lunch with another girl was a malicious affront! In a single instant she went from a Functional Adult to a sulking, fuming, and shaming Child. And like a little girl believing her own sad fantasy (“I’m not good enough”) she later says, to her partner “Why don’t they love me?”
I’d venture to guess that as a child, Betty’s parents believed “children are to be seen but not heard”. She probably learned that her needs were of no significance and were a nuisance. As Betty grew up, still believing this of herself, she learned not to trust the other loves in her life. I think Betty’s defense-strategy was to pretend not to care. And so, without awareness, she punishes her children when these wounds from her Inner Child arise. And she is passing on the wounds.
Like the character Betty, when we are automatically triggered, “out of the blue“, we re-enact the traumas laid down in childhood.
Here’s the kicker: We cannot be present in an authentic, genuine way in our adult love relationships if we are not aware of our childhood wounds.
Remember, little kids have a very limited amount of experiences to draw conclusions from. When we were 3 or 4 we couldn’t look around us and say, “Well, Mom’s certainly having a bad day. Since I just woke up, it can’t have anything to do with me!” We just felt awful, and we mistakenly concluded, “It must be my fault. I must have done something wrong.” If there are a significant number of these early misconceptions, we become wounded. We grow up wired to believe we are unworthy of love.
Repair can happen when we start to understand on an emotional level, on a gut level, that “It wasn’t your fault. You didn’t do anything wrong, you were just a little kid.”
But how can we tell if it’s an Inner Child issue? The 1st step is to become aware. One way is to notice if we feel an emotion that is out of proportion with what’s going on around us, or when we get feedback that we are “overreacting“.
Next, we need to learn to become the Loving Parent to ourselves, who can hear the child’s voice within us and validate its pain and anger.
We can do this by focusing on a current hurtful situation while asking ourselves, “What could have happened in my childhood that would draw me to the same conclusion?” You might find a memory or it may just be a feeling.
Another method is done by journaling non-dominant-hand dialogues (asking your Inner Child what he or she needs). This may require asking for help. We all need some help at times to see ourselves more clearly. Look for a psychotherapist who is comfortable with Lucia Capacchione’s method, illustrated in her book, RECOVERY OF YOUR INNER CHILD – How to talk to your Inner Child and find what it needs.
Once you have rescued the wounded Inner Child, there are other approaches to keeping yourself in tune with your authentic self that aren’t quite as intense. I write about them as well in other articles. Stay tuned!
“Carry the spirit of the Child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.” ~Aldous Huxley