For many of us, the idea of an “inner child” seems like pure pop-psychology. It is even a little offensive to suggest that our “self” might be other than a single, unified entity. This is understandable because, from an early age, we value self-control. We want to think of ourselves as being firmly in charge of our behavior and our lives. The problem is, (see the previous post) our motivational systems are quite a bit more complex and subject to influence than we might hope. What I like about the inner child concept is that it invites a loving and parental relationship with those errant parts of our mind that are responsible for patterns we wish we didn’t have. Not only does the concept lead to the right attitude towards our wayward tendencies, but it also captures many truths about human dysfunction.
First, let me suggest that we are not really as “together” as we think. Consider the difference between your vacation self and your work self, your angry self and your romantic self, how you are with children and how you are at funerals. Think of how you are when you are sick with a fever. Is your behavior the same as when you are well?
The differences are really quite dramatic, yet we rarely acknowledge the full range of ourselves. From childhood, others refer to us as if we were unitary and we think of ourselves that way. We develop a unitary self-concept starting with our gender. “I’m Jeffery. I’m a boy.” Perhaps it is because we have only one name to represent all of our states. What we don’t realize is just how much the unity is a fiction.
Given this general unawareness of how much our selves vary, it would not be so surprising to find that at times we fail to recognize characteristics of a much younger self. We tend to rationalize our young feelings and desires, framing them in such a way that they seem more grown up. Why do college students like to drink and act “stupid?” It really isn’t stupid. That word is more likely a mature-sounding euphemism for finding comfort in the carefree state of childhood as opposed to the stress of competing for a place in the adult world.
Perhaps you have trouble making phone calls. Over time you have come to think of this as a random quirk, a part of your identity. “Oh, that’s me, I just hate the telephone.” More likely, it is a younger self for whom the risk of a painful interaction was greater than anything that could come from a phone call now. Emotional events for children are bigger and scarier than they are for adults: See my earlier post, “Giant Feelings About Small Things.” So when you have to pick up the telephone, you revert back to younger perceptions of risk and potential hurt. This is embarrassing, so you cover it up with a joke. When you simply must make the phone call, you brace yourself and go ahead but you don’t fully absorb the reality that it wasn’t so bad.
What if, over the years, you used your best efforts to avoid facing big, scary feelings like not being able to control emotional interactions with someone important? What if you developed a myriad of subtle techniques for anticipating and steering clear of dangerous loss of control? What if avoiding phone calls were one of them? If so, you would never have learned, at least on an experiential level, that even an unsatisfactory phone call is not the end of the world! Here are some tip-offs to the presence of your inner child:
1. Your reaction too strong for the circumstances, as if the stakes were bigger than adult reality would suggest. This is because, through a child’s eyes, the world is very big.
2. We find ourselves wishing for things that go beyond what is likely in the real world. We tend to rationalize unrealistic wishes and desires, but they are not as rare as you might think. How often are we tempted when advertisers tell us we can have something for nothing?
3. We are driven to behave in ways that solve childhood problems but don’t help us with adult ones. Avoidance of the telephone is an example. So is putting off medical tests for fear of receiving bad news.
4. Like children, we look outside ourselves for the solutions to problems that are really ours. We keep hoping that something or someone else will miraculously change and our troubles will be over. Children rightly recognize their limited power and see the solutions to their problems coming from the grown-ups. They try to influence the big people rather than relying on their own efforts.
So, many of our human foibles are more accurately seen as “young” reactions that have have stayed unmodified by experience. They remain unmodified because we are so good at shielding our child-selves from fear and pain. As long as we don’t acknowledge and face our young feelings, our inner children don’t have a chance to learn or grow. It is because these more childlike states of mind are shielded from awareness and influence that it is valid to think of ourselves as having an inner child.
Once we recognize the youth of some of our reactions, our first instinct is often to want to stamp out our immaturity. Taking on a harsh attitude towards your inner child is just as unhelpful as being harsh with a real child. What children learn out of fear is not really learned. They just shut down. If you really want to help your inner child outgrow an immature pattern of reaction, then you will need to be a good parent, warm and understanding but, when needed, firm.
This, is the real advantage of the inner child concept. As we become more accepting, understanding and loving towards ourselves as children, our inner child will begin to feel safe enough to come into our adult world and learn. To put it more concretely, with a more tolerant attitude and empathy towards our own young feelings, we will be able to “take ourselves by the hand” and enter into dangerous feeling situations like phone calls. As we go consciously through the fear and pain that are part of the phone experience, we can begin to gain an emotional understanding that the stakes are really not so high, and the phone is not so terrible after all.