‘Working with your inner child’ can sound a bit out there.
But the inner child is a psychotherapeutic concept that arose with Jung, and many therapists use forms of inner child work as a powerful tool to help clients. Could you benefit?
What is ‘inner child work’?
We were all at one time children. And the child you once were did not just up and vanish, to be replaced by a perfectly formed, always responsible adult.
Indeed, most of us act very much like children at least now and then. It’s in the moment you have a temper tantrum over a parking ticket, or fall into a panicky sense of abandonment when you learn your partner is going off for a three-week business trip.
And some of us, if we had a tough or loveless childhood, are actually children most (if not all) of the time. We might look like an adult, but inside is an angry five-year old who trusts no one and is secretly calling the shots.
In psychology, this part of your unconscious that represents the child you once were, and manifests as a sort of ‘other personality’ in social interactions, is often referred to as the ‘inner child’. (A more in-depth explanation is found in our connected article, ‘What is the Inner Child?’).
‘Inner child work’ is work you do either by yourself or with a therapist to resolve the childhood emotions and experiences this ‘inner child’ still holds, as well as harness the joy, innocence, and confidence that were your birthright.
What does ‘inner child work’ really involve, though?
Your therapist might not even call the process ‘inner child work’, but instead something along the lines of ‘healing the child within’ or ’embracing your child archetype’. You might even be doing inner child work under the guise of ‘shadow work’. Often it is as a child that we learn to repress things like sadness and anger that then become the hidden shadow.
Really, inner child work is any form of self discovery that helps you access the child you once were, along with the experiences and emotions that child was taught to repress. The general idea of inner child work is that that if you make an effort to contact, listen to and communicate with, and nurture your inner child, you can find and heal the roots of your issues as an adult.
Childhood trauma leaves a child with shame, which means he or she will feel they have to hide their experience and/or emotions in order to survive.
If you were controlled by your parents, or if you were taught to believe you were only acceptable and loveable if you were ‘good’, then you would learn to hide the emotions like sadness or anger that got you into trouble.
These repressed emotions then lead to cycles of self-sabotage in adulthood. We either seek the parenting we missed out in other people and always feel disappointed, rejected, and let down when they can’t fulfil our demands, or we refuse to let anyone close to hurt us that much again.
Inner child work helps you to finally accept and feel your emotions, and to take care of the ‘child within’ and thus your adult self, too. Finally you become a ‘grown up’, able to honour and take care of your own needs.
Why can’t I achieve all of the above from my adult self?
As adults, we can be very hard on ourselves. Our own self-judgement and loathing can make healing and moving on difficult.
While we can blame and berate our adult self easily, who can blame a child?
Seeing unresolved childhood trauma, pain, and repressed emotions as a separate entity, an ‘inner child’, can help you to be more compassionate towards yourself. And the more empathy we can show towards ourselves, the faster we can process and heal our pasts.
But you are still your adult self when you do inner child work. It’s simply about accessing another part of your unconscious, or a side of your personality, if you like.
What psychological issues can inner child work help me with?
The issues that inner child work is known to be very suitable for include:
Working with the inner child is not about unearthing all the things your parents did ‘wrong’ and getting angry at them. Yes, you might spend time letting your inner child get furious at the parents she or he then had. The emotions need to be processed, and often at the level they were created. But with this comes the recognition that you are no longer that child.
Therapy also helps you recognise who the adult you is, along with his or her personal power and mature perspective. You might find that after a period of allowing yourself to feel anger and sadness towards others you find all new understanding and compassion, able to see others are not perfect either and had their own unmet needs to struggle with.