Many times when we have had a difficult childhood or trauma, we develop certain coping strategies and survival techniques that later in life no longer serve us. We are not always conscious that the hurt and wounded child within us is still very much at the forefront and requires our immediate attention. This makes sense if we consider that only an estimated 12% of our life and our knowledge is in our conscious awareness, in contrast to 88% that is in our unconscious awareness.
We may have denied or not been aware of how much our childhoods have had an impact on us. We may dismiss it because we believe it ‘wasn’t that bad’, ‘others have had it worse’, ‘I was never hit’, ‘I wasn’t sexually abused’… we may still be that child that in order to survive cannot see our parents as they were and not wish to see them in a bad light.
This isn’t about blame, this is about owning the fact that something has had an impact and that everything results in consequences. This isn’t about comparing but acknowledging that we all have a right to feel the way we feel and that many things can be damaging. Everyone feels and reacts and experiences things in different ways, all are valid.
Childhood difficulties occur due to many diverse reasons:
- Bad experiences at school.
- A single event trauma.
- Cultural shame.
- Emotional neglect.
- Emotional abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Physical abuse.
- Psychological abuse.
- Living with domestic violence.
- Having to grow up with absent parents.
- Living with a parent who is ill.
- Losing a parent… and any situation that causes wounding.
Sometimes, we can come to believe that if we survived and it’s in the past then it no longer is relevant but burying it doesn’t resolve it.
What happens is that the wounded inner child never leaves us, our bodies change and transform regardless of whether we are ready for that psychologically and emotionally. Our bodies will develop into an adult body and time waits for nobody. This means that we can feel like children trapped in an adult’s body. We don’t instantly wake up the next day having turned 18 and 21 and become adults, by law only. When we have had a difficult, traumatic and painful childhood our development and growth gets compromised. Therefore, those stages of development have not been completed. Adulthood like anything is a process. So that lost, afraid and lonely child can be found within and at times wounded parts of us are frozen at the age we got hurt.
Imagine a five year old or a 10 year old thrown into adulthood, having to be an adult in the world, form adult and romantic relationships, take on a job and all the responsibilities that come with being an adult? How frightening must that be and seem? Can a child deal with this all? With the adult world all alone, having to fend for self?
So it is any wonder that things may go wrong? That the inner child may look for partners to meet their unmet and unresolved needs, that they become more vulnerable to predators? That they may develop self-sabotaging or self-destructive behaviours? We act out because it has never been worked out.
These wounds can then manifest in psychological conditions such a:
- low self-esteem
Self-care may be hard to do due to the fact that as children, we may not have learnt how to comfort and soothe our own emotions or learned healthy ways around this. We may have not had our sense of self and feelings reflected back to us. What happens is that the hurt inner child within creates havoc in our adult life and takes the driver’s seat.
The inner child is calling for attention, for compassion, for resolution, for the love and nurture it craves for. Yet many times as the child-adult we have learned to dismiss, ignore, and abandon this part of self. We can end up doing to ourselves what was done to us.
We may have a hard time loving self, being comfortable within our own skin, accepting praise, knowing our boundaries and rights. We develop low self-worth, low self-esteem, lack of self-confidence. We seek these from others unable and not knowing how to give to self. Yet all these, have the prefix ‘self’ in front of them because only we can give ourselves these gifts.
Yet like the child, there can still be that sense of dependency on others, or independence so great that we don’t let anyone help us or let them in. Just like we can trust people all too easily or not at all and push others away. Both resulting in desperation later for all that has been deprived and all we have deprived ourselves off. Our needs can become greater than our wants; leading us to accept the crumbs.
Other issues that develop are many, amongst these:
- All or nothing thinking.
- Control issues.
- Being over-responsible.
- Neglecting our needs.
- High tolerance of inappropriate behaviour.
- Soft or rigid boundaries.
- Fear of abandonment.
- Difficulty handling and resolving conflicts.
- Straying away from the actual core issue.
What also can happen is that our self of ‘I am’ is lost. We are made to live as a false self. This is due to the fact that nobody was there to reflect feelings, identity and thoughts back to us. We may have been parentified (when a child is expected to take on the role of a parent). In cases like this, as John Brandshaw states: “no one gets to be who they are. All are put in service to the needs of the system”. Use is abuse and the child is being used.
One technique that the inner child and the child uses as a coping strategy is called ‘magical thinking’. We hope and believe that if we prove we are good enough, pretty enough, the perfect partner, successful enough, obedient enough, that we will be finally noticed and loved and protected. This can be seen from the social conditioning in particular with females of a prince charming saving them from their own helplessness and misfortune. Yet, we need to find the hero inside ourselves. Know that we have the power within us.
As Carl Rogers stated, conditions of worth are placed on us as children.
‘Conditions of worth are transmitted to the child, who learns that s/he is acceptable or lovable if s/he behaves, thinks and feels in certain ways’ (Tolan, 2003: 4).
What these do is put pressure on us as individuals to feel and behave in particular ways, even when contrary to how we feel. This can be found to still haunt us by societal expectations later in adult life. Where society tells us to be who we are and expects us to be anything but ourselves in order to feel valued. This is seen by beauty standards, competition in workplace etc.
Recovery and healing of our inner child requires us to integrate the inner child part and our adult part. To learn to be that healthy role model and protective, loving and nurturing parent to self. To develop our own self-love and compassion. To listen, hear, validate, comfort, nurture, love and give attention to that part of us; that wounded inner child who needs us to reclaim it. It needs to feel valued. We must also grieve our lost childhoods and our unfulfilled developmental needs. We must embrace our original pain by embracing the child within us. It also requires us to start from scratch and learn who we are (our authentic selves), to take those baby steps all over and support ourselves as we do to that journey of healing and self-discovery.
As Ron Kurtz said: “The child wants simple things. It wants to be listened to. It wants to be loved… It may not even know the words, but it wants its rights protected and its self-respect unviolated. It needs you to be there”.
Healing is a process not an event. An exercise you can try out is to draw or write about how you feel. Connect to your inner child by either drawing with the opposite hand to the one you draw with, like a child not thinking about how it should look or be or producing a great picture. This is not about being an artist. Just owe the drawing. Let that inner child communicate with you.
With writing again, use the opposite hand to the one you write with, this is to feel like a child would and write a letter to your inner child expressing what you would like it to know. You can also ask a question by writing it down as an inner dialogue. Use the dominant hand to write as an adult and the other hand as the child responding. This can take time, as the inner child needs to feel safe. If we criticise it or feel hostile to that part of ourselves it may not want to be there or come out.
Here is an example of a love letter to your inner child:
Dear beautiful inner child of mine,
You are so lovable, so full of beans and light and love. You radiate and your empathy and wisdom are the gifts you offer to the world. Such a gentle and sweet soul you are.
I’m sorry that your original wound was that of abandonment. So, sorry that you felt invisible, not valued, unloved and engulfed for so many years by loneliness due to lack of connection with self and others.
How so many didn’t deserve you, they didn’t value or care. You had to protect yourself and felt so alone, carrying burdens on your small shoulders that crushed your very psyche. The unbearable pain and weight of so much, no child has the tools to handle. How you became so depressed, withdrawn and socially anxious due to the unpredictable, chaotic and unsafe environment that was to be home. The rejection of so many, and adults around you that constantly failed you and were no role models. How you were never loved unconditionally, there saving everyone and who saved you? Who was ever there for you?
The humiliation and bullying you suffered at the dinner table, the freedom you lacked. The never feeling enough and the inner cries of why me? The anger that could never be expressed and burned you from the inside. The tears that were silenced and not allowed to flow, the pain that had no outlet, the identity that was forbidden, learning you couldn’t be accepted or loved for you. That nobody would love you. You soul screaming to be noticed, you pain aching to be soothed, your heart crying for connection, protection and to be understood.
I see you; I hear you; I’ve got your back; I will fight for you. I will nurture you, I will hold you and your pain, cry it all out as you fall into my loving and accepting arms. Don’t be afraid, I’m here making the commitment never to abandon you again in the same way others have or hurt you. It’s time you were set free, I see how tired you are, the toll the years have taken on you. I want to lay you at rest, save you from under the rubble of rocks such as shame, abuse, parentification, being used that crushed you.
Please come home, please trust me, I want you to be cared for and experience my love. I want you to know that I am proud of you. You didn’t deserve the adversities you were faced with, to have to survive in the wilderness.
Don’t compare yourself to other’s who had it worse, you matter and your pain matters and is valid. You don’t have to go through worse to be deserving of love or have your pain be legit.
Forgive yourself for the things you hold remorse for and have changed and corrected. You don’t need to be perfect.
Let me allow you to be the child you never got the chance of being, let me give you back a sense of wonder, playfulness and celebrate all these precious qualities that are a part of you. I love, appreciate and adore you. You are not alone, I’m here from now on.
Loving you always.
Adult me xx
Another example can find here: Healing letter to self
Healing our childhood wounds
These stages can be applied to other areas and experiences of childhood and healing. Adapted from Amazon book: Daughter Detox from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming your life. Writer Peg Streep lays out seven distinct but interconnected stages on the path to reclaim your life from the effects of a toxic childhood:
DISCOVERY, DISCERNMENT, DISTNGUISH, DISARM, RECLAIM, REDIRECT, and RECOVER
DISCOVERY = opening up your understanding of how you have been wounded and influenced. Example for children of toxic mothers. Recognising the eight-toxic maternal behaviours—dismissive, controlling, emotionally unavailable, unreliable, self-involved or narcissistic, combative, enmeshed, or role-reversed—lays the foundation for the child’s awareness of how their way of looking at the world, connecting to others, and ability to manage stress were affected.
DISCERNMENT = delves into the patterns of relationship in your family of origin and
how these played a part in your development, and then looking closely at how you
adapted to the treatment, either silencing or losing your true self in the process.
DISTINGUISH = seeing how the behavioural patterns we learned in childhood animate all of our relationships in the present with lovers and spouses, relatives, friends, neighbours, and colleagues. The act of distinguishing allows us to see why so many of us end up in unsatisfying relationships, chose the wrong partners, or are unable to develop close friendships.
DISARM = leads to active recovery, learning how to disconnect unconscious patterns of reaction and behaviour and substitute actions that will foster the growth of self-esteem. Understanding the triggers that set us off, the cues that put us on the defensive, and the default positions of blaming ourselves and making excuses for other people’s toxic behaviour are addressed, as are unhealthy behaviours such as rumination, rejection sensitivity, and more.
RECLAIM = is the stage at which we begin to actively make new choices, preparing ourselves so that we can live the life we desire by seeing ourselves as having agency and being empowered. Making new choices.
REDIRECT =Turning self-criticism to self-compassion, using a journal as a tool of self- discovery and growth, and goal setting.
Finally, RECOVER = become the best, most authentic version of ourselves.
Uncovering childhood wounds – The following questions are about symptoms which are associated with the kind of childhood wounds which tend to fester with unacknowledged or unexpressed anger. (Managing anger by Gael Lindenfield)
- Do you find it hard to trust others?
- Do you have a tendency to neglect or abuse your body?
- Are you afraid of loneliness and does fear or rejection or being abandoned hold you back in any way?
- Are you often concerned about what people think of you?
- Do you spend large amounts of time criticising yourself and putting yourself down?
- Are you frightened of taking risks and making mistakes, and always feeling compelled to go the safe option and get things, exactly right?
- Are you always looking for someone to tell you what to do, especially in difficult situations?
- Do you find authority figures difficult to relate to?
- Do you find yourself often taking the role of rebel?
- Do you want to always keep the peace?
- Do you sometimes ‘blow your top’ unexpectedly and then feel guilty afterwards?
- When anything goes wrong, do you automatically think ‘What have I done?’
- Do you often feel that the world is against you, that however hard you try you are unlikely to succeed?
- Do you often get sad for no apparent reason?
- Do you find it often hard to make up your mind and know what you want?
- Is it difficult for you to ‘let your hair down’ and have fun?
- Do you find success hard to cope with and tend to play down your achievements?
- Do you find yourself continually attracted to people who let you down?
- Do you feel that there are very few people who know the ‘real’ you?
- Do you feel drawn to sexual practises which you or your partners feel uncomfortable about?
- Do you cry when you are angry?
- Do you get angry when in fact you are frightened?
- Do you feel that you have never found your ‘niche’ or ‘quest’ in life and that you probably never will?
- Do you alter your behaviour or plans to gain the approval of your parents?
- Do you often wonder if you have any real friends and secretly think that no one could ever really understand or help you?
- Do you often find yourself experiencing intense emotions after being with your parents?
- Do you feel that you are responsible for your parents’ sadness or happiness?
- Do you still feel like a child in the presence of your parents?
- Do you still often wish your parents would change?
Processing emotional triggers – What triggered your inner child?
- I felt disrespected
- I felt excluded
- I felt unheard
- I felt scolded
- I felt judged
- I felt blamed
- I felt lack of affection
- I felt lonely
- I felt ignored
- I felt I couldn’t be honest
- I felt like the bad guy
- I felt forgotten
- I felt unsafe
- I felt unloved
- I felt it was unfair
- I felt rejected
- I felt abandoned
- I felt trapped
- I felt frustrated
- I felt lack of passion
- I felt uncared for
- I felt disconnected
- I felt manipulated
- I felt controlled
- I felt coerced/pressured/forced
- I felt used/exploited
Inner child positive affirmations
- I love you
- You are safe
- You are lovable
- You are worthy
- You are enough
- I see you
- I hear you
- You are valued
- I respect you
- It wasn’t your fault
- You are not to blame
- It’s okay to be you
- You are beautiful
- You are special
- I am here for you
- You make a difference
Remember that when we harshly punish self or criticise self we are doing this to our inner child and if we wouldn’t say nasty or hurtful things to a child, we need to recognise that we too matter, we too deserve our love and our inner child is asking us not to abandon it but to finally put it at peace. Only when it feels safe that our adult part can look after it, love it, and will protect it, will it start to take a back seat and heal.
Your inner child needs you. It is precious and lovable.
“Healing old wounds can only begin when the children we once were feel safe enough to speak their hearts to the adults we are now” – L.R. Knost
Reading: Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing your inner child by John Bradshaw.