Reclaiming the inner child

The unknown resources of the wounded child

You may be intrigued about working with the inner child in a therapy setting. In this article we are going to take a look at some of the theories that support inner child work and a bit more about why it might be a helpful exploration to present day self.

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing”

George Bernard Shaw

Who Created the Idea of the Inner Child?

The psychologist Carl Jung (1875-1961) first used the term “inner child.” The divine child archetype is one among many defined by Jung.

If we look as Carl Jung did, at the psyche through the perspective of self being separated into archetypal parts or subpersonalities, we might start to identify that these parts have different motivations and personalities. We can explore the personality of a part by finding out how old the part is, what they want, want they don’t want, how they react to situations, what kind of relationships they make and in this way deeply get a feeling for who this part is. We might identify our personal experience of a part with an archetype, and indeed Jung offered 12 core arcetypes for his clients to work with, The Innocent, Everyman, Hero, Outlaw, Explorer, Creator, Ruler, Magician, Lover, Caregiver, Jester, and Sage.

The Innocent Archetype

Our inner child is the innocent or our younger self part that contains our childhood experiences. When we start to discover this part in therapy, it is often the part that is holding the core wounds. We might find that this part has been completely exiled and our first job is relationship building and making first contact. Our work in therapy might be about building safety, connection and communication with our inner child part, and through the process of acknowledgement, compassionate enquiry and ultimately care giving we can hold space for the inner child to transform and integrate.

What is Inner Child Theory?

This kind of inner child work blends together frameworks that acknowledge subpersonalities such as Jungian Shadow work, Internal Family Systems (Richard Swartz), and Psychosynthesis (Robert Assagioli). It also brings in relational frameworks such as Attachment theory and Transactional analysis (Eric Berne), as it looks at the places that the inner child didn’t make the development steps needed to form healthy relationships. However it draws heavily upon body psychology frameworks such as somatic experiencing (Peter Levine) because the key factor here is that the reclamation of the inner child part is accessed through connection to embodied feelings.

Trauma Responses

The energy of the inner child part might be trapped in the body’s nervous system triggering a constant replay of trauma responses such as fight, flight, freeze, faun and flop. Many of these theories or types of therapy are rooted in the ideas that our past influences our present, our bodies and unconscious hold wisdom, and there is hope and potential for new connections to be made, within and without.

However current thinking on trauma is to access freedom by being in the here and now and working with the trauma responses that effect the self in the present lived experience. So in that way our early years trauma, or unmet developmental needs (which is a type of trauma) lives in our body mind system in the present tense. But as we access the unconscious we can also access our own internal wisdom and reset our nervous system creating new neural pathways in our brain that do not continually replicate our wounded self. Polyvagal theory (Dr Stephen Porges) demonstrates that inner child trauma does not need to be relived to be resolved.

So in this way we might be able to interupt our trauma responses by connecting to our inner child, as essentially our body system is expressing our unmet developmental childhood needs. And to take this a step further many great minds have linked our bodily expression of physical disease to our unmet unconcious needs, or trauma stored in the body.

When The Body Says No

Dr. Gabor Mate in his book “When The Body Says No” looks at the inner emotional landscape of the chronically ill…..

Not one of the many adults interviewed for this book could answer in the affirmative when asked the following: When, as a child, you felt sad, upset or angry, was there anyone you could talk to — even when he or she was the one who had triggered your negative emotions? In a quarter century of clinical practice, including a decade of palliative work, I have never heard anyone with cancer or with any chronic illness or condition say yes to that question. Many children are conditioned in this manner not because of any intended harm or abuse, but because the parents themselves are too threatened by the anxiety, anger or sadness they sense in their child — or are simply too busy or too harassed themselves to pay attention. “My mother or father needed me to be happy” is the simple formula that trained many a child — later a stressed and depressed or physically ill adult — into lifelong patterns of repression.

“When The Body Says No” Dr. Gabor Mate

The Wounded Inner Child

In this way most adults have childhood trauma. This is a reflection of our whole system, our social order, our collective attitudes, our own parents wounds passed onto them by their parents. Often a person might be caught up with the idea that nothing traumatic ever happened to them, that their childhood was happy and safe and they have no place to complain. Doing inner child work and ACKNOWLEDGING the things that compromised the development of authentic self does not mean that your parents are to blame or that everything was wrong. Its more a case of understanding the whole-self needs and recognising that we all deserve our basic human needs to be met fully but its rarely the case.

This can be ancestral, for example it might be that somehow you are still carrying the shame around your sexuality that was inflicted upon your grandmother when she became pregnant out of wedlock, and this is subtly effecting your sexual relationship in the present. The body keeps score and ancestral memories are passed down the generations. Studies have demonstrated the existence of “transgenerational epigenetic inheritance”  as it is called. Prof Marcus Pembrey, from University College London, said the findings in this study were “highly relevant to phobias, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorders” and provided “compelling evidence” that a form of memory could be passed between generations.

However at the other end of the spectrum some people are very much on the receiving end of active neglect or abuse in childhood from their care givers or adults in authority. This has most likely been buried and some sort of survival behavior has got that individual through the years to the present day. The psyche can be very fragmented, as this is our way of keeping ourselves safe. We compartmentalise, disassociate and fragment. Our body mind steps in to help out and bury this trauma in our subconscious so we can survive. And here we are in our present day lives acting it out.

So How Does Inner Child Work Help?

So by building a relationship with our inner child archetype we are disrupting our survival homeostasis. So we firstly might need to start getting to know our defence mechanisms or parts of self that have been suppressing or dissasociating from our core wounds. These parts of self really deserve our respect as however disregulated their behaviour might be they have kept our inner child safe and ensured our survival. Ultimately we will need their permission if we are to gain access to our own inner child. We can view these parts like the bouncers on the door or the gatekeepers.

However when we are working with our inner landscape and breaking our psyche down into parts, we are separating or un-blending from a part and in that way we are changing our relationship to this part. To do this we need to find our SELF energy, who is the “I” at the other end of the relationship or our inner witness. The Self can witness, acknowledge, listen, see and acquire insight. This part might not be present when a client first begins inner child work, so the therapist might be mirroring this part initially but its important that Self can become present and then eventually take the drivers seat in the car. The point of identifying the parts, including inner child is the understand i am not this part completely, this is part of me and it sits in the backseat of the car. Its story is not happening now and its energy is not in charge of my life.

Who is the Self?

In Internal Family Systems therapy (Dr. Richard Swartz) the Self represents the seat of consciousness and what each person is at the core. The Self can demonstrate many positive qualities such as acceptance, confidence, calmness, wisdom, compassion, connectedness, leadership and perspective.

Carl Jung saw the Self as an archetype that represents the unified unconsciousness and consciousness of an individual. Jung often represented the self as a circle, square, or mandala.

Carl Rogers who developed Person Centred theory, the foundation of humanistic psychology, believed that the authentic self had a tendency to evolution and under the conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and congruence this self would and could re-emerge from under the layers of conditioning and learnt behaviour.

So we are looking to this core self (and the presence of a therapist) to be the constant that can build relationship with the inner child by listening, acknowledging, nurturing, holding, and making sense of the inner child’s world. And in this way the relationship to the inner child can change and the inner child’s needs can be met.

Working with the inner child in therapy is a journey and it has its own pace and rhythm. Patience is needed and trust with a good practitioner. Its going to take time for the inner child to let itself be known as being in hiding has been its modus operandi for survival. Because the work is about building relationship and communication both ways, keeping a journal can be helpful. Writing a letter from the inner child part in response to a question from Self, or writing to Self from the inner child can be part of this. The journal part also include pictures or words that makes the inner child feel happy and alive. It might be a place to let the inner child express itself through making some art, colour or collage. A place to hold and contain the inner child as they come out of hiding and begin their process into living and potentially unburdening.

The cry we hear from deep in our hearts,  comes from the wounded child within.  Healing this inner  child’s pain is the key healing to transforming anger,  sadness, and fear.

– Thich Nhat Hanh

Explore your relationship to nature

Our relationship to the natural world can hold and sustain us. Its a huge transpersonal connection right there without having to navigate any “to be or not to be” questions. Many people feel that nature is the great mother, that she lives and breaths. These questions might help you acknowledge your individual, unique colourful relationship to nature. Why not get out your notebook and have a go?

How do the seasons affect you (or what seasons do you enjoy most)?

Me: I love summer, I love the heat of the sun, and the dryness of the air. I like the feeling of heat and air against my skin. I’m in my happy place in the sun. I feel safe and like I can survive. Cold wet wintery days trigger my inner grief and I feel overwhelmed and weighed down with the weight of the world. An indoor or outdoor fire in winter can restore my spirits and hope.

What is your first memory of the natural world?

Me: My neighbour’s garden with peas in pods growing and eating the fresh green peas.

What places have influenced you?

Me: The Yorkshire moors where I grew up. The land is craggy and dramatic. Bleak heather topped moors breaking into craggy valleys with streams cutting through and flora and fauna all around. The smell of wet mossy rocks and the feel of cold water.

What place in nature supports you? Do you have access to a garden or a park?

Me: I have a big connection with the RSPB nature reserve on the levels outside Glastonbury (where the sweet track is) This has been my refuge for years. I love the birds, trees, water and feeling of open space. My spirit can sore on the land. It’s wet and peaty and magnetic. It contrasts to the electrical business of Glastonbury’s green spaces that feel too busy and buzzy.

Tell me about your connection to nature (or what does nature mean to you)?

Me: Nature has a life and vibration which opens the finer senses. It is a doorway into another world. The devic kingdom or nature spirits have life and I allow them an identity. A tree can communicate and a felt sense of connection can be found in nature. The natural world represents the mysteries, the unknown. It is a hidden world that has an animus and lives and breathes. If I become still, I can hear this world. Its benevolent and healing. It holds the design of natural order, in a world of chaos. 

How do you feel when you are in nature?

Me: Calm, connected, able to breathe, uplifted, able to remember myself as whole.

Have you learnt from animals something that you haven’t learnt from humans?

Me: Love, loyalty and safety

Do you identify with a particular animal?

Me: Cats, wild cats.

Which animal do you admire most?

Me: Elephants, as a matriarchal society they never forget a connection and they have immense loyalty to their tribe.

What animal do you fear the most?

Me: Snakes, spiders.

Did you have a pet as a child? (or did you have a favourite pet?) What was your experience of the death of your pet? Were you supported?

Me; Yes we had childhood pets, and I was supported through their passing on. This was positive, primary education for me.

Where do you go on holiday – is it sea, mountains, wood or the sun?

Me: I love to go to the forest and I love meeting trees. I also love the beach and sea.

Is there an favourite element for you?

Me: I need fire to feel in balance and in ‘my’ element. Water is my teacher. Air is easy and natural for me. I can totally forget about the element of earth! Yes really. But earth is my healer.

Are you a water or a land person?

Me: Water. Dolphin, mermaid being.

What landscape would you describe yourself as?

Me: A beach with craggy high rocks at the back, difficult to reach.

Describe yourself as a tree or a flower.

Me: Curly Oak Tree or sunflower

How much time do you have outside in the average week?

Me: 7 hrs

How much screen time?

Me: 20 hrs

Have you changed your relationship to nature throughout your life?

Me: I was lucky enough to grow up as a flower child surrounded by nature and connected to a wonderful world of imagination and play. Whenever I go into nature as an adult I feel this connection.

Do you ever grow plants for yourself? How does that feel?

Me: Yes, but I can easily kill them because I don’t water them. So can trigger guilt of the bad caretaker.

Do you have cut flowers in your house?

Me: Yes I’ve just started doing it again now after not allowing myself for ages. It feels hopeful.

How do you feel if you receive flowers as a gift?

Me: Mixed. I worry about the flower industry, airplanes, and Amsterdam.

If you could do anything to save the world what would you do?

Me: Clean the oceans