In My Own Write: In from the cold

Within each of us dwells a child whom we ignore at our peril.

Mother and Baby (photo credit: REUTERS/Erik de Castro)
Mother and Baby
(photo credit: REUTERS/Erik de Castro)
I pulled up beside my friend’s house, switched off the engine, opened the door, got out of the car – and there it was, lying in the road next to my foot, looking up at me with shiny black button eyes: a tiny stuffed kangaroo, ears comically set at different angles, and a resigned smile that said: “Look at me, down and out – helpless – isn’t that so like life?” Now I have written before about my love of miniatures, and the little roo, stumpy arms extended in supplication, charmed me. But was it mine to keep since it had clearly fallen – or been thrown – from a passing infant’s stroller? I considered leaving the little creature perched on my car, but hesitated, reluctant to abandon it to further vicissitudes of fate. In any case, it was unlikely to be reunited with its former owner, and I surmised that some other child would most probably make off with it.
That decided me. “I’ll take it,” I told myself, “for the child in me.”
Little Roo now occupies a shelf in our living room, and my inner child derives joy from the sight of him sitting there, smiling his quizzical smile, thinking his kangaroo thoughts.
NOW THE adult me is well aware that what I am talking about is just a few scraps of brown and white felt sewn together and filled with kapok; that the expressive black eyes are glass, and the touching smile a few stitches made by sewing machine. Yet the adult me is happy to give the child in me free rein of imagination, allowing myself thereby to believe that stuffed toys have thoughts and feelings, even while I know it isn’t so.
Life becomes more colorful, more spontaneous, more joyful and more creative when I let my inner child’s imagination lead me in transcending – temporarily – the boundaries of the physical world.
WHO EXACTLY is this inner child? Psychologists explain that it is the child we once were, who still dwells within us in a very real way, with all of a child’s capacity for wonder, playfulness and joy; but also with a child’s sensitivity, vulnerability, neediness and dread of abandonment.
This inner child, who lives largely in our subconscious, carries into our adult years his or her emotional baggage of accumulated childhood hurts, traumas, fears and angers. And it turns out that our relationship – or lack of one – with this inner child can make us or break us.
Shut out or ignored, psychologists say, the inner child can wreak emotional havoc. It follows that if we are to go out into the world as confident and mature beings, we need to recognize and reconnect with this child.
Society at large isn’t much help here, telling us to “grow up” and “stop being childish,” when it ought instead to be admitting that the “childish” part of us won’t just go away.
The term “grown-up” has become synonymous with “adult,” but while people – if they’re lucky – become “chronological adults,” it seems that many of us don’t become psychological ones. We become older, but not much wiser, in the way we conduct our emotional lives.
WE ALL know individuals who engage in self-defeating patterns of behavior, operating counter to their own best interests – for example, the man (or woman) who complains of loneliness and insists he would like nothing better than to get married – but then sabotages every relationship that comes along.
Who is doing the sabotaging? It’s the inner child, ignored but very much present inside that adult’s psyche, “a five-year- old,” as US psychotherapist Stephen A. Diamond puts it, “running around in a 40-year-old frame. It is a hurt, angry, fearful little boy or girl calling the shots, making adult decisions. A boy or girl sent out into the world to do a man’s or woman’s job; a five- or 10-year-old (or two of them!) trying to engage in grown-up relationships.”
This describes all of us, to some degree.
And even though we know that a child cannot have a mature relationship or lead an independent life, “we wonder why our relationships fall apart. Why we feel so anxious. Afraid. Insecure. Inferior. Small. Lost. Lonely. But how else would any child feel having to fend for himself in an apparently adult world, without proper parental supervision, protection, structure or support?” It emerges that, somehow, our adult self needs to learn to be a parent to that inner child, so afraid and insecure in a grown-up world.
A QUESTION: How does the inner child gain such immense power, power he or she isn’t emotionally equipped to handle, power which drives the train of mature behavior off its tracks, setting a person on a collision course with what is healthy and desirable? Experts hold it happens when the inner child is split off, disconnected, banished to the cold, lonely cellar of our psyches. This fissure drives the neglected child-in-us, in its anger and frustration, to take over the whole personality – with the resulting havoc and misery. Picture an actual child kicking out from anger and fear, and you get an idea.
What we must do, the experts say, is bring that neglected child in out of the cold. We need to become conscious of its existence and of its need for love, understanding, support and protection.
The experts stress that whichever of those qualities we didn’t sufficiently receive from our parents or other caregivers is a lack that will not, cannot be filled by those we encounter in our adult lives, however much we try to make that happen. Painfully, we need to confront the past and its unmet needs. But we can then assume responsibility for our inner child’s need for love, understanding, support and protection, supplying them ourselves.
Responsibility is a heavy-sounding word. We often try to avoid it. And when the topic is our own emotional needs, the prospect of taking responsibility for them – as opposed to “farming them out” – can be terrifying.
And yet, the experts say, this is precisely what the doctor has ordered: for each of us to become the listening, caring parent to our own inner child, to relate to him or her, as Diamond puts it, “exactly as a good parent relates to a flesh-and- blood child, providing discipline, limits, boundaries and structure,” along with support, nurturing and acceptance.
The idea is to establish an ongoing dialogue between the inner child and the more mature, adult self so that the needs of each one – sometimes conflicting – can be met in a creative way.
‘EASIER SAID than done,” commented a friend who admits to periodically being “swept away by a tide of crippling emotion triggered by some mistake I have made, or by circumstances beyond my control.” He describes himself as “overwhelmed and trapped, unable to think rationally.”
“So,” he asked, skeptically, “how do I get this parent-child ‘dialogue’ going?” “OK,” I said. “I’m just an armchair therapist, but it seems clear that your inner child, who lives, vividly, only in the present and doesn’t see the ‘big picture,’ is terrified by what has happened and feels utterly powerless in the face of this threat. The result, understandably, is total panic throughout your whole being.
“Over time, your adult self can learn to talk kindly and reassuringly to that terrified child, telling it, for example: ‘When you were little, your lack of control over what happened to you was really scary, petrifying, even. But today I can help you see that things often do happen that are out of our control, but they usually don’t kill us. I can also help you see that there are other ways of responding to this situation, making it less threatening. Together, we can use my adult experience of the world to survive.’”
IT’S FASCINATING, this concept of our inner child needing to be taken in hand by our adult self. And it isn’t easy to fully grasp, let alone act upon. We are too used to packing aspects of ourselves away, like seldom-worn clothing. But it’s a learning process.
We have all at times been aware, if dimly, of a struggle going on between our grown-up selves and a childish drive to behave in counterproductive ways.
Instead of giving in to that drive, we might do better to open the door in our psyche, invite our troublesome child in, and tell it to make itself at home. It could be the start of a beautiful relationship.