The inner child is real, but not in the same way that the desk I’m writing this blog post on or the car parked in front of my apartment building are real. In a psychological and phenomenological sense, the inner child is real. It is a metaphor, and metaphors are crucial for understanding and interpreting human behavior. In actuality, we were all once children, and as we go through life, we all carry that shining diamond deep inside—all the annoyances, sorrow, hopes, innocence, ambitions, and aspirations of childhood.
The inner child is a significant construct for me as a psychotherapist because it points to the part of our personality which is associated with the sense of joy, awe, and playfulness in life—finding tremendous exhilaration and satisfaction in small things and activities. Our inner child is always closely connected to the ways we make meaning and construe life purpose, but also with how we make genuine contact while relating with other human beings.
Of course, this part of the personality had been created in childhood, but it can be more or less integrated into our adult self. In the case of severe childhood trauma, for example, the inner child might have lots of psychological scars that can be difficult to care for during our lifetime. In psychotherapy, we try to open the old wounds and heal them, so that the inner child can be playful and hopefully full of joy again. Sometimes this is very difficult and can take a lot of time, but it is possible nonetheless. Moreover, true adulthood relies on good integration of the inner child and taking good care of it, instead of jettisoning it while having a (false) perception that “being a grown-up” means outgrowing the inner child.
The archetypal Jungian concepts of puer aeternus/puella aeterna (“the eternal child”) might give us a clue about the inner child and what happens when things go the wrong way. These Latin terms are used for child-god who is forever young and in psychology, it is often used for an older person whose emotional life has been preserved at an adolescent level—this is also known as Peter Pan syndrome, pointing to many troubled boys who had problems growing up and accepting adult responsibilities. People who have similar problems also view existential reality as some kind of imprisonment. They want to experience their true authentic self, dealing with as few social restraints as possible. And that, of course, is very hard due to the fact that adult life bears many responsibilities and impedes social norms. Every person has to find a way to deal with and cope with them—not simply ignore them. In Jungian psychology, the process of individuation, or the process of personal development, should offer a potential separation from this archetype and patterns of behavior associated with it. Instead of identifying with his/her feelings and experiences, the client should learn how to keep some distance from them, objectifying what he or she is experiencing. It could also mean that puer as the potential for growth and senex as experience/wisdom, two somewhat opposite archetypes (in Jungian terms “the shadow”), might be integrated into a well-rounded personality structure.
People who struggle with growing up have preserved their sense of self when they were kids and haven’t let that part to alter or change in response to life events and the passage of time. In constructivist psychotherapy, the inner child might be seen as subsystems of constructs that were created at an early age, when language was not as important as in adult life today. Hence these subsystems are associated with many nonverbal constructs and low levels of awareness. Also, these subsystems might have become impermeable over the years hence insensitive to change. These particular factors—the dominance of nonverbal constructs, low levels of awareness, and impermeability of constructs—can lead to significant behavioral and mental problems. Then our therapeutic work is directed towards creating a more functional and meaningful “community of selves,” where the inner child is much more integrated with the other selves and elicits a meaningful dialogue between them. Generally, talk therapies are a great tool to verbalize nonverbal constructs which are hard to articulate; in the process, this psychological content comes from the unconscious and people are slowly starting to be aware of it—and that is exactly the thing that makes therapeutic change possible.
So, how to preserve the inner child’s aliveness? What should we do as adults in order to make friends with our own inner child and to be good companions, leading a productive and happy life?
There are many things we can do to nourish our inner child as adults. The best way is to approach our inner child from the perspective of a loving parent and give it what it wants in a loving way but with healthy boundaries at the same time:
- Make a list of activities that you consider fun to do, where you can experience genuine happiness and joy without any reason whatsoever (e.g. sports, drawing or coloring pages, dancing alone or with someone else, writing short stories or poetry, a quiet walk down the riverside, socializing with friends, etc.—it can be literally anything because it is the emotional quality of the activity what matters most, not the activity per se).
- One can try to go back to childhood and to remember what was it like when everything was fine and he or she experienced the sheer joy of being alive; then try to find where similar feelings might be experienced in everyday life (with whom, in what kind of situations, social contexts and activities).
- Preserving contact with friends from childhood can be beneficial for our inner child because these are the people who have known us for so long—who remember us when we were kids, so usually it is much easier to have a sense of silliness and playfulness (combined with a deep understanding of our personality) with them than with the people whom we met as adults.
- Traveling somewhere and getting to know different cultures, which are very different from our own, can invoke feelings of awe, astonishment, or wonder—all of which are very much associated with the innocent openhearted perspective of the inner child.
- Getting involved in a hobby that connects you to this part of your personality and childhood—for example, if you played the piano when you were young, you can make time to revisit your musical potential and try to have some fun while moving your fingers around the keyboard and listening to the music you create.
- Writing a letter to your inner child—this activity can help you reconnect with your inner child and remember the emotional quality of being a child. You can write about how adult life has been stressful to you, how easy it is to neglect your inner child, and what you are planning to do in order to spend some time with it. In the beginning, it might seem weird, but after a few sentences, people usually forget about the social restraints which hold them back and get inspired to write a long letter!
Making strong connections with your inner child and integrating it with the rest of your personality might seem like a difficult assignment, but it sounds much more demanding than it really is. Making friends with the inner child is just like any other relationship where one has to employ his capacity to be present and sensitive to the needs of others. But this time the person you are interacting with is you, so all the perils of “reading” or understanding the other person are not there—looking deep inside yourself you just know what the inner child wants and craves for. Cultivating self-compassion and self-awareness is more than enough for starting a good relationship with your inner child and leading a meaningful life.
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