“So, like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us.”
Have you ever noticed that, despite our best efforts, we sometimes behave like children?
There is a child inside all of us, whether we realize it or not. And sometimes we return to that child like state. Often, this is a good thing – letting us tap into our playfulness, innocence, and amazement at the world. But at other times, it is the child’s vulnerabilities, dependencies, and insecurities are reactivated.
A neglected and denied child – reflecting unresolved wounds, old beliefs, and values – can destroy our lives in ways we do not realise. We might interact with the opposite sex with the awkwardness of a ten year old, or speak to our boss with the fear of a lost little boy. As Nathaniel Branden said in How to Raise Your Self-Esteem, many of us try to become an adult by pushing away and ignoring this child – but the real path to adulthood is recognising this child, making friends with it.
This post introduces a simple, versatile and yet very powerful process. It simply involves conversing with your disowned parts. While introduced with the inner child, this process is extremely effective in other forms of personal growth, such as shadow and sub-personality work. (Of which the rest of the series will go into detail.)
Who Has Been Hurt?
A long time ago, I bumped into a woman who was sitting behind me in a restaurant. It was an accident, but her husband began telling me off. I apologized a few times, but he ignored me and kept shouting. Eventually, I told him to stop making a scene, and walked off. At the end of the night, as he walked past me on his way out of the restaurant, he gave me a fierce glare.
And this was the surprising part, for I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of abandonment, hurt, and fear. It made no sense to me. All the rage he had displayed before had not disturbed me, and I had no reason to be afraid, for he was half my size and twice my age. And yet – why this irrational sorrow, and why did it last for weeks after the event?
One day I found out why. I was reliving the event in my mind’s eye during a session of emotional work, when on a whim I removed the “camera” from out of my eyes and turned it around on myself. I was shocked at what I saw. It wasn’t the adult me who was sitting in the chair being glared at, it was a little boy of about six years old. I recognised that face; it was me.
The Child Has Always Been There
Almost everyone who has been in the world of personal development will have heard of the inner child. For a long time, I refused to do any work with it. Like many men, I cringed at the thought I had a soft and vulnerable side, and that attitude had kept me in suffering. But inside the mental scene, I was stunned. It was the first time I had been brought face to face with something I had denied my entire life, and I didn’t know what to do, for the boy was scared to tears.
I immediately injected my adult self into the scene, and rushed over to pick him up. I put everything else on “pause”, just like a video recording. I sat him on my knee, and held him tight as he began to cry. He was hurt, he told me. He hadn’t done anything wrong on purpose. It was just an accident and he had already apologized so many times. Why did that man still hate him? What else could he have done? Had the man been sitting there glaring at him for the entire night without him knowing?
As I held him, I realised that these thoughts, fears, and questions had been in my mind ever since the event. But I had resisted them every step of the way. I wanted to be strong, and my entire adult life, I did that by burying my sadness so deeply that I had to spend weeks relearning how to cry. I pushed the fearful child away by spending years in boxing and martial arts. And all that did was send an entire part of me, as Branden puts it, into an alienated oblivion.
This was the biggest reason one glare had hurt me for so long. I could not admit these feelings. This is worth re-reading, for many readers will find this difficult to accept. It wasn’t that man who had caused the hurt. He had merely triggered years and years of similar pains, of identical fears.
Further Reading: Unconditional Acceptance for Our Totality
The Inner Child
As a child, each of us has been neglected, hurt, abandoned, or spat on in one way or another. This is true even for those with relatively happy childhoods. Sometimes it is what others had done to us; sometimes it is our own self-reproach for things we had done or not done, feelings we have had or not had. We might have hated ourselves for being needy, for being hurt, for being angry, for believing in things our parents didn’t.
In other words, we carry unresolved suffering inside us, and out of fear, pain, or embarrassment, we deny it. This is often undeniable for those who have had painful childhoods – the suffering there would be something we would do anything not to revisit. And so we lock the child – us – into a dark dungeon and drown out their cries with cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, and work.
As psychiatrist R.D. Laing said – We choose to forget who we are, and forget that we have forgotten.
And yet, no matter how much we deny it, the child will not – cannot – go away. It needs to be integrated, accepted, and given lots of conscious attention and compassion, even if what they have to say is painful for us to hear. Only then, can we express all of his or her emotions in a healthy, mature manner. Only then, can we allow the child to be reintegrated.
Meeting The Child
So what exactly do we do? Meeting the child is a process that is alive, creative, and flowing. It would be an injustice to reduce it to a series of steps. It would also be unwise, because this process is unique to each person.
It is for these reasons that I have gone into so much detail in my own description, for you to get a feel of the ideas, and to do your own thing. The most important thing is to let everything come to you naturally, without forcing anything. My experience was based on how my mind works, so please don’t get locked in. Your experience can be completely different, and doesn’t even have to be visual. The child can be of any age, as long as it feels right to you. It is important not to have any expectations, or we might simply interact with what we think is inside us, leading to further denial. Allow yourself to be surprised.
Besides working with a specific event, another approach is visiting the child as he or she is right now. Allow yourself to get a clear image of what she looks like in your mind. A photograph will be helpful if you have one.
What is she doing?
Where is she?
What is he feeling?
What does he want to say?
What does he want?
What does she want to show you?
What does she need from you?
William DeFoore, in Anger, warns that sometimes the inner child might be too hurt or frightened to build a proper connection. Sometimes this concept is still too awkward. Please don’t give up too early; it is one of the most powerful things I use.
Interacting With The Child
Interact with the child. Treat him with as much compassion as you can. How would you want to be talked to, if you were in her position? It is important to let them have their say, and let them have their full experience. Some of us might impose our adult views on the child – telling it to toughen up and stop being such a crybaby, for instance. But isn’t that how we have hurt him in the first place? Don’t try to talk her out of her feelings. We can apologise to her for having ignored her for all these years, and promise to love her and hold her the next time she is hurt.
Nathaniel Branden provides several questions we can ask ourselves at this point. The most helpful would be – What can I do to be kinder to the child? What does she do when she feels ignored by me? What does he do when he feels I am treating him harshly? How have I been treating the child up to this day? What did you need to do to survive?
Step into Their World
The final step, then, is to become the child. Step into her world, and see things from her perspective. Feel as he feels. Speak as she speaks. Position your body as he would be. Perhaps he is curled up on the floor; perhaps she is sitting in the corner, or hiding under the blanket.
Become all the things that you have noticed about the child throughout the previous conversations. If she is scared, then be scared yourself. If he just wants to skip work today and curl in bed, then feel it. This doesn’t mean you have to act on it, of course, but in this process, mentally reclaim these traits, tendencies, and feelings as your own. This is perhaps the most vital step. It is to be expected that this feels awkward, as we finally aligning ourselves with what we have pushed aside for so long.
The insights that come from this can be truly striking. I won’t provide examples here, though, as there is always a tendency to start searching for insights similar to what we’ve read. It is always a good idea to return to the adult self and interact with and love the child again, based on what you’ve discovered.
Remember with any process that safety and respect for yourself and those around you is always the top priority.
Cleaning Up After The Dialogue
At the end of the experience, take some time to work with whatever has arisen. There are two general approaches to this – the emotions and the feelings.
There are two ways of working with emotions: Feeling them completely, or releasing them. Throughout the entire process, either one of these should be happening by itself, since dialoguing is meant for us to get in touch with our feelings. However, I can’t be sure, as I’ve been releasing for so long that it happens automatically no matter what I do. Therefore, it is a good idea to try and do this consciously. Try to release or welcome your emotions throughout the entire dialogue, and also to take little breaks in between, and afterwards, to work with them.
Another powerful approach would be using The Work of Byron Katie with any beliefs or statements your child self presents to you. I would recommend it only for the more experienced, though. For example, my child cried and told me that it is hopeless, and that he would be hated no matter what he did. It was very healing to gently take him through the four questions and find that his perceptions had been distorted and he had believed a lie.