Our inner child returns in the form of bad feelings, low moods, or even negative self-talk and self-criticism.
Our inner child is an emissary from our past that lives on inside us, communicating with us through our emotions. However, as busy grown-ups, we may not take this child’s complaints seriously. It may seem our inner child is overreacting for no good reason, especially if we have things to do.
But emotional messages from our inner child are like health-alerts, telling us what needs our immediate attention. When something upsets us disproportionately, we can bet that our inner child is reliving an unresolved emotional injury from the past.
The inner child remembers through reliving. It doesn’t recall things through conscious memory but instead experiences old pain as if it’s happening right now. This causes emotional reactions that seem out of context and are hard to put into words. These subconscious, emotional reminiscences are called implicit memories.
They are different from explicit memories, which we can recall in detailed context and put into words. Implicit memories don’t have a storyline; they’re just feelings that hit us out of the blue.
Whether we’re nine or ninety, our inner children want to be understood and incorporated into our life story. They return in the form of bad feelings, low moods, or even negative self-talk and self-criticism.
As long as our inner emotional signals are unexplored, they will dictate our mood. But when listened for, these signals offer us the truth of our emotional history, giving us a more secure foundation for the rest of our life.
If you ignore them or pretend they don’t matter, they may become stronger and more persistent. They are tenacious for a reason: they want you to know your unique history. Your inner child can’t be fully at peace until you remember it, consciously feel its emotion, and finally give it the right words for what it went through.
These childhood emotional episodes stayed buried and wordless because they were never witnessed or named by anyone. When no one stepped forward to help us with these feelings, our self-protective instincts figured it was better to hide them. We learned to bury our vulnerability instead of expressing it. Without someone to define what we were going through, we couldn’t learn about our feelings and integrate them. Shame took the place of self-knowledge.
The first step is to recognize your disproportionate emotional reactions as an inner child’s wordless call for help. The next step is to find a quiet spot and devote some time to face the feelings that have you in their grip.
Once you’ve asked your self-critical mind if it’d be willing to step back for a few minutes and let you hear from your inner child, welcome your inner child to come forward. Gently feel your way into its emotional sensations. As you do so, an image of your inner child may begin to emerge. What does he or she look like? What’s the expression on his or her face? What is his or her general state?
Ask the child to give you a little bit of healthy space as it communicates, not flooding you in an overwhelming way. Once there is companionable honoring of boundaries, allow yourself to sample the feeling it is having. You as an adult can tolerate feelings in a way your inner child originally couldn’t. As you experience the inner child’s feelings, remind yourself that you are only experiencing a feeling and feelings can be tolerated.
Next ask the inner child to give you pictures or metaphors for the feeling. This is the first step toward putting language on what has been a lost and speechless misery. The metaphors that arise will symbolize key traumatic interactions from childhood, often having to do with being left on your own when you needed help. Write these down. Like dreams, these metaphors capture an emotional truth about an unmet need.
Other memories may spontaneously arise at this point, filling out pieces of your story that previously were only felt. By writing down this process, you help the child further translate big feelings into something that can be named and described.
In this way you put a painful past into words for your inner child. It can be a very simple narrative, but words enable you for the first time to conceptualize your emotional experience as a memory from the past, a bad episode that can be remembered without taking over your life now. Assure the inner child that each time it sends you a feeling, you will find its proper place in your life story until it becomes a welcomed part of your history, not a hidden secret that accumulates shame.
Through acknowledging your inner child, you finally give it what it needs, putting consciousness and words to an emotional memory that has been looking for a place to belong.
It’s hard to believe that such painful feelings are bringing us gifts, but we can’t be fully whole without them. As you show caring curiosity, your inner child will eventually bring you more peace and unassailable self-worth. Listen to what it’s trying to say.