For over forty years, Joyce and I have taught singles and couples to embrace their inner child as one of the key ways to live more fully from the heart and to have more fulfilling relationships. Today, looking over our archive of hundreds of articles, many of which address the inner child, I realized neither of us has dedicated a whole article to this vital topic. Yes, there are many books covering inner child work, but we have our own way of illuminating the basic principles.
No one gets through childhood without some degree of wounding, although some may be in denial about this. If we stay blind to these wounds, they have a way of unconsciously ruling us. If a boy is smothered and overprotected by his mother, and hasn’t looked deeply enough at this issue, he may overreact to even the slightest amount of control by his wife. However, when he really understands the dynamic with his mother, he can find the emotional freedom to make different, and healthier, choices. He can vulnerably communicate his childhood hurts to his wife. He can let her know what triggers him, what his “inner child” needs. He can then act, rather than only react.
Getting To Know Your Inner Child
Our inner child is the full complement of childhood feelings, needs and memories. It is very helpful to picture or feel these feelings, needs and memories in the image of a child. Some people have benefited from finding a photo of themselves as a child, and placing it in a prominent location in their home as a visual reminder.
We love ourselves to the degree we accept and love our inner child. So if we ignore our inner child, we can’t fully love ourselves. It’s that important!
If a girl was frequently ignored by her parents, she may learn by example to ignore her inner child, to feel that her inner child doesn’t deserve loving attention. Her parents basically demonstrated that adults are more important than children. So, as an adult, she thinks she is finally important. She ignores her inner child, and then wonders why she has so much trouble with her relationships.
Learning to Love Your Inner Child
So how can you love your inner child? First, identify the ways you were hurt as a child. There was physical violence in my childhood – not just in my home but also in the neighborhood and in school. It’s obvious how this hurt and scared me. It was physical as well as psychological.
Less obvious is the damage done by a father who works too much, even though it’s in the name of providing for his family. His children may feel the pain of his abandonment but, as adults, they may justify his actions and ignore their own suffering. Then they may fail to understand their own deep need for fathering, or their fear of abandonment.
This brings us to the second way to love your inner child. Identify the needs you had as a child, especially the needs that were not met. Some of us were not held enough as children. Our inner child still needs to be held. If we don’t see this clearly enough, we may try to get this need met through sex. But this never fully works, because the need for holding cannot be satisfied only by sex. There also needs to be non-sexual holding of our inner child.
Understanding and Fulfilling Your Inner Child
Many of us received the message that we’re not good enough, that we didn’t measure up to our parent’s expectations. We felt the pain of being criticized for not doing a good enough job, getting B’s instead of A’s, being too fat, or too skinny. Then we wonder why we get angry at the slightest hint of a criticism.
If you are in a relationship, you have two opportunities. One, you can let your partner in on the unique needs of your inner child. Yes, you can actually ask for what you need, contrary to what you may have been told. You can tell your partner, even without anger, that something they did or said hurt or triggered your inner child. It doesn’t have to start an argument.
I understand this may not be the easiest thing to do. When Joyce says something that hurts me, it quite often takes me time to register the hurt. I’ve learned from childhood to hide my vulnerable feelings, basically to hide my inner child. Typically I jump right away into anger, skipping over the vulnerability. This of course never brings love and understanding. When I vulnerably speak my hurt, and the needs of my inner child, Joyce can more easily open her heart to me, and sincerely apologize for the offensive words or actions.
Understanding Your Partner's Inner Child
The second opportunity in a relationship is to really understand your partner’s inner child. Joyce’s deep sensitivity was often not understood in her family.
Even though, as an adult, she understands that this sensitivity is one of her greatest assets in her work helping others, her inner child can still be easily hurt by negative feelings, even those not specifically directed toward her. One of the greatest gifts I give to my wife is to keep letting her know that her sensitivity blesses me and the world with more love.
Discovering Your Inner Parent
Ultimately, as individuals, we need to identify and make full use of our own inner parent. There can be no complete healing of our inner child without the love of our inner parent. We can even become stuck as an inner child, hopeless of ever feeling safe in this world. We can become victims of our own childhoods, robbed of our goodness.
Feeling our inner parent doesn’t depend on us having physical children. All of us have a loving inner parent, the part of ourselves capable of nurturing, protecting, and understanding. All of us have held children, animals, or even plants with a tender and yet protective love. That’s our inner parent.
Now wrap those same loving arms around yourself. Feel your inner parent tenderly holding your inner child. Feel the part of you that loves and nurtures, as well as the part of you that needs the loving and nurturing. Speak loving words to your inner child, words that directly address the most vulnerable needs: “You are precious. You are always good enough. I will keep you safe. You deserve all good things…”
If you do this exercise sincerely and frequently, you will notice real change for the better. When your inner child feels the love of your inner parent, you become whole, you become free.
*subtitles by InnerSelf
Book co-authored by Barry Vissell:
This book is for those of us who are learning the beauty and power of the monogamous or committed relationship. For the deeper we go with one other person, the more we learn about ourselves. In addition, the less we hide in ourselves, the more our heart is available to others, and the deeper our capacity for joy.
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About the Author(s)
Joyce & Barry Vissell, a nurse/therapist and psychiatrist couple since 1964, are counselors near Santa Cruz, CA. They are widely regarded as among the world's top experts on conscious relationship and personal growth. They are the authors of The Shared Heart, Models of Love, Risk To Be Healed, The Heart’s Wisdom, Meant To Be, and A Mother’s Final Gift. Here are a few opportunities to bring more love and growth into your life, at the following events led by Barry and Joyce Vissell: Jul 16-21, 2017—Shared Heart Summer Retreat at Breitenbush Hot Springs, Oregon; and Oct 11-17, 2017—Assisi Retreat, Italy; and Feb 4-11, 2018 — Hawaii Couples Retreat on the Big Island. For further information on counseling sessions by phone or in person, their books, recordings or their schedule of talks and workshops. Visit their web site at SharedHeart.org.