What IS the inner child?
To be absolutely honest, before I became a therapist, every time I heard the term inner child, I thought it was a bunch of psychobabble BS. However, since working in the field, and seeing literally hundreds of patients in a psychiatric hospital in Rosemead and private therapy setting in Burbank, I have come to understand and adhere to this concept.
Per Wikipedia Carl Jung is often referenced as the originator of the concept in his Divine Child archetype. Emmet Fox called it the “Wonder Child” in his work by the same name. Charles Whitfield dubbed it the “Child Within” in his book Healing The Child Within: Discovery and Recovery for Adult Children of Dysfunctional Families. I read Dr. Whitfield’s book and enjoyed it, but the book that I got the most out of was John Bradshaw’s: Home Coming Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child
Bradshaw calls on the work of Erick Erickson’s stage theory, which very loosely paraphrased states that whatever age we are that we have a major conflict that doesn’t get resolved, a part of us stays that age until it does get resolved. AA has the same premise in their idea that alcoholics (or substance users of any kind) stall at the emotional age that they begin using substances.
My own understanding of this is that we develop behaviors as children based on our interactions with our parents and caregivers. For better or worse, parents are like God to us. They give us life, feed us, clothe us, teach us and protect us. We learn how to behave based on the cue’s that they provide. We learn how to respond in crisis or when there is a problem. Our schemas are derived from what we learn from, and how we are treated by, our parents. If mom or dad got histrionic in a crisis then we learned that this is an appropriate response. If mom or dad was cool, calm and collected we learned that too.
In neo Freudian terms, mothers loves unconditionally. Jeffrey Dahmer’s mother still loved him. “Jeffrey is a good boy…” No, Jeffrey ate 17 human beings. Jeffrey is NOT a good boy. The Boston Marathon Bombers mother still loved them. “My boys – good boys.” NO, your boys blew up 200 people. Your boys are not good boys. One can be an axe murderer terrorist serial killer and a mother will still love you.
In neo Freudian terms, fathers love conditionally and protect. “That’s my boy” or “that’s my girl!” In a father centered relationship one is motivated by ‘doing the right thing.” Now if you don’t take the garbage out, mom will get conditional on you rather quickly. And of course good fathers do love unconditionally. It’s important to recognize that this is a spectrum and we all fall along it at some point.
I became a grown up when I became my own mother and father. What I mean by that is when my validation comes from within, “Bill, you’re great just for being you…” (unconditional mother love) “But you know you need to get your taxes done on time, right kid??” (Conditional father love.) – I became a true adult. When I can synthesize these for myself and incorporate them into my psychic milieu, I no longer need to look to mom for approval and I no longer need Dad’s urgings to get things done. I became motivated internally and I got self-approval internally. Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to receive compliments. But at the end of the day my happiness cannot be dictated by receiving the approval of others, which may, or may not come. But my happiness should be derived from the fact that I know I did the right things.
So to bring this rather long winded blog to a conclusion, the inner child is my ego and inner self which is essentially my learned responses to situations and stimuli I encountered through my life. The inner child is frequently hurt, or is the victim of shame, trauma and guilt and as such that aspect of us never matured beyond that point. A part of us is stuck at that level. When faced with a similar situation we act out in ways that we had learned years ago. We are running meta programs from our unconscious that we learned as kids and have never had the opportunity to regrogram as adults. Our job in the next in this series is to learn how to hit CTR-ALT-DEL on these programs and come up with new programs to run in their place.