How To Control Your Inner Child (Before She Ruins Your Life)
We all have an ‘inner child’ within us, and chances are, yours has a lot to answer for…
It’s Saturday night and I should be out with my friends at a hip bar somewhere, handing over half my paycheck for an overpriced espresso martini and snapping selfies. Instead, I’m dressed in week-old pyjamas, clutching a tear-soaked pillow, reliving my relationship breakdown as if it happened moments ago.
Only it didn’t. It’s been eight months since my ex and I parted ways. But every reminder of him – a particular song in my playlist, someone telling a goofy joke – sends me spiraling back, down a time-warp to the day he said he was leaving, crippling me with an overwhelming sense of abandonment that I just can’t seem to shake.
The last time I felt this broken and wounded was when my dad walked out of my life as a three year-old. And, according to some psychologists, there’s a reason for that; my inner child is wounded and acting out.
The concept of the ‘inner child’ came to fame in popular psychology around the 1960s – used to define a younger persona buried in our subconscious mind; a more vulnerable version of ourselves, usually developmentally about the same age we were when a particular childhood event profoundly impacted us – such as a parent moving out, a family breakdown, an instance of abuse, or even an important school event that was missed by someone we cared about.
Psychologists who prescribe to the theory suggest as we navigate our complicated adult lives, elements of our younger selves wake up and join the inner dialogue. This is not always a bad thing– as the inner child is also responsible for our sense of childish fun and creativity – or, as in my case, it can be incredibly damaging, affecting our ability to overcome obstacles, and deal with emotional challenges. Especially if your inner three year-old is taking more responsibility than they deserve.
It’s a concept that inspired artist Sainttina de Moleay to create a survival guide for the Inner Child. Inspired by Lao Tzu, the great Taoist sage and poet, it is written from the perspective of de Moleay’s avatar, MouSee, a wise oriental mouse, and is called the Tao of Mouse. The Tao of Mouse explores moments in which we all feel of control in our lives in elegant cartoons to remind us what lies beyond our own points of view.
“It’s humor for mental health,” says de Moleay.
“Beauty is in the Eye (above), is from my life. I was the butterfly. Years ago, having created a body of work of great beauty, it was exploited and destroyed. I was gutted and I let it handicap me for far too long. Here, I explore the potent open moment; anything can still happen. However, I am also laughing at my own self-importance. It’s full of reminders: what company I keep, what people really want from me, to take care when I’m vulnerable, to not become a joke that someone else can dine out on. Now, when I think of that episode, I say to myself “Soggy!’ I can no longer take it seriously, which means it’s lost its power to hurt.”
Recognizing your inner child
Ever feel so overcome with emotion you didn’t even feel responsible for your reaction to a particular situation? That was most likely your wounded child at work.
Stress and conflict can trigger us to revert back to strategies we used in our childhoods to get what we wanted. We seek immediate gratification and live for the ‘right here, right now’, with no thought on how things will play out in the long run, just like a bratty five year-old.
But practicing mindfulness can help interrupt that process by reshifting your thinking to a calmer, less impulsive state, giving you time to carefully consider your actions. An easy way to get more mindful? Spend time viewing and creating art. Studies have shown that, when appreciating and making artworks, people often feel more centered and less burdened by negative thoughts.
Healing old wounds
The “wounded child” is a psychological term for a state of holding onto damage sustained during childhood. If you’re affected by this type of inner child, it usually becomes noticeable because you continue to make the same mistakes again and again, repeating the negative emotional patterns you learned during difficult times as a child.
You might even find yourself retelling the story of your traumatic childhood to people over and over again, using it as an excuse for a particular ingrained behavior.
But while this internal default mode can feel hard to get on top of, there’s an easy and interesting way to help combat it – humor. A 1993 study from the International Journal of Humor Research found a direct link between humor, positive self-esteem and more realistic standards of self-worth.
“Laughing at ourselves can give us a new perspective. Often we forget that what we believe to be right is deeply personal. Essentially, our wounded child is us feeling hacked off that we aren’t in charge of everything. By reminding ourselves of the bigness of life we can see past our sulking and ineffectual control behavior to other much greater potential and to happier outcomes,” explains de Moleay.
Think of a time when you fell off your bike or hurt yourself playing a game as a child. What was your reaction? Tears, probably. And running for your mother, looking for someone to say “Oh, poor you. Let’s make that better”.
Strange as it may sound, many of us are currently living our adult lives dedicating huge amounts of mental and emotional energy to recreating that soothing maternal response; either by means of our romantic relationships, friendships, or interactions with our adult siblings and parents.
If your inner child is emotionally ‘hurt’ – either because you felt neglected by a parental figure growing up, or suffered an abusive episode – you’ll always be looking for love and approval and feel a strong urge to be in control in all of your relationships in order to protect yourself from future hurt.
But the reality is, we don’t have control over our lives. I can’t control what my ex does, and I can’t keep thinking I can. The sooner I accept that he will do what he wants and I have no way to influence that, the happier I’ll be. As much as I want him to be the person to make me better while I’m hurting, he probably won’t be. So I need to be that person for myself.
“During my worst moments, the thing that has made me feel completely powerless is asking myself “Why? Why me? Why is this happening?”. It is the eternal question asked by the wounded child.
Why? Because we don’t have all of the answers,” says de Moleay.
“That’s OK. It’s normal. We are better off trusting the flow of life, developing a sense of curiosity about what happens next and being open to the grandness of life“.
Learning to laugh it off
If you tend to compare yourselves to others a lot, beat yourself up for any and all shortcomings and are constantly striving for perfection, it’s highly likely your inner child is an idealist, otherwise known as ‘the ideal child’ – a perfect vision of what you wanted your life to look like when you were younger.
Growing up, I know I wanted to be a writer. I read Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl books, and fell in love with the idea of running away to England and becoming a novelist who lived in a quaint cottage in the countryside. I also definitely wanted to be married by the time I was 20.
But, the ideal child is actually really hard to live up to – just ask me, a not-novelist, not living in London, heartbroken and single three years after my original dream-nuptials date.
Life isn’t a fantasy, and quite often, our childhood aspirations and dreams fall to the side or get crushed completely. A lot of the discontent we feel in our adult lives can come from not living up to our dreamy childhood perceptions of what we thought our lives would be.
Setting extreme standards for ourselves is a recipe for anxiety and self-flagellation. So learn to loosen the rope and laugh at life’s mishaps every once in a while, rather than constantly criticize yourself for how you could have done better.
There are many things I look back on and think I could have done differently when it comes to meeting my own standards. But I also know I’m prone to being my own worst enemy when it comes to idealizing particular elements of my life, particularly my romantic relationships. So, when I can, I try to remember where that’s all coming from; the three year-old me that felt lost and confused the day my dad walked out of my life. And then I imagine what I’d do if she were here right now. I’d hug her and tell her not to stifle her pain. Because, as de Moleay would say, sometimes you’ve just got to surrender to the bigness of it all.
Images via Sainttina de Moleay and tumblr.com.
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Charming illustrations and timeless advice. Be brave and open to change. It’s a big world.