June 17, 2019

Is your Emotionally Starved Inner Child Running your Life?


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For weeks now, I’ve been writing secret notes to my younger self, trying to convince her that she’s seen, safe, and loved.

She’s not an easy audience.

You see, I’ve abandoned her for most of my adult life, either ignoring her entirely or treating her with disdain and disappointment any time her still-unmet needs surface. When I find myself measuring words out of fear, practicing avoidance instead of telling the truth, questioning my own perceptions, or falling into feelings of worthlessness, I recognize her.

She frustrates me, pointing out all the work I still have to do, all the places that still need care. I admit it: many times, I’ve chosen hating her over healing her.

Rather than limiting her impact on my adult life, however, this rejection has actually made her more desperate, convinced she’s alone in there and responsible for our survival.

“What this amounts to,” John Bradshaw writes in Homecoming: Reclaiming and Healing Your Inner Child, “is letting an immature and emotionally starving child run your life.”

Recently, though, a quiet question has emerged during therapy and meditation: “What if I could be with her instead of against her in those moments?”

That’s where the secret notes began.

Every time I notice one of those old feelings arising, I’ve been practicing breathing into it instead of running away from it. I’ve started to write straight into that space of fear, avoidance, and worthlessness, trying to connect with the part of me drowning in those feelings. It’s slow going. It takes courage. And I’m here to say, it’s worth it.

A lot of us walking around in the adult world have parts of ourselves we’ve orphaned. Spending time weaving and dodging those parts and their needs depletes precious life energy.

What if we channeled that energy instead toward practicing courageous compassion for our most tender, needy selves—the young ones inside who still need safety, attention, and validation?

What if we can:

Apologize for taking so long to be able to look at them and their needs?

Reassure them, “You are not alone?”

Tell them how valuable they are, how their pain has illuminated what still needs healing inside us, how they bring out into the open the messages we received growing up and the sources of some of our secrets?

Thank them for keeping their creative, resourceful selves alive with whatever tools they’ve had at the time?

If we’ve spent decades criticizing and rejecting these younger parts of ourselves, any one of those steps may seem impossible at first. The good news: we can start slowly, noticing our automatic responses. What do we typically do when our younger selves react to something with an outdated thought, response, or defense? Do we judge them, repress them, reject them?

Here’s the beauty and power in mindfulness: we can train by sitting with whatever arises so that the messy needs of our younger selves don’t overwhelm us. We can build our capacity to sit still and hold space for them.

When those unacknowledged parts start to tug at us, we can put our arms around them and process with them instead of leaving them all alone to deal with their overwhelming emotions. Think about it—they are trapped, unaware of the healing arc of time, the organic cresting and falling of feelings, the possibility of perspective. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott writes, “Our psychic muscles…cramp around our wounds…to keep us from getting hurt in the same place again…So these wounds never have a chance to heal.”

It must be so isolating in there, all cramped and awkward and needy.

We can also practice mindful relating, setting healthy boundaries so that these young parts know we’ve grown up and we can protect them. It makes sense that they won’t want to give up their ways of coping—the only ways they know—until they can trust us to have their back. As Cheri Huber reminds us in There is Nothing Wrong With You: Going Beyond Self-Hate, “We learned behaviors in order to survive. We were taught to hate these behaviors and to see them as signs of our badness. Yet we must keep doing them because they still mean survival to us.”

What a beautiful act of love to tell our young selves that we understand the origin of their once-necessary behaviors, we don’t blame them, and we’re here to show them that they can let go of all that responsibility.

Although this work is personal and inward, it is not myopic. The truth is, when we have orphaned selves untethered inside us, we react strongly to others who remind us of them. We either project all of our own unfinished business and unhealed places onto someone else, or we are so repulsed by these challenging parts in others that we are unable to embrace fully our friends, children, and lovers.

Imagine the effect on world healing if each of us pledged to know and love our younger selves. So much life energy conserved. So much projection prevented. So much space to be present and compassionate.

May this not-so-secret note serve as my pledge to continue reclaiming my own.

I might even tuck her in tonight with a soft pillow and cozy blanket, chanting the healing lullaby, “You are seen. You are safe. You are loved.”




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