“But the imprint is always there. Nothing is ever really forgotten.”
Evanescence ~ Understanding (Can’t Wash It All Away)
Discovering John Bradshaw’s “inner child” work has been a big part of my own healing journey and is something I am passionate about sharing with other HSPs. In this post I would like to share how his work resonates with me and I will provide some links to his videos for readers who would like to explore this rich territory themselves.
On the Ophra Show, John introduces the wounded “inner child” as that thirsty, needy part of himself which comes out in relationships. It’s the part of himself who needs constant affirmation he is loved, who misconstrues things, who’s quick to feel abandoned. And while John’s conscious mind seems to know he’s being “irrational”, the feelings, the urges, the fears are still there. This is something I too experience but I’ve found very difficult to articulate. There are many psychology tests out there which ask people to rate their agreement with a series of statements (e.g. I am a good person). I always struggle with such an exercise. I am aware of a conflict within my being, between my conscious and unconscious, between my beliefs and my feelings. As I’ve tried to explain it’s almost like there’s two selves who would answer the question differently. I now understand that second self as my “inner child”. The inner child is essentially a semi-independent entity which is subordinate to the waking conscious mind.
When our needs are not met during our younger years and when confusing and distressing events are not resolved, the child remains “stuck” whilst the rest of the being grows up without them. Yet the issue is imprinted in the body and keeps playing out in the person’s life. It may be acted out through rage, violence, abuse towards others- violating other’s boundaries- or acted in, for instance through shame, self-harm, constant self-criticism, and the violation of one’s own boundaries. Often the person’s behaviour is as much a mystery to themselves as it is to those around them. Eating disorders, addictions, compulsions, not being able to say no, always finding yourself in bad relationships, feeling you must hide all the time, ongoing issues with depression, anxiety (often due to shame and its accompanying, ever-present fear of being “found out”), fatigue (from all the energy used to suppress the inner child), and pain (whether emotional or physical), emptiness, and a general sense of being “stuck” in one’s life are all issues John links to a hurting, inner child. These are often triggered by situations in the adult’s life which resemble the childhood trauma.
John beautifully sums what inner child work is all about in one sentence. It is about finishing the unfinished so you can go on with your life. This involves allowing whatever it is your child feels, needs, and wants to arise, and using your conscious, adult self to respond in a validating, compassionate and curious way. The child needs to feel or express whatever it was they couldn’t feel or express earlier. For one woman on the Oprah show, this was grief. For another, anger. Often we will move through various emotions as we begin to process what happened. Inner child work reminds me of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), where thoughts and feelings are allowed to arise and then pass like clouds in the sky. Yet it resonates with me far more than ACT. I find it warmer and more meaningful, going into where these automatic thoughts and feelings come from, and giving them a face.
I understand that this “inner child” stuff can bring up resentment when we first try to get our heads around it. Sometimes it can come across as simplistic or individualistic, expecting too much from us and overlooking the importance of support from “other people”. Some of the needs my own inner child has is around love and attention. When I shared this once in a support group, our facilitator just told me I needed to give that to my inner child myself. I felt bitter when he said this… I thought how unfair it is that everyone else had someone else to meet their basic needs. I felt disadvantaged. I felt the love I could give myself would never be the same as the love another person could give me, that I would be condemned to a life of unfulfilled longing. But this was essentially my inner child speaking. In this moment I was completely one with my inner child, and I could not see there is another entity here too, an adult, who will be her champion. What this work requires is for us to see that there are two entities now: our inner child and our adult. As adults, we are this “other” who can nurture this child. There is no need to keep them deprived any longer. It is never too late to have a happy childhood.
I first really began my inner child work this year. A huge turning point was when I attended a workshop run by my friend and spiritual healer Okasha on “Looking for the One?” Despite planning to come, I only managed to arrive towards the tail end of it. I was finding it so difficult to get out of the house. I was not on top of life. I was barely getting by and DROWNING inside, my life was ruled by fear, I was kept awake by an unexplainable sense of dread, and I felt unable to face the world. Unfortunately many people don’t see the deeper struggle behind this kind of lateness. There was one woman in the group who raised it as an issue and this, unknowingly, was the catalyst for a huge outpouring of bottled emotion. I couldn’t stop crying for the rest of the event. This was particularly significant for me as my inner child had been shamed and taught there is something wrong with her. She has learnt to hide her deepest feelings, but the mask finally ruptured. What also came out was some very raw fears that the rest of the group would turn on me and kick me out. Okasha and another woman took me into the kitchen and made me tea, whilst I was sobbing that everyone hated me and wanted me gone. Okasha told me exactly what my inner child needed to hear, that she was glad I came. In actual fact, no one else agreed with this one member, and I received so much love that day my heart was left glowing. Okasha finished the workshop with a song she said came to her those past few days. To my astonishment, it was ‘Truly Madly Deeply’ which I had recently posted to my personal blog. It was a beautiful confirmation that I was meant to be there. I was challenged to sing this song to my inner child. “The One” isn’t “out there”, it’s within, and only once she is healed will we fill the hole in our soul.
How do you go about healing the inner child? I will finish this post by sharing the process I’ve been working through.
1. I have found a good beginning exercise is tuning into the conflicting thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, or urges within us, rather than trying to fight what’s standing in our way. To give an example, while I want to get out of some unhealthy patterns I’m stuck in with my sleep and basic routine, there’s something that keeps me from changing. One night I started a dialogue with this “something”, as though they were another person. I scribbled down this dialogue on paper as it was happening. I started by asking them who they are and why won’t they let me change. It came out that they’re afraid of changing. I asked them what they’re afraid of. They said ‘To be happy’. I asked them why, and they said they’d never be seen then. It seems the problem was that not all of me is ready to move on from the darkness. There was so much sadness and loss that has gone unacknowledged, unprocessed, unseen for far too long.
At the time I had this dialogue, I hadn’t actually discovered John Bradshaw and I didn’t conceptualise this inner-saboteur as my inner child. Now I feel I’ve found the missing piece of the puzzle. I realise I still have far to come in loving my inner child though. As I reflect on our dialogue, I can see I carried over the same cruelty other people showed towards her. I was frustrated with her. I was writing my questions in capital letters as though I was shouting at her, whilst her responses were in lower case. I also wrote on the back of a boring envelope, as though she was unimportant, deserved no better, and shouldn’t be seen.
2. “And Life, that sets all things in rhyme,
may make you poet, too, in time-
But there were days, O tender elf,
When you were Poetry itself!”
Before you can get into the exercises John Bradshaw facilitates in his videos, I believe you must work on any shame that exists on a conscious level. There are some people out there who believe they are ‘bad’ on every level, and this can be a huge barrier to inner child work. For me, when I was five I was accused of doing something really bad to my friend which resulted in me being separated from many people. I used to think I would not heal and be able to love my inner child until I restore the memory so I know what she did (if anything!). But now I realise it’s the other way around; I will not be able to restore the memory until I heal and start loving my inner child first. She will not reveal anything to someone she feels may judge her. What she needs is unconditional love, and love without an agenda. She needs to know I love her regardless of what she’s done. In fact it is the way my inner child has learnt that her self-worth depends on what she does which drives my destructive perfectionism as an adult. I started deriving my self-worth from my volunteer work, from what I do for other people, from my study, from what I produce, from achieving, from doing rather than being. I am no longer a human being but a human doing, as John Bradshaw puts it. I put a great deal of pressure on myself to do well at the expense of my body and all other aspects of my life. John begins his ‘Healing The Shame That Binds You’ presentation with the beautiful poem, ‘To A Child’ (Chrisopher Morley), which is all about children being precious not because they have a job or what they do (e.g. produce poetry), but in their very existence.
3. Get to know John Bradshaw! For a few days I simply set myself the goal of watching three of his amazing presentations on YouTube:
– Healing The Shame That Binds You
– Heal Your Inner Child
– Oprah- Childhood Wounds Seminar (at least up to part 2b)
There are some exercises in this videos which can be quite confronting though, so you may want to consider if this work is right for you at this stage of your journey.
4. Have a shot at some of the exercises John shares in his videos (whichever resonates with you and where you’re at), or create your own. Something that helped me was publically honouring the child within me at last. I found a photo from prep/grade 1 when the events began. I deliberately chose a photo of her I felt little affection towards. She is at school, she has missing teeth, one sock’s up the other’s down and she wears worn brown boots which don’t match the collared uniform. This is the age she starts to feel fundamentally flawed and needs the love more than ever. I took this photo and made it my Facebook profile picture (which had previously been drawings or slogans for causes I care about, never photos of myself). This was a gesture which said “I am proud of you and you are worthy enough to be my Facebook profile picture”. In fact I would be pleased if all who hurt her and sent her into hiding would see her face now. It made me laugh, knowing she would get her sweet revenge simply by showing her face to the world, showing they have not succeeded at dragging her down, showing that after everything they did she’s still here and she still believes in life. People on Facebook started liking the photo and commending how adorable she is.
Something else I found healing was writing a letter to my 5-year old inner child, an idea put forth by John. In this letter, we tell our inner child what she/he needs to hear, what she/he should have been told but wasn’t. Sometimes many letters are needed to help us move through the grief process outlined by Therese Bochard here. This is something I am continuing to do. Once my inner child has got the acknowledgement and closure she needs, and once she feels truly welcomed into my present life, she will release me from the past. We will be able to live hand in hand, a state of Zen, experiencing the world as brand new in each and every moment, rekindling our zest for life.