What’s one of your favorite childhood memories?
I remember visiting the desert for the first time.
My family and I had just left rowdy, neon Las Vegas. 3 hours later, we stopped at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California.
Spiky, zig-zagging trees heaved long sighs of relief. The 95-degree weather felt like having a wool blanket wrapped around our body. But the harsh stillness inspired awe in us.
The Mojave and Colorado Deserts meet here, home to thousands of wildlife like rattlesnakes, bighorn sheep, herons and tortoises.
How can such a bare landscape teem with life?
My stoic dad rarely hugged me and always criticized me. But he shared his passion for nature.
Through nature outings, my dad expressed things he didn’t dare reveal at home: a sense of wonder, vulnerability and intuition. His inner child beamed at the sight of quirky rock formations and calm blue waters.
Unfortunately, my dad worked too hard most of the time and sacrificed 4 hours in traffic each day. His joie de vivre disappeared. The pressure exploded, creating many conflicts in my family.
Our inner child represents the small child we once were, as well as our emotions, sensitivity, creativity, playfulness and joy.
Neglecting these parts of ourselves leaves us feeling lost and unhappy. No wonder my dad was struggling!
On the other hand, connecting to our inner child helps us soothe past hurts, lessen anxiety and enjoy life.
What’s the inner child?
Everyone has an inner child.
The inner child is an aspect of our personality that includes our:
- core self
- natural personality
- sense of wonder
So, the term “inner child” simply refers to our “vulnerable, intuitive, instinctual inner self”, says Dr. Margaret Paul. These traits stay with us, regardless of our age. But they often get buried by our responsibilities and everyday concerns.
As we grow up, we adapt to the expectations of our family and society, which can squelch our creativity and gifts. And when we don’t express our inner child’s energy, we may feel stuck and stressed, and ruin relationships with loved ones.
Psychologist Carl Jung writes in his essay “The Psychology of the Child Archetype” that the inner child “represents the strongest, the most ineluctable urge in every being, namely the urge to realize itself”.
That’s why we need our inner adult—the side of us that’s logical, analytical and action-oriented—to collaborate with our inner child.
Instead of ignoring painful feelings (emotions being the inner child’s realm), our inner adult can learn how to accept them and take action to bring more joy. Rather than forcing ourselves to work harder, we can take breaks and play.
Once we tend to our inner child’s needs, including healing childhood wounds, we gain energy and freedom to create rich lives.
Pay attention to the present moment
Many people believe we need to revisit past hurts to heal our inner child.
But we don’t need to dig up the past, especially if it’s too painful or traumatizing. Perhaps we don’t even remember what happened.
Fortunately, we can connect with our inner child simply by looking after it, as if it were an external child. And rest assured, if the concept of the inner child doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay too.
Ultimately, the key is to embrace any painful feelings that arise in the present and take consistent, positive action to care for yourself.
Because unhealed childhood wounds will show up in our daily lives anyway. Consider these examples:
- blowing a fuse when your partner says “no”
- caretaking while expecting favors in return
- putting others’ needs before your own
- drinking to avoid conflicts with your partner
- beating yourself up
- overworking and being perfectionistic
- feeling deeply inadequate
Some of the above reactions obviously aren’t childlike (e.g. drinking alcohol). But they’re adult versions of the coping mechanisms we learned in childhood: throwing tantrums, coaxing others to give us what we want, retreating and lashing out.
So, all we need to do is acknowledge our emotions in the moment, especially when we feel abandoned, scared, lonely or hurt. Doing so helps us feel loved and supported—essential aspects to our well-being, no matter how old we are.
If we insist on neglecting tough emotions, we’ll unconsciously harm ourselves and loved ones in the long run. Buried emotions disrupt our lives until we listen, one way or another.
“Mindfulness is the awareness of what is going on in us and around us in the present moment.
It requires stopping, looking deeply, and recognizing both the uniqueness of the moment and its connection to everything that has gone on before and will go on in the future.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
How to embrace the inner child
First, we need to become aware of our emotions and let ourselves feel them.
The simplest way is to practice observing our bodily sensations.
Studies show that our body sends signals whenever we experience emotions. For example, perhaps your throat tightens when you feel angry or your heart jumps when you’re inspired.
Mentally note any physical sensations, emotions, thoughts and images: Rock in my belly, fear, “I have so much to do, I can’t handle it”, my partner leaving me. Naming our thoughts and emotions gives us some space to better process them.
Then, breathe deeply and allow the experience, without judgment.
Next, explore your feelings: What made me feel this way? What do I need right now? Find out the beliefs that drive your feelings—because false beliefs are the main blocks to love and joy.
Dr. Paul says these 6 false beliefs control most people’s lives:
- There is something wrong with me.
- I’m powerless over how I feel.
- Other people’s feelings are more important than mine, and I’m responsible for their feelings.
- I can control what others think of me, feel about me and how they treat me.
- Resisting others’ control over me is essential to my integrity.
- I can’t handle painful emotions (e.g. fear, hurt, grief, shame, loneliness).
Lastly, take loving action, which shows your inner child that it’s worthy.
Do things that spark your creativity, wonder and silliness, like doodling, stargazing and dancing. Sometimes, loving action won’t feel good (e.g. exercising, giving up addictions, saying no).
But as long as you keep taking care of yourself, you’ll find more peace and joy.
*Learn how to stop beating yourself up and treat yourself with compassion in this coaching package.
Freedom to be yourself
Now that my dad has retired, he’s enjoying many more nature trips.
A weight has lifted from his shoulders. He laughs more and even cracks jokes.
Not to mention, I’ve noticed something else particular.
My dad, whom I used to consider icy and strict, prefers striking a certain pose in his travel photos, especially on mountaintops:
His fists in the air like Rocky, a giant grin on his face.
How his inner child glows!
About the author
Annie Moussu is a mindfulness-based life coach who helps women let go of perfectionism, self-doubt and people-pleasing. Sign up for her newsletter to get blog articles twice a month.
Further reading to embrace your inner child: