THE OTHER INNER CHILD
by Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D.
In recent years there has been a lot of well-deserved attention directed toward connecting with and healing the "hurt inner child" within every adult. John Bradshaw's very popular work, along with the work of former psychoanalyst Alice Miller, have helped countless people recognize and deal with the persisting results of childhood trauma, even (or perhaps most especially) when the adult-self minimizes the seriousness of the pain experienced by the child-self.
While such long-term effects of childhood trauma tend to be the same or very similar for both men and women, generally speaking there are some significant differences in the barriers to dealing with them. Though there are, of course, always those individuals who are the exceptions to the rule, women tend to be more focused on relationships and making them work than men are. But that focus also tends to be on relationships with and between others, and omits one's relationship with oneself. In this day and age of advertising and popular media bombarding women with a "superwoman" ideal, that crucial relationship with oneself can get easily pushed aside in the effort to "measure up" to the ideal.
That "ideal," to some, translates as avoiding anything that smacks of "weakness" or "victimhood." In my own experience, I think women run a greater risk than men of being perceived as "just a victim." A reluctance to have one's identity equate with "victim" is certainly praiseworthy. There is a danger, however, of that reluctance spilling over into an unwillingness to recognize one's experiences of having been victimized. Here is the difference: focusing on experiences of having been victimized does not necessitate adopting "victim" as one's identity.
One way of dealing with the dilemma is recognition that the hurt inner child isn't the only inner child one has available to connect with. There is also a fearless, curious child within each of us: the child who was eager for exploration and learning, who encountered the many mysteries before her with a great desire to make sense of all that she saw and heard and felt. Those who experienced a lot of overt abuse beginning at a very early age will likely have more difficulty connecting with the fearless curious inner child, but that child is within everyone.
Taking time to recognize and connect with the fearless curious child has the benefit of providing a degree of balance when it comes to the painful work of dealing with the hurt inner child. It can be an important reminder that even though one was victimized, one is, and always has been, much more than "just a victim" (which is true also of those who were victimized in the extreme beginning at an early age). Realizing this other aspect of the inner child-self can serve to dispel the fear that focusing on the experience of victimization necessarily results in "victim" becoming one's whole identity. That opens the way to overcoming whatever residual effects one may have from having been victimized, but which have gone without attention due to the positively-motivated refusal to be "only a victim."
Once connected with, the fearless curious child-self will always be available as a companion to the hurt child-self (as well as the adult-self), to help maintain a balanced sense of all that one has been, is now, and can be. Here's an exercise to try, presented in three variations. Pick the one that best applies to you.
For those who can easily remember being adventurous (each in her own way) as a child: make time for remembering yourself as a girl, at any childhood age, when you did something new and challenging--learning to ride a bike, first time on roller skates, first time cooking or climbing a tree or holding a baby--anything. Remember yourself and how you felt then--the child who either pursued that activity fearlessly, or who felt fear but went ahead anyway.
For those who can remember wanting to be adventurous, but mostly remember not being allowed to be: you may still be able to remember sometime when you were adventurous, but if not, connect with the feeling, the desire, you felt as a girl to try that new thing, to discover your own capacities and limits. The adults in your life then may not have allowed it, but the adult who has ultimate control over whether you do such things now is your own adult-self. You can give permission to that curious child-self to learn what she's capable of, to reconnect with the spirit of discovery and meeting a challenge.
For those who experienced abuse from an early age and have no conscious memories of not being afraid: watch the children in your own family, or the children of friends or neighbors, whose excitement shows whenever they succeed at something new. Even if it was only when you took your first steps, got yourself a glass of water for the first time, or were able to read words on a page--it was an enormous accomplishment at the time! That experience of confronting a new challenge is one that still lives within you. You may be able to connect with it more easily by watching the faces of your own or other children. The important thing is not the magnitude (in adult terms) of the challenge. The important thing is that the spirit was necessarily a part of who you are: the spirit that saw a challenge, took it on, and deserved to feel appropriate self-pride in the effort. That spirit is there to be connected with again, and built upon.
Finally, whether one remembers the fearless curious child as an adjunct to dealing with childhood victimization or not, remembering her can add a new, or renewed, sense of what there is to celebrate in each and every one.
Deborah G. Alicen, Ph.D., is a private practice psychologist who lives in Plainfield, Vermont--a transplanted Southerner who still can't say "cows" the way real Vermonters do. She has spent the last twelve years working mostly with children, adolescents, and adults recovering from sexual abuse and domestic violence.
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