Brooke Byers, MA, LMHCA
Learning To Love Your Inner Child
Caring for the wounds of the past
In my professional therapeutic work, one approach I get really jazzed about is helping clients learn to love their inner child. This excitement is partly informed by my own personal healing journey and the experience of learning to hear, see, and love my inner child. This integration has been life changing to say the least, and is an unbelievable privilege to witness the profound impact it has on my clients. For many, the idea of an inner child can certainly sound a little woo-woo and is often misunderstood. If this concept is new to you, let me provide a quick intro of this healing approach.
It is my deep belief that we all have younger parts of us who did not get the necessary love, care, and support we needed when we were young. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Even caregivers, who are adequately equipped with the necessary skills and tools to help their child thrive, are capable of hurting, harming, and/or neglecting their/our children (therapists included). Since this is an inevitable outcome even for those raised in the most loving and compassionate homes, how we learn to cope (or not cope) with childhood wounds has a profound impact on our development, personality, and style of relating. When this is true for exemplary families, then imagine the devastating impact for those children who are raised in environments who were acutely abused and score high on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) scales. When any childhood wound or trauma occurs, our caregivers may have not been healthy enough themselves (possibly due to their own unresolved trauma) or had the skills and tools to meet our emotional needs and care for these wounds. Therefore, our inner child was left alone to process through the physical or psychological wounding. In the absence of having skills and tools to work through these traumatic wounds in a healthy way, we ultimately internalize these experience(s). Not knowing how to make sense of our inner worlds, navigating emotions like fear, shame, hurt, guilt, anger, and loneliness, these emotional experiences turn toxic and have devastating consequences. As a result, the past hurt, harm and neglect we experienced in childhood tends to live on in the present (into adulthood), which keeps us stuck in old patterns informed by trauma and toxic emotions.
This unfortunately gets perpetuated into our current relationships, and the seemingly never-ending cycle continues. What our younger parts still need most is to be seen, heard, loved and validated. They need a responsible, kind, and loving adult to come alongside the inner child, help care for these wounds, so there can finally be healing. I have some good news, healing is absolutely possible! With the attuned guidance of a safe and compassionate therapist, your childhood wounds can be cared for in a way that is curious, compassionate, and connecting. Throughout the therapeutic encounter, a new caring relationship can internalized and we learn not only how to re-parent our younger parts, but we also learn to love our inner child. The ultimate goal of this work is to integrate your inner child with your healthy adult self so there can be emotional integration, healing and thriving.
I like to use nesting dolls like these darling animals when doing Inner Child work with clients. Each of them represents the younger parts of us that live on in the present. Sometimes, our 5-year-old self is unconsciously running the show. At Grey Sky Counseling, all of our therapists practice from a place of vulnerability and authenticity and never ask clients to do something we aren’t willing to do ourselves. So, I believe it is important to share a bit about my own inner child work and how my unique relationship to fear and shame began.
To this day, I have an aversion to butter mints. You know, the kind you would see (before Covid!) in a cute dish near the cash register at some restaurants. This aversion goes back decades around the time I was 5. The scene took place at my Aunt’s wedding in Florida. While my memories are quite fuzzy about the whole event, I have very vivid memories of overdosing on butter mints when no one was watching. Needless to say, the entire road trip home from Florida to Alabama, the butter mints took me down and the backseat of our family station wagon looked like a bottle of Pepto Bismal exploded.
Butter mints-1, Little Brookie-0.
This was my first memory of what I have now come to understand as my relationship with disordered eating. While I was not aware of it then, it was also around the time my relationship with toxic fear began. I can recall feeling fearful about a plethora of things. From getting bit by a rattlesnake (they were prevalent in our neck of the woods in the deep South of Alabama; we even found a snake skin in our laundry room in the house!) to being harassed in Kindergarten by a kid in my class who would try to touch me inappropriately to being worried about not having enough food to eat to being anxious about seeing my parents argue. This was all just the beginning.
Throughout my life, there have been deep-rooted fears that always held me back from truly thriving. Not knowing how to process those on my own as a kid, heck even into adulthood, anxiety ruled my life and ultimately drove me to use. For me, food has always been my drug of choice. Remember those butter mints? Throughout my clinical training, I have heard it said, addiction is a replacement for an attachment. While I indeed have a close family and very loving parents, back in my day, we didn’t really talk about feelings. Personally and professionally, I have come to learn that when there is fear, shame is usually on the prowl too. Whether we’re conscious of it or not, we all have a unique relationship with both fear and shame. I had so much shame about my feelings and I had to bury them. In my little child mind, the thought of being honest about my feelings caused me even more fear and shame. And the times I did try to be as honest as I could possibly stand, I inevitably felt even more shame. I learned it was much easier to slap on a smile and just pretend to be happy, and food helped me hide the pain.
Years of eating away my feelings caused a lot of pain, isolation and gravely impacted my relationships (with myself & others). I didn’t have a clue back then but now, I can clearly see my dance. It didn’t take much to provoke my food-dance-cycle. A fearful thought, an upset authority figure, or anything I perceived as negative, would trigger emotions leading me to dive face first into food, which only led to shame and guilt. Ironically, this led to remorse and sadness, which led to swearing off food, "repenting of my sins," which led to more of a need to perform and being good. That good girl performance didn’t last long before something else activated me again and sent me back into my dance cycle with food.
We are neurobiologically hardwired to feel fear. Fear is a good, good emotion. It illuminates our need for safety, and its gift is wisdom. On the other hand, toxic fear is rooted shame and anxiety. I don’t know about you, but I sure needed someone to help me navigate fear and shame in a healthy way. It wasn’t until my 30’s that I sought therapy. I felt so stuck and alone. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was really seeking wisdom and someone to help me work through my fear and shame which produced a disordered relationship with food that I had been carrying around for decades. It was then that I began to do the loving work of healing my inner child.
In the absence of a wise other, it is easy to make up stories and stay stuck and isolated in the pit of toxic fear and shame. I often tell my clients that we have to bring truth into the light so we can heal and transform the wounds of our stories. Fear and shame are so incredibly debilitating and work overtime to keep us trapped. However, I emphatically believe healing is possible, and you deserve to love your inner child, heal from the past, and learn the necessary skills and tools so you can thrive.
If you’re interested in therapeutically exploring your inner child or have additional questions, please feel free to contact me here. I also encourage you to read this beautiful article on How to Do Inner-Child Work for Healing Trauma and Self-Acceptance. If you want to learn more about how to do the healing work of recovering from disordered eating, we are offering a FREE 4-week Emotionally Integrative Recovery workshop starting February 28th. Our Grey Sky Counseling team is here to support and guide you on your healing journey. When you are ready, we are here to help, and remember -- you don’t have to climb alone.
Inner Child Photo Cred: Adam Hornyak