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If you’re interested in psychology, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across the term “inner child” before. Self-help books have recently zeroed in on the inner child as one of the primary sources of unhappiness and dysfunction in our adult lives.
The inner child is a metaphorical concept that can be deeply helpful in understanding the ways in which we behave as adults. Perhaps you find that you’re prone to lashing out at your partner when you’re upset. Maybe you find that you struggle with expressing your feelings openly and honestly, instead using passive-aggressive manipulation to get your way in your relationship. Maybe you tend to act as though things are okay, suppressing your feelings of unhappiness and secretly engaging in destructive or addictive behaviors that ultimately ruin your relationships.
In many cases, these maladaptive behaviors are the result of coping mechanisms we adopted during our youth. By learning to recognize our inner child and meet their needs in healthier ways, we can ultimately improve our adult relationships, creating more loving and stable partnerships.
Understanding Your Inner Child and Their Needs
We all have an inner child within us. This inner child is sometimes linked with the Freudian concept of the “id,” the part of our personality linked to our basic, instinctual drives. Like a toddler, our inner child demands that our needs and desires are met. When the id-like side of our inner child acts out, we may seek immediate gratification of our impulses while striving to avoid pain. Though our inner child can also be linked to the spontaneous, carefree side of our personality, many of the behaviors associated with our inner child are poorly suited to our adult lives. Our inner child behaves in certain ways based on how we were raised as children. What sort of behaviors got us the attention we needed from our caregivers? What beliefs did our parents instill in us? If our authentic selves were not validated in our youth, we may have begun acting out in maladaptive ways.
When we experience periods of stress or conflict as adults, we may revert to childlike responses; perhaps we become manipulative, striving to get our needs met without openly discussing our problems. Maybe we grow quiet, acting as though everything is fine in order to keep the peace with our partners. Maybe we lash out, throwing child-like tantrums, or perhaps we rebel, turning to self-destructive behaviors as a way to avoid our inner pain. You might recognize these maladaptive behaviors in yourself or in your partner. It is important to know that most of us sometimes revert to childlike behaviors while feeling stressed, unhappy, or insecure. By recognizing these behaviors, however, we can work to correct them. While dealing with adult problems, we should strive to respond in mature, adult ways.
When our authentic self is rejected by a parental figure, we learn that we need to cope by creating a “false self.” This false self often leads to the amplification or suppression of our normal emotional responses. We may behave in more extreme ways, becoming “too much” for our partners to handle. Some individuals respond in the opposite manner, shutting down and acting as though they don’t care. It is important to have a sense of sympathy and understanding towards our inner child. Our childhood wounds may have made us overly-dependent or needy, or we may become so self-reliant that we struggle to let others in. Ultimately, this false sense of self prevents us from authentically connecting with others. Instead of behaving in these ways, we should listen to our inner child’s deeper needs. Our inner child simply wants to have his or her needs met; we just want to be accepted for who we really are. Once we see this, we can work towards healing our relationship with ourselves and our partners.
Are your inner child’s wounds affecting your relationship? Here are a few ways your inner child may be “acting out” in your adult life.
Common Destructive Inner Child Dynamics
When we enter into conflicts with our partners, our maladaptive inner child responses often become more readily apparent. Our emotional responses are often extreme and reflect our inner child’s feelings of insecurity, jealousy, doubt, and fear of rejection. We may lash out at our partners, pick fights, or continually bicker about the same issues. We may become resentful when we feel that our needs aren’t being met by our partner, or we may feel bitter that they aren’t able to intuit our wants and needs. We may try testing our partner’s loyalty or act out in impatient and dramatic ways. Our emotional responses are often child-like in nature; we may lash out and throw angry temper tantrums or we might sulk and mope, using techniques like the silent treatment in order to get our way.
Sometimes, the roles we take on in our relationships expose our inner child’s deepest needs. We might play the victim or martyr or, contrastingly, take on the role of a happy, compliant caretaker. Those who take on the caretaker role may neglect their own feelings while prioritizing the needs of their partner. Those who act as martyrs may be falling victim to the egotism of the inner child. We may act incompetent, hoping our partners will come to our rescue, or we may expect to always get our way. The inner child doesn’t like being told “no.”
Some adults respond to their inner child’s needs by becoming obsessively controlling of their partners, resenting any friends or interests that take up their partner’s time. Others may respond in the opposite way, pushing their partners away, creating a dynamic that mirrors the core loneliness felt by the inner child. Some may turn towards destructive behaviors, like gambling, drinking, or unsafe sex as a way to temporarily numb the inner child’s feelings of pain and isolation.
Take an honest look at the ways in which you argue with your partner. Can you see the ways in which your inner child is controlling your behavior? Once you begin to recognize the ways in which your inner child is affecting your adult relationships, you can work towards making your responses more constructive. By responding in a mature and controlled way, you can improve the quality of your relationship.
Acknowledge Your Inner Child to Heal Your Adult Relationships
Addressing our inner child’s needs in a healthy way can greatly improve the ways in which we communicate with our partners. We need to first look at our inner child and the way they affect our behavior. To a greater or lesser extent, most of us experienced trauma, rejection, and neglect during our upbringings. Perhaps we adopted a victim mentality in order to get our parents’ attention; maybe we learned that we could get our needs met by throwing tantrums. Perhaps our childhood was so chaotic that we felt the need to suppress our emotions, leading us to become obsessively self-reliant and emotionally distant in adulthood. Regardless of the source of your childhood wounds, it is important to recognize your destructive behavioral patterns as a response to your inner child’s pain. To attain a sense of genuine connection with those we love, we need to abandon these childlike coping mechanisms.
Work on becoming self-aware. What does your inner child really want? If you find yourself behaving in an immature way while in a stressful situation, take a step back and allow yourself the time to cool down. Consider telling your partner that you need a few minutes to process the situation. It can even be helpful to ask yourself “How old am I acting right now?” If you’re honest with yourself, you might recognize that you’re acting like a petulant toddler or a rebellious teenager. Step away from the conflict and work to regain your adult composure. Working through disagreements and being emotionally vulnerable is difficult, but it is worth the effort. Compromising with our partners is a mature response to conflict.
Take responsibility for re-parenting your inner child. Read a book on healing your inner child or bring up the subject in therapy. Your inner child needs your attention and love to heal. Focus on improving your emotional intelligence, too. Are you allowing yourself to feel a full spectrum of emotions, or do you find yourself suppressing your feelings? Are you acting angry when you’re actually feeling sad and vulnerable? Perhaps you can even detect the ways in which your partner’s inner child is affecting your ability to communicate with one another. If you’re both committed to improving your communication dynamics, perhaps you can work on healing your inner children together.
Focus on what you can control. Your responses are your own; you can’t control the way your partner responds to you. Ultimately, the way we work through conflict is more important than what we argue about. Can we express ourselves clearly and maturely? Can we be thoughtful and honest in sharing our emotional needs?
Healing one’s relationship with one’s inner child is a time-intensive process. Simply strive to listen to your inner self. Parent yourself as you wish you had been parented. Allow yourself to be fun and spontaneous, but respond in emotional mature ways. By listening to your inner child and healing your emotional wounds, you’ll be able to become a more present and loving partner in your adult life.
Working on your relationship with your inner child may take time. It can be very difficult to unlearn behaviors that we have practiced for a lifetime! When you catch your inner child acting out, take a step back from the situation and evaluate the ways in which you behaved. Though allowing the “id” of your inner child to run your relationship may lead to the short-term solutions you desire, these destructive behaviors will damage your relationship in the long run. Instead, work on compromising, keeping your emotions under control, and accepting your partner’s personal boundaries. If you and your partner would both benefit from focusing on your inner children and childhood trauma, consider consulting a therapist who specializes in inner child work, or read a book on the subject. By learning to acknowledge your inner child’s needs in a healthy way, you can improve the quality of your relationship, leading to greater happiness and connection.
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