Imagine for a moment, a new born baby or an innocent toddler trying to grow and be in the world. All s/he really wants is to be safe, loved, and curious. Think of how s/he is so honest and raw about her feelings. Imagine how s/he sees the world with such possibility and newness. S/he is now relying on an adult to help her get her needs met and shield her from danger. For one day, you are responsible for for the care of this little one. Know that anywhere you go so does s/he. S/he needs you and idolizes you. Everything you say and do s/he REPEATS.
Know your actions will have clear consequences; your role-modeling will be the way this child will act in the world. Now, what will change in your life? How would you talk to yourself differently? Would you consume drugs and alcohol in the same way? Would you be going to the same places and spending time with the people you do? What would you do differently if this child was with you a week? a month? a year?
Interestingly, we would do for a child what we wouldn’t do for ourselves. We would encourage crying, eating well, and going to sleep sooner. We wouldn’t walk in dangerous neighborhoods or get drunk and be unaware with a child to immediately care for. We wouldn’t visit mean relatives and work all day.
Now imagine that this child is a part of you. How would you take care of your inner child? Same? Better? WORSE? Often we repeat the way we were raised. For many of us that means continuing the abuse and neglect. Also, we assume abusing and neglecting ourselves is part of being a mature adult.
We neglect ourselves by constantly working. We punish ourselves by setting impossible standards and have cruel and abusive self-talk when we make mistakes. When we are afraid and vulnerable, we dismiss our feelings telling our self to ‘buck-up’ and that ‘it’s not so bad.’ We refuse to seek calm, quiet, and gentle loving touch, saying there is no time for that. We undervalue being cared for or spending time playing and being curious. If we heard someone treat a child the way we treat ourselves, we would be horrified. However, we are most likely repeating the painful way we were raised. As adults, we unconsciously attempt to either be the PERFECT boy or girl for love and acceptance, or continue to avoid or fight the horrible parent we downloaded in our minds through drugs, alcohol, or more.
To break this cycle is to nurture the inner child.
If you struggle to identify ways for your adult self to care for your inner child, here are some ways to increase your self-compassion and self-love:
First, think of the basic needs of a child: safety, sleep, warmth, healthy food, clean enough environment. Perhaps the most important, is loving talk and soothing touch.
Get a massage or some form of bodywork to soothe the body and mind. Learn to massage yourself or gently place your hands on your body where there is pain or fear. Learn to pat yourself with reassurance and acknowledgment.
Practice telling yourself that you love yourself even when you feel like a terrible person. Practice naming positive things about yourself. Try doing this is the mirror and making eye contact. If you are worried and can’t sleep, tell yourself you are OK, loved, safe, and that it is OK to have feelings. Let yourself cry or have a tantrum when you feel powerless (e.g. punch a pillow, throw stuffed animals on the floor, break dry spaghetti in your hands).
Let yourself have plenty of time to transition from one thing to another. Let yourself go slow and be curious.
If you make a mistake, avoid calling yourself names or yelling at yourself about how you should’ve known better. Say something like, “ You are still loveable and worthwhile even if you (struggle, fail, make mistakes, or) are not perfect.”
Remind yourself of how you can get support when you feel down, confused, or don’t know what to do. Who is safe? Who can help? Keep a list of good people and places, with phone numbers (not just in your phone). Post them in a place that is easy to see.
When you are feeling sensitive, overwhelmed or beat up, find a space where you can let your nervous system rest, away from the people and environments that trigger you.
Practice dancing, singing, and art. Go to non-competitive classes where you learn new things and can be a novice. Learn to learn. Go for yourself and to be curious and have fun. Try this without the desire of outcomes or goals.
Join groups and communities that are supportive. It takes a village!
Listen to your bodily needs. Eat, sleep, rest, play, and cuddle when you need to. Remember, you wouldn’t starve children or push them to play if they are tired.
Practice expressing trust, encouragement, and belief in yourself without placing pressure on performance or reward. Ask yourself if you think you “should” or “want” to do it. Follow your want… it’s the path of least resistance!
Understand that sexuality starts when we are in the womb. It’s normal, natural, and healthy to seek out sexual pleasure; this pleasure and love is part of personal growth and self-care.
Learn what you like and trust yourself about what you don’t.
Practice saying “No thanks” without explanation. Have boundaries with your time and energy.
Avoid over-promising and under-delivering. Less is usually more. Just say, “I’ll think about it. Maybe.”
Be compassionate when you are struggling and learn to forgive yourself when disappointed.
Believing in a higher power, a benevolent god, or order in the universe isn’t naïve, and can be very helpful in increasing hope and decreasing fear and alienation.
Being consistent but not rigid allows you to follow a rhythm and not be anxious due to disorder.
When you need to work, make sure you are honest with yourself about when you will attend to your other needs. Remember that inner child? They need an adult that will check in and come back to them!
These are not a list of expectations, but rather ideas about how to start healing and loving yourself. Using the imagery of the child can give you more compassion for yourself. As a trauma therapist, I know it is hard to love yourself and admit what you need. If you get stuck, perhaps that is an opportunity to get professional support on your path to healing. Remember, you can have a second childhood. This time, you’re responsible.”