The most sophisticated people I’ve ever known had just one thing in common: they were all in touch with their inner children.Jim Henson
After struggling to establish a solid foundation a year after graduating college, I decided to schedule an appointment with a therapist. Anxious and underemployed, I had no idea what to say when people asked the dreaded question, “So, what do you want to do?” The more time passed, the more I conflated what I wanted to do with what I thought I “should” be doing–I should be working at this company, making x amount of money, dating this kind of a person, living in this neighborhood, and the usual list of societal expectations we (especially twenty-somethings) put on ourselves. The reality was that I was working a service job I hated, making significantly less than I wanted, grappling with an array of failed relationships, and living in my childhood bedroom. Surrounded by pictures and memories of a much younger and more hopeful me, I felt like a disappointment to my younger self and didn’t even want to know what future me would be like.
In the first session of therapy, my therapist asked, “What were you doing when you were twelve?” Digging up ancient artifacts from a decade ago, I recalled a time of riding horses, playing with stuffed animals, singing, and writing short stories for my family. I thought about my best friends from elementary school who faded into memories and the summers spent at camp, swimming in the lake and tie-dyeing every article of clothing I owned. I recalled feeding ducks at the pond and my favorite tree to sit under and read. I laughed at an embarrassing story of having a major voice crack while singing “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” at a chorus recital. What was supposed to be a quick answer to her question turned into a thirty minute walk down memory lane. The stress and tension I had built up prior to our session melted into ease and a sense of joy. I felt like a kid again.
“What about when you were six?” she asked. “Can you remember what you were doing then?” I told her I remembered making little books with simple yet bizarre narratives of cows in space and fairies living under my bed. I have a vivid memory of sitting on our living room floor (how I miss that purple carpet!) and watching my dad shine his shoes while singing “Rocky Raccoon” by the Beatles. It would become one of my favorite songs simply because of the memories associated with it and the first song I learned on guitar. I remembered Lucas, our black labrador, and how we would play all day in the backyard. Visions of digging up worms while watching my mother garden in her soil-stained gloves filled me with warmth and comfort.
Before getting lost in a rabbit hole of nostalgia, my therapist asked me one final question–”What does present you have in common with these younger versions of yourself?” The answer was simple and obvious–everything I loved as a child I still love now. Writing, nature, music…these are the main ingredients of my personality, no matter how much I may try to ignore or change them. As I cried to her that I had no idea what to do with my life, she merely reflected the answers back to me. Deep down, I’ve always known that my love for the arts and the outdoors were more than passing interests. But as I grew bigger, so did my fears and doubts. I was more concerned with being “realistic” than honest with myself. My passions aren’t like shoes or sweaters though–I didn’t outgrow them like some of us think we can or are even expected to. Now 23, I know it’s time to face those fears head on and silence the inner-bully in my head.
I’m incredibly blessed to have the childhood I did, but that isn’t to say I don’t still hold on to negative patterns from my past. A lot of us have a wounded inner child who never healed and it is our job to love, apologize, and forgive that child in order to heal from past trauma. In his book Reconciliation: Healing the Inner Child, Thich Nat Hahn provides a powerful meditation of saying, “I go back to my inner child” on the inhale, and “I take care of my inner child,” on the exhale. Sometimes merely acknowledging our pain brings comfort, especially if we can accept the situation for what it is and let go, surrendering to the Now. Only by forgiving the past can we truly heal and embrace the present.
I was an extremely nervous and fearful kid, partly because of a brain-injury I had when I was a toddler. This injury led to early learning and development problems and although I excelled academically, I still find myself saying things like, “I’ll never be smart enough” or “There’s no way I could ever do that.” My parent’s and teacher’s concern for my development plagued me as a child and I’d go to bed feeling inadequate and incapable of success (I still do sometimes). I was extremely hard on myself and I have to apologize to that little girl who constantly beat herself down. Nature became my refuge from those thoughts, a place where the silence and stillness showed me who I really was. As I told my therapist this, she asked, “Why aren’t you planning a future that includes environmental and creative work?” I was somewhat dumfounded by the simplicity of the question. Why wasn’t I? Why was I so terrified of doing what my inner child wanted to even though I couldn’t imagine myself happy doing anything else? I had spent nearly a year quitting jobs and then applying to ones I had no interest in, wondering why I was constantly in a rut. I put the things I actually enjoyed on the back burner because they didn’t seem important.
Admitting what I truly want is nerve-racking because it does’t follow the traditional path. Admittedly, I’m still figuring my plan out but being honest with myself about the person I am and want to be was the first step. Somewhere between adolescence and young-adulthood, I became ashamed of my childhood dreams because they felt…well, childish. We’re led to believe that as adults, we should sever ourselves from our childhood. But the inner child is always inside us, and the dreams and passions we had are there for a reason. The questions my therapist asked helped me break down my past and present so that I could imagine a future where six-year-old me would be proud. A future that includes all the things my inner child needs. I urge you to close your eyes and reach out to your inner child. You may be amazed at the wisdom you have always possessed.
Ways to Help You Connect With Your Inner Child
- What negative habits, thoughts, or emotions do you hold onto from your childhood? How can you release them? Who do you need to forgive?
- Listen to an old song or watch an old movie you loved as a kid. How do they make you feel now?
- What did you want to be when you were six? How does your life align with that now?
- Write a letter to your past self. What advice would you give? Do you treat your present self with the same empathy and understanding you do your past self?
- Text/call an old friend or mentor that you miss–we all have those people from our past that we’re too scared to reach out to. If more of us had the bravery to do this, we wouldn’t live in such a lonely world.
- Ask your parents, grandparents, or other family members what they were like as kids. Can you see the inner-child in them today?