Becoming a parent brings out so many new qualities in each of us. We learn to nurture selflessly. We learn patience and empathy. We learn to read the cues of our new child and how to meet their needs as best we can. It is an opportunity for growth like no other in our lifetime.
As we learn to give love and care to our child, many of us also begin to face the reality that we were not nurtured in certain ways in our own childhoods. As we provide a loving mirror to our child, reflecting back a positive and validating image, we may become aware that we were not mirrored in a loving way ourselves. Perhaps we were shamed for certain qualities, silenced when we voiced our truths, or in other ways shown that we were “not OK” the way we were.
Many of us have internalized shaming and dismissive attitudes directed at us as young children. We may not even realize that we continue the pattern by shaming ourselves. The child part within each of us—our source of joy, passion, and creativity—is often stifled by our own inner shame. Our need for validation, love, and nurturing are easily dismissed as “selfish” or “needy,” as we tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t” need the things the child inside craves. The things we most enjoy and that give us pleasure are easily lost as we focus our attention on practical realities and the needs of others, especially our children and our partners.
This pattern of self-neglect fosters depression. The child inside us loses hope that he or she will ever experience joy and fulfillment. Or the child gets angry at being neglected and acts out, causing us to be resentful, irritable, or develop symptoms (anxiety or somatic complaints) that tell us that all is not well in our inner world.
This is how I understand my own struggle with anxiety and depression as a mother. When I lose touch with the child inside me, as it is so easy to do while raising children, my anxiety mounts. If I continue to be a “good mother” (selfless, endlessly patient, and focused on the needs of others), the result is depression, painful physical ailments, overeating, and other self-destructive patterns. What I have come to discover is that by focusing my attention inward and creating a loving dialogue between my inner parent and my inner child, I can help to heal those childhood wounds and feel a sense of balance and wholeness.
Many of us have internalized shaming and dismissive attitudes directed at us as young children. We may not even realize that we continue the pattern by shaming ourselves.
Some people I work with in the therapy room find that they can identify a clear inner parent and inner child voice. But for those who find it more difficult, an exercise can be useful: one can communicate in the parent voice by writing with the dominant hand and reply as the inner child by writing with the non-dominant hand. It is amazing how easy it is to access the child part of myself when struggling to write with my left hand!
You can a start dialogue by asking “How are you doing?” or “How can I take care of you today?” or “What are you needing from me?” Some may find that the child inside is quite angry and distrustful of the parent for having neglected them for so long. But by being a persistent, loving parent, and by reassuring the child that you are there for them, that you will not leave them alone again, and that you love them just the way they are, you can begin a conversation that may allow you to experience a corrective emotional experience that heals your heart in a very deep way. You can also learn how to create a balance between the needs of others and the needs of this tender part of yourself, which may allow you to live a more authentic, joyful life and be a more mindful parent not only to your inner child but your actual children, too.
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