What is Your “Inner Child”?

There is a shocking lack of education that goes on in the field of professional counseling. All of those degrees and titles that sound so flashy don’t really mean what people think they mean. People often assume that I was taught everything I know at school, yet when I went to college with the goal of becoming a counselor, I was stunned at how much I wasn’t taught and how many topics weren’t covered. So much so that I really lost respect for formal education in this area. The main thing I learned by pursuing a degree in psychology is that I wasn’t going to become a good counselor by pursuing a degree in psychology.

Just as a carpenter learns his trade mainly through practice and not through books, you become good at counseling by doing it. By talking to real people with real problems and really listening to what they are experiencing. By keeping an open mind and not letting the theories of others dictate how you’re going to think. For example, Sigmund Freud is a huge name in this field. I personally think the man had serious issues. I really lost interest in Freud when I came across his theory of how important insights into people’s personalities could be gained from observing how they pooped when they were kids (hence the term anal-retentive and the popular phrase “I’m so anal”). I mean when a man says something that moronic, why are we still treating him like he’s some kind of genius? Freud’s writings demonstrated clear symptoms of some severe unprocessed stress, and yet I never hear people say “Boy, that Freud sure had some hang ups, didn’t he?” He was far too obsessed with sex and bodily waste, and his personal issues greatly tainted the way he diagnosed his patients. This is not to say that the man didn’t say anything useful, because he did. There are many truths about humans that can be observed. But just because a man observes some of those truths doesn’t mean everything else he says is brilliant, nor does it mean he is the only one capable of making those observations. In real life, truth and idiocy often come bundled up together which is why you can’t just pluck some figure from history out of the air and decide that you’re going to blindly accept anything they say. It doesn’t matter how famous someone has become or how many people are still promoting his theories today. You need to think for yourself.

Often folks who are trusting formal education systems to magically turn them into amazing counselors are expected to choose a camp that they want to belong to at some point in their education journey. Are you going to follow Freud? Carl Jung? Some other famous name? There are several schools of thought in psychology, with each one providing different answers to common questions. Once you choose a school to follow (much like you’d choose a religion), the rest of your education follows that track and you end up using the specific terminology that your group popularizes (such as Freud’s famous Id, Ego, and Superego).

Well, I’m not a follower, and I didn’t get where I am by trying to stay aligned with the theories of any particular group. I couldn’t even tell you what the most famous theories are in this field today because I honestly don’t care and don’t bother to keep up. Now and then I catch a video promoting a theory on human psychology which is appallingly wrong and reminds me of what a mess the field has become. But I am not someone who feels a need for a bunch of other people to “amen” me before I can be confident about something. I search for truth in my own way, and when I find it, I try to put it to good use.

As a counselor, people trust me with their darkest secrets and most sensitive vulnerabilities. That kind of trust deserves respect and the highest quality of advice that I can come up with. I’m certainly not going to just toss out theories that I ripped off from someone else without testing the truth of them and seeing if they are even valid. I treat all of my clients as unique individuals, and advise them based on what I feel their specific needs in that moment are. I don’t ask other counselors for help on how to counsel someone. In my experience, the right course of action becomes clear when you listen long enough and gather enough information about what is going on.

I explained all of that so that you can understand why you come across counselors who use such different terminology. There are a lot of different approaches to this kind of work. And like any field, psychiatry can be adversely affected by social trends and politics. What all of this means for you is that you should always ask for clarification when you don’t understand something that your counselor says. Don’t just go along with diagnoses and therapeutic exercises until you understand the reasoning for them and that reasoning feels right to you. The fact that someone is using the title “Doctor” doesn’t mean he or she has any clue about what they’re doing. There are certainly some wonderful counselors out there. But many graduates in this field are thrust into the workforce with huge piles of debt and very poor training and a lot of pressure to somehow make it work because they need the paycheck and don’t have a fallback plan. In psychiatry, you can hide a lot of your ignorance behind an empathetic smile and the words “uh-huh,” so many do. It’s a sad state of affairs, but there it is.

Your Inner Child

Once you understand how lacking the education of counselors is, you can understand how the term inner child became so popular when it is so misleading. Like the term gut instinct, the term inner child is focusing on symptoms that people don’t really understand the cause of.

For example, people talk about their “gut instinct” because they often feel sensations of nervousness or tension in their physical guts when these “instincts” occur. But in real life, their guts aren’t the real source of these insights–instead, people are confusing a reaction to a message with the source of that message (see What is a “Gut Instinct”?).

A similar thing goes on with the term inner child. In cases of unprocessed trauma, people often experience the frequent resurfacing of memories and emotions that they originally felt as children. All of this “childlike” thinking makes them feel that there must be a child version of themselves living inside of them, demanding to appeased like some unhappy ghost who can’t rest in peace. So the term is based on symptoms of a bigger issue that is poorly understood, and since people don’t understand the bigger issue, they don’t know how to properly describe what is happening inside of them.

You don’t really have an inner child. There isn’t a younger you preserved inside of you like some creepy little parasite who you are forced to carry with you everywhere you go. There’s only one you: the person who you are today.

Now when I explain psychological and spiritual mechanics, I talk about the specific parts of your being and describe how they actually work together instead of just using vague, inaccurate terms like “inner child.” I do this because I believe humans are intelligent and capable of grasping complex topics as long as those topics are explained well. I’m also big on equipping people to be less dependent on professional counselors and more capable of sorting out their own issues.

The Mechanics of Trauma

Let’s now talk about actual mechanics. Every human has three main aspects to their being: a body, a soul, and a mind. The mind has two parts to it: the conscious and the subconscious. Misunderstandings about these things abound, and you’ll find many people using the term “soul” as a way of saying “emotions.” This is not how I use the term “soul”.

If you picture four men who are handcuffed together, you’ll get a better idea of how your four elements work together. Your body, soul, conscious and subconscious are all separate entities which each have their own thoughts, feelings, and priorities. But while they are separate, they are also bound together just as those four men are. The handcuffs those men are stuck wearing mean they must find a way to get along and cooperate with each other if they want to accomplish anything. Even a basic task like crossing a room can become a difficult challenge when you’ve got four different beings to coordinate. The way that your four elements interact with each other is endlessly fascinating and extremely impressive.

Now as you go through life, you have experiences which your four elements react to. Your soul and subconscious are the leaders in the group, with your body and conscious usually going along with whatever those two leaders say (see The Supremacy of The Subconscious & The Soul). Your soul and subconscious are the ones who are deeply analyzing what happens to you in life and drawing conclusions about what those experiences mean for your present and future.

Your soul and subconscious each make their own assessments of what happens to you in life, but their assessments also influence each other. For example, you and your cousin are out on a boat in the middle of a lake. You can’t swim. Your cousin starts moving around in the boat and making the whole thing very tippy. You panic and yell at him to stop squirming. But he doesn’t. He squirms more, and suddenly the whole thing flips over and you both end up in the lake. You are now in a life threatening crisis, flailing, choking, and breathing in water. Meanwhile, there’s this upsetting thought in the back of your mind that your cousin (who is a very good swimmer) might have knocked you into the lake on purpose. It is your subconscious that first draws this conclusion. Your soul then reacts to this idea with fear and distress. Your own cousin isn’t trying to murder you right here and now…is he??

You suddenly see the boat in the midst of your thrashing. It has been turned back upright and your cousin is sitting in it, watching you. The fact that your subconscious and soul already fear that your cousin is trying to kill you causes them to analyze his behavior in a very biased way. They instinctively look for evidence to support what they already think is true. You then decide that your cousin looks far too calm sitting in that boat. As if he’s just waiting for you to drown. As if this has been his plan all along.

Well, you don’t want to drown, so you start thrashing harder. By some miracle, you propel yourself forward so that you can grasp the edge of the boat. Now you start pulling yourself up into it. Your cousin lunges forward and grabs your hand. Once again, the conclusions you’ve already formed about your cousin taint the way you perceive his present behavior. It seems to you that he’s trying to pry your hands off the edge of the boat so that you can’t pull yourself to safety. Now you’re feeling terrified. You scream for help as you claw your way into the boat. You finally make it inside, breathless and terrified and gripping tightly onto the sides of the boat.

“What was that all about?” your cousin asks. “Why were you making such a drama out of falling in?”

For a brief second, it occurs to you that you might have gotten this whole situation wrong. What if your cousin thought you could swim all this time? What if he really wasn’t trying to kill you? And yet what if he was and you tip him off that you’re on to him? Surely this isn’t the time for accusations while you’re in such a vulnerable position out on the lake. So you just demand to be rowed to shore and your cousin huffs in annoyance as he picks up the oars.

This situation is a perfect set up for trauma. Something very upsetting has happened to you (you nearly drowned) and your subconscious and soul are already toying with some very scary conclusions about what all of this means. Right now they are seriously considering the possibility that your own family member wants to murder you.

Traumatic beliefs are ones that you find very upsetting to think about and impossible to make peace with. But for you to become actually traumatized, those upsetting beliefs have to be accepted by your mind and/or soul as confirmed truths. In this boating analogy, things could still go either way. If some conversations happen in which you become convinced that your cousin wasn’t trying to harm you, your subconscious and soul will reject the scary theories they are toying with and move on. But if instead you end up feeling convinced that you were correct about your cousin’s malicious intentions, then you will end up in a state of trauma.

There are different forms of trauma. Psychological trauma is when your subconscious is the one holding on to the terrifying beliefs. Spiritual trauma is when your soul is the one with the upsetting beliefs. And then there are cases in which you have both kinds of trauma happening at the same time.

Now let’s say you never get the truth sorted with your cousin and you end up believing that he really was trying to kill you. This traumatic belief will greatly impact you from that point forward. For one thing, you’ll feel very afraid of your cousin and become very stressed and tense whenever you are around him. You will also start looking for evidence that he is working on some new evil scheme for how to off you. This aggressive searching for signs that your cousin is out to get you will cause you to view his normal behavior through a negative filter. It’s rather like you imagining that a smile looks more like a sneer because you believe that the person doing the smiling doesn’t like you. Your beliefs about the person cause you to perceive their actions in a very negative way.

Let’s now jump ahead 20 years. You’re an adult who never got any help in dealing with your fears about your cousin. To this day, when you are around your cousin, you feel the same kind of fear and vulnerability that you felt as a kid. When you’re near lakes, you experience a resurgence of the same fear and terror you felt on the day you almost died. These emotions remain as strong as when you originally became traumatized. And in many cases, they will actually grow more intense the longer you go without addressing your terrifying beliefs.

The fact that so many traumas happen in the childhood years combined with the way that trauma causes a resurgence of the original emotions is what leads to the term inner child. People feel like their child self is still living inside of them and demanding help with the past. In reality, your mind and/or soul does need help with the past, but you don’t actually have a whole other you dwelling within your being.

The same dynamics I just described occur for any trauma, regardless of when that trauma happens. A 30 year old man can go off to war, become traumatized by something he experiences there, and from that point forward, keep getting hit with resurgences of those same terrified feelings he felt on the battlefield. The man’s trauma happened to him as an adult, so the term “inner child” doesn’t really work in his case. But some counselors might still use this term to talk about the whole complex bundle of the man’s inner feelings.

Most counselors do not understand how to distinguish between your various elements, which is why they resort to blanket terms to describe your inner experience of conflicting emotions and thoughts. Many people lump the voices of God, demons, and their own soul under the term conscience. In certain religious circles, psychological trauma is often misdiagnosed as evidence of demonic harassment and/or possession. In general, the religious folks focus too much on the soul without acknowledging the mind, while the non-religious professionals focus too much on the mind while ignoring the soul. To accurately sort out what’s going on inside yourself, you need to acknowledge all of your elements and have a basic understanding of how they work together. Giving you that education is one of the goals of this site.

Helping the Inner Child

When counselors talk about helping your inner child, they usually mean “go through steps to resolve your inner stress and conflict.” Then they start recommending exercises which may or may not be helpful. The problem with this kind of talk is that it is way too general. Your soul needs a different kind of help than your subconscious. In real life, longterm trauma cases have often accumulated a long list of very upsetting beliefs, some of which are soul beliefs, and others of which are being held onto by the subconscious. Identifying what specific beliefs are stressing you out is an important step in recovery.

The stress of trying to press on in life under the burden of a stressed out mind and soul also results in physical problems piling up as your body reacts to what is happening with your soul and mind. There are two main reasons for this carryover effect.

First, all of your elements feel interdependent on each other, so when one element is very stressed, the others become stressed as well. It’s rather like how you get depressed when you find out your friend is ill. You’re not the one who is sick, but your close emotional attachment to your friend makes you feel very invested in what happens to him.

Second, your body is very dependent on your subconscious to help it function. When your subconscious is in a state of trauma, it is so burdened by extra stress that it starts dropping the ball in other areas. It simply can’t support your body to the degree that your body needs. A lack of support plus your body’s natural distress at seeing your subconscious so upset results in your body expressing stress in its own way, which results in physical health problems. Many chronic health problems (such as adrenal fatigue and digestive issues) begin as responses to psychological stress, and trying to resolve them often requires dealing with the psychological causes as well as the physical symptoms.

In my approach to counseling, I take the time to figure out and specifically address the different needs of the soul and subconscious. I feel this approach is more effective than lumping both elements together and using generic tools like positive self-talk and calming meditation. While generic tools can bring some relief in the moment, they can also amplify stress. Until you take the time to really understand the mechanics of a client’s personal struggles, you aren’t going to be able to recommend the best forms of treatment. But this is me talking. Some counselors are quite comfortable taking a “one size fits all” approach by telling everyone to meditate or exercise or give themselves the same peppy self-talks. I personally feel it is very unprofessional to do this sort of thing. Humans have a lot in common with each other, but they also have significant differences. The same exercise that does wonders for one person can be disastrous for another. To me, a proper analysis of what’s really going on with someone must come first, and specific exercises should only be recommended to specific audiences.

Where Was God?

It’s quite common not to realize you’re becoming traumatized at the time. Especially in cases of early life traumas, you tend to assume your symptoms are “normal” and then press on under a ton of stress, not having any idea that it’s possible to live any other way. So if you’ve been grappling with trauma for many years and are only just now realizing what the problem is, don’t be down on yourself for not figuring this out sooner.

Severe trauma has a massive impact on your life, and can greatly alter your social behaviors, personality, sexual appetites, and view of God. But the fact that severe trauma has such a far reaching effect has an upside, because it means that any progress you make in trauma recovery can also have an equally far reaching effect.

Now when you have a relationship with God established before you realize that you’re dealing with some major unprocessed stress, it’s only natural to think, “Um, hello God–where were You all this time? Why didn’t You give me a heads up about this before now? Why haven’t You stepped up to help me?”

Here’s where we have to deal with some tough truths. First, it’s quite true that God intentionally blocks people from recognizing they have a problem until He decides the time is right for them to start working on it. Second, God is the One who thrusts us into these situations in the first place, so there’s no way to whitewash Him of all responsibility. Depending on what happened to you, recognizing God’s involvement in the situation can trigger a whole new set of soul stresses unless we can also add some positive news into the mix. So what’s good about God sticking you with trauma and then blocking you from even starting the recovery process for many years?

To understand this, we have to look at the big picture. We also have to look at you from God’s perspective. As your Creator, God didn’t just mass produce you like a woman jamming the same cookie mold down all over a sheet of dough. God created you with a specific purpose in mind, and He then began steering you down paths that would give you the option to reach your full potential. He won’t force you to become the best version of yourself, but He will give you that option by making sure you have certain experiences in this world.

Let’s use an analogy to better understand this aggravating thing God does when He intentionally inflicts misery on us. Suppose God designed you to one day become a skilled painter, and He designed me to one day evolve into a skilled baker. God then sets us both down in this world and begins arranging experiences for us to go through. As we go forward in life, we’re each carrying a toolbox with us that God gave us, and every experience we go through causes a new tool to appear in our boxes.

Well, at first, I know nothing about baking and you know nothing about painting. So when you go through rotten experiences that cause random paintbrushes and pigments to appear in your box, you don’t see any value to them. You don’t recognize what those tools can do because you don’t even know what painting is and you’re not trying to become a good painter. In the same way, I don’t see any value in the random baking tools that are amassing in my box. I can see that you and I are collecting different tools, and I might assume yours are better than mine and then get depressed and feel like I’m being ripped off in life. Often this is how two different humans feel when they compare themselves. They notice that life is impacting them in different ways and one person usually ends up feeling jealous of the other.

But as time passes, things will change for you and I. Because God designed me to become a baker and you to become a painter, those callings are deep within us and will start to make themselves known. I will find myself with a growing attraction towards the idea of baking and you will one day be introduced to the idea of painting and feel a strong attraction towards it. As our true destinies are revealed, we will start to see the great value of the tools we’ve been collecting.

Now in this metaphor, what happens if you’re destined to be a painter, yet God puts you through experiences that equip you with baking tools or fishing tools? Only God knows what He has designed you to be, and only He understands what tools will benefit you the most in expressing who He made you to be. In the early days, you need God to choose the right experiences for you–the ones that will result in you gathering the right kinds of tools in your box. And you need Him to keep on equipping you even when you’re complaining and not understanding and thinking He’s just giving you a bunch of useless junk.

Traumatic experiences are ones that equip you with some very important tools. But a lot of those tools can only be gained while you are still in a state of trauma. After you heal, you simply won’t have access to certain tools–you’ll have moved on to other tools instead. When God blocks you from healing or from even recognizing that you have a problem, it is because He is intentionally keeping you in the right position to collect the tools He knows will really benefit you later on.

When God finally introduces the concept of healing to you, and helps you see many of your behaviors as the symptoms of stress that they are, it’s quite natural to first react with anger and feel ripped off by Him. And yet by blocking you from recovery, God has done the opposite of ripping you off. He’s actually maximized how much good you can get out of your past experiences as well as setting you up to thrive in your future.

It’s always exciting when God shifts us into a new season by introducing new ideas and giving us options that He was hiding from us before. Once we get past the shock of it and realize what He’s doing, we can get freed up from feeling like we’ve squandered so many opportunities.

An opportunity isn’t really an opportunity if you didn’t have the resources you needed at the time to take it. The man steeped in alcoholism who misses out on his children growing up won’t get anywhere beating himself up about the past. Instead, he’d do much better to take an honest assessment of things, realize that in his children’s early years he really didn’t have the resources to stop drinking, and stop holding himself accountable to some fictitious, perfect fantasy life that he was never supposed to live.

From God’s perspective, your troubles are opportunities, and many of them are ones that you simply can’t avoid experiencing. So much of the “I should have done this-or-that” speeches we give ourselves are nothing but guff when we stop to think about what our options really were at the time. Of course your life could have been radically different if you hadn’t been muted by fear during your first job interview. But the fact is that you were, and it’s totally unreasonable for you to pretend that you had any other real options in that moment than to sit there staring at the interviewer with wide eyed angst. Rather than continuously beat yourself for not being someone you were never supposed to be, now is the time to realize that you have an unexplored toolbox just waiting to be cracked open and used. Instead of focusing on how much time you’ve wasted feeling miserable, ask God to help you get the maximum gains out of all the misery you’ve been through.

Trauma recovery is about so much more than undoing damage and feeling better. The main goal of recovery should be to glean a harvest of maturity from all that you’ve been through. To put all of those negative insights and lousy feelings to good use by recognizing that they are the perfect ingredients to develop things like compassion, grace, and mercy. When used correctly, a painful past helps you give and receive love more freely. It increases your gratitude, joy, and satisfaction with what you have and equips you to do a much better job at maintaining healthy relationships with other humans.

For more about how problems helps you develop spiritually, see It’s Personal: Why God Brings Problems Into Your Life

For more about recovery, see Is Total Recovery Possible?

This post was written in response to a request.

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