Understanding Trauma Recovery: The Formation of Traumatic Memories & The Fallacy of Your Inner Child

When helping clients deal with their ongoing distress over traumatic experiences they’ve had in the past, many counsellors encourage their clients to view the hurting part of themselves as their “inner child.” As popular as this term has become, it is also very misleading–so much so, that I personally feel it becomes more of a hindrance than a help for those who are trying to do self-therapy. The purpose of this post is to help you gain a correct understanding of just who it is you need to focus on helping in cases of psychological trauma, so that you can avoid having “child” terminology hamper your progress.

In all cases of psychological trauma, it is your subconscious that is feeling extremely upset by past events. The critical thing to understand is that you only have one subconscious. You do not have previous versions of your subconscious that you can access like files that have been archived on your computer’s hard drive. The problem with the term “inner child” is that it implies some younger version of you has been frozen in time and is now dwelling inside of you, causing all kinds of trouble due to the distress that it is in. The term “inner child” encourages you to believe that there is Current You (the person you’re primarily dealing with in the day to day), and then there is Younger You (the person who was created when you went through a stressful experience in the past). Once you buy into this theory, you end up feeling like many of your problems in life are being caused by Younger You kicking up a fuss and causing no end of hassle for Current You. The goal then becomes getting Younger You to calm down and stop acting so difficult so that Current You can function in peace. But according to the Inner Child Theory, Younger You can’t be eliminated–he (or she) will always exist, and can start making new problems anytime he wants.

Trauma Mechanics: Memory Formation

Now that we understand how the Inner Child Theory portrays things, let’s talk about how things actually are. There is no Younger You. There is only Current You, and the reason Current You is feeling so upset is that your subconscious is still feeling haunted by things that have happened to you in the past.

To better understand why your subconscious gets stalled in trauma, let’s dig deeper into the fascinating topic of how memories are formed. Now if you want to get technical, there are different types of memories. Your soul has its own kind of memories, but when people use the term memories, they are specifically talking about the files that the subconscious collects. How can you tell the difference between a soul memory and a subconscious one? Any memory that includes the kind of sensory data that your physical body collects (sights, smells, sounds, etc.) is a subconscious memory file. If I were to explain why this is, this post would be ridiculously long, so I won’t get into those complicated mechanics right now. The key point is this: when’s the last time you mulled over a memory that didn’t contain any sensory data? You can’t remember, can you? The vast majority of your memory files were created by your subconscious, and this is why most humans aren’t even aware that other kinds of memories exist.

Now that we understand that your subconscious is the maker and keeper of your memories, let’s talk about how memories are formed. Here we come to the extremely bizarre fact that you don’t actually see things with your physical eyes. Instead, you see with your subconscious. All your body does is collect raw data which then gets transferred to your subconscious for analysis. When you look at a dog, for example, your body doesn’t see a dog; it just sees pixels of colour. It forwards all of those random, meaningless pixels to your subconscious for analysis. Until your subconscious offers some kind of explanation for what all of that visual data means, your body doesn’t know what to do with it.

So how does your subconscious know how to tell the difference between a dog and a desk? After all, the data it receives for these things is really quite similar: it’s just a cloud of coloured pixels. Once you realize just how raw the incoming data is, you can begin to appreciate what a phenomenal creature your subconscious is. It is truly awe-inspiring the way your subconscious can make sense out of huge, jumbled piles of data, let alone how fast it performs these analyses. And let’s remember that there’s not just visual data coming in. Your body is constantly collecting data regarding sounds, smells, temperatures, and textures as well. Your subconscious is being bombarded every nanosecond with a torrent of data, yet instead of being overwhelmed, your subconscious turns out countless interpretations every single second that you are awake. That’s a dog. That’s a cliff. That’s your phone ringing. That’s someone calling your name. Not only does your subconscious interpret what is happening, it also decides how you should respond to what is happening. Once the decision is made, your subconscious instructs your body what to do.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the instruction part of this process. Suppose you hear your phone ringing. It’s only thanks to your subconscious that you even recognize what that sound is, but then what? Your subconscious now decides that you should answer the call. But how do you answer a ringing phone? Well, to do that, your body has to perform a whole string of amazingly complex, perfectly coordinated movements. First you take your phone out of your pocket, then you swipe the little answer icon, then you raise the thing to your ear and say “Hello?” Your body seems to fly through this series of very complex motions effortlessly, but your body wouldn’t have done anything at all if your subconscious hadn’t given it a specific command. So you see, your subconscious plays a vital role in helping you function in the day to day. It is an extremely intelligent, highly capable creature which the term “child” really doesn’t suit at all.

The key point I want you to grasp here is that the contents of your memory files are entirely created by your subconscious. Your memories contain organized data which looks very different than the raw data that your subconscious initially received. If I ask you what your favourite animal is, an organized image appears in your mind, not some random collection of pixels.

Now what’s tricky about having one element do all of the interpreting and organizing of the data your body collects is that if that element were to get some details wrong, you would have no way of knowing it. Your soul, body, and conscious all rely on your subconscious to interpret reality for them. If your subconscious says “that’s a horse,” no one argues with it, because no one else has the ability to interpret the raw data.

Interpreting Data

So how does your subconscious form its interpretations? How does it know, for example, that a horse is a horse, not a dog or a cow? There’s a massive learning curve here. When you are born, your subconscious is fully active and instantly delves into the role of trying to protect you from harm. But when you are born, everything is new. You have no life experience yet. Your body isn’t fully developed, which means its ability to collect data is not as great as it could be. There’s a whole lot of fumbling and bumbling that has to occur before your subconscious can figure out that that strange cloud of colours that keeps looming over you is actually your mother’s face. Then it takes quite a lot of time to differentiate your mother’s face from your father’s face. As your body fumbles about in the early years, it is constantly collecting data which your subconscious does a valiant job of trying to interpret. The problem is that a baby’s world is so limited, and that means your subconscious has very little reference material to work with.

Life experience is vital to your subconscious, because the more life experience you collect, the more material it has to refer to for help when it is analysing new data. The first time you encountered a dog, your subconscious had no idea what the thing was. Depending on the size of the dog and how it interacted with you, your subconscious could have felt curious or terrified.

In cases of psychological trauma, what often happens is that you are exposed to a new kind of experience which your subconscious has never dealt with before. Normally your subconscious relies on your previous life experiences to interpret what is happening to you, but since it can’t find any direct matches in its experience database, it ends up hyperfocusing on certain details of your traumatic experience.

Let’s use an example to make this more clear. Young Joe has never been to the dentist, and he has no idea what a dentist even is. One day his mother takes him to see a dentist when she suspects that Joe has a bad cavity in one of his teeth. Joe’s tooth is indeed causing him a lot of pain, and since this is a new kind of pain, his subconscious is feeling very stressed doesn’t know a good way of coping with it. While his subconscious is waiting to gather more information on how it can help Joe’s body reduce its tooth pain, it is being extra protective over Joe’s mouth. It doesn’t want anything or anyone touching the sore tooth, which is why Joe has stopped eating. It is Joe’s refusal to eat that made his mother suspect tooth pain, and now she’s very eager to help her child feel better by getting the tooth properly dealt with.

As adults with plenty of life experience, we can easily understand what’s going on here and we can appreciate that Joe’s mother is being a good parent who just wants to help her child. But this is not how young Joe sees it at all. What Joe experiences is one of his most important caretakers in life passing him off to some stranger wearing a white coat. The stranger then starts poking sharp, scary looking sticks into Joe’s mouth and causing alarming spikes of pain to occur in Joe’s tooth. How is Joe’s subconscious going to interpret this situation? As a horribly invasive physical assault, of course. When Joe’s subconscious creates its memory files, the images it makes will reflect its own bias at the time. Because Joe’s subconscious is hyper focused on those scary metal sticks that are being stuck into Joe’s mouth, those sticks will probably be portrayed as larger than they actually were. Because Joe’s subconscious interprets the dentist as having malicious intentions, the dentist will be given a malicious expression on his face in the memory files. Perhaps he’ll be depicted with a cold, callous expression or perhaps he’ll be given a sadistic smile.

Now in real life, Joe’s dentist wasn’t mean at all, but he also didn’t know how to handle child clients well, so he didn’t do any of the things he could have done to help Joe’s mind interpret his experience more positively. Remember that your subconscious can only work with the information that it has at the time it creates a memory file. A lack of information often makes traumatic experiences far worse than they could have been. For a young child, there’s no way to take all of the distress out of a painful tooth extraction. But the less information there is, the darker the subconscious’ interpretations will be. The darker the interpretations are, the more skewed the memory files become.

Now once memory files are formed, they are treated as accurate accounts of what happened to you by your subconscious. In many cases of psychological trauma, memory files contain very alarming images that people find very distressing to face, even as adults. In addition to images, memory files also record the sounds and sensations that your body picked up on at the time. Most importantly, memory files record your initial emotional responses to what happened to you. In a case like Joe’s, his memory of that dental visit contains terrified emotions because he felt terrified at the time. As an adult, when Joe pulls up that memory file, those initial emotions get pulled up as well.

By now you have zillions upon zillion of memories collected in your mental archives and your subconscious certainly doesn’t have time to rifle through them all whenever it is trying to interpret new data. So how does it decide which files to review when? Well, thanks to its incredibly clever and efficient categorisation system, your subconscious can easily pull up relevant memory files just by using a few key terms. When adult Joe goes to the dentist, for example, his subconscious uses its organisation system to quickly pull up all dentist related memories. Up comes that traumatic memory of Joe’s first visit, which is linked to emotions of terror. It’s the dredging up of traumatic memory files that causes things like anxiety and panic attacks to occur. What’s happening in these cases is that your subconscious reviews traumatic files and comes across those original emotional reactions (which were very negative), then it chooses a response to your current situation based on that previous data. Unless Joe has had a chance to form new positive mental assessments about dentists, he will likely experience panic if he goes near a dental office as an adult.

Now since your subconscious is naturally going to try to keep you away from things that it finds threatening, the symptoms of psychological trauma tend to be very long lasting. This isn’t because they can’t be fixed, but it’s because we instinctively avoid opportunities to fix them. For example, if you want to overcome a terror of water, you need to collect experiences of interacting with water in positive ways. The reason this works is that by amassing new, positive or neutral memory files in your mental database, you change the ratio of positive to negative data that your mind pulls up. Let’s draw it out.

Here we can see that your subconscious only has negative data to work with, so it responds protectively and tries to keep you away from your friend and her dangerous dog.

Now let’s see what happens if your subconscious has had a chance to collect other, less negative dog experiences.

Here we see that the neutral and positive memory files reduce the impact of the negative memory file. As a result, your subconscious decides to respond differently to your friend’s dog, so you remain where you are and give the dog a chance. This is the power of life experience: it drastically affects how your mind responds to your current experiences.

In all cases of trauma, gathering new, positive life experiences is a vital part of the recovery process. But to be effective, those life experiences need to feel related to your original experience. For example, rape is a form of sexual interaction. When a rape experience is the only file your mind has in its sexual interactions category, then you’re going to experience a lot of stress, fear, and panic whenever you find yourself trying to sexually interact with someone. To help your mind calm down, you need to find a way to add new, positive memory files to the same category that the rape file is in. That way, when your mind performs its threat assessment, it will pull up positive memories as well as the bad one. The presence of the positive memories will help to reduce the impact of the scary memory, and that will help you gather the courage to stay and interact with your current romantic partner instead of running for the hills.

Now in real life, your mind assigns multiple category tags to a single memory file. A rape memory, for example, might be filed under sexual interactions, my privates being exposed, someone on top of me, and being in a bedroom. What specific tags your own mind links to a file will vary from the kinds of tags another mind will use. There is no right or wrong here–all tags are valid. But if your mind links a rape memory to the concept of lying down in bed, you can see how simply getting into your bed at night could become a stressful experience. Tags matter. Mental categories and associations are extremely influential things, which is why it is very helpful to try to identify how your own mind has categorised your own traumatic memories.

The Relationship Between Memory Tags & Trauma Symptoms

Now there are endless kinds of trauma which result in countless forms of trauma symptoms. Over time, different trauma symptoms rise and fall in popularity, meaning that in human societies, some symptoms end up being focused on a lot more than others. In today’s world, the current trend is to make an enormous fuss over the trauma symptoms of homosexuality, pedophilia, non-binaries, bisexualism, and transsexualism. What causes these symptoms to surface? It all comes down to mental category tags.

What makes a man develop transsexualism is when his mind decides to categorise one or more very negative life experiences under the heading of gender. For a male transsexual, it is the male gender that gets mentally associated with some extremely upsetting memories. As a result, that man becomes very distressed by being male, so he then finds himself desperately wishing he could be female instead. For female transsexuals, the reverse is happening: it’s the female gender that their minds are linking to very negative concepts, therefore they feel like becoming male is their best hope of finding some mental peace. Transsexuals often form strong negative associations towards specific aspects of their own anatomy as well, and this causes them to feel very distressed by having those physical body parts. Often the body parts being focused on here are ones that are considered to be gender defining, such as privates and breasts.

In cases of homosexuality, the concept of gender is once again being linked to very stressful memory files. For some gays, this association causes them to feel a need to imitate females so they behave very effeminately. For all homosexuals, there is a strong desire to seek out same sex romantic partners while avoiding intimate relations with opposite sex partners.

What about the folks who are calling themselves non-binary? In these cases, the concepts of both male and female have been mentally linked to extremely upsetting memory files, therefore a person feels very distressed identifying himself as either gender. As a result, he wants to completely divorce himself from the idea of having a gender at all.

In cases of pedophilia, the mind has filed a very traumatic experience under the subcategory of age–usually the pedophile’s own age at the time that something bad happened to him. Pedophiles then experience an internal panic response whenever they are around kids who appear to be around that trigger age.

In cases of bisexuality, gender is once again being hyper focused on, with the result being that a person feels he must seek out sexual relationships with both males and females in order to resolve his internal distress.

In cases of bestiality, the mind links a negative life experience to the concept of animals. Because the negative life experience usually involves a form of sexual assault, the same memory file gets filed under the categories of sexual interaction and animals. This dual categorisation causes these two concepts (sexual interactions and animals) to become so strongly associated with each other that a person finds himself feeling sexually aroused by animals.

In all of these cases, the key thing to understand is that the way a memory is categorised by the subconscious directly affects what kinds of surface symptoms form. Two boys can go through the same terrible experience, but if their minds categorise those memories very differently (which they likely will), the two boys will end up displaying very different symptoms of stress.

The Relationship Between Tags & Stress

Your mind’s categorisation system directly affects how often you feel stressed by your past memories. A concept like water, for example, comes up on a daily basis. But a concept like giraffes can be much easier to avoid. If your mind links a very stressful memory to water, then that memory file will be pulled up many times every day as you go through your normal routine. Whenever you try to shower or wash your hands, you will feel stressed due to the sight and feel of water causing that negative memory file to be accessed and reviewed. But if your mind is linking your memory to concepts that are easy to avoid, such as giraffes, then you can avoid experiencing frequent spikes of stress.

Once you understand that no one has any control over which tags their minds will assign to a specific memory, you can understand why it’s ridiculous for people to sit around bragging about how unfazed they were by some terrible thing that happened to them. If your mind uses certain tags, you’ll hardly ever experience your traumatic memory files surfacing, so of course you will find it easy to “move on from the past.” Today there are a lot of people boasting about how well they’ve overcome adversity and even trying to make a hefty profit off of selling their “secrets” to those who are still struggling. Yet when the struggling try to apply those “secrets of success” in their own lives, they often feel very discouraged by the results. When we don’t understand mechanics, we end up making a lot of wrong assumptions about why some people recover from trauma so much faster than others. We also end up making a lot of unfair judgments that cause struggling people to feel even worse than they already do.

There is no right or wrong when it comes to memory tagging. Every mind chooses tags that seem like a good fit at the time. When your mind happens to have chosen tags that result in you feeling constantly stressed due to your traumatic memories being accessed so frequently in your daily life, it’s important to realise that this isn’t your fault, nor is it some sign that you’re “beyond hope.” It just means that you’ve got a bigger challenge on your hands, so you’ll need to be strategic about how you go about trying to help your mind calm down.

Desensitising Tags

As I explained earlier, you can significantly change how your mind responds to a memory file by adding new positive and neutral memories into a category where a trauma file exists. In our previous example, we saw how a person who was afraid of dogs was able to reduce their fear response by collecting new dog experiences that were either positive or neutral.

Now when your mind is freaking out over many different tags, it’s overwhelming to try to work on them all at once. In these cases, it’s more effective to work on your categories one at a time. When you’re in a situation where there are many tags constantly coming up in your daily life, you’ll make the most progress by working on tags that are focused on the environmental details of your original trauma rather than on the main events of that trauma.

Let’s use our friend Joe as an example. Joe was traumatised by a dental procedure when he was very young. At the time, his mind filed that memory under these tags:

  • long objects entering the mouth (based on the tools the dentist was using)
  • hands on my face (based on the dentist and his assistant touching Joe’s face)
  • white coats (based on the medical coat the dentist was wearing)
  • blue chairs (based on the colour of the chair Joe was sitting in at the time)
  • bright lights (based on the exam light that was shining in Joe’s face during the procedure)
  • green carpet (based on the carpet that was in the dental office)
  • air vents (based on the air vent that Joe saw in the ceiling above him as he reclined in the chair)
  • monkeys (based on the pattern of cartoon monkeys that the dentist’s assistant had on her medical scrubs)
  • tooth pain (based on the sensations Joe’s body was recording at the time)

This list gives us a good illustration of how things work in real life. Notice how some of the categories seem more fitting than others. Objects in Joe’s mouth? Well, sure, that makes sense, because those dental tools directly caused him pain. But the monkeys? That seems like quite a stretch, doesn’t it? And the air vents? What does that have to do with anything? Of course here we need to remember that it’s not our place to judge the way Joe’s mind has tagged things. All of these tags are referring to details that were parts of Joe’s actual experience. It’s not like he’s making stuff up; he’s just focusing on some details that perhaps your mind wouldn’t choose to focus on if you were the one in the chair.

Now if Joe reaches adulthood without receiving any help with this traumatic memory, he’s going to feel very stressed whenever any of his tags come up. Joe lives in a house with an air conditioning system, and that means every room has an air vent. This is quite a problem for a man who has linked the sight of air vents to a traumatic memory file. And then there is the hands on the face issue. That’s causing a lot of tension between Joe and his girlfriend because he violently jerks away and gets verbally abusive whenever she tries to touch his face affectionately. If Joe is going to reduce how much these memory tags are causing him grief in his daily life, he needs to be strategic about collecting new experiences for these trauma tags. So how does he do that?

The happy news here is that there isn’t a single right way to desensitise your memory tags. Experimentation is the key, as is exercising your imagination and allowing yourself to be creative. In Joe’s case, he decides to work on the air vent issue first because he is tired of feeling stressed every time he sees one. It’s winter time where Joe lives, so one morning when it’s especially cold, instead of layering up on extra clothes, he turns on his heater and sits down in front of one of the air vents in his home. He then focuses on how nice the warm air feels. Once he’s nice and toasty, he gets up and does some work in his house until he feels cold again, then he returns to the air vent to get warm again. What Joe is doing here is collecting new, positive experiences in which being close to an air vent made him feel more physically comfortable. By intentionally focusing on the vent, he encourages his mind to categorise his warm up experiences under the tag of air vent, which it does. Now instead of that category only containing a single traumatic memory file, it contains several files, many of which feel pleasant to neutral. To fill out this category even more, Joe decides to get a book of funny stories about people running into problems as they try to remodel their own homes. Joe specifically chooses the book because some of the stories are about people installing air vents. By reading through these humorous stories, Joe ends up filling out his air vent category even more. Now when Joe sees an air vent in his own home, instead of only thinking about that dental procedure, he also pulls up memories of getting warm in winter and of funny stories he has read. The addition of neutral and positive memory files is causing Joe to feel a lot less stressed by the sight of air vents.

Now Joe is a passionate video gamer. To help himself overcome his distress about blue chairs, Joe decides to buy himself a comfortable blue chair that he can sit in while he games. What he’s trying to do here is form a new association between one of his favourite activities and the concept of a blue chair. Over time, this association grows stronger until Joe finds himself no longer just thinking of dentists whenever he sees blue chairs. Instead, he also thinks about the video games he is currently playing because of the way he has encouraged his mind to add new memories into its blue chair category.

In this example, Joe is intentionally focusing his efforts on the tags that seem easiest to work on, and you should do the same in your own situation. Usually the easier tags will be ones that are focused on details of the environment you were in at the time you were traumatised, while the harder tags will be the ones that focus on what directly happened to you. By reducing your stress on any tag, you free up more resources for your mind to use when it tries to tackle the hard tags, so it’s best to start with the easier tags first. Of course before you can choose which tags to focus on, it would be helpful if you made a list of all the things that currently trigger stress for you by making you think about past negative experiences.

Limitations of the Inner Child

Let’s now compare the approach I just explained to the idea of talking to your “inner child.” When you talk to your inner child, you’re going to tend to focus on things like validation and compassion. These things are very important, but there’s no reason why you can’t have that same conversation with your adult mind, since it is the one that is actually stressing about the past.

A major downside of the “inner child” theory is that by visualizing the hurting part of you as Younger You who is frozen in time and therefore not capable of collecting any more life experience, you aren’t going to consider working on desensitising current tags. It is Current You who is upset about the past, and Current You needs more than pep talks. Current You needs help forming new, positive mental associations with a whole string of specific concepts and experiences.

If our friend Joe focuses on trying to talk gently and compassionately to his inner child, he is never going to get around to thinking up creative ways to help his current mind develop new, positive associations with blue chairs and air vents. The point is that recovering from trauma requires a multi-pronged approach. Self-compassion is very important, but so is the formation of new mental associations and the revision of current beliefs. Because the Inner Child Theory encourages us to create a new, fictional entity to focus on in place of our actual minds, it tends to be more of a hindrance than a help when it comes to helping our minds recover from trauma.