What IS an Inner Child Anyway?
Do you ever feel like a little kid when you are around your boss or your parents even though you are an adult? This is because personality is made of parts (referred to in psychology as ego states) that develop over time as we grow up and mature. Think about how you can behave and feel differently at work than you do when arguing with your spouse for instance. With his theory of the Id, Ego and Superego, Freud developed one of the first conceptualizations of personality as being composed of parts that may have conflicting needs. He paved the way for many theorists and psychotherapists to begin understanding the complexities of human personality. Eric Berne conceptualized personality as being composed of parent, adult, and child parts in his ground-breaking book I’m Okay, You’re Okay (1967, 2004). Although there were similarities, his conceptualization of ego states was much more “user friendly” than Freud’s.
The word ego has its root in Latin and means “I,” as in our sense of self as separate from others. An ego state, then, is whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are present in your awareness at any given moment. Personality, though fairly stable, can shift from one ego state to another, such as when we take on different roles: mother versus employee versus playful friend versus guarded spouse. You may notice that you actually feel younger in different scenarios. I find it useful to conceptualize ego states as child, adolescent, and adult based on brain functioning and cognitive development. By integrating concepts first delineated by Freud and Berne with more recent developments in brain imaging, I consider that ego states, that is different parts of your personality, develop over time and in stages as your brain develops. In this post, I will talk about the child ego state. In the next post, I'll write about the adolescent ego state and how ambivalence can occur between ego states.
Child Ego State
Although the concept of an inner child can seem strange, it is actually based on physiology. It is simply the things you experienced (events, emotions, reactions) during the early stages of development when you were unable to assume any perspective but your own. The child ego state forms while the brain is primarily utilizing limbic system what is known as the reptilian or hind brain, which functions on instinct for survival. In this state, you are unable to think abstractly and are thus very egocentric in your thinking. Egocentricity is characterized by the inability to untangle subjective schemas (what you are internally experiencing) from objective reality (what is actually happening). At the age of three for example, you can't think to yourself that dad may be yelling because he had a bad day at work.
For instance, let's consider John's story:
When I was three years old, my parents decided that they no longer wanted to be together. It was confusing and upsetting for me. My mom became very depressed and withdrew from me as well. I wasn’t old enough to realize that it was their shortcoming rather than my own and began to believe that I must not be lovable. I was very sensitive to my mom's moods and tried to be quiet and helpful so that she wouldn't reject me like my dad did. Most of the time, I felt anxious and afraid.
Thus, John developed beliefs about himself at a very young age that were understandable given his sensitivity and experiences but not justifiable. Beliefs and feelings developed at the age in which your thinking is primarily egocentric can become deeply wired into your brain and a strong part of your personality, thus conceptualized as the inner child.
This part of your personality is formed between the ages of birth to eight or nine. During these years you rely mostly on instinct and reaction and are subject to strong and rapidly-shifting emotional experiences without the ability to consider reasons for the experiences. Thus children are extremely vulnerable to their environments. Early messages about self, safety and danger occur at this stage of development and may or may not be connected to memory.
If you experienced significant stress at this age, your child ego state is likely characterized by fear and shame. Shame may be a strong component of this ego state due to egocentricity causing you to assume responsibility for negative things that have happened. On the other hand, the child ego state also contains a strong ability and need to connect to others, even at their own expense. Survival for babies and young children is dependent on their connections with adults — we are thereby hard-wired to connect at any cost. For example, if you are a highly sensitive child and/or living in a stressful situation, you may adjust to your environment by holding in your feelings. We have all heard stories of babies in orphanages who never cry, not because they are okay but because it hasn’t been functional to do so.
You can begin to change patterns which you developed early in life by noticing the thoughts that you are having when you feel anxious and considering if they developed when you were a child. Such as "I'm not good enough." Then ask yourself if those are simply based on your limited ability to understand what you were experiencing as a child. If so, consider what you would have needed to understand and tell yourself the truth.
John developed a new story to tell himself:
I realize now that no three year old has the power to keep parents together who have decided to separate, no matter how lovable he is. I also realize that all children have worth and need stability. I realize that my beliefs were understandable but not justifiable. As I look back at how hard I tried to earn my parent’s love, I see a strength and capacity for commitment that I’ve never acknowledged. I see that I am a person with a huge capacity for empathy, commitment, and love. I realize that my parents didn’t actually leave me, they left each other. They, in fact, both continued to give me messages that I was loved but they were too difficult for me to believe given my assumption about why they separated. I realize now that I have much to offer people with whom I choose to be in relationship.
For me, the most touching depiction of an inner child ego state was created by Whitney Houston in her music video for The Greatest Love of All. Watch what happens about three minutes into the video. It always brings tears to my eyes as she sings “I found the greatest love of all inside of me. The greatest love of all is easy to achieve. Learning to love yourself, it is the greatest love of all.”
In the next post, I will talk about how early patterns of adjustment become hard-wired into our brains and may develop during adolescence into rules, such as, “I should never show feelings" or "I must be perfect to be accepted" creating what I refer to as the adolescent ego state.