Welcome to Insight Mind-Body Talk, a body-based mental health podcast.
Today, we’re going to dig into childhood. We are going to talk about healing the inner child using somatic techniques. In order to do that, we need to look at childhood trauma.
This is a heavy topic. People don’t tend to want to go back to their childhood and dig all that up. We’ve learned that when we have trauma, we tend to live in the past, our bodies live in the past. So, to heal, we have to go back and look at that.
As Marriage and Family Therapists, we often look at how our family of origin, which is the nuclear family we grew up in, our hometown, our schools, and our environment, shaped who we are. How they created implicit memories, which are memories that live below the surface of consciousness that may be more in our bodies or in our emotions than explicit memories, which are memories we can remember. All of that comes together to shape the individual. We don’t exist in vacuums. We have to look at all of it to understand the current moment.
There is a lot of research now being done on the things we’re talking about today. When you and I were growing up, there was no such thing as Adverse Childhood Experiences. We didn’t talk about epigenetics and how our genes are turned on and off dependent on our environment. We just did our best and our parents did the best they could with what they had.
I’d like to start by talking about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study, ACE. This was a pivotal study in child development research, child development theory, and trauma research.
Back in the mid-nineties a large-scale study, of health outcomes for over 17,000 adults, took place in San Diego with Kaiser Permanente, a big health insurer, and the CDC, the Center for Disease Control. They looked at 10 categories looking at what had happened to people before the age of 18. They found that these Adverse Childhood Experiences were fairly common.
They surveyed people on 10 categories such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, living with a parent or caregiver with mental illness, living with parent or caregiver who may have had some criminal activity, perhaps been incarcerated. More than half of people had at least one type of Adverse Childhood Experience and many reported four or more types of Adverse Childhood Experiences.
It was eye-opening because they had previously done research with at risk populations, but this study was majority white, middle-class, with good health care, adults. We’re not talking about people with lower socioeconomic status, living in poverty. They found that people were profoundly impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences. This made them realize that if we reduce Adverse Childhood Experiences, we can reduce a large number of health conditions.
Nadine Burke Harris, the Surgeon General in California, has a famous Ted Talk and wrote a book called The Deepest Well that delves into the physiology of this. She looked at people who had Adverse Childhood Experiences and then linked them to health outcomes like heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression; things that were medical and not behavioral. She writes about how our bodies hold onto this trauma and it leads to disease. It gets a bit dense because she really digs into brain science. For those of us who get excited about that, it’s a wonderful read. She’s just a great storyteller too. It’s accessible for anybody. It captured attention because it’s medical; childhood trauma leads to poor health outcomes. We can’t quickly just judge and dismiss. This is something that we all have to look at.
In the fitness world, people are trying to figure out, why do I have these health conditions, or why do I fit into an extreme category of a health concern, and they haven’t looked back on their childhood experiences. Doing so helps give a complete picture of what’s going on holistically which gives us more information on how to treat and help heal. When we recognize that we’re all just wounded children, it levels the playing field and removes judgment.
The brain that has been stressed to the point of toxicity is different. When we’ve had adverse experiences in our childhood, we have different functions that are happening, or are not happening, in the brain. If toxic stress is something that’s happening over and over. The brain and the body get into a feedback loop that becomes our habits and patterns into adulthood.
It’s hard to heal by just talking about it. We need to embody that and feel that sense. We have to help that little kid within us to feel safe and empowered. When we talk about healing the inner child, we have so many options to do that.
Nadine Burke Harris recommends a six-pronged approach to combat that toxic stress.
- Mindfulness or attending to our mental health
- Fostering healthy relationships
Sleep supports all of our processes of healing. It’s something that people are quick to give up or barter with. I encourage everyone to get seven to eight hours or whatever works best for you. It can be hard to sleep, especially if you’re in a mobilization place. That’s where this ties in to polyvagal. How can we get our systems into a safe, relaxed place? If we’re not in a relaxed, safe state, our body will use that adrenaline and cortisol for a survival response instead of a healing and restorative response. Sleep is really essential to that.
Exercise. We need to move our bodies to discharge energy so that we can rest well. Our body and brain are built for movement. When we don’t move, our system feels off.
Nutrition, so important to consider. If our body has enough nutrients and not only our body, but also our heart and mind and soul. Are we nourishing ourselves?
Going back to childhood too, you intuitively knew what you wanted to eat. You ate when you were hungry and you stopped when you were full. If toxic stress interferes, perhaps you use food as a coping mechanism or develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
Mindfulness is key to inner child work. We have to be in the present in order to look at the past from a neutral and healing perspective. We can’t just be pulled back into those emotions. We need to be able to be very present and that’s where mindfulness comes in.
Mental health. We are huge proponents of mental health care. To honor my mental health is just as important as any other part of who I am. To help heal my adult self, and my inner child.
Healthy relationships. Having positive experiences with people, feeling safe with people, co-regulation.
If someone is thinking about where to begin creating an environment to work with my inner child, go to these six different areas and start.
You and I are both big proponents of body approaches. I like yoga. You are very interested in weightlifting and personal training. I assume that’s been a big part of your healing journey.
Movement was really scary for me when I was little. When I exercised it created symptoms that were very much like panic attacks. I didn’t know it was anxiety. I didn’t know it was a panic attack. I just felt a complete sense of overwhelm and some freeze and a little bit of shutdown so I avoided exercise.
A lot of the work I’ve done as a personal trainer, in regard to my own healing, has been building a relationship with my body where my inner child also feels safe moving.
If my adult self is like, I’m going to go to spin class and my inner child is scared. It’s not going to happen very well, or it’s going to be re-traumatizing. A lot of the work I’ve done within my own self has been to allow my inner child to feel safe and supported and building autonomic resiliency where sympathetic energy doesn’t cause overwhelm anymore because I’m regulated and I’m returning to safety.
When I’m in spin class and I want to turn up that resistance, most likely it’s my inner child who doesn’t want to, who starts feeling trapped or overwhelmed, or doesn’t feel like they’re allowed to stop or say no. In those moments, being present and checking in and supporting that inner child can be restorative. There’s so much healing that happens when we’re doing things that are just run of the mill everyday things.
When I was about eight or nine, I got really sick, and it was unexplainable by my doctors. It got to a real crisis point. It was discovered that I had Addison’s Disease, which is an auto-immune disease in which the Adrenal Glands don’t function properly. I wasn’t getting stress hormones. I began this journey of trying to heal when there was not a lot of knowledge on how to treat a child since it was typically adult onset.
Exercise was not good. Gym class was not good. I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the cortisol that was produced like other kids. It was really challenging to feel comfortable in my body. I consider that my trauma. It’s not an Adverse Childhood Experience in terms of the study because I had a wonderful family that made me feel loved and special. Still, I didn’t start to heal until I discovered yoga later in life. I have also discovered dancing. I discovered kickball. Talk about healing the inner child. Such joy and play and movement. Kickball was an excuse for friends to get together and goof off and feel like a kid. That it was so healing for me. I was discharging that trapped sympathetic energy in my limbs. I was laughing a ton and I felt safe and supported. It was a routine. It was regular.
Healing the inner child can be what I call the ‘insidious’ kind of healing. You’re not setting out to say I need to heal my childhood trauma. I just discovered joy in my body and my body and I had always been adversaries. Yoga really helped me get to a point where I could be comfortable in my body. Then I had that practice and was able to play. It’s been very healing.
It sounds like the mindfulness of yoga, being able to be with your inner child and befriend those younger parts, led to further integration of those younger parts into your adult self.
This is very much the Internal Family Systems. Internal Family Systems, which often we call IFS, was created by Richard Swartz in the eighties. As a family therapist, Dr. Schwartz saw that there was a family system inside of ourselves and that we could develop strategies to work with the issues within a person’s internal community, like our internal family.
IFS assumes each individual has a variety of sub personalities or parts. I’m not saying you have Multiple Personality Disorder. A part of me wants to go for a walk and a part of me just wants to stay on the couch. In IFS, the parts build relationships with our Self which leads to healing.
What do I mean by the Self? In IFS the human mind is divided into an unknown number of parts and each one of us has a Self with capital S that is the chief agent in coordinating the inner family. The Self is also the healing aspect of who we are. IFS uses eight different adjectives to describe Self-energy. Some of them are compassion, curiosity, calm. That’s the healing aspect.
Some of our parts don’t need to go to therapy. They’re doing fine. Usually about three distinct parts show up to therapy.
Our managers are responsible for maintaining the functioning of everything. They’re the ones who coordinate schedules and run day to day life. Their job behind the scenes is to prevent pain from happening. For example, a manager part may keep someone on schedule because feeling out of control is painful or scary.
There’s also firefighter parts. Firefighter parts are reactive and show up to stop pain. They can tend to be extreme. If a wound has been activated these firefight fighter parts really don’t give SHOOT how they stop the pain. They’ll do anything. Maybe an eating disorder or an addiction or chronic suicidality. These parts will take any steps to stop the pain.
There are also wounded or burdened parts, called exiles. They’re the parts of ourselves who often result from traumatic experiences. They’re in a state of pain and often are stuck in implicit memories. An implicit memory is a body sensation or an emotion.
Our goal is to have the parts start building a relationship to the Self because they’re outside of the Self. When trauma occurs in childhood, our nervous system is in a phase of rapid development, and often children have to learn how to live with what happens from a traumatic experience in order to survive. That may cause these parts to get separated from the Self.
If someone’s being bullied at school, the Self-energy has to leave to take care of and protect itself. Then that part is left in the bullying. We want to help that part who was bullied, tell their story and build that relationship back to the Self and heal. That process, in IFS, is called unburdening. The part gets to share their story and they are seen and validated and cared for.
When we notice an activation in our system, that we’re upset or there’s a strong emotion, I encourage people to reframe it as a younger part showing up. We don’t need to know how or when that part experienced that trauma. We just honor that there’s a younger part here. Just that will allow our adult self to have some mindful separation and feel more regulated.
It also increases compassion and allows our adult self to be someone that that inner child can safely count on. Children really need reassurance and support. They need to know everything will be okay and they need to tell their story whether it is accurate or not. Our goal in IFS is that all parts are welcome. No parts are wrong. All these parts have good intentions. If there is an extreme behavior, often that part is trying to help regulate or protect the system. It’s not the parts that we’re trying to banish, it’s the methods they’re using to take care of that inner child.
We all have Self-energy. It doesn’t need to be created. If that Self energy is there for the younger part, that part doesn’t need to control anymore, and it can relax. We can find permanent healing of those emotional wounds and release the parts from their roles.
When we look at the prevalence of trauma and the fact that we are all carrying some level of trauma, it helps to explain our behaviors and reactions. It is so empowering in my opinion. It’s a chance to reparent ourselves. Our parents, were always doing the best they could, but there are wounds no matter what, because we are human. They can be a small trauma or a large trauma or multiple traumas or complex or acute. The point is, we all have wounds.
One of the first steps I take to help people get a sense of what parts are activated is diagram the system. This is from Janina Fisher’s book, Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors. It’s a book written for therapists and is an amazing read. If there’s a trigger, for example, someone treats you unfairly, and you’re really upset or angry with that person, we want to notice who became activated. Maybe one part is anger. Maybe one part feels scared. Maybe there’s another part who wanted to offer compassion or feels guilty about what happened. The purpose is to look at who’s showing up and why.
Which of these parts are children or wounds? Which of these parts are managers, trying to control or prevent the pain? Which of these parts are reacting to stop the pain. Then, we really get to know them. We’re curious, why are you here? What do you need? We offer compassion and validation. Then we start to diagram a solution. If you have four parts that were upset, each one probably needs a different solution. We start exploring how Self-energy or adult self can offer healing to those younger parts.
When we find those inner children, some strategies that are helpful are self-holding or contact and being honest. That inner child needs to hear ‘You’re right. We felt this way a lot when we were little and that was really scary, but you’re safe now.’ There’s a dialogue that needs to happen. We need to actually listen to what our inner child is trying to tell us and then respond.
I have a notecard at my desk that says, what would you like to tell your inner child? Can I feel from my inner child but not blend and become that part and then make choices from that place. That dual awareness helps us challenge their reality. We can also function from a place that our adult going on with life self wants to function from.
We have to be with the suffering, unfortunately. That’s where mindfulness comes in. We have to be aware that there is a part of us that is still wounded and tend to that part.
This reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s work. He was a Vietnamese monk who wrote a lot of books, one called Reconciliation about healing the inner child through mindfulness. He writes about taking that inner child with you everywhere you go and listening for a few minutes every day. When you’re going on a walk in nature, can you imagine that you’re taking that inner child with you? Can you do the work of reparenting in a very soft, kind, joyful way? We can only do that when we’re regulated ourselves.
This is not a one and done situation. That’s frustrating for a lot of people. That wounded child is also the wounded children of your parents and their parents. When we imagine that, it’s a lot easier to contact some kindness.
Picturing ourselves as children can elicit some emotions. Then, we can picture our parents as children and their parents as children. We are holding onto their traumas in our genetic material. This work must be tended to very lovingly. It’s often best done with a compassionate guide, like a therapist, while we are regulated and able to feel into the difficult emotions.
Often, we want to focus once and be done. Yet anyone who’s parented or worked with children, knows how many times you have to reassure a child that they’re okay. We can’t just tell our children we love them once. We remind them and coach them and support them. Our inner child needs that exact same approach. To be present with their suffering with the intention of transforming it, we have to recognize that it is hard, but we are consistently showing up with loving kindness.
It’s a very individual process.
I like to have people tap into joy. That can be really hard. We come into this world with joy, and, of course, trauma and the ancestral wounds that we carry. I often will have people create a playlist for themselves that is just joy. It’s a wonderful tool.
Gratitude is a big part of this work too. I encourage people to write a letter of gratitude to people who have shown up for their inner child or shown up for them as a child. We can look back and hopefully call into our awareness, one kind adult presence who truly saw us and believed in us. That can be very healing for our inner child as well.
We have to practice mindfulness daily too. There are many meditations out there on healing the inner child. It doesn’t have to be a weekend intensive. It can just be a little every day.
Some self-contact can be really important. Maybe a hand or hands over the heart, or giving yourself a hug every day, or moving in a way that feels like play.
I recommend going back to how we speak with them and the language we use. Often as adults, we talk to our inner child as if it’s an adult, trying to get them to see the logic. Trying to reassure them. You’re fine. Why are you worried?
If there are two children playing on the playground and one accidentally trips another one. The second child gets hurt and is really upset and blames the first, thinking they did it on purpose. As observers we know that’s not true. If you try to talk to that child who is really upset, crying, overwhelmed, and in pain, rationalizing, ‘Don’t blame them. They didn’t try. It’s no one’s fault.’ it is not going to soothe the child. We first need to be there for that child and offer comfort, support and safety. Then when they regulate, you can explain if needed.
I often ask people to find a picture of themselves as children and keep it displayed, keep it somewhere that they can see it so that they’re able to really contact that child.
I’ll just cry every day. I look at her and just, I love you so much. It’s therapeutic, but hard. Anything that’s therapeutic is challenging. We need to make sure that we’re able to tolerate that. It can also just be an opportunity for joy. We may be able to recognize that there were some really happy memories from childhood and to be able to savor that feeling.
I often ask, what did you love as a little kid, that had no end or purpose? Can we bring more of that into our daily life? It does not have to be structured and it doesn’t have to be that physically exhausting. It can be playing cards. Play is very healing.
Lots of little things that we can do to help them.
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Keep learning, growing and working with your inner child. Keep playing.