Healing your inner child can be one of the best gifts you give yourself and therefore your own children. Do you know how often our daily responses come from the wounded child within?
Take a look at the following scenario. Do you recognize yourself in this?
You see a friend across the street. They seem to ignore you and just walk further. You feel hurt. You wonder what it is that you have done to offend them. It does not occur to you to simply shout out to them to attract their attention. You feel a bit off for the rest of the afternoon.
In this moment, it’s our inner child who feels ignored, taken for granted, unseen, or guilty. If we were present in the moment in our adult self, we would have just observed our friend walking by without acknowledging us. If we wanted to get their attention we would have made sure to attract their attention. If not, we would have been aware of the many good reasons they might have had to be preoccupied or not in a speaking mood, and would not have interpreted it in relation to ourselves and our worth.
The psychological mechanism is that as children we have the need for secure attachments, as well as the need to be authentic. In the inevitable clash between the two we surrender our authenticity. As a child you cannot contemplate misattuned parenting. It is better for the attachment relationship if the child misinterprets it as there being something deficient in themselves. That way the parent/caregiver-child relationship is safe. This was a useful survival strategy at the time. The problem is that we continue to subconsciously adopt this strategy as adults.
Identifying Our Survival Strategies
Identifying our survival strategies is a first step to healing from not having our developmental needs met. With text below you can identify your adaptive survival style.
In an attempt to preserve the relational connection with our caregivers, as children we learn to disconnect from our needs and feelings. We develop and use survival strategies. When we continue using these strategies in our adult lives we experience:
- Dysregulated emotions,
- Negative self-image and
- Interpersonal problems
Therefore it is important to identify our survival strategies and move beyond them.
The following survival styles are patterns of disconnection which we adopt as children in an attempt to get love and feel loved. These survival strategies shape the way we organize, filter and react to our life experience.
As you read the descriptions, notice which of these patterns apply to you (and there could be several that you recognize yourself in). They are named after the core developmental needs all children have:
Connection: We have a core need to connect. Here, we cannot connect, although we need connection, as we have learnt to reject our core need for connection to Self and others. We feel disconnected from our body and our emotions, we have difficulty relating to others. Children give up their very sense of existence, and disconnect in various ways, such as disassociation or trying to become invisible. This carries on into our adult lives.
Attunement: As a child we learned to reject our core need to experience and communicate our needs. We long for attunement as adults but cannot allow it. We have difficulty knowing what we need. We feel that our needs do not deserve to be met. We give up our personal needs in order to focus on the needs of others, and especially the needs of our caregivers/parents.
Trust: As children we have learned to reject our core need to trust others and depend on others. We need to be able to trust others but cannot safely trust. We feel we cannot depend on anyone but ourselves. We feel that we need to control relationships. As children we give up our sense of openness and vulnerability, and learn to control our environment, including becoming who our caregivers want us to be.
Autonomy: As a child you learn to reject your core need for self-determination and authentic self-expression. We cannot experience our own autonomy, although this is one of our core needs. We feel burdened and pressured. We have difficulty saying “no” and setting limits. We find it difficult to set appropriate boundaries and to speak our mind without feeling fear, shame or guilt. We respond with what we think is expected of us, rather than with authentic self-expression. We give up the sense of self-determination and direct expressions of independence and authenticity.
Love/Sexuality: As a child we learn to reject our core need to bring our hearts into a relationship. We need to express and receive love but cannot safely do that. Our sense of self-esteem is based on looks, achievement or performance. We have difficulty integrating our hearts and sexuality. The childhood pattern transfers into adult life: we hope we can win love through performance, achievement or appearance.
To find out which adaptive survival strategy you use consider:
1. Do you feel shame at existing, feeling and connecting? (connection)
2. Do you have difficulty in experiencing and communicating needs? (attunement)
3. Do you find it difficult to feel vulnerable, dependent or weak? (trust)
4. Do you feel blocked in your impulses towards self-determination, autonomy and independence? (autonomy)
5. Do you feel shame about sharing your heart or having relational intimacy? (love/sexuality)
The survival strategies arise from the clash between attachment and authenticity needs
We have two essential needs —for attachment and authenticity — between which there is often a tension or outright conflict. The result of this conflict is a disconnection from the self, what Gabor Mate names “small-t” trauma, in the absence of abuse or overwhelming threat.
This is how this essential disconnection from self occurs.
Attachment is the drive for closeness/proximity to others, not only in the physical sense but also in the emotional sense. For the human infant as a very dependent being attachment is of primary importance. Without reliable caregivers and our impulse to be close to them, we would simply not survive. Our earliest attachment relationships and the coping styles we develop to maintain them form a template for all our future relationships.
The other core need we have is for authenticity. It is the quality of being true to oneself, and the capacity to shape one’s life from a deep knowledge of that self. Like attachment it is a drive rooted in instinct. At its most basic level it is knowing our gut feelings when they arise and following them. As Gabor Mate notes: “A healthy sense of self does not preclude caring for others, or being affected or influenced by them. It is not rigid but expansive and inclusive. Authenticity only dictates that we, not externally imposed expectations, be the true author of and authority on our own life.” (Mate, The Myth of Normal, p.107)
What happens if our needs for attachment are imperiled by our authenticity, by our connection to what we truly feel?
What if circumstances pitch one nonnegotiable need against the other. These circumstances can take different forms: from family violence, mental health problems, poverty, addiction and the like, but simply not being seen and accepted for who we are is also sufficient for this conflict between authenticity and attachment to arise.
And although both needs are essential, there is a hierarchy. In the first part of our life, the need for attachment trumps the need for authenticity. Hiding my feelings, even from myself, is a price we are more than willing to pay for getting our basic needs met.
It is important to realize that this abandonment of authenticity for the sake of attachment happens unconsciously. This is what makes it difficult to reverse the process. We cannot decide to abandon such coping mechanisms precisely because we have no memory of them not being there.
Shedding Light Through Family Constellations
In a family constellation the need for attachment and the loyalty to the previous generations is directly experienced, as are its consequences, including the price we have paid in terms of authenticity. With both needs in consciousness we are in a position to choose and possibly strike a new balance.
What family constellations also show us is how embedded this process is in the greater whole of the family system. Our attachment to our caregivers includes a loyalty to the previous generations, taking on the unwritten rules and values of the family system. When in a constellation it becomes clear that the parents were unable to see the (now adult) child for who he or she really was, it is rare that this is the first generation where this happens. Most of the time the same pattern has repeated itself in the two, three or four generations which are revealed in the constellation. The same is true in the case where people have had to abandon their authenticity to such an extent that they are not aware of their feelings. There is often a representative of a parent and a grandparent nodding in recognition — they are equally isolated from their feelings, moving in the world according to “how one is supposed to be”, unable to feel. Some of the most special moments in constellations are those when the representatives of our predecessors for the first time are able to allow the world of emotions to enter their experience. A touching moment, which brings great relief to the person whose constellation it is, with the love between the generations flowing again.
Heller, L., & Kammer, B. J. (2020). The practical guide for healing developmental trauma: Using the neuroaffective relational model to address adverse childhood experiences and resolve complex trauma. W.W. Norton & Company.
Heller, L., & LaPierre, A. (2012). Healing Developmental Trauma: How Early Trauma Affects Self-Regulation, Self-Image, and the Capacity for Relationship. North Atlantic Books.
Maté, G., & Maté, D. (2022). The myth of normal: Trauma, illness, and healing in a toxic culture. Avery.