We live in a world in which many toxins affect our health: besides environmental and dietary ones, we can be subjected to emotional, physical and spiritual abuses.  It is commonly thought that the events of the first 6 years of our lives may well have the most enduring effects.  As someone who has spent much of my adult life working on healing myself, and for many years helping others through leading workshops and private consulting, I am constantly pained by the depth and breadth of the toxicity that so many of us have grown up with.  I am also continually amazed by the human ability to survive and adapt.

As with the healing of our physical challenges, the healing of our psychological and spiritual wounds can be equally varied, with different approaches working for different people.  I immersed myself in a variety of healing experiences, including some group experiences with Virginia Satir (AVANTA network), Stan Dale (Human Awareness Institute), John Bradshaw, and others.  I went to private therapy, studied NLP and hypnosis.

I began to notice subtle and profound changes in myself.  I found that my capacity to feel joy was greatly expanded.  At the same time, I found that I felt more grounded and stable. I moved from being a support person in the background where I would hopefully have the safety of being mostly unnoticed, to being a leader in front of large and small groups.  That was the last thing I ever imagined myself doing.

I was so delighted by the changes in myself and in my behaviors, that I decided to create a workshop to impart those tools that had been most effective for me and for many of my clients.  It had become clear to me that the adage “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood” is actually true.  I called my workshop “Healing the Inner Child.”  I have led the workshop for close to 20 years in various parts of the US, Japan, Australia, and England.  It is a constantly growing and changing process and very rewarding.

Many people ask the question “What is the inner child?”  The inner child can have many different names.  It can be called our authentic self, real self, natural child, core self, our creative energy, genuine self, the child within, our inner place of knowing, and more.

Have you ever found yourself thinking you want one thing but doing something else?  The thing you are doing is the inner child at work.  We are often out of touch with this part of ourselves and yet it is the part that runs our lives.  This can have results that are at best frustrating, at worst life threatening.

An example of “frustrating” could be:  John grew up in a house with an alcoholic father. He learned that the best way to stay reasonably safe was to be invisible when his father was around.  So he would hide in his room, disappear outside, or keep very quiet in his father’s presence.  How this shows up in his present life is — given that our parents are our original “significant others” — he finds it difficult to begin or maintain a significant, intimate relationship because he cannot open up and share himself.  His unconscious childhood belief that runs his current behavior is “The only way to be safe with a significant other is to be invisible.”

An example of “life threatening” could be something like this:  When Sarah was 4 or 5 years old, her father began sexually abusing her.  This went on for several years.  In addition to that, he had a violent temper and frequently found reasons to yell at Sarah or her mother and sometimes to beat them.  Sarah grew up with an internalized, semiconscious belief that “Women (i.e. herself) are worthless, and deserve or can expect to be abused.”

When Sarah grew up she found that the men she chose to be in intimate relationship with, one after another, turned out to be abusive.  Furthermore, once the abuse began, it escalated to the point where her face was badly smashed and limbs were broken.  At one point, her third husband began choking her and she went unconscious.  She was lucky enough to get help; she could have died.

I have learned over the years that our emotional responses to our early childhood experiences form the basis for our deeply held beliefs.  These beliefs are the unconscious, driving force behind our actions, no matter what our adult minds think we want.  Sarah’s thoughts told her, “I want to be with a loving, nurturing, playful person, who is self-sufficient and adores me.”  The partners she chose looked that way on the surface and her relationships began that way.  Somehow, though, her subconscious kept choosing an essence that was familiar to her and the hidden abuser would surface sooner or later.

A good way to begin the healing process is to tell our story, to be heard and affirmed for our personal experience.  Too often, when people speak of their childhood experiences they will hear a diminishing response like “Oh, it couldn’t have been that bad” or “You’re exaggerating, dear.”  Or, from a family member, “That never happened.  You made that up!”  All of this can leave a person feeling shamed and confused; it is an added toxicity.  In my experience, what we believe to be true is what is true to us and forms the basis for our psychological makeup.  When I am working with someone, I find it does not serve to question whether or not his or her story is actually true, but rather to base our healing work on the fact that it is true to my client.  That’s what we get to work with.  Just having one’s story heard and acknowledged with compassion can be very healing.

Another healing experience is to receive from others actual, appropriate, nurturing parenting.  This includes holding, rocking, gentle touch, and nurturing verbal messages such as:  “I’m so glad you were born!”  “I’m proud of you.”  “Your thoughts and feelings matter.”  The healing is further supported by affirming to the person in the “child” role that they are in charge.  They get to ask for what they want, to say “No” to what they don’t want, and to ask for any changes they want.  The person or people in the parental role are asked to respond to the “child’s” requests appropriately.

John might want to hear “It’s now safe for you to be seen and heard by your significant other (or beloved).”  The word “now” acknowledges to the inner child (inner belief system) that there was a time when it wasn’t safe.  In order for him to create what he wants in his life now, in developing a deep intimate relationship, it’s important for him to understand that it is safe and effective for him to be fully visible.

Other powerful healing tools are drawing, visualization, and family sculptures.  All are different ways of looking at what was and creating what we would have liked to have been — a happy, functional childhood.  These experiences give us cognitive, visual, and visceral experiences of the love, respect, and nurturance that were missing in large chunks for so many.  Another part of the healing process is to examine feelings and explore ways to appropriately express them.  It is also powerful to acknowledge the gifts that we got from our adversity, such as courage, strength, and compassion.

We have the opportunity to counter the old toxic story, which has in many ways been holding us hostage, by creating new stories and experiences that empower us and set us free.

Written for Canary Club web site April 2006

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