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  • Writer's pictureKathleen Choe

Our Inner Child

As if our world was not already confusing and conflicted enough with the coronavirus pandemic, racial tensions in America exploded last week after the death of yet another black man at the hands of police officers. Images of peaceful protests marred by violence, looting and clashes with police, continued uncertainty about the true nature and dangers of COVID, economic worries, and a myriad of other accompanying concerns have left us exhausted, overwhelmed and emotionally devastated. We are feeling the collective strain of too many traumatic stressors coming at once, exceeding our window of tolerance and capacity to cope with our existing strategies.

In the absence of clear leadership and guidance on how to respond to these crises, many of us are experiencing the phenomenon therapists refer to as “regression,” or the emergence of the inner child we all carry within us. Even an essentially stable, relatively healthy childhood involves numerous hurts and rejections common to growing up (think: middle school) and leaves us with some wounded younger parts that we carry into adulthood. Childhood trauma can leave us with younger parts that are literally frozen in pain and fear. These tender selves are activated during times when our adult selves feel helpless, hopeless, confused, insecure, or lost. They essentially need to be “re-parented” with acceptance, kindness, grace and patience and integrated into our adult self through this healing process. This happens in the context of healthy, predictable, safe, connected relationships with others, where younger parts are assured they will not be abandoned, or abused as they were in the past.

New neural pathways for security and trust are built when we experience a different and positive outcome in a relational context, such as being understood and accepted instead of shamed and rejected when we share a struggle or hurt with another person. Relational safety allows our younger parts to heal and “grow up” into psychological maturity. An important element of the therapeutic process is creating a safe and stable alliance between the therapist and client so that these wounded parts can progress through the developmental stages that were missed due to the survival strategies we get stuck in when growing up in unsafe environments. The “life jackets” we don in childhood become the “strait jackets” of our adulthood.

If you are struggling with feeling lost about what to say or how to feel or act in the current polarized climate, try to notice that feeling without judging, minimizing, avoiding or acting on it. Make some space for the discomfort, the uncertainty, the distress. Notice if any of these feelings connect with territory familiar to your childhood, if your younger parts are being triggered. Our deepest desire is to be fully known and fully accepted, and our greatest fear is that if we are fully known, we will not be accepted. We all have “shadow sides” that we are afraid to acknowledge. If you need a safe place to share yourself, I am here. I struggle alongside you to find the right way forward during these confusing times. No matter what the color of our skin, the same heart beats underneath. We all need to be accepted, valued, and loved.

My own heart is pained to acknowledge that my precious son and daughter-in-law were recently told to take their “mixed race” children, my grandchildren, “out of my country” by an ignorant person who didn’t realize “her country” was founded by immigrants of different races. I seek to forgive this person as someone who is speaking from a wounded younger part, a fearful and lost part who is in survival mode. (Thankfully my 8 year old grandson asked why this woman was “mixed up” and did not hear the rejection, the “othering” she was trying to do.) Our brains are wired to identify threat when someone is different from us, someone who is “other” or not recognized. This is designed to keep us safe, but can also keep us apart and alone.

I choose to believe that the bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. Accepting others with all their flaws starts with accepting our own selves, with all of our own flaws. Whether we are mixed race or mixed up, we are all worthy of love and acceptance.

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