“The Child is father of the Man”
– William Wordsworth
Not so long ago Ernesto, a client, told me he wanted to do inner-child work with me. He talked about healing his inner child as though it were more than a metaphor.
“I really need to get to know the little fellow inside,” he said.
This mixing up of metaphor and literalism is, of course, not the exclusive domain of clients. Psychologists and therapists do it, too.
Freudian psychoanalysts use the metaphors of ancient Greek mythology, to the exclusion of, say, Norse or Mayan or Aboriginal mythology. Freud chose a specific set of metaphors among many. And they were, admittedly, pretty good metaphors… but they were not real and exclusive, as they eventually came to be seen.
Sometimes, it seems, we forget that the metaphors we apply as part of a therapeutic ideology are arbitrary. Metaphors are – to use a metaphor! – fluid. They can and should change and adapt.
Freudian analysts may forget that many of the mythological terms they use – Electra, Oedipus, and so forth – may have more to do with the beliefs, customs, and interests of ancient Mediterranean people than those living in the 19th and 20th centuries.
None of this is to say that such myths can’t be useful or tell us something about the human condition… but to apply metaphors to everyone regardless of what each unique individual is like may be a big mistake.
The map is not the territory
More recently, neurolinguistic programming (NLP) suffused its techniques with the language and metaphor of technology and computing. To be fair, NLP does promote the adaptive use of metaphor rather than just sticking to its own narrow ones.
Yet the danger persists that we mistake the map for the territory – that rather than seeing, as Human Givens Psychology does, the wider truth that human beings are intrinsically metaphorical creatures, we end up building whole therapeutic ideologies around a few chosen metaphors and widely apply them to everybody we deal with, until eventually we forget our ideological metaphors are metaphors.
The ‘inner child’ is one such metaphor.
Ernesto didn’t have to have an inner child. He could have had a ‘timeline’ or, if he’d really tried (because it turned out he had always resented his father and deeply loved his mother), an ancient Greek Oedipal complex. These metaphors might have been equally ‘true’. We might have been able to work that one up a bit if I’d been a bit more Freudian.
As for this inner child business… he wasn’t pregnant, though by the way he spoke about his metaphorical inner child you may have been forgiven for thinking he was!
He’d read about the idea of the inner child as a subpersonality and it had deeply fired his imagination. He’d bought into the metaphor big time. It made sense to him, intrigued him, and held promise that if some healing magic could only be performed on the tiny Ernesto inside, then his life may be sorted out once and for all.
Metaphors can be empowering or they can be disempowering.
For example, the metaphor and misrepresentation of addiction as an incurable disease may empower some to accept they need to take the addiction seriously, but may disempower others into believing they can never truly overcome it.
So how do I believe we should use metaphor in therapy? And don’t worry, we’ll explore the inner child metaphor more in a moment.
Adapting our therapeutic metaphors creatively
As a flexible and creative therapist, we can adopt the language and interests of the individual client. So for one client, Sebastian, who was, in his own words, a “super computer geek”, I talked of him “updating the software in his mind,” of his “CPU running better,” and so forth.
These metaphors would have been anathema to Sarah, who loved crafting and art, and with whom I spoke of “tailoring new patterns” in the mind and “painting a picture of a beautiful future.”
With Alan, who loved sport, I noticed his own metaphors were often sport related. He wanted to “get back on his game”, focus on his “goals”, overcome “hurdles”, and the like. I used plenty of sporting metaphors with him, which he seemed to love.
Now could I have used the Greek metaphors of psychoanalysis with Sebastian, who loved computing? Could I have used the inner child metaphor with Alan, who was a major sports fan? Or engineering metaphors with Sarah, who had expressed no interest in engineering but loved art?
No doubt I could have. But a metaphor, above all else, needs to appeal to the person we’re offering it to.
We’re in dangerous territory whenever a psychotherapeutic ideology:
- creates an overarching metaphor such as the inner child,
- starts to take the metaphor literally, forgetting it is a metaphor, and
- applies the same metaphor to every client regardless of individual diversity.
The wider perception is that human beings perceive through metaphor. And once we understand that we can find and use the most appropriate metaphor for that person.
But few things in life are absolute, so I’m going to contradict myself a bit here… or seem to, at least.
Some metaphors are quite widely applicable
None of this is to say that some metaphors aren’t widespread in their appeal, even universal.
When talking to people who experience panic attacks I will often use the metaphor of a car alarm needing to be reset so that it only goes off when it really needs to.
I’ll often point out that the ‘attack’ in ‘panic attack’ is also a metaphor, and suggest that an overly sensitive car alarm doesn’t mean the alarm is ‘attacking’ the car. In this way, dealing in metaphors can also lead to a reframe.
But even here I like to emphasize that not all the metaphors will be applicable to all clients, and that new and more individual metaphors can be used if and when the therapist finds them.
Now let’s get back specifically to the inner child.
The benefits and dangers of inner child work
A therapist trained in ‘parts therapy’ or transactional analysis or Jungian archetypal therapy – the origins of inner child work – may have come to believe that the human psyche literally consists of different parts, each with its own unique personality and functions.
Now this idea that we are made up of many distinct and sometimes hidden personalities can be useful… but it can also be detrimental, even dangerous.
So how and why can it be useful?
The brain does have different parts with different functions. The prefrontal lobes of the brain have their organisational and goal-focused agendas, which may clash with the dopaminergic systems that constitute our appetites and addictions.
Likewise, when it comes time to step up onto the podium, the amygdala, the brain’s fight-or-flight system, which makes us want to flee, may seem to have quite a different agenda to the prefrontal cortex, which wants to remain calm and give a compelling public speech. Two different parts of the brain with differing goals.
Different parts of people do have conflict. The two hemispheres of the brain, when severed from one another, do seem to have different perceptions and priorities, and the right hand may literally not know what the left hand is doing in these cases of ‘split-brain syndrome‘.
Ernest Hilgard’s idea that there may be a ‘hidden observer‘ within human beings which can sometimes be accessed via hypnosis is also quite compelling.
Then again, strong emotionscan make us all temporarily regress to a more infantile, child-like state. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“Sorrow makes us all children again – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest know nothing.”
A highly esteemed professor of quantum mechanics is no more in touch with his or her maturity, emotional balance, or intellect when incandescently enraged than a three-year-old having a tantrum.
If someone is suffering from past emotional conditioning from childhood, then that conditioning might be overcome through the metaphor of healing the inner child.
So the idea that people have subpersonalities, the metaphor that there is a crowded house inside so to speak, isn’t necessarily totally inaccurate. But there are also dangers in insisting on this metaphor with all clients.
From the 1950s through to the 1990s, particularly on the west coast of America, there was something of a therapeutic craze for subdividing clients’ personalities.
This was seen not as manufacturing multiple dissociated personalities in highly suggestible and vulnerable patients but as ‘uncovering’ pre-existing identities, some of which didn’t know of the existence of other ones.
Books like Sybil (1973) about what was then called multiple personality disorder (MPD) but is now called dissociative identity disorder (DID) became highly popular, as did the film version.
MPD or DID is an extremely rare condition, yet suddenly therapists were reporting huge numbers of people suffering MPD. Multiple personalities were popping up all over the place.
When all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.
There seemed to be a mass manufacturing of this disorder and little to no discernible therapeutic value in ‘uncovering’ (or creating) all these distinct personalities within individual patients.
In fact, it sometimes caused great psychological harm. For many, this therapeutic craze resulted in fractured, confused, terrified, and chaotic inner experience.
The Satanic child abuse craze of the 1980s and ’90s is a horrific example, in which families were torn apart by well-meaning agents of the State. Yes, the consequences of seeing what wasn’t there were sometimes appalling.
I’m certainly not suggesting that Dissociative Identity Disorder never exists as a psychological condition. But genuine cases do seem to be extremely rare.
At the height of the craze for DID, there seemed to be one massive underlying assumption.
Trauma at the root?
The assumption was that trauma, and the repression and amnesia it was supposed to cause, created these different personalities. The assumption that trauma produces amnesia in many is unproven at best and a myth at worst.1
So there can be real consequences of seeing metaphor as literal truth and applying those metaphors in overriding ways.
There may even be neurological roots – that is, right-hemispheric deficits and lesions – rather than psychological causes behind many cases of DID.2
So just as Jean-Martin Charcot, that great influencer of Sigmund Freud, once believed that neurological conditions such as epilepsy were due to psychological repressions and that amnesia from physical brain damage was actually a psychological defence mechanism, it may be that DID is assumed to be psychological in origin but actually reflects a neurological condition.
Using the inner-child metaphor in practice
So when might the inner child metaphor be useful?
Before looking at how we can use the inner child metaphor, let’s first look at when and why we would.
Situation one: The client is already using the metaphor
Ernesto was the extreme example of this situation, having come to therapy with the specific aim of getting in touch with his inner child! And the last thing I wanted to do was discount or contradict that out of hand.
Certainly, using what the client brings to therapy and working within their belief systems can be a wonderful way to build rapport with them and avoid them feeling misunderstood or undermined.
After almost jokingly stating to Ernesto that, of course, he doesn’t have a literal inner child (to which he looked a little surprised!), we looked at how a more child-like part of Ernesto may have been causing him and others problems.
“Why do you want to work on this metaphorical inner child?” I asked him.
“Because it needs love and nurturing that it didn’t get when I was young!”
This sounded like something he’d read or been told.
“Where did you get that idea?” I asked him.
“From a workshop I attended… and also I have a friend who is heavily into this sort of thing.”
“How will you know when this metaphorical inner child has been nurtured and loved enough?”
He hadn’t really thought about that.
We ended up focusing more on how he – his adult self – could meet his current needs in life. But we did return to his inner child in a sense, when I used the Helping Hand technique (see below) to help him overcome some bad memories from his childhood.
So I was able to work within his ideological belief system and do something specifically useful for him.
Why else might we employ this metaphor?
Situation two: We spot a current faulty pattern match that originated in childhood
We do sometimes spontaneously ‘regress’ to some extent when we faulty pattern match.
When I say regress, I mean feel as helpless, powerless, or frightened as we did in a similar situation as a Pavlovian response to some current trigger.
For example, someone may have grown into a confident and assertive adult but had a terrible time at school. As an adult they may go back into a school and, because of all the school-associated triggers, suddenly feel a bit frightened or depressed as they did when they were a child at school. They are suddenly and temporarily out of touch with all their adult developments.
This would indicate the need for some undoing of that emotional conditioning.
If your client tends to regress to a sense of childlike dependency then you might do an Affect Bridge with them.
For example, I had a client, Emily, who felt terrified of saying no to people. She couldn’t set boundaries with people and felt tearful when people pushed her around. This seemed to me a very strong reaction.
So I used the Affect Bridge technique: I asked her to focus on the feelings she got when she felt people were overstepping the mark with her. I then asked her to notice if any memories came to mind as connected with those feelings. She suddenly recalled a time she’d been bullied and laughed at by the whole class in school many decades before. Even the teacher had stood by and done nothing.
Once we worked on that memory, in effect comforting, calming, and reassuring the girl she had been back then, she found she could now be calm and clear and assertive with people. You can read more about Emily here (her sessions were also filmed for our members’ area Uncommon Practitioners’ TV [UPTV]).
Another client, Sheila (described here and also filmed for UPTV) felt terrified and hopeless whenever she went to apply for a masters degree. We found that this feeling matched a memory of feeling terrorized by her psychotic mother as a child.
After we used the Helping Hand technique, Sheila was able to finally apply and get a place in a master’s program. The pattern match had been unhooked (metaphorically, of course) by going back and helping the client’s younger self.
But the inner child metaphor can be used in other ways, too.
Situation three: The client is overly rigid and serious
When people talk about the ‘inner child’ they often imply that this child within is unloved, deprived, helpless, hopeless, sad, alone, and still suffering.
And yet an adult can be childlike in their openness, wonder, enthusiasm, energy, spontaneity, and exuberance at any age while still being responsible, sensible, reasonable, and well balanced. We all know people who seem ageless because of their playful humour and openness.
Some clients may need to lighten up and relax more in order to regain what the poet Worsdworth felt we all lose, to varying degrees, as adults:
“Sweet childish days, that were as long / As twenty days are now.”3
This kind of inner-child work might involve us re-evoking the excitements and adventures and playfulness and fun of childhood (after ascertaining that childhood was generally good for that person) for some clients who have become a little ossified by life.
Awakening the child within
One client, Graham, seemed seriously serious. He had so many responsibilities and had, in his words, gotten “stuck in his ways”.
During one session, I asked him when he’d felt truly happy just being alive. He told me about a time he’d been fly fishing when he was eight, with his older brother on a summer’s day near their grandparents’ house in the country.
I helped Graham hypnotically re-evoke that time and suggested that this boy, full of wonder and delight in just being alive, was still, in a way, a part of him and could manifest more in life. I then had him hypnotically rehearse feeling that childlike exuberance when walking with his wife, seeing friends, and taking vacations.
Childlike fascination never leaves us forever. Or it doesn’t have to.
Okay, so simply evoking childhood is one way to ‘connect with the inner child’, but what is the best course of action when we want to undo destructive past emotional conditioning which causes our clients to respond as though they were a frightened child in the present?
Lending the Helping Hand
We certainly don’t just want clients to ‘regress’ to a helpless or hopeless stage. When we use the Helping Hand technique, we first:
- Ascertain that a childhood emotional conditioning is in fact producing an undesirable reaction in them in their current life. We can do this by using the Affect Bridge and through simple questioning.
- Gather a sense of our client’s current resources. All the ways they’ve developed and all the things they’ve learned and understood since that childhood time. We can help them hypnotically build up a sense of all their strengths and learning.
Only then do we help them to hypnotically go back to that time and talk to the frightened or hopeless child they were back then, comfort and calm them, hug them, and tell them from the future that everything is going to be alright.
Finally, we bring them back to a sense of the present again and ask them to notice how the memory now feels easier to recall.
The Helping Hand technique can be immensely helpful for a lot of people, but if it’s a very powerful trauma, the Rewind technique should be used.
A few final takeaways
So inner-child work can be used on occasion and in the right way, but it doesn’t have to and shouldn’t constitute a whole therapeutic approach.
Suggesting to someone that “it’s almost like there are different parts to us sometimes, which seem to do different things” is not the same as firmly believing there are developed and distinct actual personalities within someone and going on a crusade to dig them out!
Building a whole ideology around one metaphor can make therapists less flexible and fluid than they otherwise could be. We need to always remember we are working in metaphor, and some metaphors will fit better with our individual clients than others.
There will be many people we don’t use inner child work with. And we never want a client to refer to everything in their life through the metaphor of an inner child.
A childlike state can be wonderful, fresh, open, free, and playful – and in that sense we can all become more childlike.
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You can see Mark treating clients for a huge variety of issues in our online ‘Netflix for therapists’, Uncommon Practitioners’ TV. In addition, you’ll get access to a suite of therapy technique training videos, filmed with actors, our monthly Q&A with Mark and more. You can read more here.
- See McGilchrist, I. (2021). The Matter With Things: Our Brains, Our Delusions, and the Unmaking of the World. Perspectiva.
- From the poem ‘To a butterfly’ (1807)
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