Blog 41. How my Inner Parent Held and Healed my Inner Child
Can you create a different future for yourself by changing your self-talk?
If you’ve been reading my recent serial about Reparenting Your Inner Child, you may have enjoyed a much deeper exploration of this well-worn concept and self-help hack of ‘changing your self-talk’.
You may have resonated with the notion of having both an Inner Child who can be triggered and an Inner Parent who can be re-hashing and solidifying old unconscious stories that are not conducive to healing.
Did you connect with my four steps in the process of Reparenting?
– Step 1. To NOTICE both the internal statement and the bodily reaction.
– Step 2. To HOLD THE FEELINGS, perhaps using one of the 10 tips from current parenting advice about “Helping kids identify and express feelings”. (Kid’s Help Line)
– Step 3. To MAKE A CHOICE TO CHANGE. This would involve a gentle challenge to the inner voice, asking, “Can you hear how you’re speaking to yourself?” It may also involve examining the ‘payoff’ that’s been keeping it going for so long.
– Step 4. To REPLACE THE INNER DIALOGUE with a new parenting statement.
I’ve recently read Jay Shetty’s wonderful book ‘Think Like a Monk’. He writes about a very similar process, calling it “Spot. Stop. Swap.”
SPOT a feeling or issue, STOP to understand what it is and SWAP in a new way of processing.
Today I share a personal story about how I practised all of that as I attempted to reparent myself.
I gently expose that moment when I became a judgmental, unforgiving ‘parent’ to a very young part that’s like a shaky and panicky little girl close to tears.
It was a few years back, at the start of second semester at my dream job of fifteen years. Yes, before I retired, I taught Dance choreography to my gorgeous students at a girls’ secondary school! Heaven! All year I’d been grateful for the breathing space that a ‘free’ period 1 on Mondays allowed; the chance to get my head around the day and the week ahead. With a whole new set of six classes of students beginning Dance for semester two, it was important to be well prepared. I wished I’d spent more time in the holiday break learning new names and organising my class lists, but hey, that’s what I was getting stuck into for the next 45 minutes.
Fifteen minutes into Period One the phone rang in our office. The school receptionist was trying to locate me. After a long wait outside the dance studio and a No-show by the teacher, the class captain of my new period 1 class had followed procedures and sought help.
I was horrified to hear the words,
“Where are you, Barb? Your class is waiting.”
Action — A panicked flurry of whirlwind activity followed, as I frantically gathered up whatever equipment I could carry and raced over to the studio.
Step 1 — NOTICE the internal statement and the bodily reaction.
My heart was beating wildly, my eyes were popping out of my head, I was fumbling with my keys and talking at a speed that was intelligible only to dogs. (Flight response triggered — run for your life!)
Internal dialogue — “Panic! What the hell, there’s been some kind of mistake! Is this Monday? Who am I and what’s my name? What must they think of me?! I’m normally so efficient and conscientious. I’ve let all my students down. Now everyone will think I’m slack and careless.”
For the next half hour I attempted to curb my disbelief that a whole class could have been given the wrong timetable (!) and simultaneously cobble together some semblance of a fun shortened introductory session for my new class.
I investigated the Great Timetable Mistake during the recess break. To cut a long story short, it ends up that I’d failed to notice that my timetable had changed for this semester and I no longer had a free on Mondays period 1!
(That calm and reasonable sentence is all I’m sayin’ here, but if you’d like to read about the internal train wreck where I initially ‘lashed out’ in tightly reigned anger, as an attempt to deny this exposure of an aspect of Barb that did not match my self-view, I’ll write a story about that soon.)
(A pause here, to ask yourself how you’d be feeling in this scenario. Are you wondering what I’m on about, why I’ve had such a bodily reaction, and why I don’t just laugh it off? Then this is obviously not one of your issues, just like Ellie’s ‘making a mess’ mistake in Episode 2 was not MY particular trigger.)
But this kind of event was regularly happening for me in various forms, each time leading to a feeling of panic and ‘stuckness’. Like any good detective, I was eager to explore and expose the truth of this serial triggering event.
For the rest of the day, I was unsettled; cranky and disconnected. I could feel a shakiness in my body that felt very familiar; just like other times I’d been triggered in this particular way. Sometimes I describe it as an erky, cringey feeling. Physically it lives in my stomach.
I noticed that the inner voice was still banging on about what a bad, inefficient, careless, disorganised teacher I was.
(You’ll notice I’m still doing Step 1, and that the thoughts and bodily reactions go hand in hand, creating a never-ending circle of cause and effect.)
Here comes yet More Step 1 — ‘Noticing’ to understand what it is.
Later, when I had a chance to sit quietly and listen carefully, this voice was in full flight, extrapolating a teacher-mistake into a major re-hashing of some old overblown story: “You have done the WRONG THING! … AGAIN! You have LET ALL OF THESE PEOPLE DOWN! Everyone can now see what you’re REALLY LIKE! You are a BAD PERSON!” That voice was sending me into a kind of Shame.
Brene Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Step 2 — HOLD THE FEELINGS.
That night I was able to simply sit with and surrender to that feeling. It was like I was gently holding my Inner Child, rocking her and saying, “Yes, honey, I hear what you’re feeling, about being some kind of ‘bad person’. Breathe into that erkiness as it passes through. I’ve got you.”
Step 3 — MAKE A CHOICE TO CHANGE.
This would involve asking, “Can you hear how you’ve been speaking to yourself?”
As I sat with this process, I acknowledged how very harsh the previous words had been: “Bad person! Wrong thing!”. I can definitely say that neither of my actual parents spoke to me like this, but somehow I’d developed an internal parent who expected nothing but perfection and was intolerant of mistakes. A judgmental part was being brought out into the open, to be examined and questioned.
“Step 3 may also involve examining the ‘payoff’ that’s been keeping it going for so long.”
I took this question into meditation, because it’s surely beyond the thinking mind:– There’s a subtle feeling of that harsh parent saying, “If I keep this ‘Bad Person’ story going, if I keep berating her and not accepting her mistakes, then she’ll stay contracted, tightly-wound and working hard on perfection. She’ll manufacture the world’s view of herself as perfectly capable and efficient at all times. With all of this effort to avoid wrongdoing, she’ll never get close to this erky, cringey feeling that was so very unsafe to feel in the past.”
It’s a weirdly unprofitable kind of ‘payoff’.
Step 4 — REPLACE THE INNER DIALOGUE
Just as I imagined speaking more compassionately to someone else’s inner child in a previous story, I now did the same for myself:
“Dear Barb. It’s OK. It was an oversight. You didn’t deliberately forget to check your pigeonhole last term before the holidays. Do you remember there was a lot going on in those last few days? And remember there’s a lot of other stuff you’re managing on your own at this time. You ran out of time to even read the group email that always comes around to remind all staff that there will probably be changes and to check your pigeonholes. Do you remember how your 2-week break was mainly a collapse into recovery? These things happen to all of us. It’s fixable. Mistakes and accidents will continue to happen, especially when there’s such a lot you’re dealing with. What will you do differently from here on? In any case, you’re perfectly imperfect just as you are. I love you when you make mistakes. I love your attention to detail, and your willingness to grow. I love you.”
My new Inner Parent held my Inner Child gently and allowed the ‘bad’ feelings to arise, then gave me the same loving, compassionate talk that I would give to someone else. Only then did she wisely re-contextualise the ‘mistake’ into a new learning. Oh, how I LOVE my new inner parent!
Some might suggest that, after that initial phone call, I could have started immediately repeating affirmations to reverse unhelpful dialogue. ‘Just change your self-talk,’ they say. I’ve found that to be partly helpful, but there’s a whole deeper layer of internal noticing, holding and caring for the Inner Child just waiting to be had; a whole new world of warm and gentle Reparenting available. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.
Over the next few days a weight had been lifted from my shoulders. There was a lightness in me, and a brand-new ability to laugh at my ‘missing in action’ moment. A solid and integrated new mantra had arisen:
“Oh well, stuff happens.”
With love to you and your inner child and parent,