How to look after my inner child?
November 23, 2020 3:43 PM   Subscribe

I read this article recently about toddler tantrums. Can you recommend anything like this for an adult who has problems regulating their emotions?

When I was really young and had tantrums, my parents didn't handle it very well. I still have trouble with being able to deal with and process big feelings. Looking for resources for myself on what I can do when I am upset to be able to work through the feelings.

Thank you!
posted by kinddieserzeit to Human Relations (10 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Interesting question!

I think firstly I'll recommend the mefi standard: therapy
Worth its weight in gold! I'm sure there are numerous questions on here about how to find a therapist, what type of therapy, etc etc. If you can't afford it, they usually do a sliding scale.

But to your question specifically.
The things the article describes are the things I've learned for myself in the last year of therapy.
Namely, that things happen and they are difficult and that is 100% OK, and that it's 100% OK to feel feelings about those hard things. It turns out that a big part of what makes difficult things difficult is our reaction to them. You sorta flinch at your own reaction and say "ugh I can't believe I feel this way!" Feeling your feelings about things is not bad nor wrong - it's just how you are and that's OK!

My therapist actually talks about showing up for your inner child. The whole idea being that your inner child is you, around the age of 7, when you started to cement the habits and views that allow you to live and cope and take care of yourself in a world that doesn't make much sense most of the time. These habits tend not to be terribly efficient ways to meet our needs but it's what we got. The goal of the whole process is to see how they sometimes don't meet our needs and make adjustments.

Anyways, showing up for your inner child starts with recognizing how you are, right now, straight up.
"I feel angry"
"I feel tired"
"I feel joyus"
All feelings that come and go. Just recognizing they're there is a thing that doesn't happen often. By recognizing and acknowledging them we can start to make intentional choices about what to do next.

Maybe you feel sad. You eat some ice cream.
OK that's totally fine, but if you can recognize that you're sad, then notice "hey I'm going for the ice cream" it helps you understand what's going on a bit more. Even after you recognize that you're sad and you want ice cream, you can still go for it! But this time you have more agency in that choice. And maybe next time you think "I'm sad and I usually have ice cream, but actually what would really feel good right now is to go outside and go for a walk" This change allows you to do what's best for you! Maybe ice cream isn't always what you want but it's what you reach for every time.

I encourage you to imagine what therapy would be like for you. You can certainly do the things I talk about above on your own, but it's quite slow and confusing without someone to guide you :)
Best of luck.
posted by lalunamel at 4:15 PM on November 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: I'm a therapist (IANYT) and someone with overwhelming emotions as an adult. I actually use lots of parallel ideas to the ideas in this article in my practice. Many people whose emotions feel really overwhelming or intolerable, or whose emotions get in the way of living the lives they want to be living have experienced trauma (whether it was Big T trauma like war or assault, or "little t trauma" like an unavailable caregiver) in their early years. Trauma often leads adult brains to interpret stressful situations as dangerous, and to go into fight, flight, or freeze (some people also add fawn and collapse as additional responses - I have mixed feelings about these).

I know for myself, when I'm having a fight response, it feels, internally, like I am a kid having a tantrum. I can't think straight or problem solve or consider what future me wants from the situation. I just want to externalize and kick and scream until the situation feels more just. In the past this made me get into terrible fights in relationships and walk off jobs when something unfair happened.

It's not that I was a bad person, I was just having a trauma response. Now what I do is say to myself "This is my fight response. It's doing an important job by telling me my boundaries have been violated." Like in the article - I don't blame or shame myself for being full of rage, but I do notice what it feels like in my body and what actions it is telling me to take. And I recognize that whatever it is urging me to do is my trauma response telling me to do it - valid, but not always the best choice to listen to it. I used to feel really embarrassed and ashamed to be an adult (in the mental health field, no less) who had these experiences - until I really came to embrace the idea of not punishing feelings.

You can even thank the trauma response and develop a relationship with it, instead of letting it control you. Sometimes when things feel out of control and I identify it as such, I imagine little me and try to think of what words she most needed to hear, and then I say them to myself, and imagine that I am the responsible, caring adult that I didn't have, and I am caring for her now.

Like in the article where it says to validate feelings but set limits on behaviour, I borrow the idea of "opposite action" from dialectical behavioural therapy. If my trauma response tells me to completely cut off from the friend who snubbed me or did something inconsiderate, I reach out and try to connect with that friend. I've started living by the phrase: "why cut what you can untie?"

It is important to me that I am offering the clients who come to me for therapy something evidence based. I want to be clear that inner child work doesn't really have much of an evidence base, particularly in terms of randomized control trials or the kind of empirical evidence that supports CBT or DBT. Despite this, I think of inner child work as a metaphor for accepting all the parts of yourself. There is strong evidence correlating self acceptance with improved mental health, and I would encourage you to work towards accepting all of the parts of yourself (even the ugly, messy ones) whether it is through inner child work or something else that works for you. I think this is analogous to how that article talks about accepting the feelings of the tantrumming child.
posted by unstrungharp at 4:32 PM on November 23, 2020 [25 favorites]

Response by poster: I should have mentioned I have started therapy again. Just looking for additional things to read as well :)

Great answers so far, please keep them coming.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 5:28 PM on November 23, 2020

Best answer: Yeah, I am sometimes like this and my sister (slightly different parenting we got) is a LOT like this. It's hard! What has helped me....

- mindfulness meditation as a practice so that I am able to find space between my feelings and my strong feeling that I MUST DO SOMETHING about the feelings
- once I am able to find a little space there, I can use it to ask myself if I am Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired (HALT) and if so, work on that a little
- reminding myself that it's okay to feel bad sometimes and just jumping in to MAKE THE PAIN STOP is often, as unstrungharp says above, not as useful as interrogating that emotion a little more
- For me, realizing when I am angry I am often also afraid
- For me, realizing when I am saying to myself "This is happening at the WORST POSSIBLE TIME" it's because the bad timing is contributing to my stress which is contributing to everything feeling unbearable (before holidays as one recent example)
- Trying to find that space to tell myself "Aw, hey, that is hard" like a friend would not "suck it up wtf" as my negative brain would
- I was often encouraged to basically hold all my emotions inside as a kid and as a grownup just being able to cuss or otherwise be like "Shit that sucked!" at a bad thing feels helpful
- a few platitudes "Pain isn't suffering" (i.e. if something physically hurts, that's not the same as anguish and the anguish needs to be dealt with separately) "Time heals all non-fatal wounds" (not strictly true but worth keeping in mind that time helps a lot, sometimes you just need to distract yourself for a bit, this is OK) "You are the boss of you" (was not true when I was a kid, is true now)

I'm sure this is different for everyone, but for me the big deal was feeling like I was caught between manners ("Oh shouldn't be rude to this person who is actually not being that nice to me") and my feelings/boundaries ("This person is not treating me well and that is not ok") and I would sort of get stuck in a decision loop. I've gotten better at sticking up for boundaries, or at least being able to leave things alone if a particular interaction didn't go my way. It's super challenging.
posted by jessamyn at 5:44 PM on November 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Some really good advice here. The thing I'll add that helped me most was daily loving-kindness meditation. There are various ways of doing it, but one simple way is visualizing one or more people you love and thinking about how you wish what's best for them, and how they wish what's best for you. Spend some time with it. Then visualize someone neutral, or even someone you have beef with, and wish what's best for them (this might mean they have to make some changes, but you still wish it for them). End with spending some time with you wishing what's best for yourself.

When I do this regularly, it really helps me keep things in perspective and not jump to the fight-or-flight response immediately. I tend to ascribe ill intentions to other people reflexively, and this helps me not do that.
posted by rikschell at 6:39 PM on November 23, 2020

Best answer: I read Jonice Webb’s Running On Empty and the followup Running On Empty No More and I feel like they may be beneficial for you - it was incredibly helpful in giving me the language to describe how I was raised. She came up with a term she calls CEN, Childhood Emotional Neglect, and talks about the different “flavors” of CEN you may have experienced. She’s very warm and I really liked how she emphasizes that you can recover from CEN and gives tips and advice.

You may also like Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents and its followup Recovering From Emotionally Immature Parents. I’m not sure if that’s the specific issue you dealt with and/or are dealing with, but those two books may give you further vocabulary and strategies to learn to handle big feelings yourself.
posted by meggan at 6:46 PM on November 23, 2020 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Dialectical Behavioural Therapy is the classic, evidence-supported treatment for emotional regulation. There are a TON of skills related to DBT that help with emotional regulation and there are a lot of free workbooks and similar available.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 7:40 PM on November 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Have you read anything about Internal Family Systems? The book by Richard Schwartz is an accessible read and might help you visualize and relate to your inner child in a more concrete way.
posted by MiraK at 5:48 AM on November 24, 2020

You might find help reading Eckhart Tolle or, if he's not the greatest writer, someone summarizing his work. Here's where I admit I haven't read him. But the help I got in therapy was in line with especially the first three responses you got above, and Tolle talks about these ideas, like learning through meditation to put space between an event and your resulting action, instead of just immediately reacting, and like not judging your thoughts; he augments these strategies with the idea that You are not your thoughts, which is pretty powerful if you can see your way to believing it. Anyway, apologies for not having something specific to recommend; maybe Tolle writes other books about the power of crystals or something and is considered a charlatan by the psychological community. But I was helped in reframing these concepts by some videos exploring these ideas -- some by others summarizing Tolle's work, and some of Tolle actually speaking (the latter of which I don't think would have been so helpful if I weren't already a little familiar with the concepts, fwiw).
posted by troywestfield at 7:42 AM on November 24, 2020

Best answer: I wrote about this recently:

IFS is a really potent way to do it. There's a book recommendation within!
posted by namesarehard at 12:46 PM on November 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

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