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Health Psychology: Our Inner Children

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inner child depiction at burning man

Sometimes our minds can work against us.

And in the last article (Our first article in a 9-part series on Health and Fitness, titled “Health Beginnings: Your WHY“) we discussed a primary reason for that – our Inner Critic. (Spoiler alert: Our inner critic would barely exist without external messaging and societal conditioning.)

However, in this article we’d like to talk about the Inner Child. There are a lot of jokes centering around inner children, but the fact of the matter is you have one, and its influence is strong – particularly when it comes to matters of discipline and growth.

For most of us there is a big part of our psyche that wants to DO better and BE better. Most of us have an intrinsic desire to improve and accomplish. This is your Adult Ego. That’s likely the reason you’re on this journey to begin with.

But we all know there’s another part of our mind, don’t we? And that is the part who just wants instant gratification for their every whim.

It’s the voice that tells you it’s OK to miss your workout because it’s rainy. It’s the voice that tells you you deserve to open up a bottle of wine after a hard day at work. It’s the voice that compels you to eat an entire bag of potato chips because they just TASTE SO GOOD. It’s the stress eater, the junk food junkie, the addict. And these are all, down deep, soothing behaviors that are very child-like.

Meet Your Child Ego

This is, in fact, our Inner Child, or Child Ego, at work.

I love the photo above. It depicts our Child Ego versus our Adult Egos. It was an art exhibit at the Burning Man festival one year. Our Child Ego is very special. It plays an important role in our psychology. It acts as our soother. It tells us to be less hard on ourselves. It wants to keep our lives simple, fun, and undisciplined. (Sort of like actual children, hence the name.) Ideally, it balances out our Inner Critic.

Think of your Child Ego as YOU from your actual childhood, who just never grew up. That little boy or girl is still inside of you somewhere, and he or she still has a voice in your brain.

Depending on how much discipline (Adult Ego) we have injected into our lives, our Child Ego voice may be totally out of control (or rather, completely IN control of your life). Or, we may have just gotten fed up, turned militant, and stamped it out completely.

But the overall goal in your health journey should be to keep Discipline and Fun in balance. This is where we get to experience the sweet spot of a healthy and happy life. This is joy.

Far too often, many of us tend toward the undisciplined side rather than the overdisciplined. That’s why we’re not healthy to begin with. We’ve indulged ourselves with one too many Big Mac meals and couch weekends.

Without a strong and calm Adult Ego to regulate our lives, what ends up happening is war between the Inner Critic and the Inner Child. You’ll get stuck in purgatory being tormented by your Inner Critic and subsequently hating yourself, then soothing yourself with ice cream or bourbon or whatever provides the temporary soothing your Inner Child thinks it needs. You need to take charge.

We need to remember these voices are here for a reason. We’ve evolved with them, and they’re here to help us survive and thrive. But just like hormones, they can get out of balance if we aren’t managing them correctly.

Children Need Comfort and Boundaries

Child laying down peacefully with her mother

It’s important to just be aware, and give recognition to, that inner voice telling you to treat yourself or take it easy. It’s important to love your Inner Child, but not let them run the show – particularly when it comes to what you eat and drink.

You have to talk to your Inner Child voice almost like an actual child – they are a member of your inner family. Don’t ignore the voice, but talk to it as you would a small child. Tell him that he doesn’t get everything he wants, and its for his own good. Tell her that she’ll get a treat on the weekend, if she eats healthy all week. Practice saying No, but in a loving way, and see what happens. You may be able to turn a spoiled brat into a well behaved kiddo! 😄

All joking aside, the point is this: YOU have to be the adult to your own Child Ego. YOU have to set rules with your Inner Child, especially if he or she is used to running rampant with your body and your behavior. I realize “being an adult to yourself” sounds weird at first, but it’s true – and best of all, cultivating this relationship with yourself, and injecting this discipline, works.

When you acknowledge the little child’s voice, you give it validation – and that’s really all it wants. But when you remain firm with yourself, you cultivate discipline. You make your Adult voice stronger. You gain confidence that you really ARE in charge of the voices in your head, and that you can control those crazy whims and cravings. This, all by itself, can reverse a downward spiral into positive momentum.

That is REALLY powerful! Cultivating useful tactics to control the various voices in our heads is something that most health programs completely fail to address.

But we’ve found that acknowledging the needs and boundaries of our Inner Children works just as well as it does for actual children. You might give a child a treat after they finish their chores, or take them for ice cream if they get straight A’s in school. This is a very similar concept – you’re just doing it with yourself. It’s an important part of practicing self-love and self-care.

Reward Your Inner Child with a High-Five and a Treat

I mentioned abuse and trauma earlier, and wanted to touch on that briefly again. People who have experienced heartbreaking loss, grief, neglect or abuse in their lives, have been left with Inner Children who feel vulnerable and exposed. This can cause all kinds of self-soothing behavior, some of which is far more destructive than just eating too much ice cream. The inner children of those who have experienced such trauma are going to be more untrustworthy toward their own Adults. They will not be as trusting that you can take care of them. They’ve been hurt and they’re worried they’ll be hurt again.

If you experienced this trauma as an actual child, then you truly did not have any choice. You did not have an adult to protect you. But its important to distinguish that you ARE an adult now. It’s crucial to rebuild trust with your own inner child.

By teaching your Inner Child to trust you, you are learning to trust yourself.

Practice being the Adult, making responsible decisions, not doing things to harm yourself, and practicing self care. This calms the voice of our Inner Children by teaching them we, as Adults, WILL take care of them.

Ultimately, soothing this voice will help you become more consistent and more disciplined, with less temptation.

If you are unable to do this on your own due to the extent of your loss or trauma, you have every right to seek out the services of a trustworthy and compassionate mental health professional. Whatever you need, and whatever you’ve been through – take care of yourself on the inside. It’s the first step on the journey toward health.

You cannot be physically healthy, unless you are mentally healthy.

Severe Stress

Woman Stressed in Corporate Job

I also wanted to touch on stress. Stress is a huge factor in our health journey, and it absolutely can not be underestimated. In addition to all kinds of nasty physical side effects like B vitamin deficiency and adrenal fatigue, being in acute high-stress situations can make our Child Egos just have outright temper tantrums, even if they were well-behaved before.

It’s important to note the difference between normal life stressors, like an obnoxious neighbor, a job interview, or being stuck in traffic, with acute severe stress situations, like a toxic boss trying to undermine your career, or a verbally abusive partner.

We all need to learn tools in our toolbox to cope with typical stressors. But toxic stress is generally unfixable. It is usually the result of someone else’s toxicity and unresolved mental health issues, bleeding their way into our own lives and without our consent.

These are the types of situations that feel like “Groundhog Day”, driving us crazier and crazier, until the pain is so great that all you can think about is numbing out. This is a dangerous situation to our health and in extreme situations, to our lives.

If we stay in those situations, it’s going to ultimately derail any health goal we might have. So it’s important to start considering an exit strategy if you find yourself in anything that is chronically toxic with no improvement in sight.

Even if it is not traumatic or severe, if you are in a situation that is causing repeat spikes of acute high stress, please consider addressing that situation. Whether it’s leaving an unhealthy relationship or moving away from a toxic job, take control of your life.

One rule we’ve discovered is that if something starts out stressful, it is only likely to get more stressful with time. You may need to cut your losses and start fresh by physically removing yourself from recurrent and severe stressors.

Even those of us who have dealt with chronic stress in the past, like relationship abuse or other traumas, can get stuck in the cycle of “I deserve a treat for all I’ve been through.” And frequently, “treat” is defined as something food or drug related, because it lights up immediate pleasure centers in our brains. It temporarily soothes the pain and makes us feel happy.

When that happens, it is our Inner Child talking. The child has been hurt. The child is stressed out. And the child wants a plate of chocolate chip cookies to cope with it. RIGHT NOW!!! *Stomp Stomp* 😄

In summary, it is important that we have compassion on our inner children, but it is equally as important to remain the Adult in your relationship with yourself. And if your Inner Child keeps tugging on your shirtsleeve, telling you something is wrong – maybe you should consider listening to it.

Balance

It’s also important that we still retain our Inner Children. This is what makes us fun, curious, adventurous, and light-hearted human beings. You don’t want to get so disciplined and obsessed with your diet (or any other area of life) that you forget to have fun. Food and eating should be a pleasure!

One way you can cultivate balance is to spend more time doing child-like things that don’t have to do with junk food. Do a creative hobby like art, music, writing…or cooking! Play with your actual kids, or join a team of something you enjoy. Giggle and have fun. Swing on the swings. Dance in the kitchen. Play in the dirt. Spend more time in nature. Stop worrying how you look to others, and have fun.

Your lifestyle will be counter-productive if you try to over-discipline yourself. Don’t get to the point you feel guilty over every extra gram of fat or carbs. Guilt produces stress and that raises cortisol and inflammation in the body.

Remember to focus on the “Big Boulders” and let the little stuff go. An important part of the Health Journey is learning to cut out things that hurt our bodies, while still loving ourselves and maintaining a positive, relaxed attitude toward food.

One of the keys to not becoming diet or workout-obsessed, is shutting off corporate advertising and social media messaging. Literally – shut it off if you have to. Shut down or mute the TV during ads. Stop spending so much time on social media. Get your own house (mental/emotional health) in order, because those external messages aren’t making you stronger. The Inner Critic sets you up for failure, and then your Inner Child gets hurt and wants comfort food. It can be a vicious spiral.

You have to be aware of these forces, cultivate more discipline through habit and feeling acknowledgement, and more than anything: Stay focused on your WHY.

And when you do that, you’ll be unstoppable. You’ll also find your mental family members all getting along. That is the ultimate peace of mind. 🙂

All family members coexisting peacefully

Next Up: What Is Health – Really?

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