Does Your Inner Child Need a Time-Out?
Fifty years since the cultural revolution of the hippie generation, the inner child has all but disappeared from the self-help lexicon. In much the same way that the sixties message of peace and love has aged into something more like containment and indifference, few today hold much stock in the notion that there is an innocent child, full of wonder, at the center of their being. Regardless of one’s stance on the inherent benignity of people, a practical consideration of the inner child is worth much more than simply the punchline to a bad joke.
Contrary to what new-age rhetoric or common perception may suggest, the inner child is not a sweet little baby or an idealized source of freedom from inhibition and pain. Instead of attributing a false sense of purity or perfection to the inner child, I suggest that the inner child is no different from the average three-year old. And anyone who has ever lived with a three-year old knows that the innocence and wonder of a child can often manifest itself in horrible and frightening ways, ways that can take a person to the edge of sanity and cause them to act in a manner that defies better judgement.
It just so happens that I am the father of a three-year old girl. I once heard someone say: “terrible two’s, f***in three’s”, and I have to kind of agree. I am utterly amazed at how my daughter can so effectively rattle me, even at such a young age. I have spent many years developing equanimity in myself and a resilience to outside influences that might disrupt my awareness and behavior; that she has such an uncanny ability to bypass my well constructed firewall is striking. Recently, on a particularly challenging day, I actually wanted to hit her. I didn’t do it, but I genuinely wanted to and had to excerpt considerable effort to suppress the impulse. As mentioned previously, I have never wanted to hit another person in my life, much less my beloved daughter. I must admit, it freaked me out a bit. Especially because, when she saw that she had successfully pushed me completely outside of myself, she smiled in delight, as though she had succeeded in her mission.
If we think of the inner child as an archetypical three year old, in every aspect, then the concept takes on very real implications. Your inner child identifies things that you need or want and than purposefully stands in your way of getting them just to see if it can. If you protest, your inner child only laughs and is further fueled by your dismay. When you are at your most depleted and in desperate need of a rest, your inner child’s first instinct is to unrelentingly press your patience more in a concerted reach for your breaking point. Attempting to discipline your inner child is often confusing. What proves effective on one day does not always prove the same on another. And despite their yet-to-be fully developed cognitive faculties, the inner child is adroit at being just smart enough to never fall for halfhearted ploys.
Your inner child also has night terrors, unexpectedly waking from sleep in fits of hysteria that no amount of love or attention can console, and only subside after considerable horror and with the gradual introduction of established coping mechanisms. And even when these fits don’t come out of the dead of sleep, similar episodes can be triggered with no apparent cause, as your inner child is prone to drastic mood swings that invariably surface in the most inconvenient of moments.
Of course, all this is in sharp contrast to the other eighty percent of the time when your inner child is showering you with unconditional love. What a tragic irony it is that we are often too busy needlessly checking our iphones to notice. The extreme stress that your inner child can create from time to time easily ends up eclipsing all the other pleasant experiences we have and taints the mind towards suffering.
The other day I was feeling down on myself as a dad. Sometimes I get consumed with my work and am not present with my daughter. She is well aware when this happens and is not shy about communicating her disapproval. After I had ignored her for some time, she really got upset. When I finally looked down and saw the disappointment in her face, my heart dropped. I started weeping uncontrollably and said: “I’m sorry, sweetie. I’m not being a very good dad today, am I?” She threw her arms around me and said: “It’s OK. You’re a good dad and I love you. Just turn off the computer and come play with me.”
It’s difficult to grasp how my daughter can be, all at once, both a demon sent to derail me and an angel who saves me from myself. Or how, as adults, this same paradox plays itself out inside each of us. As we enter the time of year where resolutions generally go to die, may we have the fortitude to draw lines where they need to be drawn, the courage to admit when we have drawn lines mistakenly, and trust that a true intention and best effort will prove enough to carry us through without regret.
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