Many of us will have had the experience of throwing a tantrum that in retrospect seems embarrassingly childish. “I don’t know what came over me,” we may subsequently puzzle. One way of looking at it may be as an instance of your inner child screaming its way to the surface.
The concept of the inner child is very well established in many forms of therapy and self-help. Often this child is a wounded one and many of us can relate to that too. It is clearly the case that early experiences leave traces that affect us throughout life. If those experiences were hurtful we may be left with enduring negative feelings and patterns of behaviour.
Through the lens of many therapies the problem is that, when we’re unaware of it, this wounded child may get to call all the shots, controlling us and our interactions with others in ways that are less than helpful – acting impulsively, overreacting to things, being excessively needy. The “cure” is to reacquaint ourselves with our inner child and its unmet needs, learning to reparent it and give it the nurturing it didn’t get at the appropriate time.
And yet, is it always useful to think about it in these terms? Vivid, certainly. And of course we don’t literally believe we harbour a little being inside us. But this language may lead us to think of it as a quasi-autonomous entity.
Was it or wasn’t it the inner child that got so angry at that remark? In a sense that is not the most important question. What matters is to reflect on how childhood experiences have affected us and whether they continue to manifest themselves in our life in ways that hinder us. We may or may not need to work on our “inner child”, but we can certainly work on what’s happening to us in the present.
But we shouldn’t forget the other side of the coin. Nurturing our inner child can also mean cultivating positive childlike traits, such as taking delight in small things – and that is something most of us could do with.
Growing up brings a sense of perspective and with it an escape from the infantile solipsism that makes children see themselves at the centre of time and space. It might seem odd, then, that many people have come to see this progression as a kind of degeneration and have advocated a return to childlike simplicity.
For example, the philosopher Mark Rowlands argues in his latest book, Running with the Pack, that the child has the enviable ability to be wholly in the present. Adult life is all about work: doing things as a means to an end, from home-improvement to self-improvement. The child, however, lives to play, which means doing things purely for their own sake, just for the fun of it.
There is certainly something important in the idea that life should be built around things of intrinsic value, but I’m not sure child-play provides the best model. There is something beautiful about witnessing the undiluted joy of the young child simply doing. But when he falls over and cries it is as though that previous elation had never happened. The problem is that the child is too much in the moment to appreciate it when it has passed.
Life is not just a series of moments but a connected collection of them, and this is what makes “being in the moment” potentially more profound and affecting for an adult. We can value our time in the here and now more fully than children who know of no other place.
Our appreciation is deeper for the note of bitterness introduced by an awareness that such occasions are rare and precious, that all things pass and life is short. Sometimes, as when we lose ourselves in music or a landscape, our experience is heightened by an ability to discern its richness and complexity that is beyond the young.
Wisdom, age and experience can make us more appreciative of what is of value in the life of those who lack all three. But it is only when the childlike immersion in the present is juxtaposed with the adult awareness of past and future that such moments can reach their most potent heights.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England