I can be an incredibly annoying person. When I’m stressed I fret about the smallest things. I second-guess my decisions and dwell on the past. I take things personally. I rarely trust my own instincts or capabilities and turn to at least 10 people for advice. I talk about the things that are bothering me like a stuck record until they’re 110% resolved.
I’m sure you’re thinking, phwoar, I’d love to be friends with this chick. Heeeell no. But that’s the point. I had a total smack in the face of a realisation recently: actually, I wouldn’t want to be friends with that version of myself either.
We all have an inner little shit. Psychoanalyst Carl Jung more eloquently calls this the ‘shadow self’ or ‘child’. It’s the part of us that comes out when we’re triggered. Our responses feel uncontrollable, all-consuming and irrational in retrospect. This is the language with which I’ve been making sense of myself recently.
These last few months have been some of the most confusing and confronting in my life. Rocked around by the turbulent times of Covid19 (and equally by the tides of my mind) I’ve chopped and changed course multiple times, doubting and backtracking on every move I made. Here’s what I’ve learnt:
When we’re hurting, our inner child will craft convincing stories that lead us to lose sight of our dreams, talents, responsibilities and what’s important to us.
Where do these ‘internal narratives’ come from?
The stories we tell ourselves don’t just come out of thin air. Depending on your beliefs, we can spiritually inherit them from our family, even from aeons ago, or past lives. On top of these memories, we adopt stories that are socially and culturally constructed, which are then embellished with our own personal experiences.
Think about this example. Across most cultures, what is the most desired and valued relationship? The couple. Marriage. We waltz through life with the subconscious (or very obvious) need to find partner. Do we actually want that for ourselves? We’re set up to believe that everyone should have this as their end goal. Friendship isn’t the end goal. Nor is a clowder of cats. We consider the only ‘successful relationship’ to be first and foremost a life-long marriage.
We may genuinely value and desire other kinds of relationships over the monogamous romantic relationship, but dominant narratives (also known as social expectations) bring us to question those preferences and dreams based on the person they tell us we ought to be. We doubt ourselves. We feel guilty for wanting something that seems ‘wrong’ or indulgent.
What I’ve been learning recently is that the better we’re able to connect to ourselves, the better we’re able to differentiate between our own ‘truth’ and what society or external sources expect of us.
Even better, when we connect to ourselves we become increasingly unfazed by the judgements of others. Why? Because we stop judging ourselves.
This observation is at the centre of my realisation of where I’d been going wrong: I hadn’t truly connected to myself in years. I worked so hard on connecting with people and things around me, I abandoned the relationship I had with myself.
What does your shadow look like?
When our deepest fears and self-doubts are triggered our inner child comes out to play. They’re equipped with all sorts of convincing sabotaging tricks that steer us away from being our mature clear-headed self. We all have differing copying mechanisms. We might binge, brag, overexercise, vent, gossip, excessively shop, hide behind appearances, abandon our responsibilities, jeopardise what’s important to us…
The way we each throw tantrums is also different. It doesn’t have to be explosive or obvious like literally throwing our fists in the air and wailing in the junk food isle of the supermarket (although it could be). Your style could be…
The silent treatment: giving the cold shoulder. Refusing people’s help or company. We spend lots of time alone, forgetting the important people in our life.
Hyperactivity: piling more onto our plate. We might take on new projects or overload ourselves with work to postpone or distract ourselves from facing hard truths.
Over-indulgence: we may turn to material things or channel large amounts of money into one particular thing, in the process abandoning our other obligations.
Non-stop socialising: we avoid alone time. This could be for many reasons. Maybe we thrive on the feedback people give us in our presence, and that numbs the pain. Maybe we’re scared of what we’ll learn about ourselves — being in constant contact and conversation with others delays ever finding out.
Losing balance: we may do one activity obsessively and neglect others, throwing all care for others and ourselves out the window.
They’re just a couple of examples. It’s likely that we experience a combination of many.
When you shut out your little shit it’ll only demand more attention
To varying degrees, lockdown has sent us all on an obligatory ‘retreat’. A retreat into the landscape of our minds. For me, it’s been a fucking lonely experience. I had no choice but to sit in my own company, stripped away from everything that I used to locate my identity within, and get to know myself free of external factors. I’ve uncovered an awful lot of information about myself, and for many months I didn’t know what to do with it. Now, I’m learning.
For years I mistakenly tried to control my inner child. I negotiated with it, struck deals, bribed it, gave it outlets in the hope that it would be satisfied and never return. Except, I didn’t have the language to make sense of myself at that stage. I didn’t see it as my ‘inner child’; it was just this unpredictable invisible force that took reign on my life and I couldn’t point to why or how.
Patience and kindness are always the answer
Turns out that I needed to be treating my inner child like I would treat any child. I needed to cultivate more kindness and patience towards myself. Step one: don’t call it a ‘little shit’.
There needs to be balance in the approach we take to talking to our shadow self. It’s certainly easier said than done because it requires a lot of practice. On one hand, we need to be firm, especially if we recognise that the bullshit narratives encircling our mind have come from an entity outside of ourselves. Is the story my shadow pitching to me actually what I want for myself? When we see through the haze and realise, no it’s not, we must assertively stand our ground: we tell it to fuck off.
When the stories come from a valid place of having protected us in the past, they’re the moments when we need to say, “I hear you. I love you. I’m here for you”. Those are the moments to practise self-compassion.
I felt huge shame and disappointment in myself in the moments after I’d let my inner child run the show. I looked back on the decisions I made and interactions I had with others with regret and sometimes humiliation. I beat myself up for it a lot, and then that beckoned my other shadow to the scene — the self-critic. Nothing was ever good enough. Mistakes weren’t allowed. Failures were an entire reflection of me as a person. This shadow is really hard to shake.
Then finally there’s my third shadow: the workaholic martyr. When this one is triggered, I retreat from the world and bury my head in books or studies, denying any potential for emotional vulnerability and connection. I analyse and intellectualise life rather than live it.
Doing ‘the work’
When we recognise the specific ways our shadow trips us up, we can gyp the system. That is, the systems of our thinking. This is what therapists call ‘the work’.
It’s likely that your inner child has fucked up a few relationships and opportunities in your lifetime. Usually it’s only in hindsight that we grow to understand why. We learn from our mistakes yada, yada, yada. But it’s heartbreakingly true. And while we may think we’ve solved one problem and have the keys to pre-empt it from happening again, we can never predict the variety of new problems that life will present us (hello pandemic).
Listening to our inner child while not letting it take centre stage
When we were kids we responded to the situations at the time to the best of our ability, in the only ways we knew how. It’s often the case that, as we grow up, that child doesn’t leave us. We continue to live out the same patterns of coping. The thing is, while those mechanisms may have marvellously served us for years, they more often than not no longer help us.
Thank yourself for showing up when you needed help
With gratitude, we need to accept the child part of ourselves. Resist it, deny it or hide it and it’ll eventually backfire. It did for me. My self-defeating thoughts have led me to dark places, but it’s been there where I’ve discovered the most important messages like the following. Changing ourselves isn’t about eliminating the parts that aren’t working. It’s about listening to what those parts are trying to tell us. There’s always a message about the bigger picture.
There are many times when I don’t want to do ‘the work’ because the idea that I could be any different to how I am today seems impossible. When I’m ‘in child’ I lose sight of what’s true, of what my purpose is, of what my future holds. I want to stay in that place because in some weird way I think it’s what’ll keep me safe. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. If we remain in that space, it’ll only prolong the pain.
What to do when we get stuck in the story
When you go into stories of lack, ask yourself “what does this say about what I’m longing for?”. When you go into stories of not being good enough, ask yourself “how am I judging myself right now, and where does that mode of measurement come from?”. When you go into stories of hopelessness, ask yourself “what does this say about what I value?”
Here are some examples. These are not absolutes, just ideas.
Do you feel alone or misunderstood? That’s you valuing collaboration and community. It says that you trust in quality connections existing, you just haven’t found them yet. Without those longings you wouldn’t see the possibilities.
Do you feel aimless? That’s you valuing your purpose and honouring your calling, even if you don’t know what that is right now. Although it mightn’t feel this way, it also says that you deeply respect your own talents and wisdoms, so you courageously refuse to settle for less in life.
Do you feel lost? That’s you valuing truth and authenticity. Even when it feels like you’re not persisting, you are, because you’re resisting pretending to be someone you’re not.
There’s a voice in me that says, “that’s all good and well, Mim. I value those things, so what? How can I shift myself out of this stuck space? How can I obtain those things that I’m currently missing in my life?”
To which another voice in my head responds: “don’t rush things. There’s so much more to learn about who you are. If you focus on building a relationship with yourself, a lot will become clearer. Just trust.”
At the beginning when I spoke about my annoying inner child I said that I wouldn’t even want to befriend myself. That’s pretty harsh, right? Well, that’s precisely where my work lies. For now, I accept where I’m at. We can never start from anywhere other than where we are.
When I’m lured into the shadows I do my best to trust in the process. As lame as it may sound, I hold onto my faith in the fact that shadows cannot exist without the light, and therefore it’s inevitable that I’ll eventually step into that light. Truth is, our inner child will always be there, but the art of moving forward in life lies in how we talk to them.