inner child

Paradise Lost: The experience of disillusionment for the child/inner child

The topic of disillusionment seems to be coming up a lot for me these days, as a mom to an almost 9-year-old, as a therapist, and as an adult woman consciously walking the path of healing my own inner 9-year-old. Disillusionment is defined as the absence of illusion, or a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be. Anthroposophical philosopher Rudolph Steiner put forth the idea that, much like Adam and Eve being banished from paradise, there is a "waking up" (sometimes a rude awakening) and a "fall from grace" that occurs in a child between the ages of 8 and 10 years old. In anthroposohy, the term for it is "the 9 year change."

At this time of life, children are becoming more embodied (literally, inhabiting their bodies) and grounded in the realities of the world around them, rather than floating in the imaginal realms of early childhood. In making that shift, the child experiences great inner turmoil. This is an age where a child may lose interest in toys that used to be fun for them, feeling (and acting) torn between toddler behavior and teenage behavior -- trying on both sides. At this age, children question the existence of beings like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, and even the idea of magic itself. This is the age where they begin to see that their parents are not the superheroes they once believed, but mere fallible mortal beings who make mistakes -- and that can be a huge let down. This is the time when children are waking up to their sense of self in relation to the world around them, and trying to find where they fit. They may feel they can depend only on themselves, and anxiety becomes a dominant emotion. They may be quietly tuning into their inner world for the first time, and perhaps experiencing their own shadow side freshly.

Some common markers of this transition can include irritability, hypersensitivity, fickleness, difficulty falling asleep, fears of the dark/crime/intruders/death, spontaneous emotional releases (sobbing, yelling, hitting, tantrums,) feeling like the world is not fair, feeling isolated, self-conscious, and unloveable. Children begin testing their parents, as closest people to them, to make sure they will still be loved even when they show their darker sides and express anger, sadness, jealousy, neediness, hatred, and mischievousness. Psychosomatic symptoms are very common during this time - common ones being heart palpitations, headaches, and breathing problems. Nightmares can become more frequent and vivid, often involving being chased, robbed, in an accident, fire, or even being murdered. Ideas of right and wrong and of evil and death come to the forefront. They expect honesty and authenticity from everyone, especially from themselves.

Traumas or wounds that can really go deep at this age are ones involving lies, mixed messages, verbal abuse, criticism, not being allowed to "talk back," only getting praise or affection when being a "good girl" or "good boy," or being within a family system where there is a cycle of addiction (the "don't talk, don't trust, don't feel" unspoken rule.)

Overlaying anthroposophy's concept of the "9 year change" with other developmental models in psychology, this time correlates to the development of the fifth chakra (expressing one's truth,) Freud's latency period, Piaget's concrete operational period, Erikson's "Industry vs inferiority" period, Maslow's self-actualization stage, Wilber's middle egoic personic stage, and the conscious self stage of psychosynthesis.

Acknowledging and having compassion for the struggle at this (and every!) stage of development is key for a therapist, a parent, and a human being living on the earth with fellow human beings. I am a woman with a rich connection to my own inner 9-year-old and a mother currently parenting a small human being through this time. Even though I'm a therapist who works exclusively with adult clients in my practice, every adult brings their inner child into the room with them in some way. If there was wounding around this stage of a person's development, the therapist may serve as the "magical stranger" (as its known in the Hakomi method) providing the experience that was missing in this person's childhood, or the therapist could be called upon to "reparent" this younger part and/or aid a client in reparenting their own younger self, meeting needs that were not met in childhood. In doing so, the therapist may more directly dance in realms of transference and projections of the fallible parent, and take on the feelings of not being good enough, open enough, understanding enough, or giving enough. As always, the therapist's own mindfulness of their body, experiences, and triggers (in and out of session) and processing their own countertransference (outside of session) are ethically imperative to the work.

So, what do the 9-year-olds inside of us and out among us need? They need to know they are lovable unconditionally - no matter what emotions or behavior they display. They crave for their feelings and experiences to be validated. They need a solid, confident, care-giving presence who consistently and warmly enforces rules and boundaries. They need to see love, unity, and community modeled for them in the midst of their isolated feelings. They need a private space of their own (children at this age are often are moved to create forts and other shelters to burrow into.) This is a stage where children want to feel capable, so giving them the ability to do very useful, productive things for themselves helps them feel like they belong and are safe in the world. Even in wanting more independence, self-sufficiency, and privacy, it's important for children to feel warmth, connection, and support from adults nearby (but not hovering adults...)

You see, the line the adults walk (tiptoe?) around this is a delicate one.  We won't and can't always get it right, but we can own our mistakes and in doing so, model honesty, humanness, and humility. In doing so, we can become a different sort of superhero, one who is accessible and relatable and on the ground instead of admired while soaring far up in the sky.

Personally and professionally, my heart is cracked wide open around the issues involved in this crucial time of personal growth. One of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, really captures the essence of the 9 year change in this poem:

On Turning Ten

The whole idea makes me feel Like I’m coming down with something, Something worse than any stomach ache Or the headaches I get from reading in bad light – A kind of measles of the spirit, A mumps of the psyche, A disfiguring chicken pox of the soul. You tell me it is to early to be looking back, But that is because you have forgotten The perfect simplicity of being one And the beautiful complexity introduced by two. But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit, At four I was an Arabian wizard. I could make myself invisible By drinking a glass of milk a certain way. At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince. But now I am mostly at the window Watching the late afternoon light. Back then it never felt so solemnly Against the side of my tree house, And my bicycle never leaned against the garage As it does today, All the dark blue speed drained out of it. This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself, As I walk through the universe in my sneakers. It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends, Time to turn the first big number. It seems only yesterday I used to believe There was nothing under my skin but light. If you cut me I would shine. But now when I fall upon the sidewalk of life, I skin my knees, I bleed.

If you'd like to read more on the 9 year change, here are a couple useful places to start:

Maitri: 4 tips for loving yourself as you are

In keeping with the recent topic of self-compassion here on my blog, I wanted to write about the Buddhist concept of maitri. It's pronounced my tree. It is the Sanskrit word for "loving kindness," and while there are many translations, essentially maitri means unconditional positive self-regard or friendliness or lovingness to oneself. For many of us, the inner-critic has a loud voice.  Socially and professionally, I hear a great deal of self-criticism, self-defeat, and self-loathing from people. It's evident even in casual comments muttered under one's breath, like when making a mistake, saying "I'm so stupid" or when  learning something new, "I can't do this."

Maitri is not about self-indulgence or ego or even about being "a good person" – rather accepting all of who you are and loving thatunconditional is the operative word here. Belief that there is something in our nature that is basically good, and that does not buy the self-critical stories. It is NOT about giving ourselves excuses to avoid difficult things, nor is it merely cheerleading yourself along. It IS the willingness to see and feel into whatever is happening and let our experience be exactly what it is in any one moment. It’s not about becoming better – it is about dropping the struggle to be different from who and what we are. 

There are three parts to the practice of maitri:

  1. Precision – Being honest and specific about where your mind is, about your experience, about your suffering, about yourself
  2. Gentleness – Touching or meeting with kindness every single aspect of this truth
  3. Letting go – Releasing, exhaling, detatching, unplugging from the outcome

For most of us, this frame of mind is difficult to attain when we first attempt it. We  have so many constructs in our western culture that have taught us otherwise. It takes a lot of courage. So, when beginning the practice of maitri, here are a few practical techniques to get you in this mindspace:

  • It sometimes helps to envision at least one person or animal for whom you already feel gratitude, appreciation, and love right now, today. Really sit with the feeling of that love and notice its quality, its warmth, its texture, its images. Then make the switch and extend those same sentiments to the self.
  • You can also imagine this scenario: What would you say to your best friend calling you for help or advice with [insert your own issue of current distress/worry/suffering here]? Now, tell yourself those very same things in the same tone of voice.
  • Because I am a visual learner (no surprise there for an art therapist, huh?) another way I like to make this practice concrete for myself (and for my clients) is this: Find a photo of yourself as a childand keep it near you. I often ask people to tape one to the dashboard of their car or to their bathroom mirror or their desk at home or work. Remind yourself that you are still this child inside, and you can speak to yourself with the same kindness and tone of voice that you’d use to speak to the child.
  • Along the lines of visual ways to conjure maitri, I offer a multitude of art invitations or visual prompts to my clients as doorways into this way of seeing oneself. They may take many forms, including a self-portrait, a self box, a mirror project, a photography project, or a mosaic like the one you see pictured above in this post (an example of my own art around this topic.)  These pieces can be so powerful and healing in the context of an art therapy session. Come meet with me for a free consultation to see how we might work together on this.

You can read more about the concept of maitri and practicing maitri from the wise and humorous Buddhist teacher, Pema Chödrön. You may also enjoy this 5 minute video of her speaking about maitri.

If you missed my last post on the practice of tonglen (it just takes one breath!), click here. Follow me on Facebook or Twitter to be notified about forthcoming blogs.