Last week, Mark & Arian used their newly learnt skills to resolve a parenting conflict successfully. However, they discovered they have a lot more to learn about each other’s emotional responses and where they have come from. Using the ‘inner child’ concept, they begin to explore more where their own emotional reactions come from and that they can do to remain reasonable in emotional situations.

Mark is trying hard: he wants to get closer to his family, but each time Arian becomes emotional he kind of gets annoyed and shuts down. At least, he is more aware of it now. Yet, the emotions still seem to get the better of him and kind of ‘run the show’. Arian has the same problem. She was thought of herself as being more ‘emotionalʼ than Mark. She now understands that emotions are with everybody all the time, just like thoughts. Some are just kind of ‘louderʼ than others. This still doesnʼt help her with feeling less emotional about so many of the things that Mark does or says. They both agree they need to find out more about their struggle.

Here is what they learned:

Our brain picks up messages sent from the people around us right from the day we are born and begins to weave a story about who we are based on those messages. During millions of small interactions between our first day of life (and even before that) and the age of around 25, we create ‘mapsʼ in our brain. These clusters of neurons light up and create an emotional experience when a certain situation arises around us or within us! Most of us are able to live a reasonably happy life using the information from these maps and weighing them against the incoming information in our environment to make sense of what we are supposed to do next. However, many of these ‘mapsʼ contain emotional information that feels uncomfortable or even threatening and can trigger us very quickly to become protective (defensive or offensive).

Protection of the ‘inner child’: another way of understanding the powerful mechanisms in our brain

Another way of looking at this is through the concept of the inner child. There are three parts to this concept: the child who experienced the creation of these maps that contain feelings of pain hurt, fear, and any variety of the ‘not-good-enough-story’ we all carry within us; the ‘adaptive child’; and the adult. The ‘adaptive child’ is the part that grows as a protective response to the hurt and develops all defence mechanisms known to humans from hitting to sulking, pleasing to stone-walling. The adult is the part in us that can reasonably self-soothe the internal inner child and engage with the incoming threat calmly and assertively. (This concept comes from the brilliant Pia Melody).

couple sit together overlooking a city
The adaptive child: staying in defence mode creates more perceived danger.

By and large, the majority of couples live a life from the adaptive child position. This means, a lot of us remain in the reactive/protective mode most of the time we spent with our partner. Even though we chose to be with this person in the hope of finding a connection, peace, love, care, fun and trust. Like all the couples I see in counselling, Arian and Mark, are stuck in that same place. They now begin to slowly learn about when the adaptive child gets triggered into action because something the partner said lights up a map in the brain that raises the potential of feeling hurt.

Last week, you witnessed Markʼs and Arianʼs first attempts at learning to communicate from the adult position. We looked at how the emotions take over and hijack both of them based on their past experiences. Markʼs inner child is afraid of losing control, getting attacked, getting hurt, being ridiculed, and ultimately being worthless. This is very painful and also dangerous for a child. Naturally, his adaptive child jumps to the rescue and the defences he developed earlier in his life are anger and retreat.

Arian lost her mom while growing up – the ultimate loss of safety and control any of us can experience. Her inner child is anxious that the person who is supposed to keep her safe, Mark, might disappear any moment as well. Her defence mechanism—the adaptive child in her—encourages her to be ‘perfectʼ, overachieve, please everyone and be in control of what happens around her (including the behaviour of her husband).

The adult within us: bringing compassion to the hurt inside and reason to the external situation

Both partners begin to understand that the adult in them is the only one who can make a change. The role of the adult is to soothe their own inner frightened child. In other words, become aware of the fear inside and bring compassion to this part within. Later in the year, they will both learn a lot more about these parts of themselves individually. Also, the adult needs to be aware, to some degree, of the partnerʼs inner child so as not to aggravate their fear experience more. Lastly, the adult needs to engage the partner in an adult manner, which is entirely possible if the brain remains in learning mode.

Want to learn to soothe your own frightened inner child?

If you want to learn more about how to apply this powerful concept in your relationship, book a free 45-minute check-in-session with Mattie now.