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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

inner child

(1990’s | therapese | “the child in you,” “inner self,” “the repressed”)

This expression has a bad case of bipolar disorder, or split personality, or schizophrenia, or dementia praecox, or something. One of many concepts sprouted in pop psychology and transplanted thence to popular culture over the last five fruitful decades, it is strikingly bifurcated in popular use. Is the inner child full of wonder, the bright, joyous, spontaneous part of us that we want to liberate? Or is it the part that got picked on, wounded, broken, the traumatized piece of us that holds us back and needs to be coaxed out and treated? The latter sense seems to have predominated when the phrase arose, but today I’m not so sure it’s more common. Charles Whitfield, author of Healing the Child Within (1987), used this term (and several others, which he regarded as synonyms) in the sunnier sense, but he also talks about the scars of mistreatment that the inner child bears.

Most of us, I would venture to say, have at least a little of both inside us. We all felt frustration and rage as children and had to learn to handle it when things didn’t go our way — repressed anger is the price of adulthood. Now we are in Freudian territory. You force down the bad stuff in order to survive, but it lingers and comes back to bite you later. Jung, on the other hand, says, “In every adult there lurks a child — an eternal child [“ewiges Kind” in German], something that is always becoming, is never completed, and calls for unceasing care, attention, and education. That is the part of the personality which wants to develop and become whole.” Jung takes a more rigorous view than those therapists who counsel us to embrace our inner Pollyanna, but he does emphasize that what’s important about the inner child is not that it suffered, but that it can develop in healthy and helpful ways. A number of therapists trace the whole concept back to Jung, and it’s no surprise that they would want to attach a controversial therapeutic approach to so august a name. Still, it’s not unreasonable to trace the fault line in the definition of “inner child” to disagreements between Freud’s and Jung’s interpreters. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Those who object to all this talk of an inner child fear that the concept seduces us into discarding all the hard lessons we learned on the way to adulthood in favor of coddling our most selfish and anti-social impulses. Defenders of inner child therapy recognize the dangers of such self-indulgence: “Popular visibility and the resulting media over-simplifications have led to the idea that Inner Child work is about self-absorbed people carrying around teddy bears and whining about their parents. It is undoubtedly true that there are many people ‘in Recovery’ who are busy blaming their parents and their childhoods for the failures of their adult lives.” When the inner child spends too much time outside, there’s trouble, just as there’s no doubt that if you let children have their way all the time, thereby sparing them unhappiness and its consequent trauma, they won’t make better adults. But the idea that our childhood experiences have a decisive effect on our adult behavior, or that we’re happier when we strip away some of the jadedness and dreary constraint we accrete while growing up, seems so well-established as to be beyond cavil — one of the few central human truths to emerge unscathed from the twentieth century. Thus both notions of the inner child will have value at least in some cases.

The phrase became widespread among therapists in the 1980’s and went on swiftly from there. Tom Hanks’s Big (1988) came along at the right time and may have given it a boost. Like many ideas drawn from pop psychology, the “inner child” has always been ripe for adaptation and parody, and inner entities have become thick on the ground, like “inner critic.” Here’s a short list (scroll down), but there’s always room for more.

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