Individual psychotherapy can provide a powerful medium to do the deeper work required to help people who are stuck in the past. “Inner child work” is one avenue for this where the therapist gently guides the client to their emotional experience during the time period of the primary wounding, childhood for many people. When emotional needs are unmet, it’s common to shut off from the sadness, despair and loss associated with this – which can show itself in relationships, mental and emotional health as an adult.
We are shaped by our primary relationships not only by experience but how our brains are wired as a result. The exciting latest research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology (Daniel Siegel, MD) has demonstrated that though negative experiences of unmet needs can result in our personal alarm systems (our reptilian brain, or our amygdalla in neuroscience-speak) sounding off inappropriately, the brain can rewire itself with new experiences.
Let’s talk a bit about unmet needs…
In therapy, whether individually or in a couple dynamic, I look for indicators of unmet needs as children. This often shows itself as deep mistrust, fear of abandonment, sensitivity to criticism, poor self esteem and other signs. There is a reason why the person sitting before me looks at the world through this lens. A combination of biology, unmet relational needs and the ensuing wiring of the brain can be a cocktail for a great deal of internal and relational distress.
How does one get to the seed of unmet needs, particularly in many cases when there have been very efficient defense mechanisms in place to protect the person from this emotional reality? The answer is, very cautiously. These types of questions are probably not best suited for the first few sessions of therapy unless the client is well aware of them and brings them forth immediately to look at.
One question that helps to get to this sensitive area is, “What did you need from your dad (or mom) that you didn’t get as a child?” Many people have never pondered this question and why would they? For many, it’s a fairly painful thing to look at. If a safe environment has been created between the four walls of a therapy room, this is a good place to start.
I often have the client do a letter to their mother or father from themselves at a particular age in childhood then process this in session. People often are surprised at how emotional it can be to not only do this letter – but hear themselves read it aloud. If one can start to look at what experiences and core beliefs about themselves, others and the world they have internalized, they are often solidly on the road to healing. The hardest part is often facing what the experiences must have been like for you as little boy or girl, which means breaking through some of your well constructed and useful defensive mechanisms. The problem is what may have been “useful” before is not longer useful as you walk through life.
If you can take a look at and appropriately grieve for your inner child and develop empathy for him/her, you have great hope for getting on the road to the emotional and relationship health you deserve.
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