I understand that my inner child is me, but in working with her it helps me to view and treat her as a separate part of myself. In this way, I can connect with the child who is stuck in a time when things were dangerous – even life-threatening.
My inner child is the part of me that reacts, based upon past experiences, rather than responds to the situation at hand. She is the part of me that needs a great deal of love, patience, and understanding. She needs to be treated with gentleness and kindness. She needs me to listen to her, to reassure her that I will protect her from perceived harm.
My inner child’s name is Penelope. She is sensitive, inquisitive, creative, and smart. She is courageous and resilient. She has a deep, spiritual connection to animals and nature, and has an affinity for squirrels. She also has a stubborn streak.
When Penelope was very young, she had innocence and a trusting heart. But all that changed.
At the age of six, Penelope had won the state baton twirling championship in her division. Daddy and Mom had lavished her with praise. But the bar had been set; she was expected to be perfect in every competition from then on.
When she would win first place, she received praise. If she won second place, that praise was taken away and replaced with disapproval and harsh criticism (sometimes accompanied by a slap across the face, or worse). Penelope was devastated whenever this would happen, and would desperately try to win back her parents’ approval and, in her eyes, their love.
The older she got, the more Penelope fell prey to her older brother Kevin’s temper, Daddy’s spankings, and Mom’s push for perfection. Spankings turned into backhands across the face, beatings with belts, and eventually, a bullwhip. Kevin’s taunting became more malicious and his temper became more violent. Penelope would run to her oldest brother, Paul, for protection from Kevin whenever she could, but Paul couldn’t protect her from Mom and Daddy’s violent outbursts and corporal punishment. She tried to stay out of Daddy’s way whenever he was “in a mood”, but that wasn’t always possible.
Even though Penelope was hurting on the inside, she wasn’t allowed to show it. She wasn’t allowed to tell anyone. “What happens in our family stays with our family,” Daddy had warned her.
Penelope was taught to always smile for the camera, to smile for the judges, and to smile anytime someone asked her how she was doing. Out in the world, she was expected to always be bright and cheerful and confident. At home, she learned that being invisible was her best option when it came to her family.
Then one night, when she was eight, something happened that would begin a five-year hell – something that would damage her to the core. She couldn’t tell anyone – she didn’t dare upon threat of death. Another, brutally traumatic experience happened when she was twelve.
Penelope learned about fear. She learned about pain. She learned about hate. She learned about shame. She learned that she wasn’t safe. She learned to always do what was expected of her to avoid more pain, though that didn’t always work. She learned that she had to be perfect. She learned to keep secrets. She learned to hide her feelings. She learned that her opinions weren’t important, and she learned that people’s approval was all that mattered if she was to survive.
Penelope never lost hope. She never lost the courage to persevere. But she still gets triggered when things happen in my adult world that cause her to feel unsafe. She startles easily. She becomes defensive and reacts inappropriately. She panics. She cries because she is scared. She wants to run and hide from conflict. She still believes that she needs people’s approval and acceptance to be safe.
Whenever Penelope gets triggered, I check in with her and find out what she needs to feel safe. I try to reassure her that I, as an adult, will protect her. I ask her to let me take care of things. Sometimes she lets me, sometimes she resists. All I can do is love her, acknowledge her fear, and help her to feel safe as best I can.
It takes time to build trust. It takes her experiencing that, when she allows me to handle situations, things turn out okay. It is my hope that Penelope will eventually learn to trust me in every situation and let me respond as an adult, rather than her reacting from a place of trauma. I have faith that we will get there.