Stuart’s Therapeutic Blog
It’s the day after Boxing Day and a slightly quieter than usual day here at Survivors Manchester, so I thought I would have a crack at writing about an important aspect of the therapeutic work I often find myself looking at with clients who have experienced childhood sexual abuse – the relationship between the ‘adult’ and ‘inner child’ parts of themselves.
Whilst it is important to acknowledge that each of our clients’ experiences is very personal and unique, I’ve noticed from my work here that there are some common patterns and manifestations of the impact of childhood sexual abuse I see often. I’ve found that my clients are re-assured to hear that their presenting symptoms and problems are things I have heard before from our other service users. I think this can really help break down some of the isolation and aloneness they can feel. Often my clients come into therapy feeling like they are the only person in the world who has gone through this. And that is usually because they have remained silent about it and struggled with it on their own, sometimes for decades.
One of the areas that I find myself working with a lot at Survivors Manchester is the relationship between the “adult” and the ‘inner child’ parts of my clients. I think we all have an “inner child” of some sort, although what this means to us exactly and how we interact with it will be different for different people. For me, I guess I see my ‘adult’ as the logical, experienced, grown-up part of myself that deals with reason and is able to understand or at least acknowledge the complexity and sometimes paradoxical nature of life. I see my ‘inner child’ more as the emotional, playful, spontaneous part of myself, that doesn’t care about logic or reason. I have noticed often working with my clients that their relationship with their inner child has been damaged as a result of suffering childhood sexual abuse. In some cases they have cut off their inner child, almost rejecting it, or seeing it as alien or completely other to them. Sometimes the adult part of themselves can be very judgemental and hostile towards their inner child, because it represents something very frightening that they want to forget; or they just no longer know their inner child very well, after years of avoiding it. But cutting off this part of themselves means they are somehow disconnected from their true self, and can lead to an array of problems such as low self-esteem, lack of confidence, a feeling that they don’t really know or trust who they are, or feeling like life has become numb or meaningless.
I have noticed that many of my clients look back at their experience of childhood sexual abuse through their adult, logical, experienced eyes, and criticise or judge themselves for “not stopping it” or “allowing it to continue”. In these situations I find it really helpful to distinguish between the adult and child’s experience and explore what their child’s world looked like at the time they experienced the abuse. For example, is it really realistic to think a 9 year old child would say no to an adult, who they have been taught repeatedly through their early experiences to trust and obey? Does a 9 year old child even understand the concept of sex? Even if they did, do they have the life experience to know right from wrong in an area they have never experienced? I usually find that exploring this area can really help to break down feelings of guilt and shame that many survivors carry, once they realise they are judging their child through the eyes of an experienced adult.
I think it is useful to consider the parallel experiences of the logical, reasoning adult trying to make sense of their historic abuse experience, alongside the emotional, frightened, and vulnerable child for who the experience still feels very much “right now”, even if it was 30 years ago. I notice that my clients often have a tendency to remain mainly – if not completely – in the adult narrative, endlessly reasoning or bargaining with themselves and trying to “think” their way through their traumatic experience. In this case I will try to take them back to their inner child, as I think that at the root of the trauma, can often be the unheard, untold and unprocessed experience of the child. It is completely understandable that they would want to keep this locked away – after all for many people, the thought of intentionally engaging with and embracing these feelings feels very dangerous and overwhelming. But giving their inner child the space to tell their story, to be heard and understood, can help to dramatically reduce their current trauma symptoms.
If I’m working with a client whose inner child is dissociated and split off from their adult self, the therapeutic goal is reintegration. This offers a real opportunity to encourage their adult self to be the person who finally hears, supports and comforts the inner child, allowing them to process the memories and reframe them. Sometimes my clients have – understandably – talked about wanting to rub out or erase these traumatic experiences. Whilst this isn’t possible, I do believe it is possible to allow these experiences to be processed and worked through, and as a result allowed to “rest” within them in a place that enables them to be able to move on and start living their life in a fuller and happier way.
There are a number of methods I might use to do this – Parks Inner Child Therapy, “empty chair” work, present tense re-living of traumatic events, or actively moving between adult and child perspectives of events to help clients understand the different frames of reference. Whatever method I use, I have been struck on many occasions by how powerful it can be for clients with historic sexual abuse to re-engage with their inner child in a kind, supportive and empathic way, and this has often been the central nerve of trauma-focused therapeutic work I have done with our service users.
If I had to boil down everything I have learnt as a therapist (and a human being!) and distil it into a super-compact final thought, it would be that we all need to be kinder to ourselves, approach the difficult and challenging parts of ourselves with love rather than hostility, and practice better self-care. If you wouldn’t dream of saying something harsh and critical to another person, why would you say it to yourself?! And I think that nowhere is this idea more relevant than in the relationship between adult and child in people who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. There’s some material for a good New Year’s Resolution!….
Best wishes everyone, Happy New Year, and all the best for 2019.