As children, we have limited capacity to control our emotions, and even less ability to take ownership over our behavior. Because we’re kiddos – and developmentally, we just aren’t there yet.
As physical adults, we can easily slip back into an emotionally childlike state where our inner child is calling the shots, keeping us from owning or taking responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, and actions.
This keeps us from living in an emotionally mature adult way in which we understand that only we control our thoughts and feelings, and that we call the shots in our adult lives.
This is when we find ourselves having temper tantrums, lousy boundaries, raising our voices, acting irrationally or out of scale to the moment, when we get defensive or easily offended, when everything is a problem other than us, when everyone else has done us wrong.
This is living in a state of emotional childhood, and it is a curable state.
In the last blog, I talked about the concept of the inner child and how important awareness is to connecting in with our own inner child and inner children, because there’s usually not just the one four-year-old within us and how vital and just plain lovely it is to give that little you inside you some love, some caring, some attention.
Today, I want to continue on the theme of our inner children and I want to talk about how not healing our inner child wounds, not giving our inner child what they need, can lead us to act in ways that may not serve us as adults and how to turn the beat around on the thought habit that my teacher, Brooke Castillo, calls emotional childhood.
And when we want to change our thought habits to shift the way we feel in a given situation, it’s so important to recognize that it may not be adult you having a particular thought or feeling.
It may well be your inner child coming out to try to protect you, to keep you safe from scary things like feeling feelings, speaking up in a meeting, leaving a relationship or job that doesn’t work for you, taking your supplements or following a therapeutic nutrition program like taking a break from gluten or dairy or sugar, alcohol, whatever.
Your inner child can also show up to remind you to rest, to nap, to play, to have fun.
This isn’t all doom and gloom.
Inner child work can help you to unravel and shift negative or challenging thought patterns and can also be the gateway to so much enjoyment. Healing doesn’t have to be so heavy.
Accessing our inner child means inviting more kid-like fun into our lives, and that’s just lovely.
As children, we generally don’t take responsibility for the things we’ve done or said because we fear retribution, losing our caretaker’s love, being abandoned and left to die, you know, cold and alone on a mountainside.
Your lizard brain, that ancient part of your thinking parts, would never let you put yourself in that position; so smart. And when I think about this protective mechanism in kids’ brains that says, “the adult thinks I messed up, don’t take responsibility. Quick, hide.”
I think about how, in high school, I babysat for these two boys every day after school. Their names were Henry and Jack. And they were super adorable.
I would often find the little guy, Henry, who is four years old maybe, in the kitchen, sitting on the counter, or sometimes under the kitchen table, like I couldn’t see him if he was under the table. He’d have his face covered in black crumbs, his hands all sticky with that white crème stuff, shoeprints on the counter.
And I’d say, “Henry, my darling, have you gotten into the Oreos?” And his eyes would go all wide and his face would go, like, stark white and he would shake his head while crumbs would go flying like everywhere. He was just a baby and he was reacting as an emotional child because he was one. He was literally a child.
As kids, we all react like adorable little Henry.
We react to being told that we did something wrong with a burst of sympathetic nervous system activity – fight, flight, freeze – that puts us in an emotionally protective place.
And eventually, if we keep living in this kiddo mindset, our cortisol gets all over-activated and wonky, leaving us stressed out, anxious, scared, and eventually, depressed and anxious, and often with a bellyache to boot.
To sum all of that up, kids don’t take responsibility because it’s a scary thing, which feels pretty logical and smart to me.
When as an adult you don’t take responsibility for how you feel, if you aren’t managing your thoughts and feelings, aren’t sitting in that watcher place but rather are reactive, act out, or try to buffer against or otherwise not feel your feelings then you may find yourself in a state of emotional childhood.
And this is not something we do on purpose.
It’s what happens when we don’t know another way to be. And most of us were parented by folks who didn’t realize that they themselves were in emotional childhood around all sorts of issues.
Who yelled when you spilled your milk or got a bad grade, who blamed or shamed you or others for what they were feeling – ‘stop that whining, boys don’t cry, or you’re overacting’, when you were like six, or eight, or twelve and you were upset about something they thought was small but felt big to you because you were small.
Parents who didn’t pause to reflect on their own internal state, their own thoughts, and the feelings those thoughts were creating for them, who said things to you like, “Lisa, you hurt your brother’s feelings. You need to apologize.”
Thus teaching you that you were responsible for how another person feels.
That they have the right to blame you for their reaction to you and that you have to mumble some unfelt words just to appease a social norm that reinforces this whole paradigm that we apologize for how someone else feels.
Without even recognizing how disempowering this whole framework is.
And this happens because our parents were likely also raised by emotional children whose own inner child had gotten zero love, understanding, or care.
They likely had no clue how this thought pattern and mandated apology was problematic and maybe this is new to you too.
This concept that we can make someone feel bad is predicated on blaming others for our own inner emotional state.
And that’s what folks who find themselves in a state of emotional childhood do; blame others for how you feel, not taking responsibility or ownership for your own capacity to manage your mind, to choose your thoughts, and thus to feel whatever you decide to feel based on those thoughts.
I see this blame-based thought habit that I myself used to cling to as an emotional baby blanket all the time when I’m coaching someone around their relationships, particularly romantic ones.
I have a client right now, let’s call her Megan, who believes in a deep place that her husband’s actions, the things he does, cause her emotions.
She often says things like, “If only he spoke to me in my own love language. I would be happy.” Or, “If only he told me more how special I am, I would feel seen and heard. If only he would do those chores on the daily, I would feel loved and respected.”
I want to bring a little more depth to the conversation and to frame it within this understanding that, when Megan’s making these statements, she’s in total emotional childhood about her relationship with her husband.
Because her inner child is running the show, she works really hard to attempt to control him.
She’s constantly telling him what to do and how to do it; how to express love, how to talk to her, what to do around the house. And she ties her lovability, her feelings, her experience of the world to his actions, his choices.
When he doesn’t do whatever it may be the way she wants, she feels sad, mad, dejected, and reacts like a full-on child. And the result is her complete disempowerment.
She’s constantly frustrated because she can’t control this other human animal.
He’s a grown-up and he gets to do what he wants how he wants, and it has nothing in this world to do with Megan. And I will, of course, caveat here to say I’m obviously not talking about someone being abusive or violent, name-calling, hitting. That’s not what we’re talking about here.
I’m talking about if he chooses to take the garbage out on her schedule or to hug her as much as she would like, even if he doesn’t want to. That’s the level of issue that we’re talking about.
So, when you say, “These are my needs and you need to meet those needs for me to be happy,” your inner child is speaking, my love.
Like Megan with her husband, you’re basing your own happiness on someone else’s actions, someone else’s choices, how someone else chooses and wants to be and show up in this world versus taking that power back to create your own joy.
Giving that power away is a recipe for disaster to say the very least. And forcing our will rarely, if ever, leads to true and lasting happiness.
In this case, Megan’s husband started saying I love you more after she asked him to do it about 12 billion times. And she told me that, upon further reflection, him saying I love you more didn’t actually make her happy.
She didn’t want him to say I love you from a place of obligation or being told. She wanted him to feel it.
And that moment, that moment of attempting to tell another human how to act, think, feel, that is some full-on emotional inner child business.
That’s a kiddo running the show, not an adult who recognizes that autonomy of others and loves them for who they are, practicing wild and unbridled acceptance for all of humanity.
When we’re in emotional childhood and are acting out the thoughts and needs of our inner child versus our adult self, we can easily get into a place where we are not only being obstinate.
We can also desperately want someone to rescue or save us, to act as a buffer for us so we don’t have to feel our feelings.
This shows up for me the most when something feels hard and I want someone to commiserate with me. Which is really just asking someone else to take my pain away so I don’t have to feel it.
To find the person that I find annoying just as annoying as I find them, to agree with me that a situation totally sucks and that I get to be angry about it or hurt about it. It can also show up as wanting someone to step in when I’m in indecision, like when I’m shopping.
My childlike habit for so many years was to turn to a friend to ask, does this look good on me, as though her thoughts were more valid than mine, effectively trying to turn her into a parent figure.
This emotional childhood state can also show up when I’m deciding if I want to go out at night when part of me is like, “Girl, you took your bra off. You’re not putting it back on and getting back on that subway.”
But part of me is feeling guilty that I’m not going out, that I might miss an event, FOMO sets in.
So I used to have this emotionally childlike habit of texting a friend or asking my partner, “Should I go out tonight? It’s so-and-so’s birthday, it’s all the way across town and I don’t know, I don’t want to go but I feel like I should go.”
Who hasn’t found themselves in that moment when we’re asking someone else to solve our problem for us? Like, their thoughts about whether I should go out matter more than my intuitive knowing, my adult self-based knowing.
Operating from this place where your inner child is running the show and you’re in emotional childhood is not only doing yourself a disservice.
It’s not kind or loving to the other person, especially if you turn out to regret your purchase or your decision to go out, and then end up blaming that other person for it. Which I’ve totally done that in the past, when I’ve put someone in that parent or grownup role in my mind.
And indirect or unclear communication, passive aggression, codependent communication – these are all signs and symptoms of being in emotional childhood.
The emotional child may not tell you they’re upset, but they’ll jab and cut at you sideways to make sure you learn all about it.
They don’t say, “Hey, if you need my help, I’m totally here for you.” or “Simple boundary, please call before 10 pm.” Instead, they answer the phone at midnight and then complain endlessly about staying up until 2 am on the phone when they actually want to go to bed.
They take on other people’s troubles and then get resentful about it.
This is emotional childhood. And when folks are in this state, they don’t clearly state their needs, wants, or boundaries.
They may let people walk all over them and then grumble and complain about it the second that person is out of earshot. They may jump to defensive speech, “Oh I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” that kind of language.
Or they may be easily and chronically offended, and I have someone in my life with this habit.
It’s something she definitely learned in childhood and have been working all these years to really let go of.
This person in my life, everything stands a chance to offend her. And it’s always this big show about how hurt she is and can you even believe how that stranger, that store clerk, or whomever, looked at me? She cut her eyes at me. Can you believe how they talked to me?
Everything is about her.
And she’s making it clear that she believes everything’s about her and everyone’s out to get her and she has to make a big stink about it because, while she looks like a grownup, her brain is squarely in emotional childhood, blaming, shaming, and guilting others for her own feelings and not taking emotional responsibility, which is what emotional adults do.
Addressing the needs of our inner child and stepping out of emotional childhood is 110% a healthcare issue.
Most of my 20’s were spent in emotional childhood with my inner child raging and making a scene any chance she could.
I didn’t know any other way and was so shaky about my own worth and value that when something wasn’t right or I was upset or I actually did something wrong.
I tended to look outside of myself for someone else to blame.
When my IBS and SIBO were in full-blown hot mess status, as it was for most of my life until I learned how to heal myself, I found myself blaming others for what I ate.
I remember this one specific time that I was going on a date, and it was early, it was like a second or third date. And that person recommended this restaurant where there was pretty much nothing on the menu that worked for me.
So instead of being like, “thank you for making that recommendation but there’s nothing on that menu that works for me, let’s try going to this other place instead”, I said something like, “Oh sure, I mean if that’s what would work best for you.”
If you really look at that, it’s clearly and directly saying, I’m inviting you to make a choice that’s going to make me suffer, that’s on you.
Which that abdication of responsibility is so child brain.
I wasn’t taking responsibility for my choices. Or wasn’t owning how I felt when I woke up in the morning feeling so terrible. I felt disappointed in myself, mad at myself.
And because that was too scary for my sweet inner child, from that place of emotional childhood, I wasn’t able to take responsibility for my actions or my feelings and wasn’t able to make the changes I wanted for my life.
To show up for myself in a true way that was in alignment with my real needs, to help me heal my body, mind, and spirit to grow.
I didn’t take responsibility for my feelings, so I wasn’t able to take responsibility for my actions. That was a mind-blowing realization for me. My own thoughts were keeping me from growing; how deeply disempowering.
It’s time that we step back and recognize, especially for those healthcare providers listening in, that every patient is actually – and this may be a shocker – a person too.
Handing out prescriptions, meal plans, restrictions, recommendations without first understanding the mental stories and barriers that may keep someone that patient, who’s a person, from activating that recommendation is just wasting everyone’s time and energy.
True healthcare starts with managing our minds.
Without that step, without pausing to understand how our thoughts lead to our feelings from which we go for the run that was recommended or say, F it, I’m going to scroll the Instagrams on the couch, whether we take the prescription or supplements, or once again, say F it, it’s all a waste.
Healthcare without mind care, without thought work, without asking, what does my inner child need? Is she driving me to emotional childhood or am I standing in my full power as an emotional adult, taking my medication, eating on-plan, doing my meditation daily, exercising, et cetera… that is useless healthcare.
And I see this all the time in the folks I work with.
So I generally start out care by recommending a 30-day nutrition reset diet, an elimination diet. And sometimes, folks have a lot of feelings about that, which makes sense and I’m here to hold space for all of the feels.
Most folks don’t speak honestly and openly with their healthcare providers. They just take the prescription, say thank you, doc, and never fill it, never reduce their fast food intake or start daily exercise or whatever. And I get it.
If a child is driving your emotional bus, not doing uncomfortable things that you don’t want to do though you’d like the health-increasing feel-better outcome of taking those actions, well gosh, that makes a ton of sense, right?
It makes sense to a child’s brain, and I’ve done it myself.
I had chronic heartburn. I kept drinking coffee until I realized I can be an adult here and shift my thinking.
And again, I think it’s really important to point out that this mental and emotional work, this needs to be the first step in healthcare.
Before the testing comes out, before the blood work, before the supplements, before the prescription, before the diet, we need to have this conversation with ourselves.
We need to raise our awareness about whether we’re reacting as an emotional child or an emotional adult, and we need to have these conversations with a loving caring therapist or life coach like myself before we embark on doing all of the rest of it to help ourselves heal, or it will be hard to get all the rest of it done if we’re self-sabotaging.
And it’s really important to me to pause here to say that we all slip into emotional childhood here and there. This is a process.
We develop over time. It’s a process, not a destination.
And we all step out of our adult minds from time to time. We all get hungry, lonely, angry, tired and act from a less than laudable place, and that’s fine. You get to recognize the presence of your inner child through your words and actions.
An adult you get to take ownership and can apologize knowing that you are responsible for your own behavior and you can name your mistakes without making a childlike maelstrom of guilt, shame, or blame around it.
And as always, I want to remind you that all of this, this entire practice, has to start from a place of deep and profound self-love.
Loving ourselves is our most vital medicine.
It’s the most important supplement on the shelf and I want to remind you, from that place, to be gentle, loving, and kind with yourself while you practice this.
You’ve been doing your best to get through this life with the tools you’ve had. If you’ve never heard of or thought about emotional childhood, then how could you know you were acting from that place?
How could you realize that your inner child is activated?
And remember that your inner child may be stomping her foot right now and being like, why did no one teach me about this before?
It’s so funny, learning about emotional childhood can shift us into emotional childhood about the fact that no one taught us about emotional childhood. Brains, what are we going to do with these human brains?
I guess we’re just going to love them up and love them up and love them up, right? What else is there?
Give your brain some love as she gets grumpy that no one’s taught you about emotional childhood before.
Last week was all about awareness, noticing when your inner child pops up to say hello and leads you into emotional childhood.
When you’re being reactive or are choosing an old thought that no longer serves you, when you’re blaming or shaming yourself or others, when you’re abdicating responsibility for your own thoughts, feelings, or choices.
Or when something inside you wants you to buffer hard against feelings or doing something challenging like writing that memo, that brief, that spreadsheet, that blog post, whatever, that something inside you that wants you to overeat, to drink too much, to go shopping, to over-think, to watch Netflix, to do anything other than what you, adult you, needs to do in that moment, that is your inner child luring you into emotional childhood.
Notice when that little sweet kiddo shows up and you act from a place of emotional childhood.
When you act out, when you stomp your little foot, when you get angry out of proportion or otherwise act like a kid in an adult body, not owning or taking responsibility for your behavior.
Here’s your homework; when you can, pause, take a deep breath and write it down. What we see on paper is so much easier to shift than thoughts rolling around in our heads, which are slippery and harder to pin down.
Bring this work to your morning ritual, to your future self-planning morning journaling exercise.
To the mat.
Bring it to yoga class.
To your run.
Bring it to your breathwork or other meditation.
And make room to notice, without judgment or criticism, the moments when you behave, think, feel, like an emotional child.
And that’s it. That’s the literal entirety of your homework and it’s way harder than it sounds because I’m not asking you to change anything or even do anything other than notice, sit with, and make note of a thought habit you may not like. And this can be so challenging and your brain is likely to want to force solutions.
And I want you to invite your brain to just sit with this awareness. That’s all.
Awareness is, in and of itself, healing. So breathe it in. Invite it in. Welcome it in, even if it’s really annoying to your inner child that you’re not doing something. That’s okay. Don’t just do something, my love. Sit there.
My love, please remember you are safe, you are held, you are loved. And when one of us heals, we help heal the world.