From the therapy room: Freeing the inner child

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Although I mostly work with adults, much of my work concerns children. Yes – children of all ages – toddlers, shy pre-schools, unruly sulky teenagers. These children come to me hidden within adult bodies and desperately needing help. I already wrote more than once about the importance of healing your inner child to set yourself free to lead a happier and a more fulfilling life as an adult. You may check out:

Healing our inner child

Redeeming the sparks or Children frozen in time

Recognizing Childhood Trauma

This blog post, however, is extra-special, as here I hand over to one of my clients who tells about a transformational encounter with his inner child that happened during one of our sessions. We used a technique that I call ‘time-travelling’ and that I found to be very effective in rescuing lost children (and lost adults!). It is a very moving and powerful story and I am grateful to the author for sharing it with us.

Let the sand flow!

For many years I was creatively blocked, as if something was frozen within me. When people talked of “feelings”, I had no idea what they meant. It was like a foreign language. It was if they were all in the normal world together, and I was isolated, having somehow missed that day at school. Looking back now it seems as if something was struggling within me, like a bird beating against a cage wanting to break free. But setting it free was frightening. The conflict produced terrible headaches that stopped me in my tracks, forcing a movement in a new direction, and eventually, very reluctantly, prompted by an osteopath, I decided to try therapy. It turned out to be an incredible journey for me, still unfolding, but I won’t talk about it all today. I want to talk about one little episode to which I kept returning over and over again through many sessions.

One day at school (I must have been about 4 or 5) I’m in a sand pit with some friends. We’re throwing the sand around, and I take a cup, fill it full of sand, and pour it over my ears. I’m amazed at this experience. It feels so wonderfully pleasurable, the smooth flow of the sand, almost like water, but more exciting in its sense of material weight pressing in, the warmth enclosing me, and every moment of the flow so fascinating in its own way. I can feel every individual grain of that sand – each one is different, unique, itself, felt so sensitively – and yet it’s all still  connected, all one, simple and easy. I can’t let go of the feeling all day. Can’t wait to get home to my Mum and Dad so I can share this wonderful thing, this brilliant new secret I’ve discovered with them. As soon as I get in the door, I tell them in a rush, so excited I can hardly get the words out.

In the silence that follows it slowly begins to dawn on me that something is not quite right. Then I notice my father’s grim face and my mother’s eyes wide with fear.

“You were pouring sand over your… ears? Let me look at them.” She gets hold of me, pushes away my hair and twists my ear rather sharply, causing me to gasp in pain.

“Do you realise you could have damaged the inside parts – they’re very delicate – and become deaf for your whole life?” says my Dad. “You never think, do you? Nothing matters to you, you’re so irresponsible.”

Mum looks away from me, almost tearful, and so very disappointed, as if our world has collapsed. “Make sure, you never do it again.”

After this the sand instantly transforms from a thing of joy and beauty to one of stressful anxiety and danger. And with that a nagging crippling fear enters my heart. It is a fear of letting go to the creative flow within me, something of my very own, just experienced simply for its own pleasure.

“Are you seeing that sand pit now?” The voice of the therapist reaches me.

“Yes, I do,” I reply.

“And the little boy, is he still there?” says the therapist.

“Yes, he is there .. he looks rather sad .. and alone..”

“Why don’t you talk to him?” urges the therapist.

“What do you mean?” I simply don’t know how to do this.

“Go and talk to him!” she coaxes.

“And what shall I say?” I need my lines worked out in advance, I always have.

“Don’t worry about that .. just talk to him, he needs you.”

The therapist wants me to dive in and connect, take a risk. The boy sits listlessly in the sand pit, absently trailing his hand through the sand. I approach, and stand watching, my mind frozen with confusion. It’s hopeless.

“I don’t know what to say to him.”

The therapist reassures me. “You do, look, he is so sad ..”

I decide to at least have a go. “Hello.” The boy mutters something, looking away. “How are you?” No response from the boy. “Look, it’s alright to play with the sand, but you must be responsible ..”

The therapist intervenes. “Is that how you talk to a child!?”

The hopelessness bubbles up. “I don’t know how to talk to a child!”

The therapist replies. “You do!”

I kneel down to the child’s level, at the side of the pit, and start trailing my hand in the sand like he is doing. “It’s nice isn’t it?”

The boy mutters “I can’t …”

I reply “You can’t do what?”

The boy looks away again “Play …”

I escape back to the therapist. “But I can’t tell him it’s alright, it’ll damage …”

The therapist still refuses to give me my lines, trusting me to do it on my own. “Just connect with him, communicate…”

I turn back to the boy, with a bit more confidence. “Ok .. what’s the matter?”

The boy replies “I can’t …”

I continue to trail my hand in the sand, mimicking his movements. I try and connect. “You know, it’s so nice … I like playing with the sand, I’m always doing it …”

Something is changing in me now, I’m getting him, this boy — I’m somehow with him, on his side, sensing a leap I might take.

The boy looks briefly hopeful, but then shuts down. “Adults don’t play.”

I more boldly pour the sand, higher up my arms and on to my neck. “I do.”

The boy is shocked. “You can’t do that!”

I continue to pour the sand, with obvious calm enjoyment. “Why not?”

The boy becomes tearful. “I did it, poured it all over me once, it was lovely .. but they say I can’t.”

I slowly move my hand towards him and tip some sand gently down his upper arm. “Who says?”

The boy replies. “Mum and Dad.”

I gently ask. “Why not?”

The boy whispers. “It’ll damage my ears, I was bad …”

I slowly move my hand full of sand up to his ear, and let a little trickle down it. He flinches slightly, but feels the pleasure again. “Look, isn’t it lovely?”

I then trickle sand over my ears as well. “You can’t .. adults don’t ..” the boy says.

I continue to steadily trickle the sand over our ears. “I do”, I tell him.

The boy is unsure, but doesn’t move away. He’s sensing the initial thrill the sand gave him, once again.

I feel I’m getting it now, really connecting. “They don’t understand about sand, about play,” I tell him.

The boy sadly acknowledges this now. “No ..”

We hold each other with a calm and warm eye contact. “That’s alright,” I say quietly.

The boy is still unsure. “Is it?”

I feel I’m truly with the boy now, feeling with him effortlessly. “They just don’t get how lovely it is, like we do”, I tell him.

The boy smiles. “No.”

We now begin to tip the sand over our ears and bodies with increasing abandon. I tell him. “I do it every day, it’s beautiful.”

He stares at me in wonder. “Do you really?”

I feel strong and sure. “Yes! I even carry a big can of sand with me in my rucksack, so I can do it anywhere I happen to be! And I’m not deaf!”

The boy laughs, thrilled. “Will you come back and play with me again?”

I’m loving this now. “Yes, whenever you want.” And I know I will.

I feel so different after all this. Well, to put it simply, I do feel, at last. The adult me had liberated the boy from his frozen state — he’s stepped in finally, and healed the wound his parents had inflicted, by telling him not to trust the flowing ‘sand’ at his heart. This was about giving the boy back his power, and celebrating it. And I’d been freed up too. By allowing the boy to live and breathe fully within me, I’d also allowed the mature me to fully release the breath I’d been holding for so long, and start to stretch my wings. I’d told the boy this, and so made it ‘real’, so now it’s as if I always am carrying a can of sand, in my rucksack, always available, and safe, magical, easy, and flowing.

The sand was a powerful early experience of sensuous pleasure, which was quickly stamped out, labelled dangerous, meaning I came to shut it down, locking it tightly within. Later anything similarly big and pleasurable, like sex, became a problem. But now the boy and the man are together, far more, in all their experiences, through going back and re-visiting the sand pit, and having it out together. They’ve found each other once again, these lonely wanderers. Now they are available to each other, the boy and the man, at their most vulnerable times – the boy helping the man play, and the man giving the boy mature guidance — to keep the sand flowing. They relish the presence of each other now, each being bigger because of the unique and fascinating difference of the other, that they are intimate with, and have strongly included, but refuse to pin down and second guess. It’s basically a simple and strong love affair between the boy and the man, each letting the other off the hook for what they are, each giving the other free reign in every fresh moment. It makes life continually open and exciting, and magically rich.

At last I can start to calmly and fully enjoy each grain, each moment of my experience, as unique and incomparable, letting go and feeling it without anxiety. This contrasts with a frantic rush to a destination point I’ve been obsessed with, so I was never really living at all. In particular I feel this to be settling on a sexual level, where each moment of the experience becomes more normal and comfortable, as I give myself permission to fully be where I am and live it. This also liberates the climax, through it mattering less, to be all it can be, so the intense joy of it can flow more comfortably into everything. So I come to feel that all my experience, however mundane, has a sensuous pleasurable quality, as if now the sand never stops flowing. One cup of sand, continuously flowing, a whole thing. And yet its flow is actually made up of tiny individual grains, each fully felt as a unique moment, and so also separate.

Perhaps there are experiences like the sand in many of our early lives, lying frozen, ready for our return, so they can thaw, and flow once again.

It was terrible headaches that brought me into therapy. They haven’t gone completely yet, but they have definitely lightened and softened. Some of that old oppressive pressure has released, amidst a sense of cooling soothing flow – very like the early joyous experience of the boy in the sand pit..

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6 thoughts on “From the therapy room: Freeing the inner child”

  1. Fergus

    This is a tremendously valuable thing to share. Although a small part of your journey, it is of massive importance and significance. Thank you for sharing it.

    I have been increasingly fascinated by the relationship between my self and parents who are now mindfully well, in their eighties, I in my late forties. We meet. We talk. From time to time I can be with them. It is always good but I was only reflecting this very hour before even reading your blog, just after a conversation on the phone with my Dad at how little they really know me and how little I presumably know them. I came off the phone thinking, ‘they just do not get me do they!’. But I had not idea that your blog that I was about to read was all about the inner child.

    I resonate massively with it. In my own reflections over recent years, I have come up with several similar circumstances in my own childhood. My parents were and are wonderful in fact. Would not want any other parents in fact. Yet they have so often not bothered enough perhaps to want to relate. I suppose it must be true of me too in reverse. That is fair.

    But this results in so much oppression of the real free me inside. I think society does this to us too. Presumably we too are part of the problem in reverse. We are taught to conform and agree, to behave and to do to fit the model. But is the model right. Of course not!

    I will not share details on this web, but it is true that unless parents really do think out of the box and consciously explore with their child, their world, oppression of the real child will occur and the child – the us, the me quickly is taught that this is an option, that is a possibility, this is ok, that is not ok when all this is not the model suited around the person – the individual, the child but around the person in power – the adult. I met someone recently who was telling me how he has through a painful event had to realise that as a learning parent he, he and his wife must not project on to their child their understanding of what is best for the child but rather learn together with their child putting the real child first.

    I am now working with this my self. Telling my self that it is ok to fly after all.

    Thank you!

    1. Nick

      Thanks for this extremely thoughtful and resonant response Fergus. What I find particularly interesting is how apparently small incidents in our background can have a huge impact on our lives, if we fail to get the response we needed at the time. Care givers need to be aware that being shut down and unavailable at any ordinary moment can change the course of lives – althougn of course it is an impossible task to be fully present at all times for children, although awareness of the importance of having the intention to be must help. Sometimes the event is so traumatic and ‘big’ for the child though, they become numb and frozen around it, and it takes a long process of investigation for it to thaw enough for them to even start to see its significance, as was the case with the incident of the sand – it started with only a glimmer, but steadily grew into a fire that seemed to burn into every area.

  2. Stephen Lawrence

    I had a childhood issue (@6/7 yrs) concerning an early sexual experience, which various counsellors had rather dismissed. But I felt encouraged by reading the story here and decided to tried the technique for myself. Or rather a variant: this time I replayed the event with the same characters present but imagining a different outcome – one in which I was not reported to the Headmistress! I found that by going into it as realistically as possible, by considering what each of the characters might say, and what might have lain behind their words, that the results were more credible, and something rather nice and ultimately comforting came out of it. I may revisit the scenario again…

    I can also consider using the technique for other painful events not so early childhood either… It seems quite powerful – thank you!

    I find it somewhat ironic that in my childhood I notably did not engage in “imaginative pretend play”. This technique here is of course different, being only one person’s imagination rather than being open to the input of others, but I feel it is a start. It may play into my interactions with people in the present time, as well.

  3. Nick

    Thanks for the comment. I think sexuality is an extremely important issue, and is perhaps not discussed enough during therapy, maybe out of embarrassment on both the therapist and the client’s part. But if one can grapple with these issues, and become truly accepting of one’s sexuality – with all its quirks and individuality – then that can provide a big energy to move one forward. It’s almost like the full acceptance of this part of ourselves leads to a parallel sense of increased flow and connection in everyday life. And my experience is that this change can be unlocked by focusing on key childhood experiences – such as the sand – which caused us to shut down and over control in the first place, which then got transferred to the sexual arena when we became adults. Also my experience is, as you suggest, that if we revisit these formative experiences – going back to the child and acting out a dialogue with them, supporting them from a new adult perspective – then we can re-live the incidents in a more positive powerful way. When I’ve done this it’s almost felt like I changed history, and the child that was frozen back there by the incident seemed to join me in the here and now, allowing that lost childlike (and also sexual) flow back in.

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