The Wounded Inner Child
Updated: Jun 9, 2022
One of the most important modes in schema therapy is the vulnerable child mode. It contains all the painful emotions and memories from childhood. When children move through the world without someone to help them understand and organise their emotions, they can have difficulty making sense of the world and their place in it. They can feel easily overwhelmed, lack insight into what they feel and why, and can be confused about how to soothe themselves. To protect themselves and survive a difficult situation, they develop automatic ways of coping – by fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Without learning what to do with vulnerable emotions, adults can feel overwhelmed by the vulnerable child mode (after all, you don’t learn what you’ve never been taught).
When adults flip into the vulnerable child mode, they’re often responding to a current, hurtful situation, and at the same time, being reminded of all the emotional pain from their past. They feel not only the vulnerable emotions triggered by the present event but all the painful emotions and memories from their childhood too. Without learning ways to manage their emotions, adults revert to old ways of coping and overcompensate, avoid, or surrender to their emotions. When you’re in the vulnerable child mode, there are a few things you can do to take care of them. First, identify your emotions, then, meet the underlying need.
Use the situation, your physical sensations, or an emotion wheel to help you identify what emotion you’re feeling. You may feel sadness, loneliness, isolation, or shame. Then, try to connect with what you need. It may be that you need to feel loved, to connect with people, or to feel accepted and safe. Ask yourself, what do I need to feel better? Use the framework “I feel X, I need X”, to communicate to yourself and others your emotions and underlying need. This might sound like - “I feel rejected, I need to hear that I am important to you”, or “I feel defective, I need to know that I am good enough”. While it’s important to ask others to meet your needs, it’s equally important to meet those needs for yourself.
Part of meeting your needs is to show yourself compassion and understanding for feeling whatever you feel. To validate, accept and care for yourself. You could say – “I know how isolating it feels to be forgotten about. I understand why you feel so alone right now”. If you notice an internal critic jump it (which might say “you’re being unreasonable”, “this is your fault”, or “you have no right to feel this way”), remind yourself that your emotions are valid to your experience. If it feels too uncomfortable to be self-compassionate, imagine you’re speaking to a younger version of yourself, or, if you’ve had a session with me/another schema therapist, this would be a great time to listen to your recording.
Another strategy is to write a letter to your vulnerable child. Find a time where you have privacy and no distractions. Take a moment to ground yourself in the present moment, close your eyes and connect to your emotions and needs in the present moment. Then, try to remember a time when you were a young child and felt a very similar way. If this feels too overwhelming, keep your eyes open, or look at a photo of you at a young age. What emotions were you feeling in this memory? How did this feel in your physical body? What did you need to hear in this memory? What support did you need? Now, try to put that in writing. Try to write all the things little you needed to hear (click this link for some inspiration https://healingbrave.com/blogs/all/open-letter-to-my-inner-child).
Getting to know your vulnerable child and start healing their wounds can be a difficult and confronting process. But doing so can open your world to deeper connections with yourself, and other people, and bring you closer to the life you want to live.