Who is that kid? No it’s not another picture of my daughter. It’s another child I care for quite deeply, actually. I’ll give you a hint. It was taken in 1970.
Yes, it’s me. Looking pretty pleased with myself, my life and the mess I’ve made of my milk and strawberry ice cream. My best friend Claire still lived on the ninth floor of my apartment building, I still went to the Manhattan Country School. My favorite toy was a big, green and white corrugated cardboard puppet stage and I still believed I was going to get a dog and a baby sister one day, somehow. I didn’t hate my hair. I didn’t think I was fat.
The reason I love this picture is that I can see in my eyes all of the above. I can see how safe I felt, how trusting and truly innocent I was. When I look at that picture, I see the good, sweet, silly little girl I was and it makes me want to be good—to her and for her.
I know the expression “inner-child” has been used ad nauseam, fodder for cheap sit-com laughs for more than thirty years, but there’s something about remembering who we were as children, and how we were back then—that goes a long way toward banishing negativity in our present lives.
If you can, go and get a picture of yourself when you were little, say four or five. Still the age of magical thinking, but old enough to have the language to order your thoughts, and an idea of what was going on around you. Look at the picture for a minute. A whole minute and see what you’re feeling. Imagine that the child can see you and your life. What conversation might you have? I know what you wouldn’t say. You wouldn’t tell the child she’s stupid or worthless or an idiot or a fat pig or ugly or incompetent. You’d never tell her: “I can’t believe you screwed that up!” “What’s wrong with you?” or anything so harsh.
I hope you don’t talk to your big-adult self that way either. But sadly, a lot of people do. Not all the time, but sometimes and sometimes is enough to count as beating yourself up. Now think back to the last time you put yourself down, called yourself dumb or fat or anything intended to hurt yourself. Imagine what you’d do if you saw someone treating the child in the photograph that way. You’d probably defend the kid. You’d stand up to the bully on the child’s behalf. And finally you’d try to rectify the situation by building the child up, telling her something positive and hopeful. You’d work at it until you saw her smile again.
Why? Because children are all potential, all hope, all beautiful dreams. No matter what their circumstances, they are blameless and deserving of the chance to be and do anything. As adults, we have to recognize life’s and our own limitations. We set more realistic goals, but strive, hopefully, to be the best we can at what suits us. Sometimes there are false starts, unfortunate career choices, misguided relationships. From every experience, good and bad, you learn and use that knowledge the next time you’ve got a choice to make.
I love that everyone is writing letters to past versions of themselves these days. I think it’s such a wonderful mix of reflection and self acceptance. Oprah had a whole section of her May 2012 issue devoted to letters written by celebrities to their younger selves (hers is first). And there’s the upcoming Dear Teen Me, to be released in October, edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, an anthology of YA authors’ letters to teens they once were.
All these letters are full of advice and reassurance: It’ll get better, don’t eat so much sugar, don’t smoke, have more fun. The idea is to look back tenderly at your old self, nurture Kid You with the perspective Grown-up You has gained over the years. Since we’re generally nicer and more patient with children than we are with adults, this might be a step toward showing yourself love.
When I’ve done trauma work—with teens and young adults who were victimized as children— there is a visualization exercise we do. The following is a generic, sketch-description (and note that this kind of exercise is never done too soon in the therapy, never too early in a support group).
Close your eyes and imagine yourself a small child again, at the time when [the abuse] took place. Remember yourself, your room. Tell me some of the details, what toys are around? What’s on the walls? Where are you in the room? Remember the place where [the abuse] happened. Tell me what is happening. Now, I want you to choose someone from any time period in your life—even the present—an adult who is strong and loyal and can protect and defend you. Now bring that person back with you. Let that person protect you and stop [the abuse/abuser]. (Can you tell me what’s happening? How the protecting adult stops [the trauma]?
Now, Can you tell me who it is that saves you?
More than once, when I did this exercise, either with an individual or with a group, the answer to the last question was:
“MYSELF. That’s who saves me. Myself as an adult, how I am now.”
There is something very powerful in the notion of you—the grownup—saving your past self. Only you can be that loyal to you.
You are not that child anymore. You are not reliant on other adults to guide you, nurture you and cheer you on. (Maybe you’re parenting kids of your own, caring for your own parents at the same time.) But that child is still part of your identity. You carry her with you always. Remember her: the hope she had, the small joys and big dreams, no matter how much they’ve changed over the years. You can honor her by being true to your current goals, your current dreams, by believing in yourself.
So have standards for yourself, for your work, for your parenting and treatment of others and care for the environment. But don’t make those standards impossibly high, and don’t chastise yourself on those days when you fall a little bit short. Instead, look at the picture, look into the child’s eyes and believe you deserve the same love she did.