Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
The reactions of your Inner Child and Outer Child aspects arise from the hurt, neglected or wounded parts of our selves that require understanding, support and healing. Because these aspects of our psyche are scared and angry, or feel vulnerable and abandoned, they keep seeking resolution in repetitive and unskilful ways.
These parts are called different names in different therapy models. For example, they’re called our “Adaptive Child” parts in Dr. Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy, “Exiles” in Internal Family Systems developed by Dr. Dick Schwartz. They’re called “automatic thoughts/internal dialogues/negative schemas” in Cognitive Behavioural Therapies, and have many other names in different therapy models.
Meta-analytic studies by Dr. Bruce Wampold & colleagues repeatedly show that it really doesn’t matter which bona fide model of therapy we use to address these aspects of ourselves, or even what we call them. The main point to understand is that with help, we can all learn to do this inner work for ourselves, using an infinite variety of processes, to heal and provide containment for our Inner Child parts.
Our Outer Child parts are the aspects of us that “act out” in overly controlling, critical ways or in hasty, irrational, withdrawing ways to try and protect us from danger. These reactive parts are protecting us from overpowering feelings and experiences from our past – either in the recent past of our current relationship or in the distant past of our childhoods.
We all have wounds
When we have been hurt, humiliated, frightened, or shamed in the past, we will have wounded “parts” that carry the emotions, memories, and sensations from those unintegrated experiences. These are burdens which our parts don’t know how to put down. So, they repetitively behave in unskilful ways when they are triggered, often causing unintended damage along the way.
Generally, all “acting out” behaviours are geared towards blocking fear or anger, tension or anxiety via uncontrolled reactions to initial thoughts, feelings and desires.
Unfortunately, these reactions are governed by the limbic system and the reptilian parts of our brain which trigger strong emotions, rather than coming from the more considered responses of our thinking brain – the frontal cortex. These Outer Child reactions are the impulsive, unrestrained parts of us that act to protect us with no thought to the consequences for us or our partner. They demand immediate gratification and cause us to indulge in what Terry Real calls “losing strategies”, causing us to get stuck in six predictable ways. We do unskilful things like: insist on being right, control situations, explode into rages, lie, cheat, resentfully comply, self-medicate or withdraw – negatively impacting our partner and children.
Inner Child and Outer Child Parts
Even though the reactivity of our Inner and Outer Child parts are attempts to protect us from hurt or shame, they also cause us to break promises. For example, they abandon tasks that we’d promised to do, because tasks require self-discipline and perseverance to complete – attributes which these immature parts don’t have.
Our child parts literally hijack our adult parts, overriding more considered options. They cause us to “flip our lid”, a term coined by child and family psychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel. Even when we know what’s in our best interests, and in the best interests of our relationship, if we don’t learn how to manage these reactive child parts by becoming centred in our Functional Adult, they may frequently sabotage our life.
When we indulge in seeking instant relief, we often end up feeling worse about ourselves. For the sake of immediate gratification, we sacrifice what’s actually more satisfying and meaningful to us, our self-respect and the wellbeing of our relationships. By reacting from our scared or wounded parts, we are allowing our impulsive emotional brain to run, and ruin, our life.
We all have Inner Child and Outer Child parts
It’s important that we learn to respect (not suppress) the emotional reactions of our Inner Child and Outer Child parts. We do so by harnessing and practicing the skills learnt by our more calm and centered Functional Adult self. We all have, or can learn to develop, a Functional Adult self which contains many crucial qualities such as perspective, confidence, compassion, and acceptance.
Our Inner Child and Outer Child reactions are expressions of our wounds. These symptoms need to be heard and attended to in caring, respectful and responsible ways. This is what being a Functional Adult self is about – and it involves learning to self-nurture and self-soothe. These parts need to be understood and responded to by us to prevent them pushing us to act out in self-defense. If we let our impulses run free, negative repercussions are inevitable. We can practice dealing with these parts in caring ways by, for example, learning to take Responsible Time-Outs before reacting reflexively.
When we react strongly to something, that’s exactly the time to stop, step back and ask ourselves “Can I afford to act on this feeling?” Most probably we’ve been triggered, or our imagination’s running wild, or we’re feeling disrespected, angry, scared or depressed. These are all normal, human states governed by our emotional brain which can hijack our Functional Adult self governed by our frontal cortex. Hijacking makes thinking, caring, and considered judgment impossible. Right here is when we need to do what’s counter-intuitive – turn within and learn to understand and manage our reactive child parts instead of trying to stop them acting out. Even though this is difficult, it’s also vitally important to do for our own and others’ sakes.
What you can do
If turning within and being curious about what you’re feeling, thinking and needing seems too big a stretch, use distraction techniques as an initial way to calm down. Go for a fast walk or jog, do some push-ups, clean your house, have a cool shower or relaxing bath, write, paint, do some slow breathing, listen to soothing music or call a good friend. Do anything that works for you to self-soothe because it’s essential that you learn to quiet down your emotions before acting.
What you must not do
- Don’t relentlessly pursue your partner to get an immediate resolution to your anxiety.
- Don’t obstinately withdraw from your partner to avoid your uncomfortable feelings.
- Don’t use drugs, alcohol or engage in impulsive, self-harming behaviours to block your feelings.
These are your feelings and only you can learn to manage them. When you feel calmer and reconnected to your Functional Adult self, your thinking brain is back on board. That’s the time to approach your partner to arrange a conversation to repair any rupture to your relationship. Remember, the emotional reasoning of our Inner and Outer Child parts may masquerade as rational, but from the perspective of our Functional Adult part, they’re anything but rational!
Having a successful relationship requires you to manage your own Inner and Outer Child reactions instead of trying to change your partner. Doing this will give you an increased sense of personal power, self-esteem and integrity. You will be more differentiated and better equipped to build a more secure relationship in which both of you can help heal each other’s past wounds.
You deserve the best trained relationship coaches if you’re planning to invest time and money in your relationship. If you’re not ready to book an appointment, call us on 0421 961 687 to book a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to discuss how we may be able to assist you.