Why Healing Your Inner Child Is a Game-Changer for HSPs

The biggest struggles of HSPs often start in childhood. How do you break free — and start feeling whole?

As a highly sensitive person (HSP), you may have a complicated perspective on your childhood. You might look back with fondness on the slower pace of life, and the freedom to imagine and live in your daydreams. 

But you might also recognize the ways that your childhood sensitivity was misunderstood, criticized, or shut down. The adults in your life may have directly — or indirectly — told you that you were “too much” for them and may have emotionally neglected your needs because you seemed “too intense” to them. And it may have felt like your sensitivity was too much for you, as well.

As a psychologist specializing in highly sensitive adults, I regularly talk with clients about the legacy of growing up as a highly sensitive child. At the start of therapy, HSPs frequently lament how their sensitivity continues to hinder them. How, they ask, can they learn to “get over” their sensitivity?

While I empathize with their pain — and have certainly had my own challenges growing up highly sensitive — part of my job as a therapist is to shatter that illusion that you can “get over” being an HSP. It would be a set-up for an impossible task. Research shows that sensory processing sensitivity (SPS), the trait that makes us highly sensitive, is innate, lasts for one’s entire life, and has been preserved over the course of human evolution. 

Since you can’t “stop” being an HSP, my belief is that you’re left with a choice — either learn to live with your sensitivity or concede that you are helpless. This is my tough love message to clients, because I know how much growth is possible when HSPs do the hard work of healing their inner child, their child self that they carry into adulthood, which I elaborate on below.

But first…

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How Does Childhood Trauma Affect Us as Adults?

Childhood Experiences Have a Higher Impact on HSPs

Before we talk about the specifics of what your inner child is and how to heal it, let’s consider why so many HSPs struggle during childhood and carry that legacy into adulthood. 

Michael Pluess is at the vanguard of research of a new framework for understanding sensitive people, known as environmental sensitivity. Environmental sensitivity refers to how an individual in their responsiveness to the world around them and how this can magnify both the good and bad effects of their environment — especially childhood environment. (The framework of environmental sensitivity includes Elaine Aron’s theory of high sensitivity and three other leading theories. Aron has been supportive of his research.)

Pluess theorizes that environmental sensitivity is based on the interaction of individual genetic factors and individual adaptation processes. In other words, both nature and nurture contribute to the ways that HSPs function throughout their lives. Both halves of this equation, Pluess says, make HSPs much more likely to be affected by things that happen early in life.

A recent twin study supported this theory of environmental sensitivity. In addition to this study showing that environmental sensitivity is moderately inherited, it provided support for the role of negative and positive context. Negative context was defined as the child becoming overwhelmed and/or having unpleasant reactions to external stimuli. Positive context reflected the child reacting in observant, positive ways to subtle details in the environment.    

Similarly, researchers looking at three-year-olds found that those who were identified as highly sensitive children showed greater behavioral and social issues in response to “low-quality” parenting that was either excessively critical and authoritarian or excessively permissive. In reassessing those children at age six, researchers found that the highly sensitive children who received low-quality parenting showed ongoing behavioral issues, as well as lower levels of social competence. But positive parenting also showed a greater effect on highly sensitive children. Sensitivity amplifies the effects of all early experiences, be they good or bad.

One science journal refers to this approach as the “for-better-and-for-worse” effect of environmental sensitivity. 

How Childhood Trauma ‘Wounds’ the Inner Child

Given this phenomenon, it is easy to envision the cumulative effect of years of interactions with adults who do not understand, value, or have the skills to support a sensitive child. It can leave a highly sensitive adult with many of the issues I see in my clients:

  • Unmet needs for acceptance, love and approval.
  • Intense self-criticism and the scourge of perfectionism.
  • Lack of self-acceptance.
  • Difficulties with regulating your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Trust and intimacy issues (both holding people at a distance to avoid getting hurt and having porous boundaries/struggling to assert yourself).
  • Difficulty coping with stress in the workplace, at home, and as parents, especially if they are raising highly sensitive children of their own.

Yet it’s also easy to imagine how sensitive children grow into adults who can, as several of my clients have said, make the most of even tiny bits of good in their backgrounds: a grandparent who created space for their childhood feelings; a teacher who believed they were capable of achieving; and/or a physical space in their childhood home where they could retreat to think and reset amidst the bustle of family life, such as an HSP sanctuary

Somewhere at the intersection of these two outcomes lies the formula for healing a scarred and stumbling inner child.

Is the “Inner Child” Real?

The inner child is the part of you that carries the legacy of your childhood experiences into your life — and actions — as an adult.

The inner child was first conceptualized as the “Divine Child” by Carl Jung in The Archetypes and The Collective Unconscious (1959) as one of several archetypes, or universal human ideas, that are transmitted throughout and across cultures. He cited examples of the simultaneous vulnerability and power of the Divine Child. Jesus, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, and Osiris were all examples Jung cited of this archetype.

Since Jung, healers and theorists of all kinds have proposed further subtypes of this archetype, most commonly referred to as the inner child. Some examples include the orphaned/abandoned child, the innocent, the wounded child, the caretaker, the overachiever/underachiever, and the golden child. 

Regardless of the exact language used, these versions of the inner child come to prominence because they reflect commonalities in both our positive childhood experiences, as well as our unmet needs and unhealed wounds and traumas. Any person can be walking around with many of these aspects of the inner child at the same time. We aren’t fully developed adults as much as we are a collection of parts of ourselves at various ages and stages.

While the inner child is metaphorically real, we are learning from emerging neuroscience that our brains are also a mixture of mature and immature parts. The amygdala region is responsible for processing of fearful stimuli, threat recognition, and development of anxiety vs. calming responses. Research shows that perceived social support (the kind of positive experience that HSPs can most benefit from) can make us less reactive to fearful stimuli and less likely to develop pathological anxiety. These pathways in the amygdala are not fixed in childhood. Getting the kind of social support we need as adults can help to reduce reactivity in the brain and increase resilience to anxiety.

Subsequent research has further shown that the pathways through the amygdala contain immature circuits that continue to develop across the lifespan, at least into our 70s, based on the subjects included in the study. To me, these studies share a most encouraging message: We can literally continue to grow our inner child at a brain level by seeking out experiences that build new pathways in the brain. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

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What Does It Mean to Heal Your Inner Child?

Healing your inner child is how you change long-standing patterns in your relationships as an adult.

As an existential-humanistic psychologist, the way I explain healing the inner child to clients is that you are taking responsibility for all aspects of your child self. You learn to use the positive parts of your inner child to your advantage. At the same time, you accept that the legacy of your childhood experiences can have some negative effects on your adult life. You commit to making choices to address those unmet needs and heal the wounded or traumatized inner child.

I’ll level with you: Healing your inner child is not a simple or painless process. I don’t judge anyone who isn’t ready to tackle their inner child work. Some people choose to focus only on relieving their immediate symptoms, like learning to breathe through anxiety or to stop comparing themselves to others. This symptom-focused work is important, too. 

Still, however involved the process may be, healing your inner child can do so much more than just help you stop struggling to adjust to life as an HSP. This deeper work enables you to learn the skills that you didn’t get to learn as a child for regulating your emotions and your thinking; it also helps you address your attachment style. That’s why inner child work so effective at shifting long-term patterns in how you relate to others and yourself. For example:

  • Inner child work opens up the possibility of feeling true self-acceptance — perhaps for the first time.
  • It helps you start to forgive others and yourself.
  • It gives you the confidence to relate to others as a whole, adult being, rather feeling like a child in grown-up clothes.

As these younger parts of yourself “grow up,” you’re literally rewiring your brain on the basis of all the positive experiences you’ve given yourself as an adult. You become naturally more able to cope with anxiety triggers (threats, risk, uncertainty) and more able to soothe yourself when your environment provokes a reaction from you. 

As one aspect of your inner child heals, those resources can go to helping other parts of you heal. Thus, when people ask me if it can get easier to be an HSP, I say that it unequivocally can when you heal your inner child on a metaphorical, and neurological, level. 

How to Heal Your Inner Child as an HSP

The first step to healing your inner child is awareness. You need to understand how that part of you shows up in your adult life. This can be hard to do if we are isolated, so getting feedback from trusted people in your life, or exploring your inner child in therapy, can help us see our blind spots. Therapy is also priceless for providing a safe relationship in which to grow and heal your inner child. Plus, highly sensitive people can benefit from therapy regardless; it is a game-changer for your mental health.

As we become aware of our inner child, we can use journaling, writing letters to (and from) our inner child, and reflect on photos of ourselves at different ages to help us deepen our understanding of what our inner child needs. Think of these activities as conversations, where our adult self brings a curious and nonjudgmental attention to the inner child.

Practicing mindfulness skills and using somatic practices (ones that use the mind-body connection) can help us recognize when our inner child steps forth. These situations point to our unmet environmental needs from childhood. Usually, they are basic human needs, like safety, unconditional acceptance, love, understanding, a nurturance for our bodies, emotions, relationships, and spirituality.

Our next step is to begin to visualize (i.e., picture the positive outcome you’d like), journal, and talk with trusted people about what we would like for our inner child. Getting clear on what we need, and how to best get those needs met as an adult, helps us make a plan for change.

Finally, we have to begin to take action. Sorry, my fellow HSPs, this isn’t something you can do just through insight alone. We have to choose to take action (inevitably, it will feel uncomfortable, but we can learn to tolerate that). Taking concrete steps to address our unmet needs, and building an environment to support our adult wellness, is vital to healing our inner child. For example, if you need to better nurture your body, now is the time to follow through on a plan to eat better, exercise, and do whatever you need to do to fulfill that need. (Perhaps you will no longer buy junk food, enlist the help of a nutritionist or personal trainer, and so on.)

A Healthy, Happy Inner Child Is a Game-Changer for Highly Sensitive People

For me, on a personal level, healing my inner child was the key to unlocking how to thrive as a highly sensitive person. On a professional level, I have seen over and over how doing this inner child work helps clients reach a level of self-acceptance, life satisfaction, and inner peace that no other therapy direction has brought them.

When we do the hard work to heal our inner child, we create the possibility of having a full range of adult experiences. Yes, we will feel pain. But there is exquisite beauty and connection available to us, as well. And no one can appreciate the beauty of life more than highly sensitive people. 

If you’d like to discuss how healing your inner child can help transform your brain and your life, please visit my website to learn more about my Singularly Sensitive approach and to set up a consultation.

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