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Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood

Sympathy for Our Younger Selves

However old we may be, there is a child inside who was at one point – and in a way remains – sad. We are built like Russian dolls, the little ones of us are still contained within our bigger versions. Crucially, the state of mind of the younger ones to this day retains a large impact on our spirits. They are the ones who decide how much we can esteem ourselves, how much we can trust and how at ease we can be. We may insist that we can get on without or despite them. But unless they have been seen, understood and sympathised with, they have a habit of wrecking whatever plans we might have formulated for a decent life. 

Photograph of a set of Russian dolls
Photo by Didssph on Unsplash

To soothe our agitations and reduce our compulsions, we may need to check in on them regularly to try to mend their injuries, the violence they may have suffered, the neglect they underwent, the fear they may have suffered. 

We can’t do this in an overly intellectual way. We need to feel rather than just rationally follow what happened to them in the past. We should close our eyes at a quiet moment and identify a time of our youth, probably some point between five and ten (when most of the damage tends to be done) and try carefully to visualise our younger self. Where might we be in the old house? What might we be wearing? What did we look like? We can let them come towards us and befriend us. We can be charmed – as we should always been – by their liveliness and charm.

And then we should ask ourselves a very simple question: how was that little boy or girl feeling?

We might follow up with: who were they able to talk to? Where did they go when things were desperate? How did they feel about mum? And dad?

The journey might not be very pleasant. That little one may not have had an easy time of it at all. But it’s precisely these difficulties that we still need to come to terms with. 

Then, to bring things to a head, we should ask ourselves: what would we want to say to this small person in order to be helpful? How would we want to give them assistance? How could we make things less sad for them?

It’s an unavoidable consequence of they way we’re built that the bigger version of us cannot be solid unless and until the smaller version has been understood and their distress witnessed and – as far as possible – resolved.

We should beware of our capacity to deliver overly hasty summaries of our difficult years. It isn’t enough to say quickly and drily that it was ‘a nightmare’. There’s a child still trapped inside that nightmare and we cannot help them unless we are ready to feel again what they felt. And so, perhaps tonight, we should undertake that most curious of exercises: close our eyes, find the younger self, ask them how they are, and help them the way they should always have been helped.

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