there is so much laying underneath the surface of our everyday lives. we’re faced with thousands of decisions to make every day, and yet – many of them come like second nature to us. we form habits and cycles that lead us on a path of similar decisions and similar headspaces. suddenly, we find ourselves wondering “why do i feel like i’m on autopilot all the time?“
this question, along with many others, arose during a particularly lonely period for me last fall. with everything that happened this past year, i started to think about what i valued the most. what do i actually want? how do i unknowingly self-sabotage my own happiness? what do i need to let go of? in these reflections, i realized that i was in this constant cycle of setting extremely high standards for myself and getting burnt out in trying to achieve them. but what was at the source of that?
i felt resentment towards my career because stress would build up in my body over things i knew didn’t really matter that much within the bigger picture. now living through a period of intense limitation, i regretted not doing more things that made me happy. i felt i didn’t deserve joy because i wasn’t achieving what i wanted to. this negative autopilot cycle kept me straying further and further from the original dreams i was pursuing.
that’s when i learned about the psychological concept of the inner child, which is present in all of us. most adults don’t learn how to live with this subconscious side, maybe it’s because it’s easier to repress than to allow or maybe it’s how we’re taught to deal with our innermost personas within the larger societal context. either way, for many of us, the inner child can teach us what is at our core. we were all young children at a point in time and that child learned about their world in a specific manner- from their family dynamic to friends and teachers at school, we adapted ourselves to our surroundings in order to mature. along the way, we also might have absorbed harmful messages about our bodies, our environments, and our loved ones.
how i started healing my inner child
in order to heal the self-doubt cycle in my head, i started to meditate and imagine myself as a little girl playing in her childhood room. to connect with her, i read her journal entries and favorite books, looked at old pictures, and played her favorite music. i asked her what she needed back then that my present self could start providing: approval, healthy companionship, unbounded freedom. i realized these were desires i had carried with me throughout young adulthood that i was still seeking. my inner child was so wounded that i felt disconnected from my goals and passions.
as someone who thrives off an established routine, i also tried to act on more of the impulses that i usually repress. i let myself eat what i actually craved whenever i wanted. it sounds silly but i allowed myself to say ‘yes’ to my inner kid whenever i wanted dessert before dinner. if i got bored, i let myself take a break and switch over to a new activity without feeling loss in my perceived productivity. i started to look at everything as a treat- a sunset drive, a cheeseburger, feeling the grass underneath the picnic blanket. i felt like my autopilot mode had caused me to distance myself from simple joys that ground me.
i have this bad habit of not trying new things because I’m scared of not being perfect at them at the first attempt. i absolutely dread making mistakes. i tried to connect with my inner child by taking on a more curious outlook to my surroundings. the goal was to try completely new things to combat this deeply ingrained fear of failure. i went ahead and bought a skateboard to try to learn how to literally fall over and get back up again. i painted vases, i colored in books, i experimented with makeup. and this new curiosity pushed me to enjoy learning like i used to. i taught myself video editing, different writing formats, read up on cinematography. basically, i learned things i didn’t think i had the time for but was extremely passionate about. this new exploration brought me such joy that i’ve put away for so long. you start to realize that learning never stops and sometimes we allow ourselves to plateau because we don’t see the immediate value of learning something new.
by looking at new things as fun explorations instead of something else i could potentially suck at, i noticed just how self-destructive my thoughts could get. the initial thought that popped into my head the first time i got out in the backyard with this skateboard was, “i’m going to look so stupid”. when i picked up a paintbrush, i would laugh and think “what am i doing? i can’t even draw”. i gently reminded myself these were destructive defense mechanisms i had put into place to be able to feel a sense of control. our egos want to feel like they’re in control of how others view us, and in turn, how we construct our own narrative. these exercises helped me learn how letting go of those expectations feels like, a habit to practice until it feels natural.
the shadow self
more recently, i’ve stumbled across Jung’s theory of the shadow self, and found that it fits into this journey of healing the inner child. essentially, Jung sees this side that is incompatible with what is deemed ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ by society at large. as we continue adjusting our behavior, we adapt and push away certain traits that are unwanted. we can see our shadow selves come out with how our ego gets defensive in protecting itself.
it’s easier to accept the shadow in others because it’s much more difficult to own your flaws. think about a time you secretly thought something hurtful about someone because you were projecting your own insecurities- that’s your shadow self coming out. if we want to accept both the good and bad, then we need to start by cultivating compassion towards our whole selves. yes, that means spending quality time understanding your shadow self.
this is not to say that exploring both these sides of our psyche is a linear process. it’s definitely uncomfortable to face the ugliest parts that lie within you, but the work is worth it. it took months for me to reach a moment of clarity and steps towards achieving a more stable sense of inner peace. this shit was hard. i was deep diving into a time machine that allowed me to see the progress and the mistakes I’ve made and grow a sense of appreciation for everything. i found myself experiencing the highs of figuring out what it is that i really want to do with my life and the extreme lows of wishing i was anyone else but me.
the hard work is worth it
during this inner work, i realized how much i let fear run the show. fear was my motivating force for so long, as it was the engine for me to finish any task. the knee-jerk reaction was to resent myself for allowing that self-sabotage to happen, but instead i had to fill that space with gratitude. look at how far I’ve come, look at the great friends I’ve made, so what is there to be afraid of? every day can symbolize a small victory.
this period has helped me to take the time to reflect on what really brings me joy. it’s okay to be a hard worker and also okay to take time off to relax. it’s okay to lead a healthy lifestyle and still enjoy guilty pleasures. it’s okay to feel childlike wonder and be an emotionally mature adult. we’re multifaceted and we’re meant to experience a full range of what life has to offer us. we’re endlessly creating the life we want to live. being able to grapple with these hidden parts of ourselves is a tremendously rich and beautiful thing.
this inner work teaches us more about how we thrive in our careers, passions, and relationships. they teach us that our flaws are not detrimental and that no one is perfect. we shouldn’t strive to be perfect. after all, we’re only human.