Years ago, crouched in a closet, my six-year-old cousin and I whispered about the secrets of the universe. She asked me things I struggled to articulate answers to: what is god? what is the space around the earth? I told her that god was the power in all of us, that god could be anything if it made you feel alive. When she was satisfied with my answers, she threw open the closet door. From mattresses, pillows, and sheets we made slides and forts. I followed her lead, taking her engineering worries seriously, and leaping into action to build the castle we saw buried in the mountain of bedding. There was no thought involved, only observation, imagination and creation. With every shriek and laugh we let out, I felt closer to something. I felt alive.
With flushed cheeks, we laid in our new courtyard under sagging white linen. She turned to me, her mouth covered in hair that she wiped away with a floppy hand, and said, “You’re really good at playing. Like really good.”
I thanked her and felt a swelling feeling in my chest. That same year, I had moved to New York. I was away from my family for the first time, newly single, and struggling to stay grounded. Armed with a compliment from a six-year-old, I felt some sort of mystic triumph over all that I had been through. I had won, because somewhere inside me there was a child that had survived all the weird, boring, and shameful things I had learned about “real life,” and she was really good at playing. It was the first time I acknowledged the strength of my inner child, and it was a welcomed affirmation that I was on a journey to real peace and self-love.
When we think about the inner child, we often use the term to describe a part of us that was wounded. We use the inner child to understand needs that were unmet in our past, which led to recurring negative patterns in our thought and behavior. The inner child can also be understood as the part of you who has remained curious. Something in you that appreciates simple joys, like running around in an open field or climbing a tree. Your inner child is the queen of your imagination, who makes everything magical; something as simple as a falling petal is a fairy dancing in the wind.
To me, the beauty of these two descriptions of an inner child is that despite sounding diametrically opposed, they exist in tandem. Children, by nature, are observant and sensitive. Children get hurt in much more complex ways than a scratched knee at recess. But despite everything, children still play, they still imagine. What if we didn’t have to grow out of that? What if we could nurture our inner child and let ourselves play despite the ways we hurt?
So, does that mean I dress up like a baby and play with building blocks? No. Although, no judgement if that’s your thing. Playing can be pretty much anything you do if you do it completely aligned with the present moment, investigating it and imagining all around it. When a child plays, a knock at the door is an earthquake. A doggy door is an escape route for a toy car. When an actual dog blocks the way, it doesn’t ruin things. It’s simply a plot twist. In that way, play is like improv: you say yes to whatever happens in the present. When we say yes to the present moment, which is all we have anyway, we invite life itself into our lives and make peace with it. When we play, it is impossible to go on autopilot or to be lost in spiraling thoughts—the very things that make living feel dull and scary.
At 23, nurturing my inner child means applying this presence and imagination to my everyday life. When I do that, everything from making my breakfast to walking down the street feels like an adventure. Although this may not pay off my student loans, I find that when nurturing my inner child, I honor all parts of me. The presence that playing brings me allows me to make more conscious choices in all aspects of my life. When I’m present and imaginative, I am not bogged down by my recurring thought patterns. I can face my life and responsibilities without past narratives. When I choose play and presence, almost all thought—whether positive or negative—becomes secondary to the joy of simply experiencing and being.
Playing isn’t always forts and slides made of pillows like it was that day with my cousin. It looks like a lot of different things: late night conversations without agenda, or going out into the back yard with a soccer ball. It looks like free-form journaling with tea in the morning, and one-person dance parties. It’s not even always an action, but the presence I bring to an action. The other day I was eating a cookie. I held it with both hands and chewed with my eyes shut. On a recent hike, I stopped to crouch down and run my hands over a patch of bright green moss growing on a rotten log. When I stood up, the forest around me felt more alive than ever. I remember the first time I felt that. I was trying a visual meditation. You imagine yourself as an old woman. You imagine her walking towards you and hugging you and telling you that she loves you. Then you imagine yourself as a child, and you walk towards her, hug her and tell her that you love her. I remember opening my eyes, crying, and wrapping my arms around myself. I wasn’t just hugging myself, I was hugging myself as a little girl. I was forgiving and letting go.
Considering we live lives dedicated to keeping us lost in thought, nurturing my inner child isn’t something that comes naturally to me, and it’s not something that I’ve mastered in any sense. It’s something I must constantly remind myself to do, and even then, I fail. Truthfully, self-care is not an easy task. It is not just a salad for lunch or a wellness retreat. It is finding the child inside of you who has survived the wreckage of adulthood, and giving her every opportunity to be curious, to imagine, and to play. It’s closing your eyes and going deep into your consciousness where the very concepts of self disappear. There, you might see yourself as a little girl, one who hurts but still finds ways to imagine. You might give her a big old hug, and when you open your eyes, the world might seem more alive than ever.
Written by Lee Phillips for Youth To The People
Image courtesy of Lee Phillips