Another Freudian concept that grew popular in the late 80s and early 90s was inner child theory, with authors like John Bradshaw making it a widely accepted mainstream opinion.
Inner child theory has seen a resurgence in popularity. But psychological ideas are more like meme fodder these days, with people parroting the pop term that’s in style, without understanding its origination, and certainly with no concern for psychological nuance.
You could make the case that inner child theory’s recent maneuvering back into the collective consciousness is a result of the expression of the collective inner child itself.
The boomers and Gen Xers call millennials babies for the hand they were dealt—and their idealistic search for meaning and connection can at times be childlike.
But older generations have their fatal flaws that also elicit immature reactions.
Ask a boomer where hard work got them, or their loved ones, in 2008 when their retirement accounts disappeared into thin air. If a Gen Xer tries to chime in at that, tell them it’s their political apathy that led us there, and no amount of thrift store irony can absolve them. Millennials can wax poetic about “changing the world” and “purpose” all they want, but call them entitled and overly sensitive? That’ll shut them up or elicit the classic narcissistic tantrum.
(I’m hard on millennials because I’m hard on myself, but I’m not even gonna go after Gen Z—I love y’all!)
Provoke anyone in the correct way, and you’re bound to see the manifestation of a deeply embedded complex they likely formed during childhood, or as the result of some other traumatic imprint.
Easily contextualized as “the inner child.”
The point: the human psyche is a much more vast topic than one can gain from a TikTok trend explaining attachment theory in only 24 seconds. But if we accept the idea that there is an inner child within all of us, then we can use it to our advantage in guiding people towards transformation.
“When she gave me chlamydia, and I found out she cheated, I should have left. But I didn’t. Apparently I needed to suffer some more. It took a while, but three years ago I finally slammed my car door shut on the emotional blackmail and unabashed manipulation that colored my relationship with Marisol: a petite sex worker whose inch-long nails, bedazzled with tacky plastic jewels, and false lashes that flutterered audbily when she blinked, doubled as insect-like deterrents, protecting her from a world only ever filled with pain.”
This is how I opened a chapter in my novella, I Know, But I Love You. I wrote it after emerging from a terribly abusive relationship. And because I have a yearning to understand just like you, Superstar, I went down a rabbit hole while trying to make sense of how I ended up in a situation like that in the first place.
I ended up reading a lot on borderline, narcissistic, and schizoid personality disorders. The psychiatric community wrote off the most extreme cases for a very long time, labeling people “too primitive,” often saying they were beyond help.
One book reframed the idea of a disorder as an adaptation: the harmful behaviors people with these complexes displayed were the result of a person who had to adapt, for some reason or another, to personal circumstances.
I found the take refreshingly empathetic.
It helps to normalize those who are suffering, since psychological adaptations aren’t limited to these extreme cases. We’ve formed adaptations to stimuli throughout our lives, and many reveal truths about ourselves of which we may still be unaware.
Let me be clear, I’m not advocating for harm to another person when I speak about provoking the child. Many copywriters and marketers understand that shame, vulnerability, mistrust, and other psychological weaknesses can be used to poke at tender emotions with great effect.
These and other schemas are at the heart of inner child theory. But there are empathetic ways to use them as personal development tools for copywriting, marketing, and messaging.
Consider the difference between:
Do You Just Feel Like A Fraud? Or Are You A Fraud?
Feel Like A Fraud?
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz Said As Much In The New York Times, And Thousands Of Business Leaders Feel The Same Way
Here’s The Controversial “Empathetic Data Framework” Used By Fortune 500 Companies That You Can Model To Instill Team Confidence In You And The Vision You Have For The Future
Never Walk Out Of A Meeting With A Feeling Of Doubt Welling Up In Your Gut Ever Again
Subtext: you may be feeling these uncomfortable feelings, but you’re not alone.
This idea of being a fraud, most commonly known as “imposter syndrome,” aimed at business leaders in this context comes from the unrelenting standards of many high achievers. There is a reason why they are so motivated.
When you provoke the child, you receive insight—information about what:
We covered fear, emotion, and communication. Listen and speak without ego when you define relief from pain.
Uncovering obstacles presented by the inner child is much harder. To do so you have to imagine yourself as a therapist in a way, sitting across from the person you want to help. When they share their pain, you must go a level deeper (copywriters, marketers, and entrepreneurs who take sales calls, or have direct access to prospects by some other means are in a much better position to uncover these insights, as they can just ask).
Let’s take the two examples I provided in the Dreams and Nightmares section.
He’s dreaming about spending time alone on the balcony reading over the weekend, while also dreading what his drug-addicted son has been up to, since he’s been missing for two weeks.
A therapist will first empathize with the client: “That has to be hard. Anyone in your situation would be feeling terrible. I hope you know that.”
Then, they’d give the client a chance to offer up an emotional contextualization on their own: “Can you tell me what affects you the most when you think about him being gone?”
Either the client will elucidate the core emotional driver (their inner child), or the therapist will suggest one to stimulate a response: “Do you think maybe it’s that you feel like you’ve failed, even though you worked so hard to get to where you are in spite of how your father treated you, and made such an effort to be a different kind of parent, that maybe your dad was right about you all along?”
And what I shared when I said, “I dream a lot about a partner. The ideal. Us together, and me meeting her family. It’s likely the reason I’ve spent the last two years working on myself and my business, getting in shape and sharing this lesson with you now. I’m also dreading my next moves in life. They’re unclear, and I have to make some scary decisions about my career and I have to make them fast, but I continue to put them off because I'm terrified of certain responsibilities.”
You, as a therapist or trusted conveyor of transformation: “You say you dream about a partner, meeting her family, and that it’s likely what’s driven you to work so hard on yourself. But the responsibility of more scares you. Why do you think that is?”
Allow me to offer it up: I’m afraid someone won’t love me for who I am. So I work hard on the external parts of my life because I believe it will make me more attractive, and thus more deserving of love. That I don’t feel deserving of love comes from the belief that I’m forever bound to my chaotic and abusive upbringing, which involved lots of drugs, crime, and caretakers who did not care for me when I needed them to. No matter how hard I fight against this, my deeply embedded belief that I don’t deserve good things in life keeps me stuck in a loop, and I put off responsibilities because I’m scared of them, sure, but I self-sabotage my pursuit of happiness so I won’t have to let someone see me for who I truly believe I am at my core: a loser and a junkie who comes from a long line of losers and junkies.
In reality, there’s a child inside me who was hurt by who he viewed as losers and junkies. He’s wanted nothing more than to be free of the chains that keep him bound to this story he tells himself. And if he lets anyone in, they’ll see that he’s very sad, and very angry, and they won’t love him anymore.
Copywriting & Messaging Principle #11: Learn The Dance
This may be too advanced for you. Just skip it. You can return when ready. It's the simplest, most powerful concept you may learn in messaging: lead with emotion, follow with logic. Sound easy? Then show me the dance.