What Is Inner Parenting?

Inner parenting is a form of self-coaching or self-leadership, where one consciously and consistently uses the most mature, developed, skilled, “adult” parts of the self to compassionately guide the less developed, less mature, less secure parts of the self. The inner dialogue mirrors how an attuned, respectful parent would guide a child.

Inner parenting, or self-parenting, or self re-parenting, is related to the concept of the inner child. The inner child can be viewed variously as a prior version of ourself (the echo of the child we actually once were), the emotion- and fear-driven part of our mind (amygdala/limbic system and its beliefs about the world received in our imprint period), or the parts of our psyche which are less developed because we have not spent as much time there.

Our minds have a cost of specialization – getting really good at certain types of cognitive tasks and building neural “superhighways” between the parts of the brain involved involved in those tasks means that other parts of our brain will only have “backroads” going to them. It’s not that we can’t access those parts, simply that we have to choose to go into them, work harder to get there, and probably get less return for that work because we don’t have a lot of neural infrastructure there. Thus those parts can feel more childlike, both in the sense of being unsophisticated and hard to handle with finesse, and also in the sense of being filled with wonder and curiosity because that space is a novelty.

Our inner child is both a resource and a vulnerability.

As a resource, our inner child can energize and inspire us. It can remind us how to play. It can make us feel alive and excited about life. It can make us feel whole inside our own self, rather than looking for wholeness externally. It can look at the world with fresh eyes, seeing the beauty and the marvelous, looking through the lens of possibilities instead of limitations. It can fire up our imagination and point us toward the experiences and people that bring us joy.

As a vulnerability, our inner child can be easily hurt, sometimes in ways that other people view as incomprehensible or silly. It can be manipulated or fooled by others. It can get frustrated and give up instead of trying again or trying a new way. It can throw tantrums. It can be fearful and needy and demand those fears and needs be catered to. It can get tired and overextended quickly, like over-using muscles we don’t engage very often.

Basically…our inner child shows up as a child would. And, like a child, if the needs of that part of us are not attended to, it will get louder and louder in its demands for attention, support, and fulfillment. Eventually the strength of that demand can wrest control of our adult-life actions from our adult parts, leaving the inner child’s impulsiveness, self-indulgence, and narrow scope of perspective running our life.

The form this inner child “hijack” takes can vary. For some the inner child’s choice is to live in a fear-avoidant way, keeping life to a series of known and therefore “safe” experiences rather than being open to a variety of interactions with the world and other people. For others the opposite might be true – a total rejection of routine, structure, or predictability. For some the inner child’s emotions run the show as demanding, dramatic, and unpredictable, while for others the inner child has withdrawn so much they appear not to have emotions or to be totally closed to connection and intimacy. Self-indulgence or self-soothing with food, drugs, or extreme or risky behaviors can happen, or being trapped in anxiety, overbusyness, and hypervigilance.

If those examples sound extreme, it’s because the needs of the inner child have to be extreme before that part can overpower our more adult parts.

We can also have more muted inner child reactions that might still grab the wheel from time to time – feeling hurt by something we “shouldn’t” be so upset by and being unable to get past it; feeling anxious and in need of soothing or support we don’t know how to find on or own or articulate to another; feeling hopeless and lost in a project that “should” be easy for an adult but is proving to be very difficult for us; feeling scared and alone and uncertain; not knowing what to do say or where to go; procrastinating or avoiding necessary tasks because we feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to do them or don’t know whether we are able to do them; homing in on very minute details of a situation to “prove” we are right; resisting change or a new experience; longing for life and the world to go back the way it was “before” when we felt we understood it; wanting to control everything because that is the only way to feel safe.

Reactions like these are a cry from our inner child for help and support from our adult parts, and we ignore them or suppress them at our own risk. If we don’t meet those needs…eventually they will erupt into the extremes. Ignoring the needs of our inner child is a form of self-neglect, self-abandonment, or even self-abuse.

Proactively meeting the needs of our inner child allows our adult parts to focus on goals and showing up at our true level of development rather than having to focus on controlling the inner child or putting out fires it started from its place of howling demand. It is true self-care – showing up to nourish and protect the vulnerable parts of our self without requiring them to fall into deprivation and pain to “earn” our attention. Caring for our inner child’s needs as we would a physical child allows us to feel integrated and whole, secure and confident in our capacity to meet life and change and challenges. It tells the small part of us that it is wanted and valued, that it does not have to fight to be heard or to have its needs met. It proves that our adult self can be relied upon to value and honor the needs of our full self, not just the parts which serve our “goals.” Put simply, creating a safe space for our inner child and making it feel loved and secure helps the entire system of our “self” to be balanced, aligned, and ready for whatever life brings.

Inner parenting opens a dialogue with the inner child, so it can tell us of its needs without having to try to grab control of our life. It teaches us to speak to ourself with compassion, acceptance, empathy, and wisdom. If we self-criticize and self-shame, we undermine our own confidence, whereas if we speak to ourself with love and understanding, we foster a sense of possibility and hope.

Inner parenting, then, is a process for relating to ourself in way that promotes our growth and well-being instead of encouraging us to cling to the past and limit our future.

I’ll get into some examples of how inner parenting looks in action in a future post, so stay tuned for that!

Resilience, Not Vulnerability, Is the Goal

“Vulnerability” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the personal growth world as an aspirational state. To be vulnerable is to be genuine, authentic, real. To be vulnerable is to be empowered—another way to say, I am strong enough and brave enough and self-confident enough to do anything!, which sounds an awful lot like having “arrived,” if there is a singular point of arrival in the process of self-expansion. Being willing (or able) to be vulnerable becomes a goal.

Yet treating vulnerability as an aspiration or a status symbol bypasses a deeper consideration of what that state of being actually means.

By definition, to be vulnerable is…to be vulnerable. Open to attack. Able to be hurt. Not protected. At risk. Potentially unsafe.

To leave yourself open to those risks can be viscerally frightening. It can be asking yourself to face your worst nightmare. When you have the expectation that others will see your unarmored body—your exposed Self—and thrust in blades, vulnerability feels like suicide. From that stance, you have to be willing to die to allow yourself to be vulnerable; life behind your armor has to be worse than death in order for you to set aside those defenses.

And that is the state that is touted as aspirational? As having “made it”? Without a clear discussion of the state of being that underlies willing vulnerability, the state itself sounds more like something to run from than aspire to by those who are most in need of the benefits vulnerability allows us to receive, namely: intimacy. Trust. The experience of being held by another human being in our fullness and our truth instead of our façade.

To feel able to lay aside our defenses with someone else is a source of comfort and safety like no other. It is ironic that our greatest sense of safety is accessed via our greatest sense of unsafety.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to be vulnerable, we risk that we never cross into vulnerability at all—what if the pain is never bigger?

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear, we also risk experiencing a traumatizing degree of loneliness and disconnection from others and from our very self. We risk that the anxiety from feeling unresilient and incapable in relationships might spill out into other parts of our lives. We jeopardize opportunities to engage with others for creative collaboration, professional networking and mentorship, learning lessons that would improve our daily experience of life, chances to share our own hard-won wisdom and skills, and the simple happiness of feeling accepted by others in the human tribe.

If we wait until our pain is greater than our fear to risk vulnerability, we also risk setting a pattern of needing extremis to push us into connection. We might withdraw from vulnerability as soon as we are no longer in that state of pain/terror/overwhelm, only to have the pain of loneliness build back up inside us and cause another desperate risk. Then as soon as the extreme recedes, the experience of vulnerability becomes too unsettling to hold, so we withdraw again. And the cycle repeats. That shifting through extremes does not create a stable life, nor a pleasant one.

What, then, needs to be our inner experience for us to be willing to be vulnerable without that dire nihilism?

Inner safety. Resilience. Trust in our own capacity to survive.

You have to know that you will be able to calm yourself, support yourself, and heal yourself even in the face of the most brutal rejection or attack on your vulnerable state. You have to trust that you will be able to carry on. That you can bear the pain and keep going past it all the way back into inner peace and contentment.

That sense—that we can and will survive the exchange, that we will be whole again no matter what—is the sustainable path into vulnerability with others. It is what allows us to take the risk of opening up, because the risk becomes calculated rather than desperate, and the consequences manageable instead of devastating.

Vulnerability creates closeness, intimacy, and long-term relationships with others. It is a high-reward state, but the risks must nonetheless feel bearable in order for the reward to seem worthwhile.

Developing a sense of vulnerability as a choice and a range of degrees rather than something that happens to us, or an all-or-nothing switch, empowers us to choose when and how we open to others. Controlled vulnerability allows us to offer small extensions of trust and choose based on how the other responds whether to offer more…whether to deepen our connection or to withdraw.

If we are starting from a place of unsafety with others and/or within ourselves, how do we begin to move toward controlled vulnerability? What can we do inside ourselves to feel safe enough to risk letting someone inside our defensive walls?

The first step is to allow the possibility of living in security rather than fear. If we do not even consider something possible, we will never make any attempt to experience it.

Then we must open ourselves to learning, about ourselves and about the world. Feeling secure in ourselves stems from knowing ourselves, knowing our values, knowing the conditions that make us feel safe or unsafe, knowing our capacities and our skills and our gifts (and the corresponding deficits in our natural tool set). Knowing ourselves—and accepting ourselves.

When we are willing to accept ourselves as we are, and as we may become as our experiences expand and change us, we can work on specific skills to make vulnerability a controlled choice. Those include (but are certainly not limited to!)

  • Boundaries work
  • Self-parenting or self-coaching (choosing self-compassion and curiosity over self-judgment and fear)
  • Being willing to be a beginner—to embrace learning as a messy, non-linear process lined with false starts and failures
  • Seeing mistakes not as failures but as information that teaches us what not to do, what we really want, what we can accomplish, and how able we are to stand back up and try again
  • Reframing our past so that we can learn from it without being defined by it
  • Learning to recognize supportive behaviors vs. neglecting or abusive behaviors

Having experiences with others who do not betray our trust when we expose our true selves to them is a powerful rehabilitative experience. We cannot fully heal relational wounds (such as a fear of vulnerability) on our own. But we can work to foster trust in our own capacity for resilience as the first step toward willingly opening up to others. We can choose deliberate action vs. fear-driven reaction purely within ourselves—and that is the inner landscape which allows us to accept vulnerability as proof of our growth rather than the goal of our growth.