Sister regression

When disclosing some plans that us two Booker sisters have for this coming weekend to our parents, I was very quickly reminded of an incident that occurred nearly 10 years ago. An incident in which I behaved in a less than satisfactory manner.

After a year’s worth of planning and banging on I got my first tattoo at the age of 24. I consulted with pretty much everyone I knew and asked for their advice. I got my bestie to design it. I deliberated for months over its body placement. And then - finally - I took myself down to the tattoo parlour and got myself permanently inked on a 45 degree angle on the top of my left foot. Still no regrets.

And then six or so months later, with no prior warning at all, younger sister Trudy returns home from a trip to Thailand. With a tattoo. On her foot. On a nice 45 degree angle. And sure it’s in some form of Asian script that I can’t decipher at all, but still it is on her foot! And she assures me it is not a Beatles reference, but still she got it on her foot! And sure it’s on her right foot and not on her left, but still its on her foot! And so, I lose it. Like really lose it.

There is screaming at her. And crying. And sulking. And whinging and carrying on. And bemoaning her to other people. And more screaming. And way more sulking. Why? BECAUSE SHE COPIED ME!! Again!

But really, why? It could be hypothesised that I’d reverted back behaving from my ‘inner child’. (Before you think I’m just trying to excuse inexcusable behaviour, hear me out).

We all have an ‘inner child’, a term us psychologists use to refer to that part of our identity that is free, spontaneous and creative and also completely impulsive in getting our needs met. If you spend time with a 2-year-old, you can easily see their inner child play out — they are full of joy in the moment and tell you directly what they want and how they feel. Of course sometimes dealing with a toddler is akin to trying to manage a feral cat. They have a tendency to express their negative feelings with irrational rage in the form of tantrums and have the tenacity of a pit bull when it comes to getting the object of their immediate fancy — regardless of adult protest. As children develop into adults the inner child becomes less and less obvious and takes a backseat to adolescent and eventually adult maturity.

Those basics needs of the child however, are all still present. Sigmund Freud theorised that the mind is composed of the 'Id', 'Ego' and 'Superego'. The id represents our basic instincts and drive; the superego operates as a moral compass over the id. As children develop, the ego becomes more and more refined in the task of mediating between the id’s urges/impulses with the superego’s quest for doing ‘good’ for the long term.

When emotionally overwhelmed, we may regress and revert to childhood strategies to get our needs met. When our mind is overloaded it is natural for us to look for immediate gratification. It’s at those times that the id or inner child might wreak havoc on our relationships, or even our life. People who are chronically overloaded with stress, life transitions, medical conditions or chronic relationship conflict may rely on childhood strategies to get their needs met. And for those adults who were not adequately nurtured or made to feel safe in childhood, their inner child can play out destructively throughout adulthood. Even without childhood trauma however, everyone has an inner child that sometimes needs to be kept in check.

If we think back to the situation where Trudy presented her new tattoo to me, things were not all totally calm and rational in my world. I had - only a week prior - returned to Brisbane after 6 months living on a tropical island. I had moved into a new share house, but didn’t have all my things quite set up. I had started studying my Masters of Clinical Psychology and was feeling both completely overwhelmed and anxious about that entire process. I was trying to organise some form of income to pay the rent. It’s not that far a stretch to say that my mind may have been a little stress or overloaded at the time.

So, with all that going on in my mind, it's not hard to hypothesise that my inner child had been unconsciously triggered by this event during a stressful period. This caused me to act out and play the old role of 11 year-old Sam in response to 7 year-old Trudy (who was always COPYING me! FYI). This at the time, was easier than to objectively evaluate and respond to as 24 year-old Sam.

And so I indulged my immediate needs through my inner child. I was the Queen of the Tantrums. I had no clear goal of what this tantrum would achieve (I wasn’t able to think this through), but I was feeling something very intensely and I wanted it out. And I got it out. With cries and screams and wails and sulks. Unfortunately though, no one else came to my rescue. Where maybe Mum and Dad may have helped 11 year-old Sam, or at least offered reassurance, in this instance they only reflected back dis-empowering and dysfunctional behaviour (and now – reminders of said behaviour).

Regressing back to our inner child is a common phenomenon that occurs most often under stress, and we all do it constantly. And there’s heaps of examples of when it might be happening. When an executive feels stuck on a problem they regress to infant behavior sucking and chewing their pen down to the cartridge. When a spouse feels neglected they regress by talking only minimally to a their partner or threatening to take something away. A new college student misses home and regresses by cuddling with their childhood Teddy Bear.

We can become more attuned to our inner child by taking notice of such things. Like the next time you chew your pen like a teething ring or throw a wild kicking and screaming tantrum. Ask yourself, “Am I  regressing to cope or not feel something, or am I avoiding that tough conversation or decision?”

Remember it’s natural when going through difficult times for us to regress momentarily and to not handle yourself as maturely as you would ordinarily. It’s good to be aware though if we are chronically relying on child-like strategies – such as manipulation or tantrums -  to get our needs met with others. It matters because doing so may ease our immediate need but can lead to other long-term problems in our relationships. In particular, operating as a child in your adult relationships means you are not allowing yourself to tolerate distress. A necessity for confidence and feelings of self worth.

I’m pretty pleased to report that my ‘inner child’ seems pretty functional at present. At least with regard to my relationship with Trudy. We’re off to get matching tattoos this weekend!

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