Sigmund Freud’s revolutionary work in psychology changed how we see ourselves and everyone around us.
In particular, Freud’s theory of early childhood sexual development continues to influence modern psychology and society.
Freud’s foundational point was that our inbuilt desire to reproduce and survive against all odds even using violence and aggression was reined in by social conditioning and shaming.
This led to thwarted growth stages that leave us confused and traumatized as we grow into adults.
Sex vs. death
Freud said that we all have an inner conflict between the sex instinct and the death instinct, and that our id, ego and superego vye for top place in our psyche.
The sex instinct is necessary and so is the death instinct. But if they get out of kilter then our whole psyche is thrown into confusion and distress.
“Eros, inspired by the Greek god of love, represents the life drive, which seeks pleasure, love, creativity, and sexuality.
Thanatos, inspired by the Greek god of death, represents the death drive, which seeks destruction, aggression, violence, and death.”
These competing impulses need to be in balance and aren’t inherently “good” or “bad.” They just are. But not being acknowledged or falling into imbalance through childhood trauma or neglect is hugely harmful to our later adult life.
Freud taught that it’s possible to overcome and grapple with our problems even if we had a very traumatic past or difficult childhood.
Let’s take a look at how we can heal the inner child using the breakthroughs of Freud.
1) Understand the truth about trauma
Freud regarded trauma as overwhelming experiences which break through to the integrity of our psyche itself.
It can be abuse, an accident or the loss of someone we love. Or trauma can be neglect or feeling shame for the first blooms of sexual desire and interest in our genitals.
However it happens, trauma has an impact.
He describes trauma as disruptive events which break through the “protective shell” of our ego and bring about “experiences of helplessness.”
In other words, trauma isn’t just pain or difficulties, it’s disruption and chaos.
These difficult experiences are potentially ego shattering and upset order and safety when we are growing up.
2) Become aware of repressed trauma
Our deepest traumas are so shocking and upsetting that Freud says our psyche responds by repressing them and trying to move on without focusing on them.
However, a “repetition compulsion” remains, causing repressed traumas to color our later experiences and reactions in life.
This can also often manifest as self-sabotaging behaviors.
“When overly strong stresses tax the child beyond its capacity to adapt, nature creates defenses whose purpose is to isolate the child’s unmanageably strong emotional responses from the rest of its personality, especially from its consciousness.”
So what do we do about it?
3) Digging up the roots of trauma
By Freud’s teachings, the solution to trauma is to bring it from the unconscious and repressed area of our psyche into the light of day.
His way of doing this was via psychoanalysis.
By talking over and uncovering hidden pain and blockages from the past, Freud taught that our inner child can heal and resume the growth that was arrested or blocked at the point of trauma.
The first step is self-awareness.
By becoming more self-aware of the ways in which we self-sabotage and cling to trauma without realizing it, helping make the unconscious become conscious, as Freud put it.
4) Trauma’s three-pronged attack
By facing the repressed pain and damage of the past and understanding how it still affects us, we can begin to unlock the blocked energy and move forward.
According to Freud, this requires understanding trauma’s three-pronged impact on our psyche: our ego, superego and id.
The id is our basic primal instincts that want to survive no matter what. The superego is our conscience which tries to do what’s right and live by the values we believe in.
The ego is our “I,” which tries to navigate between the id and superego and make conscious choices in a smart way.
Trauma throws these three aspects of our psycho into disarray and confusion.
We’re unable to sort through understanding and dealing with present events with our ego when our id (or basic survival impulse) feels threatened and our superego (or transcendent morality) feels it isn’t safe enough to be vulnerable and direct the ego.
5) Beyond the pleasure
Freud’s seminal 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle (Jenseits des Lustprinzips) contains many of his core foundational ideas about how to grapple with trauma effectively.
As Freud notes, many people try their best not to think of or remember upsetting incidents from their past, but that is what makes such damage all the more impactful.
Traumas can often only arise in dreams, when the subconscious replays and reimagines upsetting and psyche-harming events.
This is why Freudian analysis has a lot to do with remembering and looking at dreams and what happens in them, as well as in word association and uncovering the unconscious and its impact on the present day.
Failure to uncover the unconscious leads to many of us actually thinking the same trauma is happening to us when it is, in fact, our memory of the repressed trauma itself recurring.
“He is obliged to repeat the repressed material as a contemporary experience instead of, as the physician would prefer to see, remembering it as something belonging to the past,” Freud notes.
6) Leaving the past in the past
The past does matter.
But living in the present and being able to grow in life is the goal of overcoming a painful past.
In order to give the past its rightful place and heal the inner child, Freud proposes two basic steps:
- Become aware of repressed trauma and blocked sexual formation through observing frustrating problems and patterns that keep coming up in your life.
- Work with a therapist, journaling, dream interpretation and, sometimes, psychiatric intervention in order to begin meeting the needs of your inner child and addressing the blockages and misunderstandings that happened as a youngster.
Overcoming a painful past
Pain in the past isn’t going to just go away, nor does Freud say it will.
But harm and confusion that’s happened to the inner child can be addressed and healed by confronting and understanding it.
That pain exists and left an impact on us. But it doesn’t have to define us.
Painful memories can be just that: memories.
We have the power to reach a level of understanding and clarity to see that we have far more power than we might believe and that caring for and understanding our inner child allows us to move forward confidently and with hope in our heart.