Stefanie Stahl is a clinical psychologist and the bestselling author of more than ten books. She has had her own psychotherapy practice in Germany for more than twenty-five years and conducts seminars about self-esteem, love, and the fear of commitment. The Child in You has sold more than 1.5 million copies in Germany, where it has been the #1 bestselling nonfiction book for four consecutive years, and has been translated into nearly thirty languages.
Below, Stefanie shares 5 key insights from her book, The Child in You: The Breakthrough Method for Bringing Out Your Authentic Self. Download the Next Big Idea App to enjoy more audio “Book Bites,” plus Ideas of the Day, ad-free podcast episodes, and more.
1. Reality is a matter of the mind.
Our brain seems not to have much interest in the supposed reality outside of it. Indeed, it’s not facts that make up our sense of reality, but rather our interpretations of those facts. Our expectations play a decisive role in this, as has been proven in numerous psychological studies. For example, imagine encountering someone whose corners of the mouth are curled upwards. We can interpret this facial expression in many ways, including:
- He is smiling at me.
- He is faking a smile in order to manipulate me.
- He is grinning because he is making fun of me.
- Maybe I don’t notice the expression of the other person at all.
Clearly, any external event can be assessed and interpreted very differently by different people. If the opposite were true, we would always be in agreement with one another and many personal and political conflicts would simply not exist.
When we are born, our brain is only twenty-five percent developed. It is able to master the skills of pure physical survival only, such as stabilizing the body’s temperature and sensing hunger and satiety. Very early in life, our perceptions are limited to those of pleasure or discomfort, and the higher brain functions develop over time as we mature.
The brain’s development is strongly influenced by our individual, subjective interactions with our environment. Our parents play a significant role in this, especially in the first few years of life. Through our parents, we learn how much we are worth being cared for, and what we need to do to be loved. Their attitudes and behavior shape our self-worth. Our feeling of self-worth constitutes our self-image, which in turn has a powerful influence on how we perceive other people and the expectations we have of them. Self-worth thus becomes the epicenter of our psyche.
“It’s not facts that make up our sense of reality, but rather our interpretations of those facts.”
If our parents impart to us that we are lovable beings, our self-worth benefits greatly. When our parents provide us the space to develop our own will, we learn that we are not merely at the mercy of relationships, but that we can also actively shape them, a recognition that is also beneficial for our self-worth. A strong sense of self-worth, a healthy self-esteem, increases the likelihood that with such an imprint we will interpret the pulled-up corners of a mouth as a benevolent smile.
If, on the other hand, our parents are overwhelmed and are unable give us enough love or freedom, we will learn that we must adapt our behavior to please other people. That is the root cause of a variety of problems later on in life. People who have weak self-esteem are quick to perceive others as superior to them and as potentially hostile. This increases the likelihood that they will be suspicious of someone whose mouth is curled in a smile.
2. Discover your shadow child.
Psychologists refer to the imprinting our brains acquire in childhood as the inner child. The inner child can be seen as a metaphor for our self-esteem. In my approach, I differentiate the inner child into two aspects: the shadow child and the sun child. The shadow child represents our injuries and the weak and vulnerable parts of our self-esteem. The sun child represents our strong and healthy aspects, and also our self-healing powers.
Our self-esteem is expressed in our beliefs. “I am not enough,” “I’m not important,” “I am worthless”—these are some typical examples of beliefs from our shadow child. When these beliefs are triggered, we feel sad, fearful, ashamed, or angry. These are not pleasant feelings, so we make great efforts, both consciously and unconsciously, to avoid having these feelings. Striving for perfection and harmony, avoidance through flight and retreat, a desire for power, and hiding behind a mask are typical self-protection strategies.
“Our self-esteem is expressed in our beliefs.”
Here is a possible scenario: Michael’s parents had a bakery to manage along with the responsibilities for raising four children. They were often overwhelmed and stressed out. A consequence was that they were unable to give little Michael the love and attention he needed. Like any young child, Michael did not understand that his parents were just completely overwhelmed. Instead, his thoughts ran along the lines of, “I’m a burden. I’m just not worth anything!” This is his shadow child. In many situations, Michael quickly feels overlooked or ignored, and he often thinks that he is not getting what he deserves. He then feels hurt and angry. To avoid these feelings of inferiority, he tries to fulfill all expectations perfectly and to reveal only the best side of himself. These are his self-protection strategies. He often bends over backwards to try to please everyone. Only when he is alone does he dare to be himself.
To escape from this pattern and find his authentic self, Michael needs to familiarize himself with his shadow child. He would have to understand that his ways of thinking have been imprinted by his childhood experiences, and that these purely subjective and even quite circumstantial influences are determining a large part of how he perceives his present-day reality. He has to make himself aware that the imprints of his shadow child are arbitrary and not true reflections of his own worth.
3. Strengthen your adult ego.
Sometimes a new insight affects us so deeply that it immediately changes our lives. More often, however, we need time for new knowledge to become anchored in our consciousness. The brain, and thus the mind, learns through repetition.
To become aware on a deep level that the imprints of his shadow child are arbitrary and have little to do with his present reality, Michael needs to practice separating his adult self from his shadow child. The adult ego is the clear-thinking mind. With the help of our powers of understanding and rationality, we can view ourselves from a perspective outside of ourselves, disentangled from our emotions and connected to our reasoning powers. The adult ego is essential in freeing us from the irrational and childlike feelings of our shadow child and in preventing them from arising in the first place. It is just a matter of practice. The technique is called “Catch yourself and switch.”
“Developing self-compassion is an important step in healing.”
For this, Michael needs to watch himself carefully during everyday life and notice when he falls back into his shadow-child feelings. As soon as he does, he must immediately switch to his adult self—that is, switch to the observer position, where he has a clear view of his shadow child. From there, he can quickly realize that, for example, he is reacting in an overly offended way because a work colleague seems to be ignoring a request he’s just made. The adult Michael can recognize that her mind was elsewhere, and so he will not take this personally. Instead of being insulted and then withdrawing, the adult Michael asks her for his attention and repeats his request in friendly words.
The shadow child, however, needs not only regulation by the adult ego but also consolation and encouragement. For this, Michael can adopt a loving attitude when encountering his shadow child. Developing self-compassion is an important step in healing. The loving, adult Michael may have to explain over and over again to his shadow child how it was back then with his parents, and assure him that little Michael could not do anything about the overwhelming demands that burdened them.
4. Nurture your sun child.
The sun child stands for our strong and healthy sides. Most parents, after all, do many things right. The sun child also represents the vision of our target state of being, which is our healing. As adults, we can now shape our own lives toward this.
Having created distance with the aid of his adult ego, Michael has already understood that his beliefs are arbitrary. The technique of catching and switching helps him become more aware of his present reality. In order to break away from identifying with his shadow child, however, he needs an appropriate self-image with which he can identify. This is what the sun child is.
“All suffering in this world derives from a lack of self-reflection.”
To develop the sun child, Michael first needs new beliefs that are appropriate to his current reality. The sun child represents his strengths, resources, and higher values that give him support. And, very importantly, through the sun child he will replace his self-protection strategies with self-reflection strategies.
Michael’s old beliefs were something like “I am not enough” and “I’m not important.” He can now change these into their positive opposites: “I am plenty” and “I am important.” It is decisive that his new, positive beliefs find his approval. For example, if he has a strong resistance to the belief “I am important,” then an acceptable, less difficult alternative for him might be “I am important to my children.” New beliefs need to be accepted inwardly to be effective.
Next, Michael can consider how he can replace his self-protection strategies—where he meets all expectations people have of him and shows himself only from his best side—with self-reflection strategies. The point here is to translate the new beliefs into actual behavior. Michael wants to become more authentic and therefore more honest. He considers self-reflection strategies: I pay attention to my feelings and needs; I take responsibility for my well-being; I formulate my opinions and my needs when I’m with other people.
Now Michael must think of a situation that can quickly catapult him into his sun-child state. For example, he envisions hiking in the mountains with his best friend, immersing himself in this scene with all his senses. In his imagination, his best friend tells him his new beliefs and strengths. Michael feels a deep joy rising in himself. He is feeling good and right. He has arrived at his sun child.
In order to anchor this state deeply, he consciously goes into his sun-child feeling several times a day. The more often he does this, the more this new state of consciousness becomes imprinted in him. He arrives in the “Here and Now” of his adult reality.
“When I choose to take responsibility for my shadow child, I will become not only a happier person, but also a better person.”
5. Self-reflection is a political necessity.
All suffering in this world derives from a lack of self-reflection. If all people were more self-reflective, we would have a better world—and this is why dealing with our psyche is a political necessity. Our shadow child burdens not just us but our interpersonal relationships as well. If we have limited power and influence, this might affect only our families, neighbors, and partners. The greater our social and political influence, however, the greater the reach of our shadow child. The world suffers from politically powerful people who do not reflect on their shadow children. And the world suffers from people who, through their own distorted perception, vote for such politicians.
Ultimately, the interrelationships here are quite simple. Introjection and projection are psychological mechanisms that distort our view of ourselves and of the outer world. In introjection, we internalize something that is not a part of us. The shadow child is one such introjection. Because of this sort of introjection, we have a tendency toward projection. In contrast to introjection, in projection we see something in other people that only really exists in our mind. For example, if the shadow child in me feels inferior to a colleague at work, I will project superiority onto that person. My shadow child will perceive that person as having slightly hostile features. I am the potential victim, she the potential perpetrator. Thus I might think it is all right to talk badly about her behind her back, or try to bully her. This of course is very unfair, and it would be much better to reflect on myself and dissolve the projection. We must take responsibility for our shadow child and its projections.
What occurs on a small scale between two employees applies as well to politics and society. Our feelings of inferiority and fears make us prone to project dangers and foes onto the outside world. We must therefore carefully distinguish personal projections from real dangers. The closer we keep an eye on our shadow child and strengthen the sun child in us, the more decently and fairly we will act—and decency, fairness, and benevolence are the basis of any kind of human relationship. When I choose to take responsibility for my shadow child, I will become not only a happier person, but also a better person.
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