Your Mental Age: Healing and Raising Your Inner Children

In Japan, we have a phrase called “Seishin Nenrei.”

It means: “mental age.”

It simply means that our mental age may be different from our physical age.

I’m surprised that it’s not a widely accepted idea in US. It may be because of my cultural background, but the concept seems very obvious to me.

I’m sure you’ve seen “adult children” in action. Grown-ups with still a sense of child-like awe and wonder. Or parents who let out their “inner-children” with their own kids, going out and doing silly things.

Now, this concept can be extended to understand and overcome roadblocks within our minds. Namely, some of us are housing little children inside — children whose needs were not met when they were supposed to be.

To understand this, first you have to review the basics: Erikson’s Developmental Stages.

While not an earth-shattering revelation, Erikson’s theory gives us a nice framework, a starting point of identifying those needs.

Except, in real life, things are not that linear nor formulaic. Some of us who are lucky enough to have stable and loving parents may move through those stages smoothly, perhaps on the early side. But often, we move on to another stage without the conflict of the previous stage properly resolved. This is often necessitated, as the social networks around us expect us to behave in certain ways — schools being the foremost of such expectations.

What happens when a conflict from a particular age remains unresolved? The you at that age get “stuck” inside. This is where the age analogy comes in.

You may be housing an inner child in your psyche.

Let me give you an example. A few years back, I was battling my feeling of inadequacy as a musician. I just felt that I wasn’t good enough. Not good enough to be successful.

Now, notice how vague that statement is. “Not good enough” to be “successful.” What do they mean? I didn’t know, to be honest. I just felt that I wasn’t good enough. I was thinking about making and releasing my first album , but I was constantly battling this voice of fear in my head going “why even bother? You aren’t good enough to amount to anything. ”

This was a major roadblock to me, as it constantly interfered with my efforts to put together the music I believed in and was fundamentally excited about.

So I finally asked one of my trusted friends to sit down and talk to my inner child.

What I did was I envisioned these voices, and tried to figure out how old the speaker might have been. He was a teenager — 14 or 15 years-old. I told my friend that there’s a whiny teenager inside me who needed to grow up. So, she “sat me down” (I remember I literally changed the place where I was sitting on the couch, as I was now “becoming” a different person.) and said that she wanted to talk to the teenager Ari.

It took a bit of courage to let out my inner child honestly, but I did. The grown-up Ari listened, while Ari the young boy came out and started talking.

I don’t recall any exact lines, but the boy talked basically about how if I was going to be a professional guitarist (which, I must be, if I was going to release a CD) then I needed to be able to play fast. The boy was from the late 80’s when the rock music he was listening to featured virtuosic (or at least technical) guitar playing. Guitarists often bragged about how many hours a day they spent practicing, perfecting their chops. I didn’t practice that much and I couldn’t play anywhere near as fast as those “real” guitarists. So I wasn’t good enough, and was not worthy of doing things that are only reserved for pros.

My friend just listened and asked questions. There was no need to argue or try to convince him to change his opinion. The boy just needed to talk.

As I heard the boy inside me speak, I remember feeling a great sense of relief — really, like something got unstuck inside. I did see clearly how flawed and child-like the boy’s logic was. It didn’t result in an instant healing — but over the next few days, I really felt the boy’s previously incessant voice fade away.

And I went on to make and release my album, and today I don’t struggle as much with a feeling of inadequacy. I am happy with my music and I consider my making it a success, particularly my guitar playing on it.

Going back to the description of the stages, I can see that this fear of inadequacy belongs in the 4th stage, industry vs. inferiority. I did envision myself to be older than 12 years-old as I was speaking, but then, again, people progress at varying ages. I wasn’t exactly an unhappy child, but I do have some unpleasant memories from my grade school era. I got picked on a lot, by both boys and girls. I remember feeling very humiliated, as I cried sometimes at school — and boys weren’t supposed to cry. I wasn’t very athletic but I was good at music, which enforced the feeling that I was “girly.” Of course, that made me feel inadequate as a boy, though that conclusion, I believe, was mostly my own doing. I don’t recall being called a sissy or girly by other kids.

Anyway, so the unresolved conflict must have dragged on into my teenage years and was being judgmental about my guitar playing, which can be a very macho pursuit, almost a competition. Now I look back and laugh at the concept that being a professional must mean you have to play fast. That’s the kind of over-generalization kids do — but when you’re a kid, this kind of thinking can dominate our minds.

In every stage of our lives, we have challenges. Erikson’s stages are rough estimates, and things are not as simple as finishing one stage and moving to the next. It would be simpler if it was so. Particularly into adulthood, we’re getting challenged on multiple levels, and the demands can be fairly complex. You could be 50-year-old, facing the culmination of your career ahead, yet perhaps divorced and looking for someone to settle down with, all the while hearing voices of inner child, from much earlier eras in your life.

Unresolved conflicts from early on can hold you back from meeting challenges that are on the higher plains. Back to the house analogy, it’s really hard to build upon your house when your foundation is shaky. It may be scary and painful, but the best and quickest way to meet your challenges of your era is to go back and take care of your inner children. My particular issue was a fairly shallow one, so I could deal with it with a help of a trusted friend — but if it goes deep enough, it’s best done with a trained therapist. In addition to their bringing in their trained observations and guidance, you can also spare your family and friends from learning about your vulnerable, personal issues. It’s not quite as scary to open up to a stranger, somebody who has no pre-conceived notions of who you are supposed to be.

If the degree of unresolved conflict is not too deep, you can even have a conversation yourself with your inner child yourself, and that’ll help you figure a lot of things out. I do this all the time, by writing out my conversation with my inner child. As I write this, first I try to just be honest and truthful about what the child-version of me is saying, with flawed logic or childish impulses and all. Then I envision what that particular child needs. Whenever I become scared of being hurt by someone (usually verbally), for example, I envision holding a little boy, perhaps 3-4 years old, in my arm. He’s crying because so-and-so beat him or said mean things. I hold him and comfort him, just as I do with my daughter. Incidentally, this is part of the reason why becoming a parent can be so healing for the parent. In a way, you get to re-live your own childhood, meeting unmet needs inside you as you meet your child’s needs.

You don’t have to use the description of stages to figure out how old your inner children are. I find it best not to go in from that analytical angle. Instead, I just simply envision a child saying what he/she needs to say. That is the biggest clue about how old he/she is. And from there, you’ll see what the response should be.

In short, while we go about and try to act appropriately for our age, we may be carrying around ungrown children inside. These voices in your head are cries of needs that were not met when they were supposed to, and they can form major roadblocks in your life. The best, and really the only way to resolve this situation is to go back and raise your inner children, so that you can be congruent with how old you really are. I don’t mean that to say, when you’re 45, you have to “act” 45, whatever you or your society expects 45-years-olds to do. You are what you think you are, regardless of your physical age.

What I mean is, a situation can get unnecessarily complex when you are carrying ungrown children inside. You may be 30, but there are a screaming 1-year-old, sulky 5-year-old and whining 12-year-old inside.

Go back in time, and take care of them. Listen to their cries and comfort them. Tell them that you love them and that things are going to be OK.

As their concerns get voiced and resolved, they’ll gradually grow up, and join you where you are. You’ll be more wholesome and coherent, as your mind is not pulled into multiple directions by needs from your past. You’ll be one-piece, exactly where you are, with all your resources available to meet the challenges unique to your time.

A good life always presents challenges. But we get overwhelmed, when we are dragged down by the accumulated weight of unmet needs from you past. The best thing to do is to stop, go back and take care of your unfinished businesses.

Then you’ll discover that calling up all your resources to face your current challenges is indeed a joyful pursuit.