There’s a photo of me sitting on the top of my bookshelf in my room.
It’s a 5th-grade school photo, I think. I’m wearing a black shirt and glasses. I have a little barrette pinned to the top right side of my hair.
I’m smiling at the camera, a long golden necklace dangling around my neck. I look prim and proper (in my childhood photos, I almost always look prim and proper).
Sometimes just looking at this photo brings tears to my eyes. My heart melts. The little girl in this photo looks so innocent. So tender. So blissfully, innocently naïve.
When I look at her, I think of all the things she doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know the kinds of experiences that will shape her.
She’s doesn’t know the pain she’ll feel, the inner struggles with self-doubt, self-worth, and self-acceptance.
The walls she’ll build around her heart—walls that feel like mountain-sized boulders she’ll have to spend years chiseling through to simply feel like that space within her chest can live, breathe, and break free.
That she’ll feel as if she’s filled with a darkness that no one else could possibly understand, see, feel, or relate to—that no one in the history of existence has ever felt or experienced.
How she’ll carry an unwavering feeling of aloneness. How she’ll self-isolate herself from everyone—most painfully, from herself.
She doesn’t understand the fears and insecurities that will plague her—the ones she’ll have to spend years diligently, meticulously, painstakingly extracting herself from.
She doesn’t yet know that she’ll carry a feeling that she’s not “good enough.” Not only that she’s not good enough, but like there’s something inherently, fundamentally wrong with her.
I always feel tenderness when I see photos of myself as a child, or when I think about this little girl.
I’ve spent nearly a decade working to unbind myself and unfurl from the cruel, critical, relentless inner voice that speaks inside my head; from the fears and limiting tendencies that have sought to control me from the inside out—that fused with my view and inner experience of self.
Years spent deconstructing and dismantling the bonds of internal belief systems I’d unwittingly created, which had been built on self-judgment, self-criticism, and a seemingly innate need for self-punishment.
It took me years of intentional, conscious action to infuse even the slightest bit of tenderness toward myself—to even begin to cultivate kindness and self-compassion. To not automatically get pulled by that tantalizing, succulent scent of the familiar, patterned devolving cycle of self-condemnation.
Yet, when I see this little girl, or think of her, all I feel is tenderness. All I feel is compassion. All I feel is love.
I want to hold her hand, take her into my arms and hold her. I want to make her feel warm, supported, safe, secure, and protected. I want her to know she’s not alone. That she doesn’t have to fight so hard or try so desperately to figure it all out. That I’ve got her.
I still too frequently have that knee-jerk reaction to judge myself, to berate myself, to tell myself how stupid, or unworthy, or incapable I am when I don’t live up to some expectation of who or what I feel I am supposed to be.
Yet, through intention and practice, I’ve also cultivated an almost equally automatic knee-jerk reaction to react to that initial bent toward self-judgment, with kindness, tenderness, and gentleness. With self-compassion. With the want to imbue softness, warmth, and understanding into my experience of what I’m experiencing.
I hold love for myself within these moments. Creating space to understand that I’m learning, that I’m doing the best I can, that I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and whatever I did that now makes me ache, was unintentional—a reaction, or pattern, or unfortunate moment that now allows me the opportunity to learn, grow and move outside and beyond it.
I hold myself accountable, but I hold myself gently. I am intentional. I want my consciousness to understand that whatever I did or said or felt or understood, needs to be acknowledged and owned—yet for the sole purpose of simply being aware of it so that I can release it, and let it go.
In my more tender moments, I put my hand on the center of my chest, fingers grazing the outer lining of my heart, and I talk to that little girl inside of me. I picture her face in my eyes, the sweet innocence that emanates from her being. I remember and feel the deeper knowings and understandings I have of her—her desperate inner longing to feel safe, supported, stable, and secure.
I gently press a hand on my chest, and I talk to her.
We’re all just learning. We don’t always live up to our expectations. We all have our lessons. Things we’re meant to learn. We’ve all experienced pain and heartache; we all have our own particular fears.
Sometimes we do or say something that doesn’t align with who we are or who we want to be. Sometimes we are immobilized in pain or fears that feel impossible to escape from. Sometimes we feel locked into habitual actions, reactions, and behaviors that don’t serve us, and we can’t for the life of us, figure out how to unbind from them. And, sometimes we unwittingly make someone else ache.
It’s important to hold ourselves accountable—to acknowledge when we’ve done wrong, when we haven’t lived up to our expectations, or when we’ve caused someone else pain. It’s okay to want to learn from our experiences, so we never recreate them. So we don’t have to relive them or relearn the lesson.
But we have to find a way to so—to own these moments—while being kind, gentle, tender, loving, and compassionate toward ourselves. In fact, it’s the only way we’ll really learn what we’re meant to learn, understand what we’re meant to understand, and to change and shift the things that we want to change and shift.
Holding a deep sensitivity to and acceptance of ourselves and our experiences, allows us to free ourselves from all of the things that don’t serve us, move toward our heart’s deepest yearnings and desires, and open to the deeper truths of who we really are.
We have to tenderly allow ourselves space to learn. Because we’re here to learn.
The children who live inside of us want to feel safe, warm, supported, nurtured, protected, and secure. They want to feel seen and felt and heard.
They want love.
They only want to love and be loved.
I have compassion for the little girl in these photos, the little girl who lives inside of me.
I also have compassion for the adult she became.
She did the best she could.
She’s still doing the best she can.
I wrote this poem-esque piece almost two years ago. I hope something within the words, can help you connect to your own inner child, to the sweet, innocent, tender little boy or girl who lives inside of you.
Who only wants to love and be loved.
A tender little loving reminder, from me to me:
The little girl in this photo spun and twirled in her mother’s wedding dress so many times that she wore it out; the fabric had no choice, but to wither and fall apart.
She was surprised to learn, after getting glasses in third grade, that the neighbors across the street had flowers in their yard; she’d never been able to see them before.
She cried every time she thought about her grandfather, who died of colon cancer when she was four. (This, by the way, is something she still does.)
She hadn’t yet been conditioned to question or doubt herself, to second guess every thought she’d think, every word she’d like to speak, every wish she’d desire to seek.
She hadn’t yet learned how to mold herself into who she thought she was supposed to be, instead of just allowing herself to be who she really was.
She hadn’t yet experienced cruelty or learned to internalize it as self-doubt and insecurity. She hadn’t yet felt the need to build up an armor of reserve, an impenetrable wall to protect her from getting hurt.
She was sensitive and cried at everything (including “Beauty and the Beast”) but hadn’t discovered that it might be something she’d one day have to explain. She just was who she was; there was no other way to be.
Her first real crush was in kindergarten. The boy she liked “hid” her little red backpack every morning before class. And she pretended, each time, that she had no idea where it was, even though he always put it in the same wide-open place.
She was a bossy older sister and always had to be right. But she was also protective. She made her sister walk on the “inside” on their way home from school—because, since she was the oldest, if someone was going to get hit, it was going to be her.
That little girl still lives inside of me.
I have her. We all do. They’re not always easy to find. It’s easy to forget they exist.
But, we have them inside us, living and breathing—wide-eyed, pure, sweet, honest, kind, splendid little beings—whose only real need is love and tenderness.
I have this child inside me. We all do.
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