As a child, I loved playing with Matryoshka dolls. I would study each one, taking in the similarities and the slight differences between them. I was fascinated by how they fit into each other, how they were all separate but were also all one.
Nowadays, when working with clients I often explain how we’re like Matryoshka dolls—we’re each comprised of multiple parts. These are often younger, previous versions of ourselves. Though we move through the world in our current form, we carry these others along with us all of the time. They’re always there, hiding beneath the surface.
Have you ever felt frustrated by how you can rationally understand a situation yet you still feel awful about it? For example, you know that a partner left a relationship with you because they didn’t have the emotional capacity for intimacy. You know it’s not your fault but you still feel wounded and unworthy. Or maybe you got passed over for a promotion. You know the new hire has more expertise than you and you honestly don’t feel ready for the additional responsibility anyway. But you still feel hurt and rejected.
Why doesn’t the understanding bring peace?
In situations like this, a prior version of you is activated. Maybe it’s the child who struggled to win their parent’s approval. Or maybe it’s the teenager who never got invited to parties. Though your current mind logically understands the situation, the emotions you’re feeling are connected to past pain. Unresolved pain. Which makes the present situation a wonderful opportunity to do healing work.
Whenever your emotional response seems out of alignment with the situation at hand or is simply intense and overwhelming, ask yourself how old you feel. Try to discern which version of you is activated. The immediate impulse may be to shove the negative feelings away but that doesn’t help you heal them. Instead, recognize that they’re rooted in something deeper and acknowledge their validity. Ask the activated version how it feels. Listen to what it has to say without judgment.
Offer the comfort and attention you needed back then.
Breathe long, slow breaths as you imagine saying words of comfort. This will calm your nervous system and help train your brain to help you relax when triggered.
“I understand how hard that is.”
“Of course you feel hurt, that was a hard thing to experience.”
“I’m here for you.”
“You’re safe now.”
“I love you.”
Say what needs to be heard. It can also help to imagine hugging or holding the activated version. You can hug your own body as you do. If you notice a particular part gets activated often, dig out a photo of yourself at that age and set it somewhere you will see it regularly. Acknowledge it, smile at it, say good morning… validate.
As you do this work, be sure to address all of your parts with total love and compassion. If you find yourself hating a part, that one needs your love the most. Spend some time listening to it. Strive to understand where it’s coming from.
Just as we should never shame children for not knowing something they were never taught, you should never shame yourself for past mistakes.
The fact that prior versions of you get activated is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to everyone whether they realize it or not. Healing is a lifelong journey. It takes a lot of time and effort. But when you begin to pay attention to what’s really happening you build the ability to respond to situations calmly and with confidence.
This practice also helps you build empathy and understanding for others. Your loved ones are like Matryoshka dolls too. They may not realize it and they may not be open to confronting their activated parts, but if you take this into account it can help prevent you from blaming yourself for their reactions.
Many blessings to you as you move forward on your healing journey. Inner child work is so powerful!
With Love & Compassion,
Adina Arden Cooper
I'm a healer, a guide, a supportive companion. A storyteller, an artist, an ally and an advocate. I help individuals thrive and communities come together through counseling, coaching, and community building. I believe that shared humanity is a powerful strength and that our stories connect us in beautiful and sacred ways. As I stumble, skip, or soar my way through this life, I invite you to join me on the journey. Likewise, I'm honored to travel with you. In witnessing one another, we find meaning.