Returning to Myself: Senegal, Solo Trips, and Inner Child Work
For better or for worse, TikTok, Twitter, and other popular online platforms have decided that mental health buzzwords are the newest trend. Misappropriating texts like The Body Keeps Score to discuss pandemic fatigue or assuming ADHD is a quirky personality trait has inundated my social media feeds, irritating me to no end. Watching debilitating and deeply personal diagnoses get oversimplified by unlicensed, inexperienced influencers is painful, and I genuinely hope this trend ends soon.
However, this massive influx has had at least one positive impact on my life; it introduced me to inner child work.
For those of you off social media and out of healing and psychology jargon circles, the inner child was first introduced by psychologist Carl Gustav Jung, but popularized by John Bradshaw in his book Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child. He argues that we all have an “inner child,” a subpersonality that represents our unconscious minds and behaviors prior to puberty. It covers the messaging and lessons we all internalized before we could even recognize its presence. Inner child work is behavior directed towards addressing the needs of that version of ourselves, functionally arguing that even as adults, we hold onto the things we lacked, desired, and harmed us in childhood. The theory goes further to assert that this lack subconsciously impacts our perceptions, emotions, and decisions in adulthood. I would take this a step further and argue that adulthood often requires abandoning some of the innate parts of ourselves in order to assimilate into “acceptable” adult culture and that in itself shapes who we become.
Inner child work comes in by encouraging us to satisfy the things we longed for in childhood, addressing the trauma we experienced, and accepting how it has shaped our unhealthy behaviors.
I try to practice inner child work by painting. I see this as a practice of intuitive pleasure rather than learned pleasure. In my free time, I try to ask myself questions like am I enjoying this book because it actually brings me joy, or was I raised to value this author? Do I actually like crossword puzzles or do I like the confirmation of my intelligence? I have friends who blow bubbles or go to museums to tend to their inner child. One could even argue that my handbag habit (problem?) is a form of inner child work.
But how do we heal a child that’s been long forgotten? I’ll speak for myself at this moment, but as a first-generation immigrant, I can’t help but think about my accelerated maturity. Like many in my position, childhood was cut short by taking on the reality of the commitments I had to my family. I have such a distinct memory of looking toward my future and deciding the person I wanted to be. But that “choice” was almost definitely driven by what I knew I NEEDED to be. Everything from my handwriting to how I currently speak was an intentional decision I made and was in no doubt heavily informed by the role models I had at the time – mostly white, well-educated men. I’m not sure I fully remember who I was and what I valued before that change.
It’s hard to say if I’ve forgotten my inner child or if I smothered her out of existence.
This is what consumed my thoughts during my first ever solo trip. I spent four days in Dakar, Senegal, visiting attractions and taking long, lonely sunset walks by myself. As I passed the hours in my own brain, I couldn’t help but think about how 12-year-old me would think current me is so cool. In many ways, I have become the person she planned for me to be. But what and who did I sacrifice to get here?
Interestingly, I honestly tried to let everything that could possibly stop this trip influence my decision to go. The language barrier, the expensive flight, and the limited time I would have there all felt like insurmountable obstacles. Even as I boarded my flight, my outward excitement was masking my internal terror. Not a single day went by where I didn’t think “was this a mistake?” Each completely solo excursion, from finding food to getting light exercise, almost paralyzed me with fear. Walking down unfamiliar streets with no data and no friends, I was terrified that any regretful moment meant I failed at my first solo trip and should never go on one again.
But as I write this safe and sound back in Abidjan, I know the trip was worth it. Despite my fears, I made meaningful memories, and while I didn’t have the glamorous solo trip experience I imagined, I now know how I want to structure my next one. It was an incredible learning experience, and one I almost robbed myself of because I couldn’t plan for it to be perfect.
As I landed back in Abidjan and the blanket of fear lifted, I had to ask myself: when did I become so afraid?
Even if I don’t completely remember or even identify with my younger self, I know she wasn’t this cowardly. She couldn’t have been. Frankly, you don’t make it through the New York school system as a first-generation immigrant without heaps of courage. And yet, somewhere along the way of becoming who I am today I’ve lost in the fearlessness that guided me when I was younger. I’ve become more reserved, letting my reason tend to caution and deluding myself into thinking courage equated being without fear rather than acting in spite of it.
My failures grew into shameful weights rather than opportunities to grow.
Has distancing myself from my childhood courage run counter to the growth mindset she wanted me to have?
Like many first-gen people, in order to traditionally succeed, I had to morph into the type A workaholic I am today. Sometimes I mourn the version of myself I could have been if I had been left to pursue what genuinely made me happy and not simply what I thought was right. But it’s easy to long for something and someone that doesn’t exist. It’s easy to imagine myself more “fulfilled” when there's nothing to prove me wrong. I can’t say if that Wassa would be happier, and if she wouldn’t long for the things I regularly do and enjoy now.
I thought some clarity would come to me on my trip, that the sun would shine on my skin and I would magically know what to do to heal my inner child. Needless to say, that was not the case. But exploring seriously, pushing myself out of my comfort zone, and feeding the curiosity that is so familiar, yet I struggle to let guide me have all put me on what feels like the right path. I hope my next solo trip will be as insightful.
There is no ribbon ending to this. I still have a lot of questions to answer and reflect on based on my trip, and as my final month here begins, I’m sure even more questions will arise. Like most work, I have a feeling that this will be a lifelong journey and not a fixed destination. But I look forward to the process.
“No more withholding. I am almost home. Deep in myself, a light has been left on.”
May that return home, both physical and emotional, be a peaceful one.