In the counseling profession the term inner child is sometimes used to describe a person’s emotional truth. A less common term is trauma child. This is used to describe the subconscious part of the brain that remembers all the emotional trauma a person has experienced, in an attempt to prevent the person from having to feel that emotional pain again.
While the inner child resides in the limbic system of the brain, the trauma child resides in the insular cortex. The insular cortex is also known as the insula and works between the cerebral cortex (conscious part of the brain) and the limbic system (emotional part of the brain).
Emotional trauma is created any time a person has a painful emotional experience and is unable to validate, work through, and let go of the feelings. Emotional trauma can be as small as being asked to stop crying or as large as receiving post-traumatic stress from narrowly escaping death. As long as the feelings and emotions are not worked through and resolved, they become emotional trauma and reside in the limbic system.
The insular cortex recognizes that the unresolved feelings are present in the limbic system and also has been taught in many different ways that the feelings are not to be looked at or let out. Everything that the insular cortex is taught is external and is learned from interacting with the world and other people. While many people indicate they taught themselves these behaviors, when a person is willing to go deep enough at an emotional level, the response of hiding one’s feelings is always taught by others, either directly or indirectly. Most of what has been learned and is stored in the insular cortex is taught in the first five years of a person’s life.
Because the insular cortex has been taught to hide feelings, when it recognizes the limbic system is attempting to work through a feeling, it quickly creates a counter-response it has learned to hide those feelings again. Initially, this learned response meant to hide the emotional pain created relief and comfort from the emotional stress. Eventually, though, it can create more stress and discomfort. This pattern is the foundation for an addiction, in which the insular cortex plays a major part.
Since the insular cortex’s job is to find and/or create comfort for the person and it has been taught to hide a person’s feelings, emotional stress and tension get created. This is where the trauma child resides. As feelings are able to be worked through, validated, honored, and released, the energy the trauma child holds is able to be released.