After one gory episode of “Breaking Bad,” a terrifying week before I gave up on my goal to watch all of “The X Files” and ill advisedly looking over a friend’s shoulder while he watched a documentary on a convicted Japanese cannibal, I’ve had to get good at soothing myself to sleep. Between this at night and trying to make it to work on time in the morning, I’ve been catching myself more and more at the subtle, often subconscious art of treating yourself like a child. What I mean by that is simple. When you’re an actual child, your parents are in charge of coercing you into everything you don’t have the self-awareness and self-control to get accomplished on your own. Going to sleep, stopping a tantrum, getting up for school, doing your homework, eating your vegetables instead of living off Totino’s Pizza Rolls and Easy Mac, you know, all that stuff kids aren’t great at. Your parents teach you how to be an adult, if you’re lucky enough to have good parents who are reasonably cool.
As a kid, I never knew how parents, or other adults for that matter, were able to put up with things they obviously disliked, like spending their Saturdays cleaning the gutters or paying bills or arguing with customer service representatives on the phone. Now that I’m an adult, I see the surprising, unexpected truth. Neil Young sang about how you can’t be 20 on Sugar Mountain, but it’s not because you automatically get your “adult card” on that birthday. It’s not like the calendar flips and you suddenly don’t mind vacuuming and reporting maintenance problems to your landlord. Instead, the key to being an adult is simply learning how to tell yourself all the things your parents told you when you were a kid.
Ever since I realized this, I’ve caught myself in the all-too-common act of bribing my inner kid. “Write this freelance piece even though you are tired from being at work all day,” I tell myself, “and then you can have a glass of wine.” “If you eat this organic steel cut oatmeal for breakfast instead of a bagel,” I reason, “you won’t look chubby in your favorite skirt.” There’s a lot of back-and-forth bargaining about chores I don’t like. “You have to do the dishes,” I tell myself. “No! I’m tired! I hate dishes! I don’t care!” my inner child retorts after a long, frustrating day. “If you don’t do the dishes now, you’ll just have to do them later. Wouldn’t it be better to get it over with?” I’m pretty sure my mom said the same thing to me about homework while looming over my failed attempts at a spelling worksheet in the third grade.
Part of being a functional adult is that there is no one else around to make the dishes in the sink go away or tell you that the creepiest thing you can think of isn’t under your bed. The other part is simply managing your expectations. This is something else I’ve worked at a lot lately. I had to realize that most of the time I get bent out of shape about something, it’s only because the end result I imagined didn’t work out, not because anything was actually terribly wrong. It’s made a big difference, just noticing how being flexible in your expectations can reduce stress. In July, as my very patient boyfriend can tell you, I experienced really disproportionate levels of disappointment at a date to the Tennessee Aquarium not working out, until we realized we could just catch a ride on the Chattanooga Ducks and do something else fun and touristy.
As adults, we have security blankets, too. Instead of teddy bears, we have pragmatism and planning and little OCD tendencies that make us feel in control. Sometimes, these security blankets can work against us. I’ve had a lot of relationship failures over the years because I couldn’t go with the flow and over-planned and put expectations far too heavy on my partners. Sometimes, when I’ve felt the most out of control or made the worst decisions, it’s because I couldn’t recognize the way my plans and hopes were working against me. It’s hard when the mechanisms in place to make you feel more secure end up as the source of your greatest disappointment. Just like when you grow up and eventually set aside childish things, part of the balancing act between your adulthood and your inner child is learning when your expectations, your OCD tics and your need for control are working against you.
It’s important, I think, to truly approach your inner child and your inner adult not as one being better than the other, but as a balancing act. The people I love and admire most have maintained their childlike sense of wonder, a measure of innocence, and a sense of authenticity and trust, while still functioning as adults. Some of the people I dislike the most are out of balance. They can be childish rather than childlike with their selfishness, demands for attention and lack of personal awareness. They can also be overly adult, consumed by stress and work and the trappings of adulthood, filled with cynicism, like Scrooge or the Grinch or Steve Martin’s character in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
Children are capable of far more than we give them credit for, as the bravery and courage of the children at Sandy Hook proved this week amidst tragedy. I may be 26 and afraid of the dark, but sometimes it’s nice knowing I’m not so desensitized to what’s wrong in the world and that violence in the media or the evils of history can still keep me up at night. My inner child is what appreciates early-morning fog or the sleepy feeling just before bed. My inner child is the one who gives me a sense of justice that’s made me push back when people try to hurt me. It’s also the one who makes me give those people second chances. My adult self has its benefits-she pays the bills, she has great taste in shoes and she’s got a pretty ribald sense of humor. But all of that comes from experience or careful cultivation. My inner child, I feel, is where some of my most authentic, dearly held qualities come from.
I see the same in others. I love my boyfriend for his sweetness, his simple enjoyment of pleasures like food or a game with friends, his sense of affection. I also love him for the adult self he’s created, the comedic sensibility, his careful taste in clothes, the way he minds his money, his earnest sense of responsibility. In everyone you meet, you can see shades of their child selves peek out from behind the adults they’ve become. It’s a precious thing. Get to know your inner child again. Get your halves back in balance. It’ll make you a happier, more joyful adult or a more responsible, functional child.
Meghan O’Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.