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Going to Build-A-Bear for the First Time Helped Me Heal (and Love) My Inner Child

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One day in early November, I had taken the day off work and was meeting a friend in New Jersey for dinner. I had some time to kill, and eventually found myself at the mall. I am but a lesbian moth and quality outerwear brands are my buzzing heat lamp, so I spotted the yellow lights of L.L.Bean from far away. After replacing my go-to pair of boots that had holes in the bottom, I exited, only to soon end up in a store completely surprising to me: Build-A-Bear.

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The store was completely empty, save for one family. I initially walked past the door, and then, as if my body were making its own independent choices without any collaboration with my brain, I pivoted on my heel and went in—for the first time ever.

There’s no sob story here about my awful parents never treating me to the experience I’d always dreamed of having. Sure, they weren’t thrilled about the prospect of waiting in a line snaking outside the door and into the mall among stressed out parents and their impatient, overtired kids. Was I curious about the hype? Yes, but I also didn’t want to go in badly enough to push for it. On that late-fall day in a New Jersey mall, though, as grown adult whose legs were autonomously walking her into Build-A-Bear, I figured “why not?”

Inside the store, a kind-seeming person with a blue Build-A-Bear apron greeted me and asked who I was shopping for. Reflexively, I blurted “a family member.”

“Oh, how old?” she asked.

“Uhhh, 8,” I replied.

That answer came out almost automatically, but upon thought, I realized age 8 was around the time when I would have walked by packed Build-A-Bear stores, envious of the kids vibrating with excitement in line.

At nearly 6 feet tall, I towered over the work stations designated for assembling a new plush friend. I tried not to think about that too hard, or else I might have gotten embarrassed and left. I scanned the stuffed animal wall full of familiar faces from animated movies, in addition to unicorns, dinosaurs, bears of every color, and a particularly cute green frog with multicolored polka dots. Ever since I was young, the color green, amphibians, and reptiles have been my thing. Again, my body sort of made a choice for me when I picked up the frog from the display. This was the stuffed animal I wanted for my own; not a single other bear had made me want to reach out and grab it.

“Do you want that one?” the salesperson asked. “She’ll love it. It’s so cute.”

“Uh, yes!” I said, quickly remembering my fib about being here on an 8-year-old family member’s behalf.

She grabbed the empty “skin” of the frog and had me get in line behind that only other family in the store. I was hyperaware of their presence, hoping they overheard me talking to the salesperson about shopping for someone else. My heart rate was higher than usual. Was it because I felt out of place? Was it because I was thrilled with excitement? Or was it just because my inner child had come to join me on this shopping adventure because she had some healing work to do?

Hello, inner child, let’s get to work

Popularized by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, the term “inner child” is connected to our subconscious brain. You might think of it as a metaphorical representation of the part of your personality that has been shaped by childhood experiences. It can also affect how we interact with various situations in life.

“If there has ever been a time you were scared or cautious of something or someone but could not quite pinpoint why, that may be a message from your inner child.” —Kiana Shelton, LCSW

“As a child, we picked up on a lot of things, even if we did not have the tools to fully process the situation at the time,” says therapist Kiana Shelton, LCSW with Mindpath Health. “If there has ever been a time you were scared or cautious of something or someone but could not quite pinpoint why, that may be a message from your inner child.”

One of the best ways to get in touch with your inner child and start doing inner child work—the process of addressing and recovering from childhood issues that affect us into adulthood—is listening. “To deepen connection with your inner child, become curious about your thoughts about your feelings, needs, pains, hopes, and dreams,” Shelton says. “There is information there that only you are the expert about. And unlike a child, you now hold more tools to process the information or the ability to seek a safe space to help you process the information.”

Upon understanding this background on inner child work, it made more sense to me that my feet were walking me into Build-A-Bear before I consciously decided to go. It was my inner child moving my feet and taking me somewhere she always wanted to go.

When it was my turn, the Build-A-Bear (or, er, frog), the attendant had me fit the plush fabric on the machine where fluffy stuffing pumps out. Then she had me step on the pedal that makes the machine go, inflating the creature with the material that makes it feel as real and cuddly as it will be. Next, she handed me a small satin heart and told me to think of something that I wanted the person receiving the frog to feel any time they held it.

At that moment, I let go of pretending that this was a gift for someone else and thought of a message for myself: Everything will be okay. I have the ability to make things okay for myself, even when I’m scared. Then, in what I’ve come to understand is the Build-A-Bear tradition, she had me tap a little satin heart to mark the start of its beating and then put it inside my new frog. Once it was full of stuffing, she took the frog off the pole attached to the stuffing machine and sealed it up.

The truth was I really had always wanted to go here, I just didn’t realize it when I first stepped foot into that New Jersey mall. In the checkout line, I felt so happy to have bought this frog for myself and taken myself out for this experience. I picked out a Girl Scout themed outfit for the frog, because Girls Scouts were something else I had wanted to do as a kid but didn’t.

How getting in touch with my inner child at Build-A-Bear affected me as an adult

In addition to listening, Shelton says you can connect with your inner child through practicing compassion—and that path is what resonates with me following my Build-A-Bear experience. “If you have kids or have ever been around them, you may quickly learn that meeting a kid where they are in a friendly, generous, and considerate manner is far more effective than ignoring, belittling, or shaming them for their needs, wants, or thoughts,” says Shelton. “This same approach applies to your inner child. In a way, this is an ultimate act of self-love; to show up for one of the most fragile parts of yourself with kindness.”

My response wasn’t about Build-A-Bear in a literal sense. It was understanding that I can choose things, give myself things, and trust that I deserve them—that I can trust myself and love myself.

Leaving the store with a signature Build-A-Bear box as an adult filled me with a certain amount of self-conscious nerves, but I also felt cared for and excited. It was fun to just do a thing because I could. I still don’t feel as though I missed out on something huge by not having the experience as a kid, but I’m now growing to understand that my physical and emotional response to the visit wasn’t about Build-A-Bear in a literal sense. It was more so the power in understanding that I can choose things, give myself things, and trust that I deserve them—that I can trust myself and love myself.

Two weeks later after my Build-A-Bear afternoon, I came down with an awful case of the flu. I had to go to the emergency room alone over Thanksgiving because I needed more care and medicine to rule out anything else going on. Going to the ER sucks, and going to the ER alone is even worse.

When I packed my messenger bag full of essentials, I also stuffed my green Build-A-Bear frog into the main compartment. I got in an Uber (masked, of course) to go to the ER, and the driver, assuming I worked there, said, “Oh, late night shift at work?” I paused and said, “Something like that.”

Inside my bag, I was twiddling the foot of my stuffed frog in my hand. It made me feel better and reminded me that everything would be okay. That I had the power to make choices to make that true for myself and for my inner child.

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