Healing Childhood Trauma
I want to talk about a serious and troubling topic today-- the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse that steals the innocence of our children. Maybe we've experienced this ourselves; maybe not, but either way this topic exerts a powerful influence on the health of our society. Typically we don't want to talk about childhood trauma. But it is a real problem, and has been for awhile.
Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychology, frequently heard his patients recall early experiences of sexual abuse. Early in his career he developed a theory that hysteria and obsessional neuroses were primarily caused by childhood abuse. Makes sense. Unfortunately, after a couple years he rejected his original idea and instead argued that his patients were fabricating these memories as a result of adult sexual fantasies. He criticized anyone who suggested otherwise. Because of his influence, for generations the psychoanalysts who were supposed to help people heal from trauma instead questioned their patient's stories, thereby reinforcing a culture of suppression and silence.
Things today are simultaneously both much better and not so different. Survivors of abuse all too frequently face the same disbelief and suppression. Especially within families, there is often strong pressure to keep quiet about the harmful actions of its members. It is often easier for many people to believe that abuse is something to be forgotten, not something to be talked about.
Forgetting trauma is a strategy that has its place. Small children who live dependent on abusive caregivers will often forget the bad and remember the good. This helps them get through childhood and survive. Since death is a real possibility for a vulnerable child, this strategy serves its purpose. Many times memories of abuse don't rise into people's conscious awareness until after they are much older, until they are no longer living under the power and influence of the people who abused them. When these memories return, it is often when they have more resources and social support. From there, they can more easily heal.
I've had people call me hoping hypnosis can help them forget the past. If you're trying to hide something from everyone else, it makes sense to try to hide it from yourself too. But forgetting trauma is usually unconscious and comes with severe drawbacks. It takes an enormous amount of energy to repress the past, leaving people drained and depressed. Fortunately for us, there are much more effective ways to forgive the past and again live vibrantly.
First, let me say that abuse shouldn't happen. Preventing abuse is incredibly important, and my hope is that our society continues to move toward addressing its causes. Sharing experiences, raising awareness, holding abusers accountable, and healing from abuse individually and collectively will certainly transform the world. Many of the people I admire the most in the world have themselves faced early childhood abuse. The depth of their strength, love, and compassion is unparalleled. Perhaps within the palm of darkness lie the pearls of beauty and love.
So abuse shouldn't happen, okay, but what if it does? What do we do? Mainstream psychology has historically invited people to talk about it. This works in some cases, to some extent. If someone can share their story and be met with love, that is a powerful way to relieve shame, rebuild trust with others, and reclaim their lives. The problem is that trauma is often non-verbal. If someone is able to share their story, that is an indication that they have already integrated the experience and are able to place it within the context of their lives. More often people who have experienced trauma will not be able to talk about it at all. Generally they will feel numb and dead, or feel overwhelmed with fear and emotion, or switch between the two. It is a bit like the feelings of fear are so great that the body treats it like a nuclear meltdown that must be contained. The unprocessed feelings are sealed off separately so the rest of the person can survive and function in the world.
We all live with parts of ourselves sealed off like this. People with a traumatic past are not different than others, but their experience tends to be more extreme. What happens is that we go along living our lives as best we can, and then sometimes this unintegrated, unprocessed pain rears it's head. Depression, anxiety, anger, suicidality, insomnia, and flashbacks can all be present. At first we'll try to chop off it's head. We try to push away the feelings. We don't like to feel bad! This is such a common and natural response, but it doesn't work very well. The part of us that experienced trauma in the past is an integral part of us, no matter how sad, scared, or angry it might be.
Far better is to think of this part of ourselves as a small child. As you read this, imagine that sitting on your lap is a little child. Say hello. As you look at their face, how are they feeling today? Are they sad? Scared? Curious? Beaming with joy? Notice how you feel towards them. You might want to hold them close, and tell them that you care about them.
This is your inner child. It is a metaphor for the part of you that feels deeply. It is the spontaneous, free, child-like part of you who loves to play. It has remembered a number of painful experiences, even if you have forgotten. This child longs to be reconnected and integrated into your life.
This metaphor works for a number of reasons. It counteracts the tendency to judge and push away the feelings. The standard pharmaceutical model of psychological pain conceives it a bit like a bacterial infection: you take a course of pills, and it goes away. Pharmaceutical drugs can be life-saving and wonderful, but they have their limits. This model only goes so far. However, if you think of your feelings as a child, then you are present with them. You don't have to get rid of them. You understand that a hurt child won't always feel bad, and so neither will this mood last forever. Children notoriously swing quickly from mood to mood, wailing one moment and giggling with unbridled joy the next. Being with your inner child works because, although it's counterintuitive, being present with pain is the fastest way to get rid of it.
Okay, this brings up a lot of resistance. Many people run the other direction when they're invited to turn towards pain. But have you ever been chased in a dream? It's one of the most common dreams around. Carl Jung was surprised when he traveled to Africa and asked people what they dreamt about. Just like in Europe, people were being chased. In Africa tigers were doing the chasing instead of thieves, but it's the same principle. Now, have you ever turned around and faced what was chasing you? It's possible to train yourself to do this. Even going to sleep with the intention to face what is chasing can make it happen. Usually whatever is chasing you turns out not to be very scary. What you thought was a murderer might transform into a friend, teacher, or ally when you are willing to face it.
Similarly, when we turn and face what is scary in our lives, we courageously reclaim our power. The positive effects cannot be overstated. Still, we must proceed with compassion for ourselves. The first step is to establish as much stability and safety physically and psychologically, whether that is in our lives generally or during a therapy session. Having a safe, beautiful natural place to go in a daydream or meditation can help. Once we feel as safe as possible, we can get in touch with old trauma, but we don't need to get sucked into it. We don't need to go so far into old trauma that we loose our sense of self. Or if we do, it is important to be able to get back to safe, solid ground. It is important to have a sense of control here, because the feelings of overwhelm can evoke our fear of losing control. Having a stable, loving presence with us is crucial. You can do a lot of healing work on your own, if you know how, but our pain was created in the context of relationships, so it's natural that we heal it in relationship too.
When we work out at the gym, we work our muscles, which at first is quite painful. We learn to tolerate more pain, and soon we come to enjoy the experience: the endorphins, the power, and the physical beauty that results. Just like when we try to run without training first, when we touch emotional pain it can feel like we will never get anywhere. So many people who do this healing work speak of a bottomless blackhole of darkness. That's the way it seems for awhile. But being able to make forward progress is more important than measuring how much further it us until we are done with our journey, 'happy,' enlightened, or whatever.
It's normal to feel anxious about starting therapy, and it's normal to feel that way before every session. You're not quite sure what you're getting into, or where you'll end up. And that's okay. There are a number of techniques that make processing trauma in therapy safer than having it arise unbidden on its own. There can be more distance between you and the painful experience. There is more loving support to buffer you from it as well. You don't even have to talk about it, if you don't want to. We can go through a whole non-verbal experience where you alchemize a painful experience and free yourself from its influence without you saying a word. You just raise a finger on your right hand for yes, or left hand for no, and we can continue to communicate with each other. There are lots of tricks like this that can make the experience comfortable and tolerable. When the dust settles, the clarity in your mind and heart is like the view that makes the journey worth it.
One of the benefits of therapy is that you build skills. These skills aren't necessarily difficult to learn; any 8-year-old could learn most of them. But adults fail to pass them on, because no one taught them. By doing this therapy and healing work, you learn how to be present in your body. You learn how to be present with your own emotions. By raising your tolerance for experiencing strong emotion, you also learn how to be more present with your children and loved ones. This is no small thing. It is a radical choice that transforms your life, and through that, the world.
So today, do one thing that will help create a world that is trauma-aware, that is able to hold pain and transform it into peace and forgiveness. If you'd like to experience this type of healing for yourself, listen to the 15 minute audio recording below. It takes you through the steps of increasing safety, visiting a traumatic event, and returning with new positive beliefs and energy. If you'd like to do deeper, more nuanced work, I am available for individual sessions. They are an hour and a half in length, where we get to explore your inner terrain, your past, and remove the blocks that limit your life in the present. Our goal is to allow the free-flow of energy and love in your body and life. These sessions can take place over the Internet via video chat, or in person at my office in Seattle. What makes it possible is your willingness to turn towards yourself with compassion.
Or if you'd like to chat more about doing a session with me, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know where you're coming from and where you want to go. Thank you for doing this work, and I trust that you will find complete healing wherever your path takes you.