Childhood trauma

In childhood, we are so vulnerable. We start life helpless, powerless. If we experience loss, indifference, emotional, physical or sexual abuse, the effects can stay with us throughout our lives. You may tell yourself "It wasn't that bad." Or "Others have it much worse," but then have problems trusting others, feeling safe in the world, or knowing how to stand up for yourself. You may find it hard to believe that you are worthwhile or that you don't have to earn love. Fortunately, therapy can help you let go of the past.

Getting Over the Past

Most of us don’t escape childhood without at some emotional bruises. For some of us, those early hurts are either so painful or happened at such a crucial time, that they follow us into adulthood, leaving us depressed or anxious, stuck or helpless, angry or resentful.

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Childhood Trauma

Some of us faced serious abuse, physically, verbally, emotionally, sexually or even spiritually. Those experiences can leave us with:

  • Intrusive thoughts or painful memories that keep coming up
  • Sadness or anger about what happened
  • Fear - feeling like life is just not safe, waiting for the other shoe to drop
  • Difficulty trusting people
  • Guilt - not wanting to see my parents as "bad people"
  • Shame - seeing myself as "bad, wrong or weird"
  • Worry - not being able to handle things, not being a good parent myself

Often when we have a difficult past, it's like a part of us never grew up. When faced with challenges, we get scared. When we're with our parents or other authority figures (employers, for example), we may feel like little kids again.

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But it wasn't that bad…

Most kids feel like their families must be "normal." It's only when we see how other families do things that we question how our parents do things. It's also pretty common to dismiss abusive behavior - especially from our parents. They may have even said things like "This is for your own good," or "You're just too sensitive," either justifying their behavior or blaming it on you being bad or weak.

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Subtle forms of Abuse and Neglect

If the abuse is verbal or emotional, it may feel hard to pinpoint just why it felt so bad. In a lot of families the abuse is very subtle. Or it can take the form of emotional neglect. Parents may have provided food, shelter and all the basics - even given more than enough materially, but they may not have made you feel loved, wanted and like an important part of their lives. You may have gotten the message that you were a burden or your needs were too much. These messages can come through facial expressions, sighs, or a tone of irritation in the voice.

And the abuse or neglect may not have been "that bad," but it may have happened at a crucial time in your development. We all have sensitive periods. When we're infants, we need constant loving attention. Without it, we can feel abandoned. As kids, we need help putting our feelings into words and having those feelings validated. Otherwise we can feel bad, wrong or weird. As teenagers, we need our parents to remain calm while our hormones rage and our moods swing. If they get upset when we're upset, we may think our emotions are out of control - too big for even an adult to handle.

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How do I know if it's really abuse?

Anything that feels painful, unresolved or irritating from childhood is an indicator. Abuse is not something that can be labeled from outside. It's how you feel about your childhood.

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How does therapy help?

Often with abuse there is shame and blame. One of the most important parts of healing is recognizing that you are a good and worthwhile person. If you're feeling residual fear, worry or anxiety, then a top priority is creating safety for yourself. This may mean learning to set boundaries, practicing more assertive behavior and making better choices for your health and well being. You get to become the parent you always wanted and needed - and give that love and protection to yourself.

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Do I have to forgive?

You don't have to do anything. But sometimes, forgiving helps to set you free. It's important to remember that forgiving is not for the person who hurt you, it's about releasing them and releasing the past so you can move on. If you decide to forgive, you never have to forget or put yourself in harm's way again.

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I keep beating myself up

When we grow up feeling criticized or judged, we learn to treat ourselves the same way. In the beginning, this is actually a form of self protection. It’s like we try to anticipate criticism from outside. If we can get there first, then maybe we can avoid being criticized by others. At least we'll already be braced for judgment if it comes.

Over time, this protective aspect gets lost. And all we're left with is a mean voice in our heads that tells us everything we do wrong, did wrong and will do wrong. When we recognize that this voice was originally there to protect us, we can re-connect to that need to feel safe and loved, converting our inner critic or judge into a friend.

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What if I can't get over it?

Our brains are very flexible and are always capable of growth and change. Like our muscles, the parts we use the most (thoughts we think the most) are the ones that become the strongest. Therapy provides a place where you can re-examine old beliefs about yourself and others. You may choose to practice new beliefs that are more affirming, positive and healing. As you practice new thoughts over and over, you build mental muscle. Over time, the new thoughts feel as natural and automatic as the old ones did.

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When I feel triggered, I go on auto-pilot

When we experience trauma, our brains try to protect us. Remember science class, when you learned about the "fight or flight" response? When we feel threatened (even threats to our self-esteem), that very basic response gets activated in us. According to Pete Walker, MA who has done extensive work with trauma and abuse, when we can't fight or flee, we either freeze (like a deer in the headlights) or fawn (trying to please or placate the abuser).

All four of these responses are "auto-pilot" responses. Even though the abuse is in the past, when you are triggered in the present, the same reaction you had can get re-activated. You may become enraged (fight), feel an urgent need to leave (flight), check out mentally (freeze), or become submissive and go into "people pleasing" mode (fawn).

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What does it take to heal trauma?

In therapy, you can bring conscious awareness to these unconscious processes. Moving slowly and safely, respectful of the ways your brain has protected you, we can begin the process of unpacking traumatic memories. As you remember, you can express all the feelings that may not have been safe in the past. You can mourn the loss of the parts of yourself that had to go into hiding to be safe. And you can make a safe place within yourself so that all of your feelings and vitality can return to you.

It's important when you do this work that you do it in the presence of someone who cares, someone who has experience with abuse and can hear the pain, anger, fear, shame and any other feelings, staying fully present with you. Friends and loved ones may not be able to hear all the details. They may get uncomfortable and try to cheer you up or distract you. This is why it's so helpful to find a therapist you like and trust. Someone who can go with you into the dark places and witness your pain.

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You might also be interested in the parenting challenges.

For more information or to book a session,
contact Heather Marchman, Marriage and Family Therapist.

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