The Power of Acknowledging Past Traumas

For years I was in denial.

I refused to see any behavior in my family that might be interpreted as bad or abusive even in the slightest degree.

This was my family!

My parents worked hard to keep all five of us children fed, clothed and educated. They were good people.

The other reason for the denial might have been that, as a child, I had no idea how things should be ideally. Weren't all kids in the same situation? Many of my friends sure were. Wasn't every child afraid of her father's anger if she did something wrong?

If someone asked me if I had a happy childhood, my answer always was "I'm sure I did. I was good in school."

Later, that kind of reasoning moved past my family to apply to conditions of living in the community, in the country. I became desensitized to abuse, violence and even war.

I saw difficult situations as just part of normal life, why talk about them? Why make a big deal?

I can definitely see how these experiences helped me grow resilience in the face of future traumas, but they left unconscious scars also. Only after acknowledging the source of my scars could my wounds start to heal.

Things changed when I remembered and acknowledged some of the difficult situations in my life.

It started with a simple trigger. I was looking through some old family photos my sister had collected lovingly and saved to a disc. There were many pictures I'd never seen, especially from the early period of my parents' marriage. It was obvious that as they had more children, their time to photograph them had decreased.

But there were a few family pictures with me in them and these released pain I'd long since buried. Unconscious memories with a few conscious snapshots came rushing in and I was shocked to find myself sobbing uncontrollably on and off for days.

I was finally feeling the emotional pain of some of my past experiences in my body instead of suppressing them as normal difficulties of life.

I will share one of my earliest memories from the time when I was a month shy of three years old. My twin sisters had just been born. Mom had complications and had to care for two newborns. My older siblings were in school or self sufficient, but I was still in need of total supervision.

So for my own safety and care, mom's aunt Rosa took me to her house for a while.

My vague memories are of following Rosa nana around, or just being by myself in her living room. I remember walking around that room touching sofa, chair, sofa, and chair. I might have been talking to imaginary people to entertain myself. I have a visual memory of sitting at her kitchen table while she fed me.

Rosa nana was kind and I know I loved her.

But how could this three year old understand why she wasn't with her mama anymore? Could this have been traumatic to her? Did she feel lost? At that age, she had no way of understanding the circumstances.

Much later, mom told me that as a child I used to sit at the edge of a chair and rock back and forth, a habit I had kept into adulthood whenever I felt stressed. Did it start when I was three? Had I developed a way to soothe myself?

We tend to understand trauma only in terms of war, major accidents, rape or physical abuse. But it is much broader than that.

Trauma is actually any experience that overwhelms you.

As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a leading researcher in the field of trauma puts it, "trauma is fundamentally a disruption in our ability to be in the here and now."

It's anything that's too much, too soon, too fast for our nervous system to handle; especially when a successful resolution can't be reached.

People need professional help to deal with extreme cases of trauma, but gently looking into our overwhelming experiences and integrating what we learn about ourselves can help make life much easier to navigate.

One added benefit of this gentle inquiry is disrupting the repetition of the same story we tell about ourselves over and over again, like a beloved companion we can't let go. "I'm aloof because I never had friends growing up", "I can't trust people because of the way I was brought up". It becomes easier to disidentify from the stories and see them as just past experiences.

As an adult, I used to wonder why I kept repeating patterns of behavior that weren't helpful to me at all.

  • I used to go out of my way to please people -- people I didn't even like that much.
  • I used to be afraid to speak my mind when I didn't like the way I was being treated, afraid to rock the boat.
  • Or the other extreme -- I used to lose my temper and yell because the only way I knew how to get someone to listen to me was to scream at them.
  • I used to find comfort in food, overworking, over-giving, and over-reading, as ways of numbing myself.

How about you? Do you repeat behaviors that you know aren't helpful to you or others? Do you suffer from chronic pain or anxiety or do certain situations make you extra sensitive? Maybe you also have unacknowledged painful experiences in your life.

You don't have to go back and dig around to find the old trauma. But just acknowledging the ones that you remember instead of denying their existence makes a huge difference in healing and moving forward.

Continuing to suppress emotions around those events is not the way to heal the wounds. There's a difference between knowing something happened to you and feeling your emotions about those same experiences. If you stay stuck in your head, you'll tend to try to rationalize or make excuses or stories about what happened. This is your mind trying to protect you from feeling the pain.

Instead, allow yourself to feel the emotions in your body, feel the pain as sensations. Sit silently with them, what do you sense? Is there tightness in your chest, choking feeling in your throat, butterflies in your stomach, or a heavy weight on your shoulders?

Talk to your emotions and pain. Yes, talk to them. What are they trying to tell you? What is the message they want you to hear?

Allowing the pain to be there and tending to it like a friend will help it flow out and complete the circle to heal the trauma.

In my case, I spent some time looking back. I sat at the edge of a chair and rocked back and forth, feeling the pressure of the pain of that sudden loss of mom in my chest. The sadness felt like a heavy rock on my heart.

I held the 3-year old me close until she relaxed into the belief that she's not going to be taken away, that I will always be here with her. The rock on my heart grew softer and softer until it melted and poured out of my eyes and the three year old completely relaxed.

I still don't remember as much as I wish I did, but I'm filled with love, understanding, forgiveness and compassion for my parents, my siblings and me. This isn't the mental thought of "I love my family." It's the gut level love felt in my body.

I understand now that my big fear in life has been not being important enough, not being loved, being abandoned or left behind.

That fear has been the reason for the unhelpful behaviors, my drive to look for ways to soothe the pain or make sure I was loved at any cost.

I remember as a preteen asking my mom if I was the neighbor's daughter. And later in life saying things like "I must be invisible," "I must be nobody."

Acknowledging this trauma, and releasing the trapped feelings around it, helped identify one of the experiences where this fear was first established. This showed me why I didn't need to be afraid anymore. It taught me I could be the one to love myself, to put me first, and to communicate my needs much better.

Look back into your life to see if there were times of trauma or extreme overwhelm. Allow yourself to feel those emotions around the event. Where are they in your body? Offer love, kindness, and support to the parts of you wounded by these events. And if they are big traumas, please ask for professional help.

Don't resist them, befriend them and ask for the messages they bring to you. They have the power to heal old wounds and bring more balance to your life.

When you understand yourself, it becomes easier to see when your old fears are surfacing and reassure yourself that -

That was then and this is now.

You can be on your own side.

You have agency to act on your behalf.

If you need help doing this, reach out to me on my website.

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