By Rachel Negar Partiali, Ph.D.
Sarah’s daughter just turned seven years old; the same age Sarah was when her uncle molested her. More than ever before, her daughter’s vulnerability reminds her of her stolen innocence. Although she doesn’t want to have such intrusive memories of her past, she can’t help but feel the terror and sense of betrayal she felt as a little girl. Such feelings seem to overtake her at times, leaving her paralyzed with fear, distrustful of intimacy, and unable to fully connect with her daughter.
Charlie and his boyfriend, Shawn, have a tumultuous relationship, which Charlie attributes to Shawn’s criticism of him. Charlie withdraws every time he feels emotionally attacked by Shawn, which only increases the tension in their relationship. With every criticism, Charlie hears his immensely hypercritical and angry mother in the back of his mind. He vividly recounts memories of his mother berating him for seemingly innocuous things, and shaming him to the point where he would shut down to numb himself from his emotional pain.
Trauma, whether physical, sexual, or emotional, profoundly impacts our relationships with ourselves, others, and our environment. We carry our past wounds with us throughout our lives until we acknowledge and heal those wounds. Undoubtedly, life, people, and our environment will trigger the pain of our past that once lay dormant within us. When such painful experiences come alive within us, it can feel like we are trapped in our own minds and it can be hard to know what to do to move past our pain.
Often, our painful past resurface in the context of a relationship with someone we love, leaving us feeling an array of emotions. It can feel very confusing when the partner we love triggers so much pain within us. It may be hard to distinguish whether they are the ones inflicting pain on us, or they are triggering the wounding that already exists in our psyches.
Some turn to distractions to numb themselves from their pain. Distractions can provide immediate relief from pain, whether it is through the use of drugs and alcohol, engrossing ourselves in work and exercise, or immersing all of our energies into our children. Regardless of whether we choose “healthy” or “unhealthy” distractions, the fact that still remains is that all these coping mechanisms distract us from our pain.
What’s wrong with distracting ourselves from the pain of our past traumas?
Although initially very appealing, distractions actually prolong our suffering. The childhood traumas that we refuse to look at, create a relationship with, and fully feel do not disappear when we turn away from them. We cannot heal what we push away and don’t allow ourselves to fully feel. Every time we turn away from our pain we, in turn, are abandoning the most wounded parts of ourselves. Ironically, we turn away from our traumas, just as others around us may have forsaken us during and after our traumatic experiences. Avoiding our past pains comes at a high cost. When we numb ourselves from our pain, we inadvertently deaden our capacity to feel fully alive.
What is the impact of unhealed trauma on our present lives?
Our experiences of trauma impact our outlook of the world. Let’s go back to Sarah and Charlie. From a short snapshot of their lives, we can see that their past traumas are affecting their current relationships. Sarah’s memories of her own childhood sexual abuse is impacting her ability to be fully present to her daughter, and Charlie is unable to navigate his relationship with his partner due to his unresolved emotions about his abusive mother. In both cases, their traumatic past is very alive and active in determining their way of being in the world.
Dr. Van der Kolk, a trauma researcher, states that our traumatic experiences are stored in our bodies. In essence, our bodies remember what happened to us even if our psyche does not have conscious awareness of the event. Therefore, he states, “it takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and shame of utter weakness and vulnerability” (Van der Kolk, 2014). Without realizing it, we are carrying the emotional heaviness of our unhealed wounds in every encounter we have. The energy we spend in doing that takes away from the energy we can put toward things that bring joy, happiness, and fulfillment in our lives.
So, how do we heal from our traumatic past?
The path to healing our past is to bring our awareness to our pain, creating a relationship with our emotions, and allowing ourselves to fully feel whatever emotions exists within us. In essence, we are not trying to fix a feeling or get rid of an emotion; we want to be in relationship to it. This can be a very difficult process to do alone, especially since the feelings that we avoid are the ones that terrorize our whole system. Therapy can provide the safety to revisit our past traumas, to feel the feelings associated with the trauma in a way that feels manageable and does not leave us further traumatized. The relationship with our therapist can also restore our shattered sense of safety, given that trauma disrupts our sense of safety in the world.
Whatever way we have been dealing with our traumatic past, it is important to note that we were trying to cope and adapt to our environment the best way we knew. Dr. Van der Kolk asserts that to fully heal from our past wounds, we need to inhabit all dimensions of ourselves. This means that not only do we need to create awareness and a relationship to our emotions, but we also need to come back to our bodies.
To break away from the tyranny of our past, we need to integrate our mind and body. Moving away from a dissociated relationship to our bodies can be difficult. Creating awareness of our bodies means feeling the gnawing discomfort that lives within us. Often times, as we turn to our bodies we can become aware of how unaware we are of how we’re feeling. Our trauma led to a mistrust of our bodies and to our gut feelings. This mistrust can make us inaccurately perceive threat in our environment or overlook actual threat, creating an overall antagonistic relationship with our bodies.
How do we move away from this dissociation and antagonistic relationship with our bodies?
We must befriend our bodies, and all the sensations that live within us. We need to become aware of how our bodies respond to our environment. If Charlie tuned into his body, he may become aware that every time he senses his partner being remotely critical of him, he tenses up and becomes defensive. In addition to therapy where we can learn to tolerate and befriend the sensorial counterparts within us, we can incorporate physical activities that enable us to slow down and tune in with ourselves. For example, yoga practices are an excellent way to connect with our bodies. Dance can also be a great way to give expression to the emotions that live within us.
Living in our bodies both makes us confront our emotions, but it is also our only way to feel alive.
We all experience trauma throughout our lives, although the type and severity varies from person to person. Although we didn’t have control over the occurrence of the traumatic experience, we now have the capacity to heal ourselves from the continual re-experiencing of the tyranny we once faced. Although the perpetrator of our deepest wounds may not be in our lives or may no longer be alive, the trauma we once experienced can be on replay in our minds until we heal our pain. And herein lies our power. We have the capacity to free ourselves from the continual reliving of terror. The path is not easy, as I can attest from both personal and professional experience, but it is possible. It is important to remember that it takes tremendous strength to live through and survive a trauma. Channeling this strength to turn inward can be our guide in our path toward emotional freedom from a traumatic past.
Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York: Penguin Books.