Trauma generates emotions, and unless we process these emotions at the time the trauma occurs, they become stuck in our mind and body. Instead of healing from the wounding event, the trauma stays in our body as energy in our unconscious, affecting our life until we uncover it and process it out. The healthy flow and processing of distressing emotions, such as anger, sadness, shame, and fear, is essential to healing from childhood trauma as an adult.
The healthiest response to childhood emotional wounds is also the rarest: When the trauma first occurs, we recognize the violation it has caused to our sense of self, feel the natural emotions that follow, and then realize that the violation doesn’t say anything about us personally — and thus we don’t make negative meaning of it and can let it go.
But because emotions like anger and sadness are painful — and because crying or confronting others is often not socially acceptable — this process doesn’t happen automatically. Instead, we may suppress our emotions, rather than feel and process them. As a child, this process is even more difficult. What can feel like a pinprick to an adult — an insult about one’s appearance that we can brush off at 40 — can feel like a stab wound to a child and create lasting damage (body dysmorphia, depression, etc.).
Then we carry these emotional stab wounds with us into adulthood, and they affect our relationships, career, happiness, health . . . everything. That is, until we process them and heal by feeling our feelings.
Why we don’t always feel our feelings
Even the most loving and attentive parents can do lasting damage to our sense of self. Meaning well and hating to see us hurt, our parents may have rushed in after an upsetting episode. “Don’t feel bad — it’s okay,” our caregiver said when we started to cry. The truth is, feeling bad can be good for us. We needed to feel bad for a while and to think about why we felt the way we did.
Or maybe our parents weren’t loving and attentive, and they demanded that we stop crying when we felt hurt. Either way, we didn’t learn how to feel our feelings productively. We didn’t learn that emotions are temporary and fleeting, that they have a predictable beginning, middle, and end, and that we will survive. When we don’t learn how to feel our feelings, we may start to interpret all emotions as terrifying.
As children, we can’t distinguish our feelings and our “self.” We think we are our feelings. If our feelings aren’t treated as acceptable in a certain situation, we may decide that we aren’t acceptable.
To heal from childhood trauma, we have to complete the process that should have begun decades ago, when the wounding incident happened. I developed this exercise based on my decades of experience helping patients heal from childhood emotional wounds. (Find an expanded version in my book, Mindful Aging.) The first time you try this exercise, I suggest starting with a small trauma. When I work with clients in my private practice, I like to start small and move toward bigger traumas once they have mastered the technique and feel comfortable with it.
1. Ground it.
For this process to work, you must be in your body and in the now. To begin, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed, and take several deep breaths, bringing your awareness into your body. Squeeze and release your muscles, and feel the heaviness in your arms. Let yourself feel connected to the ground under you. Imagine a stream of energy going from your tailbone all the way down into the center of the earth. Once you feel that you are centered in your body, go to Step 2.
2. Recall it.
Think of a situation that you’ve been upset about recently. Find something that provoked a mild to strong emotional reaction, or that would have if you didn’t feel emotionally numb. Review what happened in as much detail as possible, and imagine yourself back in that time and place. Experience it all again with your senses. When emotions begin to arise, go to Step 3.
3. Sense it.
Continue breathing deeply, and spend a moment in quiet relaxation. Then, mentally scan your body for any sensations. I call this process “percolating” because of the way your emotions will stir and bubble up inside you. Observe any physical response you experience — tingling, tightness, burning, etc. Each of these sensations is a bit of information you need to understand your past experience. Explore these sensations, and silently describe them to yourself in as much detail as you can. Once you’ve explored and described all of your physical reactions, you can move on to Step 4.
4. Name it.
Associate an emotion with each of the sensations you feel. Is the tightness in your chest anxiety? Is the heat you feel traveling up your arms anger? Before starting this exercise, you may want to print out this list of emotions you can find this list on the bottom right side of the page. It’s important to recognize the often subtle distinctions between sometimes similar emotions. This will give you a greater sense of your experience and a richer knowledge of yourself. Once you’ve named your emotions, go to Step 5.
5. Love it.
As part of a mindful approach to healing from trauma, we need to fully accept everything that we feel. Whether it’s true to your conscious mind at this moment or not, say, “I love myself for feeling (angry, sad, anxious, etc.).” Do this with every emotion you feel, especially the harder ones. Embrace your humanness, and love yourself for it. After you’ve accepted and loved yourself for each of your emotions, you can move on to Step 6.
6. Feel and experience it.
Sit with your emotions and their sensations, letting the feelings percolate and flow. Don’t try to change or hide them; observe them. Acknowledge and welcome any discomfort you feel, knowing it will be gone soon and will help you to heal. Let your body respond the way it wants or needs to. If you feel the urge to cry, cry. If you feel the need to yell something or punch something, you should yell or punch the air. Expressing your emotions — in a productive way — is key to getting them moving inside you and to fully process them. When you’ve fully felt and experienced your emotions, move to Step 7.
7. Receive its message and wisdom.
Do the sensations or emotions you’re experiencing right now connect with one or more experiences in your past? Do they give you any insight into the root of the trauma or a negative, limiting belief about yourself? Right now, you might be thinking, “I’m not getting anything.” Ask yourself: “If this sensation or emotion were going to say something to me, what would it be?” If you still have trouble, do some free writing. Journal about what the feeling means, for a full 10 minutes without stopping. When you think you’ve heard all the messages your emotions are sending you, move on to Step 8.
8. Share it.
If you feel comfortable sharing your reflections with someone else, do that. Otherwise, write about them on your own. Describe what happened when the wounding incident first occurred, how you reacted at the time, and what you’ve come to see about it now. Talking or writing about your experiences and emotions is an important step in healing. Writing letters (but not sending them) to those who hurt you can be a very effective method for moving an emotion out of your system. Once you’ve shared your reflections …
9. Let it go.
Visualize the energy your trauma took up inside you leaving your body, or perform a ritual of physical release, like (safely) burning a letter you’ve written to the person who hurt you, or casting off the trauma in the form of an object into the sea. You can borrow a ritual from Judaism called Tashlikh. During the period of repentance, many Jews cast off their sins into a natural, flowing body of water in the form of breadcrumbs. Instead of sins, you can cast off traumas and the emotions and sensations that go with them.
The process of healing emotional wounds can feel uncomfortable at first, but I promise it will be a very rewarding journey. The energy we currently spend on trauma will be released, and the space inside ourselves that trauma took up can instead be filled with new, more positive energy that can help us build a life that we will love.
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Whether you witnessed or experienced violence as a child or your caretakers emotionally or physically neglected you, when you grow up in a traumatizing environment you are likely to still show signs of that trauma as an adult.
Children make meaning out of the events they witness and the things that happen to them, and they create an internal map of how the world is. This meaning-making helps them cope. But if children don’t create a new internal map as they grow up, their old way of interpreting the world can damage their ability to function as adults.
While there are many aftereffects of childhood emotional trauma, here we’ll look specifically at four ways childhood emotional trauma impacts us as adults.
1. The False Self
As a childhood emotional trauma therapist, I see many patients who carry childhood emotional wounds with them into adulthood. One way these wounds reveal themselves is through the creation of a false self.
As children, we want our parents to love us and take care of us. When our parents don’t do this, we try to become the kind of child we think they’ll love. Burying feelings that might get in the way of us getting our needs met, we create a false self—the person we present to the world.
When we bury our emotions, we lose touch with who we really are, because our feelings are an integral part of us. We live our lives terrified that if we let the mask drop, we’ll no longer be cared for, loved, or accepted.
The best way to uncover the authentic you underneath the false self is by talking to a therapist who specializes in childhood emotional trauma and can help you reconnect with your feelings and express your emotions in a way that makes you feel both safe and whole.
2. Victimhood Thinking
What we think and believe about ourselves drives our self-talk. The way we talk to ourselves can empower or disempower us. Negative self-talk disempowers us and makes us feel like we have no control over our lives—like victims. We may have been victimized as children, but we don’t have to remain victims as adults.
Even in circumstances where we think we don’t have a choice, we always have a choice, even if it’s just the power to choose how we think about our life. We have little to no control over our environments and our lives when we’re children, but we’re not children anymore. It’s likely we are more capable of changing our situation than we believe.
Instead of thinking of ourselves as victims, we can think of ourselves as survivors. The next time you feel trapped and choice-less, remind yourself that you’re more capable and in control than you think.
When children grow up in households where there are only unhealthy expressions of anger, they grow up believing that anger is unacceptable. If you witnessed anger expressed violently, then as an adult you might think that anger is a violent emotion and therefore must be suppressed. Or, if you grew up in a family that suppressed anger and your parents taught you that anger is on a list of emotions you aren’t supposed to feel, you suppress it, even as an adult who could benefit from anger.
What happens if you can’t express your anger? If you’re someone who suppresses your upset feelings, you likely already know the answer: Nothing. You still feel angry—after all, anger is a natural, healthy emotion we all experience—but instead of the resolution that comes with acknowledging your anger and resolving what triggered it, you just stay angry. You don’t express your feelings straightforwardly, but since you can’t truly suppress anger, you express your feelings through passive-aggressiveness.
If you were neglected as a child, or abandoned by your caretakers, you may have buried your anger and fear in the hope that it would mean no one will ever abandon or neglect you again. What happens when children do this, though, is that we end up abandoning ourselves. We hold ourselves back when we don’t feel our feelings. We end up passive, and we don’t live up to our potential. The passive person says to him or herself, “I know what I need to do but I don’t do it.”
When we bury our feelings, we bury who we are. Because of childhood emotional trauma, we may have learned to hide parts of ourselves. At the time, that may have helped us. But as adults, we need our feelings to tell us who we are and what we want, and to guide us toward becoming the people we want to be.
Children are often viewed as highly resilient and able to bounce back from just about any situation, but traumatic experiences in childhood can have severe and long-lasting effects well into adulthood if they are left unresolved. Childhood trauma can result from anything that makes a child feel helpless and disrupts their sense of safety and security, including: sexual, physical or verbal abuse; domestic violence; an unstable or unsafe environment; separation from a parent; neglect; bullying; serious illness; or intrusive medical procedures.
If you’re living with the emotional and psychological consequences of a traumatic childhood, there is hope. Here are seven ways to heal your childhood trauma and reclaim your life.
1. Acknowledge and recognize the trauma for what it is. Victims of childhood trauma often spend years minimizing the event or dismissing it by pretending it didn’t happen or by succumbing to feelings of guilt or self-blame. The only way you can begin healing is to acknowledge that a traumatic event did occur and that you were not responsible for it.
2. Reclaim control. Feelings of helplessness can carry well over into adulthood and can make you feel and act like a perpetual victim, causing you to make choices based on your past pain. When you’re a victim, the past is in control of your present. But when you’ve conquered your pain, the present is controlled by you. There may always be a battle between past and present, but as long as you’re willing to let go of the old defenses and crutches you used as a child to navigate your trauma, you will be able to reclaim control of your life now and heal your pain.
3. Seek support and don’t isolate yourself. A natural instinct that many trauma survivors have is to withdraw from others, but this will only make things worse. A big part of the healing process is connecting to other people, so make the effort to maintain your relationships and seek support. Talk to a trusted family member, friend or counselor and consider joining a support group for survivors of childhood trauma.
4. Take care of your health. Your ability to cope with stress will increase if you are healthy. Establish a daily routine that allows you to get plenty of rest, eat a well-balanced diet and exercise regularly. Most importantly, stay away from alcohol and drugs. These might provide temporary relief but will inevitably increase your feelings of depression, anxiety and isolation and can worsen your trauma symptoms.
5. Learn the true meaning of acceptance and letting go. Just because you accept something doesn’t mean you’re embracing your trauma or that you like it or agree with it. Acceptance means you’ve decided what you’re going to do with it. You can decide to let it rule your life or you can decide to let it go. Letting go doesn’t mean “poof!” it’s magically gone. Letting go means no longer allowing your bad memories and feelings of a bad childhood to rob yourself of living a good life now.
6. Replace bad habits with good ones. Bad habits can take many forms, like negativity and always mistrusting others, or turning to alcohol or drugs when feelings become too hard to bear. Bad habits can be hard to break, especially when they’re used as crutches to help you avoid reliving the pain and trauma of your childhood. A support group or a therapist can help you learn the tools necessary to break your bad habits and replace them with good ones.
7. Be patient with yourself. When you’ve been seriously hurt as a child you develop out-of-control emotions, hopelessness, defense mechanisms and warped perceptions that are difficult to let go of. It will take a lot of time and hard work to let go of these feelings. Be patient with yourself and honor your progress, no matter how small it may seem. It’s the little victories in your recovery that will eventually help you win the battle of healing your childhood trauma.