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 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.
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. (Still do sometimes.)
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. (Still do sometimes.)
Things changed when I remembered and acknowledged some of those 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 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. Memories 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.
One of the earliest memories was 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 mom’s aunt Rosa took me to her house for a while.
My 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.”
Have you ever wondered, like I did, why you repeat behaviors that you know aren’t helpful to you or others? Why you suffer from chronic pain or anxiety or why 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 (remembering it intellectually) and somatically feeling your emotions about those same experiences. If you stay stuck in your head, you’ll tend to try to rationalize or make excuses 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 entire body.
I finally understood 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.”
My newly released feelings were telling me where this came from and why I didn’t need to be afraid anymore. They 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.
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 with this, reach out to me on my website. Ledaasmar.com
Leda Asmar is an endorsed Mind Body coach and a Certified Martha Beck coach. She helps people though transitions in life. She specializes in helping hardworking midlife women get unstuck, make authentic choices, and take charge of their lives by tuning into their inner voice and reconnecting with their true Selves.