I’m a Counselor and Trauma Specialist and my very job has to do with looking at traumatic events. Each of these events occurred somewhere in the past for someone, it could’ve been a minute, a day or 10 years ago. The nature of my work is to put the trauma in the proper perspective for the individual and to activate their own natural resilience. Resilience is the ability of something to “spring back into shape.” When trauma occurs there is a change in the psychological and biological shape of the individual. And when one finds and activates a new loving way of being in the world, the world will become a loving place. It starts with each of us. We need to be the change we wish to see in the world.
What does trauma do?
When a child experiences trauma, their worldview and neurobiology changes. Trauma causes one to get STUCK in a specific time. The person recoils, hides and protects self on all levels of existence. This is basic biology. It is survival. When an organism is in survival mode it does everything to protect itself from further threat. In human beings, this causes a shift in the what one thinks, feels and ultimately believes about the world. All of this creates new behaviors. We are individuals who make meaning from the events in our lives and when something traumatic happens, an individual is naturally going to assume that “bad things happen in the world” or worse, “I am bad…that is why this happened to me.” Children are specifically vulnerable to this way of thinking, “This bad thing happened…I must have been the cause…I’m bad.” This is the very nature of shame. Shame causes one to think that they are the source of the problem they experienced with another. When shame is introduced the behavior is to further hide, avoid, overreact or underreact as a way of protection. “I’m bad, I must not let anyone see that I’m bad.” Or “I must distract them from seeing that I’m bad.” Then individuals begin to create “thinking errors” otherwise known as cognitive distortions. Words and phrases such as, “I should’ve” “I made a mistake” “It’s all my fault.” “I’m to blame.” “I’m just.” become new hallmarks of the traumatized mind. Notice how the statements are critical and judgmental? That is because they are born out of a fearful and protective space.
What is most damaging in my opinion about trauma is that the “closing down” of a person within the world, isolates them from being able to heal from what happened and to put it in it’s proper place. What trauma really does is move an individual further away from truly experiencing real love. A love that is compassionate, free, clear, unconditional and abundant. However, when a traumatized person is told, “Open up, it will be okay.” It is deeply frightening, because they have no experience of it “being okay.” One does not feel safe. Not only is there a perception of a perceived threat outside of the individual, there is also the threat inside of the individual. As the child grows, and has constructed their world around a certain trauma based way of thinking, they inevitably will have other experiences that echo and reinforce their beliefs. Causing them to have a portfolio of sorts of all the ways in which Life has hurt them. Human beings base their behavior on previous experience as well as their histories. So, it can be an inescapable game, until someone turns on the light of clarity.
A few words about Intergenerational and multi-generational trauma…
“Hurt people, hurt people.” When people who are hurt and who operate out of a false sense of self- powerlessness and helplessness- raise children, they pass down that legacy to their child. Yet it often does not come in a the same fashion. Also, individuals tend to marry and couple at their same level of unconscious belief. “Like attracts like.” If a person who feels powerless meets a person who feels powerful, the powerless one may feel intimidated, repelled by or addictively clinging to the other person’s power. This is not the basis of a healthy relationship. However, if a person who feels powerless meets another person who feels powerless, they will feel “comfortable” with each other unconsciously. Addictive clinging, mutual abuse, and reinforcement of beliefs can also occur in this type of relationship because it is familiar…hence feels uncomfortably comfortable. This is not to say that people are destined to be “stuck” at the same level of engagement. This is an interesting design to Life, because if Life is read correctly, or one gets “sick and tired” – each individual can utilize their current situation of powerlessness to launch themselves into greater degrees of power. (But that is another blog post)
The messages and belief systems that are passed down from one generation to the next are damaging and become a part of the child’s worldview without direct exposure to a traumatic event. For instance, there are many families who have taught their children, “You’ve got to work harder than everyone else.” “Life is a struggle and a strain.” or “Nothing is ever easy.” These are all trauma based/fearful statements. Yet, they are usually said with a loving intention from our families. The intention is to “protect us” and to “keep us safe from the world.” These messages subtly reinforce the hiding, running away or avoidance of the world. Think about the young talented artist who parents say, “You can never make a living that way, the world is tough. You will never survive that.” These parents are operating out of a belief system of “not enoughness” and fear. The fear and anxiety comes from an event, a trauma, that causes a shift in the belief system resulting in further limitation and anger at Life.
Now couple a belief system with an unjust social system. Imagine a family where generation after generation of young men are imprisioned. The reaction of the family with the current generation appears to be “avoidant”- caregivers do not trust or participate in mental health or other services provided. Within their own homes they avoid. They avoid the problem and choose to look away when certain behaviors are present. This creates more of the same behavior. There is also a learned helplessness and feeling of powerlessness that also is present. “This is just the way it is.” “Life is happening to us.” “We live in this damaged society, there is nothing that will or can help” “We will never be free” are some of the underlying messages that permeate this family and many others.
Another way trauma is passed down is through action. Individuals who feel that they are powerless act out in various ways. Being rage-filled/angry, over reactive, seeking approval through others-co-dependence, attempting to numb themselves, avoiding activities they enjoyed, being overly critical/judgmental and engaging in addictive behaviors are some of the ways of “acting out” the trauma response. When a child is within a household and witness these behaviors, they believe “this is the way to be” and often times if they “rebel” they experience isolation from their caregivers- causing feelings of disconnection. Imagine a household where the husband/father becomes angry and yells at his wife. The wife/mother drinks to numb herself. The child then witnesses the violence and learns a pattern of behavior. Yet what if the backstory is that the wife was once sexually abused and feels that she is worthless and doesn’t think she has the strength to leave her husband. And what if the husband/father was once beaten because he was told by his father he was too “different” and really does not know how to contain his anger. The child is witnesses both the effect of previous traumas done to his parents and the current trauma occurring between his family.
Freeing yourself from a cycle of past pain-
My ultimate goal is to bring clarity to individuals. When one is within this cycle of pain and fear, it is like being in a dark room. Those who have experienced the trauma have no other way of thinking about or experiencing life, save through their acquired filters. They are in a dark room wandering and doing their best to navigate the space but have no idea how to do so. No one wants to be in a “closed down”state or feel lost- most people have an inherent calling to be more loving, compassionate and kind towards themselves. Yet how do they start? Everyone wants to feel love. Most people are hungry for it and often times, individuals who have closed themselves off feel as if they are starving for love. Essentially, the form of love that I think is the best to start with is self-love and love of Source. Which can happen in a myriad of ways and in my experience best occurs with mindfulness and compassion. Greeting the self with compassion and acceptance for what is, rather than trying to “force” or criticize oneself into “better behavior.” Remember, criticism is a direct reaction to trauma.
Next comes the process of building up the individual’s ability to self-regulate their body, understand their emotional landscape, accept their emotions and become aware of the way their thoughts, feelings and emotions work together. Trauma is stored in the brain and in the body. It is not enough to “talk” through the trauma and certainly not effective for children. The brain during trauma(s) becomes more “alert” to various stimuli. Body and brain centered practices that serve to “release” the tension of the body and brain when it is in a traumatic state are best. The second phase of freeing oneself is to become educated on trauma based reactions. In my field they are often called, “symptoms” but I believe they are a natural reaction to a circumstance. Once an individual can see that what they have experienced is a “normal” reaction to trauma they feel more at ease and less ashamed of being involved within the trauma.
Now this post has come full circle. The next phase of exploration is to learn about thoughts, thinking errors and patterns of behavior. This requires the individual to “accept” that their old way of thinking and being may not serve them any more. This is especially when my quote, “I look back but do not gaze too long at the past as I may get stuck in time.” becomes the most applicable. There is a temptation to continue to revisit and relive the past for the individual. That is because it is known and safe. From my own experiences, when I continue to look back at and try to “figure out” all aspects of my past I become “stuck” there. It is also tempting to get stuck in the ways in which we formerly reacted to the trauma. Those ways that became cemented when we were children and reinforced as an adult, will not lead us to greater degrees of freedom. What I have found to be true in my own life, is to look back long enough to get patterns. When a pattern is recognized, the opportunity then becomes to change the pattern. To bring love and clarity to the pattern and act in a new way is the ultimate goal. My colleague, friend and fellow Light, Leo Johnson II calls this Being New Now. This is where the journey inward becomes ever more exciting and dynamic.
For more information, or questions, please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below this post.