Much of what we do in life is determined by what lies in our unconscious, driven by hidden fears born in our childhood in challenging, even traumatic situations. Trauma creates feelings and experiences of separation and disconnection, robbing us of the ability to be fully present with our own being, others, and the world around us. Trauma also generates fear, which becomes deeply embedded in the body in our implicit or unconscious memory. Trauma leads to a body that is scared, contracted, and blocked from experiencing the full power of love. But the tricky thing about trauma, especially childhood trauma, is that you may not even know it has touched your life, yet the limits it has placed on your life will be evidenced in some way.
THE TRAUMA FROM WHAT DIDN’T HAPPEN FOR YOU
Early childhood trauma can be the outcome of terrible, adverse experiences such as severe neglect or abuse—whether physical or emotional—or a traumatic birth, early surgeries, a profound loss, or frightening external situations such as war or natural disasters. But trauma can also become embedded in your body because of things that should have happened for you, but did not.
As children, we have essential needs that must be met for us to feel safe in our bodies and in our connection with others and in the world. For instance, a small child who feels distress needs to be held and nurtured. Especially in the first year, an infant needs a caregiver’s calm presence to learn to self-soothe. If this holding doesn’t happen, the child can begin to feel an internal threat that something bad is happening. The small child’s feelings turn to grief at the loss of connection. And as no connection or safety is forthcoming, fear emerges. The child begins to feel the pain and fear of separation, the lack of safety in the body.
If still no one attends to the child, in place of fear, anger or rage can surface. This response can simply feel too much for a child, so the fear and anger can be split off and remain hidden beneath conscious awareness, perhaps for years. The person’s relationship to anger and healthy aggression becomes distorted. They may disconnect from their body. As a child, they may connect more with their intellect or energetic/spiritual realms to feel safe. This pattern of survival can continue for a lifetime, with the person unaware of the reason: their body and emotions once felt so frightening.
A CALL FOR RECONNECTION
In small children, anger or rage is initially a call for reconnection. When your anger remains split off and unresolved, over time it distorts into unhealthy expressions of blaming, projecting, rejecting, self-loathing, and so forth. Because parts of your consciousness still experience many emotions and states—such as anger, shame, guilt, and fear—as unfathomable, it is important to work with someone who has a deeper understanding and capacity to be with these states than you do. Trauma is relational, so it is important to heal many aspects relationally—that is, in a caring therapeutic relationship.
ATTENDING TO YOUR OWN NEEDS
There’s a pattern that commonly develops from not having your needs adequately attuned to as a child: you may find yourself overly attending to the needs of others. You may also secretly feel resentment about this. You may not realize that not having your needs met as a child was so painful that you smothered both your needs and your capacity to express them—you may not even know that you have needs. You learned to focus on others, unconsciously feeling this would bring you the love and connection that you needed. It’s a child’s strategy to bypass the pain of going without connection and attention.
In the process of healing this pattern in adulthood, it’s important to acknowledge that you have needs, begin to learn what those needs are, and be able to express them to others. You may also need to learn how to sometimes say no to others’ requests for your support.
RETURNING TO LOVE
Acknowledgment of your needs as an adult—the need to feel seen, to be heard, to be held—can begin to bring healing to hidden places of pain. Paradoxically, at first attending to your needs may feel both nurturing and painful. You are receiving what you didn’t receive as a child, and that long-buried emotional pain emerges now to be healed. Keep in mind that as an adult you can likely tolerate the pain; you can get through it or ask for the help you need. As a child, you could not. Now you can even imagine receiving the help you need. Notice how your body feels as you imagine this.
As you liberate your unresolved emotions—sadness, anger, grief—in part by getting to know your needs and at last attending to them, you’ll experience greater freedom to feel the wonder of life in all its myriad forms. You’ll regain your full capacity for love. As you release the conscious or unconscious fears surrounding early trauma, you’ll come full circle back to love—the love that you are.
Julie Brown Yau, PhD, is a psychologist with more than thirty years’ experience in somatic and spiritual traditions. Julie has a private practice in Laguna Beach, CA, working specifically with developmental trauma.