Unpacking

A crying child seeks the comforting arms of her caregiver. Without judgement or minimizing, she needs to be safely held to calmly restore her activated nervous system. When this need is routinely and adequately met she can carry on, secure in the belief that each emotion she feels can be safely experienced. But what happens if the child’s emotions are not met with the safe protecting embrace that they require? What happens to her fear? What happens to her sadness or anger or hurt when there isn’t a safe place for it to land? Where do these feelings go when they are not welcomed?

I recently sat in my therapist’s office, fumbling through my effort to express a hurt that I had experienced. My therapist offered supportive and encouraging words and then asked if I could accept and feel the compassion she was providing in that moment. I told her I couldn’t. I could hear her words, but I could not absorb them in front of her. I told her I needed to take them with me – to pack them up into an imaginary backpack to be unloaded and experienced afterwards in private. And that is exactly what I did. Packing up my feelings is what I’ve done for as long as I can remember. It’s the intentional unpacking that has become a newer practice for me.

When a child isn’t offered the opportunity to feel, express, and regulate her emotions in a safe and supportive environment, those emotions never have the opportunity to be processed and released. Instead they are stuffed down and stored within the child. The meaning the child learns to assign to this experience is that those feelings are bad and must be repressed and ignored. One of the many problems with this is that, much like an overloaded backpack, the child grows up and becomes an adult with an overloaded and dysregulated emotional response system, overflowing with current struggles that attach themselves to stored unmet emotional needs from long ago. When situations arise that ignite these parts, the emotions that result do not feel like adult feelings. For me it feels as though a child has hijacked my nervous system and is on the brink of a full blown tantrum.

Recently my daughter was watching the movie, Matilda. This movie was created from Roald Dahl’s magical book where the main character, Matilda, finds clever and humorous ways to defend herself from her cruel parents and an evil school principal through her newly discovered power of telekinesis. My daughter thoroughly enjoyed the movie and giggled at Matilda’s inventive pranks. As I watched I was not as entertained. The cruel behavior of her parents and principal made it hard for me to appreciate the humor. Yet although these scenes agitated me, what I found myself most rattled by was something entirely different. As the story develops, a caregiving figure and soft place to land finds her way into Matilda’s life in the form of her teacher. While the viewer is intended to feel warm and comforted by Matilda receiving this kind of loving and attentive care, I was overcome with internal agitation in response to these scenes. I couldn’t assess what I was feeling in that moment as I sat in my parent’s family room alongside not only my children but my mother as well. Without awareness or planning, everything I was feeling in that moment got quickly stuffed into my backpack.

Hours later, when I created a moment to sit with my thoughts in solitude, I noticed that the discomfort and agitation that I felt earlier was still there. Something inside of me was screaming out for attention – something inside needed to be unpacked. This intentional act of creating space for whatever needed to surface revealed the source of my internal disturbances. What I experienced during that movie was the awakening of some deeply stored internal parts – very young and helpless parts. These parts felt shaken by the movie because they are desperately longing for the same attentive and nurturing care that Matilda received from her teacher. These young internal child parts were crying out. It felt incredibly unsettling to feel these parts internally squirm and reach for a need from long ago. And I don’t know if I am equipped to hold and help these parts – I don’t know how to give them what they need.

These feelings I resisted and stuffed away during Matilda are not new for me. The more I reflect upon it the more connections I am making from past experiences that have ignited the same flurry of feelings. When I witness someone attentively caring for and truly seeing the inner pain of another, the part of me that longs for that type of caring protector gets stirred up. This vulnerable exposure of feeling a need that can only be satisfied by someone else feels like the important need of a young child from their caregiver. Deep parts of me feel this need and long for this type of care. Yet attached to this need is a judgment that was imposed upon this feeling long ago, intertwining this need with shame. Shame tells me that my reaction to this movie is a stupid needy thought and wants me to retreat inward. But it isn’t a stupid needy thought. While my guarded adult self may have a hard time accepting these feelings, it is perfectly reasonable for a child to need the caring and protective attention of a trusted adult. I can’t even begin to imagine denying that need from my own children.

It feels rattling and crazy making when these feelings unexpectedly surface. But unless I can learn to safely and effectively unpack my emotional backpack, the same dysfunctional cycle of repression and overwhelm that was impressed upon me as a child will continue on, but not just within the confines of my own mind. My kids are watching and learning from me each and every day. If I wish for them to grow up possessing the ability to adequately identify and express their emotions, then I owe it to them to address my own deficiencies instead of carelessly passing them down to them. After all, how can I effectively tend to the needs of others if I am failing to address my own deeply felt needs?

If the process of repressing feelings was learned when I was a child then perhaps with a lot of focused effort it can be unlearned as an adult. I may not be able to physically hold the hurting child within me, but maybe allowing her the safety to express whatever she has been burdened with will be enough to comfort and calm her. Parts of me worry and fear that it will not be enough – that I am not equipped to tend to these internal wounded parts. But I have to hold onto hope as I search for a way to continue to safely unpack my heavy backpack.

18 thoughts on “Unpacking

  1. Oh wow…I could relate to SO much of this. You have beautiful summed up how a good parent is supposed to provide co-regulation and what happens when a child misses that. I have felt so much of what you describe- not being about to feel the kind words of a therapist, the young parts feeling exquisite pain when they see another child getting what they long for, the movie Matilda stirring up internal horrors. You have shared such a difficult struggle and I love you are giving yourself space and time to unpack all the emotions squashed inside. Well done. This is hard work.

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  2. Everyone is different and reacts and processes things differently. It sounds like this has stirred or given you an opportunity to process your feelings. I am sorry it was painful for you. Fiction is supposed to allow you to deal with fear, cruelty and death in a safe way. It doesn’t always. I went to lengths to ensure my children never felt abandoned or pushed aside in their hour of need as kids or as adults. But they have not developed a self reliance as adults. I guess we have to find that illusive middle ground between protectiveness and promoting self reliance and problem solving.

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    1. So true. Aside from my own internal response, I don’t take issue with this movie. My kids enjoyed it, and it seemed harmless. It’s just very interesting and disturbing when/how those internal parts gets stirred up.
      Finding that balance of protecting our kids while also allowing them to grow and stretch their wings will always be a challenge. It’s very difficult to find that middle ground especially when our own baggage intervenes.
      Thank you for reading and commenting. I really appreciate your thoughtful remarks.

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  3. Just be patient with yourself Sara. If you do not mind me asking how long have you been with your therapist? It can be so terrifying to our inner child to let feelings out and thats a sign of how much contempt they were met with.. Its not easy I know but give yourself time and work to win your inner child’s trust.. just by trying to connect to her and affirming you know why she is so scared… I really feel this will help. You will get there ❤

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    1. Thank you. 💕 This current therapist is very new to me so I am in a very delicate place of building safety and trust with her – which will certainly take some time. I had to switch after feeling hurt by and then abruptly abandoned by my previous therapist – something that has definitely added another layer to my already guarded system.

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      1. It takes such a long time to build the strong container to feel safe enough for deeper vulnerable parts to emerge. I had that same experience with 4 therapists before Kat it is truly shattering each time. But the True Self won’t be lied to.

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  4. This is me… your blog just randomly showed up on a comment of another and I went to it curiously drawn .. unpacking .. as I read I thought it may be about raising kids and in a sense it was. Mine are grown and I pushed myself to continue to read thinking I’d send it to my girls because their now raising kids. Then… I was pulled in so beautifully to a story that brought me straight to myself. What a beautiful ride through a new perspective and hope for healing and accepting a safe place. I’m so safe for the first time in my life at 54 and it’s the hardest thing to trust and accept and understand, but this helps me see more and I thank you for your wise words today!

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    1. What an incredibly thoughtful gift of words this is. I am so glad that you stumbled upon my site and that this post resonates with you. I wish you peace and healing on your journey. Thank you for sharing. 💕

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