She is alone. Desperately alone. He left her there unclothed. All curled up, she tries to cover and protect what is left of her. She faces the blue wall, her back to the door. She fears he will come back. She fears he won’t.
She doesn’t remember when her legs start working again and how she gets up from that bed and into his car to be taken home. But she gets there. She survives this day and all of the days that come to continually test her capabilities. This brave young warrior emerges from the pain she routinely faces and carries on. Again and again and again.
She grows up and begins to make a life for herself far away from the hurtful places. Joy finds its way into her heart again as she creates new memories to layer on top of the painful past ones. She begins to believe that she can bury her past deep down far enough that it can no longer touch her – no longer haunt her – no longer hurt her. But it doesn’t seem to work that way.
A simple sight, sound, or smell takes her right back to those buried places. It awakens everything inside of her, intertwining past and present until she can no longer distinguish the two. Unable to untangle this mess on her own she seeks the help of heroes trained to help her. Over time they help her find words to describe all that she has experienced. For a long time these words feel separate from her, as if she is telling someone else’s story.
Then one day her own shaky voice begins to speak. This young girl simply wishing to impress her coach steps forward and begins to tell her story. Her words feel like aching truth clawing out from within. What she sees – what she feels – all that she begins to express are words she has never both spoken out loud and truly felt before. Her fears, confusion, and shame begin to have a place outside of her own imprisoned mind.
She is not asked to change her story. She is not asked to minimize or omit parts that feel too vile to be spoken. She is not pulled from her experiences and from her truth to fabricate a rescue that never occurred. Instead, as she describes each detail that she can still deeply feel, she is offered the kind of comfort that never existed before. She is offered what she needed in the moments after what she has just described – in those moments where her naked body laid curled up on his bed all alone. Here she is offered a blanket and a protective presence to sit beside her and keep a careful watch on the door.
She feels strangely protected by this new image infused into her own painful reality. What happened to her in those moments before as well as the days, months, and years that follow cannot be changed for her. But in this moment, with a hero’s guidance by her side, a profoundly powerful and transformative breath of safety occurs for this young girl in his bedroom. In this brief moment she no longer feels alone.
I crossed the finish line, sweat pouring from me, exhausted and depleted. I didn’t have to look at the clock to know how to feel. I knew it in the midst of the race. I knew it deep inside when I was unable or unwilling to tap into the part of me that would allow an effort to dig deeper and go faster in the midst of hurt. I felt defeated. This was not my best race – not by a long shot. Disappointment poured over me, and this moment immediately attached itself to failure. I failed myself with a poor championship race performance. I failed my team and our chances of a top finish. I failed my coach – the one who I thought believed in me – the one whose approval I worked so hard for – the one who used his position of authority to manipulate and abuse me. I crossed the finish line that day and lowered my head in shame. I knew I let everyone down. I failed.
My mom was a spectator at this race. She approached me afterwards, proud of my effort, proud to be my mom. She didn’t know I fell short of my goal. She had no idea what my goals even were. But she was there cheering for me – no matter what. I hardly even acknowledged her in that moment. His lessons over the years ingrained a message deep within that no one else cared – no one else saw me – no one else paid attention – no one would support me like he could. To keep me close and obedient he taught me that everyone else in my life was failing me. So in that moment I followed his lessons and deliberately brushed past my own mom. I ignored her out of anger – anger towards myself and my own failure that day and anger towards her for failing to see me – failing to really know me – failing to care enough to know what I was aiming for that day. Whatever she wished to say, I didn’t want to hear. So I walked away from her.
When I reflect upon this moment today, in the midst of a cyclone of feelings around facing a very recent grim prognosis for my mom, I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. My reaction right now is that I failed as a daughter that day – along with so many other days.
I don’t know what to do with all that I am facing. Memories of our relationship from throughout my life are replaying in my mind. Each moment leaves me feeling this sense of failure as a daughter. All of the anger I’ve carried about not being seen by her feels trivial. Instead I want to push all of that aside and focus on caring for, supporting, and loving my mom. But my brain can’t seem to do just that. Instead I pull apart each of these memories and find fault and self blame within all of them. Why am I doing this to myself? Why is my default response self judgement, self blame, and self hate? Maybe hating myself somehow feels like an alternative to facing the pain of losing her. Why can’t I just be sad? I’m losing my mom, and while our relationship has been complicated, I love her and don’t want her to die. I feel the helplessness of this situation driving me towards self blame, maybe because it’s something I can control and it’s something I know. I can hate myself for all of my shortcomings. I can be angry with myself because I’ve been doing that my whole life. That comes easy. But it is also hurting all of the parts of me that I am learning to tend to. Directing my anger inward is reminding all of these young parts what they have always believed. It is their fault. They are worthless. They failed again.
Recently we celebrated my daughter’s birthday. She is a teenager now. On the day of this celebration she encountered an issue with one of her gifts and became quickly and increasingly preoccupied with correcting the problem and making it just right. Tears began flowing from her out of frustration. All of this build up and excitement for this special gift that suddenly in the moment was not measuring up to her expectations. Then mixed with her own tears came self judgment. “I don’t want to cry. I don’t even know why I am crying,” she screamed. Of course she didn’t know. She’s 13 years old and her body is coursing with hormones and changes that make it hard to understand any overwhelming feeling. As a mom I know this. But in that moment my own ingrained messages got in the way of meeting my daughter the way she needed me. In that moment her tears felt ungrateful and spoiled to me. All of the energy, thought, and care I put into making her birthday special, and here she is crying that this one thing isn’t absolutely perfect. I could feel my anger rising inside. I just wanted to lash out and tell her to shut up – that she was being ridiculous, spoiled, and incredibly ungrateful. While I could feel myself boiling on the inside, I didn’t lash out at her. I didn’t say a word. I know my silence sent its own message to my daughter, but in that moment silence was the best I could offer. I found some space to quietly remove myself from the situation, and I allowed her dad to proceed with helping to solve the issue with the gift. As I gave myself this space I started to feel a shift. I began to experience anger towards my own anger. How can I not make room for what is very clearly a response in my daughter caused by an overwhelm of emotions and hormones? She was even telling me that in her frustration with her own tears. My anger and the way I wanted to respond to her in that moment felt so strong, so automatic, and so familiar. And the more I sat with it the more I realized that my knee jerk reaction was exactly the opposite reaction I wish to have for my child in this moment. My knee jerk reaction is what I experienced throughout my own childhood.
Don’t cry. Don’t be dramatic. Don’t be so self involved. Get over yourself. Your tears are weak. Your tears are pathetic. Pull yourself together, and get back in your place.
My reaction in that moment was nothing more than wanting to stuff my daughter’s feelings down and teach her that the tears she didn’t understand were ridiculous and should not be there. My reaction in that moment wanted to make me feel more comfortable by shaming my daughter out of her own expression of feelings. This anger I felt quickly turned to shame. By wishing to stuff her feelings, I am failing to meet her – failing to guide her – failing to see her – failing to show her a healthier way than what I learned. What if I am not equipped to model a better way for her? What if she will struggle in the ways I have struggled and experience the same level of lasting hurt? What if I am hurting my kids? This spiral of thoughts continued and attached to other pieces of evidence in my brain to convince me that I am failing the most important people in my life. And if that’s what I’m doing then what good am I to anyone?
After a little time, tears, and along with a heavy dose of caring support these strong feelings have subsided just enough to make it possible to look at these situations with a bit more clarity. I understand how quickly present feelings can get tangled up with old ones and make it nearly impossible for me to see clearly. I know that my daughter entering her teenaged years attaches to fears in my mind about what happened to me in my past. It makes me constantly overwhelmed and fearful that I am falling short of protecting her from the pain I experienced. It blinds me of all of my strengths and magnifies my shortcomings, convincing me that I am failing her. I know that my own mom is facing this prognosis that is ripping her away from life, away from me. I am scared, and I don’t know how to do this. I know that recent shifts and ruptures in the relationships within my own family of origin is making me feel more alone at a time when I need support more than ever. I know it all just feels like too much and makes it hard to say no to the temptations of numbing relief that simply result in an added layer of failure and shame. And I know I want to do better and be better for my kids as well as for the trembling hurting young one that resides inside of me. Sometimes I just don’t know how.
The messages she carries try to convince her that her home is in the darkness that surrounds her and seems to know how to steadily lurk just one step ahead of her. It makes it hard for her to maintain traction on where or even who she is. Yet something inside urges her to focus beyond the darkness – beyond the pain and strain of what pulls at her – and fight like hell to somehow reach the light.
Side by side we stand – our toes at the edge of the creeping shoreline. Her small hand rests inside of mine. She leans in, tugging at my arm and urging me to inch forward. I resist. “Come on! I need to show you,” she pleads. Her bright eyes look up into mine with hopeful longing. I look down into them. I want to be brave enough for her. Yet as I turn and look out into the turbulence that lies before us I feel frozen. “Can’t we just watch the waves from right here?” I ask. Her face tells me that we can’t. She pulls again at my arm, urging, pleading, begging. But I can feel my feet gripping into the soft sinking sand beneath me. “What if we get knocked down? What if I can’t hold us up? What if it takes hold of us and won’t let go? I’m afraid. I don’t want to go in. I don’t know what’s out there. What if I’m not strong enough? What if it breaks me?” Her wide eyes turn and then narrowly focus out towards the horizon, beyond the breaking waves and wild fury that rages right in front of us. Then in a voice so calm and self assured, she softly whispers, “But what if it shows us?”
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.
She enters, inching her way forward into the darkness, unsure of what she will encounter. She is here fueled with purpose and armed with selflessness. Routinely she will remind herself of this in an effort to remain focused on her mission, knowing that any deviation may lead her into the grip of what she fears most.
One small step at a time she creeps, grasping tightly onto the cloak she is draped in. This cloak offers her protection – her armor – her shield. It conceals all of the parts that exist inside of her, providing shelter and safety from the elements that exist here.
She feels these parts shiver as she ventures deeper into this place. Each step awakens a different part, sending small electrical impulses creeping, jolting, and flashing their way through her.
She wishes to peek beneath the cloak to settle all of these disrupted parts. Yet she fears that unbuttoning her shield will expose them to unimaginable harm. They must be protected, and this place is not safe for them to emerge.
Instead she holds tightly onto her cloak, wrapping it fully around herself, hoping that the parts underneath can also feel this firm embrace. Gripping, squeezing, and inching along she continues – one tiny step at a time. This is her responsibility. This is what she needs. All she can do is hold herself tightly together until she exits the lion’s den.