I see you standing in line, waiting to board that airplane. Others cannot see the weight that you carry. But I see it. I see you. You need to know something. When you take your seat on that plane and begin to get lost in your thoughts as you gaze through the oval window towards the ground that retreats from your vision, your world is going to turn dark for a while. It is on this plane that you will begin to feel the weight of what happened to you last night. It will suck the air from your lungs and leave you choking through tears. You will start to make connections and assign meaning to all of your experiences. The words, “I did it again,” will ring loud in your ears. You will believe that what he did to you last night was something you asked for. You will believe it’s the same as what happened during all those years far away from here – the place you ran so fast and so far from. You will berate yourself for not doing better – for not knowing better – for not being better – for letting this happen again. You will believe that you are defective inside and unworthy of anything other than the pain you find yourself drowning in. But you must hear this. You did not let this happen. You did not ask for this. You do not deserve this – any of it.
I cannot change what happened and what will continue to happen to you for a while. I can’t make this go away. I can’t skip this part for you as much as I want to. But I do know that there is much more to your story than this. There is life in you after this moment. You won’t feel it for a long while, but you will see light again someday. I promise.
I wish I could tell you that it won’t hurt. I wish I could tell you that it won’t bring you to unspeakable places. But I can’t. The darkness will feel immense. It will get so heavy and so loud that it will begin to creep inside of you. It will try to change you. It will try to convince you that surrender is the only way. But please hear me. Your home is not in the darkness. Your home is far away from here. You just have to trust me a little bit. I am trying to become what others were unable to be for you back then. I mess up often. I think, and say, and do the wrong things sometimes. I turn my back on you when I get scared. But I’m not leaving. I may stumble and fumble my way through this, but I won’t let you carry this weight all alone anymore.
Your home is a place I created for you. It is a place of safety and clarity – a place of color breathing life. It’s a place I painted – a place I dream of – a place to help us heal together. Your home is our wishing tree. Someday when you are ready you can find me there. You can set your heavy backpack down and together we can sit against the giant trunk of the tree, letting the array of soothing colors shower over us as we unpack it all together.
They filled your mind with promises An array of enticing colors Leading you up a perilous climb Achieving their desired seclusion
They lined your path with shackles Disguised as your own choices Led to a room with no exits, teetering On a place demanding submission
Close enough to rescue that its light Shines like a beacon upon you Yet others cannot see what they do not wish to see Leaving you doused in invisibility
They handed you poison dressed up as a toy An undetectable trap It feels heavy in your arms Yet you dismiss its discomfort Just as you were instructed
You were chosen You were special You stood out to them in some way
You hold their secrets Quiet and steady Not letting them see How it makes you tremble
You were never meant to understand The position they put you in Blind obedience is the Tower they constructed In the labyrinth you now reside
This weight placed upon you Was never your choice Its ensnaring complexity Contrived specifically for you To lure you in and then slowly break You into scattered pieces
I see your pain tucked in deep beneath your Outward strength and courage Far from their grip you stand frozen in time Afraid to step down and see The sight of your suffering Might carry its own weight somehow worse than living in it
How can you know that it is safer below Than the misery you are wrapped in How can I ask more from you Than what you have already given
I have held my children in my arms to comfort and soften their tears ever since the moment they were born. Their needs draw me in close – setting aside whatever was previously holding my attention – lowering my body to their level so my eyes can reach into theirs and connect with their hurt – scooping them up into my arms to let them feel safe enough to express whatever needs to pour out from them. As they get older the way they cry out for help is changing. Sometimes their needs ring out loudly for me. Other times it is in their silence that they call out for comfort and support. My job as their caregiver is to pay attention – to notice and tend to their needs however disguised their cries may be.
As a child I was not seen. My muted screams for help rang out, but they were not answered. My injuries were left bleeding without drawing the attention or concern from others that they required. Internal walls were erected to protect me from the pain that others failed to keep me from. These walls still exist decades later, providing safety and protection while also creating a barrier for connection. I can sit in solitude, accessing and deeply feeling my pain as I type these words. Yet when asked to speak of them out loud I feel much like a reporter, reciting a story to you from a safe distant corner of myself, absent of emotion. I desperately desire to be able to hold and connect to my feelings in front of others. I wish to be able to expose my pain in front of you and take solace in your protective and comforting presence.
I don’t know how to be sad in front of people. Young parts inside of me are holding in a lot of pain. They were never afforded the opportunity to express their hurt. They learned to pack it in and store it within them. Over time this hurt has not subsided. Instead it seems to find a way to attach itself to new experiences, spreading and growing inside. The child parts inside of me need to express their sadness, their fear, their deep hurt. They need to release what they were taught to bury long ago. But they are so scared. What if they do it wrong? What if you look at them sideways or judge them or laugh. They are afraid you will mock them for being too sensitive – too needy – too emotional – too much. Or even worse, you’ll take pride and victory in having cracked them open. They can’t give you that power over them. We can’t let you tower over us, using your caring support as a weapon to draw out our hidden vulnerabilities. Your gentle assurance that I can feel or express emotions in front of you feels like a trapdoor, and I’m afraid to risk falling in. So I get armored up. Anger sweeps in to push sadness aside and I get rigid and impenetrable. I don’t want this to happen. In fact I often dream of the idea of collapsing into a puddle of tears in front of you. Yet even though so much of me screams on the inside for the freeing relief of a cry in your comforting presence, I can’t seem to access those feelings in front of you.
Can you help me peel back my armor? Can you help me soften my shaky rigidity? Can I trust that you won’t leave me feeling worse for having let you see all of the hurting parts? Can I trust that my tears won’t be your victory?
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?”
I have an unhealthy tendency to look for evidence to support my belief that I am alone and not cared for. Like an internal scorecard, I keep a tally of incidents to prove that others cannot be trusted. This is a highly effective tool for self protection, and it is also a guarantee for loneliness and isolation. Perhaps to counter this faulty pattern of mine I can try to infuse a more hopeful approach in building and developing relationships.
Trust is built over many tiny moments – our brains record and store these moments, building a case for growing safety and connection in relationships. The hope is that over time safe people emerge in your life that can hold space for all of you in a genuine and unconditional way. Each trust building interaction adds reinforcement and stability to the relationship, allowing for deeper and more meaningful connection while keeping small disruptions within this healthy environment from fracturing the relationship beyond repair.
Brene Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar to demonstrate this idea. Each time I show up for a friend in a meaningful way a marble is added to my jar, over time creating a solid foundation of trust in our relationship. Marble upon marble of fueling connection helps to build safety and stability. When, as a flawed human, I fall short of expectations and a marble is lost we still have a full jar to lean on and can continue to rebuild and grow from those small breaches.
Long ago, I was not seen and was consequently routinely abused in plain sight. Trust was used as a weapon against me. My high school coach carefully manipulated his way into the most trusted and valued position in my life. Over the course of a year of grooming he deliberately and methodically crafted moments to fill his marble jar and guided me into a position of complete trust and obedience. He then smashed the marble jar right over my head the day he first violated me. His actions over the course of the following several years deadened the parts of me that could soften in the safe presence of another person. And from those moments new internal protective parts were formed to try to keep harm away. Decades later I carry these protective parts into each new relationship I encounter. They have a keen sense of danger. They expect it, releasing warning signs to keep me at arms length from others at all times.
I have a new therapist. As with all new relationships I am guarded. Yet I show up to my appointments trying to let down this guard in order to seek help for the wounded parts that tremble inside of me. My rational brain tells me that I need to open up and let her in in order to receive her help. Yet the guarded parts of me will not be subverted. These parts try to convince me that she cannot be trusted. They reach and search for evidence to prove that her care is not real, trying to fill her scorecard with enough distrusting tally marks to keep me far from her. I know two things about this response in me – this was a very critical life saving protective defense that was created inside of me long ago, and it is no longer serving to help me but is in fact now a hindrance for me.
In one of my first appointments with my new therapist I brought with me a series of drawings and paintings that represent various internal parts of me. I did not hold expectations around what it would feel like to share these with her. In that moment I was merely trying to bring more of myself in front of her. As I sat across from her and opened the folder revealing each piece of artwork, she watched intently. After I held up and described each piece that I chose to share she then leaned in and asked if she could take a closer look. I reached across the space between us and handed them to her. Then I watched as she slid down from her chair onto the floor, carefully spreading these pieces of me all around her. She then picked them up one by one and studied them. I watched the way she held each piece, bringing a few of them in close to her as she described what she saw and felt in them. That moment left a mark on me that I could not identify in session but worked to unpack in solitude afterwards. The parts of me that I brought into her office that day had never been held that way by another person. She saw those wounded parts of me and offered comforting support in the attentive way she held and tended to each one of them.
I have since then been trying to understand how all of my internal parts feel about her and the help, care, and support she is offering. From the youngest parts I feel a hopeful longing. They want to crawl out of the darkness closer to her. They want her to see how much they hurt. They want her help. Other parts of me are harder to convince. They keep looking for the trapdoor. They are convinced that her words are hollow and will just lead us to more hurt and isolated misery. And then there is the adult me in the room – the one that carries around all of these fractured pieces that exist inside of me. I sit before her and wrestle with all of these conflicting thoughts and feelings and am often unable to make a sound. None of it makes sense. It’s a tangled mess of incomplete thoughts, layered with fragmented images and sensory experiences. In those moments I cannot answer how I am feeling. I’m not withholding. I simply can’t grab hold of anything. It’s all spinning, tumbling, and tangling around inside of me. I don’t have a voice in those moments. No one does. It feels like a crowded bus in an uproar with all passengers fighting for the drivers seat, but no one has control. The bus just gets jerked in different directions while moving at a higher and higher speed.
I keep coming back to that moment in her office with my artwork and checking in with all of my internal parts. How do they feel about the way she held us that day? The parts that want to lunge forward into the comfort of her arms believe in her. They are craving to be seen and cared for so badly that they are ready to trust her. This feels reckless and naive to other parts that struggle to believe. They impose a judging eye roll while they resume their scorecard tallies. These are the parts that need more time. These parts need more marbles added to the jar before they will soften in front of her. So that is precisely what I have decided to give them – more time and more opportunity to build trust. These parts prefer to hold onto questions and thoughts because they fear that releasing them gives another person power over them. But what if I can allow these thoughts and questions to emerge? What if I can lay down my scorecard for a moment and provide an opportunity to offer my therapist just one small marble at a time?
Sometimes it feels heavy and huge – like a weight pressing firmly down on my chest. Sometimes I can pinpoint its location deep within me – like a small spinning fireball with enormous energy and strength bound in a very confined space. Sometimes it spreads like thick smoke throughout my chest, down into my stomach, and even up into my throat where it burns and aches. It pauses my breathing, triggering very shallow breaths with inadequate volume to supply my body with this very basic need. After several moments a huge breath is required to repay the debt for what has been withheld. This is what typically draws my awareness inward where I can recognize what is happening and can then begin to carefully focus on each breath – a slow deep inhale followed by a relaxing exhale. Then I tune into the pressure, the ache, the pain…whatever is restricting my breath and I try to slowly and deliberately breathe through it to restore balance to my activated nervous system.
Aside from the fact that these new moments I am experiencing of intense anxiety or panic are frightening, the problem I am noticing is that I have a very cerebral default response to these incidents. I tend to my physical cues by checking my pulse and reminding myself to slow down and breathe deeply. But I am learning that the parts of me that are triggering these anxious and panicky feelings are not calmed by these actions alone. These parts require more than reminders to breathe. These young parts are seeking comfort.
Recently I was tucking my daughter into bed for the night. As she laid on her side and clutched her stuffed puppy in her arms, resting her cheek upon the soft fabric of its head, she looked up at me with a slight smile. The words that flowed from her mouth in that moment have echoed in my brain ever since. “Stuffed animals are like an anchor for my dreams,” she said.
An anchor. This is exactly what I need in moments of panic. I need an anchor to help keep me grounded when parts of me are spinning out of control. So with the help of my therapist and these wise words from my child I have, among other self soothing strategies, taken up sleeping with a stuffed animal. I wrap my arms around a floppy stuffed moose and I can actually feel a momentary release of tension inside of me – just long enough to help me fall asleep.
I have since then been thinking more about this need, trying to resist self judgement that my adult self tries to impose about relying on a stuffed animal for sleep. I can feel the relief that this provides to some very young parts within me – parts that are desperate for comforting and protective care – begging for the embrace that I am giving to this moose each night. The slight relaxation that comes from cuddling this stuffed moose is enough evidence to prove to me that it is helping. Yet I find myself feeling somewhat defeated by this new daily ritual and can’t help but feel the desperate resignation that comes from this type of comfort. If the need to feel safe, comforted, and protected is strong enough for my adult self to feel overwhelmed by it on a daily basis, then how ironic is it that this need that was missed from others long ago is left for me to scramble to meet for myself in solitude today? To me this shouts a very loud and clear message – I was alone in my suffering, and now I’m alone in my healing.
I can’t be what others were not. I cannot fill the enormous void that my inner child parts need. And yet here I try because what other choice do I have? These injured parts live inside of me. Their unmet needs permeate from me with every feeling and interaction I have. They long for something that was absent long ago. They need something I cannot fully provide. I can’t fix what was injured no matter how tightly I cuddle my stuffed moose. All I can do is hope that my anchor holds for now.
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.