What if loving you is not enough? What if I look at you every day but never fully see you? What if the way I view you is distorted by what I wish to see?
What if I am unable to recognize the things I fear the most? What if harm creeps into the spaces between my love and your needs? What if I spend my life trying to keep you from knowing the darkness I know only to lead you straight to its doorstep?
What if my lessons teach you to swallow your pain? What if my methods create a barrier that drives you away from me? What if my efforts lead you to retreat within yourself?
What if I thought I was doing enough? What if I believed that your mask held your truth? What if I never saw your tears…your pain…your need for me? What if I couldn’t even see the ledge you are clinging onto?
She is 14 years old. She sits in her school hallway on the floor with her back against the wall. Her legs are outstretched and crossed in front of her. She wears an oversized hand-me-down t-shirt and athletic shorts. Her feet are laced up in well worn running shoes. She waits for the rest of her teammates to emerge from the locker room ready for practice. Small conversations and laughter spark between the girls as they begin to gather. Her coach enters the hallway and greets the team. As he passes in front of her he slows to a stop, bending down and reaching towards her. He grabs the top of her shoe, giving her toes a gentle squeeze and a subtle shake as he smiles at her and says hello. She looks up at him and smiles back, feeling a momentary glimpse of special because she received slightly more than the simple verbal greeting that he offered to the rest of her teammates. He then takes a seat on the floor among the girls. He doesn’t sit next to her but is instead across the hallway from her between two of her older teammates. As the pre-practice chatter continues he leans in towards one of her teammates, nudging his shoulder into hers as they talk and laugh. Watching this interaction from just a few feet away she laughs along while quietly wishing it was her that he chose to sit next to.
The next day or the next week or the next month it will be her. She’ll feel a jolt of special each time he slides in beside her on the hallway floor – each time he grabs hold of her foot as he walks past her – each time he leans in with a nudge – each time he places his hand on her back after a race – each time he tips his glasses forward on his nose and looks directly into her eyes to talk to her. She’ll feel noticed. She’ll feel seen. She’ll feel important. Until the day arrives that this feeling of being special becomes intertwined with other things.
I sit on the floor in my therapist’s office. She is slowly and carefully teaching me how to feel safe in my own body. She is helping me calm my jittery nerves as I sit across from her wrapped in a blanket. I am learning to trust that her care is real and genuine – that her offer of help does not come with strings attached. I am feeling the internal pull of wanting to lean into the safety that she offers me. I feel parts wanting to soften and accept her office and her presence as a safe place where I can lower my ever present protective guard. Yet I struggle to fully trust this feeling. As she offers to sit closer to me to provide comfort I feel a flurry of confusion swirl inside of me. Some parts want to reach out, hold on tight, and melt in the safety of her care while other parts of me get angry and loud inside. Their anger is not directed at my therapist, although they feel guarded and distrustful of her in these moments. Instead their anger is aimed inward at the parts that want her to move closer – the parts that wish to receive her care. They blame these parts for inviting harm, so they lash out at the feeling of softening into safety. They silence these parts that welcome her help by placing a barrier of resistance between them. These loud parts watch my therapy process unfold, connecting the dots to form immediate protective conclusions. Moving closer leads to warm feelings which leads to a trapdoor to betrayal. Holding hands leads to a comforting and calming reaction which leads to a lowered guard and an opening for attack. Eye contact leads to exposure which leads to longing for connection which welcomes the trap. No warm feelings. No sliding in close. No calming comfort. No connecting eye contact. Stand your ground, and don’t let her see you.
Grooming is the process of building a trusting and connecting relationship in order to manipulate and abuse. My 14 year old self was groomed by the predator that called himself her coach. She couldn’t possibly identify his seemingly innocent interactions over all of those months as anything different. My 14 year old self should not feel responsible for being lured in and falling into his carefully woven trap. What happened to her was the result of calculated grooming designed to fool everyone. And it worked. Yet parts of me were imprinted with a very strong and lasting self impression from that time. They are angry at the parts that welcomed him in and unwilling to allow any signs of manipulation to enter their space again.
My adult self understands the process we are working towards in the therapy room. My adult self understands I am paying a professional trained in sensorimotor psychotherapy to help me process and heal the trauma related physical sensations that are a present barrier in my life today. I keep thinking I need to bypass these voices that scream out from within. I keep thinking that healing comes from my adult self overriding whatever it is they are trying to communicate. It sounds and feels crazy inside. I don’t understand what they are feeling. It’s constantly conflicting and it doesn’t make any sense, so I get stuck trying to find words and can’t say anything at all. But what these parts feel and what they need to express is exactly where my healing resides. I need to learn how to release the confusion and ambivalence that I feel. I need to learn to express that parts of me want my therapist to sit close, and parts of me feel like they are sitting in the hallway at my school about to be tricked. I need to allow all parts to have a voice and a choice about how we heal. I may be the adult in the room, but it is the kids inside of me that hold the answers and direction for my healing.
What truths do you possess about yourself? What beliefs about who you are provide a foundation of guiding support in your life? These are questions that have been swirling in my mind this past week. These are questions that don’t seem to have easy answers that I can securely hold onto.
I enjoy hiking. Summit hikes are a particular favorite of mine for the effort it takes to reach the reward of a beautiful panoramic mountaintop view. I love to let my mind wander as I hike, absorbing the surroundings with each turn I take. I don’t have much knowledge or interest in the types of plants and trees I encounter along the way. Instead the artist in me is struck by colors, shapes, and unique features that catch my eye. I’ll stop and study a tree whose trunk is twisted and contorted in awkward directions on its journey upward. I’ll wonder what forces caused such a dramatic shift in its growth. And I’ll marvel at how the tree did not stop growing despite the overwhelming obstacle that required it to shift and adapt. Its twisted shape tells a story of its resilience to grow and adapt against the odds placed before it.
There are so many metaphors that can be connected to the qualities and characteristics of a tree. A resilient twisted trunk, a firmly rooted foundation, swaying branches of openness, renewed blooming life each spring, and rings that record its ongoing journey of growth. If you’re at all familiar with my writing then you’ll understand that metaphors tend to be my language of choice. In fact you don’t even need to look further than the name of my blog to recognize the significance and connection of the tree.
I have spent some time recently talking through this metaphorical concept with a close friend who was asked a question about what qualities and beliefs exist at her core – what makes up the trunk of her tree?
As she described her difficulties in answering this question, I found myself connecting and relating to her struggles. I can find the answers that I want to say – that I think I’m supposed to say. But finding answers that all of me firmly believes in and is proud of is another story. Trying to search for what I deeply and truly believe about myself leads me straight into another metaphor – the spiderweb. I can’t seem to connect to genuine positive answers without feeling tempted, tangled, and pulled into beliefs that I wish to shed from myself. I struggle to feel a genuine connection beyond the dark, dead, and rotting tree trunk that feels like home inside of me. Yet as my friend described this darkness that overrides her system, I felt a calming that only comes from this type of understanding and validation. While we talked and related and joked about our dead trees, I noticed something important. It’s not that I am unable to recognize the qualities in myself that I am proud of. It’s that the messages I learned long ago have twisted and contorted the lens in which I view myself. These messages take all of what I wish to be true about myself and sprinkle poison into it. This makes it difficult for newer and healthier messages to flourish. With all of the healing work I have ventured into, I have felt growth and progress. This is an indication of hope and life within in my tree. Where I find myself stuck is that my progress feels fragile. Just like new leaves that bring life and color to a tree, I experience healing growth. But these leaves are often at the mercy of strong winds that threaten their place on the tree.
I think it is hope that has kept my tree alive for all these years. But I am humble enough to recognize that I need help to keep my hope alive. Connection and support from others helps to bring new life to my tree. It shows me that healing happens both from the flicker of life that shines from within as well as reaching out for the transformative growth and support that can be created from the outside. It comforts me to know that my tree is not the only one twisted and contorted and struggling to maintain life. And that knowledge alone allows hope to flourish and more healing growth to emerge.
How do we show up for someone in a way that provides genuine support? How do we speak to someone who is hurting to provide reassurance that they are not alone? Our careful attention to the words selected in these moments can often directly impact the efficacy of our desired intervention. If we wish to wrap a blanket of support around another person then it is important to tune into the difference between what feels comforting and what feels distressing to that person. It requires us to listen to the needs of another. It requires us to recognize that what one person may find supportive could be received in an entirely different way by someone else. But what happens when the carefully chosen words themselves carry their own conflicting messages? How is a person supposed to absorb a well intended message that immediately attaches itself to a tangled mess of ambivalent feelings?
Early in my healing journey, with the guidance of my therapist, I was directed to various books to help me understand the dynamics and impacts of abuse. The words in these books allowed my adult brain to make connections and gain an understanding of what really happened when I was young. These lessons helped to rewire the faulty messages that were imposed upon my traumatized adolescent brain. Gaining an understanding of the stages of abuse, the behaviors of pedophiles, and the lasting and numerous impacts of these experiences allowed my brain to slowly begin to erase the message that what happened to me was entirely my fault and my choice and replace it with the acceptance of the term sexual abuse to describe my experiences. This process took quite some time, but making these connections and repairs in my adult brain provided me with the necessary foundation to begin to dig deeper into my healing work.
A pivotal moment in my healing journey occurred when I began to connect with other survivors. The validating support that comes from the collective “me too” of trauma survivors is an immensely helpful component of healing. I first experienced this in a group therapy setting for female survivors of childhood sexual abuse. There I sat in a room with women who carried vastly different stories and experiences of abuse, and yet a common thread emerged again and again as we shared the impact of our experiences. It didn’t seem to matter how old we were when our abuse took place, the role our abuser held in our lives, or even how many instances of abuse we remembered. The heavy weight of lasting internal impacts and distorted views about ourselves and the world around us became common ground within this room of strangers. The more I allowed myself to share about what I could only describe as my own unique brand of crazy going on inside of me, the more I felt this comforting validation and reciprocation through healing connection. This experience reinforced the message that my adult brain was learning to accept. I am not alone.
Recently I have directed my healing to focus on working to build a connection with my internal wounded parts. I have come to understand that no matter how much my adult brain can rationally understand the dynamics of abuse, my inner child holds memories attached to feelings that impact the way I still function today. I cannot reason my way around these default responses no matter how hard I try. It requires a deeper understanding and connection. Through this work I am beginning to feel how my adult brain can receive and process messages differently from these internal parts. The same messages that have helped my adult self make healing progress are not received the same way by my wounded inner child. When my adult self hears that my fears, feelings, and experiences are common in survivors of abuse and I can lean on the words of survivors or experts printed in books to reinforce the concept that I am not alone, I am filled with the validation and hope that there is a way through and out of my pain. It makes me want to dig in and follow the research to guide me forward towards healing. But a strange thing happens when my inner child hears the same messages. She latches onto words like “common”, “typical”, and “expected” and instead of feeling validated and empowered she feels diminished. It feels like she is being told that her wounds are common and expected. It feels to her that all of the painful and specific details that she relives over and over inside do not matter. Instead she feels that she is being told to go stand in line and follow the provided script with all of the other injured kids who are just like her. Her experiences matter no more than the sea of faces she’s been lumped in with. Those words do not help her. To her those words feel dismissive and minimizing, and they connect directly to the messages that kept her silently suffering in the past. Instead she needs words that scoop her up out of the murky darkness, dust her off, and wrap her in comfort and security while looking deeply into her eyes and showing her that she is seen and heard and that all of her unique experiences matter.
How do I give this wounded child within all that she needs? How can I extract the messages necessary for my adult self to continue healing while also tending to the child parts that seem to require something entirely different? How can I decide which part of me is supposed to absorb each message that I receive to ensure that they provide help instead of harm?
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
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.