Understanding Shame, part 5: Healing emotional trauma

Editor’s note: This week, we offer you a 5-part series — originating in The Attached Family online magazine’s “Parenting Without Shame” issue — to help you better understand the development of toxic shame. Part 1 explained how trauma includes 3 components: Fear, Disconnection, and Shame. Part 2 explored Fear. Part 3 defined Disconnection. Part 4 discussed what it means to become “shame-based.” In this final Part 5, we take a look at the healing process.

One of the challenges for healing of emotional trauma is that although trauma-worlds are created in response to external events, once established, they form rigid and closed internal systems.

Locked inside these systems, our behavior sets us up to be retraumatized by other people. Additionally, the ways that we behave toward ourselves are invariably retraumatizing. Trauma-worlds are self-perpetuating.

Locked inside these systems, we also struggle to see trauma for what it is. That leaves us little choice but to focus on the visible symptoms and the chronic, deadening pain they create.

Healing Doesn’t Come Through Symptom Relief

Symptoms of emotional trauma include the fear, disconnection, and shame that lie at the heart of a trauma-world; also depression, meaninglessness, addictions, self-harm, rage, and unexplained physical pain, and ailments. Additionally, we are likely to struggle in our relationships and to sabotage things we care about. This is why family therapy is extremely important. Once started, your therapist may recommend  individual children’s therapy.

Focusing on such symptoms, we — as individuals and as a society — put our resources into trying to alleviate them, perhaps through short-term family therapy or psychotherapeutic drugs, or by pinning our hopes to something like success at work, a new romantic relationship, losing weight, or cosmetic surgery.

These “symptom relievers” can give us temporary respite, but it won’t free us from the internal systems that were set up in the wake of the traumatizing experiences, so in time, we fall back into our suffering.

Even when we can see beneath the symptoms to the underlying traumatizing experiences, we are unlikely to recognize the trauma-worlds in which we are living, so our first port of call is to blame whoever, or whatever, caused the original wounds and look for retribution.

That is a valuable first step and a necessary part of the process, for we do need to recognize what happened to us. We need to validate the experience and understand that it was not our fault. However, focusing on the traumatizing experience or on punishing the perpetrators is not enough by itself to bring deep healing, because that won’t change the embodied systems that form our trauma-worlds. It’s akin to being hit by a drunken driver and having our leg broken. Focusing on the accident and jailing the driver won’t heal our leg.

How Healing Happens

Healing trauma requires the courage to recognize that ultimately our lives are compromised not by the original traumatizing experiences themselves, but by the trauma-world that is created by our own minds and bodies as a response to those experiences. And we need to recognize this reality without blaming and judging ourselves — we need to understand that creating a trauma-world is what human beings do to survive.

At the same time, we have to take responsibility for our healing, and for moving out of our trauma-worlds.

Developing a cognitive awareness of the original traumatizing experiences, and of the systems created in their wake, is a good start to the process of taking responsibility for our own healing. But it is not enough.

To create lasting change, we have to enter into our emotional minds and bodies and slowly become aware of what we carry from the inside.

That means opening to the original traumatizing pain and fear, learning how to tolerate it, and integrating it into our sense of who we are. It is only when we find ways of relating to our buried pain and fear that our lives are no longer organized around the imperative to avoid anything which might trigger what we carry in our depths. However, this is an extremely challenging process: We need to do it slowly, taking one small step at a time.

Equally crucial is that we work with the fear, disconnection, and shame that form our trauma-worlds:

  1. First, we must enter into these systems and become conscious of how we feel in both our minds and bodies when they are active.
  2. Then, we have to challenge our shame, reconnect to the exiled parts of ourselves, and learn to live with our sensitized fear system.
  3. Finally, we need to develop new, and healthier, ways to protect ourselves.

It is hard, daunting, and arduous work. Our trauma-worlds were created to survive overwhelming pain and fear. When we try to transform them, we are besieged with the conviction that we will be annihilated. That conviction leaves us at risk of sabotaging the healing process. Thus, we need patience, perseverance, determination, and courage.

It is also imperative that we have support and guidance from those who have been through the process themselves.

Do Not Do It Alone

To heal trauma, we not only need an embodied consciousness of what we carry from our past, we also need new experiences. Real change happens in the present moment through lived experience.

This need for new experiences is one of the many reasons why we can’t heal trauma alone. Emotional trauma arises because something has gone awry in our relationships, so a healing relationship is crucially important if we are to learn how to connect to other people and to ourselves in healthier ways. Similarly, we need support if we are going to approach the unprocessed pain and fear that was once unbearable, and we also need guidance if we are to transform the fearfulness, disconnection, and shame that lie at the heart of our trauma-worlds.

A healing relationship can be provided by a therapist, counselor, teacher, social worker, spiritual guide, or healing group — the label doesn’t matter. What does matter is that whoever is accompanying us has worked deeply with his or her own trauma. Healing trauma is akin to learning to speak a language like Chinese: It is not enough that our teacher has a theoretical knowledge of the grammar and that she can recognize the characters when they are written on the page; rather she must speak the language herself.

What It Means to be Healed

When we embark on trying to heal trauma, we typically imagine that we will reach a place where our lives are free from the suffering that arises from our wounds, and where trauma no longer has any effect on our lives.

That is not what happens. We cannot change our past. Our trauma remains part of us. What can be changed is its impact. To achieve that, we have to find new and healthier ways of being with the pain and fear embedded in the traumatizing experiences, and just as importantly, we have to transform the trauma-world that developed around them.

It is a challenging process. It takes time. Many people, and indeed most public health services, look for an easier and faster route. But there is no easy route. To address trauma in a meaningful way, we need to commit ourselves to this challenge.

I believe it is vitally important that we make this commitment — not only to help ourselves — but also because when we carry unaddressed trauma, we have no choice but to relate to our children, family, neighbors, and colleagues in ways that are likely to result in them becoming traumatized.

In contrast, when we transform our trauma-worlds, we break that spiral and start relating to ourselves, other people, and the world around us in much healthier and more nurturing ways.

Photo sources: Pixabay.com

All babies are born with these 3 emotional needs

Expecting your first baby? Talk about parenting now, before baby arrives

1208286_baby_loveHenry and Isabel had been married for 3 years when they found out they were expecting their first child.

They had dated for 4 years in college before getting married, and they were sure that they knew everything about each other. They were very excited about becoming parents and did everything the parenting magazines suggested: attended birth classes, completed registries, attended baby showers, interviewed pediatricians and pored over to-do lists to ensure that their house was ready for their new arrival. Isabel gushed to anyone willing to listen that Henry was going to be the best father in the world and that this baby was going to be the best thing to ever happen to them. You need to make sure everything is prepared in advance before the baby arrives, the baby room, the night monitor, anti-allergic Dapple detergent for baths i.e

In the delivery room, the doctors and nurses raised concerns about Isabel’s desire to birth naturally. Henry was raised by a doctor and learned to always defer to the medical community. So when the doctors recommended a Cesarean section, Henry was ready to get scrubbed and don the surgical attire. Everything happened so fast that Isabel never had a chance to voice her fears and concerns.

Isabel’s mom was waiting for them when they got home and immediately started taking care of her daughter and new granddaughter. Henry wasn’t sure what to do. He seemed to be constantly in the way, what with all the visitors and help they were getting, and he started feeling like a third wheel. He decided he would go back to work since Isabel seemed to have plenty of support. It’s important to have a rattan bassinet Australia for the baby to sleep comfortable.

After the extra help went away, Henry didn’t know what his role should be. Isabel was breastfeeding, the baby slept in their bed, and Isabel seemed to have all the answers. Henry had moved down the hall to the guest room, so he would get enough sleep for work. The baby needed Isabel all the time, so he decided he would just put in more hours at the office, because after all, it was his job to provide for his family. He was a father now.

Isabel, on the other hand, had slipped into postpartum depression. After everyone left, she was isolated because she was too afraid to breastfeed in public and never left the house. All her friends had disappeared, because they didn’t have kids and they didn’t understand why she couldn’t just leave the baby and go out with them. Isabel was angry about her C-section and resented Henry for his willingness to do whatever the doctors suggested. Isabel now described Henry as an uninvolved father whose only interest was advancing his career.

Three months after the baby’s arrival, Isabel and Henry were headed for divorce.

Henry and Isabel fell into parenting patterns as a reaction to their daughter’s birth, because they had not discussed what parenthood would be like and how they would face the challenges. In their 7 years together, they had never shared what they thought a father’s or mother’s role should look like or how they would support one another. They jumped in blind, and the whirlwind and emotional roller coaster of parenting led them down a hole of loneliness, misunderstanding and resentment.

There is never a better time to get to know your partner or spouse on a deeper level than when you are expecting a child. In every family are 2 very separate adults, each with different upbringings, different world views and different experiences. The time and energy you have for intimate conversations now may be missing for years once the baby is born. Before baby comes is the time to really look into Attachment Parenting International‘s First Principle of Parenting — when you can think clearly and begin to look at some of your childhood wounds, identify areas that may be difficult as you raise your own children, share your insights with your partner and become a team as you enter the uncharted waters of parenthood.

Many new parents don’t make the time for these conversations. Like Henry and Isabel, you may get caught up in the minor details of parenthood: where baby will sleep, what stroller to buy, how you will spend time together after baby is born, how you will keep up with your friends. These are what I call “surface conversations,” because they are safe and fun. They are part of the joy of expectant parenthood. But these plans may go awry when baby actually arrives. You cannot predict what this new person will be like and how that will change your plans.

Mommy & Baby babywearing in rockerI remember going crib shopping during my first pregnancy, insisting that we needed a crib, a play yard, a bassinet and fancy strollers. In my head, the baby would be breastfed and rocked, then laid down to fall asleep. I would go for long walks, hand-in-hand with my husband, with our baby in the stroller. Me and my husband also where thinking about signing our baby on after hours daycare because we are going to need to work more hours to maintain our kids.

As it turned out, my daughter would only sleep while nestled in someone’s arms. The crib and play yard quickly became fancy laundry baskets. In order to stay asleep, the baby had to be in someone’s arms, which led to shift sleeping for my husband and me until her system finally calmed enough so that she could sleep when not in motion.

Even though our plans for our daughter to sleep in the bassinet were thrown out the window, our value of always meeting her nighttime needs didn’t change at all. We had decided before she was born that we would always respond to her, that we would never use the cry-it-out method, and that we would stay in the same bed as a couple. Our original picture of how that would play out with cribs and play yards was easily cast to the side to accommodate our larger goals. And as our family has grown and tested us in new ways, we have been able to constantly ask one another for help to achieve our bigger goals, aware of the hurts we are trying to heal in the process and knowing that we are a team working towards a joint goal that we set together.

When the realities of new parenthood set in, you will be thankful you didn’t stop at the surface conversation. You will be glad you kept talking after the discussion about what crib to buy turned into a discussion about how your parents handled sleep and how you felt when you were left alone when you were scared, or how good it feels when you can reach across and hold your husband’s hand when you’ve had a nightmare.

Go under the surface and explore the big goals of parenting and your own emotional wounds from childhood. By having these conversations, you begin to understand where you and your partner are vulnerable, what your likely triggers may be and what kind of support you may need from each other along the way. You can also take time to review current research together, from a variety of sources, about birth, sleep, disciplineinfant daycare and other aspects of parenting you find important. If you take the time while you are expecting to talk about your most important goals and values, then when the big day finally arrives, you will have a joint vision in mind, making the start of parenting much smoother.

Start your parenting conversation today:

  1. What is your favorite childhood memory?
  2. What kind of relationship do you have with your parents and why?
  3. What were the rules in your house when you were little? Which ones are important to you, and which ones do you want to let go?
  4. What emotional wounds do you still carry from your childhood?
  5. When you misbehaved or got into trouble as a child, how did your parents discipline you, and do you think that helped you to change your behavior? What might have worked better?
  6. How did your parents relate to one another when you were around? What do you want to do similarly, and what do you want to do differently?
  7. What are your fears and worries about childbirth and parenting?
  8. What traits do you value in yourself and your spouse? Are there traits you wish you had that you want your children to have?
  9. What are the most important values, behaviors and attitudes you want to bring to parenting?
  10. How has current research and information about parenting changed some of the beliefs you held about parenting and the way you want to parent?

Editor’s Pick: AP Month on “How to get from there to here”

“We nod our heads recognizing scientific ‘child outcomes’ as…parenting goals regardless of our style of parenting. But how do we get from there to here? What’s the parenting analogue that allows us parents to be all that, enough of the time, so that these child benefits are possible?” ~ “How to get from there to here” on AP Month 2014

apm logoOn today’s AP Month post, we’re posed the question: How do we get from there to here? How do we, as parents, raise our children to fulfill the positive child outcomes that science shows is the result of effective parenting?

How do we get from there — a child-rearing mindset that might include hostility, rejection and coercion — to here, where we are consistently responding to our children with sensitivity, trust, empathy, affection, compassion and joy?

Many parents find themselves practicing Attachment Parenting all on their own. They may naturally incorporate all or a few of Attachment Parenting International’s Eight Principles of Parenting.

I envy those parents a bit.

I was not one of those parents who stumbled upon Attachment Parenting International (API) and had an “aha” moment, recognizing myself and my parenting approach in API’s mission and vision.

I came to API and Attachment Parenting off a jagged path. I wasn’t looking for Attachment Parenting. I had no conscious decision that I was going to raise my children differently than how I was raised.

Before my first daughter was born, I was thrilled about the pregnancy but largely ignorant of preparing for parenting and all that entails. I remember thinking I would do cry-it-out and spanking just as I was raised, because…well, that was how I was raised, and I turned out fine, right?

Then, my first pregnancy ended in a placental abruption and preterm birth at 30 weeks gestation. And my world turned upside down.

rachelIt took me a week to get up the nerve to hold my baby girl. I felt an immense need to be close to her but was terrified of that feeling. I was terrified of giving my heart to her, lest she not survive her fragile state and my heart would break. I had to convince myself that it was better to love, and know, her than not — even if she didn’t make it.

More than that, I had to learn how to love her.

Love is a verb. It’s not a feeling. You can “feel” you love someone, but if you don’t act on that feeling — or if your actions don’t communicate that feeling — is it really love? If your significant other told you he/she felt love for you but then neglected your emotional needs, is that love?

No, love is a verb. It’s an action. It’s not something you “feel,” but something you do. And if you do it, if you build your world around “love” as a verb, your attitude and thought patterns eventually encompass what love is so that your whole self — mind, body, spirit — is loving, but even then, love is a verb, not a “feeling” that can be separated from your actions.

And more than that, “to love” isn’t some arbitrary action that you decide for another person. In order to love, the action has to be what the other person needs. If you have your baby cry it out or if you spank your child, you may feel that is “loving” them because you feel you’re teaching a life lesson, but crying it out and spanking is not perceived as loving actions by your child. It hurts.

Your child may learn, but through discomfort and fear. Do we want our children to associate love with hurt, fear and discomfort? Especially when it’s quite possible that we can teach our children through warm, safe, secure, compassionate actions?

Love, by its very definition, isn’t hurtful. So what does your child need instead?

It can be a hard concept to explain, because it does require a different way of thinking than the authoritarian model, but here’s an illustration:

Before my first daughter’s birth, I had preconceived notions that crying it out would be the best thing to do for my child. She would need to learn to sleep through the night and self-soothe, right? But then I gave birth to a very ill child, one that defied death for weeks after she was delivered, sometimes hanging on the very brink.

I had no idea how to parent such a baby! So I relied on the hospital staff to teach me how to care for my baby.

I learned that love wasn’t a feeling. It is an action. It is meeting my child’s needs, physically and emotionally. More than that, the physical needs and the emotional needs are tied together. They cannot be untied.

To love my baby, I needed to pump my breast milk. She needed that breast milk to help her grow faster and protect her against infections. Formula wouldn’t do. Premature babies fed formula are high risk of the deadly necrotizing enterocolitis.

rachel 2To love my baby, I needed to visit the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit frequently. She needed to hear my voice and have oxytocin-boosting, heartbeat-regulating, breathing-regulating skin-to-skin contact with me and her father to grow better.

To love my baby, I needed to allow myself to follow my biological instincts to be close to her and to bond with her. She required my adoration, attention, encouragement, warmth, compassion, trust in the process and joy in order to grow and develop.

To love my baby, I needed to attend to her cues before she cried. Crying wastes calories, and she needed every calorie she could get. Calories meant growth, and growth meant development, and development meant survival.

To love my baby, I needed to room-share. She was born with severe apnea and was on an apnea monitor for nine months. She needed my rapid action if she stopped breathing, which she did a few times.

To love my baby, I needed to take care of myself emotionally and physically. She needed my presence. I needed to find a sense of balance, and so I began writing about my experience and joined a local La Leche League group. My baby needed to be able to rely on someone who feels refreshed.

To love my baby, I needed to find a more family-friendly workplace. She was highly susceptible to infections and still had numerous problems with her breathing. So I found a job that allowed flex time and for me to work part of my hours at home when my husband was working, so we had the flexibility to care for our daughter’s health issues.

To love my baby, I met her needs. I didn’t go along with parenting choices just because I was raised that way or because my friends did it that way or because “that’s the way it always been done.”

Not everyone understood. I remember several people telling me when I brought my daughter home that I should do cry-it-it as she didn’t need the same level of care as she had in the hospital, that I needed to undo the habits that had created a baby that expected to have her needs met whenever she wanted them, that my baby was being taught to manipulate.

They didn’t understand that it is in meeting those needs whenever my baby requested them, that she was even able to come home and be with us. Babies don’t have “wants.” They only have needs. Whatever my baby wanted is what she needed. In that realization, babies only appear to be manipulative when they struggle against their physical, communicative and emotional limitations to get their needs met.

An aside: Children learn to do behaviors that appear manipulative if their needs are not met, because those needs for secure attachment are as vital to their growth and development as eating or breathing. So not meeting a child’s needs for secure attachment is like taking his/her oxygen away, and like adults, he will “fight” for his life and find another way to get those attachment needs met. The question is, what exactly do children need and how can parents go about meeting those needs? API can help.

While it was La Leche League that introduced me to Attachment Parenting, I was already searching for support to continue what I had learned in the hospital from apparently knowledgeable staff — they had saved my baby after all — amid the flood of criticism.

At some point, on some Internet search, I found Attachment Parenting International. The closest API Support Group was in another state, five hours away, so I contacted API and asked if I could volunteer with them — because I knew that if I didn’t affiliate myself with API in some way, I would not have the strength to continue on with Attachment Parenting without support at home.

API saved my family. I had a lot more to learn about child rearing than the introduction the hospital gave me and I had a setback early on regarding discipline, but through the years, Attachment Parenting has transformed the way I look at myself, my children, my spouse, my community, my world.

API got me from there to here.

All through October, AP Month has been posting daily tips based on this year’s theme: “Cherishing Parents, Flourishing Children.” All of these tips are written by an amazing API volunteer, Kelly Johnson, the coordinator of AP Month. You can read through all of the tips so far, as well as the tips from previous years, on the AP Month website. Or start having daily tips sent to your inbox by clicking here or “Subscribe” in the upper right corner of the AP Month website. Today’s post is especially inspirational:

How to Get There from Here

Warmth, inductive reasoning, appropriate monitoring and clear communication. We easily identify these as the parenting behaviors associated with beneficial child outcomes that include positive cognitive functioning, social skills, moral development and psychological adjustment.

We nod our heads recognizing these scientific “child outcomes” as the equivalent of our AP Month “flourishing children.” We also recognize all of these benefits as parenting goals regardless of our style of parenting.

But how do we get there from here? What’s the parenting analogue that allows us parents to be all of that enough of the time so that these child benefits are possible? What are the names of the concrete resources that we parents need to have available so that we can provide all of that?

At other times, maybe we also need these resources to help extricate ourselves from situations that may involve our use, inadvertent or planned, of more or less hostility, rejection and coercion.

We can get there from here with support. Telling our stories can help unravel the stress. Taking the breaks we know we need, yet consistently ignore, provide moments of respite. Turning to a hobby, physical activity or just quiet for a brief period allows the spin cycle to slow. How else do you replenish your resources?

How can you plan five minutes (or more) this week to do so?

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