“What we are about to undertake is an expedition together, a journey of discovery into the most secret recesses of our consciousness. And for such an adventure, we must travel light. We cannot burden ourselves with opinions, prejudices, conclusions — that is, with all the baggage that we have collected over the past two thousand years or more. Forget everything you know about yourself. Forget everything that you have thought about yourself. We are going to set off as if we know nothing.” —Krishnamurti
When we visit a childhood home as an adult, things seem so much smaller. What once felt unbearable may seem more manageable, no longer a burden when witnessed through new eyes. To the child, everything was huge. The whole world was huge.
So much of our culture teaches us to move away from pain. We sedate it, distract from it, or oppress it. We try to fix it, as if it were a flaw. When we’re anxious, we drink, have sex, or exercise. We might surf the internet for hours or binge on food or TV shows. We might go to the doctor to get medication. If we’re anxiously attached, we’ll move toward other people, wanting them to meet the panic for us.
These tiny, invisible choices happen continuously, subconsciously. They feel automatic. Until we stop to track our internal dialog, most of us do not realize the harshness with which we meet and manage ourselves. This harshness often takes the voice of—or uses language learned from—early life caregivers. Sometimes we are not distracting from difficult events as much as we are attempting to distract our own internal abusers. Very often, the actual threat is an internal one.
Accessing Underlying Material: Our Stories
“Those who do not have power over the story that dominates their lives, power to retell it, rethink it, deconstruct it, joke about it, and change it as times change, truly are powerless, because they cannot think new thoughts.”—Salman Rushdie
Everything that was there is here.
Nothing was lost.
Whatever is happening in the present moment becomes a string—a trail—we can follow to the past. Patterns in mind and body, in every internal or external interaction, reveal parts that formed in the past and affect choices in the current moment. Every interaction in a therapy room can provide a glimpse into the reactions, conflicts, and implicit rules carried by various internal parts.
To keep a lifeline as we follow this trail back to its origin, we simply hold one foot in the past and one in the present. In simple terms, a focus on external senses helps us calm while a focus on internal senses helps us access.
We use resources as anchors. These anchors help us remember that we are here, that the trauma is not happening now, that we are safe and okay. They help us remember we have all the traits, skills, and successes we need for sustained survival and connection.
What we feel in triggered moments provides a window of connection to the child that felt, and still feels, these intense reactions. This, right here, this feeling in the body—that is what the child felt. For some internalized parts, it may be what a parent felt in response to that child. This in itself brings a whole new empathy for generations past and makes all the pain so much less personal.
Healing: Validation, Permission, and Affirmation—for Everything
Much of trauma healing is simply bringing resources from one part of Self to another. In other words, we are enlisting a new set of eyes. The movement toward integration focuses on the internal relationship: on decreasing internal conflict and creating a connecting bond between resourced and unresourced parts.
So much of therapy—so much of life in general—is unraveling childhood conditioning and learning to be kind to ourselves. And many of us have no reference for this idea. We will not dare believe it until experiencing felt bodily safety while being fully seen by another human
Through focused attention, naming, and experimentation, we recognize and differentiate from parts in turmoil. We bring them soothing messages, memories of later life, and outcomes they never could have expected. Landing outside of the struggle, we hold access to present-day resources. These might include the people we know now. It could also include the ability to make money, form friendships, understand events and calm our bodies, or even take space to focus on some part of nature through a window, such as a tree outside that can remind us we are part of a bigger system, of systems within systems, that this is all okay.
And, while perhaps we did not learn this in childhood, we can acknowledge our present-day ability to meet intense emotion, to remain present and calm, to name and validate each experience, to give direct permission, and to affirm our connection.
To a hurting part of self, we might say what should have been said: “I see you. You’re feeling rejected and angry. Of course you’re feeling this. It makes sense. I’m here with you. I am not burdened at all by your emotion. Let’s just feel it together.” Our goal is not to change these parts (even the defenders/protectors/persecutors that treat us harshly), but to meet them with soft eyes, to become the softness that surrounds them.
These simple moments, when we feel our physical bodies calm while staying present with our “old stuff,” can prove life-changing. Memories that once felt triggering begin to feel neutral. Instead of something that destroyed us, they are just an event that happened, a paragraph in a story. As parts communicate and integrate, we may even develop stories of empowerment. These stories are born out of our successfully surviving legitimately difficult experiences.
Many pathways lead to this internal connection. Many therapeutic modalities produce similar results. These are simply moments of supportive meeting between parts that feel empowered and capable and parts that feel less capable, or even helpless, unwanted, and alone.
Addendum: For Those Triggered by Touchy-Feely Language
This, too, is normal. Of course you might feel triggered.
This can come up in therapy or in other relationships. Anything connected to weakness or need can trigger anger or shame, along with a whole range of physical/emotional reactions.
These triggers give us a lot of information. We know they formed somewhere, that they are here for a reason. What kind of experience would teach someone that love is wrong? Or that being genuinely seen is not safe? What are we allowed internally? Where did these “rules” begin?
Parts that developed as protectors tend to mistrust. In complex trauma, it is not uncommon to come up with contradictory or blocking beliefs. “It is not safe to hope.” “If I show weakness, it will be used against me.” “This is not how the world works. Nobody is kind for no reason.”
Some of us have internalized messages picked up from the counter-dependent cultures we inhabit. We become entrenched in worlds that tell us to “Buck up.” “Be strong.” “Take care of yourself.” “Don’t ask for help.” “Don’t feel sorry for yourself.” While adaptive, these messages can create internal conflicts, forcing us to exile parts of Selfand contain them internally by judging, dismissing, shaming, threatening, and so on.
So much of therapy—so much of life in general—is unraveling childhood conditioning and learning to be kind to ourselves. And many of us have no reference for this idea. We will not dare believe it until experiencing felt bodily safety while being fully seen by another human. If you would like help with this process, reach out to a compassionate counselor today.
Read Part 1 of this series, Untangling Early Life Adaptations, here.
“All any feeling wants is to be welcomed with tenderness. It wants room to unfold. It wants to relax and tell its story. It wants to dissolve like a thousand writhing snakes that with a flick of kindness become harmless strands of rope.”—Geneen Roth
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