We may have experienced various traumatic experiences in childhood, whether it be abuse, neglect, abandonment, or ongoing misattunements from caregivers that impact our ability to feel safe to attach. Even though the events themselves may be behind us, those internal responses to the traumatic experiences—images, sensations, meanings we create, and emotions—can become “stuck” in the nervous system. They continue to have a “charge.” That charge stays in our system, is stored maladapatively, and is part of our inner world.
At the most unexpected times, this material can push through what we would consider our “normal” day-to-day activities—such as parenting, working, relationship building, and self-care—in the “outside world.” As a result, we may find ourselves in a constant balancing act of pushing back at that charge. Our normal everyday selves, if you will, try to show the world that we are fine on the outside, even though there may be a lot of material that pushes through.
For example, perhaps we are in a discussion with a loved one when, all of the sudden, we interpret that we are being abandoned, even while there is no actual evidence of this. Or perhaps while attempting to set a boundary with a child, we feel feelings of guilt because we don’t feel that we “deserve” to set those boundaries. All of these can be intrusions on day-to-day life, all from past hurts.
Those feelings and interpretations can actually be the experiences of the past clouding the now, stopping us from truly being in the moment. The nervous system is activated and defending itself from a past injustice. Unfortunately, that charge from the past compels your nervous system to act as if the traumatic experience is still happening.
There can then develop a kind of tug-of-war between who we are on the outside and the charges that remain from the past. If the tug-of-war with the traumatic material becomes too much and we become flooded, we may need to go numb in order to be able to still “do” life on the outside. We may shut down. Even if we do, it doesn’t mean that the material on the inside is gone; it just means that we have had to become more unaware of it in order to function on the outside.
One of the most challenging aspects of complex trauma, whether or not pursuing EMDR therapy, is that we must be able to identify and “own” our feelings and experiences. This allows us to then process traumatic experiences from the perspective of being “here and now” and visiting them versus feeling as if one is flooded and still in those experiences. In EMDR language, we look for one’s ability to maintain dual attention. It expands into making sure we stay within a window of tolerance as we visit those memories.
Often, those starting their healing work find themselves in one of two extremes: flooded by feelings all of the time or feeling completely numb.
For some, this may not seem like such a large step, but for the majority of those who are healing from complex trauma, it is in fact very difficult. Often, those starting their healing work find themselves in one of two extremes: flooded by feelings all of the time or feeling completely numb. The numbness often comes because the material in our inside world becomes unmanageable and we become more fearful of that material. We shut down from the outside world because the inside world is so invasive.
We typically learn to dance this dance of “daily life” vs. “inner stuff” at an early age. In infancy, we learn that our attachment to our caregivers is required; we cannot survive without a caregiver or we will die. Period. We also learn that our attachment relationship is dependent upon us being in tune with our caregiver’s reactions—to know what to do, how to act, and how OK it is (or not OK) to have our emotions be expressed and seen in the outside world.
We also determine whether it is dangerous to really identify, own, and be with the feelings of shame, anger, or sadness, even happiness or calm. We then create certain strategies that seem helpful at the time but show up later as distressing symptoms. As outlined in my previous article on blocking beliefs, it is often those cognitive errors that hold us back from fully realizing and being in tune with our past hurts because it was, at the time, too much to fully realize.
In future articles, I will share more about what it means to fully realize and own what was once unrealized, back when we were experiencing past injustices. Similarly, I will share more regarding what it means to own and process feelings we may have deemed unacceptable in order to survive the past.
If you are a therapist and are interested in expanding your knowledge on this topic, especially as it relates to structural dissociation theory, you are encouraged to read The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization (2006) by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele.
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