“When my daughter Stacy stands there with her arms flailing in the air, screaming 'No' at the top of her lungs, it’s as if I’m back in time, once again feeling my mother’s rage. I vividly recall her frequent yelling at me and occasionally slapping me in the face when I was a child. I felt terrible. I hated it. When Stacy screams, it’s as if she is my mother—and once again I’m flooded with fear and anger!”
Brenda, a woman I met with several years ago, made these comments to me when discussing why she was seeking help. She described feeling overwhelmed at such moments, both emotionally and physically. Her tone of voice, facial expression, and body tension, all reflected her fear of losing control. Fortunately, Brenda sought help, as she reportedly was close to slapping her 3-year-old.
Brenda was perfectly in touch with reality, clearly aware that Stacy was not her mother. However, the emotional mind has little understanding of the passage of time. Regardless of our intelligence or chronological age, the emotional mind may carry the residue of past wounds. It’s intrinsically associated with our physiology, which, once triggered by a wound, may become overly sensitized to a perceived threat.
Brenda had believed that she had moved past her pain–that she had long ago made peace with it. She told herself that she had forgiven her mother for assaulting her and her father for not protecting her from such treatment. After all, Brenda realized that her mother had also suffered as a child, at the hands of her mother.
Through our sessions, she gained awareness that her understanding and intellectual empathy for her mother’s pain failed to address the hurts of that little girl she once was. She had failed to realize that real healing requires that we fully face the breadth and depth of our earlier trauma at an emotional level.
Brenda was similar to many individuals I’ve worked with who are prone to anger. While she had learned some strategies to manage it in a variety of situations, her daughter’s reaction too heavily pressed on her “hot button”. And like so many individuals prone to anger, Brenda had not fully become a “witness” to her pain. She had not been fully empathic with and validating of the intensely confusing and overwhelming pain her wounds had aroused.
“Violations”: Squelching the Human Spirit
We enter the world embracing life, full of curiosity and open to love and to be loved. We wish to please, a desire that reflects our human need for connection with others, to feel part of a pack–a desire based, in part, on the need for protection, safety, and support. Further, such connection fosters our shared sense of humanity–an antidote to feelings of isolation. While we may still feel this need as adults, as children we are helplessly dependent on our caretakers for compassion, love, and a feeling of safety—all part of the emotional support essential to flourishing.
Unfortunately, much too often, many of us have experienced some form of emotional trauma, whether in the form of physical or emotional “violation”. I call it “violation” because whether or not it qualifies as neglect or abuse as defined by departments of children and family services, such violations squelch the human spirit. They are acts of betrayal, acts that undermine the essential early connections that are the foundation for emotional well-being.
When discussing such violations, whether being spanked, slapped, beaten, or emotionally abused, too many of my clients share comments such as: “That was what parents did then,” “I deserved it”, “He was only making sure I’d become a better person,” “Well, she didn’t know any better,” “It wasn’t that often,” “It wasn’t that hard,” “It wasn’t like it was abuse,” or “It only happened once in a while”. And many who were neglected state “I knew my brother just needed more attention,” “That’s water under the bridge,” or “I knew my father was depressed [or anxious or whatever made him emotionally unavailable]”.
These reactions make perfect sense when we look at them through the eyes of their childhood. Such violations communicate, “You don’t belong,” “You don’t measure up,” “You don’t deserve our love,” “I really don’t love you”, “Your feelings aren’t important,” or “You are defective.”
Consequently, as young children, we may react to such experiences by minimizing, denying or suppressing our pain and any anger it triggers. And through this process, we protectively defend ourselves against the rawness and confusion of our suffering. The very people on whom we depend for safety have caused us to feel unsafe. In such situations, even minor stirrings of anger may be far too threatening to experience, let alone express. Our best solution may be to hide them from others and ourselves.
This approach may be our best resolution when faced with the acute tension associated with ambivalent or mixed feelings. Recognizing and accepting such feelings is difficult enough for adults, let alone for children who feel threatened and are not sufficiently developed in their emotional intelligence for such an encounter.
Further, we may defend ourselves against our suffering by cultivating an inner critical voice that confirms, "They are right. It is my fault." This internal dialog can contribute to a compulsive need to be perfect—in an effort to compensate for intense underlying feelings of shame and inadequacy. Directing anger inward is one way to deal with the chaos and profound sense of powerlessness accompanying our suffering.
Understandably, as an adult, we may restrain ourselves from being fully present in our interactions, as we simultaneously engage in an inner dialogue driven by even low levels of distrust engendered by our early experience. A history of violation can undermine trust in the most loving of relationships–a lack of trust that only heightens fears of abandonment, rejection, or some other form of betrayal.
This same inhibition may fuel how we deal with life in general. This makes perfect sense when viewed through an evolutionary lens. Once threatened, made to feel unsafe, we become hyper-vigilant to potential threats. Subsequently, we may be especially quick to feel threatened and anticipate threats when none exist, or when the degree of perceived threat is unrealistic.
Adults who have not made peace with these feelings remain captive to them. It is easily understandable that anger may become the go-to emotion as a response to any level of stress, whether in the workplace, in personal relationships, or in daily life. To the emotional mind, that driver who cuts in front of us, a conflict with a partner, or our boss’s criticism, may each arouse hurt and anger in the moment. Each of these events may pry loose the very fragile foundation of our past, resulting in an avalanche of threat reflected in the intensity of our overreaction.
Being a witness to our wounds
Some individuals who have endured violations are fortunate to have had a witness, someone who can help validate and be empathic with their wounds. A witness can vastly help reduce the impact of their consequences. Without a witness, the pain of our suffering demands our attention in various ways—all reflecting a cry for compassion.
Without a witness, such pain provides the roots of shame that can become a foundation for depression, feeling isolated, distrustful, and prone to anger. Inner pain demands attention and, if unheard, can lead to addictions as a means of emotional avoidance—including the use of drugs, alcohol, sex, exercise, and even work.
As so eloquently stated by psychoanalyst and author, Alice Miller, “The more we idealize the past and refuse to acknowledge our childhood sufferings, the more we pass them on unconsciously to the next generation.”
Without a witness, healing requires that we become the witness to our pain. It requires some form of self-compassion if we are to more fully embrace self-compassion and compassion for others.
Exploring and recognizing our wounds is about explaining and not blaming. It’s about making sense, of how we’ve become who we are. And, in the process, we open ourselves to our humanity and that of others.
From anger expressed in our relationships to racism and hatred, the seeds for vulnerability to anger reside in our early experiences. Anger and hatred, like love, require cultivation. As children, we have minimal capacity to direct our lives. But as adults, we get to choose our course. We can choose to witness our wounds or be held hostage by them. Witnessing our suffering is an essential element of any comprehensive program for overcoming destructive anger. The key tasks for being a witness include:
1. Identifying our past wounds.
2. Reminding ourselves that what happened was not our fault.
3. Identifying and distinguishing the emotions surrounding those wounds.
4. Cultivating cognitive empathy for the child we once—were understanding his or her pain.
5. Cultivating emotional empathy—accessing and feeling his or her pain
6. Cultivating compassionate empathy—cultivating a mindset of compassion toward the pain of the child we once were.
Being a witness to our pain is not easy. It takes courage, commitment, and patience. It can entail individual work or support from others. But engaging in healing offers a reconnection with ourselves that forms a foundation for authenticity, that allows us to be more fully present with ourselves. And, by doing so, we encourage others to do the same.
Further, witnessing our pain increases our capacity for self-soothing, an essential component of resilience for meeting life’s challenges. Our ability to recognize and sit with past wounds empowers us for responding to genuine threats.
Being a witness to our pain aids in healing that reawakens our capacity to connect, trust and love. It frees us to enjoy the richness of our lives and to help others do the same—whether as parents, partners or members of our larger communities.