Resolving the Trauma You Didn't Know You Had

Resolving the big and small traumas of your past is key to a happy life.

Posted May 12, 2016

Most of us wouldn’t use the word trauma when telling our story. We may associate trauma with natural disaster, disease, war, loss or other extreme acts of violence. Unless we’ve suffered sexual or physical abuse, or even if we have, we may tell ourselves that there was no “trauma” in our early life. Yet, a trauma can be defined as any significant negative event or incident that shaped us. It can emerge from any impactful instance that made us feel bad, scared, hurt or ashamed. By this definition, we have all experienced some degree of trauma in the process of growing up. And how well we cope in our lives today depends, to a large extent, on how much we are willing to recognize and make sense of this trauma.

No matter how often we try to tell ourselves that the past is in the past or to write off the ways we were hurt as “no big deal,” our history continues to affect us in countless, unconscious ways. Research shows that when we fail to face and process the large and small traumas of our past, we can become stuck in our pain. We may struggle in our relationships and recreate our past in our present. In order to identify the events that hurt us, we must realize that trauma can exist in many forms. Psychologists often refer to traumatic interpersonal events that were not life-threatening but generated a significant emotional response as “little t” trauma. These can include instances of bullying, rejection, neglect, ridicule, verbal abuse, alarm etc.

Our list of traumatic memories may or may not be long. We may struggle to even think of anything at first. It’s common to discount what happened to us as kids as not that important once we’re adults. Yet, what we have to remember is that it’s not about how we feel about the event now but how we felt as kids that affects us. Many things feel a lot bigger and scarier to a child who has little control or power over their circumstances.

For example, recalling your father jumping up and down in a rage when a 4-year-old you spilled on his desk may seem forgivable or even comical to your adult self. But try to imagine the event from a child’s perspective. Picture a large adult you rely on for safety looming over you and losing control. That can feel terrifying. Incidents that parents hardly remember can have a big impact on their children. That is because our brains are wired to recall the things that frighten or alarm us, the painful experiences we endure.  This is an inborn survival strategy meant to keep us safe, but unfortunately it makes us hypervigilant and misperceive certain experiences to be life-threatening.

To a child, even small rejections can feel like a life or death threat, as we depend on our parents for survival. We may roll our eyes when recounting all the times our mom was really late or forgot altogether to pick us up from school. Yet, that experience can become integrated into a child’s sense of self, making the child feel unlovable and instilling the belief that he or she must be completely self-reliant.

Children are quick to internalize or blame themselves for the traumatic events they experience. They often feel responsible for events that were outside their control, i.e. a caretaker’s temper, the abuse of a sibling or neglect of a parent. This is because it can actually feel more threatening a child to see a parent in a negative light, to face the reality that their caregiver is unreliable or flawed. As we grow up, internalizing these terrifying events comes to shape our basic feelings of self, which can be hard to shake. We carry these beliefs, attitudes and orientations into our adult lives, and then unknowingly replicate them in our relationships.

When we fail to deal with our trauma, whether by taking on blame, disassociating, trying to bury our memories or repeatedly reliving the deep emotional pain, we are not making sense of what happened to us and, thereby, falling victim to our past in the present. When our traumas are unresolved, our brain isn’t fully integrated. Present day events can trigger us, and we risk getting thrown back into emotional states we experienced as kids. Dr. Jack Kornfield recommends an approach called “RAIN,” to help us mindfully deal with these triggers. The steps include:

Recognize - Pause and notice what you’re feeling.
Accept/acknowledge/allow - whatever strong emotion is occurring in the moment.
Investigate - Start to investigate your internal experience. Try what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls SIFTing through your experience, noting Sensations, Images, Feelings and Thoughts that arise.
Non-identification - Don’t allow the thoughts, feelings or experiences to define you. If a memory arises, remember that the memory is not happening to you now and does not define who you are.

When we learn to approach our memories with calmness and curiosity, we are less likely to be triggered. We’ll also start to notice our triggers more quickly, which diffuses their intensity. The concept of “name it to tame it” refers to the fact that when we identify our emotions in this way, we tend to not be ruled by them. For example, if your two-year-old is throwing a tantrum and all of a sudden you feel yourself panicking, it may be triggering an old feeling or memory from your own experience. Perhaps your parent would “lose it” with you when you’d get upset as a child. Identifying where this heightened emotional reaction is coming from can help you differentiate the past from the present and feel more calm and centered in the moment. It’s often the case that, when we make sense of trauma, something clicks and we’re able to calm down and choose our actions and reactions more wisely.

One of the most effective methods to separate from our past and take control of our lives involves creating a coherent narrative. A coherent narrative is a tool often described by Dr. Siegel, with whom I’ll be teaching the online course “Making Sense of Your Life: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future.” The process centers on telling our story as a means of making sense of the events that shaped us, bringing memories and feelings to the surface to better understand how they inform our present state of being. Creating a coherent narrative helps promote emotional regulation. It develops and enhances the nine important functions of the prefrontal cortex, which include regulating our body, emotional balance, attuned communication and response flexibility, intuition, empathy, fear modulation, insight and morality. It can also help us to form healthier attachments.

“The fantastic news is that if you can make sense of your childhood experiences—especially your relationships with your parents—you can transform your attachment models toward security,” said Dr. Siegel. “The reason this is important is that relationships— with friends, with romantic partners, with present or possible future offspring—will be profoundly enhanced. And you’ll feel better with yourself.”   

Making sense of these experiences helps our relationships, as a parent or partner. Otherwise, we are much more likely to reenact these dynamics and project onto the people in our lives. Attachment research has shown that making sense of our past and feeling the full pain of our childhood is the best predictor of our ability to form a healthier attachment with our own children. It also allows us to live more mindfully and enjoy better relationships in general.

Too often, we hear the argument that we can’t change the past so why bother remembering it. However, if we don’t look at our past, we are more likely to hold on to negative core beliefs about ourselves that limit us in our lives. We are also more likely to be triggered and repeat negative patterns in the present. Attachment research teaches us that it’s not what happened to us but how much we’ve made sense of and felt the full pain of our childhood that affects how we relate today. As children, our story may shape who we become, but as adults, we can shape our story. We can’t control what happened in the past, but we can control the hold it has over us in our current lives.

Learn more about the online course "Making Sense of Your Life: Understanding Your Past to Liberate Your Present and Empower Your Future."

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org