Six Elements Of Self-Care In Adults With Childhood Trauma

When we feel fragmented, it's hard to imagine anything different.

Posted Nov 18, 2017

"If the brain were simple enough for us to understand it, we would be too simple to understand it." —Ken Hill

1. Bad Parents, Bad Me

We are born knowing much. We are born learning systems, and need not just food, water and shelter to survive, let alone thrive. More and more people are beginning to really understand the crucial nature of the experience of recognition of the self by the loving other. Unconditional love is ideal, but even a consistent level of positive regard, recognition of at least the subjective validity of one's being and agency, one's selfness, as it were, is important for us to feel a sense of coherence. This self coherence, a quality of fullness or basic rightness (contrasted with Balint's "basic fault") is at the heart of inner stability.

By Michael Day - Geodesic, CC BY 2.0
Source: By Michael Day - Geodesic, CC BY 2.0

The inner self is akin to a web of tension and compression, holding itself together in a recognizable, distinct shape while being able to flex, absorb and develop in response to the forces of the physical environment and social context.

As this inner world is coherent and resilient, sturdy (gritty?), and responsive, so the external world is created around our sense of self and our sense of reality. There is no magic here, no law of attraction — the secret is good old cause-and-effect, harder to discern because we only recognize a small part of what we think, feel, perceive, sense and do. We only understand in a small way, most of us, the way our decisions, the mass of them unbeknownst to us, shape what choices become available to us. We literally shape the world around us and basically don't understand how that works. Of course it is so mysterious. Even with a deep intellectual self-recognition, without the emotional awareness and real-time synergy with cognition, with a collapsing self it is hard to get started even with basic self-care. When our personality is less organized, we may feel deeply confused with even knowing why.

If we weren't cared for, we may not have learned the language of self-care from our primary caregivers, ostensibly the easiest time to learn it. A lot of life's experiences are easier to take in early on, so that it is second nature. If we grow up with adversity and deprivation, our sense of self is more likely to be characterized by impoverishment. This isn't always true, and there are many positive mitigating factors — good replacement caregivers such as mentors and siblings, innate resilience, spiritual belief, social support, and so on — but adversity is a risk factor for future myriad difficulties. The problem with mirrors is that they always get it backward.

2. Gifted Children

In a way, we are all gifted children, anyone who survives any adversity. We are born gifted. In her well-known book, Alice Miller discusses The Drama of the Gifted Child. Miller describes the child is gifted not in the sense of academic talent or prowess [though that is the hook for many of us who survived by dint of intelligence — and now may over-value intelligence for sense of self, incidentally]. Rather, she means gifted with the ability to resiliently survive at the expense of walling off parts of develop — of the self — in order to stay viable and function. Like a ship which seals off bulkheads to contain a hull breach, especially when we are younger and still developing executive function and emotional regulatory capacity, and are dependent on others for basic needs and relational supplies, we lock down parts of ourselves in order to move forward.

By Damien A. Fair, Alexander L. Cohen, Jonathan D. Power, Bradley L. Schlaggar, Steven E. Petersen, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
Brain Networks over Developmental Time
Source: By Damien A. Fair, Alexander L. Cohen, Jonathan D. Power, Bradley L. Schlaggar, Steven E. Petersen, CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Until later on, when we discover these "gifts" we have left for our future selves, parts of oneself which have been mothballed, or placed into suspended animation. It is what we do with these gifts which matters. For some there is  no happy ending, but others can learn to re-tell their story in a way which is opening up, rather than closing down, livening rather than deadening. There's no good way to address all the possible stories one can hold when sorting out how to come to terms with one's discovered aspects, without using a lot more space and time.

3. Conflict over Values — Theirs or Mine?

Freud famously discussed the ego, the id, and the superego. Three basic parts of the mind, the id all libido and drive, the superego the internalized critical voice of the parents saying what is right and what is wrong, and the ego — developing like a callous on the sole of the foot — mediating between the id, superego and reality. Poor ego, tough spot. 

If we have a coherent sense of self, we've learned how to mediate, come to terms with, tolerate, compromise, and more to the point, integrate conflict from inner passions and external directives in order to harmoniously pursue our desires, autonomously. If we maintain conflict with inner and social directive, we pursue our desires with passion, but it is constrained, fettered — obsessive.

4. Anger and Injury

When we are injured, it is easy to sometimes jump to anger, usually righteous indignation. We skip over the injury, the interpersonal event which hurts, we skip over feeling the hurt, the rejection, we skip over feeling vulnerable, and we retaliate. When wounded, we are vulnerable to further attack. When the other person does not feel safe, and we have experienced a lack of safety in close personal relationships, the safes thing to do is to show a threat display in the form of defensive anger to scare the other person. This mechanism often misfires, however, when the other person is actually available to provide help. This is especially true if the injury was not really an intentional attack, but was by accident, or even was the result of a misunderstanding. In this case, we push away the very person we need to help us. Preventing re-injury may keep old wounds from healing.

One way to address this is to pause when injured, and notice what is happening. Rather than ignoring or only partially catching the rapid sequence of emotions following injury, we can notice and put into words what we are experiencing. Rather than a reflexive fight-or-flight reaction, we can choose to address our own injured self differently. If you don't trust anyone, the only person who will ever betray you is yourself. If we don't trust anyone, any injury is taken as a betrayal.

If anger is a part of the response to betrayal, it may be in the form of constructive aggression, for those who believe aggression can ever be constructive, assertiveness, or even recognition of a pattern and taking more adaptive action before the interpersonal injury takes place. If we are used to being around people who don't have our best interests at heart during development, sense of self may not just be incoherent or suffused with badness, but our radar for harmful people may be seriously skewed. If we are often angry and reeling from injuries, it is much harder to slow down and take stock.

5. Pride and Shame

A healthy, adaptive sense of pride is great. Good parents can feel proud without making their kids perform for love, and offer guidance even when it is difficult, without negating feelings of pride. Parental regard can nurture the sense of self. Pride, however, can be hazardous. Pride can lead to serious mistakes due to over-estimating one's abilities. If we need to hold onto an inflated sense of pride, we will not be able to easily learn from failings. Beneath brittle, dangerous pride is often hidden shame.

These self-conscious emotions lead to withdrawal from other people related to attributions of blame and self-condemnation, moral judgment and withdrawal from social contacts. Self-reproach prevents self-approach. Recognizing this is happening, sitting with these feelings without panicking and retreating, and finding out what is on the other side — perhaps with halting self-compassion — can be the seed of self-care. This is especially challenging at some points as it is related to trust, more specifically violation of trust in the form of betrayal by close others.

6. Humor and Gratitude

Humor can bite back, and caustic, sarcastic humor, while sometimes a useful stop-gap, can take a toll. Curiosity somehow is related to humor, and gentle curiosity, and kindhearted humor toward oneself can often be an olive branch to oneself. Sometimes it feels good to get angry at oneself, and then to laugh at how silly one is. It doesn't always work well to have another person see the humor in our missteps, but sometimes it can be useful.

It's hard to feel grateful for the worst possible things a person can experience. I've learned the hard way that you can't force gratitude, or forgiveness for that matter, if we aren't there yet, or considering being ready to go there. Sometimes it is possible to move obstructions to gratitude out of the way, to erode the foundations which keep problematic patterns in place. The direct approach is not always the best. The thing to remember is how to partner with oneself. Or to consider the possible of partnering with oneself in a different way. Rather than being judge, jury and executioner, leave that Kafka-esque trial behind, stop leveling charges, and start asking questions.

Not interrogation, but inquires which open up room for new space and flexibility in old narratives. Don't shy away from details, but don't press too hard for the particulars. Not infrequently, little kernels of developmentally charged experience and memory come with a heady dose of emotion. If our eyes are bigger than our stomachs, emotionally-speaking, we can end up with more emotional material than we can process, leading to an information management bottleneck and characteristically activating maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as dissociation, acting-out at work or in personal relationships, and other self-defeating behaviors which provide distraction, escape, relief, or oblivion.

It helps to be prepared for these challenges, having a plan of action. Writing or having a supportive friend can help, of course. Timing is important, too. Choosing the right time and circumstances to look under the rug takes a little practice.