4 Ways to Heal Childhood Wounds

Hurtful events of the past can contaminate our present.

Posted May 01, 2019

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We all have wounds from our past, but for some of us, the wounds are deeper, their impact on our everyday lives more pronounced. If you feel it is time to begin healing some of these wounds, put your past behind you and reduce their effects. Here are four approaches to consider.

Therapy

This is the traditional approach and an effective one. By talking about your past, you unburden all that you may have been holding in or obsessing about for years. By having someone who is supportive, who can listen deeply, you begin to do what you probably could never do with your parents or family members and this in itself is healing. 

But a good therapist can also ask you the hard questions, challenge you to look at the events of your past through different perspectives, through the eyes of others, and by doing so can help you not only process the events in a more complete way, but help you move from the child’s limited and distorted view to that of the adult that you are.

That said, you want to take the time to find someone who you feel comfortable with and is comfortable with what you want to talk about. You also need to consider not only time and expense but that plowing through some of these memories may be emotionally upsetting at times. You don’t want to stay with a therapist who is not a good fit, but you don’t want to cut and run in the middle because it feels too hard. Once you start, you want to give it enough time to come through on the other side.

EMDR

EMDR stands for eye-movement-desensitization-reprocessing. It is a specific form of therapy with specific techniques and has been shown to be effective for a wide variety of traumatic experiences. In contrast with traditional therapy, the process requires less talking and plowing through events, and is quicker and therefore less expensive. There is a lot of information that you can find online about the method, including YouTube videos to give you a better idea of what is involved.

Both traditional therapists who work with trauma and those trained in EMDR can be found on the Therapist Directory here at the Psychology Today website. You can put in your location and then use filters to sort out types of therapies, insurances, etc.

Active Closure

If you decide to not go the professional route for whatever reason, you can take active steps on your own. If the parents, family members or offenders are still alive and reachable, you may want to consider seeing them and having a specific conversation about your past. If this feels a bit intimidating, think about bringing along someone who can be a support for you — say, a brother or sister or friend. Be clear in your own mind what it is you most want the other person to understand, what you might want to know through your questions. The attitude you want to take is that of understanding, of reaching some closure, of making sense now as an adult of those events of the past, of gaining a more complete picture of why what happened happened, rather than an occasion for flinging blame and anger.

And if face-to-face seems too intimidating, consider writing a long email or letter with the same content and with the same attitude. A letter or email gives you the space to think out your thoughts, to be clear about the purpose, and gives the other person time to digest what you saying rather than having to think on their feet. 

And finally, if the other person is unreachable because they have passed away, because you don’t know where they are, write two letters that you will never send. One getting everything off your chest that you never were able to, and another their ideal response that you most need to hear to feel heard and understood.

Change the Present

Finally, you can begin to heal your wounds by focusing on changing their impact on your present life. Hurtful events from the past usually contaminate the present in two ways: One is that events of past get triggered in the everyday. Just as you are skittish and hypervigilant when driving after you've had a car accident, hurtful events make you hypervigilant in relationships with others. Just as the way of recovering from the car accident involves actively reassuring yourself as you continue to drive, and finding through experience that you can over time become less reactive, you can do the same with relational triggers.

So, if for example, you were sexually abused when you were younger and your instincts are to avoid sex or even freeze up if someone makes even appropriate sexual advances towards you, you want to move forward, but slowly and with control. This may be letting your partner know exactly what physically triggers strong reactions in you, and then being in charge of what they do or don’t do. If you are sensitive to other’s anger, or behavior, like drinking too much, speak up and let them know what you need, set boundaries. Again, by being assertive, you do now as an adult what you couldn’t do as a child. This not only begins to rewire your brain away from those trauma circuits but helps heal by past by actively moving you out of the victim role and into one more empowered.

But the other impact of hurtful events is the way it changes your overall way of being. What this means is that wounds of the past consciously or unconsciously cause you to decide as a child or young adult what you need to do to avoid having this happen to you again. Here you may become always hypervigilant — always looking ahead, always looking around corners, always expecting the worst. Or you may simply avoid any close relationships, or you need to be constantly in control, or you always present a tough exterior and never show any vulnerability. 

Look at your larger patterns, see if you can tell how these ways of being are interfering with your everyday life and relationships, and then take planned and small steps to change these behaviors — to step up and be more assertive overall, to learn to control your anger but use your anger as information that tells you and others what you need and what problems need to be solved, to experiment with letting down your guard and letting others in, or living more in the present when your anxious mind leads you down those worst-case scenarios. 

Here you can use short term therapy, or even self-help books, to help you focus on these present-day behaviors, can teach you the skills and give you the support to upgrade your brain, reduce the impact of those triggers, and help you respond more like the adult you are than the frightened child you often feel yourself to be.

While it’s easy to say that the past is the past, the past is all too often still alive and continuing to make the world feel unsafe. 

Maybe it’s time to put some of your past to rest.

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