- Only you can define what your successful recovery from childhood trauma will look like.
- There are some clinical benchmarks to aim for in overcoming one's painful past.
- Individuals should be curious about what they can do to begin their recovery process.
It is, unfortunately, not possible. Still, that’s the secret hope and hidden fantasy of so many who arrive at my office when they start trauma therapy to recover from their adverse beginnings and painful early childhoods.
Recovery is not forgetting. It’s not amnesic.
It’s important to understand and acknowledge that the terms “successful” and “recovery” are subjective; they will be unique and different for each individual.
In the same way that there are many different ways of being brave, your version of successful recovery may not look the same as mine (and vice versa).
So, as with finding our own version of bravery, when we align our internal truths to the external circumstances in our lives, that is the way we find and define subjective successful recovery.
No one is the expert on your experience but you, and only you can define what successful recovery from your childhood trauma looks like. Nevertheless, there are some clinical benchmarks I look for when supporting clients to overcome their painful pasts. I’ll talk about these hallmarks more below, but first I want to expand on the subjective and personal importance of defining what successful recovery looks like by sharing what I think successful recovery does not look like.
In my personal and professional experience, successful recovery from childhood trauma is not:
- Forgetting that the past happened.
- Not having any feelings about the past or about your abusers when you think about it/them.
- Forgiving your abusers—because you’re told and pressured to do so to recover. If you choose to do so of your own volition, that’s different.
- Being “one big happy family again” so that you all can just “move on.” Your success in recovery is not dictated by whether or not you are in contact with your family of origin.
- Dismissing and diminishing your lived experiences and attendant feelings to make other people comfortable in order to preserve relationships with them.
- Living a “normal” life and engaging with the world in the way you are told you should.
- Never having the impulse to want to numb out, dissociate, or participate in former analgesic behaviors or substances.
- Never feeling depressed, anxious, sad, or angry anymore, and instead only feeling “good and positive” and “keeping things light.”
In my experience, it’s usually abusers or people who have something to gain from trauma victims not feeling their feelings about events.
If the above is what successful childhood trauma recovery does not look like, let me shed some light on what I think it does look like.
Successful recovery from childhood trauma does include:
- Being able to acknowledge that you experienced the past events while existing in the here and now, realizing the events are over.
- Accepting—note: "accepting" only means acknowledging what is—and integrating the trauma experiences to form a cohesive narrative about your past experiences and how they impacted you, and to feel developmentally appropriate feelings about what happened.
- Determining the boundaries—physical, emotional, mental, and logistical—that are best and right and true for you to help you feel safe, secure, and validated as you move forward.
- Having more choice about the ways you manage the symptoms of your trauma history, and having a bigger toolbox to manage the triggers that may occur.
- Feeling less disturbed, less flooded, and more emotional equanimity (over time) when presented with triggers that have historically been hard.
- Having greater resilience when triggers occur—specifically when shame, guilt, and self-doubt arise.
- Learning and re-learning what healthy, functional relationships look like and moving toward those.
- Moving toward crafting a life on the outside that matches who you are on the inside, regardless of what society and your family of origin would have preferred.
- Increasing your capacity to feel your feelings and expressing them in responsible, appropriate ways.
This list is just the tip of the iceberg. Remember that the terms "successful" and "recovery" are subjective: The only person who can define your experience of successful recovery is you. So, be curious about what you can do and pursue to begin your recovery process.
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