This final chapter outlines some of the common problems faced by adults who have been abused or neglected as children. In it I offer information that has proved helpful to me and to my clients over the years. I talk about knowing who you can trust, how to form a relationship that’s safe, whether to forgive those who have betrayed you, the need for structure in your life, the importance of relaxation, exercise, and meditation, plus the importance of being successful in something, and, perhaps most important of all, the need to build a self.
Whom can you trust?
Survivors of childhood trauma tend to fall into two categories: those who trust everybody and those who trust nobody. Neither style represents true trust. When you think about it, it’s no wonder trust is a big issue for people who were neglected or abused as children. When they were vulnerable and helpless, the very adults who were supposed to be looking after them, betrayed them. Lacking models of trustworthy people they never learned who was safe to trust. To make matters worse, children who dissociate their abuse don’t learn from the bad experience since they don’t remember it. The next time their perpetrators violate them, they walk, unsuspecting, into the same traps—and then forget all over again that it ever happened.
What is real trust and how do you know somebody’s trustworthy? This is important to learn. If you didn’t learn it as a small child you can get the hang of it as an adult. To discover whether you can trust someone, you need to observe people over time. Some people can be trusted with your money but not with your confidences, and vice versa. Observing a person in many different situations gradually lets you know how he or she treats others. Is this a person who tells lies in order to get his way or cheats when she thinks she won’t get caught? Does this person recognize and respect others’ feelings? Does he or she remain loyal to friends? Check it out. Be an astute observer.
Perhaps it’s safe to say that every human has some weakness or issue they struggle with. Once you know what it is you’re in a position to protect yourself from their flaw. Once you know, you may end up saying to yourself, “Oh, that’s what it is. Well, that I can live with. I’d like to get to know that person better.”
Relationships are built in tiny steps. It’s important to remind yourself that you don’t really know somebody until you’ve spent time with them in many different circumstances. First impressions may be lasting but they are not necessarily correct. Even though our hearts yearn for loseness and attachment, we need to proceed slowly. It’s worth waiting for the right people.
The world is full of predatory, dishonest, manipulative types. It’s your job to separate the selfish and uncaring from the decent people. When a good person joins you in a relationship, this is a precious gift. You need to pull them into the centre of your world. These trustworthy people with whom you feel respected and safe will provide a buffer between you and an often harsh, exploitative world.
There will be people in your life, however, from whom you will need to create distance. These are the people who leave you feeling less, who treat you with contempt or exploit you. Such people have to be pushed back far enough that they don’t hurt you.
In the process of healing, you are the most important person. Anyone who gets in the way of your healing, even if it’s family, has to be pushed into the background. Sometimes a complete parentectomy is required if abusive parents choose to maintain their illusion of a model family, rather than help you recover. These parents will never ask for forgiveness for their past abuse or their failure to protect you. In such cases it may be necessary to “divorce” the family.
Forgiveness requires that both parties participate. The wounded party discloses the past abuse. The other party must hear the charge and express remorse for the harm that was done. Without this there is no real forgiveness. Forgiveness is a two-way street.
Most important is letting go of the hurt and pain we carry inside us. It’s hard on our health to carry anger and hurt. Whether you ever confront the adults who betrayed your trust is far less important than finding inner peace. Ultimately, in the process of healing your trauma, your organism will release the hurt and anger it has held. But this can be a long process, one in which the organism restores its original wholeness, free of what happened and what was done to you in the past. This is not something that can be rushed. Forgiveness, in the sense of no longer feeling hurt and angry, will come on its own when the body/mind is ready to truly let go of the wounding. What happened in the past will just not be very important.
Structure Versus Chaos
If your head is in a fog and your life has been buffeted by whatever forces pushed and pulled you, it’s time to grab the reins of your own life. Take charge.
Start with a daily routine. Get up and go to bed at around the same time each day. Have a plan for the day. Even if you’re not going out to work, plan an event or job to be accomplished.
Choose the day’s priority. Whatever else, this one thing will get done. If you’re the sort of person who procrastinates, your priority on a given day may be to get a certain job done, maybe to make those neglected phone calls. On the other hand, if you manage your anxiety by keeping frantically busy, your priority may be to practise self-care by soaking in a warm bath for twenty minutes or listening to music. Rescuers, those survivors who put everyone else’s wants ahead of their own, need to establish boundaries so they don’t neglect themselves in their compulsion to fix others.
If you’re finding it difficult to get out of the house or motivate yourself, choose a trip to the post office or a bit of grocery shopping as that day’s event. Regularly take yourself just beyond your comfort level. That way you’ll expand your tolerance for stressful events. Avoidance of life doesn’t help except in the short term. You may feel a sense of relief at the time, but your world will become smaller and smaller until you’re staying home most of the time or going to work and returning to the shelter of your home shutting out the riches of the world.
For some survivors deep relaxation is the hardest thing to do. If you find the relaxation at the end of a yoga class or the meditation you are learning brings an emotional flood of nameless fears, you are probably experiencing feelings related to unresolved traumas. In this case maybe you should wait until later in your healing to explore relaxation and meditation. In the meantime, it will be helpful for you to remember the fear you experience is the child’s fear—the terror you felt as a child. There is almost nothing in your adult world that could scare you that much. You’d more likely be sad or angry about what was done to you back then.
For everyone else, learning to release the stress from your physical body and to quiet your mind brings a sense of calm and comfort. You’re going to benefit from mastering some relaxation techniques in order to handle the stress of therapy and the physical and mental tension of dealing with your childhood. Experiment with different relaxation CDs, join a relaxation class, or learn one of many approaches to systematically relaxing the body. Just knowing you’re able to create at will an oasis of calm makes a big difference.
Learning breathing techniques can put you in charge of your emotional state. We cause ourselves to panic by hyperventilating. That means we can also alter our physical/emotional systems by breathing. Learn one of the many yoga breaths. Pranayama (yoga breathing) is the type I am familiar with and has many variations. But there are other types of breathing for you to explore. Choose the one that works for you.
Many abuse survivors are completely out of touch with their bodies. They’ve always walked around numb to their physical selves. This makes sense. It’s been scary and uncomfortable to feel their bodies’ responses to life. To live fully, though, we need to be in touch with our inner knowing—and this means connecting with our physical selves, inhabiting our bodies.
Yoga, Tai Chi, or Pilates trains you to be mindful and in the present moment with your physical self. Group sports, running, jogging, walking, swimming—all of these and many more forms of exercise release the tension in your muscles. Perhaps the most important criterion is that you enjoy whatever you choose to do.
For me, yoga and running formed the perfect combination. Running provided the cardiovascular fitness yoga lacks. Today I use yoga, low-impact workout classes plus the treadmill or walking keep my body healthy. For you? Yoga may not be right but give it a try, along with a number of other approaches. Again, the important thing is to discover what appeals to you.
Mindfulness—or the practice of being in the present moment— is the opposite of being dissociated. Learning to be mindful is vital to healing from trauma. Practise totally concentrating on brushing your teeth, preparing a meal, or watching a sunset. You’ll be rewarded with a sense of time stretching out and the world becoming still. There are many forms of mindfulness. Again, choose the one that is right for you.
Daily meditation (giving yourself this quality of attention each day) repairs early damage from lack of attachment and inadequate parenting. Now you are the one caring about and attuning to yourself. Meditation is empowering, improving one’s connection with others as well as with one’s self. There is scientific proof that meditation enhances the function of the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that determines our judgment, maturity, and empathy with others.
Nothing helps poor self-esteem like success. Become good at something. Maybe your success will lie in writing poetry or creating crafts. Find out where your talents lie and what brings you pleasure. Get involved in these areas. Improve your tennis game or take up running. Running is especially empowering and uses up lots of fight-or-flight energy.
If you choose a sport that makes your heart pound and your breath come in gasps, you may experience this windedness as frightening. In the past, panting for breath and a racing heart were associated with fear. Keep telling yourself it’s healthy to puff and pant when you’re in charge and getting healthy.
Your healing is worthy of at least as much energy and attention as vocational training or a university degree. Unless you work on healing, nothing else shines brightly. Family, partners, children, professional success, all are experienced through the dull, gray fog of dissociation. And once you give to yourself the gift of peace and self-worth, all those in your world will benefit.
Build Yourself a Self
This whole book has been about how I built my self. I started out as a child who didn’t dare express an opinion different from my mother’s, who kept a low profile out of fear of worsening an already intolerable situation, and who spent much of her life fogged over to dull the inescapable pain of incest. I learned early that no one was going to help me and—in those days—that nobody would believe me. All I could do was rein myself in tight and avoid conflict.
Once I left home I sought out friends who were safe to be with. They were ethical people who cared about the world and their fellow humans. They were careful never to exploit or take advantage of others. This was the sort of world I wanted for myself. Over the years I learned to pull good people close to me wherever I found them.
Through yoga I came alive in my body. I also learned, eventually, that even the guru didn’t know what was right for me. Becoming a yoga teacher gave me confidence and built my self-esteem. I was one of the people who helped make yoga the respected practice it is today. I feel really good about that.
Eventually I wanted my work to be accepted by mainstream society. I felt marginalized as a yoga teacher in the seventies when yoga was still considered a countercultural activity. That’s when I applied to the School of Social Work to earn my master’s degree. I’d set myself a difficult challenge. It had been seventeen years since I’d been to school. I succeeded after a great deal of hard work, thereby increasing my self-esteem. I proved to myself that I was not a “dumb bunny,” the label I’d pinned on myself in my early school years. When I graduated I had the stamp of approval from the professional world.
I have been very fortunate in my choice of teachers. Swami Radha changed my life forever. When the time was ripe I found Dr. Eugene Gendlin as a teacher. It was from him that I learned to trust my own knowing. Dr. Ralph Bierman supported my growth and was a model of what a therapist could be. Through the many years he listened to me and kept me company on my journey.
There’s no doubt about it: I built a self—an authentic self. Each of us needs to do the same, searching out the right path for ourselves and the right people to help along the way.