Toxic shame, and other resulting emotional coping mechanisms from deep childhood trauma often has people feeling that they can’t face the pain they experienced when they were young, innocent human beings. Traumatic abuse – whether its sexual, physical, or emotional abuse – causes lasting changes to our nervous systems, and brain chemistry. It’s no wonder that we can find it difficult to change our worldview, and heal. There is a way to do it, though, and it may not look how you might imagine.
When someone experiences trauma when they are very young, the normal developmental process is deeply altered. They tend to compartmentalize and store away the emotions they feel when they are young, because they are too painful to digest in the moment that they are happening. While this can lead to all kinds of problems later in life, from physical illness to psychological challenges, that ticking away of emotional baggage is a coping mechanism. It’s a good one, too, because it helps us survive.
Sadly, though, until that trauma is felt, forgiven, and integrated it will cause the normal cognitive and emotional functioning of a person to be greatly handicapped. We tend not to be able to process certain experiences when we are small, learning how the world works, and why people behave the way they do, and instead revert to primitive encoding. You can think of this encoding, in the form of symbols and physical sensations, as shorthand for the brain and body.
When those signals are somehow triggered much later, after the initial trauma has occurred, they are felt in the body as anxiety, headaches, heart-palpitations, violent dreams, and other forms of encoded memory.
While these memories stay in their unprocessed, coded form, we are likely to experience sudden and intrusive emotions, and a high-level of panic, and anxiety. We aren’t consciously aware of why we feel this way, but the physical sensations and symbolism we see in our dreams are very real, and can be very unpleasant.
This is when we may start to act out against the physical and psychological pain we are feeling, without understanding our own responses. Perhaps we unleash rage or uncontrollable sobbing on an innocent bystander, or we are triggered through a small argument with a loved one. We feel like we need protect those wounded parts of us vehemently, because they were never healed. It would be like re-opening a scab, and allowing gushing blood to flow once again.
Though there is likely little real present danger, we feel at risk, and desire to move away from the pain – but this is one of the paradoxes of pain. As long as we keep trying to move away from the pain, it will fester. Until we are able to accept what happened to us, and see it in the bright light of full consciousness, it will control our emotional re-actions in the present moment. Notice I said reactions, and not actions. That is because we are not responding to the present moment as it is happening, but through the colored lens of our past trauma.
For some people the trauma they experience is so severe, that they actually disassociate from their bodies. They feel numb or “unreal” as a way to cope with the pain. This numbing out can take the form of feeling cut off from experiencing love or intimacy in their relationships, or “flaking out,” or “zoning out” mentally in order not to have to stay present with the pain that bubble to the surface if they did not stay vigilant in keeping it at bay. Others resort to using drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex, or even physical activity or their jobs to ignore the pain that is just lurking under the surface.
None of these tactics ever work, though. They may provide temporary relief, but they don’t allow the pain to be released, and so over time, our bodies crumble, our minds become weak, and we eventually start living in ways that don’t make sense because they are self-destructive. We internalize the pain we feel because we haven’t honored its release. We must radically accept this pain before it will lose its hold over us, though.
The ego, as our intellect, can be deceiving. It can manipulate our feelings. It can tell us that we are working 60 hour weeks or charging a 30th pair of shoes on our credit cards because we “deserve to have nice things.” The ego can tell us that we need drugs and alcohol to have a little fun, but in time the body will reveal the truth that the ego tries to keep buried.
We can also try to mask the symptoms of our pain with pharmaceutical medications, or with poor diet choices, but these “tricks” will also fail, as they still do not radically accept what happened to us, and only serve to numb the feelings we don’t want to feel.
Inside, all along, though is that innocent, incorruptible child, waiting for us to be strong enough, brave enough, and forgiving enough to deal with whatever horrendous trauma we endured. It will accept no compromises or excuses, but it waits patiently for the day it can be freed again – to love without reservation, and to live in complete freedom.
In meditation, we learn to watch all out thoughts as they arise without judging them. It doesn’t matter if it is the secular practice of meditation, or the spiritual – the method is the same. We allow all emotions, physical sensations, mental images, and even smells or psychic phenomenon to rise to the surface and pass away. It is in this practice that we learn, one step at a time, to allow all our emotions to exist, without denial or sublimation.
Perhaps we can’t remember exactly what caused us to shrink inside ourselves, but we can sit and feel a pain in our shoulders, a panicky feeling in our heart chakras, or see strange colored lights appear whenever certain memories start to arise from the deep, murky depths of the subconscious. Layer upon layer of historical fears, anger, sadness, and trauma start to be “removed” from our bodies as we simply allow ourselves an awareness of them. Oddly, be allowing those fears and pains to be, we set them free. As the poet Rumi once wrote, “The cure for the pain is in the pain.”
How do we heal ourselves from past trauma which is causing our lives to stagnate now? We radically accept the pain. In so doing, it leaves our bodies, our minds, and our hearts, and we are miraculously freed.