When a child growing up is traumatized, often she has to hide the trauma and “act normal.” The wounded part gets split off and the pain or shame becomes a secret, even to the child herself. Sometimes actual memories, as of abuse, are suppressed or lost, while for other people it’s more like the feelings get lost somewhere. A part of the growing person gets stuck in a young place. Later, events that remind us of what happened to the suppressed part can trigger reactions that feel disproportionate to the circumstances—a good clue that young feelings are involved.
Getting in touch with our wounded inner children can be scary when it lets out feelings of fear, anger, pain, and sadness. The feelings seem huge because they’ve been bottled up like genies for all those years. But listening to the child-parts allows us to integrate more parts of ourselves over time.
In addition, we need to re-frame and re-order our worldview. While we were growing up, we had to accept our family’s view, more or less, including all the denial and distortion. Listening to the inner child and re-orienting our reality to include the knowledge of abuse is a huge, life-changing task.
I’ve also found that the joyful and free parts of my child-self got lost in the split. Those parts came back slowly when they saw it could be safe.
Getting in touch with our inner children is not always easy. Sometimes my inner child was afraid to speak up and she kind of hid from me. Also, at first it seemed that she just wanted to cry and cry. That’s natural. The parts of us that were split off at a young age had to go away for good reasons—abuse, fear, neglect, misunderstanding. These young parts were not allowed to express their overwhelming feelings, so they took the feelings away with them.
How do we soothe the inner child? When we invite these lost inner children back into our lives, we have to be ready for them to express a lot of distress. But what do we do then?
First of all, it’s a process and it won’t get done all at once. You need to learn how to parent your own particular inner children. They will teach you what they need as time goes on. You will have to be just as patient as if you had adopted a real child with a troubled background.
Second, you need to take those feelings extremely seriously. “Soothing” the child does not mean saying, “There, there, dear. It’s OK. Stop crying.” You may have heard voices like that in your past, but your job is to be a different kind of parent, one who really listens to the child’s feelings. So the first part of soothing is to hear the feelings. The child might not be able to tell you why she or he feels sad or angry or scared. Your job is to pay attention to the feelings.
If you can, find a safe a quiet place where you can literally sit down and listen. Let the feelings emerge. Accept all of them, even though it is painful. If you can’t bear all of it at once, tell the child that you will listen for ten minutes, or five, or two minutes. Then promise the child to make another time later to listen some more.
As the feelings emerge, focus on loving the child who is entrusting you with these valuable and vulnerable emotions. Tell the child that you are proud of her or him for coming forth. Sometimes you may feel completely overwhelmed and inside the feelings, like you are being the child. That’s OK. If you stay in that place, just notice what’s happening. See if you can detect any shift where you might feel a little more like a grownup holding the child. Ultimately, you need to be an adult, so you can care for the inner child.
Here are some ways to work with soothing the distressed inner child:
Value all those difficult child-feelings and validate them.
Let your body express the love you have for this child by holding a pillow or stuffed animal, rocking, humming, stroking, doing anything you’d do to comfort an actual child.
Trust your instincts on this. Let the child tell you what feels good to her or him.
Don’t let any critical voices tell you that it’s silly to rock and hum a lullaby. It’s not silly–it is valuable practice in loving yourself.
Remember, you will need to do this practice over and over as your inner child gradually learns to trust you.
Over time you will learn to be the caring parent that this child never had. You will share your future with the wonderful, free, and loving spirit that is your original inner child.
By Jane Rowan
I must confess that for part of my healing journey – no, wait, let’s be honest, pretty much all of it so far – I have been somewhat of an unwilling participant. I have been in and out of therapy more times than I can count over the past decade and each time, I go in with the idea that “I’ll just sort out this one abuse-related issue that’s been bothering me and then I’ll get back to my real life”. I just want the pain to be over with already. I’m like the kid in the backseat of a car on a long road trip, endlessly asking “are we there yet?”
The first time I went to see a therapist, I told her a summary of the problems I was experiencing, and she told me she didn’t expect I’d be seeing her for longer than ten months to a year. “Great!” I thought. “If I have to do it, then I’m gonna kick this healing crap’s ass. I’ll go at it like a maniac, and at the end of the year I’ll be a completely different, much happier person. My life = sorted.”
So, for a year, I went at it like I was building Noah’s ark and the flood was due in three months. (Which is probably quite an accurate analogy; now I come to think about it.) I went to three-hour therapy sessions every two weeks. I cried. I screamed. I wrote unsent letters and burnt them ceremoniously. I bought a punching bag and beat the crap out of it on a regular basis. I journalled. I meditated. I lit candles. I drew. I fell asleep to relaxation CDs. I bought and devoured every book on healing and self-development I could get my hands on. I pretty much LIVED therapy. The only other things I was doing (somewhat sporadically) were a) going to work, b) eating and c) sleeping.
Ten months to a year came and went. I was still in therapy.
Two years came and went. I was STILL in therapy. What the?!
Three years came and went.
It seemed that neither I, nor my therapist at the time, had accurately guessed how deep the rabbit hole went. I was still uncovering buried memories of trauma, and what’s more, they seemed to be getting worse and worse as I became more skilled in dealing with them. It was almost like I was levelling up in some horrific computer game I didn’t recall purchasing but was now stuck playing against my will.
And I was getting tired. I finally thought, “Sod this, I’ve had enough therapy”. I quit, moved interstate, and took a job that allowed me to be close to nature. Externally, life was better for a short while. Internally, though, I didn’t feel much better.
As it happened, the game was far from over.
That summer I had my first flashback. Then I had my first panic attack. I realised in one horrifying instant the truth I had known all along but had previously been unable to face: that my father had sexually abused me. My father, whom I had always idealised and placed on a pedestal from a young age. I thought he was so smart, kind, wise and caring. No. I didn’t want to believe what my body was telling me. No. It wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.
Therapy was supposed to improve my life. Not blow it up.
But in the end, that’s what it did.
All of the stories I believed about my happy childhood, where I was loved and had a normal, healthy family, were false. I had made them all up. They were a fiction I told myself so that part of me could remain innocent and survive.
I felt like I had taken the red pill and woken up on the other side of the Matrix.
This was NOT what was supposed to happen.
Damn therapy. I wanted a refund.
Four years came and went.
Now therapy was different. Now I had been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was getting flashbacks all the time, and learning in therapy how to deal with them; grounding techniques, comforting myself, imagining figures protecting my child self from harm. All the while I was thinking, this is nuts. None of this actually happened. What the hell is wrong with me?! Reading literature on PTSD, trying to convince myself I wasn’t actually going crazy even though that’s what it felt like. Coping with that weird involuntary trembling and body shaking that occurs after a flashback. “There was a study done on deer who have been traumatised. They shake and tremble in order to recover,” my therapist told me. “Your body is just doing the same thing.”
But I didn’t want to be a traumatised deer. I wanted to be a completely normal happy average human being, who could get by just fine without therapy, thank you very much. I didn’t want any of this to be happening.
Five years came and went.
The denial lifted, and I finally began to believe what the flashbacks were telling me. I cut both my parents out of my life, and felt a huge sense of inner relief and peace. I decided to quit therapy, again, as the flashbacks were settling, and in any case, I now knew how to deal with them when they arose. By that time I had an army of self-nurturing tools at my disposal from journalling, drawing, posting on isurvive, to calling friends, etc. I had a lot of support around me. I had lost two abusive parents but somehow, amazingly, managed to escape the cycle of abuse and heal. I felt incredibly lucky.
I took a couple of years off from therapy and tried to just get on with my life. For the first time ever, I felt young and happy and free. For the most part. Memories of the abuse would crop up from time to time, but I would deal with them as they arose. I started to believe I had “made it”, I had reached the mythical end to healing that I had hoped for so long ago. Life was better. I felt a deep sense of peace at having finally accepted and believed the truth.
Which brings me to the present.
Now, there is a new memory knocking at my door. Frick. Just when I thought I was done.
It has been coming back in bits and pieces over the past year.
Now, the Game is back on. And boy oh boy have I levelled up now. It is a new and improved sequel with dramatically better special effects, surround sound and more vibrant 3D characters. This memory is far worse than any of the previous ones, and they were terrifying enough to start with. This one is more violent, more horrific, and just plain bizarre to boot. I can’t get it out of my head, and like some kind of debt collector from the past it won’t leave me alone. It keeps sending me letters with big red writing on the front and increasing the interest I owe on my payment. If I don’t deal with it soon it’s gonna come knocking at my door, empty my bank account and cart me away to the law enforcement agencies.
And so begins the sixth year.
But I feel better now. To be honest; by now I feel like a warrior. I have been through a lot the past nine years, and I’ve learned a lot as well. I know that, no matter how painful they are, feelings eventually always pass. I am, finally, learning the importance of nurturing and being kind to myself. I know that I have people I can call and the support of those at isurvive to help me get through the dark places. I know that my mind will not show me anything before I am ready to deal with it. And I know that whatever trauma I’m about to face, I’ve already lived through it, survived and am safe in the present.
I still don’t know when, or if, this healing process ever ends. I don’t know how much more pain I’ve repressed and buried in my unconscious that still needs to come out. If there is a “there”, I’m definitely not there yet. But I’m a lot further along in my journey. I’ve reclaimed so much of myself during this process. I feel a million times better and more whole than I did when I first started therapy all those years ago.
It didn’t feel okay to start with. It felt scary and I just wanted to run away. I feel just as scared now, going into my sixth year. But I think maybe therapy always feels that way in the beginning. Maybe that’s how you know you’re learning, growing, changing, getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. Maybe anything meaningful or worthwhile is scary at first. Maybe life itself is more about growing, changing, and learning how to love ourselves, than it is about racing through or avoiding pain to get to a happier place faster. Maybe there is no mythical happy “there”. Maybe I can just try to be the best me possible while I’m “here”, instead.
I am continuously in awe of all the brave souls who find their way to this website. The members here have endured atrocities beyond belief, experienced the very worst of human nature. Many of their stories have moved me to tears. Stories of heartlessness, cruelty and devastating betrayal, often at the hands of family members entrusted to care for them – parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, siblings. Stories of secondary betrayals as adult survivors speaking their truth to families who, in the majority of cases, refuse to hear, refuse to see, would rather risk losing their child than take responsibility for their crimes.
It is no wonder survivors of child abuse can be fearful of, or find it difficult to trust people. We humans can, and do, truly horrible things to each other. When the world has repeatedly taught you that trusting others leads to pain, why on earth would you want to continue doing so? Why wouldn’t you just give up, hide from others, not try anymore? When connecting with others feels so dangerous it brings on panic attacks if someone gets remotely close to you, where’s the incentive to keep trying?
If you’re a survivor of child abuse, you may not believe that you’re very brave. Should you be called, your answer may involve something along these lines:
“Me? Brave?! I’m not brave. Are you kidding? I’m terrified all the freaking time, of everyone and everything. I don’t want to come out of my house. I don’t trust anyone. I hate dealing with people. I get scared going to the corner shop sometimes, for heaven’s sake, in case someone talks to me. Every now and then I want to shut myself away in my room forever and never come out. I’m the last person on earth someone would ever call brave.”
I’m here to tell you, in the kindest possible way, that you’re wrong.
In fact, I would hazard a guess that, even if you don’t feel it, you are much braver than you give yourself credit for.
For starters, you are alive. As a child you survived the abuse, and you are choosing to remain alive now, even though you may be in a hell of a lot of emotional pain. You don’t know when or how this pain will end, yet you are still choosing to be here. That in itself is pretty huge.
Moreover, you are visiting isurvive and reading this blog post. Which probably means you are searching for answers, comfort, reassurance, hope, and support. The fact you are searching for these things means that part of you refuses to give up hope they are possible to find.
Given your past experiences, your willingness to keep trying is nothing short of incredible.
I sincerely hope you can believe that.
You see, some people may not understand how things like opening up to a new friend could be so scary. They would scoff, or laugh, or say “for heaven’s sake, just do it. It’s not that hard.”
They’re right. It’s not that hard. For them.
That doesn’t mean it’s not that hard for everyone.
People who don’t understand the fear you may feel are likely coming from a different, separate context to you. Perhaps they have not experienced as much trauma, hence their worldview is different; they view the world as a safe place and feel little fear of others. But courage is relative. It is not present where there is no fear, but rather, in those instances where fear must be overcome.
Give yourself more credit. If, for example, you happen to be terrified of people, and you then go and join a book club or meetup group with the specific aim of making new friends; that, in my eyes, is far more of an achievement than someone who has no fear of people doing the same thing.
Why? Because you had to jump over a lot of scary extra hurdles to get to that same point. If that makes sense. Once bitten, twice shy.
The fact that you are here, hoping for something better, wanting to believe in the goodness of people and the possibility of connection; looking for help, reaching out, perhaps sharing your story with others when past experience has taught you that you have no reason to trust anyone or believe things could be different in future…. that right there, my friends, is bravery. That is resilience, hope, and sheer determination. That is your abusers failing to crush your spirit. That is you refusing to let your pain consume you. That is your determination to live a life of your choosing, free of the chains of your past.
And you have every right in this world to do that.-Maree August 25, 2014
I was born in Melrose Park, Illinois on a cold day in November 1978 to a young woman not willing or ready to have a child. I would be told later in life that I was supposed to be an abortion, but the hospital called my grandma instead of my mother to give her news of the pregnancy; thus my mother was “forced” to have me. Looking back now, I think I spent my childhood paying the price for a hospital nurse dialing the wrong number.
–Excerpt from Why Me? by Sarah Burleton, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012
My name is Sarah Burleton and I am the New York Times Bestselling author of my child abuse memoir, Why Me, and the spokesperson for Prevent Child Abuse Illinois. Looking at me now, one would never guess that I endured such a horrific childhood; a childhood full of extreme physical beatings and mental abuse at the hands of my own mother. One would never guess that my own mother pushed me into an electric fence and watched me writhe on the ground in agony. One would never guess that my beloved animals were murdered cruelly at the hands of my mother for her own sick enjoyment. And one would never guess that not once in my life did I hear my mother say the words “I Love You” or feel her arms wrapped around me in a loving, warm, motherly embrace.
One would never guess this about me and my life because I made the conscious choice at a very young age to not let my child abuse define me. I refused to walk around like a victim and wear my child abuse as a badge for the world to see and pity me for. As many of you can relate, the last thing a child abuse victim wants is pity from people who have no idea what we have had to endure. We don’t want anyone to know what we have been through because there is a shame attached to child abuse, a sense of self-blame as if we deserved to be beaten or called names. Personally, I would bottle my emotions up inside and put on a tough façade to everyone around me, masking my true feelings of pain with sarcasm and aloofness.
When it became too much for me to bottle up my emotions any more I opened my laptop and poured out my life story into a Word document, self-published it and fell over the day I found out my little book had made the NY Times. Being on the list was great; however the most rewarding part of my job has been traveling and speaking to adult survivors, CPS workers and foster children. I realize that there are many of “us” out there, thousands of us who have been hurt by people who were supposed to love and protect us the most. But I’m here to tell you that we are not victims; we are survivors. We are here today because of our will to survive and our determination to overcome the demons from our childhood. Each of us has the power to use our horrible pasts as stepping stones to our bright, positive futures and as examples of how not to act. Every story matters and every voice should be heard. I love you all.
Edit: October 12, 2016
Please note that this article was first published here on isurvive and later on GoodTherapy.org