Category Archives: Abuse Recovery

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The Lost Art of Connecting

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“Loneliness is the most common ailment in the modern world.”    

                                                –Shimi Cohen                                          

If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?

Creating world peace, stopping child abuse, ending human trafficking, and obliterating poverty are all high on many people’s lists.

If you could teach everyone how to have bonded, joyful connections with others, you would go a long way to changing all of those things.  Mother Teresa says, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

Mara is married with 3 young children.  She rarely has 3 minutes to gather her thoughts, constantly occupied with the needs of her family.  Almost never alone, Mara has this gnawing ache for something more.

Jim is single.  He keeps himself busy with work and the gym.  He has a great theater system in his living room and often invites the guys over for football parties.  But at night when he goes to bed, in the morning as he takes a shower, and on the drive to work there is an uncomfortable feeling inside that he can’t put words to.

Randi has been in and out of relationships.  Right now, she is alone by choice.  She loves the time to do what she wants to do without having to consult someone else.  She likes to explore new places and try daring things.  She wants companionship sometimes, but enjoys having peace and quiet too.  But there are times that she just feels, well, lonely.

Loneliness.  It’s the great ache of the 21st century.

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With all of the opportunity to “connect” online through social media, texting, skype, and cell phone calls, you’d think people would have more vital and life-giving relationships than ever before.  But just the opposite is true.

Secure, healthy, intimate relationships are a rare commodity in our society.  While people are sending more words than ever through the cloud, they are communicating in ways that do not result in bonded relationships.

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Kendra Cheri writes in her article, Loneliness: Causes, Effects, and Treatments of Loneliness, “While common definitions of loneliness describe it as a state of solitude or being alone, loneliness is actually a state of mind. Loneliness causes people to feel empty, alone and unwanted. People who are lonely often crave human contact, but their state of mind makes it more difficult to form connections with other people.”

The problem is not about being able to say or type words but about being able to communicate from the heart in appropriately vulnerable ways.  It is about not being able to live in a community of securely attached relationships.

So what is getting in the way of creating authentic, healthy bonds?  There is a litany of answers, all competing for our time, attention, and money, but few seem to deliver long-term results.

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There are many things that keep people from feeling vitally connected to other people.  Genetics can be an issue as depression, isolation, and other emotional struggles do have a cellular influence.  Sometimes people develop fears of becoming vulnerable and are unable to risk being known because they do not have the strength to deal with possible rejection.  Child abuse is a common precursor to depression and isolation along with many mental disorders.  Addictions play into the mix, whether the source is chemicals, sex, relationships, internet, work, food, or other things.

 

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The ability to create healthy, intimate bonds with others is supposed to be developed in early childhood.   When parents know how to meet the needs of their children in the first years of their lives, those children grow up with the brain skills that allow them to share joy, soothe themselves, rest, and return to joy after being upset.  They are able to trust and know when it is safe to be vulnerable.  Their emotions do not overwhelm them because they have been taught how to feel them and then contain them in healthy ways.

Instead of receiving those important skills, most children are left to themselves to try to figure out the challenging stuff of relationships.  They develop survival skills to help them deal with less than ideal circumstances.  Often, they unconsciously embrace false beliefs about themselves, others, and the world around them.   These beliefs very often keep them from being able to interact with others in ways that allow them to create joyful bonds.  Fear of abandonment and rejection and lack of self-acceptance fuel the thought patterns that prevent appropriate trust and vulnerability.

The ability to create life-giving joy bonds is becoming a lost art.   Whatever the reasons that these skills have not been developed, the fact is that we cannot afford to lose them as a society.  The ability to attach securely to safe others around us is vital to our survival, personally and on a global level.

Many may sense that they are wired to live in community and have a desire for healthy, intimate relationships.  The good news is that these skills can be learned!  They can be taught to find new ways of connecting; ways that bring life and joy.  They can become aware of the patterns that are not working and step out courageously to learn appropriate vulnerability.  They can start to let go of the ways that have not worked and set and receive healthy boundaries with others.  New skills can be learned for creating secure attachments and new communication techniques can be forged to support those attachments.  Most importantly, people can learn how to give and receive love and embrace all of themselves unconditionally.

While it doesn’t happen in a day or even a month, the outcome is well worth the work.  Living in securely bonded, joyful relationships is the stuff of our deepest longings. Perhaps it is time to begin the journey.

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Misa Leonessa Garavaglia is a Transformation Life Coach, Spiritual Director, author, and speaker specializing in relationships, spiritual growth, and trauma recovery. She is the producer and host of Beyond Abuse Radio and creator and facilitator of Living from the Heart, a nine month program focused on building authentic relationships.  She will be conducting a four-hour workshop on Creating Healthy Connections August 2nd in Scotts Valley, California.

Physical Self-Care in Trauma Recovery

Trauma Release Through Exercise

When going through trauma it is not unusual for your body to react to the stress. It has become common knowledge that the mind, body and spirit are not separate entities that respond in isolation to one another. Emotional trauma will strongly impact the body and spirit, just as trauma in the body or spirit will impact the others. When you take a fall and break a bone or have surgery, your emotions come along for the ride! One cannot have a baby and not have a profound emotional and spiritual experience along with the physical act of giving birth.

If you have been physically or sexually abused, you may have learned how to separate yourself from your physical feelings. You may hardly notice when you are tired or hungry or something is hurting. On the other hand, you may be intensely sensitive to physical changes. Being attentive to your body is an important step in self care. Learning to give your body what it needs is one way to honor yourself. Exercise is one of the most important needs your body has when dealing with trauma. Take a break and go for a walk when stress threatens to overwhelm you. Go to the gym and be part of a class. It may be hard to get up and move while you are dealing with trauma, but physical exercise actually helps release the trauma that is held in your body on a cellular level.

Stress Stored in the Body

Business and life coach Malcom Avner writes, “When humans experience a traumatic situation, the body’s nervous system initiates an energetic infusion to fuel a genetically encoded physical defense response. If not expressed and released, the energy generated by traumatic experience is stored at the cellular level. The stored energy generates an ongoing loop of mind/body self-defense reactions. Trauma Release Exercises are a set of physical exercises designed to address and release deep-seated, unexpressed energy that originated in past experiences of physical or psychological trauma.”

For those who are avid exercisers, don’t be surprised if you need to slow your workouts down for a time. Your body needs energy to process your grief. Sometimes people avoid their feelings by driving themselves too hard physically. Be aware of your tendency to overwork, as well. Allowing yourself to exercise appropriately will help your process tremendously. Another area to be conscious of is rest.

Massage helps de-stress the body and can be beneficial for trauma release.

Massage helps de-stress the body and can be beneficial for trauma release.

Connecting to the Body, Connecting to the Heart

When you are trying to avoid painful feelings or memories, it is easy to drive yourself hard. You can do that through work, studying, and even playing. Keeping your mind and body busy enables you to be disconnected from the heart that may contain things you don’t want to feel.

If you have decided that it is time to live fully and put to rest the thought patterns and relational dysfunctions that are keeping you from authentic living, then connecting with that heart is crucial. Giving yourself permission to rest is part of that picture. When you need rest, make some time for a nap, or just lay down for awhile even if you don’t go to sleep. Turn off the TV and computer and turn on some soothing music. Take a hot bath, read a book, or drink a cup of tea. Build a fire or light a candle. Tell yourself that you are worth taking care of!

Joyce O. Beckett writes in an article on Silver Planet, “You may need to determine what relaxes and re-energizes you. It may be an evening with friends, a long walk, a ball game, exercise, a religious service, sitting by a lake, or reading a good book…Whatever self-care activity you select, it is important to regularly schedule the time. Place it in your personal calendar and set alarms to remind you. Then, protect that time by telling yourself and others: “I have an important, standard appointment that I cannot cancel; I am unavailable for anything else.

You're worth it!

You Deserve It!

Paying attention to the needs of your body is one way to communicate love and acceptance to yourself. Underneath your struggle with self-care may be a belief that you are not worth taking care of, or that your body is the enemy that betrayed you. Becoming aware of the emotional blocks that keep you from being connected to, and kind to, your body can help you move through your resistance to learning great self-care. Maybe it’s time to replace those beliefs with the truth: You deserve it. Really, you do.

 

Embracing Your Beauty

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Do you know that only 4% of the women in the world think that they are beautiful?  That is tragic.

How do we know that we are beautiful if no one tells us that?  Growing up in an environment where we are abused, we learn to see ourselves through the eyes of our abusers.  We have a function and that function is to meet other people’s twisted needs.  We come to hold our value based on how others treat us, and when we are treated without respect, without dignity, we do not ascribe those values to ourselves.

I cannot see my beauty unless it is reflected in the eyes of another person who is able to love.  Being surrounded with very broken people speaks loudly to us- life is not beautiful, WE are not beautiful.

And yet, there is something that remains within us after all of the abuse that is drawn to beauty.  It takes a lot to snuff out our God-given desire to experience beauty.  It is the city dweller that needs to take a hike in the mountains, the sailor that longs for the sea, the painter and the poet who cannot quench the thirst for expressing the beauty they find around them.  You know that longing for beauty each time you watch a spectacular sunset and it moves something within you.  The beauty in your soul connects with the beauty you are a part of every time you stand in awe of a majestic waterfall or pause to contemplate the snow-capped mountains.  The only reason you can even recognize beauty is that you, too have beauty inside you.

If we, then, are drawn to beauty, and create beauty, are we not resonating with something innate within ourselves?  If beauty is completely foreign to us, then we would not seek it.  We would not feel we have found home when we are ensconced within it.

We were created to perpetuate the beauty that is within us.  No matter what has happened to us, those embers of beauty burn, even though they lie hidden.   Though our abused inner child may see our insides as stained and blackened, we cannot keep ourselves from being drawn to that which is beautiful.  And beauty begets beauty.  As we experience beauty around us, we feel our inner beauty.  And that which is in us flows out to create beauty.

We can also have people tell us day and night that we are beautiful but if we have bought into the lie that we are ugly, then no one can convince us otherwise.

What do I mean when I tell you each week that you are beautiful?  You say, “Misa, you can’t even see me, how do you know that I am beautiful?”

Kahlil Gibran has said: “Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart.”
I say that the light of the heart shines through the face and makes it a thing of beauty.

What do I mean by beauty?  The world’s standards of beauty are based on a narrow definition of physical qualities.  It judges the 90% of us that fall outside of that category as less desirable.  It’s easy to buy into that if many of your experiences as a child have already convinced you that you are less than valuable.  The truth is, beloved, that it is a beautiful soul who can stand up to that twisted culture and ignore the darkness that speaks those untruths.

“Beauty shouldn’t be about changing yourself to achieve an ideal or be more socially acceptable. Real beauty, the interesting, truly pleasing kind, is about honoring the beauty within you and without you. It’s about knowing that someone else’s definition of pretty has no hold over you.” ― Golda Poretsky

Beauty is about the whole person- inner and outer.  There are many physically attractive people who are ugly inside.  I have never seen a person shining with inner beauty who I thought was unattractive.  When someone is living authentically from the heart, fully grounded in who they are, they are utterly beautiful.

One thing that many of us have become confused by is the difference between the words beautiful and perfect.  First off, “perfect” does not exist, this side of Heaven.  If you hear someone say that something (or someone) is perfect, what they mean is that some aspect of it is very close to their ideal of the thing.  What might be “perfect” to one person may not be anywhere near acceptable to another.  And even then, it is only a part of something that meets that ideal.

We believe our bodies are not beautiful because we have physical imperfections.  I wish I had a longer neck, a smaller waist, and more shapely hips.  My calves, though strong and muscular, have a hard time fitting into a standard pair of boots.  It doesn’t mean they are fat…they are just not the “standard” shape.  I can choose to reject the shape of my legs and feel inferior and unattractive, or I can appreciate the fact that they are good, strong legs.  I can see myself as I am as well designed and beautiful rather than taking on my culture’s very narrow idea of what beautiful looks like.

I used to be 25 lbs overweight and believed that when I lost that weight I would be beautiful.  Now I am 5 lbs away from my weight goal and I still see that extra yardage around my waist everybit as much as I used to see all 25 lbs of it.  Of course now, at 52, it is the oncoming wrinkles that disturb me.  My new challenge is to learn to see beauty in my wrinkles, as society has taught us to reject that too.

I coached a young woman once who had lost over 40 lbs.  She was pretty before she lost the weight, and now she was even prettier.  She said that it was hard to deal with the weight loss because she didn’t like the fact that people treated her differently.  She was still the same person she always was.  And she noticed other things now that her weight wasn’t an issue…if only she could change her nose or have a longer neck…there will always be something we are less than satisfied with.

The kicker is this:  we do not know how to be content.  No matter how close to perfect we get, we will never arrive:  Not by this world’s standards, nor our own internal desires.  We were created to live in beautiful perfection and we are keenly aware of when we, and others, fall short of this ideal.  Instead of accepting that we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world, we try to create some vision of what we would look like if we were perfect and stuff ourselves into that mold.  Yet, how beautiful is the person who has graciously accept their own and others imperfections?  One who can find the beauty in the midst of brokenness is beautiful indeed.

Confucius says that everything has beauty but not everyone can see it.  Can you see the beauty of your own child?  Every mother I know has a view of their children that ascribes worth and beauty to them.  If you can see the beauty in your child, you can learn to see the beauty in yourself, too.

If I could look you in the eye right now, I would tell you how beautiful you are.  Would you believe me?  Only if you could come to see you the way I see you.  But I don’t even know you, you protest.  That is true.  But I do know this.  You were a beautiful child who probably had something stolen from you.  The thing that they took was the truth.  Not your beauty.  Not your heart.  They are still inside you.   Now it is up to you to find that truth again and live from it.  And part of that truth is that you are beautiful.  No matter who you are, what you look like, what you have been through, you are beautiful.  Period.  As we choose to open ourselves up in safe relationships and become vulnerable to imperfect but kind people, we find our hearts again and realize just how beautiful they really are.  We can learn to live from our hearts and let our beauty sing out to all we meet.

And then, we can call out the beauty in others.

Have you ever been around a really beautiful person?  Most likely, it was someone who sees the beauty in others.  The people I most want to be around are those who can see into my heart, underneath all accumulated layers of self-protection, and embraces me just the way I am.  That is what my spiritual director has done for me.  I’ll tell you more about my story shortly.  But everyone who knows her wants to be around her more.  That is because they feel more of who they really are when they are with her.

I’ll let you in on a little secret:  You are most beautiful when you are fully you.
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We all have our best and worst angles, our bad hair days, our “leave me alone and go away” days.  We all have those days that we look in the mirror and see our age, our imperfections, our sad and weary eyes.  But even on those days we are beautiful.  We just sometimes need someone else to see it within, hiding under our sleep deprived sags and angry crow’s feet, and call it out to shine once again.  Then our beauty becomes a mirror and calls out the beauty in others.

I love the courageous TED talk by Cameron Russell: Looks Aren’t Everything, Believe Me, I’m a Model.  She boldly tells the truth about being a model.  “The pictures are not of me,” she says,  they are of my body, after it has been made up and clothed by professionals, artistically framed by an expert photographer, touched up by a graphic artist and displayed by another expert in a glorious setting.  Then, next to this fabulous, sexy photograph, she puts a picture of the real her…playing soccer, being with family, etc.

When someone else shares their story of abuse, my guess is that you feel sad for them, maybe even angry.  That is because you see the beauty of the child who was so badly treated.  You see the precious person underneath all the survival mechanisms they may have put into place to protect them over the years.  You see their heart and wish for them that they could still live from their heart.

Well, that’s how I feel when I hear your stories, too.  I see the beautiful little heart inside that was hurt and lied to.  I see you for who God created you to be.  It is in there- you just have to develop the eyes to see it, the way my spiritual director did for me.

If you can see the beauty in others, despite their imperfections, you can learn to see the beauty in yourself, too.  We are all people in the process of becoming the awesome individuals that we were crafted to be.  Maybe, as we uncover bits and pieces of truth about ourselves, parts of us can embrace them.  Parts of us can believe the truth of who we were made to be.  But perhaps other parts of ourselves can’t hold it yet.  That’s okay.  We must be patient with ourselves and give ourselves time.  It will come.  There is no magic pill, no easy answer.  But we can come to trust the process.

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Here are some questions you can ask yourself.  Consider journaling the answers:

  • When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
  • What/who makes you feel beautiful?
  • How often do you feel beautiful?
  • Do people tell you that you are beautiful?
  • What is your definition of inner/outer beauty?
  • Do you tell others they are beautiful?
  • What constitutes beauty for you?
  • What do you find beautiful?
  • What parts of yourself do you believe are beautiful?

I can look in the mirror now and say “I love you” and it doesn’t feel painful like it used to.  Now, I believe it.  It trickles down into my heart.  My beauty is not dependent on the things that I do, but as I am able to hold the truth of my beauty I find that it leaks out and touches the lives around me.  It manifests as I help a client to rediscover their own beauty, or as I do another 60 minutes of Beyond Abuse Radio and perhaps inspire a few people to have hope for their healing.  And I know that all that I have suffered and all of the healing work I have done and the miracles I have been the recipient of are growing and blossoming into something of great worth.  They have served to make me into the person I am and they enable me to touch the lives around me so that they will look in the mirror one day and know that they, too are beautiful.  And then they just might pass it on to others. 

 

 

Self Esteem for Survivors

Confusion

Many in the Evangelical church have debated the question of self-esteem for decades. “We need to think less of ourselves, not more,” the argument goes. Some thought it preposterous that we would be telling people that they should love themselves. Self-love was seen as antithetical to loving God. I heard volumes of speech, some official and some just self-appointed, against the idea of loving oneself.

This caused me great conflict inside. I knew that I did not love myself enough. My self-hate kept me from being able to fully connect to God or anyone else and also disabled me from fulfilling the calling I had long known was on my life. It opened me up to the abuse pattern continuing as an adult and allowed many, many lies of the enemy to be perpetuated throughout every area of relationship with myself, others, and God.

 Abuse Begets Abuse

I grew up believing that I deserved to be treated the way all of my abusers treated me. I wouldn’t have said that consciously. But it was certainly how I acted. It was almost like I had a sticker on my forehead that said “Kick me.” And people did. Lots of people, both literally and figuratively.

I became a target for all the school bullies. I was constantly bullied at home and learned to respond to everyone in either obnoxious defensiveness, or cowering fear. It was the only way I knew to relate. And there were plenty of people who were willing to react true to the pattern I had learned. If I was fearful, they would tease me and beat me up. If I would try to defend myself, they would taunt me and beat me up. They knew that I couldn’t stick up for myself- I was emotionally incapable of it because I had always been torn to pieces in any attempt at doing so.

I was put down daily by my alcoholic father and brothers, and sometimes even by my little sisters. If I had owned a tail, I am quite sure it would usually have been between my legs. And like a dog who sends off the signals of submission, others know how to read it and are ready to assert their dominance.

Rejection

Having no one to accurately reflect my worth to me, I didn’t have a fighting chance. I hated the cruel treatment I received at home and at school, but didn’t know that I could do anything about it. At 14 when my father and brothers both left the house after my parents’ divorce, I got a picture of what living in relative peace was like. That was when I actually hit back one of the playground bullies that had followed me into high school (she never tried to hit me again after that…oh that I had been able to do it a decade earlier!). It took me many decades beyond that to be able to set and keep boundaries with people who emotionally abused me, however. I even still can have struggles with that one.

RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) says that poor self-esteem is the most universal symptom of abuse survivors. From my experience in my life and my work with other people, I would have to agree. While going through the Life Skills International program I learned that any act of abuse is an act of rejection. I also learned that the very hardest thing to heal from is rejection from one’s family of origin.

Every time I was belittled, hit, laughed at, left out, called names, looked down upon, and touched inappropriately, I was being rejected. One or more of those types of activities occurred in my life several times a day, for as long as I can remember. My life as a child, and even parts of it as an adult, was inundated with rejection.

A Truthful Voice

There was one significant person in my life that mirrored my value to me. Her name was Mimi. She was a camp counselor at a church camp I attended in the California Sierra when I was 14. For one amazing week, she spoke truth into my life about who I really was. After that week was over, she sent me two letters that I kept in my journal. Those letters are well worn from being read over and over throughout the years. I’m sure that Mimi has little idea of the impact that her few words had in that short time that I knew her. But really, those words became a lifeline that kept me tied to the reality of God’s love for me and His purpose in my life. I can honestly say that, without Mimi’s brief influence, I would probably not be doing what I am doing today. It was through her words that I was able to hang onto any positive self image at all.

Seeing Ourselves Clearly

Self esteem, for me, is the ability to see myself clearly. That includes strengths and weaknesses, whole places and broken places. It means that I know that I am lovable and that I have struggles. But the weaknesses don’t disqualify me from being treated with honor and respect, just as others’ weaknesses don’t justify abusive treatment from me. Self esteem says that I can behold myself as made in the image of God and that it is good. Not perfect, but good. And that the God who made me takes delight in being close to me.

Without the ability to ascribe value to myself, I cannot receive love and I certainly cannot give it. If I believe that I am not worth loving, anyone else’s attempts at giving me something good will fail, like trying to put a sticker on Teflon. In fact, when we have low self esteem, we are more self-focused, not less. Individuals who know their own worth are the ones most able to take their eyes off themselves and be sensitive to others’ needs and pain. As we align our thinking about ourselves with how God sees us, we become free to forget about how we are perceived by others and can concern ourselves with being the hands and feet that exhibit God’s love for those around us who are hurting.

Every act of abuse communicates that a child is worthless except as they serve the twisted purpose of their abuser. We as a society are responsible both to stop the abusers and to bring the truth of each person’s value into clear view. As survivors battle the lies of the rejection they have experienced, those who claim to share God’s heart for the world should be the first to speak and act out the truth of each person’s great worth, and encourage those wounded souls to embrace their own beauty. Only then will they be set free to become all they were created to be.

Hope for Healing from Childhood Abuse

Hope for Healing from Childhood Abuse

Eventually we may come out the other side and slowly find a new place to live, a place that can even be enriched because of what we have suffered.

Eventually we may come out the other side and slowly find a new place to live, a place that can even be enriched because of what we have suffered.

Hope- The Fuel for Our Lives

Hope. It is the fuel for our lives. Without it we become depressed and lifeless. Have you ever been without hope? Even for a day, or for an hour or two? Maybe you have lost your retirement savings or maybe you have been through a divorce or even lost a child. Perhaps you have had one or both parents die.

There is a black tunnel where all hope seems gone. It feels like it will last forever, but eventually we may come out the other side and slowly find a new place to live, a place that can even be enriched because of what we have suffered.

I have spent over 25 years walking through my healing journey from childhood abuse. Throughout, I have always known inside that I ultimately had 2 choices. I could get bitter. Or I could get better.

A Holy Longing

Another woman shares some of her story in from the book called A Holy Longing. After she tells of being raped by her father at age 9, she says, “my whole life really ended then.” When her father died, she tried to make her peace but could not.

“The older I got the worse it got. I ended up getting angrier and angrier…I began to fight everyone… It’s unfair to have to live in a world that is so unfair… I’m so full of cancer inside. I’d like to scream, just shout to the world how unfair it all is, but I know that nobody would hear—or care! I want my life back! I wasn’t born this angry. I don’t want to die this angry.”

The author goes on to say that “some of the happiest people in the world have been abused and some of the most unhappy ones have been. The difference lies not so much in extent of the trauma of the original abuse,” but how we come to think about ourselves and the world around us as a result.

A Bright Future

As I child, I had no one to talk to about the things that were happening to me. There was no relative, no neighbor, no teacher who could tell me that what was being done to me was not my fault. I had no idea that there was even such a thing as a safe person or safe place.

My healing path has been a challenging one. But for every tear I have cried and every bit of pain I have walked through, I have stored up a new inheritance for my children.

Every time I heal more I give them a gift. I tell them that the way my family did things was wrong, and my own anger and control did not bring life. I own my own pain and I apologize, and every time I do, I open the door to a new, better way to live for them. They still must choose to walk through it, but I give them a new option.

I can never reclaim what was stolen from me as a child, but I can make a bright future. Now, as a life coach and spiritual director, speaker and writer, I offer a safe place for others to heal. It is my passion to encourage and inspire others in their journeys. Not just abuse survivors, but everyone who suffers.

We have choices to make in the midst of our pain…everyone of us! We can become bitter, or we can get better. Avoiding our pain will make us bitter. Getting better means facing our pain -grieving our losses. Only then can we become free to thrive…free to be ALL we know we were made to be.

I am thriving, and I know you can too! As we choose to lay down the weapons of our self-protective control and embrace the reality of our pain, we can learn to let each other in and give and receive the love we all so deeply long for. And for that, I have a great hope!

Healing from Trauma: Reconnecting to the Body

Healing from Trauma: Reconnecting to the Body

 I feel the cool dirt under my feet and the warmth of the sun soaked grass as I step across the yard

Befriending My Senses

It used to be that my senses were numb and my body was the enemyI was in survival mode and I believed my senses would only get me into trouble. Now, all that has changed.

I like to garden barefoot. I feel the cool dirt under my feet and the warmth of the sun soaked grass as I step across the yard. I love to feel textures on my skin. I confess, I don’twant to dump the sand out of my shoes when I leave the beach…I like the sand between my toes!

When I am connected to my senses I feel alive. I love the smell of the dirt as I dig out the new pathway beside my house. I light up with delight when I see the bright pink of the Cosmos, yellow of the Black-eyed Susans, and purple of Bearded Iris outside my window. I go nuts when I smell Jasmine and cannot walk by it without burying my face in it for at least a moment.

Sounds, smells, touches, tastes, and sights all provide for me a smorgasbord of experience. Some days I feel like a sense-seeking missile. But this wasn’t always the case.

In response, to my childhood abuse, I shut down all receptors that would let anything from the outside in. I had to keep memories at bay and was unable to be connected to my body. My unconscious belief was that my body had betrayed me and I didn’t trust it.

 Not living faithfully to your authentic self drains you of the life energy you need to pursue things you truly value– Dr. Phil

Survival Selves vs. Authentic Selves

Our senses are what connect us to ourselves and to the outside world; but if we are trying to keep certain memories at bay and do not trust the outside world, the senses cannot be allowed to function fully.We may believe that being disconnected from our senses keeps us safe, but it also keeps us from living from our authentic selves, from the heart.

I believe that most of us carry within ourselves at least two parts: our survival selves and our authentic selves. Some people call these the “Authentic Self” and the “Inauthentic Self.” Carol Adrienne, Ph.D, writes in an article entitledAuthenticity, “The voice of the authentic self seems to be the same as the intuitive voice, that quiet, but persistent voice that whispers new ideas to us in the middle of the night, on vacation, or after meditating. Intuition speaks in short, clear messages that are qualitatively different from the repetitive mind chatter that makes us feel anxious.”

Our authentic selves are connected to the core of heart and body. They feel deeply and experience things through all of our senses. “Rediscovering freedom involves regaining a feeling of comfort in your own skin. The awkward layers that have been assumed to please others are shed, and the real person is revealed – an authentic person… The fake person has lost their connection to the real person inside” (author unknown).

Dr. Phil writes about an authentic self and a “fictional self.” He defines the authentic self as “ the you that can be found at your absolute core. It is the part of you not defined by your job, function or role. It is the composite of all your skills, talents and wisdom. It is all of the things that are uniquely yours and need expression.” He goes on to say, “When you’re not living faithfully to your authentic self, you find yourself feeling incomplete, as if there is a hole in your soul…Living this way drains you of the critical life energy you need to pursue the things you truly value.”

The Senses and Trauma

We all probably remember the excitement as a child of going to the beach or the snow for the first time, or laying awake in bed with great anticipation of tomorrow’s birthday party. As children, prior to abuse, we are open to life and we respond fully to it, engaging all of our selves. When a child goes to the beach, they have to feel the salt water on their skin and cover themselves in the sand. Playing is not a spectator sport. It involves all of their senses. They don’t wait for the sun to come out to go outside. Puddle jumping is the first order of business when it rains.

What happens to a child’s sensory faculties when he/she is abused? When senses are used to bring things that are confusing and painful, feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling, and perhaps even tasting become openings for negative sensations. Perhaps something being done to a child physically feels pleasant, but those very pleasant feelings bring mental and emotional trauma. Even feeling good, then, often becomes connected to trauma and must be kept at bay at all costs.

Our bodies don’t forget what happened to us, even if our minds do for a time. Every act of abuse is stored on a cellular level in the body. The body is often one of the most accurate storage devices of memory. It may not remember all the specific details, but it will remember with great accuracy how we felt when something happened to us. Have you ever smelled a certain scent and been immediately transported in your mind to the time and place that smell entered your senses?

We have all heard the first three notes of a song and been flooded with the body sensations of where we were and what we were doing when that song became significant to us. I remember where I was, who I was with, and what the room smelled like when I first heard about the Challenger crash. We all have the details of the smells, sights, and sounds of our environment when our stomachs sank with the news of 9-11. That’s trauma, and the brain stores those memories differently than other memories. They are so real that you may think you are reliving it when you think about them.

 Honoring our “Survival Selves”

Our bodies are much like a hard drive connected to our computer brains. If there is something in that hard drive that we are unconsciously trying to avoid remembering and feeling, we learn to dull everything that touches it. When someone hugs us, we don’t really let the hug get inside us. When we feel the sand or dirt beneath our feet, we walk on without letting the sensation affect us. The older we get, the more dulled our senses may become.

Unless, that is, we make a conscious decision to reconnect with our bodies and learn to live from our authentic selves.

Our survival selves play an important role for us. They, indeed, have helped us survive! Perhaps both you and I are here today because our survival selves did what they needed to do to get us here. We can develop an appreciation for that part of our selves that did the dirty work—they did what needed to be done to keep us alive. It is important to honor that part and the role he/she has played. Now, we can choose how we want to move forward from here. Maybe some of our survival ways have worked well and are still working for us. Others, perhaps, are not.

One of my survival skills was to become very organized. I call on that skill almost daily, but now I can also choose to set it aside and abide some amount of disorder when that serves me too. I learned to live in my head and I became a great administrator. I have since discovered that I really don’t like doing administrative work. When I was able to let go of almost obsessively organizing my surroundings, I found inside of myself a very creative person. When I am able to let go of my control over my environment, I create an opening for that creative part of me to paint and dig in the dirt.

As for me, I choose to shed my gloves and my shoes, to get dirt underneath my fingernails...

As for me, I choose to shed my gloves and my shoes, to get dirt underneath my fingernails…

Letting Go Takes Courage

Letting go of control takes courage. It has meant opening myself up to remember. Along with painting and digging in the dirt have come some things I would rather have avoided. Body memories have come to the surface that are challenging to deal with. I have become aware of at least one of the reasons that my digestive system has such a difficult time working correctly. My body learned that what is put inside it can make me very sick and decided very early on to fight anything that came down my throat. The memory surfacing was painful. It requires noticing, minimizing (yes, part of the process!), feeling, accepting, and then fully grieving a terrible thing that happened to me. But on the other side of that dark tunnel comes life.

My body slowly loosens its death grip over my digestive system as it is able to learn that not everything that goes down my throat is going to hurt me. In the place that my mind and body and heart held this dark secret, I experience a new freedom and peace. Previously unknown options begin to open up for me to see and do things in new ways. In the midst of this challenging process, I learn how to listen to my body and give it what it really needs. I shed the protective skin of blocking out the pain and develop the ability to allow life to touch me and I begin to touch it back.

When we take our gardening gloves, or shoes, off and come into direct contact with the earth, we will find things that bring us delight and things that have potential to cause us pain. When we choose to open our bodies, minds, and hearts and allow ourselves to be touched by the outside world and connected to our authentic selves, we take a risk. We will feel positive things and negative things, joy and sorrow. Our choice is to feel both or feel neither. As for me, I choose to shed my gloves and my shoes, to get dirt underneath my fingernails, and fully experience the world underneath my feet. I choose life.

Hope for healing

Unlimited Possibilities

 

Kathy wants to start a business. She has had a great idea in the back of her mind for years and believes that, given the right opportunity, she can make it work. Laurie wants to go back to school. She has been passionate about becoming a nurse, but lacks the training. Jonathan desires to improve his marriage. He highly values his relationship with his wife but is discouraged with the way they communicate. All three want to make important changes in their lives. They have dreams, and they want to move towards achieving them. But all three are being held back by something.

Have you ever had a burning ache to do something but not followed through on that desire? Have you given up on making changes in places of your life that leave you unfulfilled or discouraged? If you have, welcome to the human race! You are in good company.

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The way we think can create insurmountable obstacles or open up unlimited possibilities in our attempts to live the lives we desire. The good news is that we CAN change our thought processes from the belief systems that seem to hold us captive, into those that give wings to our hopes and dreams.

We are all affected by circumstances. The events of our lives, especially our early lives, often shape our thinking. How we think about those events can sometimes limit our success in relationships, career, and physical and emotional health. Our trust may be badly damaged so we create “skills” to avoid intimacy and vulnerability. We might have difficulty with confidence so we second guess ourselves constantly. We may have been rejected so we are chronically evaluating whether people agree with us or not. We can become ruled by fear and live only a shadow of the life we know we were meant to have.

“It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.” –Tony Robbins

Tony Robbins, a leader in personal and professional training, believes that, “It’s not the events of our lives that shape us, but our beliefs as to what those events mean.” What do you mean, my BELIEF about an event, you may ask. Let’s say you were beat up as a kid in school. More than once. The class bully marked you with a bull’s eye and she hit her target with amazing consistency. You were hurt, not only physically, but emotionally each time you got cornered and punched out. The other kids watched, some laughing. No one came to your defense.

Now, you find yourself in a work situation where the “office bully” puts you down in front of fellow workers. No one stands up for you. Seemingly without thinking, you duck and run…just like you did in the fifth grade. Maybe you don’t get up and walk away. But you go into hiding inside.

What happened in that split second between the realization that you were being treated badly and when you created the emotional barricade between yourself and your coworkers?

You thought. You are probably not aware of what you thought, but you thought. Maybe it went something like this: “I’m the target for bullies and no one is going to stick up for me because I am weak and deserve to be rejected.” Or perhaps: “I know I’m not a bad person but no one is going to really understand me for who I am, so why bother even trying?”

When we experience traumatic events as children, and even sometimes as adults, we create beliefs around our interpretation of those events. Those beliefs serve to inform our choices as we encounter new situations. We have had that “thought” so often by the time we are 30 that we don’t even notice it anymore. It seems more like a knee-jerk response. But if we slow it down long enough to become aware of our process, we will find it like an ancient fossil in the mountain of our unconscious beliefs. Our brain has so deeply worn the neuro-pathway of that thought that it happens in lightening speed, leaving us to sometimes think that we have no option in our response. But, dear one, the exciting thing is that we do!!

We are daily faced with great opportunities disguised as impossible situations.

Often we may find ourselves feeling powerless to change our reaction to things. The only option we see is the old one, but that one is no longer working. That can seem like an impossible situation. But I have good news! It is really a great opportunity! The situation is providing us with a chance to become aware of our patterned response, find the belief underlying that response, and CHOOSE to either continue with that belief, or find a new, more appropriate one. We have power!

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The past need not determine your future. It influences your beliefs and expectations, but these can be changed. It isn’t easy, you say? Well, no, it isn’t. But that doesn’t mean it is impossible. I will be honest with you: It will take work. It will even possibly involve pain. But when the pain to stay the same becomes greater than the pain to change, you will be ready to take the plunge.

Patrick Williams, founder of the Institute for Life Coach Training, says that updating our belief systems requires a paradigm shift. A new way of seeing the world. He is right. And that is sometimes no minor task. But when we become aware of the patterns that are holding us back from what we REALLY want in life, we may then become willing to look at how a particular belief is impacting our life and relationships. As we become aware of its influence upon us, we can decide how much power to continue to give it over our lives. It is here that we can choose to look the truth in the face so that it will no longer control us.