When we think of trauma we often think of what happened, sexual abuse, war, bullying, domestic violence, neglect etc. We think of periods of time or single events that caused distress and made a lasting impact on us.
Here at The Centre for Healing we define the trauma as what happens inside of a person as a result of what happened to them, or, what didn't happen, the imprint left within their psyche and nervous system from these kinds of experience is the trauma.
What many of us don't realise is that trauma is not always about what happened, quite often the imprint that is left within us is about what didn't happen.
When our experience lacks a certain quality, or a need goes unmet this also can leave a very damaging and lasting imprint that we carry with us for the rest of our lives. Developmental trauma can certainly and quite often show up as overt abuse and neglect, and as very obvious events that happen throughout one's childhood that cause arrests in development, but the other side of the coin is about what didn't happen.
Not being held as a baby, lack of eye contact, emotional misattunement, lack of validation, not being seen or heard, our needs not being met, not being helped to feel safe, our boundaries not being respected, not being allowed a voice, not being given a choice, mum and dad not showing up to our football game or dance competition are just some of the more common examples of what didn't happen.
Misattunement can happen just from mum and dad being over stressed at work and unable to really regulate themselves or be present with us and our needs.
If mum and dad are having their own issues and do not feel ok within themselves they will not be able to really look us in the eye and tell us sincerely that we are ok. These experiences leave an imprint within our psyche and our nervous system in the same way as events that “did happen.”
As children we cannot distinguish what is our parent’s problem and what is about us. It is safer for us to believe that the issue is us than for us to really see clearly that our parents have issues, this is primarily due to the fact that our survival directly depends on our parents.
If we see that they have issues then this is threatening to our survival, this insight would put us in a state of complete terror and those feelings would be too much to handle, so it is much safer to believe there is something wrong with us.
By doing this we protect the idea that there is love in the world by condemning ourselves and believing that we are broken, rather than seeing that our parents are too armoured and incapable of truly attuning to us and our needs.
There can be an extreme amount of pain in this that can be very difficult to face, admitting to ourselves that our parents were dysfunctional can be riddled with defence mechanisms that carry themselves right through our adult lives. These early experiences can create deep-seated feelings of being unlovable, unwanted, unworthy, unsupported, uncared for and alone.
When this happens our personality becomes oriented around survival, the very structures that create our identity are created in ways that help us to survive our childhood, in other words “who we are” becomes a trauma response.
The identity becomes structured in complex layers of self referencing thought patterns based on the deep underlying feelings of pain and torment mentioned above. These structures give us our sense of self and become the inner critic so many of us experience as adults.
That painful and condemning voice in the head that constantly tells us we are unworthy, unloveable and that there is something wrong with us comes from these quite normal and common childhood experiences.
We often don't think of what didn't happen, and our attention is far more often on what did happen, an event stands out more in our conscious minds than the pervasive and subtle disconnect that plays out in the background of our lives.
How often do we have a conversation about things that didn't happen?
This is why these traumas are far more often unconscious, meaning completely outside of our awareness. Though, when made conscious we can see clearly that they show up as reactions and govern the way we move in the world and relate to others.
The imprints from our childhood really do set the stage for what we experience as our personality later in life, very subtle and normalised things can leave drastic imprints that will orient the way we function and relate to the world for the rest of our lives.
The amazing thing is that these layers of the personality are actually a development, they are not essential to us and this means we can exist without them.
We learned them, so we can unlearn them. Beneath these layers of pain and adaptations exists a unique and essential expression of who we are, just like every fingerprint is unique, each individual has their own unique soul which slowly but surely reveals itself more and more as the pain unravels.
Being a parent is the most difficult job in the world, it carries tremendous responsibility and it is only recently that the kinds of things spoken about in this article are becoming common knowledge.
The parents of the past did not know and were not conscious of the effects these early experiences have on the developing nervous system. I am a parent of two young children aged 1 and 3 and I am constantly teaching and speaking about this in my work, and I still very much make mistakes and do this imperfectly.
This stuff has been at the forefront of my life for many years and I still have difficult days and see my own reactivity arise at times. Our practice as parents is not to do this perfectly as that is impossible and the expectations will just create further stress, but rather to continue the process of refinement, to work through and enquire into our own pain and childhood so we do not unconsciously and unintentionally pass down the patterns to our children.
Without having first met and attuned to ourselves, how can we really attune to our children?
When we learn to meet ourselves, we can meet our children as they are.
Peace & Blessing,
Matt Nettleton (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)