When Trauma Follows You Into Adulthood
When I was growing up, I believed a well-known myth- turning 18 magically transforms you into an adult. I thought it was true. Until I hit 18. I entered college at 17 and waited for the magic to happen on my 18th birthday. It didn’t. I was still the same shy, scared, girl with the residue of trauma all over her.
The Residue of Trauma
In my college years, I developed an eating disorder. Although I didn’t allow myself to eat much, maybe a bowl of oatmeal for a day (and then walk five miles with ankle weights to work it off), it wasn’t about being skinny. It was about control. Everything felt out of control. Eating and exercise were two things I could control. I needed to survive the huge university and the new culture that came with it. My eating disorder was my survival mode -the slimy residue of trauma. The residue of trauma kept showing up in my adult years at the most inconvenient times.
Does Our Past Childhood Trauma Matter Now?
So many of the adoptive/foster parents I’ve “counseled” experienced trauma in their childhood/teen years. Some were in foster care/group homes/abusive homes/fill in the blank.
Do you know what the other residue of their (and my) trauma is? It’s not slimy. Or defective. It’s more likened to a superpower obtained through a radioactive home environment. It’s EMPATHY. Empathy is our superpower. So yes, our past childhood trauma matters now. Because of our trauma, we have the ability to activate our superpower -empathy.
“Compassion is a deeply held belief. Empathy is the skill set needed to bring compassion alive.”Brené Brown
Empathy is our motivation. Empathy is why those of us who experienced trauma in our childhood are drawn to kids from hard places. We were kids from hard places. We know what it’s like to be abused, neglected, abandoned, and have attachment issues. While we didn’t have all of the above and our stories are different. We understand the common theme of the residue of trauma.
Do We Want to Get Well?
Another reason our childhood trauma matters is in order to activate our superpower of empathy completely – we have to want to get well. We need to find wholeness and a degree of healing as adults in order to help our kiddos travel the road to healing themselves. Hopefully, because our willingness to get well, their road to healing will be much shorter and less complicated.
A Man and Woman Who Weren’t Sure They Wanted To Get Well
A man had been laying by the pool of Bethesda for thirty-eight years. When Jesus approached him, he asked, “Do you want to get well?” I was puzzled by the question for many years. Why would Jesus ask that? Of course he wanted to get well. Right?
It wasn’t until I thought of pursuing my own spiritual and emotional healing that the question – Do you want to get well?- made sense. The question I still answer daily is – Do I want to get well. For example, in my own journey:
- How many years did I lie by the pool of self pity?
- How many years did I act in codependent ways all the while blaming others for my pain and suffering?
- How many times did I start dealing with my past, only to shut it down because I was fearful?
- How many years did I bow down to fear and make it my god?
- How many times did my toxic beliefs about myself determine the quality of my life?
- How many times did my triggers and my kids triggers tussle because I hadn’t “wanted to get well” but be in control instead?
Healing is Hard Work
I haven’t forgotten about our superpower, I’ll get back to it. Let’s finish the story of the man at the pool. Jesus told him to pick up his mat and walk. The man had to do some work. He had to stand. He had to clean up after himself. And, here’s the kicker, he had to maintain his healthy lifestyle or he would have something worse come upon him.
Jesus met him later in the temple and said, “See you are well, stop sinning or something worse will come upon you.” I don’t know what his sin was or what sort of healthy lifestyle he needed to maintain. It could have been in his thought life, his attitude, or his overall spiritual condition. I’m totally guessing and mostly thinking about my healing journey (which isn’t over).
My Pursuit of Healing and Something Worse Happening
It’s kind of like pursuing healthy living and eating. I’m exercising, eating whole foods, going to bed early, and turning devices off. Check. Check. Check. Then I have a taxing day or event. I’m exhausted emotionally. Hand over the donuts, please. And then everything goes out the window. Turn on the NetFlix please and throw me all the junk food. I make excuses. I tell myself it doesn’t really matter if I’m healthy.
Toxic Thinking From My Past Trauma
Well, he had that medical test and I was worried. My old toxic thinking springs up from my childhood. Things always get worse. Next thing I know, my brain and belly are full of junk. I’m thinking fearful, anxious thoughts and eating all the foods that promote an unhealthy gut. I feel ill and out of sorts for days and everyone in a two foot radius of me feels the fall out.
The “something worse” that happens to me? I allow myself to fall back into the self-induced pit of depression. Why? Because it seemed like I was loving myself. I wasn’t. Instead, to the question, Jesus asked the man at the pool, “Do you want to get well?” My answer would be “No, I want to stay stuck because healing is hard work.” And that’s where we can get stuck and believe the myth that started this whole article –
Our past childhood trauma doesn’t matter. It’s all in the past, right?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying don’t ever eat a donut or watch a show. It’s the underlying attitude and belief that are important. When I am stressed, then those old toxic thought patterns re-emerge. That’s why it’s important to make sense of and peace with our past. First, we have to want to get well and want to do the work it requires to get up, face our past, make sense of it, reconceptualize it, and move forward from there.
Reframe and Reconceptualize
In order for us to move forward and make sense of and peace with our past, we must reframe our beliefs about ourselves. We must also reconceptualize toxic thoughts about ourselves. We must want to get well so we can guide our children on the same path. I was on the receiving end of some angry words from a parent who was attending my Empowered to Connect Training. We had devoted several sessions to dealing with our past. “I didn’t come here to talk about myself and my past. I came here to talk about my children.” Amen, sister. I totally got it. I camped out in that wilderness, pretending it was an oasis for years because I didn’t want to face my past. The past is the past, right? Nope.
Reframing means facing our past, feeling the feelings, and then looking at it through a new lens. The lens of an observer. We can step outside ourselves and watch our past from a safe place. Here. Now where we are safe. Then we can reframe our beliefs about what happened to us. We can’t change the past. But we can change our beliefs about it. This is a battlefield for our health and wholeness. It’s not only hard work. It’s warfare for ourselves first and then our children. This battlefield is where we can reconceptualize and where we grow our superpower of empathy.
“Reconceptualization is the recognition and removal of the chains that bind you to the past -it’s the trial becoming testimony. It’s incorporating your story, which is now redesigned (with the pain accepted and neutralized); it’s not ignoring or suppressing what you’ve gone through but rather honoring the past for the growth it’s brought into your life and incorporating this change into your day-to-day living.”-Dr. Caroline Leaf
It’s Okay to GET ANGRY.
I’ve worked with nonprofits who do workshops educating the public (teachers, counselors, churches, etc.) about the signs of abuse (sexual and physical). The super touchy subject is always – forgiving the abuser. I’m not going to delve into the theology of forgiveness right now. I’m going to talk about anger, depression, and anxiety before I move on to wrapping this up with our superpower and how to use it.
When I listened to the psychologists’ report on the trauma my newbies had endured before they joined the Guire family, I got angry. REALLY ANGRY. I was appalled at what had been done to these tiny humans. (I’m not telling their story, it’s not mine to share). After I knew their history, many times I broke down sobbing with grief for what had happened to them.
I Didn’t Get Angry Over My Childhood Trauma
Here’s something really sad though. I didn’t get angry for myself. For the childhood trauma, I endured. Instead, I walked around in a state of fear, anxiety, and depression and tried to treat it every other possible way on the planet. When a counselor repeatedly told me (during different sessions over the years) – Kathleen, you need to get angry. I would cry, get emotional, and basically feel a little bit of anxiety seep out and shut down. “I’m not angry though,” I would tell her. “I’ve forgiven fill in the blank.”
Forgiving Doesn’t Erase the Trauma
Sometimes we believe the lie that thinking or saying we forgive someone wipes the slate clean as if the trauma didn’t happen. As if we aren’t sticky with the residue of trauma. Or as if our five Bs (Brain, Biology, Behavior, Beliefs, Body- check out the Beginner Bundle for more info) didn’t get affected because we say “I forgive.” Forgiving doesn’t remove the effects of trauma. We still have to do the hard work of healing.
Basically what I was saying was “I don’t want to get well. Thank you. I’ll stay stuck here by the pool, feeling anxious and fearful.” Anxiety, depression, and fear were all screaming at me to face my past. To make sense of. To acknowledge it. To get angry at what happened to me just as I did with my kiddos. I’m not talking about revenge here. This isn’t a tv movie. It’s real life. Getting angry means being upset at the injustice, the mistreatment, the love and attachment I missed. When I acknowledge those things that happened to me and that they are not me, I can stop living a shame-based life.
Is This You Too?
Is this you? Are you struggling? Burying your feelings and hanging onto anxiety as if it is a warm fuzzy blanket? Do you want to get well? As I said, I’ve had to answer these questions for myself on a daily basis. Some days I prefer the slimy survival mode of trauma because I don’t want to do the hard work of healing. Those days are full of anxiety and fear and reactions I’m not proud of. I want my childhood trauma not to matter now so I can try to control the situation even though I can’t (another myth).
When we acknowledge our feelings and face our past, then we can reconceptualize our beliefs. When reconceptualized, we can fully activate our superpower – Empathy. God, through the Holy Spirit, comes alongside us and comforts us as we make sense of and peace with our past. This doesn’t mean we say it’s all okay or we deserved it. I used to think those codependent, victim thoughts all the time.
Imagine Jesus Weeping Over You
Instead, imagine Jesus weeping at the abuse and injustices you endured. He came to heal the brokenhearted, binding up their wounds. That was one of the scriptures I prayed often for my kiddos. Sadly, it took years for me to apply it to myself.
He cares for you. He wants to bind up your wounds. Your past childhood trauma matters to Him. He came that you might have life and live it to the full – not to be plagued by fear and anxiety. He wants your heart whole, not broken. He sees your heart for your children. He’s willing to take that heart infused with empathy and compassion and help you lead your children on the path of healing. As Dr. Purvis said, “You can’t take your children where you haven’t gone yourself.” Once you want to get well, you can go down the path of healing. You can comfort your children with the same comfort you have been comforted with.
Blessed [gratefully praised and adored] be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts and encourages us in every trouble so that we will be able to comfort and encourage those who are in any kind of trouble, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. – 2 Corinthians 1: 3, 4