Trauma is a challenging word to take in…
For many of us, it’s a loaded word; a word we wouldn’t use to describe our experience; and a word we’re much rather avoid. It can feel heavy to some, or it’s a word we reserve only for those who’ve been through natural disasters, war, or who’ve experienced overt abuse or neglect as children.
But trauma is the word we use to describe the experience we have not being able to metabolize experiences that were “too much, too soon, or too fast” for us to process. This means any event that challenged the resources we have available to meet the threat we felt.
In my work, I focus on developmental/relational and sexual abuse trauma. While sexual abuse trauma is more obvious to some, developmental and relational trauma may not be. Developmental and relational trauma are far more pervasive in our culture than we may know; and it can be the product of the way individuals, families, communities and cultures have learned to live in their bodies and relate to one another through them.
Our inability as children to experience both the safety and security of attachment to our caregivers, AND feel free to be and to express the full spectrum of our humanity, is an experience that can live on in our bodies and minds throughout life, if we never become conscious of this or do the work to heal it.
The women, and mothers, we are today have been shaped by the cultures and the families we grew up in and the early experiences we had within them.
As the highly social animals that we are, we are so dependent on our relationships in early life for our food, shelter and, most importantly, for our sense of safety in the world; so much so that our priority - beyond eating - is to bond with those charged to care for us. The way we're set up in the modern western world is that its primarily the responsibility of the nuclear family (mom and dad) to care for us both physically and mentally/emotionally and, for many of our mothers, and their mothers, it was solely their responsibility (no pressure!).
We needed these early attachments to grow and thrive and to become fully intelligible members of the social group into which we were born. In fact, you and I spent the earliest years of life in a theta brainwave state (the state of meditators and people under hypnosis). This state made us little sponges soaking up everything around us and making mental maps of the important stuff to remember.
Our early attachment to our caregivers mattered, and it mattered a lot. Attachment theory, the long-researched theory of how children become attached to their caregivers and how securely or insecurely they attach, is one way we come to understand how we, as women and mothers, formed our early attachments and how this shapes our relationship to ourselves and others today, and the extent to which we're able to attune to our children.
For so many of us, how our parents (and, for many, especially our mothers) related to and responded to us had a profound and fundamental impact of how we felt and thought, and what we believed, about ourselves. Our all-too-human mothers, whose own early relationships shaped how they, in turn, could respond to us, were often unavailable, or difficult for us, because of their own insecure attachments and early traumas. Not necessarily obvious trauma either, but the trauma of insecurity which is more pervasive than you might think.
The trauma of insecurity
Why are you here reading about trauma, if that's not something you'd use to describe yourself or your experience? Even for me, growing up with a mother who suffered from layers of trauma and subsequent mental illness, and having experienced sexual abused throughout the first 12 years of my life - I didn't identify as someone who'd experienced trauma. Sound odd? Well, it was normalized for me, my experience, so that even when the more obvious traumas were acknowledged, I realized there were traumas I experienced that were far more common in the culture as a whole. I call this the trauma of insecurity.
The best definition of trauma I know goes like this: Trauma is anything that was too much, too soon, and too fast for us to process and integrate.
And it causes elements of the past to get stuck in the biology of our bodies and subconscious experience. By that definition, we all have traumas (big or small) that want resolution.
There are fundamental needs that children (and adults!) have that go far beyond sleep, shelter, food and clothing. These are the deep need we have to be attuned to, to feel seen, to be believed, to feel understood, to feel validated, to feel safe, and to feel free to explore and become independent of the people who cared for us. Many women wouldn't say that they had a "traumatic" childhood, in the sense that they didn't suffer from outright abuse or neglect, but we either don't recognize, or we overlook, or we undermine the trauma of implicitly believing we're "not good enough", "not loved", or there's "something wrong with me."
These implicit beliefs become like a program running on repeat behind the scenes, obscuring our perception of ourselves in the world and in our relationships. We often don't see how they're motivating our thoughts, our emotions, and our reaction to our children when, for example, our son or daughter breaks down in the middle of the grocery store and has a temper tantrum. We don't see how, how we feel in that moment speaks to some of these deeper beliefs, a longer and older story we're telling about ourselves, and that we've been telling for the good part of our lives.
These beliefs and emotions become encoded in our bodies, and its in our bodies that we gain access to them again. There's a lot of science around this now that I explore in the work I do with mothers.
Wired as these beliefs and perceptions and behaviors are in our brain and nervous system, they feel real, "natural", and just like a part of our personality. We might think that's "just how we are", when really it's just what we've practiced the longest, telling and retelling the same story at a subconscious, embodied level.
What effect does this have on who we are today?
This trauma - this chronic stress or anxiety stemming from our earliest life - keeps us from living the fullness of who we are in the present moment. Our ability to be present with ourselves, with our partners, and with our children is compromised by the effects of this trauma on our bodies, brains and nervous systems. It impacts how we experience and process feelings of safety and threat, it impacts how well, if at all, we come "down" from stressful events, or what events trigger us in the first place (one woman might have alarm bells go off when her child tantrums in the store because of how she'll be perceived by others because it arouses in her a sense of real threat, while another just doesn't).
Living in this state we are constantly trying to control and manage the people and events of our lives, in order to feel better. We're pushed and pulled by the forces of the world around us, afraid to say no, afraid to disappoint people, and often afraid to say what we need, and that we need help. (Many, many women struggle with thyroid conditions, and the thyroid has a connection to our voice, our ability to speak our truth and own it.)
Can you imagine the physical and psychological toll this takes on us? It's freaking exhausting, is what it is! (I would know)
And the body feels this. Our nervous system running always at capacity means that we often don't have the bandwidth left for the needs of our children. And we're dealing with complex human lives, who'll have difficult experiences and relationships all their own. This can challenge our resources to know how to respond to them, and to respond in a way we'd wish.
What can we do about it?
ONLY everything. Isn’t that exciting news!? What wisdom traditions have known for a millennia, and what modern science now knows, is that we can have another experience of ourselves in the world. The science of our nervous system says we can rewire it, increase capacity, become more fully embodied and present, and resolve the trauma of early life...whether from abuse (tragically, so many women experience this) or from the trauma of insecurity...not feeling seen, heard, understood, or not feeling protected and like we had a place to go to feel safe, or not feeling FREE to BE in the world in the way we’d like. Or the trauma of having parented an insecure or emotionally difficult parent.
We start the challenging work of 'waking up' to ourselves. We cultivate awareness through contemplative practices and practices that bring us into dialogue again with another - more direct - experience of ourselves (one that we were actually born connected to). The life that is fully present, connected to the internal and external world through the senses, and the only state in which we can finally begin the work of disentangling our voice from the voices of those who've shaped how we think about ourselves (from our past). We can finally begin the work of discovering anew this life that we are beyond the stories of culture and family, and all of the experiences we've had that have "affirmed" to us what we've believed about ourselves. (If you believe you're not good enough, you'll always find examples of that in the world.)
We are truly coming back to this fundamental and primal experience of the world by reconnecting with the animal that we are. Reconnecting with our senses, our sensory experience of the world, our impulses, our felt sense, our truth, our voice, our perception, and from that place we can fully inhabit this world, making the noise we need to make when we need to make it, and feeling just as much a part of it as anyone or anything else. This is real empowerment.
(P.S. And this is why this work is about all women at its core. Our voice, our "NO", our power. Just saying.)
As a multi-passionate woman, and a lifelong student and lover of wisdom from whatever corner of the world (and from whatever tradition) it comes, I have an approach that's unique to me because I'm a unique expression of life on the planet (as are you). Through the work I take women through in my signature program, I explore history and culture (bringing in the anthropological lens); I explore early life experience and attachment theory, and draw on practices (and teachings) from mindfulness, and Somatic Experiencing, which is a unique approach to the resolution of trauma and the rewiring of the nervous system.
Is this work easy?
Absolutely not (see quote above. In fact, read the entire poem). You're entering unchartered territory, in a sense, and you can expect it to be both challenging and fascinating and liberating all at once. We become courageous and willing to feel all the uncomfortable feelings, and to hold seemingly contradictory truths at once about our experience. But this work IS freedom itself, and it IS what empowers us to break the cycles of the past (and the influence of generations) to carve out a new legacy for ourselves and for our children. For women and the world. (Yes, I'm also extremely idealistic and optimistic, but I know the possibilities are real.)
For me, this process maybe starts or finds FIRE when we give birth to our children and it ignites a sense of urgency to wake up and grow up. We give birth to ourselves as mothers in the process - mama bears to ourselves and our children, and in the process, we give birth to the women we become. Strong. Empowered. And at home in her wisdom, her intuition, in her voice.