A client told me about a time when she was about ten years old and she awoke one morning to find the house was icy cold. Her stepdad was not at home, but she had watched him build fires in the fireplace (their only source of heat) many times. She decided she could do it and make the house warm for her mother and siblings. She completed the task successfully, feeling proud as the house warmed up. Her mom and siblings were happy to feel the warmth as they came downstairs shivering from the cold. Seeing them warm up made her smile and feel good about herself.
However, her good feelings and joy turned into confusion and terror after her stepdad came home and learned what she had done. Instead of acknowledging her success, he went into a rage about all the bad things that could have gone wrong. He told her that she could have set the house on fire and killed everyone. He told her he must punish her for what might have happened to make sure she never did anything like that again. The last thing she remembered was seeing her stepdad close the large curtains in the living room and walk toward her as a belt swung from his hand.
This memory came back to the woman from time to time, but as an adult she was too busy taking care of her family, career and other life stresses to pay it much attention. Until one day at an important meeting she was confronted by having to answer serious questions about her work. She was surprised when she felt a deep sense of terror in her body. She felt sick in her stomach, her throat was tight and dry, her legs and arms felt weak and her mind was so confused she couldn't remember everything she knew. Toward the end of the meeting her body began shaking badly and she felt cold all over. She could barely sign her name. On shaky legs she left the room feeling very confused, shamed and afraid. She wanted to disappear or run but she didn't. Everything went OK at work in spite of her distress, but she had been left shaken and sought counseling.
Through our sessions she began to reconnect to that ten-year old part of herself and began asking questions she had not dared to ask before:
- What would a child that age feel from such an experience?
- What could that kind of experience do to a child's self-concept?
- What would a ten-year old begin to think about authority?
- What had been so wrong with what she had done that it needed such harsh punishment?
She connected to how terrified she was as she experienced her stepdad's rage through the physical assault on her small body. She recalled feeling confused about the experience and didn't understand why he would do that. That was not the first time she had received welts and bruises with a belt from him and she recalled seeing him swing that belt at her siblings.
Another incident burned in her memory was when he hit her toddler brother on his bare bottom while he swung him in the air and deposited him violently on the potty chair. She remembered his screams. She saw herself standing in frozen terror, shocked and outraged for not being able to do anything to stop it. She blamed herself, and hated herself for being such a coward.
She realized her self-punishment was really a reflection of the merciless way she had been treated as a child. The belief that she deserved to continue that punishment was a testimony to the impact of her stepfather's fear-based parenting practices. In that 10-year olds defining moment, her nervous system wired this memory and then put it in the back filing cabinet ready for the right circumstances to reactivate it. After years of staying hidden, it was reactivated when she was being seriously questioned at her job. The opportunity to heal herself had come up, and she took the challenge.
Through our work together she came to have more compassion for herself and to realize she had been paying a life sentence for what didn't happen. She didn't need to keep carrying the fear-based experience inside her body or mind, which made her second guess herself and sabotage the life she kept working to create. She realized she had an inner bully.
This bully was not one of her own making but came from the experiences of being repeatedly bullied by someone who was supposed to protect her and teach and guide her. It had all turned in on her without her realizing. When this bully raised its head she felt like a victim. She forgot she had survived the real bully. Though she was not able to protect herself or her siblings all those years ago, she wasn't that little girl any more. In continuing to repeat this harshness she kept abandoning herself. Rather than understand how overwhelmed that 10-year old child was, she put expectations on herself that were detrimental and unreasonable. Her self-sabotage was really motivated by her lack of accepting that as a child she did the best she could under the most difficult circumstances. There was no way for her to not be hurt and bullied. There was no way she could protect herself.
As she faced where she had been and worked through the shame of feeling she was worthless, a fog begin to lift. She began to speak up for herself, set healthy boundaries with other people and practiced self-care. She began to get her joy and liveliness back. Her friends and family commented on how much younger she looked. She found she felt comfortable in her own body. She began taking out her paints and painting again. Somewhere she had lost her creative urge and joy in life. It was fun to watch her blossom and grow as we worked together to connect her to her more soulfull self. She learned how to respond to her old messages rather than react in fear. She reconnected to her joy. One comment she made that sticks with me "This has been the hardest work I've ever done and the work I'm most grateful to have done. I was getting old because of my inner bitterness and self-condemnation. Now I feel frisky and ready to see what else is out there for me."
By taking responsibility for the good, bad and ugly in her life, she became a victor rather than a victim; a thriver rather than just surviving and enduring. She learned her built in survival system helped her to endure, but that is not the same as living. Like many I have counseled she didn't know that childhood issues carefully tucked away at times of trauma and stress can stay dormant for years until the right situation triggers them. By expressing, processing and integrating this traumatic experience she took ownership to become the authority and author of her life. She knows now that when she is triggered it is an opportunity to stop the haunting and reclaim her precious self into her present. If she needs help she knows I'm here in her corner as her guide. It is she who has done the work to set herself free!
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