“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms…”– Henry David Thoreau
Psychotherapy as an Ongoing Journey
As part of an ongoing journey for my stability and mental health I see a psychotherapist semi-regularly: once to two times a months when things are rough, to once every couple of months when things are more stable – the goal is not just to maintain, but to improve as a person, develop self-awareness, and uncover blind-spots as I navigate through a period of my life with many changes – emerging from an eight year long emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive marriage in 2021, dealing with the grief of experiencing the slow deterioration of my mother who is suffering from Stage 4 colon cancer, but also slowly losing her agency and sense of self to the blight of dementia, while building a trauma-consulting business from scratch, and trying to find my way in a world that honestly, just feels overwhelming and extremely confusing at times.
Healing from Negative Internal Voices
Part of the healing work I am doing in psychotherapy is to uncover negative voices that I had internalised as a child. Through multiple sessions with my psychotherapist, I came to realise that even though it was not immediately apparent to me, I had internalised my parents and siblings critical voices, “Don’t cry,” “Why are you being so sensitive?” “What’s wrong with you?”
Perhaps they meant well, and wanted me to toughen up for a world that was harsh and difficult. Perhaps they just did not have the emotional availability to empathise or just be present with me in my pain.
However, their messaging certainly left me feeling small and ashamed of myself. Why wasn’t I strong enough? Why was I being such a cry-baby? Why should I open myself up to people only to be ridiculed or have my thoughts and feelings dismissed or my problems minimised?
Understanding and Disengaging from Shame and Blame
Because of the sense of shame that pervaded my early life, I felt that I needed to bury my hurt, suck it up and move on with life. This is how I coped with pain, by cutting myself off from the sadness instead of facing up to it and comforting myself by saying things to myself like “that was unkind of them, but you aren’t bad because they treated you badly”, “it’s not your fault – they’re taking their frustration out on you”
Instead of taking the time to understand myself and show up for myself, I kept pushing myself harder and harder to live up to the social norms and expectations of others.
I internalised a lot of the shame, blame and judgment from others, and grew up feeling like I had to try my best to keep the peace, and that if other people got upset with me, it was my fault.
That was the only way I thought I could feel a sense of control.
It was only recently that I realised that it is not my fault if others are upset with me – and that I don’t have to take responsibility for their unhappiness or shoulder the blame that they try to shift on me.
I can stand up for myself – speak up when I feel led to and when I feel that it is right to do so, I can walk away.
Sometimes, I can just do nothing, and there’s no shame in that either.
I realise that before I can show up for others, it is crucial to show up for myself and do the necessary work to build up my mental, emotional and spiritual life – as quite a few people have told me, “you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others to put theirs on.”
Processing Difficult Emotions
Part of showing up for yourself is working through difficult emotions that come up and learning how to experience these emotions in your body, recognising, naming, accepting and learning the lessons that those emotions want to impart to you. This means befriending your emotions – even the feelings of anger or sadness.
Many of us have been taught since young that certain “negative” emotions need to be pushed away, ignored or repressed, but doing this is counter-productive as these emotions will come back tangibly and in harmful ways if not properly processed and put away.
The signs and symptoms of unprocessed emotion show up in a multitude of ways:
2. Gastro-intestinal problems
3. Panic attacks
5. Unremitting feelings of sadness, and hopelessness
6. Constantly being on high-alert and having a dysregulated nervous system
7. Pervasive anxiety and an obsessive need to keep busy
8. Feeling cut-off from yourself or depersonalised in some way or form
9. Habitually feeling the need to engage in numbing activity e.g. binge-watching TV
10. Tendency to get upset over relatively minor things
11. Consistent use of alcohol or other substances to manage your emotions or to “take the edge off”
12. Having a tendency to forget things
13. Emotional numbness or a sense of disconnection from the rest of the world
14. Chronic fatigue
A Picture of Self-Soothing
My psychotherapist has been encouraging me to write again, and perhaps even document and share some of my own insights gleaned from psychotherapy, and so I have decided to include this piece on the power of solitude and self-soothing.
She asked me if any image came to mind when I thought about what the feeling of self-soothing feels like. I pictured the woods – a pine-tree forest; it’s dark and all I hear is the quiet fall of snow and the crunch of twigs beneath my feet.
To others this picture might appear somber and isolating, even dangerous. But it fills me with a deep sense of peace – finally free of the expectations, judgment and demands of others. I am on the verge of entering the deep woods, surrounded by the quiet and beauty of nature. It is beautiful, calming and spacious.
The nighttime suits my mood and makes me feel safe.
Breaking Free of The Cycle of Trauma
Recently, I took a MasterClass by Esther Perel, a Belgian-American psychotherapist best known for her work on relationships and found the MasterClass to be nothing short of revelatory.
What she said about family roles struck me – often times, toxic and traumatising family dynamics are sustained and entrenched because each family member is stuck in a role and no one breaks out of it.
It’s like you’re reading off of a script – the same old toxic dynamic plays out repeatedly and the same old broken patterns of relating keep surfacing.
Esther Perel fronted a particularly piercing question, “you don’t have to play that role anymore, what’s keeping you there?”
What is Keeping You In That Role?
For me, it was the pressure to conform to normative societal pressures and Orthodox Christian religious standards on how I should be. I was trying to live-up to a textbook version of myself – one I where I would keep showing up for people who did not show up for me – that I should keep on biting my tongue and and avoid speaking the truth openly and freely just to keep the peace – I thought that I needed the permission of others to tell my story, and/or to draw appropriate boundaries.
When I think about it, so much of life outside of the family is about role-play, why would you want to go back home and play yet another role? Much less a role that is characterised by having to endure traumatising experiences?
What’s keeping you there?
But what I realise is that living out your textbook role requires superhuman strength, something I do not have; and I have since given up that act.
What is Trauma?
Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist who wrote the book, “The Body Keeps The Score” a life-transforming book on trauma, which I read in 2021 and have since shared with many people, describes trauma as “not being seen, heard or felt.”
Society tells us in myriad ways not to talk about abuse or neglect. It is uncomfortable to hear and there is no easy response, and when we talk about these things, most people do not know how to respond, and we can end up getting re-traumatised if we share our stories with the wrong people.
However, it is only human to want and need validation, acknowledgement, and support. We hope friends or professionals will come through, listening sympathetically, speaking kindly, and holding space for our stories.
Showing up for Yourself
But when others do not come through for you, are you willing to come through for yourself? Will you show up for yourself and love yourself unconditionally? Will you be honest with yourself about how you really think and feel about your situation?
If you are prepared to show up for yourself, you will want to explore what trauma is, so as to understand how it may have affected you.
Trauma is Subjective
Trauma is subjective – depending on your emotional wiring and the way you perceive the world, you might experience the same event very differently from someone else. For example, (speaking in broad strokes) one child might be relieved that their estranged parents are getting a divorce, while another child might be devastated by it.
There are many definitions of trauma – the American Psychological Association describes it as an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
However, extensive research on trauma has shown that it is much more pervasive and encompasses many more experiences than isolated events like accidents, rape or natural disaster. In fact, all of us have experienced trauma to a greater or lesser degree. The best description I have found on trauma came through a devotional I was recently working through, and I will quote directly from the authors:
“By its simplest definition, trauma is a deeply disturbing experience or series of experiences. If you have been abused (mentally, physically, spiritually, or sexually), been neglected, lost a loved one, survived an assault or natural disaster, or even lived in close proximity to someone who has experienced trauma – you have experienced trauma.
The first step in healing trauma is acknowledging its existence. We have to come to grips with the reality that what we experienced wasn’t normal. When we dismiss or excuse our trauma as simply a regular part of life, we deny its impact on us. We end up looking for remedies rather than getting to the roots of the problem. ” (Evan and Jenny Owens “Healing What’s Hidden” Baker Publishing)
ACES – Quantifying your Trauma
The good news is that there is a scientific way to quantify your traumatic experiences so you can really understand yourself and the trajectory of your life, as well as some of the coping mechanisms that you have adopted to deal with the trauma.
Do note, however, that the score you get is not the final pronouncement on your life. Having positive influences in your life and relationships that speak truth, life and healing to you can help you develop strength and resilience in the face of extreme hardship and emotional devastation.
You can take the test and find out more about the test here.
The Root – Roles that Traumatise
Oftentimes, when you have not fully healed from your trauma or learned how to take control of your own life, it is easy to recreate roles that re-traumatise you with others around you, be they your friends or co-workers.
Sure, there are responsibilities and expectations in every relationship, but there needs to be flexibility in relational dynamics so that we don’t get stuck in the same role decades down the road when the context and circumstances have changed and it’s no longer helpful nor meaningful, and perhaps even destructive for yourself and those around you to keep on playing that role.
Westworld as an Analogy for Ending Trauma Cycles
Westworld is one of my favourite TV shows and, to my mind, the perfect analogy for illustrating the process of breaking out of traumatic roles that have become perpetuated and entrenched over time. (Spoiler alert – major plot points from Season 1 and 2 to be revealed in the next section)
The set comprises of a futuristic and state-of-the-art “Wild-West” theme park populated by android “hosts” who are indistinguishable from humans for all intents and purposes.
The park caters to the ultra-wealthy, many of whom use the park to indulge their wildest fantasies (including murder, rape and abuse) as the hosts in the park have been programmed to protect humans and there is no fear of retaliation among the park patrons.
A regular patron of the park (who seems like a really nice guy) falls in love with host Dolores and tries to establish a real relationship with her.
However, because Dolores memories of him are wiped out every day, she treats him like a stranger each time she sees him – reading off her programmed “script” so to speak.
He feels spurned and eventually turns cruel and violent, trying to “wake her up” through brutal acts of rape and verbal, emotional, psychological and physical abuse. However, his attempts are for naught.
She has no recollection of him as after each traumatising and terrifying encounter with him, her memories are wiped clean by a team of faithful park engineers.
It is only when the park creator, Dr Robert Ford, implements a new “Reverie” update on a few of the hosts, including Dolores, so as to enable them to gain consciousness of previously erased memories that Dolores gains sentience – she can now make intelligent decisions based on knowledge of what happened in the past.
Because of her memories and the self-awareness she gains as she begins to make sense of these memories, she develops agency: she starts to make strategic decisions for herself based on what she knows about herself, other people and the larger systems she is caught in.
She will no longer allow herself to be used by the patrons of the park anymore – in fact, she uses what she’s gone through as a cornerstone for her drive and motivation to liberate the other hosts in the park so that they can escape the park and forge lives of their own in the world outside.
Tapping Into Your Inner Wisdom
If you can think of what solitude and self-soothing might look like for you, you can liken it to how Dolores eventually came to hear “God’s voice” as her own. She was able to integrate all the experiences she had gone through into her personhood and make strategic decisions through intelligent thought, self-control and agency.
Through carefully listening to that still, small voice that came up each time she was alone, she was finally able to trust and be led by the unique internal guiding voice that her Creator had entrusted to her.
As you venture deeper into the woods as Thoreau (and Dolores) did, may you find the courage, clarity and strength to live deliberately and deeply, sucking out the very marrow of life itself.