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6 Things to Expect When Healing Childhood Trauma


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

When you were little, did you ever try to make a whirlpool out of your kiddie pool by swimming a few laps in the same direction? It doesn’t take long to create a current when the water is still.

Once you had that whirlpool going, did you ever try to change the current to move in the opposite direction? It takes so much more work, effort and stamina to change directions.

Healing from childhood trauma as an adult is so much like this whirlpool.

We shouldn’t be surprised when we make a decision to move in a new direction towards healing and face incredible opposition. (Side note: it does require a decision, by the way. We can’t just heal without effort.)

Here is what we can expect as we decide to embark on one of the most important journeys of our lives, our healing journey:

1. The first step is the hardest.

The first few steps toward healing are always the hardest because of the subconscious patterns we have lived in for our entire lives.

Just like changing directions in the self-made whirlpool, when we intentionally start to change directions, it will get worse initially as our physical force (our will power, self-discipline and decisions) goes against the current (old patterns of behavior) before it gets better.

As our brains were developing throughout childhood, we learned patterns, mostly subconscious, to keep ourselves alive. For instance, our sense of safety has long been compromised. Some of us probably find ourselves living on edge and hypervigilant, constantly assessing situations and environments when we enter the room, or putting up walls to keep people out for fear of getting hurt, abused or abandoned again.

These are examples of patterns that we have upheld for years as defense mechanisms. Habits are hard to break, especially if we have been using them for decades. They are even harder when these patterns were learned in the developmental stages in our life.

2. It is easier, but not beneficial, to stay the same.

It is much easier to stay with the current misery, brokenness and dysfunction. It is so much easier to lash out at others in anger when we feel threatened or to hide because it is the way we have protected ourselves in the past. My hope is that each of us can come to a place where we recognize these survival tactics are no longer serving us or the people we love well. I hope in that moment we feel safe and empowered enough to make some very simple, but not easy, changes our future selves will thank us for.

3. Self-awareness is our most helpful tool.

In order to move toward healing, we have to be completely honest with ourselves about our current state. Self-awareness is our most helpful tool in the healing process.

We have to be self-aware in order to identify the behaviors that are no longer serving us well. If we don’t acknowledge it, we can’t change it. We can no longer use the excuse that these behaviors are “just who we are.” Our behavior is not our identity or who we are, but how we choose to react.

We have literally lived our lives subconsciously thinking that we are on the verge of life or death situations every day simply because the chronic and unpredictable stressful events we encountered almost daily as children. It is completely understandable and honestly remarkable that we adapted to our environments in order to survive. We have fought a good fight, but friends: We don’t have to fight anymore.

4. We have options.

Most of the time, we don’t even realize we have other options for how to respond. The good news is, we don’t just have options, we have the power to choose our response. Just because our initial instinct for years has been to blow up on someone else when we feel uncomfortable or threatened does not mean it is the correct or most beneficial reaction.

We can learn to choose patience. We can count to five before responding. We can take deep breaths. We can self-regulate our emotions. We can speak positive and encouraging words over our situations instead of complaining or focusing on the negative. We can learn to trust and forgive. We can take a self-care break. We can walk away instead of getting angry.

We can start slow. We won’t be able to change every habit overnight. We can start by recognizing our trigger points and identifying how we want to choose to react going forward.

5. The new habits will become second nature.

Eventually, the current will lose momentum and give in to our forced new direction. Our lives will absolutely start to move in the direction we want it to go — the opposite direction they have moved for decades. Over time, the new habits and behaviors will become second nature. Most days, they will practically move without us even having to think or give any real effort.

6. Tough days will still come, but there will be less of them.

We must understand and expect that we will inevitably face days where we don’t want to think about healing. We don’t want to think about our reactions. We don’t have a single bit of effort to give. The tough days will come, but eventually, they will be few and far between.

Please know that in those moments it is OK to rest. In fact, those feelings are usually an indication that we need to rest and let the new current carry us for a little bit.

I can remember the blissful moments of finally getting the whirlpool’s current moving in the direction I wanted at a great momentum and being able to rest. Please rest! That is why we have established this new set of habits and behaviors anyway — so we can eventually function in a healthy manner without having to give so much effort.

We will inevitably have obstacles that will interrupt our flow. Be prepared for the day, maybe after years of having established healthy boundaries and patterns, where we get triggered out of nowhere. It will happen. There’s grace for that.

The good news is, our current will already be moving in the right direction; we may just have to put in a little more effort after to get our momentum back where we want it.

At some point, we may have rested so much that our current becomes stagnant or still. There’s nothing wrong with peaceful waters! We don’t always need to be giving so much effort to have a whirlpool. Sometimes we just need to be still.

Follow this journey on the author’s website.

Photo by Miranda Wipperfurth on Unsplash