What It Looks Like When My Inner Child Gets Triggered in Trauma Therapy
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Those of us with trauma histories who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD (C-PTSD) often talk about what triggers us, what it’s like to be triggered, and how that manifests as somatic or emotional flashbacks, nightmares, panic, or even dissociation. While I have experienced all of these and to a certain extent continue to be affected by triggers in these ways, something that I have discovered recently as I begin to explore some “inner child” work in therapy is that sometimes when I’m triggered, my response is less obvious and far more difficult for me and others to recognize. When I get triggered by something, particularly when it’s something that makes me feel somehow helpless, unsafe, or like I’ve been rejected, I regress into what I have determined is my 8 or 9-year-old child self.
This is not a dissociative episode in the vein of someone with dissociative identity disorder (DID). My adult self is very much still present and aware of what’s happening. It’s more like what I can best describe as having my rational adult brain hijacked by the traumatized and terror-stricken brain of the child I was when I was that age. It’s extremely uncomfortable and it causes me to “act out” or become reactive in ways that make my adult self cringe.
For the longest time, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening. I knew something felt “off” and that I could behave irrationally but I thought something was just wrong with me. I must be a bad person who makes others uncomfortable and pushes them away because I’m too needy and a pain in the ass; that’s literally a phrase I’ve emailed or texted to my therapist and friends when this phenomenon happens and I’m not proud of it.
What does this look like? I’ll give you an example that happened in the last week. I had a situation arise regarding travel arrangements for my mother. I had gone back and forth via text with her to confirm the details. I went ahead and booked the trip after spending over two hours on the phone with the hotel, her bank, and the reservations agent because she has a complicated financial situation that I handle for her. Right after I was done, my uncle informed me that my mother gave me the incorrect information and that in her haste she rushed me into making the reservations before he could confirm with me. So I ended up having to cancel everything and basically wasted all that time and effort all because if my mother wants something it has to happen yesterday and if I don’t do it immediately, she will harass me. This is not new behavior. She’s been like this my entire life and ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had to clean up her messes when she acts impulsively without complete information.
While this may not appear to be an overly traumatic or triggering event, I was not only frustrated but felt like, yet again, I had put my mom’s needs first. I dropped everything I was doing to fix something for her, had it backfire, and then had to fix her mistake. This repetitive pattern of behavior tapped into the feelings I had growing up as a parentified child which always sets me off and leaves me resentful, bitter, filled with rage, out of control, and helpless. In spite of my efforts to separate myself from her and establish healthier boundaries, I still occasionally get derailed, and when I do, it’s like it sets off a catastrophic childish meltdown in my brain that I cannot control.
It may begin emotionally, but it quickly moves into my body. I feel like my head is filled with helium, my whole body is engulfed in flames starting from my face and working its way down my body, settling deep into my gut, which tightens and instantly turns into a stomach ache, acid reflux, and a kind of heaviness that feels like my entire body is being compressed to the point that I cannot breathe. Then the panic sets in and I begin to feel like I’m hyperventilating. I try to breathe through it, talk myself out of it, calm myself, but it’s as though I no longer possess any agency over my body. It once again belongs to my (s)mother who has always told me that it’s her right to touch me, see me naked or otherwise insert herself into my corporal autonomy because “I came out of her body.” It’s suffocating and stifling and it sends my inner child into a complete emotional tantrum.
I become inconsolable, convinced that the situation is direr than it is, and even if I rationally understand that I didn’t do anything wrong — since my mother and her happiness has always been my responsibility, my “failure” to correctly book her impending travel felt like I let her down in some way and that 8 or 9-year-old inner child cannot tolerate feeling like she is a “bad daughter” or in any way has let her mother down. This spirals into feeling persecuted, like nobody cares about, likes or wants me around because clearly I’m flawed and now that I’m upset, I’m also overwhelming to others around me. What I probably need is to allow others to help me, comfort me, and support me. What I actually do is push people away and isolate, convinced that I’m a burden, too much, and simultaneously not enough.
As the day goes by, a kind of paranoia sets in where I begin questioning everything and everyone around me, even those I trust implicitly like my husband, therapist, and close friends. I become convinced that I’m really completely incompetent at everything my adult self recognizes that I do well like writing, cooking, and being a good friend. Surely my adult self cannot be trusted and others are just telling me I’m talented or good to appease me, keep me silent, keep me out of their hair, and keep me from being trouble. And then, intense fear of abandonment sets in. My silent bids for attention and connection are deafening in my own mind and completely imperceptible to those around me. This reinforces that I cannot really trust anyone and that eventually, everyone will leave me because I’m so bad, damaged, and broken.
What my husband sees is a woman who appears angry, distracted, unavailable, and irritated by everyone and everything. He assumes he has done something wrong. I don’t reassure him to the contrary because in that moment I’m not his wife, I’m the scared little girl who desperately needed an attentive mommy but who instead felt invisible and unprotected, constantly vulnerable to being hurt by others. This state may last a day, a week, or longer. He has learned to ask if he did something wrong so that I can unmute my silent inner child long enough to tell him he didn’t do anything wrong and that I love him. He has learned to ask if he can hug me to try to calm my nervous system. And he has recognized that sometimes it’s just going to take time for my adult self to regain control over my mind. Other times, it may take the skilled help of my therapist who recognizes this little girl’s presence to help her realize she’s not in danger anymore, is not alone, and is not bad.
I wish I could say with confidence that I have a consistent way of managing when my inner child takes over my world. But that would be a lie. Truth is, I’m only now understanding what is actually occurring. I’ve just ascertained through working on my “trauma timeline” that the age that gets triggered the most is in fact 8 or 9, a time that was the most tumultuous in my childhood and where the most impactful traumas of my childhood occurred. Now that I’m aware of it, I hope that I can continue doing the necessary “inner child” work in therapy to help integrate that child with my adult self. I hope we can make peace so that we are no longer at war with one another, fighting for control over my mind and body, each attempting to win the tug of war that cannot actually have a victor. I hope that one day we are a team, pals, working together to help me be my best, healthiest and most actualized self. But for now, I can still see and hear us in my mind, hands on our hips, standing there facing one another down at opposition… sometimes just giving one another the stink eye, other times screaming at each other to “leave me alone.” It’s powerful and it’s painful, but I know I have the fortitude to keep doing the work no matter how slow it seems to be going.
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