NYC Psychotherapist Blog

power by WikipediaMindmap

Monday, January 27, 2014

Looking at Your Childhood Trauma History From an Adult Perspective

As a psychotherapist in NYC, one of my specialties is working with adults who are experiencing psychological trauma.  For many clients, their history of trauma stems from psychologically overwhelming events that occurred when they were children.  While working through childhood-related psychological trauma isn't easy, many therapy clients are grateful to discover that they often develop a more nuanced view of their childhood trauma that gives them a broader perspective.

Looking at Your Childhood Trauma History From an Adult Perspective

Becoming an adult provides an opportunity to develop a greater emotional capacity to deal with adversity, including a history of emotional trauma.

Life experience and the awareness that you have overcome challenges in your life in the past often increases your confidence that you can overcome current and future challenges.

You might also have a more mature and nuanced perspective about your childhood trauma now as compared to when you were going through it as a child.  For some people, this perspective is mostly an intellectual as opposed to a more integrated emotional understanding.

Sometimes, people don't develop this more nuanced perspective about their  childhood trauma history until they start processing their emotional trauma in trauma therapy.  When this happens, in some cases, certain aspects of their history can be quite surprising in a positive way.

Some clients discover that they're able to recapture positive aspects of their childhood that they had originally thought were "all negative."  When this happens, it's often an opportunity to have a more balanced view of a childhood history that, initially, seemed "all bad" to the client.

The following composite vignette, with all identifying information changed, illustrates this point:

Ann, who was in her late 20s, came to therapy because she had difficulty in her romantic relationships with men.

Ann had been in psychotherapy before, and she had some insight that her feelings about her father  had an negative impact on her ability to be in a relationship with a man, but knowing this was of little help to her when she started a new relationship.

Looking at Your Childhood Trauma History From an Adult Perspective

She felt a sense of despair that "men are no good" and she would never find anyone with whom she would have a lasting relationship.

On an intellectual level, Ann knew that there had to be men who were loving, kind and emotionally attentive.  But, deep down on an emotional level, she didn't feel it.

Initially, Ann told me that her father never loved her.  As we talked about her relationship with her father, Ann described him as "irresponsible" and "selfish" for leaving her and her mother when she was five.  From her perspective,  he only made "obligatory visits" and she didn't know why he even bothered since she was sure that he didn't love her.

At first, Ann said that she no longer felt hurt about her history with her father, but the painful look on her face told a different story.

She said she had talked about this in her prior therapy and she felt that "it is what it is" and there was nothing more she could do to change it.  She told me that she accepted her history, and she felt that she had "moved on" with her life.

And yet, she said, she just couldn't understand why it was still affecting her now in her relationships with men.

Ann agreed to explore her childhood history with her father with EMDR and, after preparing to do EMDR, Ann chose a childhood memory about her father that stood out in her mind.

The memory was of Ann, at age six, sobbing as her visit with her father was about to end because he had to leave.

Initially, she couldn't remember the context of this particular memory, but she had a sense that she often sobbed when her father was about to leave and she would beg him not to go.

At first, Ann said that, although she remembered this memory, which could have represented many similar memories, she didn't have any particular feelings about it now.

But when I asked her to sense into her body as she thought about this memory, she was surprised to realize that her face and stomach muscles were tight, her fists were clinched and her heart was pounding.

Since she had never had the experience of sensing into her body to become aware of emotions, she was surprised, so I normalized Ann's response and provided her with psychoeducation about the mind-body connection and how we often hold emotions, including emotions from past trauma, in our bodies.

Based on her physical reaction to remembering this memory, she realized that this memory was affecting her more than she would have thought.  But she still couldn't identify the emotions that she felt related to the memory.

So, we continued to process the memory with EMDR and, as we continued to work on the memory, she discovered, based on her physical reaction, that she was a lot more angry about the memory than she realized and she was holding a lot of this anger in her face, stomach muscles, her hands, and in her chest.

Over time, as we used EMDR in our therapy sessions and she focused on the emotions that she felt in her body, Ann was also surprised to discover that she still had a lot of sadness about this memory that she had not been in touch with before we started doing EMDR and before she became more attuned to what was going on in her body on an emotional level.

Ann had cut off her relationship with her father when she was 17.  And, during the first few months of EMDR therapy, Ann continued to berate her father as being "all bad" and praise her mother as being "all good."

She saw her mother as being the nurturing one who sacrificed her life to take care of Ann after the father abandoned them.

Although she wanted to be in a happy, loving relationship with a man, she just didn't see how this was going to happen since every man that she had ever dated turned out to be a disappointment.  She felt that if she had another disappointing romantic relationship, she just might not be willing to try again with someone new.

Over time, as often happens in EMDR, Ann's memory networks began to open up to other memories about her father.

One day, during an EMDR session, she was shocked to remember that she and her father used to spend time during some of his visits making brownies and how much she loved making brownies with her father.

Remembering these happy memories about baking brownies with her father brought up a mixture of happiness and sadness at the same time.  She was surprised and happy to feel how delighted she had been as a child to have these experiences with her father, but she was also sad to remember how disappointed she felt when those visits ended because her father had to leave.

As other happy memories emerged over time during our EMDR work together, Ann came to realize, much to her surprise, that all of her memories about her father weren't all bad.  And, in fact, she had many happy memories, and her sadness about feeling abandoned by him had overridden these memories in an "all or nothing" way.

Ann described her experience of remembering these happy memories as if she was going back to see herself and her father when she was a child.  And, as an adult, she could see and feel things that she didn't remember before.

Gradually, as Ann continued to process childhood memories related to her feeling abandoned by father, she developed a more nuanced perspective about her history that she didn't have before.

This motivated Ann, who felt no curiosity prior to this, to find out why her father left when she was a child.  She started by asking her mother, who never talked about the separation before.

As she expected, her mother was reluctant and uncomfortable at first, but Ann persuaded her mother that it had become important to her to know what happened back then.

So, reluctantly, her mother told her that she was the one who asked Ann's father to leave the household because she had fallen in love with another man.  She told Ann that her father didn't want to leave, but he acquiesced to her wishes.  She said that the relationship with the other man didn't work out, and she realized that she had made a mistake in ending her relationship with Ann's father but, by then, it was too late because Ann's father was too hurt and he didn't want to get back together again.

Ann's mother told Ann over and over again that her father's departure had nothing to do with Ann, he didn't want to leave, and that Ann's father had always loved Ann.

Then, her mother apologized to Ann because she knew that Ann was deeply hurt by this separation.  She apologized because she knew that Ann blamed her father and this led to Ann cutting off her relationship with her father.  She said she just couldn't bring herself to tell Ann before this.

Although she looked ashamed to admit these things to Ann, she also looked somewhat relieved that Ann knew the truth now.

Ann was so shocked by this turn of events that she needed time in therapy to absorb what her mother told her.  Ann had always assumed that her father left the household because he didn't care about her and her mother any more.  To hear her mother say that she was the one who asked her father to leave was totally unexpected.

Hearing her mother reveal the truth also made Ann realize that she had been going along all this time with a limited understanding about what happened--even as an adult.

Over time, she was able to forgive her mother.  And, with much fear of being rejected, she contacted her father.  Much to her surprise, he responded with delight and they reconnected for the first time in more than 10 years.

The first time that they met for coffee was awkward, but subsequent visits became easier.  During one of their visits, her father brought pictures of Ann as a child that he held onto and cherished, which was deeply moving to Ann.

Looking at Your Childhood Trauma History From an Adult Perspective: Ann Reconnected With Her Father

After a while, they were able to talk about what happened when Ann As a child.  And, as Ann let go of her resentment and anger, she developed a sense of compassion for each of her parents.

Ann also developed a broader perspective than she ever had before.   She came to recognize and accept that her parents were human and had certain flaws, like many other adults in similar situations.

As Ann worked through her childhood history, which had been getting emotionally triggered in her romantic relationships, she made better choices when she began dating men again.  Her perspective about men changed.  And, after she opened up more emotionally, she eventually met someone that she cared about deeply and who cared about her.

Developing an Adult Perspective About Childhood Trauma
Childhood psychological trauma often keeps people stuck on many levels. The most obvious level where people get stuck is on an emotional level.

When you try to work out childhood psychological trauma on your own, it's usually hard to see that your perspective could be stuck at a child-like level.

It's normal, on a developmental level, for young children to have an "all or nothing," "good or bad" or "black and white" view of things that happen to them.  They don't have the capacity to tolerate ambiguity and to see "grey."

Adults usually have a greater capacity to tolerate ambiguity and develop a more complex perspective.  This capacity is often enhanced in trauma therapy.

Adults, who experienced trauma as children, sometimes have an intellectual understanding that what happened to them was complex, but their intellectual understanding doesn't always develop into an emotional understanding that allows them to make changes.  In other words, they understand it with their head but not with their heart.

The vignette above is only one example of how an adult, who is processing trauma, is able to develop a more complex emotional understanding of childhood trauma.  There are many variations on this theme that I have seen working with clients on their trauma.

And, of course, for some people, depending upon the circumstances, it's not possible or even advisable to have a reconciliation.

Fear of Unmanageable Emotions Coming Up in Trauma Therapy
In order to overcome childhood trauma, a client has to be willing to be open to this exploration in therapy.

People, who have experienced trauma, often avoid going to therapy because they fear that something negative might come up unexpectedly that they're not prepared to handle.

Often, without realizing it, they fear what has already happened.  In other words, they fear that by working on the childhood trauma they will experience the same kind of fear they experienced as children.  They don't know or forget that, as adults, they have a greater capacity to deal with these memories than they did as children.

To help prepare clients in trauma therapy, I place a high degree of importance on the resourcing stage of EMDR which helps clients to develop the coping skills to deal with the emotions that come up when processing trauma.

Getting Help in Therapy From a Trauma Therapist
Getting help for unresolved psychological trauma takes courage.  Often people wait until the emotional pain of their trauma outweighs their fear of getting help.

Getting Help in Therapy From a Trauma Therapist

Rather than waiting for your emotional experiences to get worse, you owe it to yourself to get help from a licensed mental health professional who has expertise in working with trauma so that you can free yourself from a history that has become an obstacle to leading a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I also work adjunctively with clients who have primary therapists who aren't trauma therapists.  

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.