It was a privilege to attend a two-day conference on December 6th and 7th featuring Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, a researcher who is a professor of psychiatry at Boston University Medical School. Along with various collaborators, he has published extensively regarding the impact of trauma on things like development and how it can lead to issues with dissociation, hypervigilance, self-mutilation, reenactments, struggles with flashbacks and problems with being easily triggered.
Dr. van der Kolk’s book, The Body Keeps the Score, was a 2014 New York Times bestseller. He is probably one of the top experts on the subject of trauma and, as I have noted in the relationships I have with other highly knowledgeable experts like Dr. Sandra Bloom and Dr. Bruce Perry, they are all extremely humble with regard to discussing trauma and what helps remediate its effects. Over and over Dr. van der Kolk stressed how complex traumatic experiences are and how each traumatized person experiences their trauma in their own unique ways. There is no one easy formula for approaching someone with unresolved early childhood trauma.
Over the next few blogs I will share some of the wisdom I gleaned from attending this conference.
I will begin by describing Dr. van der Kolk’s information about how the trauma-impacted people who were abused or neglected in childhood avoid or struggle when asked to look introspectively at the child they once were. He talked about how logical it might seem to ask a trauma-impacted person to talk about their trauma. He predicted we might be surprised to know that trauma impacted people really don’t want to be aware of themselves. When they do describe their internal, wounded self, they often state that they hate the child they once were. He talked about how normal it is for all children to be very self-absorbed and egocentric, believing that the things that happened around them and to them were actually their fault and that they somehow caused these things to happen. When early childhood trauma occurs, it is painful for them to remember not only the abuse or neglect that happened to them but why it happened. Somehow, they caused others to hurt them so therefore the trauma was their fault. Because of these beliefs, they conclude that they are a bad person, unworthy of love, respect, appreciation, kindness and compassion. Who would want to revisit that past?
This is one of the reasons it can be so difficult to work with a trauma-impacted person who is reluctant or resistant to explore his or her past. As I have shared in previous blogs, sometimes past experiences are shattered narratives that are very hard to remember because they involve such fragmented memories. However, even when the memories are relatively clear, they remain evidence in the person’s eyes that they were somehow deserving of being abused or neglected. So they avoid revisiting childhood memories.
This information can help someone who is trauma-impacted and still struggles with unresolved issues, especially in the case of childhood trauma. It can be so hard for that person to give themselves compassion or to embrace the idea that they did not deserve to be treated in those ways. That person deserved to be treated with kindness and understanding, and to be securely attached to their parents in an atmosphere of consistent, predictable love and safety. Any therapist who works with anyone trauma impacted needs a high degree of patience and understanding concerning this reluctance or resistance to remembering their past.
Dr. van der Kolk repeatedly expressed messages of understanding and compassion towards anyone who experienced early childhood abuse and/or neglect, and emphasized how gentle and patient we all need to be when interacting with someone with unresolved trauma, especially when they seem so resistant to going back in time and remembering the things that happened to them. They are not trying to be defiant or uncooperative. Being asked to recall early childhood experiences means revisiting feelings of self-condemnation.
Invitation to Reflect
- Consider how this idea of reluctance to remember one’s childhood trauma and ensuing self-hatred resonates with your understanding of trauma. How does this information clarify the way you understand the impact of trauma, especially when it occurs in childhood?
- How does it change the ways you might relate to someone who experienced abuse and/or neglect as a child? Does it help you understand why someone might not want to share his or her trauma story with you, not because of any kind of defiance or shyness, but rather because having to remember who that child was is just too painful a journey to take?
Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute