As a psychotherapist, I like to think that I’ve done “my work”. I’ve been in and out of therapy for over 30 years, I’ve attended the 12 step meetings, I’ve read the self help books, I’ve taken the classes...heck, I’ve even taught some of the classes! Let’s just say I have a fair amount of self awareness and a great capacity for self reflection. And I am often quite grateful for the fact that I did not end up drug addicted or a prostitute given where I came from.
And yet, I find it truly remarkable that regardless of how much work I’ve done on myself to heal and to grow, I can still be transported back to my trauma in an instant.
This happened to me recently when someone I was helping through a volunteer program lashed out at me via text. At the time, I was sitting in a cafe, doing some work on my computer and enjoying a hot, creamy latte. The text came through and I casually picked up my phone to read it. The message that I received was harsh, angry and accusatory. Despite my decades worth of personal growth and development, I immediately found myself sick to my stomach with tears burning behind my eyes. I looked up. I looked around. What just happened? Where was I?
In a moment I dropped through a portal back to my childhood trauma. I suddenly felt like my 10 year old self trying desperately to navigate the emotional grenades of my childhood. I was disoriented. Again, what just happened? Where was I? I had been quietly enjoying a moment when someone got angry with me and suddenly the ground gave out underneath me.
As a kid, my dad was often angry. And when he was angry, he was scary. And I spent a lot of my young life tiptoeing around trying to make sure that I did not somehow give him a reason to become angry. But the thing is, it didn’t matter if I tiptoed or not, it wouldn’t matter if I floated...he was going to get angry and lash out and I could be sure that it would be my fault.
There was no time for reflection before the self blame and the shame set in. The negative self talk followed and within minutes I was berating myself. “That’s what you get...”, “See you are a flake and everyone knows it”, and sadly, “See you are worthless, there is something wrong with you, you are bad!”
I quickly gathered my belongings and went to my car and I cried and cried and cried. And I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my tears so the self ridicule bumped up a level, “You are so weak!”
When I thought I was cried out, I went home and I talked to my husband about what had happened and, despite my best efforts, I cried some more. Now my weakness was being witnessed by another! And I heard my inner voice say, “I hate this part of you!”
I found myself apologizing for my over reaction, explaining to my husband that it really wasn’t about the text message. He was kind and didn’t judge, although I was sure that he was judging.
As I was drifting off to sleep that night I went through a mental review of every time throughout my life that I can remember screwing up and being chastised. And I thought about what a fake I was... going through my life thinking that I had conquered wounds and made emotional progress. What kind of a therapist was I? A fake one I thought.
WOW! This was a doozy of a regression. I was deep in it and it was hard to pull out, but eventually I closed my eyes, took a breath and told myself to just go to sleep.
The next morning I talked to a friend and a family member about my experience in order to process the event further and to gain some new perspective. I still felt raw and the emotion surfaced again as I talked through it one more time. But this time, I just rode the waves and allowed myself to notice the ride I was on. I observed the thoughts, I felt the emotions moving through my body, I accepted some more tears. And I didn’t judge. Instead, I let the words of others soothe and encourage me.
Shortly thereafter, the tears and self abuse subsided. My brain kicked in to gear and I was able to see the interaction more objectively. I was able to take responsibility for the part of my communication that might have been unclear, but most importantly I was able to say with confidence that I had not done anything wrong and that such a strong reaction to me was unwarranted.
And then FINALLY, where I landed less than 24 hours after the hurtful text message was received, was right here in this moment, with a whole heart and a compassion for myself and the other person. And I realized that I’m actually not a fake. I have done my work...in fact, THIS IS THE WORK!
Forty years ago I would have held on to this incident and mulled it over for weeks and I would have felt bad for a much longer period of time. But today, I am able to quickly cycle through all of the deep dark feelings and get to the other side. And it’s because of my work over the years, it’s because of my growth and my healing, that I am able to reach out and ask for support from others and that less than 24 hours later I can sit here and write and say that I am OK...and FEEL like I am ok! And that is an absolute testament to my growth and healing.
My take away tonight is that there is no avoiding or escaping our wounds. They are there and they stay with us forever. There is no getting over anything. But instead it is how we learn to process experiences in our life, to feel, to notice, to acknowledge, to ask for help, to accept ourselves and to allow ourselves compassion. This is the work, this is the growth and this is the healing.