Childhood trauma survivors often live with what I call “unstable minds”. They suffer from anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Some struggle with personality disorders, some find it hard to respond to normal life challenges and crumble under stress easily.
I often hear questions about hopes, possibilities and options for the survivors to heal from childhood trauma.
Is it possible, indeed, to recover from a complex trauma completely?
To heal, let’s say, completely and become free from the grip of post-traumatic stress, free from triggers and strong emotional reactions, becoming a more normal and ordinary, average human being, just like those people who got lucky with their childhoods?
It is likely that, if you were abused and neglected repeatedly as a child, you may forever live with a sense of inadequacy and loneliness, and this is a very sad place to be.
Survivors of childhood trauma may spend years in individual therapy or in support groups, exploring coping mechanisms and pathways to healing, however we do admit that only some of them “succeed” and many will continue to struggle. Those who are working on their mental health and constantly battle with the aftermath of their traumas will wonder, frequently, if they are going to succeed and how soon.
Thinking about all this I came up with a few “indicators” that might be worth considering, if you want to know, how much have you succeeded, so far, in your journey of healing from childhood trauma. Ticking one or a few of these is a good indicator of your success.
1. You see your parents as someone who failed badly at parenting.
You no longer make excuses for them and no longer respond with cliches like “How can I judge them, they are my parents”, or “My mum did the best she could”. Adults who were abused as children often find themselves very confused about what adequate parenting should look like. The survivors of “not-so-good” parenting often feel like they are asking too much from their parents, being not sure if they were themselves too demanding as children, or whether their childhoods were good enough and there is nothing to complain about. If you are experiencing such a confusion, remember that good parenting is not a luxury, it is actually basics: protection, safety, security. Parent’s job is to protect, provide security and make sure children are safe. Many survivors did not get those basics, but they still feel like they were asking too much as children. When such a view is no longer strong, and you are able to see your parents with clarity, you are on a pathway to healing.
2. You no longer feel guilt or fear when dealing with your family of origin.
Many survivors find it hard to free themselves from the needs and demands from the family of origin. Lets take a simple invitation to a Christmas get together as an example. While it may be very uncomfortable to be at the gathering, and while they recognize that Christmas with mum and dad and other relatives (who may have contributed to the abuse in the past) is very hard to tolerate, they may be unable to decline the invitation. Cultural and religious norms, or sometimes, fear of being seen as “a bad son/daughter” seem more important than your own feelings. Inevitably as your journey towards recovery is underway, this will change. As you gradually feel the strength and ability to say “no” to your parents, you start putting yourself (and your own family) and your needs first, and such respect to one self is a great indicator of healing from the childhood trauma.
3. You move on.
This one, indeed, is a very important point.
Healing from complex PTSD is a lengthy process and as we walk this long road, we may lose sight of the ending or even the purpose.
After gaining a lot of knowledge about post-traumatic stress and its symptoms, for example, people may get caught up in ongoing labeling of themselves. “I have PTSD” they say and start connecting every event in their lives, and each reaction to it, with the diagnosis. I am sorry to see someone who, for a long time, would define themselves within those narrow terms, and while PTSD may well be a chronic condition, I strive to help my clients to recover and no longer fit the criteria for the diagnosis. Unfortunately, I have heard of some support groups for survivors of childhood traumas where people dedicate un-proportionally big efforts to speaking about the past, describing their traumatic childhoods. I found that while it is a great idea to have a supportive space, where people can come and share, it can be not a healing environment at the same time. When people make all their focus around the past abuse, and whatever happens in life is referred to as “yet another example”, blaming their parents again, then it is a sad picture of people still living within the traumatic past and defining themselves and everything about themselves by that trauma. Support groups are often going in circles and it is the facilitator’s task to break the cycle by exploring what might be going on in the group and what outcomes people seek from the group.
Individually, in face-to-face counseling treatment, the client may feel therapy is also long and confusing: repetitive themes come up and inevitably the “progress” stalls and blurs into unclear pathway. Thus, regular check-ins and re-assessment sessions are required, so that both the client and the therapist can reflect on the progress.
4. Trust yourself and let it be.
And finally, exiting, terminating or finishing therapy is a good move, that will and should happen. It involves trust that you can be okay without therapy and you will manage. Psychotherapists should encourage their clients to at least to try and start living their lives, without fear of its challenges. It is a bit like nudging the bird out of its nest. It involves trust that you can fly from both yourself and someone who has been there to support you. Moreover, I always say that therapy continues when you finish it. It goes on in your head.
Just like you are supposed to learn your life skills from a safe and consistent guidance of your parents, you do learn in therapy.
Before you know it, in therapy, you learn to analyze things, put them in perspective, self-soothe and find hope. You internalize the therapeutic process and you become your own therapist, or just your own self, that is:
Existentially in need for connection with others
So be it!