Most of people in trauma therapy are unwilling to go back to their childhood memories and recount, re-tell and explore them. Perhaps it makes sense as the desire to “move on” is very strong in all of us and trauma therapy is often viewed as a way to heal from trauma and ultimately get “cured”. Many times people have indeed recalled terrifying and unpleasant events in childhood and found this exercise unproductive, thus doubting the whole point of going back in their memories and yet again having to remember and talk about it all. In addition, memories can be hazy, or patchy, accounts unreliable (just think of siblings and how differently they remember their childhoods despite growing up in the same households) thus making this exercise particularly painful and undesirable.
I have decided to write about some benefits of recalling childhood memories and talking about them in trauma counselling, as I believe benefits are real and even crucial to childhood trauma recovery. Typical issues childhood trauma survivors deal with are lack of self worth, lack of self-confidence, relationship difficulties, impulsive or compulsive behaviours or eating disorders, addictions, etc. It is an attractive idea to come to therapy and just focus on presenting issues as they come up in our adult lives, trying to brush off the past, or only briefly touch on our upbringing. However, not recalling enough of childhood memories, not spending enough time to explore them is putting the whole therapy progress at risk, by only scratching the surface of the issues and never really getting to their core.
But the resistance is real! Whether based on avoidance, or attempts to understand the value or talking about childhoods in detail, people voice their doubts again and again. I had to answer these questions many time in therapy sessions. Questions such as:
- My parents passed away, what’s the point of talking about them now?
- I am an adult now, why do I have to spend too much time thinking about my childhood?
- I can’t remember much from my childhood, how can I recall something I can’t remember?
- What difference exploring my childhood in therapy sessions can make to my current psychological wellbeing?
- I told “this” to my previous counsellor, and it didn’t help, do I have to talk about it again?
I will have a few points to mention in response to some of these questions. Although individually my responses would vary from person to person, taking into account their situation, and their capacity to remember and talk about things, I can make comments that would ring true to the whole process of trauma counselling. For the purpose of making it simple, I will reference all childhood memories, stories, recollections and narratives under the term “past experiences”, and I will aim to explain why it is important to describe past childhood experiences in therapy sessions in detail in order to have the best chance at recovery from trauma.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to re-experiencing the feelings from the past. Often abused and neglected children do not have time to feel, as they are busy surviving. Shutting down and numbing out is common occurrence, hence why childhood memories are often recounted with no feelings at all. Recalling past experiences, talking about them, can allow space and time to feel into the experiences again. This process is necessary, because feelings that have been bottled and numbed out during the early years, are still locked inside us and are affecting us in adult lives.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to clarity and justice. Figuring out who did what puts events in place and people’s actions in perspective. This clarity removes guilt and shame that are often carried out from traumatic childhoods into adult lives. Restoring the balance gives our adult brain the necessary message it needed from childhood: that “I wasn’t bad (or naughty, or difficult), I just had a parent who couldn’t cope with having kids”.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to much needed process of grief for the loss of happy childhood. Despite the facts that many traumatic childhoods have their “good moments”, abuse and neglect that have been present robs an individual of their natural sense of self-confidence, self-assurance, self-value and self-love. Very often the grief for this loss has not occurred, until the time when a person finds space and opportunity to do so.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to increased sense of self-worth. As voice and validation given to our own stories and experiences, we learn to walk away from them with a sense of being someone worthy of being heard and respected. We can then truly put the past to rest.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to anger and other difficult feelings towards our caregivers. As children we often cannot get angry with our caregivers. Our survivor depends on them. We learn to please them and attempt our best to earn their love, no matter how fruitless those attempts are. Now as adults we can get angry with the unfairness and desperation and bitterness and helplessness and let these feelings run through us and process them in a safe environment, and celebrate that finally it is safe to feel whatever we feel.
- Detailed recollection of past experiences is likely to lead to recognising parallel processes in our adult lives, the patters we tend to repeat, thus giving us the best insight into here and now, and better awareness of the present. Common patterns of childhood trauma survivors would be people pleasing behaviours (that mirror pleasing our parents), fear of authority (that mirrors fear of an abusive parent), overlooking own needs over needs of others (that mirrors taking care of parents, when roles are reversed in our childhoods). As you go through your memories you will discover more and more commonalities, that were previously invisible at a first glance on your adult life!
Overall we must recognise that our sense of self and our capacity to be ourselves with a sense of freedom, and pride and self-confidence is very dependent on how loved and respected we felt as little children. This is the basic human psychological mechanism that is true for everyone of us. Developmental psychology has existed for decades, providing us with this wisdom, but trauma therapy field is fairly new, with new modalities emerging frequently. We must take care to not overlook the process of recalling childhood memories in a rush to access short term treatment, or focusing on current psychological symptoms only. We must find the time and space for the stories of the past and give them weight as they played a major role in our formation as individuals. Common complaints of childhood trauma survivors are about not knowing who they are or having a fragmented sense of self. I suggest that recalling childhood memories gives people a good place to start getting to know themselves and build a sense of self, and this process certainly cannot be overlooked or cut short.