In my work as a psychotherapist in private practice for nearly 18 years, I have seen so many adult clients suffering from the aftermaths of an abusive childhood. Trauma and childhood abuse can exist in many forms. We all know about the obvious forms of childhood trauma such as physical and sexual abuse. The recent Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was a very positive step in finally honouring and recognising the pain and suffering of so many children abused by clergy and other perpetrators over many decades in this country. Finally, they received some long deserved acknowledgement and the community at large was prompted to recognised the existence of these crimes and the reality of the broader situation.
Complex trauma can also develop from childhood experiences of emotional and psychological neglect, where a child’s emotional needs were deprived or violated. In my experience as a therapist, it is often the people whose childhoods were characterised by emotional neglect and deprivation who tend to have the most difficulties in adult relationships, emotional regulation and recurrent depression.
No matter what the form or nature of the abuse and trauma, there will always be wounded parts of self which often remain fairly intact as the person develops and moves through life. These ‘inner child’ parts of self or ‘vulnerable child’ parts as they are called in schema therapy, tend to exist as though in a time warp. These parts of self, hold all the pain and sorrow from childhood. All the associated beliefs, feeling and memories also reside here. In schema therapy, one of the main aims is to begin to start to heal the vulnerable child (or children) which resides within the person presenting for therapy. It is very normal and typical for people to want to forget about bad things that happened to them as children, and society constantly reinforces this type of thinking. However, these child parts never actually go away – there’s nowhere for them to go! They live and operate within the person, often guiding decisions and even influencing things like partner choice – not a good idea!
In schema therapy, we want to make contact with these vulnerable child parts of self – with the aim to protect, nurture and support them, all while giving them new information about what happened to them and what is happening now in current day. We want to collect these (cut off or disavowed) child parts and bring them back to the (healthy) adult self, where they can be looked after and integrated into the person’s life for the better. There is a very powerful intervention (or therapeutic process) known as imagery re-scripting which can help to achieve all this for the client. This is not the same thing as ‘exposure therapy’ and it is nothing to be alarmed about or afraid of. Your schema therapist can explain more about that process. In my experience of using imagery-based experiential interventions for clients over the last 18 years, I can say that it is one of the most powerful and effective methods available in therapy.
A few years ago, one-day I sat down to write a poem for some of my clients who had a history of childhood trauma and/or emotional neglect. I particularly had in mind a few women who had experienced harrowing childhoods when I wrote these words. Over my time as a therapist I have often been struck by the courage, inner strength and resilience these clients possessed. It is very often not easy to look at our selves and not easy to begin the healing journey.
She lives within, the child inside She’s known the depths of sorrow, The forgotten one, she shouts so loud But you’re headed for tomorrow
And there are times, you cannot know Her anger squashed, restrained with fear When life demands the ‘adult’ you Her cries for help, you cannot hear
A tiny child, that innocent girl She knew no real protection, The time is now, to bring her close She needs your deep affection
You are the one to rescue her Her pain you need to feel Holding her inside your heart Your love, she needs to heal
A part of you, you did disown You had to, to survive But now you need to bring her back So you both, can thrive
She knows just why you made the break She knows your grief was strong, Welcome her back into your heart It’s where she does belong
When you learn to love the girl And see her innocence Reality is clearer You dismantle your defence
So make your peace with this small girl And know that you are one Collect yourselves to make you whole See new life has begun.
What’s the point of this poem? This is a message to your “healthy adult” self to take better care of your “vulnerable child” mode (or hurt inner child). An important part of moving through and healing from childhood trauma, grief or heartache is to see and connect with the part of you who experienced the suffering at the time and bring her back to you. This is the part of you who holds all the pain and hurt and in a sense is trapped in a time warp waiting and wanting to be rescued and finally heard. As we get older though, we develop all sorts of fancy coping mechanisms and clever ways to protect ourselves from feeling that pain. Some of these coping defences are skilful, but most are not. An unfortunate consequence of these protective ‘tactics’ is that we cut off or disown the wounded parts of self (ie, in this case the little girl or boy within). We reject them and in doing so we abandon them all over again (again and again). They are left in a state of hopeless despair and their misery and desperate needs for affection and attention can get the adult self into all sorts of problems and unhelpful patterns, needless to mention lifelong bouts of depression.
With the help and guidance of a therapist you trust, what you need to do and what you need to remember is:
To nurture her, love her, accept her fully and bring her wholeheartedly into your life in the here and now. Acknowledge her as an important part of you as you bring her to the core of your worldly existence. Include her in your life as it is now, at times imagine her with you, laughing, playing, sleeping, crying. Imagine that you comfort her. Correct the horrible, negative and harmful messages she heard at the time and learnt directly or indirectly from her trauma. Then, with loving kindness let her be, accept that you can do no more than strive to live a spiritually rich and full life. Remember that spiritual growth is psychological growth, and you have grown if you have embraced and cared for your wounded vulnerable child self. A full life is where you take excellent care of yourself physically and emotionally and let go of all judgements about how you ‘should’ have been or what you ‘should’ have done. Such voices are not yours anyway, they are only introjected messages from the past and belong to other people or past experiences. Everything that has happened around you and to you has led to who you are today. For those of you who have been abused (in whatever way), remember that you are not an “abuse victim”, you are a complex and vital human being who has experienced very real suffering at the hands of another person or persons. You have known a darker, more sinister side of humanity that most children simply do not encounter. You have encountered fearful times, alone times, and despairing traumatic and painful times. But you are here today because you have within you a vital life force with a natural proclivity towards healing, goodness and regeneration. This force or energy or spirit (or whatever you want to name it) is stronger than any experience you have ever had. Also, remember that no one can take away your soul, your inner strength or your life force. Our minds and bodies are evolving and changing all the time, and each life experience has played a role in shaping the person who you have become and the value and kindness that you bring to the lives of others. So no matter what the nature of the suffering the little girl faced, ultimately you need to let her be heard and you need to accept her and her reality so that healing can begin.
Written by Dr Gemma Gladstone
© Gemma L. Gladstone