Reframing Your Past: Healing

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No one has a perfect, trauma-free upbringing.

Psychologist and Author Ram Dass says that just by virtue of socialization we arrive at adulthood with net-negative self-esteem. That is, just by being told, “No, you don’t do it this way.” Or “No, you say it like that,” we end up feeling like we are “less than.” Or in some way we are not ideal. Additionally, when there is arguing, fighting, tension, or even emotional distance in a household, the children absorb the emotional climate and it becomes part of their mental makeup. In short, we arrive at adulthood “wounded,” to one degree or another.

We cannot change the past, and our memories of painful experiences cannot be erased. But we can change our relationship with them. We can heal ourselves by dissolving the defenses our brains have created to insulate us from the pain.

So, how do we go about dissolving our defenses? As Mayra Mendez, licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center puts it:

While emotional numbing blocks or shuts down negative feelings and experiences, it also shuts down the ability to experience pleasure, engage in positive interactions and social activities, and interferes with openness for intimacy, social interests, and problem-solving skills. Then how do we heal ourselves? How do we become the people we want to be? By realizing the best first step is to reduce that emotional numbing that virtually everyone employs. That is, we need to relate to our pain frankly and honestly – and not continue to avoid it with shut-down feelings.

Learning how to relate to pain is covered on the Connecting With Your Deeper Feelings page. Relating and connecting to past experiences are central to the first step toward healing.

Now let’s take a look at the four steps of healing as described by renowned speaker and bestselling author, Dr. Gabor Maté, in his book Scattered Minds (author’s text is in italics below):

  1. Compassionate inquiry for insight into your true self. This involves asking yourself, or being asked, why you have behaviors that are not working for you. What happened that should not have happened? What did not happen that should have happened? Developing a new view toward oneself is no easy task for it goes against the grain of a lifetime of conditioning. It is not a matter of so-called positive thinking or the naive affirmations exemplified by vows like, “Today I will be kinder to myself.” It requires the shedding, gradually, of defenses constructed long ago out of sheer necessity.
  2. Self-acceptance – tolerating guilt and anxiety. Self-acceptance does not mean self-admiration or even self-liking at every moment of our lives, but tolerance for all our emotions, including those that make us feel uncomfortable.
  3. You don’t punish yourself for where you find yourself. Here is a good rule: If you want to heal, you HAVE to stop blaming yourself for where you find yourself today. This bears repeating. Do you want to heal? Then you HAVE to stop with the blame. You need to show and feel kindness and compassion for the person you are right now.  I have no reason to see myself as a victim, but I did not choose the circumstances that shaped my neurophysiology or my personality, which are one and the same thing. One can make choices when one becomes awake, not before.
  4. Choosing a guide. Pain cannot be killed; it needs to be listened to. It has a story to tell and lessons to teach. In the project of self-parenting, this is one essential service the adult cannot, without the greatest difficulty, provide for himself ... The purpose of psychotherapy and counseling is not that the therapist either heals the “patient” or advises him what to do with his life. The goal is to mature and to individuate, to become a self-respecting person in his own right. In other words, the goal is not to be “cured” but to develop. The role of the therapist is, in part, that of a talking mirror in which the individual can see himself more clearly reflected, helping him to reflect on himself. Until he acquires the necessary skills, without a mirror he can no more see his psyche than his own eyes.

Taking these steps undoubtedly will lead you to a better life. You will feel more energy when your brain no longer has to suppress painful emotions. You will likely experience a feeling of power when you face your pain and create a cooperative relationship with it. British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Anthony Storr sums it up by saying:

When a person is encouraged to get in touch with and express his deepest feelings, in the secure knowledge that he will not be rejected, criticized, or expected to be different, some kind of rearrangement or sorting-out process often occurs within the mind which brings with it a sense of peace; a sense that the depths of the well of truth have really been reached.

But give yourself some time. Remember Gabor Maté’s words:

It requires the shedding, gradually, of defenses constructed long ago out of sheer necessity.

Healing is not like a light switch. Instead, it is like stepping out into bright daylight after living in a cave. At first, you can make out just what is close to you. But after some time you adjust and see your immediate surroundings. Later on, you realize you can make out the mountains in the distance and even the trees that cover them. Throughout this process, you will begin to feel a sense of peace, as you gain a deeper understanding of how you fit into the natural world around you.

More Paths Toward Healing

Posttraumatic Growth

Part of the healing process is to recognize not only the strengths that got you through it but the new strengths or areas of growth that have occurred because of it. This might be a good time to do a five-minute inventory, which can be found on the Posttraumatic Growth page.

Internal Family Systems Therapy

In his seminal book, “The Myth of Normal,” Gabor Mate says,

No one can plot somebody else's course of healing, because that's not how healing works. There are no road maps for something that must find its own individual arc. We can, however, sketch out the territory, describe it, familiarize ourselves with it, and prepare to meet its challenges. …. Like natural childbirth, healing cannot be mandated or hastened, but it can certainly be helped along.

This is what the Growth and Transformation life coaching approach is about: Sketching out and describing the territory through knowledge-based coaching. We cannot mandate healing but we have effective methods for helping it along. Moreover, it is the Growth and Transformation position that the healing process can be hastened using the directive aspects of knowledge-based coaching. Clients frequently state that with this approach, they progress much faster than with the non-directive talk therapy modalities they have tried.

Additionally, Internal Family Systems (IFS), is an extremely effective model to aid in healing and reframing past adverse experiences. IFS was developed by Richard C. Schwartz in the 1980s and is very rapidly gaining popularity. According to IFS theory, all human beings have at their core a “Self,” which is characterized by the 8 C's: compassion, curiosity, clarity, creativity, calm, confidence, courage, and connectedness. And all human beings also have a myriad of sub-personalities that are trying to keep us safe, though potentially in counterproductive ways when forced into extreme roles by (most often early) adverse experiences.

The goal, then, of IFS therapy is to unburden or restore extreme and wounded parts and establish a trusted, healthy, harmonious internal system that is coordinated by the Self.

Central to the IFS healing process is understanding that everyone's “Self” can emerge when we differentiate it from our other “Parts”. These other “Parts” include:

  • Exiles represent psychological trauma, often from childhood, and they carry the pain and fear. Managers and Firefighters try to protect a person's consciousness by preventing the Exiles' pain from coming to awareness.
  • Managers take on a preemptive, protective role. They influence the way a person interacts with the external world, protecting the person from harm and preventing painful or traumatic experiences from flooding the person's conscious awareness.
  • Firefighters emerge when Exiles break out and demand attention. They work to divert attention away from the Exile's hurt and shame, which leads to impulsive and/or inappropriate behaviors like overeating, overworking, excessive screen time, drug use, or violence.

It is important to realize that all of our “Parts” are trying desperately to keep us safe. This is the non-pathological nature of IFS therapy: It is an esteem-building approach to healing. Instead of, “I am a bad person who needs to improve.” one can adopt this position: “At my core, I have many excellent qualities. I also have protective parts, and some have taken extreme positions.”

The goal of IFS therapy, then, is:

  • To achieve balance and harmony within the internal system.
  • To differentiate and elevate the Self so it can be an effective leader in the system.

When the Self is in the lead, the parts will provide input to the Self but will respect the leadership and ultimate decision-making of the Self. All parts will exist and lend talents that reflect their non-extreme intentions.

You're Perfectly Fine

Here's a nice way to look at your life while taking steps to improve it. When you were born, you likely had not suffered much and were perfectly fine. Then your experiences came along leaving you in a less-than-optimal state of being. Try to think about your experiences as a sort of hypnosis. Instead of feeling like you and your experiences are one and the same, start imagining yourself as being "perfectly fine" -- but at the same time, needing to work through the hypnosis. You just need to "dehypnotize" yourself. Reframing your past and creating a new superhighway of thought patterns is a big part of that dehypnotizing process!

Niche Construction

Niche construction is the process by which organisms alter their environmental states, thereby modifying natural selection and influencing evolution. Examples of niche construction include the building of nests and burrows by animals and the creation of shade and influencing of wind speed by plants.

Human beings, of course, build all kinds of physical structures. But for the purpose of healing and creating your best life, let’s talk about social structures. Consider this statement:

Try to create an environment in the world where you are valued for who you are.

The operative word here is "create" because this step requires some creative thought: What kind of job will you take? One that pays well but they treat you like dirt. Or one where you are respected and valued? What kind of mate will you choose? One who will impress your friends or one who will love you unconditionally? Where do you want to live? Who will be your friends?

Try using your heart, and not your mind when answering these questions. Think about surrounding yourself with like-minded people who will treat you with respect. Not everyone has the capacity to be kind and supportive. Do what you can to avoid those people. For example, it may not be in your best interest to move to a different state for a high-paying job if the majority of its residents look down on your political position.

Go forward using your best creative abilities to create a place in this world where you are valued for who you are.

Rhythm and Its Effect on Your Brain

And finally, consider moving toward some kind of regular rhythmic activity. Do this intentionally, knowing it is proven to be a powerful healing method. Rhythmic activities include singing, dancing, drumming, musical activities, meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, and Qi Gong, walking, running, cycling, swinging, trampoline work, massage, equine grooming, and skateboarding. Dr. Bruce Perry, author of What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, says we need “patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory activity,” literally, bodily sensing exercises. Developmental trauma happens in the body, where pre-conscious “implicit memory” was laid down in the primitive brain stem (survival brain) and viscera. Long before we had a thinking frontal cortex or “explicit memory” function. Trauma healing, says Perry, requires six R’s; it must be:

  • Relational (safe)
  • Relevant (developmentally-matched to the individual)
  • Repetitive (patterned)
  • Rewarding (pleasurable)
  • Rhythmic (resonant with neural patterns)
  • Respectful (of the child, family, and culture)

Perry says, “The brain organizes from bottom to top, with the lower parts of the brain (brain stem/diencephalon aka “survival brain”) developing earliest, the cortical areas (thinking brain) much later. The majority of brain organization takes place in the first four years.”

“To change any neural network in the brain, we need to provide patterned, repetitive input to reach poorly organized neural networks involved in the stress response. Any neural network that is activated in a repetitive way will change.”

“The rhythm of these experiences matters. The brain stem and diencephalon contain powerful associations to rhythmic somatosensory activity created in utero and reinforced in early life. The brain makes associations between patterns of neural activity that co-occur.”

“One of the most powerful sets of associations created in utero is the association between patterned repetitive rhythmic activity from maternal heart rate, and all the neural patterns of activity associated with not being hungry, not being thirsty, and feeling ‘safe’ (in the womb).”

“Patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory activity… elicits a sensation of safety. Rhythm is regulating. All cultures have some form of patterned, repetitive rhythmic activity as part of their healing and mourning rituals — dancing, drumming, and swaying.”

-- Dr. Bruce Perry, MD, PhD, and Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.

Trauma, Healing and The Brain: Community Learning Event by Dr. Gabor Maté

The Body's Most Fascinating Organ: the Brain - Edison Talk by Bruce Perry