Our survival system calculates risk and the option least likely to lead to our death.
One response to danger is flight. We run. We get out of there! We physically leave the scene. When we can’t remove our body from danger, we might leave our body. Some trauma survivors report that when the perpetrator entered their bedroom, “they” left their body and waited from somewhere up near the ceiling for the danger to pass.
Another response to danger is to freeze. This is often our best survival strategy when we are children, and also as adults when the threat comes from a stronger, scarier and more powerful adult.
One way we dissociate or disconnect is by leaving our body and “living” in our thoughts. We develop a rich fantasy life. I don’t belong in this family. My real parents will find me and take me away from here then I’ll live …
Another way to avoid feeling helpless is through the fight response. We fall prey to a mean inner critic. You’re so stupid! You just lay there and took it! Or If you hadn’t lipped off, he wouldn’t have turned on you! The strategy didn’t work. We were still harmed. We can’t risk turning against our parents so we turn against ourselves. The truth is that you were not the cause of their actions.
What we needed when we were a child, and what we need now, is encouragement and support. We need to be seen and to be reassured that we are no longer alone and that we are safe now.
We need an empathetic witness to our own inner child. We need to attune to our younger selves so we know that all parts of us are okay and welcome. We no longer need to suppress what was unacceptable to our parents. We can learn to be fully on our own side.
The part of us that was overwhelmed when we were young and afraid is stuck. It doesn’t tell time. Our adult self knows that we are now out of danger. We are no longer helpless or powerless like we were as a child.
Spend time getting to know yourself at different ages. Use photos or videos if you have them. What can you tell about you at that age from photos or mental images? Do you look happy? Disconnected? Sad? Angry? In family photos are you connected with the others or are you standing a bit apart or turned away?
As you study the photos, feel into the energy and stay grounded in your body and breath. Let the memories come up to be seen as you are present in this moment as an adult. What do you remember about your experiences around that time?
Broaden your view to a more realistic perspective. If something happened when you were five or nine or twelve, what do you know about what children are like that age? We blamed ourselves but is that reasonable? Children’s brains are not fully developed. They certainly don’t have the financial, emotional or legal resources to move out of harm’s way.
We keep hoping that if we’re smarter or quieter or … that our parents or caregivers will change and we’ll be safe. Because we didn’t cause it in the first place, our strategies aren’t very effective.
Now, as adults, we can give these younger parts the comfort and safety of being seen and held and feeling connected with us. By bringing our younger self forward and being present with them in this moment, our relationship with the past changes. We no longer feel so isolated and helpless.
We only ever wanted to be seen and protected. Now we are. Making friends with ourselves at all ages, we bring the healing of unconditional kindness and compassion from our adult self to our younger selves. In this way, we assimilate all the lost parts of ourselves into one integrated whole.