If I had stopped talking back … If only I had stood up for myself and my siblings instead of burying my head in a book … If I wasn’t too stupid to get good marks in school … If I had … If I hadn’t … I could have stopped them hurting me. They would have loved me. They would have protected me.
Looking at this from our adult perspective, we can see if this is true. In that power under position, could we have actually done something significant enough to effectively protect ourselves? As a child, with our level of brain development, could we have done anything other than we did?
It is less threatening to take on the blame than to admit we were powerless and the people who were supposed to love and protect us were hurting or ignoring us.
Dr Gabor Maté is a medical doctor and trauma specialist. At a workshop I attended in November, he asked people not to imagine what they were feeling in that situation or why they acted in a certain way. Bring to mind early experiences in your life where you were hurt, scared and disconnected. How old were you? What was the situation? Now imagine you had a dear friend or a child at that age in a similar situation. What if the experiences of hurt and neglect happened to someone you love?
Take a moment and visualize their face, their body language, what they might be feeling and how they are handling it. You might see them sitting in school, foggy because they were too scared to sleep the night before. Being bullied and cowering inside because in their experience they had no one they could turn to for help. Sitting at the dinner table, shoulders braced for protection, holding their breath and trying to be invisible.
Is it their fault this is happening to them? Did something they do or not do bring this on? What are their options? Could anything they do in this situation actually save them?
What do you feel looking at them? Is it difficult for you to tell they are hurting? Children aren’t sophisticated enough to actually hide their distress from an adult who is paying attention.
Do you feel compassion for them? Do they deserve kindness?
As an adult now, resourceful enough to have made it through your own childhood, what would you like them to know? Put your hand on your heart. Tell them.
This shift in perspective can help us sidestep our childhood conditioning. Children have a survival level imperative to connect with their parents and will do anything to keep and strengthen that connection. Some of our parents were traumatized and disconnected from themselves. They did not have the capacity to connect with and protect us. We turn against ourselves, believing it is our fault and that if we could only … the hurt would stop.
Your strategies of fight, flight, or freeze weren’t effective enough. You still felt hurt and alone. It didn’t fix the problem because you were not the source of the problem. It was never your fault. The hurt and disconnection you felt were a normal response to your experience.
This guided practice will take you through these steps. Try it.