It can be hard to believe or even understand how the traumatic experiences of our childhood could possibly still be impacting our adult lives today. This also shouldn’t come as a surprise, as we’ve been taught by society for so long that the best medicine for overcoming childhood adversity is to “toughen up,” “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps,” “let go of the past,” and “allow time to heal our wounds.” We have been admired for our “resiliency” and our ability to “overcome” hardship. All the while most of us have continued to suffer alone in silence.
While we may not have understood as much about developmental trauma 20 years ago, we now know that this can all be extremely damaging advice. The reality is… developmental trauma, when not addressed, does not simply go away. Time, alone, does not heal our wounds. Trauma is progressive and can continue to be triggered months, years, or even decades later. I was caught off guard with my first anxiety attack while standing in line at chipotle when I was 37.When we are taught to brush it off and move on with our lives, trauma has the potential to create an inner world that can slowly become nearly impossible to exist within. In order to live with our hurt inner parts, we learn to cope as a way to numb the pain of our past. This becomes the perfect storm for addiction, suicide, depression, and health issues as well as toxic, abusive, and co-dependent relationships – all common risks for long-term developmental trauma
“Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and mistreated cause of human suffering”~ Peter Levine
The word trauma tends to evoke many different emotional responses. When talking about childhood trauma, I’ve seen people react with fear, confusion, anger, frustration, and more often than not, denial. The word “trauma” carries a tremendous amount of stigma. As a parent, it can be hard to admit or accept that you may have inflicted trauma on your child. As survivors we often carry shame and confusion around our childhood and family experiences, causing us to understandably react to the word “trauma” from a place of denial or fear.
I personally spent two decades of my life unaware of the effects of my toxic childhood experiences. I never stepped foot inside a therapist’s office until I was in my late 30’s and I wore that like a badge of honor. I was extremely unaware of just how deeply my trauma had impacted every area of my life. All the while, I was surrounded by a family continuing to live in toxic patterns, unwilling to pull the curtain back and speak to the truth of the matter – we were steeped in trauma and nobody was willing or able to see it.
When I look at the effects of developmental trauma in my adult life, it was the lack of awareness that kept me playing out my old trauma patterns again and again. I truly thought I was broken, damaged, and defected. I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I couldn’t trust anyone, yet I couldn’t stand to be left alone. I felt so uncomfortable in my own skin that I spent many years numbing out with alcohol, co-dependent relationships, drama, gossip, and a deeply negative mindset. I thought this was just who I was, an unlucky victim of life. As toxic as my childhood was, I wasn’t able to recognize the connection between what happened to me as a child and who I was becoming as an adult.
Awareness helped me greatly to remove the stigma that I carried as I began to understand that I wasn’t abnormal or broken, I was simply coping with my external world in order to survive. It helped me to have compassion for myself as I learned that I was simply having a normal response to an abnormal experience.
~ Gabor Maté
“Much of what we call personality is not a fixed set of traits, only coping mechanisms a person acquired in childhood”
It can be difficult to see the world from any other perspective than that which you’ve experienced your whole life. Choosing to take a step back and look at my past and the influence it was having on my life was a really scary thing to do. In fact, it has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my adult life. It challenged me to question everything I thought I knew, my beliefs, and the stories I had been telling myself for as long as I could remember. Essentially, it challenged my coping mechanisms and helped me to see them for what they were… old, outdated survival tools. Tools I could find gratitude for as they helped me to survive but were now keeping me stuck in my own toxic adult pattens.
Awareness is what lead me to understand that in order to ever feel “good” I would have to heal from my past. Recognizing this gave me a second chance for a future I deserve – one I deserved all along. That second chance is the fire that drives me in my work today as a trauma recovery coach. I deeply believe that we all deserve the opportunity to heal from the past and break the cycle of trauma. In doing so, we get the opportunity to rise up and re-create our lives. We get a fresh start. Awareness helps us to get out of the quicksand and off of the never ending loop.
One of the most important things to know about trauma recovery is that it’s not linear. Healing is fluid and typically best approached from a slow, gentle, and compassionate lens. Over the last 8 years of working both on myself as well as with clients, I have identified what I call “8 R’s of Trauma Recovery.” I’ve created this wheel as a visual aid for this concept.
Trauma recovery does not move from right to left or bottom to top. There is not a finish line or a place to get to that signifies we are “done.” Trauma recovery is a whole systems approach for shifting into a new way of living. We find ourselves navigating through these categories time and time again as life is always and will always continue to give us opportunities for learning, healing, and growth.
While I’m focusing on “Recognize,” and “(Re)examine” in this blog, it does not place these categories above or below any of the others. I do find that when you are at the beginning of your healing journey these two categories are typically where you can find the most support.
I feel grateful for all of the amazing humans who have committed their lives to the research and understanding of developmental trauma. The topic is vast and because of them I personally have been able to gain a much deeper understanding of why I am the way I am and more importantly, how to shift out of my old patterns and stories. Here are a few of my mentors and their personal descriptions of developmental trauma:
“Trauma is the inability to inhabit one’s body without being possessed by it’s defenses and the emotional numbing that shuts down all experience including pleasure and satisfaction” ~ Pat Ogden
“Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, but the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside [the individual]. These events leave us stuck in a state of helplessness and terror, and results in a change in how we perceive danger.” ~ Bessel van der Kolk
“Trauma can be defined as any unresolved autonomic nervous system response. It’s about the nervous system’s response to an event, not necessarily the event itself. Events can affect each of us very differently.” ~ Peter Levine
For a more “text book” definition of trauma I’m sharing this one from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK207192/#
“Trauma” refers to experiences that cause intense physical and psychological stress reactions. “Trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being”
This list is not exhaustive but it’s a good start.
Trauma may not seem as obvious in your childhood as it is for myself or others but that doesn’t mean you didn’t experience it. I challenge you to keep an open mind when considering if and how you may have been impacted by childhood trauma. Society has taught us to see trauma as physical abuse, a big traumatic experience, or to compare, “my childhood experiences weren’t as bad as…” Developmental trauma can sometimes be harder to identify, such as a parent withholding love or narcissistic abuse from a caregiver who is well loved by others in their family and community.
If you recognize these signs showing up in your life and impacting your ability to live a fully functioning life, it’s ok to simply get curious. It’s ok to ask questions and dig a little deeper. If it feels uncomfortable to talk to your family, it’s ok to seek support elsewhere.
If you have identified trauma patterns in your life and your family and you are ready to begin healing, I would love to support you.
I am beyond honored that I get to support trauma survivors and I so deeply love the work that we do together. Through my own healing over the last 8 years I have been able to find gratitude for the experiences of my childhood as they have led me here with you and I can’t think of a more beautiful place to be!
My 1-on-1 coaching container is designed to create a compassionate, non-judgmental, and safe space that meets you right where you are today. From there we move at a pace that supports your life experiences, goals, and visions for the future.
Click here to book your free 1-hour discovery call.
You never know how one conversation could shift the direction of your life.
Lots of love ~ Morgan