When we think of trauma, we often think of extreme experiences of life or death. War, combat, sexual assault, physical abuse are the examples that come easily to mind. This definition of trauma is reflected in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), which is the book that mental health providers refer to when identifying and diagnosing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The first criteria for the diagnosis of PTSD is direct or indirect exposure to "death, threatened death, actual or threatened serious injury, or actual or threatened sexual violence." In this post, I want to expand the definition of trauma to include experiences of childhood emotional neglect, which are often invisible, difficult to identify and describe, and overlooked. Many of us may have grown up with these experiences and yet never know anything was wrong in our childhood or that these experiences continue to negatively impact our lives now. We may never call these experiences "traumatic" and therefore never work toward healing.
I have recently been immersed in the topic of childhood emotional neglect (CEN). Unlike the experiences of physical, emotional or sexual abuse, emotional neglect is harder to identify and acknowledge because it is about what didn't happen to you rather than what did happen to you. If you were abused, you were also emotionally neglected. If you were not abused, you could still have been emotionally neglected. Emotional neglect occurs when parents and caregivers were consistently not present, available, understanding, or supportive when you needed them.
I recently read this amazing piece in The New Yorker by Pulitzer Price winning author Junot Díaz titled "The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma." In this autobiographical article, Díaz described how his early experiences of sexual abuse followed him throughout his life and contributed to the destruction of many meaningful romantic relationships. He reflected on his self-sabotaging behaviors and recognized that deep down, he was afraid of facing his trauma, afraid that he was broken and unlovable, and afraid to hope for something better. I felt both deeply empathetic for his pain and validated by his experiences. The root of self-sabotaging behaviors in romantic relationships is often fear and insecurities as a result of past traumas, difficult family dynamics, and experiences of abandonment, enmeshment, or neglect. The topic of self-sabotage is so broad and complex that I am going to divide it up into several blog posts. In this blog post, I will focus on how to identify self-sabotaging behaviors in ourselves.
"Super ironic that I write and talk about intimacy all day long; it’s something I’ve always dreamed of and never had much luck achieving. After all, it’s hard to have love when you absolutely refuse to show yourself, when you’re locked behind a mask."
- Junot Díaz
The recent tidal wave of individuals, mostly women, speaking up about their sexual harassment and sexual assault experiences is the culminations of years, decades, centuries of pent up fury and silence. The #MeToo movement is growing stronger and louder every day, led by courageous individuals in the public sphere and in my personal circles on social media. I have been wanting to write a blog post about this topic for awhile; it has taken me some time to digest the growing accounts of sexual violence and make sense of my own reactions. As I am writing this post I am still not sure I can clearly articulate my emotions related to all of this. As a woman of color and a survivor of countless sexual harassment experiences, my first reaction is of fierce pride for the individuals who have risked so much to speak up. My second reaction is of disgust at the perpetrators who have abused their power for so long with the assumption that their behaviors will be protected and rewarded. My third reaction is of anger at our society (a.k.a. all of us) for creating and maintaining a system that benefits perpetrators and perpetuates sexual violence. In this blog post, I want to address the question that I often hear asked about survivors of sexual violence: if this really happened, why didn't they speak up before?
This week I have been thinking about forgiveness. I was inspired after listening to the TED Radio Hour episode on forgiveness. I was particularly moved by the TED Talk by Thordis Elva and Tom Stranger titled "Our Story of Rape and Reconciliation." Thordis and Tom talked about their shared experience as the perpetrator and survivor of rape. Thordis was 16 years old when her then boyfriend, Tom, raped her. He was an exchange student from Australia and he left for home shortly after the incident without recognizing what he had done. After 9 years, Thordis decided that she wanted to confront Tom and to find forgiveness. She said so powerfully in this talk, "But deep down I realized that this was my way out of my suffering. Because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace. My era of shame was over." They talked over email and then met in person to work on reconciliation and forgiveness. Tom acknowledged then took up the responsibility and blame for his actions. They co-wrote a book about their experiences: South of Forgiveness: A True Story of Rape and Responsibility. The Dear Sugar Radio podcast titled "Dear Dad, It's Over" also touched upon forgiveness of hurtful relationship with parents.
"Because regardless of whether or not he deserved my forgiveness, I deserved peace."
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In honor of this month, I spent some time exploring the impacts of trauma on our bodies. This is a topic near and dear to my heart as a trauma survivor and a therapist who works with trauma survivors. I love this definition of trauma by Dr. Gabor Maté in episode 79 of the Therapy Chat podcast:
Trauma is not what happens externally. So trauma is not the sexual abuse. Trauma is not the being hit with the belt. Trauma is not watching somebody close to you be murdered. That's not what the trauma is. Trauma is what happens inside of you as the result of that event. And what happens inside you, is that you experience all kinds of emotions, such as rage, such as terror, such as fear, such as grief, and that then changes you. They change you because in order to deal with those difficult emotions, which are responses to life events, we have to be able to feel those emotions and express them. When these events occur in an environment where a child has no capacity to express herself, to be heard, to be seen, validated, and soothed, then those emotions become frozen in the body and the brain, basically. So the trauma is the freezing of emotions.
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The information provided in this blog is not a substitute for professional mental health treatment.