Published on 8/7/2021
Emotional trauma refers to any experience that threatens our life or well-being. It includes being humiliated, molested or beaten by parents, teachers, or others in childhood; as well as experiencing unemployment, divorce, sudden death of relatives, other life-changing accidents or wars.
Whether the trauma occurred in childhood or adulthood, it changes your perception of yourself and your world. If you were young when the trauma occurred, you will likely have more scars, because you were more vulnerable and had fewer coping skills.
Our human instinct is to protect ourselves and we do that, often, by finding ways to cut ourselves off, through denial that we have been hurt, dissociation from the painful event, or repression of the memory of the trauma. The symptoms of unresolved trauma may include, among many others, addictive behaviors, an inability to deal with conflict, anxiety, confusion, depression or an innate belief that we have no value.
Living with unresolved wounds and bringing all the resulting behaviors to your relationships is clearly not conducive to healthy, happy intimacy. When your emotional health has been compromised and you soldier on through life without resolving the trauma that has occurred, the wounds will continue to get worse, primarily in how you perceive and treat yourself—and then spilling into your relationships with the most important people in your life.
When the trauma remains unresolved, there will likely be frequent triggers that cause an emotional reaction—behaviors on the part of others that unintentionally act as cues or reminders of the original trauma. For example, if you had parents who were emotionally distant or physically absent when you were a child and you felt abandoned, then your spouse's coming home late from work could trigger your deep feeling of being ignored, rejected, even abandoned. Your spouse (or your friend, relative or colleague) may have only your best interest in mind, but when you see life through your scars, you experience attacks where none are intended. Likewise, when you see yourself as unworthy, you may not be able to effectively express and preserve your sense of worth in relationships.
The unresolved trauma is the filter through which you see the world and all your relationships. It happened to me. I experienced many childhood traumas, including being despised by my grandmother because I am a girl. She said to my Dad after I was born: "Your wife has given birth to two girls in a row. If you want a son, you'd better go elsewhere." That toxic suggestion spurred my Dad to start an affair. When I was one year old, my Mom found out about Dad's mistress who just gave birth to a son. Growing up, I thought I was not worthy of love because I was a girl. I studied hard to seek approval through my good grades. As an adult, I carried my Mom's deep hurt and betrayal to the point that I was afraid to trust my husband. Always protecting myself, I put on a hard shell of being "capable and self-reliant," and almost destroyed my marriage and family.
I thought I could prove my worthiness by working hard and performing well. However, I found that, no matter how much I had achieved, I could not get rid of my shame and guilt of being a girl who caused problems for my parents. As a new believer, God used a Bible verse to heal me: "So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them" (Genesis 1:27). Now I know my worth as an image bearer of God.
Just like physical wounds, emotional injuries also require care and attention to heal. Here are some ways to begin to address and heal the trauma and change the effect it has upon your life and relationships:
1. Understand trauma and its effects. Read books about recovering from trauma. Talk with a therapist to see what behaviors in your life may be related to an early traumatic event.
2. Write down past and present experiences in your journal. Share what happened with a trusted friend or counselor. By telling your story, you may discover the connections between what is happening now in your life and what you carry with you from the past.
3. From an observer's perspective, pay attention to all your thoughts and feelings. In relationships, recognize the difference between now and then. For example, a spouse coming home late from work is just that.
4. Pay attention to being triggered and the "self-talk" that follows. Beware that when you are triggered, what you are feeling in the present moment may actually come from the past. Saying “I feel triggered (by what you said or did)" can be a great way of stepping outside of your emotional reaction to talk about what happened without assigning blame.
I thought my past history would not hurt me as long as I forgot about injury from my family of origin. But when I was triggered, all of a sudden, I would automatically reverted back to my old self-protective mechanism. In order to resolve my trauma, I began to share my triggers with my husband so that he could understand, accept and support me. By the grace of God, James and I have created a graceful environment to support each other. It is wonderful to live in a safe zone among safe people who are saved by grace. We are spreading the words of how this path of grace applies to families and faith communities.
5. Cultivate emotional resilience. Recognize your feelings instead of pushing them away. Feel your sadness or anger in the moment. Notice where this feeling is in your body (e.g. throat or heart), and allow your emotion to be a guide towards recovery.
6. Learn new ways of self-soothing. Healing entails having the tools to soothe and comfort yourself. What soothes you? Music? Journaling? A hot water bottle? A warm bath? Exercise? Develop new self-care behaviors, and let your self-love spill over into your relationships.
7. Consider the spiritual dimension. View your life as part of a bigger picture. Seeing the pains you have been through in a new light may help you discover a hidden gift: Have you become stronger, more alive, and more compassionate?
8. Take your time. Everyone's pace is different. We all need to be healed in our own way and in our own time. If the process becomes too intense, please slow down, take a break, and get support.
The healing of trauma, like the healing of a broken arm, is essential to a healthy, functional life. Moving towards a healed life and realigning with your own wholeness will bring you more fully into the present, making room for connection, intimacy, and freedom.
Being saved by Jesus means that I have been freed from the bondage of sin and death. With my new identity as a child of God, I no longer have to subject myself to old dysfunctional habits. Now every day, I gratefully hold onto this truth of being a new creation in Christ, moment by moment: "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation, and the old things have passed away, and all have become new." (2 Corinthians 5:17)
Author's content used with permission, © Claire Communications
Please visit ParentingABCtoday.com for additional resources.
Winnis Chiang, LMFT and founder of ParentingABC.com, is passionate about helping Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking parents to get along with, enjoy, and positively influence their American born children.