If we discover that childhood trauma is negatively influencing our adult lives, what do we do about it? Will remembering what happened to us and understanding how that experience continues to affect us actually help? As someone who has been a therapist for more than forty years, I’m convinced that self-understanding has immeasurable value, both in itself and as the foundation of positive change. But the kind of understanding that really helps is not easy to achieve. It requires the courage to face painful truths and the commitment to keep going when the process becomes uncomfortable—and it will become uncomfortable. Some people fantasize that the process of personal growth will feel natural, like “coming home” to an authentic self. Yes, there are moments like that, as well as moments of pleasure in discovery and mastery. But much of the process feels quite unnatural: awkward, forced, artificial, less like coming home than like colonizing Mars.
The quality that allows people to survive trauma and mitigate its effects is resilience, which is technically the ability to recover from or adjust to deformation caused by stress. Though resilience may seem like a personality trait we either have or don’t have; it’s more deeply understood as something we do. Developing resilience involves:
- finding meaning in our experiences
- taking back control over how we view those experiences
- seeking support
- developing mindfulness
- exercising our creativity
- cultivating humor, optimism, or both
- working to reinvent ourselves
Some of these methods may seem a bit beside the point: how does creativity relate to childhood trauma? Because resilience is a relatively new focus of research, the mechanisms of influence are not always clear, though theories abound. Dr. Brené Brown, for example, believes that acts of creation, from ceramics to songwriting, help us move ideas from our heads into our hearts and into our daily lives. What’s most important is that the link between creativity and resilience has been thoroughly documented, so it’s a valuable tool regardless of why it’s effective. My own experience has taught me that creativity is not something to put aside while we do the serious work of recovery; it’s an essential part of that work. Writing about our own experiences combines creativity with several other ways to cultivate resilience: finding meaning in our experiences, taking back control over how we view those experiences, and working to reinvent ourselves. Writing is an invaluable tool in the gratifying work of healing from childhood trauma.
Another valuable tool is mindfulness. Cultivating certain kinds of awareness facilitates self-understanding almost as much as the questions we ask and the information we bring to bear. I’m talking about mindfulness, real mindfulness, not the quick-fix McMindfulness that corporations use to increase employee productivity, but sustained training in ancient techniques for quieting and focusing the mind, expanding awareness, and cultivating compassion toward oneself and others.
The last of those, self-compassion, is vital. Unfortunately, you can’t just decide to love yourself, tape some positive affirmations onto your bathroom mirror, and expect your attitude to change. It won’t, and you may even feel worse for “doing it wrong.”Non-judgmental compassion, especially for yourself, is something human beings have to practice. If I could underline “practice” twelve times, I would because, when it comes to self-compassion, intention is not enough. Don’t get me wrong, intention is great—it gets you to practice—but only the doing can lead to change. Practiced consistently over time, self-compassion will develop, increase, and feel more natural, even if the very idea seems forced and alien now.
Self-compassion helps enormously with the distress of remembering and coping with trauma, so it’s a very good practice for those of us with such a history. To begin cultivating compassion for yourself, try the guided meditation in the “Resources” section of this web site on the “Recordings” page. The sound file is called “Lovingkindness Meditation, and it’s based on the instructions developed for the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program but adapted for survivors of childhood trauma. It takes takes about fifteen minutes, and you don’t have to do anything special; just get comfortable, listen, and follow my suggestions. Try it for a few weeks, and see what happens. If you like the results, add it to your daily routine. Over time, you may find that it subtly supports every one of the actions that constitute resiliency.