Painful trauma has a way of driving us out of our body. To have lived with an intolerable reality which we are given no help to process or understand is an agony beyond words. Not to be held, understood and empathised with in our suffering means our neurobiology cannot be soothed, we become flooded with stress chemicals such as cortisol. Recent studies show that empathy increased the presence of oxytocin in our neurobiological systems.
I know the relief that has come for me in therapy as have been able to let my own feelings out. I know the damage that has occurred when, in trying to express said feelings with unsafe others who are defended, blocked or lacking in empathy they have become, not only trapped within, but other feelings have then occurred in reaction such as pain, disappointment and distress. It was only last week in reading the chapter on abandonment depression in James Masterton’s book on the real self that I became aware of how complex and multilayered the feelings of that state are. It is within the abandonment depression that we feel suicidal as it contains what Masterton has labelled the six feelings of the psychic apocalypse, very aptly named. Guilt, rage, panic, fear are four of these feelings.
In recovery those of us who have undergone trauma or abandonment trauma need help to understand our feelings and the courage and strength to bear with or integrate these feelings. Rage is a huge part of what we feel when we meet again invalidation or similar abuse that triggers our earlier abuse. There is panic when we face the rage which also comes with a great deal of fear, after all when we were younger and abandoned we experienced fear as we were confronted with overpowering situations of stress and distress which we can go on reliving unconsciously for years and had no help with.
In our recovery we begin to regress to these feelings and since such a huge part of so called borderline trauma involves invalidation or lack of support and empathy, when we meet such triggers again, we can regress and find ourselves once again filled with grief and rage. Our overt reactions will most likely not be understood by those who have no idea of the complexity of feelings we are left trying to contain, process and express as a result. This why we need in recovery an enlightened witness who is able to show empathy for what the real self had to suffer in childhood which led to the adoption of a false self as a defence against fully feeling the complex feelings of the abandonment depression.
In his book on Complex PTSD Pete Walker deals with the abandonment depression. He also explains how the inner critic becomes very active at a certain stage in our recovery, shaming us for daring to recover and try to become well. The inner critic may be comprised of things said to us when young by others who tried to shame or judge us instead of showing empathy or helping us make sense of difficult feelings. We can shame ourselves in similar ways for our reactions, which comes often from the so called ‘adult’ part of us that won’t accept or allow the child to be the child, vulnerable, tortured at times and deeply confused.
Empathy is so essential as we begin to deal with our inner critic less we start to shame the child all over again in a bid to protect it or protect against the feared rejection of others that we experienced in the past. It’s a complex process. We do need to become aware of when we become triggered or start to act out old pain, but shaming ourselves for it won’t work and help us to heal. Painful feelings need to be lovingly contained and soothed for true healing and integration to happen.