The #1 Sign of Healing from Trauma

Two open hands embracing a little yellow flower - the #1 sign of healing from trauma

“Trauma teaches us to fear our feelings rather than feel our feelings because feeling them would be far more dangerous,” explains physician Gabor Maté. Amidst the abuse, abandonment, or neglect of shitty childhood experiences, if we truly felt the depth of despair and horror that was present in us, we may have taken our own lives.

Thus, the dissociative process of trauma is quite literally a survival mechanism.

Someone once recounted a memory from childhood of playing legos with a friend at his house. At one point he noticed his friend crying, visibly shaken. Clueless, he asked, “What’s the matter?” The young boy said, “Your parents are fighting and screaming at each other. I’m scared.”

At such a tender age, this man had already learned to ignore his feelings. His nervous system was desensitized to the traumatic environment he was living in. I’ve heard such stories from innumerable clients. It’s way more common than you might suspect.

“People often mistake numbness for nothingness, but numbness isn’t the absence of feelings; it’s a response to being overwhelmed by too many feelings.”

~Lori Gottlieb

Turning Off Our Feelings

Emotions serve a vital purpose in our overall well-being. Just like you might experience a toothache when your body requires some important attention, our negative emotions are likewise messengers of unmet needs.

Unfortunately, many people learn quick-fast that their caregivers are simply unable to meet these needs. So they become adept at turning off feelings they have come to regard as futile.

One woman spoke of the time her grandmother was babysitting her. She was terribly frightened by a thunderstorm and ran out of her bedroom to seek comfort and safety. But as soon as she realized her parents were home and grandma had left, she just went back to bed.

As a little girl, she not only understood that her parents were incapable of soothing her but also suspected she might even be punished for getting out of bed. And so she shut those feelings right down — again, because experiencing her feelings posed a greater threat than not feeling them.

In this way, people become desensitized to their toxic environments and chronically unmet needs. In order to survive, they learn to suppress cries for help coming from their own bodies. And although they become adults who have learned to not feel these feelings on a conscious level, they certainly haven’t been not feeling that shit all these years either.

Taking the battery out of your smoke detector doesn’t put the fire out.

Healing from Trauma

M. Scott Peck once defined mental illness as avoiding reality at any cost and mental health as accepting reality at any cost. Obviously, this isn’t a treatment plan — one does not simply heal the multifaceted and pervasive impacts of complex trauma by “accepting” our shitty childhood experiences. However, he describes well-being in terms of our connection to what is. Necessarily, I believe this includes a working knowledge of our inner world of feelings, thoughts, wants, and needs.

When we’re triggered, emotionally flooded, or swept up in a compulsive trauma response, our nervous systems become dysregulated and we often lose access to various faculties of thought, feeling, memory, speech, and executive function. We become dis-integrated. Therefore, healing from trauma is a process of re-integrating the parts of ourselves that once scattered to weather the storms of unbearable feelings.

I have written quite a bit about healing from trauma. There are also many phenomenal books on the topic (Complex PTSD, What My Bones Know, Journey Through Trauma, What Happened To You?, The Body Keeps The Score). Laying out that healing journey isn’t the purpose of this article. Specifically, I’d like to address the readers who have been doing tons of therapy, reparenting, somatic healing, reading, writing, inner-child stuff, 12-step work, hypnosis, CBT, DBT, EFT, EMDR (or whatever), and thinking to yourself, When in the actual fuck am I gonna be done healing?!

It actually has less to do with time and money than you may think. Some people spend a fortune or do therapy for decades and are still bat shit crazy. How much “work” you’ve done isn’t necessarily indicative of your emotional wellness, unfortunately.

The #1 Sign of Healing from Trauma

Circling back to the opening line of this article, if trauma requires you to not feel your feelings, then you will know for sure you’re healing when you develop your capacity to feel again.

And to clarify, feeling and emoting are two totally different things. Although being able to express feelings outwardly (emoting) is important, it’s also entirely possible to emote all kinds of bullshit instead of actually experiencing your feelings. Lashing out in anger instead of feeling vulnerable. Bursting into hysteria instead of feeling fear.

When I say feel your feelings, I’m talking about holding space for feelings to arise inside you and simply being with them. Not trying to change them, fix them, judge them, escape them, or anything of the like. Just sitting your ass down, inviting that feeling in for a cup of tea, and getting to know it on a deep level.

Where do you feel it in your body? Can you identify this feeling? When have you felt it before? Does it have a message for you? What triggered this feeling inside you? What stories have you created in your head about this feeling? Is there an unmet need attached to it?

Being able to fully experience your feelings, identify, understand, and communicate them thangs in a healthy way is the promised land, my friends.

The #1 Sign of Unresolved Trauma

Last week, I wrote, “Compulsive behavior is the number one telltale sign of lingering trauma.” You can use this gem as a barometer for your healing progress as well.

Appraise your ability to sit with your feelings by auditing your life for self-medication and vulnerability avoidance tactics. Are you a busy-body, workaholic, ruminator, germaphobe, perfectionist, compulsive scroller, gambler, eater, masturbator? Do you use drugs, books, relationships, or “helping others” to escape? Are you terrified of boredom and fill your life with all types of noise, drama, things, and stuff?

Not having enough free time to feel your feelings is not a fucking coincidence.

Pete Walker wrote, “I believe the quality of our emotional intelligence is reflected in the degree to which we accept all of our feelings without automatically dissociating from them or expressing them in a way that hurts ourselves or others.” Dude knew what he was talking about. I agree with him and all the other experts I’ve quoted in this article.

Healing from trauma is all about making it safe enough to feel again.

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Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

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