In the past, I wrote a blog post about Healing Your Inner Child, which to this day, is still my most popular post. I think a lot of people have experienced childhood wounds and relate to the idea of wanting to go back and be a child again. That being said, I decided to make a “Part II” post where I talk about one way that a lot of people — myself included — engage in childlike play in a safe way: age regression.
As someone who experienced childhood trauma, I had to grow up fast. Even though I know I played with toys as a kid, I don’t have a lot of positive childhood memories. Since then, I’ve always been drawn to things like coloring books and dollhouses, even though I knew I had outgrown these things. Soon, I learned I wasn’t the only adult who felt this way — and that some adults were engaging in play with the things they used to love by participating in healthy, safe age regression.
What is Age Regression?
Age regression (“agere” for short) is a coping mechanism where a person mentally reverts to an earlier age (one where they felt safe) to deal with the effects of a mental illness, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Some people entirely regress to an earlier age, fully believing that they are that age and engaging in developmentally-appropriate behaviors for that age group. Others don’t regress completely — they may act childlike or engage in play while still acknowledging that they are no longer that age.
Whether you’re fully or partially regressed, the headspace of feeling like a child, or feeling “little,” is often called “littlespace.” A lot of people have a “regression age” that they revert to every time they’re in littlespace. For others, it’s a range of ages or a certain developmental group. You can pinpoint your little age (or ages) based on the behaviors you exhibit and the activities you enjoy during littlespace:
0-1: non-verbal, crying, kicking, sucking; not potty-trained, uses pacifier and diapers; bottle-fed only
1-3: learning to be independent, becoming verbal, fantasy play, asking questions; potty-training, may or may not use diapers/pull-ups and/or pacifier; weaning off bottle to sippy cup and baby foods & some solid foods
4–6: explorative play, developing routines, becoming more independent, imaginative play; fully potty-trained and no longer uses pacifier; switched to sippy cup or water bottle and eats solid foods
7-11: mastering skills, becoming more concerned with social experiences, starting to question beliefs, more opportunities for independence; fully potty-trained and no longer uses pacifier; switched to regular plastic cup and/or water bottle and eats solid foods
Is Agere a Kink?
One thing that’s important to acknowledge is that age regression or littlespace is NOT a kink. Some people do engage in caregiver dynamics (I do not, so I won’t speak too much about this since it’s not something I understand well), but they are NOT sexual and there is NO power dynamic. However, you can be a “little” with or without a caregiver.
When people engage in a relationship with a power dynamic, sexual or not, they may call it DDLG or CGL. These terms are considered kink/NSFW by the agere community. To be perfectly clear, we are NOT talking about kink in this blog post! I’m talking 100% about SFW agere/littlespace.
Is Age Regression Harmful?
Agere can be healthy — there’s nothing inherently wrong with it! Being in littlespace can be a healthy coping mechanism, can keep you from engaging in maladaptive coping mechanisms (like self-harm), and can help you heal your inner child. It’s even used by some therapists to help people access traumatic memories from childhood and heal from their pasts.
Regressive behavior can be simple or complex, harmful or harmless to the individual showing the behavior and to those around them. Regression becomes problematic, especially in a hospital, when it is employed to avoid difficult adult situations or stressors.
Hermioni N. Lokko, MD, MPP & Theodore A. Stern, MD (2015)
Something I want to clear up, however, is the distinction between helpful and harmful agere behaviors. While I think it’s important to acknowledge that regression itself isn’t inherently bad, there are times when being a regressor can get in the way of leading a full and healthy life. I’ll call these “healthy” and “unhealthy” regression for the purposes of this article, although it’s rarely as black-and-white as being one or the other.
As a social work student and aspiring therapist, as well as an age regressor, I would define healthy age regression as:
A conscious choice (you aren’t regressing involuntarily, which can be harmful at times)
A form of self-care (you aren’t harming yourself or creating problems in your life by regressing)
Healing to your inner child (you have to define this for yourself — to me, play is healing, but temper tantrums are not healing)
Pure regression (“impure” regression occurs when age regressors have unwanted intrusive thoughts of “adult” things, such as sexuality)
Times when age regression can be unhealthy or unhelpful include:
When you regress even though you don’t want to (involuntary regression)
When you’re using it to avoid adult situations or it gets in the way of adult responsibilities, like going to work
When you are self-destructive or harm yourself in littlespace (e.g. head banging)
When it is your ONLY coping mechanism
To summarize, age regression usually isn’t harmful. If you’re experiencing involuntary regression and it bothers you or is causing problems in your life, you should definitely speak with a mental health professional, since it can be a symptom of more serious disorders that require psychological intervention. Otherwise, if you’re consciously engaging in agere as a form of self-care or a coping strategy, there isn’t any harm in accessing your inner child, as long as you have other grown-up ways to cope, too!
How to Be Little
Tips for Healthy Age Regression
Engage in age regression in a safe place, around people who understand your behavior (or at least accept it)
If you live with others who aren’t supportive, lock your door or do it when no one is home
Set up a comfortable play area with blankets, pillows, stuffies, and fairy lights (or anything you want)
Fill up your water bottle, sippy cup, or bottle and make snacks easily available for when you want them
Take care of any “adulting” before you regress: pay bills due today, get work or homework done, etc.
Stock up on little gear, if you can afford it, like arts and crafts supplies, stuffed animals, and cute accessories
If you don’t have a lot of money, Dollar Tree and Five Below are great places to get little gear!
Activities for Age Regressors
Eating “little” snacks or meals (dinosaur nuggets, mac ‘n’ cheese, fruit and veggies cut into shapes)
Sipping out of a bottle, juice box, or sippy cup (based on your “little age”)
Sucking on a pacifier, if you want to
Wearing a onesie or matching pajama set, if you want to
Watching kids’ TV shows or movies on Netflix or YouTube
Coloring a children’s coloring book or printable coloring pages with markers or crayons
Doing arts and crafts projects
Starting a “little journal” for age regression
Going to Build-a-Bear Workshop
Playing kids’ video games or phone games
Drawing with chalk
Take a bubble bath with bath toys
Print out a reward chart and use stickers to fill it in
If you have been reading Endo Strong for a long time, you know that I want to (eventually) attend graduate school for my Master’s in Social Work to become a licensed clinical social worker. I have a special interest in working with trauma survivors as a therapist, partly because of my personal experience with complex trauma.
I have always been anxious; a people-pleaser; over-achieving. I spent my childhood, adolescence, and early college years trying to win the approval of someone who always wanted me to be someone who I am not. Growing up with divorced parents, I spent my time split between a house where I felt safe but misunderstood, and a house where I felt fundamentally anxious and unstable. My parent has untreated mental illness and narcissistic traits that shaped me into someone who feels like she needs to be “fixed;” someone who is unworthy of love.
Thanks to my low self-esteem, I stayed in an abusive, manipulative relationship for three years and, because of my difficulties with emotional regulation, truly believed that I was the problem. In that relationship, I was sexually coerced, which I believe contributes to my experience with chronic pelvic pain. It was almost as if I sought out a flawed relationship because I did not believe myself deserving of better.
Both my mind and my body have been affected by trauma, to the point where I consider my traumatic past to be a core part of my identity. If we had “islands” of core character traits in real life, the way they do in the Pixar movie Inside Out, my Trauma Island would be an epic destination of Disney-sized proportions. That’s why I want to dedicate my life to helping people who have been through similar experiences recover from their trauma.
In particular, I have a special place in my heart for sufferers of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), which in many ways describes what I went through to a T. C-PTSD develops after an ongoing traumatic experience, rather than a single traumatic event like a natural disaster or military service. Many times, C-PTSD develops from childhood experiences of abuse and instability, but it can also develop from an abusive relationship in adulthood. C-PTSD shares many characteristics with PTSD, but sufferers often do not meet the full criteria for classical PTSD.
Unlike “normal” PTSD, C-PTSD is not a formal diagnosis in the DSM-V handbook that therapists use to characterize mental illnesses. Many mental healthcare providers do not recognize it at all, which is why it is crucial that more people like me enter the field. I hope that going through complex trauma myself will offer me perspective on what it means for my patients to experience ongoing trauma. In other words, I hope I am able to one day use my traumatic experiences to help others. To me, this will be the ultimate expression of post-traumatic growth.
I won’t pretend that I can teach you how to heal a lifetime of trauma in one blog post. But what I can do is offer some understanding. Perhaps you know that you suffered a difficult childhood, but don’t understand how your present day behaviors are connected to that behavior. Or, maybe you resist thinking about your past because it affects how you think and feel in the present and as a result, you feel disconnected from your mind and body. Whatever the case, this post is for you.
This post is for the high-achieving, anxious, people-pleasing woman. She was once a little girl who didn’t get the love she deserved and now, she struggles with self-confidence and emotional regulation. Today, I’m going to do my best to teach you how to give yourself the love you were once denied by others, and how to take back the present moment from a traumatic past.
What is Trauma?
We often make the mistake of defining trauma as a single, standout event that haunts a person to this day. But while things like a natural disaster, a tour in the military, or a violent sexual assault are undoubtedly traumatic, other types of trauma exist — and can be equally as, if not more haunting. There are many types of trauma, including:
Acute trauma. This is the type of trauma we often call to mind when we think of post-traumatic stress disorder: a single, devastating, often violent event, like a natural disaster, car accident, war, or rape.
Repetitive trauma.This type of trauma occurs when a person experiences multiple traumatic events, such as receiving regular chemotherapy for cancer.
Complex trauma. The trauma concerned in C-PTSD, complex trauma, results from prolonged, ongoing trauma, often of an interpersonal nature and typically occuring during childhood. Examples include domestic violence and narcissistic parental abuse.
Developmental trauma. Early-onset exposure to trauma during infancy through early childhood — including neglect, assault, witnessing violence, or coercion — comprises developmental trauma. Developmental trauma affects a person’s attachment style due to its effect on our relationships with caregivers. This can overlap with complex trauma and/or C-PTSD.
Vicarious trauma. Also known as secondary trauma, vicarious trauma affects service providers like therapists and first-responders who treat patients with trauma. They absorb some of the patient’s traumatic background, integrating it into their own functioning.
Historical trauma. This trauma is passed down across generations, resulting from large-scale group trauma experienced by family members. This type of trauma includes ancestral genocide, slavery, and colonialism. Children of Holocaust survivors, or the great-great grandchildren of former slaves, are the examples I use to frame historical trauma.
Intergenerational trauma. Intergenerational trauma is also passed down across generations, but concerns patterns of coping developed in response to trauma, rather than the direct effects of a massive group trauma. For example, the child of a parent who has experienced an acute trauma may pick up on or have been taught some of that parent’s coping mechanisms, effectively absorbing the effects of their family member’s trauma.
Medical trauma. We don’t often think of medical treatment as traumatic in nature, but invasive, painful, or emotionally difficult hospital stays and procedures often trigger the trauma response — especially in children. While much attention is given to emergency rooms, ICUs, and operating rooms when discussing medical trauma, it’s important to acknowledge that medical trauma can occur at any level of care.
Trauma — especially acute trauma — can affect you at any stage of life, but mental healthcare providers are especially concerned with the dramatic effects that experiencing trauma during childhood can have on us as adults. A survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 61 percent of adults experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). ACEs are linked to chronic health conditions, mental illness, and substance abuse, but can also cause subclinical problems with emotions and relationships, in adulthood.
Your “ACE score,” used to identify ACEs in the CDC’s original study, is a measure of the number of ACEs you have experienced. This score comes with limitations; it only identifies ten types of ACEs, whereas I (and many trauma therapists) believe that the definition of childhood trauma is more nuanced. However, the score has been used to predict the rates of chronic disease, depression, and suicide. An ACE score above 4 is considered high. An ACE score of 4 or more is linked to a 460 percent increase in the rate of depression and a 1,200 percent increase in the rate of suicide attempts alone. 1 in 6 adults — myself included (my ACE score is 5) — have experienced at least 4 ACEs, making the somatization and integration of trauma incredibly common.
We often instinctively know when we have experienced trauma. Our bodies hold onto those traumatic memories, experiences, and feelings, and internalize them as somatic symptoms like aches, pains, migraines, and upset stomach. Sometimes, however, memories of trauma can be buried beneath layers and layers of denial, suppression, and other coping mechanisms. Working with a therapist can help you uncover suppressed trauma — and specific therapeutic techniques have been developed to help you do just that.
Signs of C-PTSD
When adults experience a traumatic event, they are more easily able to process what they have been through. That is why C-PTSD stemming from early childhood experiences is so destructive to a child’s physical and psychological well-being. Children who experience ACEs have their development disrupted by trauma. As a result, the trauma becomes deeply interwoven into the child’s identity. They integrate their experiences into their core beliefs, and often grow up feeling unworthy and unloved.
As an adult, the signs and symptoms of trauma do not simply disappear. Because they are woven so deeply into the fiber of our being, it can be impossibly challenging to unravel our beliefs surrounding ourselves and our experiences, in order to develop an identity separate from our traumatic past. According to the organization Beauty After Bruises, patients with C-PTSD often require over ten years of therapy to heal the wounds inflicted in childhood. There is a strong physical component to psychological healing as well: studies of animals and humans with PTSD show that trauma literally changes our brains, and the way the neurochemicals in our brains respond to stress.
When I first read the challenges faced by people living with C-PTSD, I instantly resonated. I knew at my core that C-PTSD was the name for the psychological and relational difficulties I’ve faced since my late adolescence. Below, I’ll recount the signs and symptoms of C-PTSD. My advice? Pay attention to the way your body feels as you read them. Your body will communicate with you through sensations, to tell you what it has to say about C-PTSD and you.
Emotional dysregulation. Emotional regulation is one of the core skills in dialectical behavior therapy, first developed for patients with borderline personality disorder (BPD). It should come as no surprise, then, that patients with C-PTSD are frequently misdiagnosed with BPD. C-PTSD survivors, too, face difficulty with experiencing and managing their emotions. They may cope with uncomfortable emotions in unhealthy ways, whether by over- or underreacting. Many patients do not know how to adequately identify and name the emotions they are experiencing, or may suppress their emotions altogether, leading them to appear numb and disaffected.
Dissociation. The most extreme example of dissociation occurs in Dissociative Identity Disorder, in which patients switch between personalities, or “alters.” However, a more mild form of dissociation is often seen in PTSD and C-PTSD. Patients with C-PTSD may forget elements of their trauma; recall events in the wrong chronological order; experience intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, or nightmares of their trauma; or even experience episodes of feeling wholly disconnected from their physical bodies. Many people describe this feeling as an “out-of-body” experience, as if the patient were looking down on themselves as an observer rather than being present in the moment.
Relational challenges. Challenges with interpersonal relationships emerge naturally from the developmental and psychological effects of childhood trauma. Survivors of C-PTSD may be distrustful due to an inability to depend on their caregivers as children — or, alternatively, they may be too trusting. Some C-PTSD patients are over-eager to connect with others to make up for childhood neglect, leading them to seek out and stay in unhealthy relationships, even when they become abusive or dangerous. From a partner’s perspective, it can also be difficult to understand a C-PTSD survivor’s behavior. Their emotions can come across as erratic or unstable; they may seek constant reassurance, express signs of codependency, or fundamentally doubt the relationship, harboring a deep distrust of their partner. It is critical for long-term partners of patients with C-PTSD to understand their loved one’s trauma, so they can better understand from where these “irrational” behaviors (which are, in fact, completely normal within the context of the trauma response) stem.
Misperception of the perpetrator. C-PTSD survivors may be unable to recognize the abuse they experienced at the hands of a particular person. To those on the outside, it is completely clear that this person was abusive — yet the C-PTSD patient’s perception of that person remains untouched. Gaslighting is a common behavior used by abusers to maintain control over their victims. The abuser makes the victim out to be the crazy or irrational one, until the victim begins to doubt their own perceptions of reality. As a result, the victim’s perceptions of the abuser can also become distorted. Many abusers put on a charming front to the rest of the world, and victims can sometimes remain enchanted by this public persona. Other times, victims long for emotional validation they will never receive from their abuser, so much so that they over-compensate with their achievements in an attempt to win their abuser’s approval. Others still become transfixed with bitterness or the idea of revenge. In my experience, it’s also possible to oscillate between all three of these extremes (sometimes, even in the course of a single day).
System of Meanings. Our System of Meanings is the name given by trauma therapists to our core beliefs about ourselves and the world around us. People who have experienced complex trauma may learn to see the world as a cold, unjust place, in which perpetrators are never held accountable for their wrongdoings. They may doubt the motivations of others, believing that no one does anything without the expectation of something in return, or feel suspicious and distrustful of those around them. But perhaps the most harmful beliefs, and the most difficult to repair, are those that we develop about ourselves in the wake of childhood trauma. Because we were so often exposed to them, we begin to believe the criticisms of our abusers, and internalize the beliefs that we are “bad,” “lazy,” “worthless,” or “cruel.” Our self-perception becomes so distorted that we start to view ourselves as unworthy and unlovable. Many of us feel like there is something fundamentally wrong with us; that we are “broken” or need to be “fixed.” As a C-PTSD survivor, I can assure you that the only thing you need to fix about yourself, the only thing that is broken about you, is this faulty System of Meanings. Unraveling these beliefs and replacing them with better ones can take years, but it is a critical step in the process of healing from complex trauma.
How to Heal from Trauma
As humans, we aren’t necessarily born with the innate ability to be resilient. Resilience is a skill like any other, which must be developed with practice. But resilience represents only one side of healing from complex trauma: we also need to learn to honor our bodies and emotions, forgive ourself and others, and rewire our subconscious System of Meanings.
The combination of these tasks represents true healing, and it’s true healing that eventually gives way to post-traumatic growth. Post-traumatic growth can be defined as the ability to channel previous trauma into a positive endeavor. Post-traumatic growth is exemplified by those whose trauma sparked a deep desire to help others heal from the same experiences. I once believed that it was impossible to serve as a mental healthcare provider with a history of mental illness and trauma, but I’ve never been happier than to be proven wrong the legions of mental health providers who were inspired to do their current work by their past experiences, in a stunning example of post-traumatic growth.
It’s important to recognize that post-traumatic growth does not happen overnight. It’s not as easy as simply deciding to channel your energy into something different. You cannot heal from trauma without acknowledging and moving forward from your past experiences. Try as we may to suppress our traumatic memories, the body remembers our history of trauma, even when the mind does not. Even the most fervent attempts to heal from trauma can be upended by our refusal to confront the past. When we avoid confronting previous trauma, we may experience somatic symptoms in the body — such as aches, pains, migraines, and gastrointestinal complaints — that cannot be explained by medicine, even when we have subjectively “moved on” from our trauma in the mind.
Avoidance, resistance, and stagnancy are not treatment plans. We can only heal from complex trauma with time, dedication, and commitment. In my opinion, it’s best to begin the process of healing from childhood trauma under the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. However, it’s equally as important to consider how we treat ourselves when we are outside the care of therapists, psychologists, or psychiatrists. Weekly therapy sessions can help you process trauma in a safe environment, but true healing also requires a steadfast commitment to practicing self-care and self-love outside the therapist’s office.
Below, I’ve provided a preliminary list of strategies and resources to help you heal from complex trauma. Treat this toolkit as a jumping-off point for personal growth, rather than an exhaustive collection. Over time, you can add to your toolbox with strategies learned in therapy and from your own personal experience.
The Complex Trauma Toolkit
The Survivor Bill of Rights. As a human being and as a survivor of complex trauma, you possess inherent rights. Prolonged abuse purposefully strips us of these rights. Our abusers systematically use techniques designed to undermine our rights and maintain control, leaving us uncertain of our worth and dignity as human beings — even after the abuse has long since ended.
Dr. Thomas V. Maguire developed the Survivor Bill of Rights for trauma victims to help you reclaim those rights, especially in respect to the therapeutic process. As a survivor of complex trauma, your rights include your personal authority, your boundaries, your integrity of communication, and your physical and emotional safety. Some of my favorite assertions in the Bill of Rights are the rights to:
Direct your values and recovery
Seek, accept, or decline help from any sources
Be afraid, deciding for yourself when and how to confront fear
Speak about and remain silent about any topic you wish, at any time
Ask for change when your needs are not being met
Hold your therapist’s undivided loyalty in respect to any abuser
Receive treatment that is not conditional on your “good behavior” (excepting serious crime and the endangerment of yourself or others)
Understand that while you inherently possess all of these rights, not all of them may resonate with you right now — and that’s okay. For those rights that do resonate with you, it may help you to build regular reminders of those rights into your day to prompt you to recognize your value as a human being. Repeated exposure to your rights as a survivor can help you reconstruct the damaged beliefs in your self-worth resulting from your experience with complex trauma. Try setting phone reminders of your favorite rights at regular intervals throughout the day, or writing down your favorite rights on sticky notes and posting them in places where you will see them often.
Journaling. Telling your story is an essential component of healing. The practice of Narrative Therapy tells us that there is no objective reality and that all elements of your traumatic experience are valid. Through Narrative Therapy, patients learn to construct a cohesive narrative of their trauma. By re-experiencing their trauma through storytelling, patients with a history of complex trauma learn to take back control of their narrative.
You can harness the power of Narrative Therapy on your own by exploring your traumatic memories, thoughts, and feelings in a journal. Journaling can help you better process what happened, including thoughts and memories you may not be ready to share out loud with your therapist. Commit to journaling for 15-20 minutes every day and re-experiencing different elements of your traumatic past. Start with the facts of what happened, then begin to consider deeper questions like “How has this affected my relationships?” or “What core beliefs have I internalized as a result of this experience?”
Make sure to take time to self-soothe throughout the process of journaling, as reliving these events can bring up challenging thoughts and feelings that may lead to physical discomfort or difficulty regulating emotions. You should always feel free to stop the exercise and redirect your attention to something else at any time. For more guidance on journaling as a strategy for healing trauma, check out this tool for Therapeutic Journaling developed by the Veterans Health Administration.
Radical acceptance. Trauma often leads us through a minefield of emotions, ranging from anger to sadness, to guilt, to fear, to shame. Many approaches to treating trauma, and especially PTSD, encourage patients to practice gradual exposure to memories associated with their trauma (usually in a therapist’s office). During the process of exposure, patients learn to also practice radical acceptance of the thoughts, feelings, and images that arise from the memory of their previous trauma. Research shows that the practice of radical acceptance decreases uncomfortable emotions related to trauma, including guilt, shame, distress, disgust, and fear.
Radical acceptance involves complete and total awareness and acceptance of what is in your mind, body, heart, and soul in the present moment. For trauma, this means accepting what happened to us, as well as accepting ourselves as we are — learning to believe that we are enough. If you’ve ever done the “don’t think about a pink elephant” experiment in a psychology class, you know that trying to resist thoughts and feelings actually strengthens them. Radical acceptance is the opposite of resistance. For traumatic memories to become less disruptive, you must allow whatever thoughts, feelings, and images that come over you to simply be, as they are, without giving into the desire to change them, the urge to ignore them, or the imposition of self-doubt.
Difficult as it may be, radical acceptance promises the closure you need to effectively move forward in life, without letting your past disrupt your present. You can use the same principles of radical acceptance, a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skill, to cope with intrusive memories, flashbacks, and/or nightmares related to C-PTSD. According to Marsha Linehan, the developer of DBT, radical acceptance begins with observing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors as an objective outsider. Once you notice you have begun to question or fight the reality of what happened to you, remind yourself that your trauma is what it is and cannot be changed.
Use accepting self-talk to encourage yourself to accept what has happened. Acknowledge that what happened to you was not your fault, while still accepting the causal factors that have shaped your present reality. Then, purposefully shift your perspective by asking yourself, “How would I think, feel, and act if I could accept what happened to me and move on from my trauma?” Vividly visualize how you would behave if you were already practicing radical acceptance, and put these behaviors into practice as if this were really the case.
Somatic experiencing. Somatic experiencing is a therapeutic technique developed by Peter A. Levine, Ph.D. for releasing stored trauma in the body. Dr. Levine has famously compared the human body to a Slinky to explain our natural reaction to trauma. Traumatic events trigger our fight-or-flight response, in which the body generates tremendous amounts of energy to help us do what we must to survive. In the wild, animals release this energy by shaking their bodies from head to toe. But because this physical response is not always socially acceptable or possible to us as humans, we learn to compress this traumatic energy, like a Slinky when it is collapsed.
The problem is that holding in this level of energy requires us to expend even more energy. Our bodies respond to the high levels of energy required to suppress the trauma response by developing somatic symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, panic attacks, and more. These physical symptoms are our bodies’ way of communicating that they are burnt out and overwhelmed by the demands that trauma has placed on them. They are an expression of the thoughts and feelings our bodies harbor, due to the fact that we were unable to release them at the time of our trauma.
Dr. Levine’s theory of somatic experiencing states that we need to “discharge” the stored energy from our trauma in order to achieve physical and psychological healing. By noticing our body’s natural response to memories of trauma, we can stop trying to override the fight or flight system, and instead ride the wave of our bodily sensations to a natural resolution. When we release control of our bodily sensations and learn to become mindful observers instead, we allow ourselves to discharge stored trauma, thereby relieving physical and psychological symptoms associated with it.
Traditionally, somatic experiencing sessions are completed under the guidance of a specially trained therapist. The therapist gradually walks you through reliving your trauma, piece by piece, and observing the sensations that arise in your body as you talk about what happened. Still, you can incorporate elements of somatic experiencing into your self-care and self-soothing routines on your own as you work through trauma treatment with a mental health practitioners. Some somatic experiencing techniques and exercises to help you cope with unpleasant memories as a mindful observer include pendulation and self-hugging.
Pendulation is a key skill in somatic experiencing, and involves shifting awareness from sensations in parts of the body that feel painful or uncomfortable, and sensations in parts of the body that feel comfortable and calm. As survivors of complex trauma, we often learn to focus on what is bad, negative, or painful, losing our ability to pendulate between states of positivity and negativity; eustress and distress. Pendulation encourages us to allow both of these sensations to be present in the mind and body at the same time. The practice of pendulation helps us better integrate our trauma by recognizing both the parts of ourself that have been affected by trauma and the parts of ourself that feel whole. You can practice pendulation by closing your eyes and honing your attention on an area of your body where you feel physical discomfort. Hold your awareness here for a few breaths, then shift your awareness to a different part of the body that feels calm and pain-free. Breathe here for a few moments, then begin to practice shifting your awareness back and forth between these two areas. Notice how it feels both to honor the unpleasant sensations in your body, the somatization of your trauma, and to acknowledge the parts of your body, of your life, that are good and whole.
When’s the last time you gave yourself a hug? The sensation of self-hugging brings us back ito our bodies, allowing us to feel more grounded. This quick practice can manage symptoms of dissociation associated with trauma, helping us step back into the present moment instead of lingering in our memories of the past. Offering a hug to yourself is the fullest expression of self-love. Even when we have trouble seeing our value as victims of trauma, we still have the simple power to give ourselves physical affection; to show our bodies love and offer ourselves healing, even when we do not feel loving towards our conscious self. Wrapping your arms around your shoulders for a few moments brings you back into your body in moments when the fight or flight response is triggered by memories, nightmares, or flashbacks of trauma. Self-hugging is also a powerful way to heal your inner child, as you are able to offer yourself the love and affection you were denied during your traumatic upbringing. A self-hug is instinctive; you don’t need to do anything special, besides close your eyes and focus on both the bodily sensations and emotions that arise from the feeling of being touched with loving kindness.
Resources for Further Reading
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. THE book to read if you are interested in deeply understanding trauma and its effects on the mind, body, and spirit.
The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz, Ph.D. One of the only workbooks (and, in my opinion, the best) that specifically addresses complex trauma and C-PTSD.
The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown. Brown is a psychological researcher who has spent 20 years studying shame, courage, vulnerability, and empathy. This book is not specific to trauma, but provides ten actionable guideposts for working through imperfection and building self-esteem that you may find helpful in your journey towards healing.
Author’s Note: I normally welcome open dialogue here on Endo Strong, but I have turned off comments for this post. This subject is intensely personal for me and while this post was important for me to write and share, I do not want to open myself up to further trauma at the hands of insensitive comments.
I talk about everything on my blog. It’s important to me to be open about my experiences, so as not to give the sugarcoated impression that my life as an influencer is “perfect.” But the truth is, there’s something I’ve never written about on my blog before. I’ve alluded to it, but I’ve never acknowledged the truth of it on paper (on screen?). So, here goes nothing.
I love my dad. I also haven’t spoken to my dad in two years. I get his “happy birthday” and “merry Christmas” texts, with the occasional picture of our dogs thrown in. But I never reply. I haven’t picked up the phone and talked to him in over 730 days. He wasn’t invited to my college graduation. When the day comes, he won’t be invited to my wedding, either. Someday, I will have children who will never get to know their grandfather. There are a lot of reasons why I don’t speak to him, and never plan to speak to him again. But those reasons are the one thing — the only thing — I will not talk about on this blog.
I rarely talk about what it’s like to be estranged from a parent. My closest friends know I don’t talk to my dad, but they don’t know all the reasons why. Only David, my mom, and the various therapists I’ve had over the years know the full story, with no details omitted. And it’s going to stay that way. It’s not that I’m ashamed or afraid to talk about it (although I know that choosing not to talk to a parent makes me the villain in a lot of narratives). I just don’t believe that everything belongs on the internet. Once it’s up here, you can’t erase it. I don’t talk to my dad, but I still don’t think he deserves a permanent reminder of all of the mistakes he made. Not having me in his life is reminder enough.
But while I’m not going to tell my life story and all of its gory details, I believe in breaking the silence. As an estranged daughter, it’s difficult to vocalize how it feels when other people find out that I don’t talk to my dad. The media paints people like me as selfish, naive girls who are too young to understand that what they’re doing is wrong. It’s true that I don’t have children of my own, and that I can’t understand what it’s like to make mistakes as a parent — a fact that older folks have pointed out to me time and time again. Yet I can’t begin to tell you how many people — even people my own age, people who I’m close with and know well — have told me, “I could never stop talking to a parent, no matter what they did.”
Honestly, I’m happy for those people. People who say that can’t begin to imagine a world in which their parent could do something so hurtful that they would never speak to them again. I wish that were true for me. Nobody wants to stop speaking to their parent — or worst of all, feel that they can’t talk to a parent because of something they said or did. But because most people can’t imagine that kind of life, it makes being estranged from a parent feel lonely as fuck. To those of us who don’t speak to both our parents, finding someone who understands and listens without judgment feels impossible. Thankfully, I have my mom, who went through similar experiences when she was married to my dad.
It’s difficult to find people like me online. Plenty of people who have been through what I’ve been through exist, but very few of us talk about what that experience is like. And I understand why. It’s frustrating, to say the least, to communicate such a painful experience, only to be met with anger or misunderstanding. Yet I firmly believe that when people don’t talk about what they went through, they send the message that to do so is somehow shameful or wrong.
I get that not everyone in my situation is going to want to talk about their experiences being estranged from a parent. I fully support whatever decision you choose to make. You have to protect your own mental health above all else — and if talking about what you went through doesn’t serve you, or puts you in physical danger, I don’t think you should do it. But to me, what helps the most is to turn what I went through into something useful. If even one person changes their mind because of what I have to say on the subject of estrangement, I will think of it as a job well done.
The thing is, not everyone has been through what I’ve gone through. So few of us are out there, and if none of us choose to talk about it, then no one will understand. That’s why I’m sharing the things I wish other people knew about my decision not to talk to my dad. I don’t think I owe anyone an explanation, but I do think that educating others will help people understand how to better engage with someone they know who doesn’t talk to a parent, without unintentionally doing more harm than good.
Before I get into the things I wish other people knew about my decision not to speak to a parent, however, I want to lay bare the fact that everyone’s experience with estrangement is different. By no means do I speak for an entire community of people when I share how I feel about my journey — but if even one person can relate to what I have ot say about it, it will have been worth it to speak (write?) what’s on my mind.
1. I would not have chosen this.
People like to assume that I “chose” this, as if I was looking for a reason to rid myself of all obligations to my father. If I could go back and choose my family, I would always rather have a happy, functional relationship with both of my parents. But that’s exactly the thing: we can’t choose who we are born to. That’s why the term “chosen family” exists.
It’s true that I chose, and continue to choose, not to speak to my dad. He is not a part of my “chosen family.” What isn’t true, however, is that this was my first choice. As things are, I don’t want to speak to my dad. But if there were a hypothetical scenario in which I could have chosen a parent I would have wanted to speak to, I would have taken it every time. Nobody wants to be estranged from their parent. It just got to the point where I felt I no longer had a choice.
2. A single event did not cause this.
When people find out I don’t talk to my dad, the first question is usually, “What happened?” I never answer that question honestly, because it’s never that simple of an explanation. People are looking for a neat, tidy answer that will help this strange situation make sense to them. For most people, this takes the form of some single, unforgivable event in which their parent committed something unspeakable.
In reality, a lot of people, myself included, can mark the day they stopped speaking to the parent they are estranged from — but that doesn’t mean that day is the singular reason why we no longer speak to that person. The “event” I can pinpoint isn’t a grave, grave sin that incited the choice not to speak to my dad, but the boiling point. Thousands of tiny, collective abuses bubbled over that day.
However, if I were to explain everything that led up to that point, the person listening would probably become bored or horrified by what I went through. I’m not exactly looking to draw more attention to the situation, so usually, I simplify my answer by telling people it was that one day that did it all. I may choose to explain my trauma in a way that’s easier for other people to understand, but it’s important to recognize that there’s much more to it than what I choose to share on the surface.
3. I am neither a victim nor a villain.
For some reason, people are always looking to take sides in a conflict, even when that conflict doesn’t concern them. When I tell people I don’t talk to my dad and they ask me why, I get the feeling they want an explanation so they can suss out whether I’m in the right or the wrong; whether I’m deserving of their support or not.
Some people inevitably come to the conclusion that it’s always wrong to stop speaking to a family member — “blood is thicker than water,” and all that bullshit — while others have become enraged on my behalf upon hearing the things I went through. But truthfully, I’d rather people didn’t comment altogether.
The thing is, if I’m talking to you openly about what I went through, it’s not because I’m looking for validation that what I did is right. I’m not asking you to pass judgment on my decision or take my side over my dad’s. I’m simply telling you because I trust you, and a burden shared is a burden halved.
I get tired of being made out to be the villain, but I also hate being treated like a victim. I don’t think my decision is right or wrong. I’m not saying that the fact that I did something means anyone else should do it. It is what it is, and I’d rather we didn’t analyze it further than that. That job is reserved for my therapist. Talk to me about Hamilton or something instead!
4. Respect is earned, not owed.
If there’s a commonality between all of the stories I’ve heard about children who no longer speak to their parents, including my own, it’s the role that our cultural beliefs toward elders play in justifying toxic behavior.
I would argue that most, if not all, human cultures hold the belief that elders are deserving of respect because of their lived experiences. We are meant to treat them as if their longer lives are synonymous with a deeper sense of right and wrong than ours. That’s why it’s so difficult for so many people to understand when people choose not to talk to their parents. To many people, “they’re your parents” is reason enough to maintain a relationship with someone.
In any other relationship, however, you’re expected to earn respect. Most people would not stay with an abusive spouse only because they are wearing a wedding ring. Why do we treat family differently, simply because we share their DNA? And contrary to popular belief, I don’t say that because I don’t value family. My family is the most important thing in the world to me, precisely because I choose only to keep people in my life who are deserving of my respect.
While I am grateful to my parents — both of my parents — for raising me and putting a roof over my head, I don’t believe that gratitude needs to be synonymous with a deep and pervasive sense of respect. In the wild, animals raise their young only to the point where they are old enough to survive on their own. Among other species, feeding and housing a child is treated as a duty, not an accomplishment.
As someone with a toxic parent, it’s difficult for me to understand why so many people think I am “supposed” to put up with certain behaviors as “thanks” to my parents. Thanks for what? I wonder. For not putting me out on the street as an infant? To me, conceiving a child isn’t a feat worthy of respect. The way you raise them matters much, much more than the fact that you brought their life into the world. While I understand that life is a spiritual thing for many people, my spirituality forces me to acknowledge that conceiving and having a child isn’t an accomplishment of your own. God, the Universe, whatever you want to call it — these forces came together to bring life into the world, not your sheer force of will.
When people say that you owe your parents respect because they are your parents, I can’t help but feel that they are confusing respect with love. You love your parents simply because they are your parents. You can’t help it. But love is not synonymous with respect. Love is not a choice, but respect is. Love is not earned, but respect must be. I love my dad, but that doesn’t mean that I owe him the privilege of being in my life.
5. I may be sad, but I don’t have regrets.
I mentioned previously that a lot of narratives paint me out to be the villain — the selfish, naive daughter who will inevitably come to see the error of her foolish ways. But I feel it’s important to recognize that regret and remorse are not synonyms. I regret that cutting my dad out of my life felt necessary for my physical and mental health. That does not mean that I am sorry for doing what I needed to do to protect myself.
When making a case for me speaking to my dad again, people often cite the milestones I’ll miss without a father in the picture: I won’t have a father-daughter dance at my wedding. I won’t be given away. I won’t celebrate Father’s Day until I have children of my own. And believe me, I hate that. Knowing that my dad won’t be there for all those moments that he should have been there for hurts like hell.
Yet I don’t owe anyone an apology for making that choice. If the pain of missing out on so many important milestones hurts less than the pain of continuing to live with my father in my life, that alone says enough about my decision not to speak to him. I do not feel guilty for choosing a life of happiness over a life of pain.