By Emmaline Orr
Unheard. Unseen. Dismissed.
A phone call with a health coach was not something I ever expected would throw me back into the middle of my childhood trauma, but there I was, feeling like a little girl all alone and “lost in the woods.”
A little girl who just needed to be held, to be loved, to be heard.
When I was very young, one of my mama’s male friends did things to me that no child should ever endure. I loved and trusted my mama with all my heart, and I told her what had happened. She told me I must be lying. More than that, she got angry with me and told me never to speak of her friends like that again. Mama and I drifted apart after that, and it was a long, long time before I trusted anyone again.
So when I was expressing my meal plan troubles to my health coach and she waved the issues aside as normal side effects, I found myself triggered. Why didn’t she believe me when I said that it definitely was not “normal?” Why didn’t she care that I was in pain? Why wasn’t she interested in fixing the problem?
I felt abandoned all over again.
That’s the thing about past trauma, isn’t it? The most random instances at the most unexpected times can suddenly bring it all barrelling back. Triggers can come from anywhere and at any time. If you find yourself in the middle of a flashback or flood of emotion like this, here are three tips to help you move through them.
1. Honor Your Feelings
Those feelings are the embodiment of your traumatized child self, and she needs validation. She needs to know that it’s okay to be sad or afraid or angry, that what happened to her was wrong, and that it wasn’t her fault. She needs to feel loved. She needs to feel safe.
In order to do this for her, consider what you would have needed back then. What words did you long to hear? What did you need to receive? You can give this to her—to yourself—by giving these feelings space to be felt fully. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know it’s miserable. It’s natural to want to recoil from them, but it’s true what they say: the only way out is through.
Find ways to approach your feelings on your own terms, in your own time.
The same way that general self-care can look different from person to person, this may not look the same for you as it does for me. Research, get curious, and explore. Maybe you sit in a dark room and cry until you’re all cried out. Maybe you make art.
In my case, I keep a journal where I write to my inner child. It’s just one way that I can give her space to be heard and loved. It’s also a space where “adult me” can work through the feelings I experience, find patterns, and figure out how to move forward.
2. Set Clear Boundaries
As a child I learned that boundaries didn’t protect me, they made things worse. With my mama it was always a dictatorship: no compromise, no discussion—it was her way or the highway. The one time I tried to say, “This isn’t okay” by speaking up about my abuse, all it did was rip away from me the one person who felt safe.
So I learned to go along with things. Because of this environment, it wasn’t until adulthood that I finally began to learn what it was to set boundaries. Because my voice had been silenced, I’d forgotten I had one.
Now that I’m grown and aware of this conditioning, I make a conscious and deliberate effort to set clear and healthy boundaries for myself. I still struggle from time to time, but like anything else it improves with practice. When I visit my mama, for instance, I make a list of rules for myself. “This is what I will allow, this is what I will not, and if xyz happens then I’m packing up and leaving.”
It helps me to limit my triggers, and gives me the ability to manage them better when they do pop up.
The foundation for this practice is an unconditional love for myself. The unconditional love I have for my “little girl within” that I know I need to nurture and protect.
Ask yourself what your boundaries are. If (like me) you aren’t totally comfortable with this, first try writing them down. See how they feel when you read them. Make friends with them. Remind yourself why these boundaries are important. And start communicating them slowly, if necessary, with those closest to you first. With a little time, you’ll grow more confident and accustomed to protecting and honoring yourself in this way.
3. Reach Out to Someone
That “lost in the woods” feeling I mentioned in the beginning? It is very typical for those who have experienced trauma. You are enveloped in your personal experience, frozen in time while the world moves on around you. I don’t know if there is anything else in existence that leaves a person feeling so very alone, which is exactly why it’s important to reach out.
Is there a friend you can trust? A family member? Know that you don’t have to share all the details if you’re not ready, but having someone you can turn to for company and comfort can make all the difference, even all you can tell them is, “I’m having a rough day.”
If you don’t have someone close to you (and perhaps even if you do), consider finding a therapist who specializes in serving people who’ve been through what you went through.
A Final Word
As someone who serves women who have endured trauma and are on the journey of “healing the little girl within,” that experience with my health coach brought with it a loud and clear message. I shared it in the beginning but it bears repeating:
Our triggers can arise from anywhere, at any time.
No matter how evolved and adjusted we may become there’s still that chance, lingering in shadowy corners, that something will happen to shove us back into our trauma. Even if just for a moment.
I don’t say this to scare you. No, I say this to remind you that it is normal, and that you are okay. I say this to encourage you to explore and find ways that help you to cope and manage your triggers, as I have found ways to manage mine.
And I say this to take your hand, through my words, and let you know that you’re very much not alone.
For further reading:
Parent Yourself Again by Yong Kang Chan
Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, Or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson
Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Karyl McBride
Emmaline Orr is a writer and coach who helps women with trauma (especially from childhood) learn to reconnect with and “heal the little girl within.” She currently hosts a Facebook group for these women where she shares prompts, exercises, research and support. Emmaline is also working on multiple books both for adults and children based on her experiences. In her free time she can be found journaling on her front porch or cross-stitching with a hot cup of tea.
Editor: Dana Gornall