THE TRAUMA OF SELF-WORTH AND THE RETURN TO THE BODY By Satyam Malhotra
There is a trauma that remains unrecognized in many of our lives and yet, it determines how we feel about ourselves in every moment. Masked behind what is considered a ‘normal’ upbringing is an experience that convinced us that it is unsafe to be who we really are, and forced us to abandon ourselves. For those of us who have suffered through this experience, our lives revolve around trying to compensate for the resulting trauma. We do this through self-worth addictions – never-ending attempts to prove our worth. But until we remember what happened to us, no matter how much we achieve, or how great our life may seem on the outside, it will not feel like enough. To be more precise we, ourselves, will not feel good enough. The wound will always gnaw at our core. It calls for healing as is the nature of any trauma. And it won’t let us rest until that healing takes place and our inherent self-worth is restored. This is the story of that unspoken trauma, and how we can find wholeness once again.
THE CHOICE THAT SHOULD NOT HAVE BEEN
The story began the day we were born. As vulnerable infants we depended on our parents for all our needs, including emotional and psychological. It was essential for us to feel loved and accepted in our families. Only then would we feel safe in our environment. For most of us, the love and acceptance we required was granted freely at first. All we had to do was cry or flash a wonderful smile and it was enough to have our parents pick us up and shower us with affection. On a primal level, we felt that we belonged in our tribe and there was no reason to feel unsafe. As animals, we could feel at ease in our bodies because who we were was allowed. Breathing came easily back then. Soon however, simply being who we were would not be enough to get the approval of our parents. Instead we would need to fulfill certain expectations. As if suddenly, there were rules in place of how we needed to behave, or what we needed to do to be considered a “good” boy or girl. Can you remember what these expectations were for you? If so take a few moments and write them down.
Although certain expectations from parents are needed to provide healthy limits for a child, the nature of these expectations and how they were imposed upon us have done a great deal of damage. These expectations became the laws of love or acceptance within our families. When we could fulfill the expectations, we were worthy of acceptance and could breath deeply because we still belonged. Eventually, however, we encountered situations where we could not fulfill one of these expectations. Either we were not capable of living up to it, or didn’t live up to it as well as a sibling. Possible consequences included a parent giving us a disappointed look, the silent treatment, raised voices, anger and even being hit. Regardless of the exact response from our parents, we ultimately experienced a withdrawal of their acceptance. This is the critical moment to our story, and we need to examine it carefully. Every time acceptance was withdrawn the underlying message that was being communicated to us was that we were not worthy of acceptance as we were; we were only worthy when we could meet these expectations. We were learning to believe that our worth – our fundamental value as a human being – depended on how well we measured up to expectations.
Can you remember a time when you saw that disappointed look on one of your parents’ faces? If it is not too overwhelming, take a moment to explore. How did it make you feel? Answers may include fear, sadness, pain, guilt, shame, rejection, confusion, terror, anger and even rage. For those able to access their feelings from this young age, it may seem surprising to uncover the intensity of emotion brought up by this seemingly normal scenario. But there are very good reasons for these emotions. Not only was our acceptance being taken away in that moment, but also our safety. As vulnerable children, being accepted by our parents was a matter of life and death, because without them we would be alone in a world in which we would not be able to survive. Thus, when we were unworthy of acceptance it meant that we were unsafe as well. This is how our worth and safety became intimately connected to meeting expectations. Only by meeting them would we be considered a valuable member of the family and be safe within this world.
With so much at stake when we were not living up to an expectation, our fight or flight response naturally kicked in. Our breathing went shallow, and the hairs on our bodies rose. The trauma was starting, as we were being forced to make a choice. On one side was our instinctive self – our own internal compass, our inner guidance – telling us what we wanted to do in that moment, how we wanted to behave and what we felt life was about. And on the other side was our parents’ version of what we should be. This was a devastating position to be put in. To choose our own self meant that we would be abandoned by the tribe. But, to be what our parents wanted us to be meant that we would have to abandon our own instinctive selves. No matter what we chose, the trauma of abandonment was inevitable.
The notion that we could either be part of the tribe or be in touch with our instinctive self but not both, is at the heart of the trauma. This is an unnatural choice, because our health depends on being in tune with our inner world while also having a vital connection to our community. When who we were did not match the expectations around us, we were confused and struggling with important questions for our growth and development. We were asking, “How do I reconcile my inner world with the outer? How does all this life within me, these important parts of myself, and these emotions that I feel fit in this world? How can I live in this world without losing myself?” We depended on our parents for safety during these moments so we could answer these questions. Yet, when acceptance was withdrawn in such moments, these healthy questions were lost. The threat of losing our safety became more urgent and forced us to answer new questions: How can I feel safe in this situation? How can I prove my value to the tribe and get my parents’ love back? Ultimately, who am I to abandon, myself or my tribe?
This is a choice that should never have been. There are ways of setting limits for a child without ever making safety a question or putting a child’s self-worth on the line. There are ways of communicating to a child that even though this part of yourself needs to adjust in this situation it doesn’t mean you have to abandon it completely. It may be useful to you at other times. It is one of the hardest things to help a child reconcile what is coming from their inner world with what the outside world is asking of it, without crushing him/her.
For this reason no one is blaming our parents. They didn’t know any better, because the same mistake was made during their upbringing. Our parents deserve compassion just as anyone who endured this choice does.
DISSOCIATION – LEAVING OUR BODY BEHIND
Few survive this choice without a great deal of emotional pain. In this critical moment, some of us may have chosen to rebel against the tribe. In our anger or rage, whatever our parents demanded became the last thing we would do. After all, many expectations we faced were unjust. They were unexamined notions of perfection that demanded we repress the sides of ourselves that our parents were uncomfortable seeing. Anger is a natural response when we are told to be ashamed of, or repress crucial parts of ourselves. Though we chose rebellion in the name of protecting our instinctive self, it was still a coping strategy to deal with the terror of this choice. It did not help us reconcile the conflict of our inner world with the outer but, instead, was a reaction to deny all authority. As a result, the trauma of being abandoned by our tribe, a profound loneliness, would continue to live within us and fuel our rebellion.
Most of us, however, in our vulnerability, chose to conform to the tribe.[i] And in doing so our instinctive self slowly became less relevant. This connection had to be left behind in the name of safety. This is a very significant dissociation process in our trauma. Our instinctive self lives in the body. Our reflexes, our inherent nature and the vitality are all found there. We had to leave it behind because it no longer served us. In fact, to stay in the body would have been confusing and dangerous. It was a nuisance, constantly pulling at us with feelings or parts of ourselves that were not allowed anymore. Our surroundings frowned upon these parts and soon even we learned to look upon them with disgust, suspicion or doubt. And so the body, the instinctive self, was left behind.
This abandonment was not the result of an isolated event. We had to make this choice over and over again. When we would later go to school, join social groups, become part of a work culture, some spiritual groups, watch television, even interact with certain friends or partners - each of these settings would provide their own set of expectations that we were asked to fulfill. And when we did not meet them the same withdrawal of acceptance occurred. Eventually we lost complete touch with our bodies, save whispers from time to time.
ADOPTING A NEW SELF – THE BIRTH OF SELF-WORTH ADDICTIONS
Abandoning the body, we slowly adopted a new self that lives in a state of trauma. It is convinced that it must fulfill an internal list of expectations. As adults, these expectations may be remnants of our past or we may have come up with them ourselves. Either way we will do whatever it takes to fulfill them because we still believe that our worth and safety depend on it.
On the surface, proving our worth seems normal. But a closer look will bring critical awareness to those afflicted by the trauma. Consider what it is that makes you worthy of acceptance at this time in your life. Write these things down. Now imagine that you are no longer able to fulfill one of these criteria. For example, imagine you lose someone’s approval, or you don’t look as attractive, or make a mistake at something important to you, or are not as successful anymore. How do you feel about yourself? What is the experience in your body? Those of us afflicted by this trauma will feel the fight or flight symptoms returning to our system. Breath will again go shallow. We will feel the desire to run and re-establish our sense of worth in some way. Or we may feel a crushing internal sense of being smaller, wanting to freeze even. These are just some body indications that we still feel that our safety is at stake when we do not manage to meet expectations. In essence the energy of the trauma lives on in the moments when we feel our worth is at stake.
We are convinced that pursuing success, approval, a life partner, perfection, even self-growth and other endeavours will help us establish a healthy sense of worth. But in fact we are engaging in Self-worth Addictions, where at best we will feel high for some time, but very soon this will wear off leaving us feeling unworthy again. How these “innocent” pursuits end up becoming addictions cannot be discussed completely here. For our purposes, it suffices to say that in and of themselves there is nothing wrong with these pursuits. They become addictions, however, when they are driven by the terror of not feeling safe, or not being worthy unless we can attain them. Then we feel good about ourselves and breathe when we are successful for example, but very soon this worth will be challenged and we will back out there looking for the next dose of success. There will always a reason to feel unworthy.
The highs and lows of proving our worth have become the dominant experience. Our society, friends and family support the idea that these pursuits will eventually lead to happiness. That is what makes this trauma so difficult to detect. These pursuits are celebrated by the world around us regardless of whether addiction, terror, and a deep sense of worthlessness are what drive them. But no matter how much we prove, we will still feel unsafe and unworthy. This is because the notion that we need to prove our worth is a reaction to trauma. It is what we came to believe as reality amidst the terror of those moments, but it is not the truth. Even if we are successful in our endeavours and seem to have our self-worth well established, the terror of losing that safety still remains in the background of our experiences. The problem is that we have forgotten the trauma. We have forgotten the choice, and what was left behind. We are running to prove we are safe, when all the while the real pain awaits our immediate attention. All the while our instinctive self calls for the healing of the trauma, so that we can actually feel safe.
THE RETURN TO THE SELF – THE BODY’S CALL HOME
After years of living with terror running in the backdrop of our lives, taking the first steps towards healing may seem overwhelming. Fortunately, the clues to healing the trauma are found within its story. Our connection to our instinctive self – our body – was abandoned during this trauma, and that is what we must reclaim. Indeed, this healing journey is the heroic process of re-inhabiting the body. Here, our instincts can be accessed once more while the medicine for our trauma await the time that our connection to our inner world will become unlocked.
To get in touch with the body is to experience ourselves as the animal that we are. It begins with becoming aware of our breathing, our heart beat, and how the body moves. It entails getting in touch with the sensations that occur within our body during life situations. How it feels to be tense, angry, happy, sad, and how we are responding to the people in our life – all of these have a corresponding sensation in our body. Eventually we can learn to track the sensations and when we experience an intense situation we can learn to contain these sensations so that they can be processed in the body entirely without overwhelming us. The more we connect to our body, the more we will come to see that it knows how to heal. Just as it has the intelligence to heal a cut or broken bone, it also has the innate capacity to heal our psychological trauma. We just need to learn how to allow this healing process to occur in our bodies. These are the prerequisites of trauma healing that become available as we connect to the body[ii]. Therapists and body workers who can hold space for us to develop these skills are of great help. They can provide guidance and in some cases hands on support for our body to release the energy of the trauma when we start to process it. (At times they are necessary, so if this process becomes overwhelming do not go through it alone)
With these skills at our fingertips, it will soon be time to face the trauma directly. This renegotiation process will allow us to complete the healing and fully inhabit the body. Here again the story gives us clues on how to take this step. The trauma occurred at the choice that should not have been. This is where our bodies were abandoned, and this is where we can complete our return to them. To access this critical moment, we have to stop running after the things that we think will prove us worthy of acceptance as adults. Every time we feel that our self-worth is at stake, we are brought back to this choice. The same energy is present, and we can use this to our advantage. To do this we can start by imagining ourselves not doing the things that prove our worth (with practice we can eventually learn to do this in real time – during the actual moments when we feel our worth is at stake). For example, think of a person whose approval is important to your self-worth – perhaps someone at work, a partner, or a friend. Now think of a situation where you need to behave a certain way to get their approval. Go into that situation in your head and, rather than saying or doing what is required, stop yourself for a moment. Another example would be to think of something that makes you feel successful and stop yourself from achieving that task in your mind. Now, feel what comes up. When you find the right situation – the one with a charge, where you really feel your self-worth is at stake – then there will be an emotional and physical reaction to not doing the task. This will bring up the energy of the trauma.
The key here is to allow ourselves to feel what is rising up in the body without reacting by running for approval or success. Instead, we need to allow ourselves to stay there and feel the sensations that are coming up. Perhaps there is confusion, fear, sadness, guilt, anger- we let ourselves feel them in the body without talking ourselves out of them. They will not overwhelm us when we have learned to contain them and breathe with them. We let them flow through us – rather than denying them. There will be an urge at this moment to make a choice. One part will urge us to think “who cares what the person wants” or to say to ourselves “I don’t care if I am successful anyways” (this is the rebelling reaction within us that pretends the world does not matter). Another part will urge us to conform – run to do exactly what the person wants us to do or get that success at all costs (this is the side of us that chooses the tribe regardless of the inner world). Both are reactions that we want to avoid giving into. Instead all we have to do is stay there refusing to choose either side. Stay suspended in the feeling of conflict. This will bring up more energy. Indeed, the fight or flight terror of this moment will eventually come forward with time and practice. To stay in this conflict is to be vulnerable. We will be bringing up the vulnerability of the child who felt his/her life depended on choosing. To not choose is terrifying. We didn’t feel safe then, and deep down we still don’t. We must be willing to feel the vulnerability and terror of this moment – even lean into them. Of course we do not want to feel these things. But when we are willing to feel what we have been running from, we provide the healing space the body has been longing for all our lives.
The innate healing process will then enfold in two steps. First, the instinctive self that has been left behind – frozen in time – will automatically begin to unthaw. The life, the vitality that has been trapped will start to release into the body. Connective tissue that was stuck will loosen as this happens, and energy will literally start to pulse through the body. A sense of who we are, what we really want to do in this moment will start to be felt. Ideas, dreams, ways of moving through life that have long been repressed will start to come forward. Parts of the self that have been left behind and which make us whole will also be revealed – some creative, some compassionate, some playful, some trusting, some filled with hope – foreign parts that we will nonetheless recognize immediately like long lost friends. They will come forward because by not making a choice, we have told them that they are now safe. That they do not need to be sacrificed to fit in this world, but rather they are needed and we will commit to learning how they can flourish. A new era is starting, where these soulful parts of ourselves are just as important as what the world is asking of us. We will not choose anymore. Finally, our worth will no longer be in question. The animal, this instinctive self, knows its worth. It feels it through to the core, and it can breathe this knowing freely into our bodies.
This is a profound awakening of the instinctive self. Yet, this new self is still a child. Not childish. No, its impulses are necessary for an adult life to be fully lived. It is a child only in that it is still raw, and we must learn how these new emotions and parts of ourselves interact with the world. This is the second step of the healing process. The important questions that were lost during our abandonment must be answered. For example, in the case where we want someone’s approval, there is the way that person expects us to behave, and then there is our instinctive way of behaving that is awakening now. In the case where we are pursuing success, we have this notion of success that has always made us feel worthy in our lives thus far, and we have this new life force coming forward that may have a different version of success or other ideas of how it wants to pursue the same success. We may assume that we need to choose this new life that is awakening. But again we must be willing to stay in the conflict. To choose either is to abandon the other like we did when were young. This time we just need to keep feeling the conflict – holding the space where we do not choose. When we can allow both sides to exist at the same time – our old way of getting safety, and this new life coming forward – the healing occurs. This is why the body is so important. The mind has difficulty holding these two contradicting forces at the same time – it tends to choose one. In the body, we can hold the contradicting forces with ease. And in holding them both, there will be an energetic interaction of these two forces. This will give birth to new more vital possibility that honours both the self and the world. This is a marvellous healing phenomenon.[iii] It is not a logical process, where we say “well, I will do some of what I want and some of what the world wants.” No, this is a process that will reveal new possibilities of how to engage in this world while honouring the self. The terror to prove our worth will release its hold on the body, as we have given ourselves a new experience of safety and resourcefulness during the critical moment when we were once asked to abandon ourselves. We have found a new way – the trauma is renegotiated.
The entire healing process consists of reawakening the instinctive self and then learning how it can interact with the world. Of course this is not a one stop healing event. It is a process that takes time, experimentation and a commitment to consistently provide this nurturing space for ourselves. It is a long journey, but all the bounty, all the gold, all the wisdom that have been missing in our lives await. The meaning and purpose that want to come forward and show us our place in the world slowly reveal themselves with each step. This is a marriage – ourselves with the world. By honouring both, we no longer need to be a hermit, nor do we have to conform and become a stagnant cog in a wheel that is crushing our humanity. Instead, we are bringing forward the vital energy and insights that our communities so desperately need to inform their futures.
Amidst the new possibilities that will come forward for our lives, we will also access information for our children. The difficult task of how to create a safe space for the next generation without passing on this trauma to them, depends on our ability to provide this space for ourselves first. When this happens, the choice that should not have been, will be the choice that no longer is.
To your healing,
Satyam Malhotra is a professional Physical Therapist. He uses tools including CranioSacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release to connect clients with their innate healing potentials in order to heal emotional and physical ailments. He is also the Co-Author of Born on the Mountaintop; a book that helps people explore and break free from Self-Worth Addictions. To find out more about his work visit www.memagic.com/healing or you can contact him at email@example.com with any questions or comments.
[i] In reality, the trauma will often split our psyches into both the rebel and conformist; one side becomes the more dominant part of our personality, but the other does exist in more subtle ways.
[ii] Peter Levine’s, Waking The Tiger, is a good resource to understand and develop some of these skills.
[iii] Carl G. Jung referred to this concept as the transcendental function. In this case we are applying the concept in the body.