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When Children Believe “I Am Wrong”: The Impact Developmental Trauma Has on Belief Systems and Identity

“In the past decade, mental health visits to the emergency room have jumped 66 per cent, and hospitalizations for conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders are up 55 per cent. Meanwhile, the waits for psychological and psychiatric care are months and even years…. According to the new report, one in three adults have suffered from physical or sexual abuse before the age of 16. Two-thirds of them never told anyone.” ~ Andre Picard, The Globe and Mail, September 4, 2018 

“Childhood trauma leaves scars that are genetic, not just emotional, study affirms… Neglect, abuse, violence and trauma endured early in life can ripple directly into a child’s molecular structure and distort their DNA, according to a new study this week from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The genetic changes leave them biologically more vulnerable in later life to psychiatric afflictions like depression, anxiety, mood disorders and high-risk behavior like drug abuse, the researchers found.” ~ John Schmid, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, July 23, 2018

It’s common for children who endure Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE), such as abuse or neglect, to believe there is something wrong with them. “I am wrong” in these cases is not purely an intellectual conclusion, but one rooted in developmental trauma. This belief is more than “I did something wrong”; it is an existential crisis where the identity of the child is profoundly distorted.

This was certainly true in my case. As a child that was both abused and abandoned, “I am wrong” was firmly established in my psyche. And like so many children who are victims of ACE’s, I blamed myself: “It’s my fault” for what happened, I thought, a toxic belief that further deepened the shame imprint. I must have done something wrong; there must be something wrong with me.

Blaming oneself is a survival response for young children experiencing abuse or neglect. It’s too devastating for them to blame the perpetrator, particularly when he or she is a primary caregiver. The child needs that person for survival, yet is simultaneously being harmed by this very individual. The child is thus at cross-purposes: Unable to move closer to the individual for fear of further abuse or away because the child knows that biologically she or he needs this person for survival. And so self-blame becomes the critical self-preserving, psychological adaptation.

We can make further sense of trauma-based distortions in identity when we understand that children who feel bad because of ACE’s often make sense of their emotional turmoil by thinking they are bad. They confuse one with the other. In other words, they identify with the feeling state: “I am wrong”; “I am bad”. Again, this layers shame on top of the trauma imprints from the ACE’s within the child’s psychosomatic structure. Day after day, steeping within the child’s unconscious, trauma-based identities can take years to uncover and heal.

Over time, through consistent environmental failures, the “groove” of “I am wrong” deepens without the child knowing it. Parents who insist on a “right” way to behave and schools that obsessively rank, grade, compare and punish for not getting the correct answer reinforce this core wound and associated belief.

My Swiss mother, a product of strict cultural ideas of “right” and “wrong”, had strong opinions on the way to do things and be: The right way to sit at the table, greet guests, do homework, dress, etc. There were mannerisms, a clear properness I needed to adhere to in order to be the “respectable” young man my mother wanted me to be. My schoolteachers, too, had very set ideas: The right answers and wrong way to print, the right way to learn, sit, speak, engage the teacher, etc. At both home and school I was “standardized” according to suffocating customs and worldviews. Too much questioning was intolerable.

Though well intended, my mother (and father, for that matter) and teachers unwittingly deepened the “groove” of “wrong”. They did this because of the ancestral and collective trauma they inherited that has long shaped cultures, schools and family values.

The nature of trauma is rigidity in the system expressed in black and white worldviews. Trauma survivors tend to speak in absolute terms: “Men/women are a threat”; “It’s not safe out there”. Without mental flexibility, they perceive far less options than those who suffer from minimal trauma. This binary conditioning only becomes more severe when parents, schoolteachers and other environments insist on right and wrong (or standardization) and, even worse, when they are not trauma-informed or aware of how their trauma impacts others. Indeed, ingrained “right” and “wrong” societal dualism makes it even more difficult for trauma survivors to feel at choice in the world, to see beyond this or that, black or white, and to feel into the infinite scope of grey.

Righting wrong

A child who grows believing they are “wrong” compensates, usually without knowing it, by trying to do things “right”. This can lead to perfectionism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, workaholism, and seeking approval (as well as a number of chronic and difficult to diagnose physical ailments). The “right” way is a desperate attempt to avoid the pain and terror associated with “wrong”. In other words, “right” serves as a coping vehicle to mitigate the internal experience of trauma and survive. “Right” is self-preservation, a means of control.

“Right” made me very determined and obsessively focused on details, such as the proper stacking of sports cards and the removal of small objects like lint from a duvet, to the point of being diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder at age 12. This hyper-vigilance made me a diligent worker, highly productive in later years; yet I would get frustrated when others produced far less output than me; for instance, in my administrative tasks in particular office jobs. I got lots done in short amounts of time, but was consistently hard on myself, and often hard on others.

Underneath my “productivity”, however, was a pervasive feeling of sadness, anger and loneliness. Nothing felt “right” in this world no matter how hard I tried, because I did not know how much I was feeling “wrong”.

Lingering further beneath the clouds, submerged below my full awareness, lay an insidious belief I could not shake that I did something wrong. I would, for instance, say something to someone and misinterpret their response as me annoying or hurting them in some way. Or someone would not phone me back straight away and I would obsess over how I must have done something to push them away. With my mind stirring and gut-wrenching anxiety building, I would often capitulate and phone the individual to determine whether I caused harm in some way, to right my perceived wrong and give myself relief. As was usually the case, my inner story was fiction. But that wouldn’t stop the wheels from soon turning again.

My mind has spent years twisting and turning, worrying how I might have hurt others, anticipating the other shoe to drop, not realizing that my fears stem from being deeply hurt and from believing it’s my fault for what happened. Behind the illusion of being a strong, capable man, most my life I’ve felt terrified—terrified of doing “wrong” because of the terror associated with feeling so profoundly wrong inside.

Two tributary beliefs

Through years of deep healing work I realized that “I am wrong” manifested into two core “tributary” beliefs, one of which I’ve already mentioned: “I did something wrong”, with the second being, “Something is wrong”.

The first belief, “I did something wrong”, is more internal in its focusI caused that; it’s my fault. For instance, I have not received an invite to a friend’s birthday party. I did something wrong; otherwise, why else would I not be invited? When trauma is acting out, when the wounded child is inflamed, so to speak, rationale takes a back seat. It can be difficult to reason your way out of a deep trigger.

A derivative of “I did something wrong” is “I’m in trouble”, which I’ve often battled with. In the example above regarding the birthday party, my mind would adamantly insist that I must be in trouble with this person; I must have angered them, hurt them, insulted them. Meanwhile, I just don’t realize that the invites haven’t gone out yet.

Another example involves when I was at a retreat and I, along with a few others, couldn’t stop ourselves from laughing after people had gone to sleep, waking a few up. Amongst the laughers, I was the loudest (not surprisingly!). The retreat leaders briskly came into the room sounding “Sshhhh!” That was it, I thought; I’m in trouble. My mind went off! I was going to get punished, never allowed back to this beloved retreat again. I felt bad for hours, obsessing over the situation, beating myself up, my guilt and shame overwhelming me. It did not cross my mind that how bad I felt was completely disproportional to the circumstance. That’s because I didn’t know my intense feeling of bad was an expression of the utter badness I had long felt since I was a child.

Therapists call this process projection or transference—we project our hidden feelings and ideas of ourselves onto others, usually without conscious awareness. In the example above re the birthday invite, I transferred “I did something wrong” onto my friend who I was certain thought, “Vince did something wrong… he’s not invited!” Similarly, in the second example, I transferred “I am in trouble”, as well as my fear of abandonment from having been abandoned as a child, onto the retreat’s senior leaders. They were going to abandon me by banishing me from the retreat—forever!

In my personal experience, projecting “I did something wrong” has not been limited to people; it has extended further to the entire Universe itself. Specifically, my mind has made up that certain choices have displeased God/Life/The Universe, and that if I don’t do “right” I will be punished. Fear of punishment has fueled a pleaser in me that wants to look and do good in the eyes of God. I’ve often caught my mind thinking, “That kind act I just did will make God very pleased with me”, as if gaining approval or gathering points.

If not careful, pleasing can only deepen the groove of “I am wrong/bad”. In the case of the retreat, the guilt-driven pleaser in me desperately wanted to profusely apologize to the leaders, to “right” my exaggerated “wrong”. I was convinced that without sincere apology there would be severe punishment. The next morning I discovered the laughter was no big deal.

Apologizing is obviously kind and so often warranted; yet, it can also deepen the groove of bad or wrong and reinforce the trauma-identity distortion. In the example of the retreat, the empowered choice would have been to refrain from apologizing. (If I had a client in a similar situation, I would encourage them not to apologize.) This would have felt like a tremendous risk for me, of course; for, without apology, in my terrified, obsessive mind, I would only increase the risk of being in trouble and thus getting punished. Yet there is tremendous reward in abstaining from this trauma reflex, for in doing so, I disempower the wrong/bad identity and empower the part of me that can trust all is fine—that I didn’t do anything wrong!

Can I be in the tension of uncertainty long enough to learn something new, to befriend an older part of me that trusts?

Taking the discussion of the guilt-driven pleaser to a more temporal or historic level, we can see its underpinnings in religious control. As I write in this article, The Disease of Being Right, the Church has long preyed on the guilt of individuals for its own profit and power. For the institution, “right” is a powerful weapon when the fear of “wrong” is engrained strong enough in people’s psyches. Fear of punishment, in this case, everlasting damnation, compels followers to please Church officials giving the institution increasing control and wealth. It thus motivates the Church to make the public believe it has done wrong, that we are born sinners.

Do something wrong, against Church doctrine, and you go to hell. “Wrong” is hell. “Right” is heaven. Remember the binary nature of trauma? Again, here we have the dogma of dualistic, rigid worldviews as institutionalized and monetized by the Church, ones scripted from trauma much more than we currently understand.

The second belief, “Something is wrong”, is primarily an external assessment of something or someone. For instance, I may be concerned about an important package not arriving on time; something is wrong because I don’t have the box in hand yet. Then obsessiveness takes off.

Being concerned is not the problem here; it’s natural to feel that way if a package is late. Rather, the problem is the severe and often paralyzing fixation that has its roots in trauma.

“Something is wrong” was born, in large part, from the hypervigilance I experienced as a young boy trembling in anticipation of when the perpetrator would harm me next. The footsteps, the creeks of the floor, would naturally send me into a spiral of panic that something is wrong. Continued hypervigilance, combined with a lack of soothing repair from a safe adult, severely dysregulated my nervous system into a state of hyperarousal—a habitually over-engaged sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

The ongoing dysregulation and hypervigilance in my psychobiology was responsible for my obsessive-compulsive tendencies and its extreme variant of paranoia. Regarding the example above of the retreat, what started out as worry quickly spiraled into obsession and then sheer paranoia—I did something deeply wrong; something bad is going to happen. In my paranoia I was convinced, no matter the voice of my rational mind, that there was a terrible outcome just around the corner, like the perpetrator down the hall in my childhood. It was an inevitable sense of dread, a dread that so many trauma-survivors are familiar with.

As you can see, the two beliefs—“I did something wrong” and “Something is wrong”—feed one another. “I did something wrong” (laugh too loud) led to “Something is wrong” (the leaders are pissed and will kick me out). Both tributary beliefs spiral into the other, a distress cycle of catastrophizing and physical pain that includes, and is not limited to, gut tightness, heart pain and headaches. The toxic thoughts feed the physical pain and the pain feeds the thoughts.

I want to end this section with one more corollary belief I long carried unconsciously: “I don’t deserve”. A young boy treated with abuse and neglect naturally believes that he must deserve it; otherwise, why would his beloved attachment figures do this to him? It has taken me years to uncover not only the core wound, but also this associated belief that has particularly played out as “I don’t deserve intimacy”. I don’t deserve the safety of loving connection. It was taken away from me and perverted. What was once natural became terrifying. Relationships, as a consequence, were, for decades, extremely difficult to navigate for me.

What you look for you find

Obsessiveness is a troublesome manifestation of “I am wrong”. There is a fundamental inability to trust oneself, others and life; for instance, to trust that the package will arrive and that what is occurring with her has nothing to do with me; I didn’t cause it—it’s not my fault. Or, there is an inability to trust that I simply made a small mistake that will be forgotten by all soon; that it will be okay—words I needed to hear more often as a child, particularly in times of severe stress.

Distrust and obsessiveness cause us to search for evidence that reinforces the trauma-based identity. Years of our life are spent looking for (projecting) where “I am wrong”; we project this belief everywhere, not realizing that what we look for we find, at least in our minds.

Proof can be found if one searches long and hard enough: She walked out of the room while looking upset; that MUST be my fault. He hasn’t called me back; I’m in trouble.

Evidence gathering strengthens the distorted identity, which further fuels the search. This is core to the distress cycle that trauma survivors live with every day, a cycle that is deeply addictive.

It seems counter-logical: The trauma-based identity—“I am wrong”—both fears the feeling of wrong and searches frantically and obsessively for reasons of its own existence. Pain feeds on pain, which fuels the search; yet, simultaneously, the pain-based identity deeply fears further pain and seeks to avoid it by doing “right”.

We are terrified of feeling/being wrong; yet, obsessively, we look for where we are wrong and then try to fix the perceived problem. 

So many of the problems that we see in the world, more than we can imagine, are projections. There is a problem with the delivery service, my friend who just walked out, with my presence at the retreat. Problem-solving mindsets are born from such projections. The world is full of problem solvers spending hours a day, and copious amounts of energy, trying to solve problems of their own making. We derive, figure out, construct, obsess over, get further hurt by and apologize for things that exist primarily in our mind.

We don’t realize how much we find what we are looking for. We make our own problems, day in, day out.

We then train children to be and praise them for being good little “problem-solvers”. We value and take pride in it in modern, Western cultures, and feed kids into blind, problem solving, trauma-fused systems. All the while, we don’t realize how much our systems—socio, economic, political, etc.—are constructed and operated from unresolved, unconscious trauma.

Make no mistake; there are legitimate problems, like my fridge or computer breaking down. There are things happening we simply need a solution for. But what if so many of the problems we see in the world are creations of timeworn, inter-generational, unresolved trauma? What if the world is full of people frantically chasing a bottomless pit of projections, trying to remove the “problems” “out there”, when really, they are inside?

The core addiction 

“That addictions or illnesses, like cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis, can be related to trauma is a novel idea to doctors trained in the biological and genetic determinism characterizing modern medical practice, but it’s hardly news to anyone who’s interviewed addicted human beings or who’s familiar with the research on the relationship between childhood adversity and adult disease.” ~ Gabor Maté, MD

This indeed is a paradoxical sickness—an identity that, unconsciously, continues to preserve itself long after the distressing event(s) is over, yet fears the somatic discomfort in which it has its roots.

Trauma is the core addiction, here. We are addicted to the pain and therefore the identity and its projections.

“I am wrong.” “I am bad.”

I am my pain.

Self-destructive patterns such as alcoholism, workoholism, as well as drug, porn, sex and even technology addictions are often, if not mostly, expressions of a deeper entrenchment in trauma embedded in the nervous system. These addictions are a means of trying to cope with the core addiction, when, in actuality, they simply perpetuate it.

Even addictive patterns of caretaking (often seen in nurses, social workers and child care professionals) and needing to prove or seek approval, as well as the aforementioned pattern of pleasing, can be symptoms of a concealed addiction to pain, or, more specifically, the identification with the core trauma.

For example, one client of mine discovered through our work together a core belief of “If I don’t caretake I won’t be loved”. Distilled down, the trauma-informed belief is “I am unlovable”, a common core narrative of trauma survivors along with “I’m not good enough”, “I’m not worthy”, and others. She learned that she had to take care of others otherwise they would not love her. Her survival was dependent on it. That dependency forged the core addiction. “If I don’t caretake I won’t be loved”, not surprisingly, was a key driving force in her becoming a childcare professional.

Trauma, and the ways we avoid pain, influence our personal and professional choices / paths more than most realize. For example, consummate, professional caregivers may discover that so much of their need to care for others is an unconscious means of tending to and avoiding their own pain. Like the therapist who tries to heal himself through his clients (as so many do without realizing it), the nurse’s/social worker’s/child care professional’s good intentions to serve is often an unconscious expression of unresolved trauma and a means of bypassing it.

If I help others I won’t have to help myself.

For the athlete, how much of his need to perform derives from a deeper sense of inadequacy? More than we realize. “I am not good enough” does well to fuel determination and excellence on the football field. Perhaps one day he’ll prove his worth to daddy. “I love you” will finally be heard.

“Prove” is in the word “approval”, you know?

For the proud professor, how much of her intellectual motives and prowess derive from a sense of lack? One of the few ways she might have felt love from her parents was through academic achievement; not through play, not through being her natural, exuberant self, but by getting those straight A’s. Still though, forty years later, her parents long gone, without realizing it, she is motivated unconsciously by “I am not worthy”.

Proving becomes an addiction, so too do the intellect and the need to care for others at the cost of self-care. Add other forms of identity distortions and addiction; spin them round and round and then amplify in manifold ways. What you have is a world shaped by unresolved trauma, much more than most fathom.

Shaking the foundation

“We ordinarily believe that we know who we are, what we are, what we are going to do, what life is about, what should happen. Inquiry means challenging all these things. Do we really know?” ~ A.H. Almaas

Eventually, if we dig far enough in our healing journey, we are confronted with our core addiction and the identity built on its platform. Difficult questions must be faced, ones that begin shaking the foundation of our existence: Who am I if I am not a pleaser, accommodator, workaholic, caretaker? Who am I when I no longer need to prove my existence, protect my pain, put others first? What is my life about if trauma no longer rules me, determines my fate, shapes the “I” I have only known myself to be?

The word “trauma” derives from the German word “traum”, which means “dream”. What happens to the dream when we begin to wake up—the dream of ourselves, our life, the longstanding dream of the problem-solving world? What happens to the “I”, and the “I” of all those that fill our communities and nations across the planet, when its foundation begins to crumble?

During one of my healing journeys with the help of the Amazonian plant medicine, Ayahuasca, and some powerful shamans, I was finally directly confronted with the core belief, “I am wrong”. It was literally shown to me in a powerful vision of what seemed like a tall, very thin hourglass centered in a vast, open, dark red room. I was given a choice in that moment: Continue believing this old story or end the story. Enough groundwork of clearing trauma related to this belief had been done in previous ceremonies (and other therapeutic modalities) to allow a conscious choice to be made. It was now simply about choosing.

Faced with this existential decision, a sudden tremendous fear arose in my system—the terror of possibly saying goodbye to this old identity of mine. Who would I be without it? I was on the limen between certainty and the vast unknown, between who I had always known myself to be and an empowered sense of self yet untapped. My body began to tremble. Fear spoke loud, and then louder. With great courage, I chose “I am NOT wrong!” And then it erupted. For 15 minutes my pelvis area shook uncontrollably as trauma released from my system.

It was a day for dying, for the core addiction, the core allegiance to this old story and trauma, to dissolve.

Within each of us, even those with a happy childhood, there lies an allegiance to who we think we are—to traum. (Remember, we are influenced not only by personal trauma, but by intergenerational trauma as well.) “Personality” comes from the Greek word “persona”, which means, “mask”. The dream of our identity forged by trauma is constructed as one’s personality. Naturally, there is tremendous existential terror associated with relinquishing it. It is the fear behind all fears—the fear of loss of self, or the mask we’ve always known ourselves to be.

This “inner death” is one mystics have written and spoken about for millennia. Often identified as “ego dissolution”, it is symbolized in Jesus’s crucifixion, a death that opened him to a resurrection into Christ Consciousness. The death of his ego or “little ‘i’” was a necessary sacrifice to achieve enlightenment, to enter the “gate” into the sacred.

“Sacrifice” is related to the word “sacred”; we must give up who we think we are to experience a more mythic way of being. But this is terrifying. Change two letters around and you go from scared to sacred!

“Death is a stripping away of all that is not you”, contemporary author and spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle reminds us. “The secret of life is to ‘die before you die’ and find that there is no death.” Hermes Trismegistus, the Greek god of writing and magic, was purported to have said, “Close your eyes and let the mind expand. Let no fear of death or darkness arrest its course. Allow the mind to merge with Mind. Let it flow out upon the great curve of consciousness. Let it soar on the wings of the great bird of duration, up to the very Circle of Eternity.”

Death takes us there, to the mythic, the sacred. But first we must question.

Who am I if not the workaholic, caretaker, responsible one, accommodator, etc. Who am I if I don’t need to please? More specifically: Who am I if not the beliefs that give rise to these roles—“I have to be strong”; “I have to put others first”; “It’s bad to be weak”; “I don’t deserve…”?

Who am I if not inherently, fundamentally wrong?

Two months prior to my plant medicine journey with Ayahuasca a stubborn cough began to plague me. No matter my efforts to resolve it, it would not go away. I was confused, frustrated, partly because I kept coughing during client sessions, disturbing their moments of peace and reflection. Yet, I knew from experience that, often, physical symptoms begin to surface leading up to Ayahuasca ceremonies. The medicine is that powerful—it starts to work on you energetically weeks before you even drink it.

Entering the ceremonial space I was clear on my intent: I needed my cough healed. At one point during the ceremony I was shown how my old belief, “It’s my fault”, a derivative of “I am wrong”, was the root cause of my physical ailment. This old belief had been lingering inside since I was a young boy. The shaking of my pelvis, along with vomiting (a means of clearing trauma) in my bucket, and other forms of energetic clearing during the two evenings of ceremony, all helped to heal this old trauma-informed belief and its physical manifestation. A few days after I returned home from this plant medicine journey the cough disappeared completely, with no trace of return.

From fixing or removing symptoms to holistic healing

Most of the complex and insidious sicknesses pervading humanity that we see intensifying in our communities and around the world have their roots in unresolved trauma—personal and inter-generational—, more than we understand. Esteemed author and speaker, Gabor Maté, MD, states clearly that, “often cancers, autoimmune diseases, and chronic illnesses are manifestations of lifelong emotional patterns of dissociation or repression. In turn, these patterns originate in coping mechanisms in response to early childhood emotional suffering.” And leading expert on trauma, Peter Levine, notes in his book, In An Unspoken Voice, that “unresolved trauma is responsible for the majority of the illness of modern mankind.”

If you can grasp the magnitude of what I am conveying in this article while considering the growing epidemic of psychosomatic afflictions, then you may believe that it’s not more allopathic doctors prescribing toxic, symptom-focused pills that we need. We don’t need another version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), which lists symptoms of trauma with little acknowledgement of their traumatic roots in adverse childhood experiences. While there is certainly some good in allopathic medicine (particularly for acute illnesses) and some usefulness in the DSM, these and other people/systems are trying to “fix” the growing epidemic. They are problem solving in large part because the majority comprising the Western health care system and the APA have yet to commit to their healing journey. More so, we must remember that billions of dollars are profited each year from sickness, largely through the sale of toxic and addictive opiates.

It is not a healthcare model we have, but one focused on sick-care. Focus on symptoms and make people more ill and dependent and you have a business model that “works”.

What many are waking up to is that the proliferation of emotional, mental, physical and spiritual dysfunction is not something to fix or a problem to solve, but an illness that requires tremendous, courageous healing—healing that gets at the root. You don’t heal by removing or fixing “problems”, just like you don’t “fix” the issue of gang warfare through “anti-gang” police strategies. We know that antibiotics (which literally means, “anti-life”), for instance, only create more antibiotic resistant bacteria.

What you resist persists. Violence breeds violence. You don’t heal life by killing it.

Rather, we need to work with the naturally intelligence of the body; to listen to it, learn from it, be humbled by it. It’s thus trauma-informed, holistic healers we need, more than ever, ones who have done their inner work and have transcended sickness enough to perceive others and life through the lens of soulful clarity rather than mind/pain projection. Only then can we help others out of their dream—traum—and wake the world from its long, painful sleep.

“Just one moment of awakening begins the dissolution of one’s false sense of self and, subsequently, the dissolution of one’s whole perception of the world.” ~ Adyashanti

Awareness and Trauma Resolution

The job of a primary attachment figure is to calm the child in times of chaos and hurt so the child knows they are safe and loved. Through the grounding presence of co-regulating with mom, dad, or a caregiver, the child can calm and, in turn, more easily distinguish between a bad feeling and being inherently bad. Similarly, the adult’s forgiving touch can support the child to know that an inappropriate action, such as hitting his brother, does not mean the child is fundamentally inappropriate. What a child does is distinguished from who the child is. The loving, regulated presence of the parent or caregiver says so.

As I wrote in this article, “It’s okay; I’m with you; it’ll be fine” may just be the three most important statements a parent or caregiver can say to a child to help him or her self-regulate and return to a place of homeostasis (balance). When spoken with regularity in a calm tone, the true nature of children is likely to be preserved, an essential, life-giving and pure nature all children are born identifying with.

Each child comes into this world bathed in innate goodness. No child is born intrinsically “bad” or “wrong”. It is their environmental failures that turn innocence into pain and then painful actions. Perpetrators may not be innocent of their harmful actions, but that does not take away the fact that they came into this world innocent. That inherent goodness still lies deep within, no matter how hard it is to recognize or feel. It’s there because we are far more than our history and actions. Understanding this is the beginning of compassion and forgiveness to self and others.

We can begin our healing journey by acknowledging our innate goodness; by noticing, for instance, where we are kind and loving towards others, and ourselves: Offering our seat to an elderly woman on the bus, making someone laugh, taking care of ourselves by going to the dentist. It’s easy when we are full of pain and self-blame to see things as all or nothing, as “I am bad/worthless/wrong”, without seeing how we shine goodness in small and large ways.

We can further our healing by bringing conscious attention to the specific chronic impulse to believe “I did something wrong” and “Something is wrong”. For those struggling with this, I invite you to pay close attention to the mind’s need to search for evidence and patterns of catastrophizing. The mind is highly proficient at making up compelling stories that spin us into a frenzy to the point of making us sick. Be more aware of this, and, in particular, take note when what you thought would happen ends up being false. For instance, you are not invited to your dear friend’s birthday and fret, “I must have done something wrong”. Later, you find out she didn’t call you back because her trip was extended, not because you did something wrong.

It is an interesting and helpful experiment to pay close attention to your beliefs and inner narratives—to how “I did something wrong” and “Something is wrong” are interplaying in your mind; and to consider that perhaps these stories have nothing to do with what is occurring outside of you, but are instead extensions of an old, trauma-based belief—“I am wrong”—that you are projecting onto others/life.

The experience of trauma is called “The eternally present past” for a reason—the childhood wounds of the past play themselves out, again and again, into our present moment reality, deceiving us of its facticity. In bringing present time awareness to our worrisome narratives that have their roots in history, the past slowly loses its grip on us. Present-time awareness takes up more of our reality than does the past.

Presence allows for the awareness of the competent adult we are today. We are adults now, not the wounded children we once were. But trauma, when triggered, brings the wounded child out, such that we perceive situations and react from its fearfulness. Depending on the degree of trauma, identifying with past wounds is more acute for some than others. With practice in mindful, self-awareness, however, the competent adult that we are now comes more and more online rather than the wounded inner child that frets and obsesses and feels unsafe and unloved.

Only the inner, competent adult has the objectivity and discernment needed to realize that our projections may be illusions; that our fears are false evidence appearing real—F.E.A.R.

That “wrong” is indeed wrong.

Addressing spinning, worrisome thoughts by noticing and questioning them is a good first step, but more is needed on the healing journey. Let’s remember that it’s not so much about the narrative—“You did something wrong; you hurt her and that’s why she’s not calling you back”, —but rather the trauma or dysregulated nervous system that is core to the dysfunctional thought.

  • Trauma -> Beliefs -> Identification with Beliefs -> Behavioural Patterns (Caretaking, Perfectionism, etc)
  • Trauma -> Narratives -> Projection -> Obsession/Catastrophizing -> Problem Solving
  • Inter-generational, Personal and Collective Trauma -> Inter-generational, Personal and Collective Traum

Regulating the nervous system is thus key in healing, not simply changing or noticing how one thinks, or thinking positively. You must be willing to dive deeper, to feel, which is something people are very resistant to. There must be a determined effort to explore and be with or befriend the body, including uncomfortable sensations and emotions such as anger, rage, shame, hatred, fear and sadness, ideally through some form of therapeutic relationship such as somatic therapy, osteopathy, craniosacral therapy, or through the help of guided plant medicine journeys. Indeed, courage is required to shake, cry and crumble as what you thought you were makes way for an essential, mysterious and more mythic forgotten nature.

Dancing with “I am wrong”

We need to be gentle with ourselves on this journey of self-awareness and healing. Many New Age or personal growth leaders teach us to consider the worrying voice in our head as a troublesome nuisance that should be treated with aggression and humiliation. One old life coach of mine many years ago told me to imagine my “inner critic” or “saboteur” as a baseball that I was hitting out of the park. Another teacher would get her students to dramatically laugh at loud at this voice. I don’t agree with these methods because they can create a backlash of shame. “I am wrong” is already rooted in shame. You don’t heal shame with further shame in the same way you don’t help a child feel better by making her feel worse.

A few weeks ago I was at an ecstatic movement/dance class. I saw an acquaintance on the dance floor who I normally don’t go out of my way to reach out to. For some reason I had the impulse to travel from one end of the dance floor to the other to offer a hug. We have hugged many times, but never have I gone out of my way to give her a hug as I did that night. She welcomed me into her arms; but soon after she was gone, nowhere to be seen.

My mind went off: “I did something wrong. I pushed myself on her. I am in trouble.” Despite years of inner work, this pattern still arises in me; I just don’t identify with it as I used to. The inner adult is online enough to witness the remnant patterns of my wounded inner child. It was this witnessing quality that allowed me to make a new, empowered choice that evening, one never before considered. Instead of pushing my jumpy thoughts away or beating myself up for the narrative (or beating the narrative up), I decided to dance with it.

I extended my right arm out as if I had my hand placed around the waste of “I am wrong” and set my left hand high as if holding its imaginary right hand. I twirled with it round and round, took it for a delightful spin on the crowded wooden floor to the beats of world music. I danced with my pain and in the process soothed myself. The flurries of thought soon quelled and days later I realized “wrong” was indeed wrong.

About the author: Vince Gowmon presents keynotes and playshops and offers somatic counselling and life coaching in person, on Skype and over the phone. For more of his writing, subscribe to his free e-newsletter. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

Related reading:
Awakening to Darkness ~ Feeling Below the Threshold of Pseudo Spirituality and Light Chasing
“It’s okay.” “I’m with you.” “It’ll all be fine.” ~ Why Children Need to Hear These Words More Than You May Know
In Your Attempts to Be Positive Be Sure Not to Sacrifice Being Real ~ Feeling Your Way Into Freedom and Aliveness
Connection Precedes Learning and Self-regulation ~ Why Relationships are Foundational in Education and Life

 

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