The reality of childhood pain is that it doesn’t go away until it’s healed. In my first article of the Healing the Child Within series, I mentioned several things that I will review here on the topic of processing pain. First of all, it is important to remember that the pain we are pushing away only grows in intensity until it is uncovered and healed. Also, I want to reiterate that it’s always worth the effort to uncover and deal with unresolved pain. Furthermore, there is purpose in the pain, and there is deeper freedom and enjoyment of life and relationships on the other side. In this second article on healing one’s inner child, we will discuss common approaches and experiences that take place as an individual faces his or her pain and works toward resolution.
Creating a Timeline
The first therapeutic step to process inner pain from childhood is creating a timeline of childhood events. Many adults have a sense that there are some things from their past that need to be addressed. As a therapist, it is common to hear that clients’ difficult memories are unclear, out of sequence, or otherwise confused in their mind. Bessel van der Kolk (1) states that the mind stores traumatic events in a scattered or disorganized way. One of the indications that an individual has healed from difficult life events is that his or her mind can reflect the events in the order in which they occurred.
Creating a list or a timeline of our early life aids in taking an inventory of the events that have transpired. Francine Shapiro (2) is the developer of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) which is an evidence-based trauma treatment approach. This approach helps us understand that difficult memories are stored in the brain in a way that causes them to be stuck. Difficult memories contain clear images, as well as strong emotional disturbances and body sensations attached to negative beliefs about ourselves or our lives. As a person is creating a timeline of past events, only events that hold a strong, negative, emotional charge need to be documented.
Identifying the Places of Deepest Pain
After events are documented, it is helpful to review the events and determine which of the events hold the strongest emotional disturbance. I often think of dealing with emotional pain as symbolized by the layers of an onion. In order to get to the center, each layer has to be peeled back. The experience of peeling back the outer layers is painful because it is a new experience. The most obvious memories to start with seem to be holding the most intense emotional energy. As the pain in the outer layers is processed, there is now a template for emotional restoration which empowers the individual to go even deeper to uncover memories and events that need to be resolved.
Our minds and bodies are intuitive, and they work in an organized, integrated way. Another analogy that fits well here is comparing trauma resolution to a physical cut. When our skin is punctured, we do not have to think about healing for it to begin. The human body heals itself. If we clean the wound and give it a few days, all kinds of interesting, scientific processes unfold to heal the skin without us using conscious effort. Psychological pain is very similar. When we open ourselves up to a healing process, the memories that need to come forward will come; this is why many people work with a therapist while doing so, as it ensures a safe place and person when the memories arise. As one memory or set of experiences is resolved, another will find its way to the surface. Our mind does this on its own. All we need to do is allow ourselves to be open to the process. Our tendency as humans is to run from the pain, but with this type of pain, it is vital that we open our hearts and minds while trusting the process in order to heal.
Allowing the Pain to Go Through the Pain-Processing Pathway
Vital to the healing process is the presence of a secure attachment. We cannot heal on our own. Much of the pain we have accumulated in our lives is due to the fact that we have felt alone. “According to Wilder and colleagues (3), any life event that leads us to feeling alone and without help can be experienced as traumatic.” As children, we shut down emotionally when those around us don’t appear emotionally safe or physically reliable to meet our needs. As adults, we can only heal from these painful childhood experiences when we have at least one emotionally safe relationship that creates a sense of security; this is called a secure attachment. It gives us the sense that we are not alone, and we have hope to be accurately and tenderly understood rather than judged and re-wounded. The secure attachment can be in the form of a friend, a spouse, a counselor, or a mentor. The caring other must be mature enough to hold our pain and maintain a sense of non-judgment and unconditional commitment to our relationship.
Dr. Karl Lehman in his book Outsmarting Yourself presents the concept of the pain processing pathway. He indicates that there is a normal way for the brain to fully process or resolve a painful memory. Lehman cites these five steps as :
- Maintaining Organized Attachment (a strong, healthy bond to another person)
- Staying Connected (even though the memory is painful, stay present in relationship)
- Staying Relational (act like your true self, even though the pain is deep)
- Navigating the Situation in a Satisfying Way (allow yourself to face the pain and overcome)
- Correctly Interpreting Meaning (take a more positive perspective on the memory)
Lehman (4) teaches that after the painful memory is processed, the experience will produce knowledge, skills, empathy, wisdom, and maturity. The production of these things is the purpose behind your pain.
Like Lehman, Peter Levine in his book Waking the Tiger gives deep insight into the healing of trauma and processing of pain. He writes that there is frozen energy trapped inside of our bodies due to our difficult experiences. Just feeling a lot of deep emotion while processing a painful memory is not enough to fully resolve the experience. Levine (5) explains that we need our bodies to resolve and discharge this trapped energy.
John Lee (6) takes this a step further to acknowledge that we must somehow act or verbalize the energy that was not allowed to be expressed during the past event. The trapped energy in the nervous system has the potential to cause us to live in constant torment and can prevent us from being fully alive with ourselves and others. Releasing this trapped energy in the nervous system can be done in a variety of ways. In therapy, we often use body movements, controlled exercise, and physical positioning to aid in this movement, releasing negative energy. As you move through the painful memories, you will find that your body will desire certain types of touch, movement, and expression. Getting connected to and being kind to yourself in this process will help you know what your body needs.
The purpose of processing painful memories is to resolve them. Resolution empowers individuals to move into higher level functioning in regard to self acceptance, relationship satisfaction and life purpose. The process may feel confusing and frightening at first. However, many find that there is so much fulfillment in facing and resolving the pain of their inner child. We can never truly move on until these things are uncovered and dealt with. Once we have done what is needed, there is deep joy and fulfillment that wouldn’t have been experienced otherwise. The cost of the pain is definitely worth the benefit received.
- Van der Kolk, B. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
- Shapiro, F. (2012). Getting Past Your Past. New York, NY: Rodale.
- Wilder, J.E., Kang, A., Loppnow, J., Loppnow, S. (2015). Joyful Journey. East Peoria, IL: Shepherd’s House.
- Lehman, Karl. (2014). Outsmarting Yourself. Libertyville, IL: This JOY! Books.
- Levine, P.A. (1997). Waking the Tiger. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
- Lee, J. (2001). Growing Yourself Back Up. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.