A Path Towards Self-Compassion and Healing

A Path Towards Self-Compassion and Healing

by Theresa Gill
Help victims of childhood abuse thrive by giving them the opportunity to value themselves and teaching them how to create compassionate connections with the people in their lives.

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Foundations of Relationship

To be in an intimate and interdependent relationship with another person is one of the most challenging endeavors in life, which is why conflict in relationships is one of the major reasons many come to me for therapy.

clients often reach out to me because they are in pain and struggling with a significant relationship break-up
Clients often reach out to me because they are in pain and struggling with a significant relationship break-up. It is particularly difficult for my clients to be in a close relationship with others if they do not have a conscious relationship to their own self. Thus, an important task in therapy is to identify what it means for them to first be in an intimate relationship with themselves. This may include learning how to sit with their feelings of emptiness, being present with their bodily sensations and emotions, and examining their past. Therapy can be challenging, but it also offers clients the opportunity to heal wounds and to reclaim the forgotten and disconnected parts of themselves that may be unconsciously re-enacted in current relationships.

Many women come into my office suffering with low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. They feel isolated, alone, and long for a sense of purpose in their lives. They long for connection and believe that closeness with another will help them feel complete, that being in love will alleviate their emotional pain. Close contact with others in reciprocal and enduring relationships is both a biological and psychological need, which increases their urgency to be in close partnerships with others.

family therapist John Fogarty asserts that our emptiness and pain are related to our relationship to our most distant parent
Many of the relationship problems I work with are fueled by the belief that another person can fill their emptiness and replace the pain with feelings of love and passion. However, as my very wise mother once said, “we fall in love to the same degree that we are lonely,” fall being the operative word. In this context, if a client falls in love out of distress, to fill a void or erase the emptiness, there is a good chance it will lead to more distress. Family therapist John Fogarty asserts that our emptiness and pain are related to our relationship to our most distant parent. If that is accurate, then healing comes when we can help clients reclaim the hurt child of the past and repair their wounds there. If not, they are at risk of getting trapped in the past and replaying their early stories in adult relationships. To help ensure that dysfunctional patterns of the past do not get re-enacted, unlocking and facing the past becomes an important goal in therapy.

The Case of Alana

Alana was referred to me by a clinician from an inpatient substance abuse program who had diagnosed her with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a severe Cannabis Use Disorder. Her clinician explained to me that since Alana entered the program and stopped using marijuana, she had become flooded with horrific memories of child abuse. The referring therapist was concerned that Alana would be at risk of relapse if her PTSD symptoms, which included flashbacks, were not addressed. I have found that it is not uncommon for people to turn to the use of substances to manage their PTSD symptoms of flashbacks and hypervigilance.

When Alana walked into my office for our very first session, her fragility was immediately apparent
When Alana walked into my office for our very first session, her fragility was immediately apparent. She was small in stature, five-feet tall and thin. Her head was down, her shoulders drooped, and she did not make eye contact. She talked softly, almost inaudibly, and had long pauses between sentences. She was easily startled, and when she heard the door in the waiting room close, she jumped, and her body tightened. This was certainly a shaky start for this fragile and uncertain woman.

A year into treatment, Alana entered one particular session smiling and happy. She had had a lunch date with someone she had met through a friend. During lunch they discovered they had a number of commonalities: they both loved animals and had dogs, they loved to hike and travel, they were both teachers and enjoyed working with young children. At the end of lunch, they exchanged numbers and he “promised” he would be in touch. Alana was happy, and I was happy for her. She had worked hard in therapy and was gaining a stable foundation in her life without the use of substances. I interpreted her desire to reach out and make a connection with another person as a sign that she was moving forward in her recovery. Four days after this particular session, I received a call from Alana who asked for an “emergency session” because, in her words, “I am not doing well.” During the session, Alana was shaking and could not stop crying. She said she felt she was going down a dark abyss and was fearful she would never return. She had reached out to me because she was desperately trying not to “spiral out of control.” She was afraid she was going crazy. Contacting me for that emergency session was her attempt to anchor and ground herself. Alana explained the trigger that brought her into the emergency session was that Michael, the man with whom she had been on a lunch date, had “promised” he would be in touch with her but she had not heard from him. In the four days since they had lunch, Alana texted him and tried calling him a number of times, but he was not responding. She drove to his house to check if his car was there and if he was home. The lack of contact with Michael was bewildering, and Alana began to doubt if the positive feelings she experienced during lunch were “one way” and “all in my head.”

She had reached out to me because she was desperately trying not to 'spiral out of control.'
Alana’s levels of fear and anxiety were high. In general, I have found that when a client’s feelings are exaggerated and seemingly out of proportion to the current situation, it is a signal that their emotional response has roots in unresolved experiences from the past. When these clients are in a highly emotional, reactive, and anxious state, a rational response actually raises their level of apprehension and serves to exacerbate the client’s sense of disconnection from the therapist. With this in mind, I asked Alana if she was willing to slow down, breathe more deeply, and focus her awareness inward on her body. We had done similar exercises in the past, and Alana was not new to this type of therapeutic inquiry. However, familiarity does not always make this journey any less challenging. It takes courage to sit with and explore the bodily sensations and feelings that are experienced as overwhelming.

I was aware of Alana’s abuse history and her terror associated with feeling abandoned and alone. As a result, I used phrases like “You are not alone—we can take a look at this together.” I could see she found these words soothing and the words helped her to self-regulate. Her face relaxed, her breathing became easier, and her words and the quality of her voice softened. The following is a segment from the session (C represents client and T represents therapist):

T: Is it okay to take a few moments to breathe and go into your body?
C: Yes.
T: What part of your body wants to talk now?
C: My stomach and throat.
T: How do you know your stomach and your throat want to talk?
C: My stomach and throat feel tight.
T: Anything else?
C: My stomach feels tight, like it wants to throw up, and my throat feels like it is hot and on fire.
T: Your stomach feels tight like it wants to throw up, and your throat feels tight like it is hot on fire—anything else?
C: No.
T: Which do you want to take a look at first—your stomach or your throat?
C: Stomach.
T: Is it okay to stay with the sensations in your stomach?
C: Yes.
T: Your stomach is tight and wants to throw up. If you could give it a feeling, what would the feeling be?
C: I don’t know.
T: Breathe… What would tight and wanting to throw up be—mad, sad, glad, or scared? Breathe into the tightness in your stomach, just for a moment. Can you give the tightness in your stomach permission to relax? Then it can tighten up again.
C: It feels scary.
T: Can you stay with scary?
C: Yes—I am alone, and it’s dark.
T: Is it okay to give room for scared and alone in the dark?
C: [With eyes closed she nods yes]
T: Breathe… I am right here with you. What might happen if you let yourself feel scared and alone in the dark?
C: I would disappear and never come back.
T: What would happen if you disappeared and never came back? Breathe and stay with the tightness in the stomach.
C: I would never be able to find my way out of the darkness.
T: What would happen if you could not find your way out of the darkness?
C: I would disappear and be lost forever—I would not know how to find my way back.
T: Can we go into the nausea?
C: [Nods. After a few moments] The tightness and nausea help keep me in my body.
T: So the tightness and the nausea in your stomach protects you and keeps you connected to your body so you do not get lost in the darkness?
C: Yes.
T: Is it okay if we go to the sensations in your throat?
C: Yes—It is tight and hot like it’s on fire.
T: If tight and hot like it's on fire could talk, what would it say?
C: There are no words—just a sound.
T: What sound would it make?
C: A long, wailing cry.
T: Can we stay there?
C: Yes—the wailing cry is the sound of all the fear and pain in my stomach.

Alana started to sob. She was finally able to put words to her visceral experience which, until this moment, was out of her awareness. As the session continued, Alana was able to explore the childhood event that was fueling her current experience with Michael.

C: For as long as I can remember, my father would beat me and pushed away my attempts to get close to him.
T: When was the first time you can remember being pushed away from your father when trying to get close to him?
C: I can remember when I was three or four years old and my father was sitting in the living room chair watching television, sipping on what I know now was a glass of scotch. I was staring at him from across the room. I knew I needed to be quiet and almost invisible so as not to get him upset. While sitting on the floor, I slowly and quietly moved closer and closer in proximity to where he was sitting. I just wanted to be near him and hear him breathing. I wanted some kind of connection. When I finally got close to him, he stood up from the chair, and without a word he kicked me and I curled up in pain. I could hear the door slam behind him as he left our apartment.

Alana came to understand that her relentless and arduous pursuit to contact Michael served as a protective function—to avoid the pain associated with the memory of her father’s abuse
Alana was able to stay with the bodily sensations that eventually led her to this memory. As the session continued, Alana made the link between her past and the pain and fear she felt when Michael did not contact her. Over time, Alana came to understand that her relentless and arduous pursuit to contact Michael served as a protective function—to avoid the pain associated with the memory of her father’s abuse. Michael’s lack of contact triggered the despair that she struggled with in dealing with her most distant parent—her detached, angry, cold, and physically abusive father. Alana had spoken about this emptiness and pain in previous sessions. She was keenly aware that her substance use that began at the age of 11 was a way to soothe the pain of rejection and abuse from her father. At these crossroads, when the present felt like the past, Alana was at risk of relapsing and resorting to past mechanisms to self-soothe. For Alana, this included drinking alcohol and using substances.

In later sessions, Alana named this trigger as “wanting connection and being kicked by my father.” Naming the trigger allowed Alana to achieve awareness and take control of her emotions and behaviors when she perceived a disengagement from others. The awareness allowed her the space and time she needed to self-regulate, re-evaluate, and think of more appropriate and rational responses to perceived rejection.

When Alana finally heard from Michael, he explained that he had not been in contact because his father had a heart attack and Michael was called home to be with family. Michael also explained to Alana that he did not think this was a good time for him to begin a relationship, because his free time would be spent with his parents during his father’s recovery. I also assumed that Michael was overwhelmed by Alana’s frantic attempts to get in touch with him. Alana’s desperation had its origins in her early life experiences. Michael became an object of Alana’s distress, which was manifested in the barrage of compulsive texts and phone messages. This objectification contributed to the rupture in their relationship—a rupture that occurred soon after meeting one another, when the lack of a strong relational history did not promote efforts towards a possible repair.

Alana expressed a desire for a secure, comforting, and safe relationship
As with most of my clients who experience trauma-related distress, Alana expressed a desire for a secure, comforting, and safe relationship. Despite this desire, Alana’s connections with others could be depicted as highly dysregulated, frantic, and fraught with friction and misunderstanding. Many of the women I have worked with who have histories of trauma are more likely to undergo autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses of fight/flight and/or shutdown/collapse. These physiological states are mechanisms that assisted them in surviving overwhelming physical and/or emotional experiences. However, over a long period of time, after the threat passed, these states no longer served a protective function. Instead, fight created more animosity, flight kept them running in fear, and collapse didn’t allow them energy to live life fully. Eventually, these protective states interfered with their ability to think clearly and make thoughtful decisions. In Alana’s situation, the lack of response from Michael put her in a hyper-aroused state, causing her to be vigilant and unable to maintain calm, think about consequences, and come up with alternative solutions. From this hyper-aroused position, Alana misinterpreted Michael’s distance as rejection and responded with a high degree of emotional intensity and pursuit behaviors. Her attempts to restore the connection was her misguided approach of trying to soothe the feelings of terror associated with being kicked and rejected by her father. Alana believed (just as her three-year old self had) that her only relief from the pain and emptiness was through reconnecting with Michael.

My goal with Alana and clients with similar challenges is to bring the unconscious to conscious awareness by remembering and examining the early experiences and emotions that fuel their current reenactments. One method I have used in many cases is exploration of core beliefs, which creates a psychic prism from which all experiences and relationships are perceived. In therapy, I explore core beliefs with my clients, the feelings attached to each belief, the origins of the belief, and how the belief and feelings are exhibited in present-day behaviors and one’s worldview. Beliefs often include, but are not limited, to such thoughts as “I am defective,” “unlovable,” “a misfit,” “alone,” or “a failure.” The associated feelings are just as varied and include feelings of grief, sadness, loneliness, shame, anger, and fear. If an individual’s core beliefs and the source of those beliefs remain out of awareness, then the person is at risk of reenacting the past in the present, always with the hope of a different and more affirming outcome. The chronic, painful, and recurring patterns of our lives can be reframed as our younger and fragmented parts of self that are calling out for attention.

The child in all of us hopes to be seen and heard, yearning to be found and reclaimed
The child in all of us hopes to be seen and heard, yearning to be found and reclaimed. This can be framed as a call to bring us back to ourselves. It is in reclaiming our earlier selves that our emancipation and release from the past begins, and that we can start our journey toward rebuilding lives that resonate with our authentic intentions, desires, and values.

Clients with complex and relational traumas share stories of unthinkable acts of abuse that they experienced as children. For many clients, the therapeutic process challenges what they have learned in order to defend, protect, and keep themselves safe and, for some, to stay alive. The therapeutic journey requires the client to expose their vulnerability, fragility, and imperfections. For survivors of trauma, to be vulnerable is equivalent to being weak and at risk for being hurt. Thus, to allow themselves to be vulnerable takes great courage. Courage is the place where they confront fear, anger, sadness and/or shame. However, clients also bring hope—hope that somewhere, in all the confusion, desperation, and negative internal dialogue, life can be different, and that on the other side awaits a better way of being and living in the world. When the client doesn’t have hope, the therapist can hold it for them.

***

The knowledge, tools, and wisdom that comes from one’s own healing could then be transferred to the ways they interacted and responded in their relationships with intimate partners
The women I interviewed for my book on survivor moms emphatically stated that their relationships to their therapists served as the model they used to develop healthy relationships. The therapist and the therapeutic process taught them how to effectively communicate. In therapy, they learned how to listen, ask questions, talk about feelings, solve problems, tolerate strong emotions, and stay composed when engaging in difficult conversations. Their therapists offered the means to increase feelings of self-worth, enhance self-care, and create a compassionate connection to themselves. This fostered inner confidence and the capacity to develop healthy and intimate relationships with others. Their therapists’ abiding presence offered them an opportunity to sit with, feel, and explore their deepest wounds in a safe and contained relationship. The therapeutic process also afforded the opportunity to become more deeply attuned to themselves and others and enabled an understanding of both the vulnerability and resilience of being human. The knowledge, tools, and wisdom that comes from one’s own healing could then be transferred to the ways they interacted and responded in their relationships with intimate partners, family, friends, and, as importantly, with children—the next generation.

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Bios
Theresa Gill
Teresa Gil, Ph.D., has over thirty years’ experience as a psychotherapist, professor, author and trainer. She has a private practice working with women, children, and families dealing with recovery from child abuse and trauma. As a full professor at Hudson Valley Community College, she teaches courses in Psychology and Social Work. Teresa works as a trainer and consultant in human service settings and has facilitated workshops on pertinent therapeutic issues including communication, parenting skills, healing from trauma, working with survivor mons, and family relations. Her recent book is Women Who Were Sexually Abused as Children: Mothering, Resilience, and Protecting the Next Generation.