In recognition of Bessel Van Der Kolk’s wonderful work in the world, please consider buying and reading The Body Keeps the Score (if you haven’t already).
“The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior.”
― M. Scott Peck
I want to talk to you today about trauma getting stuck in the body, and what this stuckness has to do with our refusal to hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we’ve made that shackle us to the very pain that torments us.
Trauma in the body is a big topic, and I claim no academic expertise.
I do however lay claim to my personal experience, because I feel like I got a PhD in trauma this lifetime, and how it manifests in the body – or at least in MY body; as well as how to move it out and live in FREEDOM.
I’ll be the first to tell you that I may not have the answers for you. We’re all different and we process emotions and life experiences in diverse ways.
What I want to do today is share the ways my physiology adapted to my subconscious psychology, and mirrored to me every decision I ever made that led to the experience of unprocessed trauma manifesting in my body.
What I’m about to share may seem controversial, because I am going to make the case – for myself at least – that the trauma stuck in my body in adulthood was actually the result of a string of consequential decisions I made as a child…
…and that, because no one else made those decisions but me, it was only by confronting myself and being willing to acknowledge that I DID THIS TO MYSELF…
That I found freedom.
Let me be clear – these choices I’m about to describe to you, along with how they impacted my body, were made wisely at an unconscious level at various times in my childhood when survival and safety were prioritized by my brain and body at the nervous system level.
So I in no way BLAME myself.
As a child, I wasn’t yet in full command of my consciousness or my life.
My body, in its infinite wisdom as the structure which houses my soul, saw fit to remind me of every one of these decisions at a later date in adulthood when I WAS capable of being in command of my consciousness and when I could, out of freedom – begin to participate in life consciously.
But before I could wield that consciousness in freedom as an autonomous adult, I had to hold myself accountable for my earlier unconsciousness and the impact that my own unconscious decisions had on my psyche, my body and my life.
So where do we begin?
The gut pain that plagued me for decades started at age 14.
I remember telling my mom about it after a particularly intense episode where I couldn’t hide the agony, and she took me to the hospital because she was scared my appendix had ruptured.
They poked and prodded me under fluorescent lights, questioning me intensely while I lay there terrified because I was convinced I was about to get in trouble. After they found nothing in my abdominal region, the male nurse or doctor – without batting an eye and unable to hide some of his judgment – asked me, in front of my mom, if I was having sex.
I decided to lie, and say NO.
They discharged me to my bewildered mother with no diagnosis, and I lived with intense on and off gut pain until age 31.
The knee pain that I talk about so often first started in my left knee at age 16, when I discovered that running was a really great way to escape reality.
While I was running, I experienced the illusion of freedom.
I could temporarily escape my mind which incessantly reminded me how stupid I am, how shameful and disgusting, how trapped I was and that I really needed to DO something…but action felt impossible.
When my feet hit that pavement, for 30 or 40 blissful minutes I could escape my body, escape my mind, escape my family, experience a brief high and a temporary vacation from my life.
Except for that dang knee pain.
Why did my body hate me so much, I wondered?
Did my body want to rob me of the ONLY thing in my life that gave me relief? How cruel.
I ran through the pain for years, refusing to listen to my body…until at age 22 the pain got so bad I was suddenly scared that if I kept running I would damage my knees so badly that I would have to give up hiking…which was an unacceptable idea to me.
So I just stopped running.
Hiking was doable for another 2 years, but by age 24 BOTH of my knees hurt so much I was scared I wouldn’t even be able to work out in a gym.
So I decided to give up hiking, and became a gym rat.
At age 17, the jaw pain started that would eventually make me so self conscious that I would avoid talking whenever possible. People thought I was really shy, even though I longed to be expressive and playful like I was as a kid.
I was frequently told by family and friends that I talked weird because I spoke through a very closed mouth – “unlike most people,” they would point out to me.
They seemed to be wondering what was wrong with me, not knowing that inside I I asked myself that same question all the time. I felt damaged and broken beyond repair.
I would just smile and do my best to bullshit everyone, including myself, by shrugging and say “I guess it’s just the way I am.”
I decided to normalize what was manifesting externally as mystery pain, while internally I hated my body for torturing me.
The social anxiety started for me in junior high, and got progressively worse…to the point that in my 20’s I hardly went anywhere.
I believed I was an introvert who needed a lot of alone time. So I spent most of my time alone.
But there was more to my anxiety than the social element.
By the time I reached 18 years of age I felt haunted by something I couldn’t name or touch or see. The tension I felt in my body gnawed at me every day, giving me a sense of anxiety even when I was alone.
It was as if my body was being haunted like a house that someone had died in, whose spirit didn’t know how to leave.
By the time I entered my 20’s, I was waking up every morning with a pit in my stomach and a clenched jaw, body-wide tension and anxiety gripping me from the moment I opened my eyes to the time I closed them again that night; my gut would start hurting as soon as I ate anything; I was always sweating even when I was cold, and I felt extremely self conscious about all of this.
Each one of these physical symptoms matched a decision I’d made unconsciously during and after certain events in my life that I had either dissociated from, repressed or buried deep inside of me under a mountain of shame.
So let’s go back over each of these and look at what was happening in my life at the time, and bring those unconscious decisions I’d made into awareness.
I believe every human being is born innately intuitive, myself included. As human beings we inherently possess gut instincts and gut wisdom.
Unfortunately, modern life is not conducive to our awareness of this and most of us have no idea we are born almost psychic.
As a little girl I was aware of things that the adults in my life weren’t speaking to. I sensed things that it seemed like other people weren’t sensing. But I had no idea how to speak to what I noticed, because any time I tried it seemed like my observations landed on deaf ears.
Well before anything “traumatic” happened, I’d already made the decision to keep my observations and intuitions about the world, myself and in particular about the adults in my life – to myself.
Now this isn’t inherently unhealthy, but you’ll see how it led to the next series of decisions that impacted my life in profound ways.
The fact that gut pain was the first sign of trauma entering my body makes total sense to me…because it began at a time when I strongly dissociated from my body and stopped listening to my gut.
I unconsciously shut down my innate ability to sense danger, sense RIGHT action and sense whether other people are well intentioned or mean me harm…because I had already determined that there were no adults in my life who would be willing to listen to me with loving curiosity instead of bewilderment or punishment.
Just after my 13th birthday I’d been targeted by a 30yo male neighbor who befriended my parents and figured out how to get me alone in his house for 6 months after school everyday, where he began turning me against my family slowly…and then, against myself.
He was an alcoholic and addicted to all kinds of drugs, but he didn’t reveal that until after those first 6 months.
I don’t need to tell you the full story here; I’m sure your imagination can fill in the details.
What feels important for me to share is that I don’t remember the first time I had sex. I must have dissociated so strongly from my body that those memories remain – to this day – somewhere out of my grasp.
I came back into my body a few months before my 14th birthday. And I knew I was in a world of danger.
But I didn’t trust my parents or any other adults in my life, and worst of all – I didn’t trust myself.
I made the decision, unconsciously, not to get help. I made the decision to keep what happened to me secret.
I made ten thousand tiny decisions from age 13 to 15 and a half that would impact the rest of my life.
But the most obvious was the decision to dissociate from my own wisdom.
Doesn’t it make sense that my gut would start screaming at me?
Maybe a better question is – WHY were these my decisions? Why didn’t I get help?
The way I see it is that my inner wisdom, had I acted on it, would have put me in even more danger psychologically than I was already in.
I would be known to everyone in my school and perhaps the entire town (because it was a small town) as the 13 year old girl who got raped by the 31 year old neighbor. Or worse – would everyone think I wanted what happened? Would people think I CHOSE it all? Would my family even love me if they knew everything? Would my friends?
By dissociating from my own wisdom, I protected myself from worse pain.
But that protection came at a cost. It meant I was no longer in touch with my own inner wisdom…about anything.
I no longer trusted myself, and because of that I went on to make really poor decisions all through my 20’s…while my gut screamed louder and louder with more and more pain.
My gut held me accountable to that original decision to dissociate from myself, and reminded me every day that there was wisdom in here…inside this body…that I’d abandoned and MUST reclaim and OWN…before I could become a conscious and free adult.
I didn’t make this correlation until my 30’s, when I reconnected with my gut instincts, intuitions and inner wisdom and made a promise to myself that I’d never abandon my inner wisdom ever again.
I have not broken that promise.
My gut issues all but disappeared, except that my body still talks to me if I’m exposed to environmental toxicity or about to make a poor life decision. My gut still talks to me, and I’m always listening.
I extracted myself from the psychotic grips of this male neighbor at age 15 and a half. Just about the time I started running. Which is when my left knee started hurting.
Do you think this is a coincidence?
I’m open to all possibilities, but my gut tells me it’s no coincidence. I wasn’t running because I enjoyed it. I wasn’t running because it felt good. I wasn’t even running for health reasons.
I was running FROM the pain of everything that had just happened, and the fact that I was alone in carrying burdens that felt so heavy I contemplated suicide a few times.
I healed my knees when I stopped running FROM things…and started running TOWARDS them.
Through the intensity of those years from 13 to 15 and a half, I had one true refuge – my best friend Rachelle.
She long suspected what I was going through while she knew me, but never pushed me to talk about it. I wanted desperately to confide in her, but I was scared. Our friendship was my only joy in life, and the only place I felt “normal.”
The truth is, I was still a teenager despite having grown up really fast, and in Rachelle’s presence I could still be a girl that didn’t need to grow up…just yet.
My parents moved us yet again halfway through 11th grade, from California to Oregon. I begged my parents to let me stay with Rachelle and finish high school in California. They refused (which makes sense).
Rachelle was killed in a car accident a month later.
And it was then that I subconsciously made the decision that since friendships always end in abandonment, it’s better to live life detached.
Before Rachelle, we had moved so many times and I changed schools so often that it was always me who had to abandon my best friends. I abandoned Rachelle, and then she died.
For someone like me who is really loyal, I think this decision has impacted me to this day…in ways I am still grappling with.
After Rachelle died, I decided – again, unconsciously – that it was preferable not to feel anything, rather than experience one painful emotion after another like I’d just experienced for one tumultuous and traumatizing decade.
I didn’t cry at her funeral. I didn’t cry for 7 years.
Around this time I also made the decision to stop confronting my family, mostly my dad. We had butted heads for years in yelling matches that usually ended with me in tears running to my room while he either laughed, or kept yelling.
I know now that laughter is a coping mechanism for pain we don’t want to feel, but back then I experienced his laughter as heartbreakingly disconnecting, and punishment for my emotionality.
My jaw pain started when I decided to stop feeling, stop speaking my feelings and stop confronting people.
That jaw pain mostly went away when I began speaking my truth, no matter the outcome.
The social anxiety feels easy to understand.
I believed, back in junior high and high school, that if people (and by people I mean people my own age, my peers) if they really knew me and what I was going through, or had been through after it was over, they would think I’m disgusting, shameful, dirty, a whore, a victim, someone to feel sorry about or pity…and all of those were unacceptable.
I didn’t realize at the time, but that’s what I thought about myself.
So I pretended to be fine, when I was anything but. I pretend to be a normal teenager, a normal 18 year old, a normal 20-something…not understanding the consequences of the decision to lie to myself every day.
The truth I refused to acknowledge until well into my 20’s was that I was carrying the burdens of stories never shared, anger never expressed, heartbreak never felt, rage never unleashed, grief never wailed and tears never cried…
And we can’t build real relationships on pretenses. We have to reveal ourselves and risk much to be truly seen and loved for who we are.
I decided people weren’t capable of seeing me or loving me. I made that decision for them.
And if I’m being totally honest, I still make that decision sometimes…but it’s tied to my inner wisdom and my sense of other people.
Some people CAN’T see us or love us, because they haven’t seen or loved themselves yet.
The decision not to trust people to see me or love me…it originated out of intelligence. And then calcified inside of me as a glaring untruth, because the truth is – while there are SOME people who can’t see me or love me, there ARE people who can.
There is obviously so much more to my story, so many details left out of this brief narrative, and a lot of nuance about how these decisions were made, and unmade.
What I wanted to make clear today is that each and every one of my physical manifestations of trauma were related to, and directly a result of, decisions that I made.
That doesn’t mean they were bad decisions, and it doesn’t mean I’m to blame.
I believe they were the SMARTEST decisions I could have made at the time, and there are many people to hold accountable.
This is the wisdom of our subconscious – it will protect what is most valuable to us: our soul. Our values. Our innermost core, where our eternal self lives unharmed.
I believe our subconscious will protect that eternal soul even from our wounded selves, if need be.
And in order to reunite ourselves with our souls and our spirits, we MUST – as adults – accept the responsibility of healing, and hold ourselves accountable for the decisions we made – innocently, unconsciously – as children.
Confronting myself and accepting fully that the trauma I carried as an adult was actually the result of my owndecisions – that meant facing one painful reality after another.
Yet that pain of awakening and holding myself accountable was the path of liberation for me.
I started the journey at age 24, when my efforts were messy and chaotic and I had no concept of accountability. I was full of rage. I was heartbroken. I had a lot of pain to feel before I could find the part of me capable of higher thinking, feeling and behavior.
In holding myself accountable, I can now hold others accountable too – without blame or caprice, without judgment or condemnation.
Because in seeing myself like this, I can see others in their own fullness – as the sum total of decisions they also made in childhood to survive and find safety.
Some of us wake up to this. Some of us don’t.
So while I can hold other people accountable, I also acknowledge that it is solely their decision whether to hold themselves accountable…or not.
One thing I believe with all of my being:
It is our pain that is trying to wake us up and hold us all accountable, not just to what has happened to us, or the decisions we made as a result…but also, and most importantly, to the unharmed eternal soul waiting for us inside our bodies, that calls us to higher states of awareness, connection and freedom.
Trauma is only trauma when we stop sharing our pain with each other.
Trauma is the “othering” of ourselves, born from a belief – perhaps well founded – that we, in our pain, won’t be embraced by the people around us, or in the world at large.
If we begin by first holding ourselves accountable, and then open our hearts to the stories of others – even, or especially, those we believe wounded us the most – perhaps trauma will become a thing of the past, and in its wake will be the shared experience of BEING HUMAN.
I started with an M. Scott Peck quote, and I’ll end with another:
“How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded! Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others… But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness.”
* Disclaimer: The contents of this blog and accompanying YouTube channel are for informational purposes only and do not render medical or psychological advice, opinion, diagnosis, or treatment. The information provided through this website is expressly the opinions of each author and should not be used for diagnosing or treating a health problem or disease. This is not a substitute for professional care. If you have or suspect you may have a medical or psychological problem, you should consult your appropriate health care provider. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. Links on this website are provided only as an informational resource, and it should not be implied that we recommend, endorse or approve of any of the content at the linked sites, nor are we responsible for their availability, accuracy or content.
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.