Tips from a chronic pain recovery therapist
Content note: This post addresses the topic of childhood sexual trauma. It does not go into detail; rather, the focus is on the healing challenges that we face when we have experiences that are hard to talk about — as well as how to overcome those challenges.
Stress creates tension in both the mind and body, and that tension, when sustained over time, can result in symptoms like chronic pain.
A common source of sustained stress is: The life experiences that are hard to talk about. When part of our life experience is hard to talk about, we feel alone with it and we hold in our feelings about it, which creates tension and pressure in our mind-body system.
Often, the reason that things are hard to talk about is that our early life and cultural conditioning have taught us not to expect empathy or understanding from others when it comes to certain topics and situations. So, we protect ourselves by holding it in. But as a long-term strategy, holding it in takes a toll on the mind and body.
The path to healing is not a straight line. It’s a complex dance. Because building safety requires us to integrate two seemingly opposing needs: the need to honor our authentic experience and be a true ally to ourselves, and the need to preserve the social connections that we require to keep us safe in the world.
I’m going to share a little bit about my personal experience with something that’s hard to talk about — something that, to be honest, I’m still finding the language for. By writing about this, I’m not only hoping to help others find their way to internal safety and integration; I’m building another brick in my own road to safety and integration as well.
When building safety around something that’s hard to talk about, I find it helpful to approach things layer by layer. When I began processing these experiences many years ago, I started with the inner-most layer of disclosure: I first began writing about it in the privacy of my own journal, then speaking about it in the company of a trusted therapist, then gradually with a few carefully chosen friends and later in support groups.
And when sharing more publicly, I find it useful to address the topic layer by layer, starting with the outermost layer. So today, I’m going to simply state that my “hard to talk about” issue has to do with felt experiences of sexual boundary violation in childhood, involving my parents.
But instead of getting into the specifics, I’m going to start with the outer layers of what makes this hard to talk about — as well as some of the methods that have helped me process and integrate what’s hard to talk about.
Regardless of the specifics of your own life experience, I hope you find something validating and supportive in these words.
What Makes This Experience Hard To Talk About?
1 My desire to protect my parents
I’ve had a close relationship with my parents my whole life. It’s changed a lot over the last ten years since confronting this “hard to talk about” issue with them. But I continue to be close with them and I love them. I have a desire to protect them from outside judgement.
2 My desire to be liked by my parents
I also don’t want my parents to see me as responsible for potential outside judgment towards them.
3 My desire to protect those who might see me as a role model
Writing publicly about sexual boundary violations from parents is a hard thing to do. Many, understandably, don’t feel safe to do so. So, when anyone speaks or writes about this topic, they are also speaking for many others who feel voiceless. And because there are so few who feel empowered to speak or write about this topic, each of our voices holds a lot of weight.
I love my parents and I choose to maintain a close connection with them. That’s the path that feels right for me. However, it’s not the path that’s right for everyone. Yet, the hierarchical society that we live in places a lot of pressure on adult children to love and stay connected with their elders — no matter how it impacts their mental, emotional, spiritual or physical wellbeing.
My fear is that, if I write about my healing journey authentically, others might think that they also need to stay connected with their parents — even if it’s not what’s best for them.
4 My desire to protect myself from those who might feel betrayed
Related to the above, I worry that some readers might feel betrayed if they interpret my story as a prescription to love and stay connected with one’s parents, even if it’s not what’s best for you.
And of course, I worry that my own parents and other family members might feel betrayed by me writing about my experience of sexual boundary violation, given the level of cultural taboo and shame that surrounds the topic. While it’s not my intention to bring attention to my parents, writing about my own experience of violation inherently implicates them.
5 My desire to protect myself from emotional mis-attunement
Most people have strong emotional reactions to this topic, compounded by the fact that it’s culturally taboo to talk about. Even the mention of sexual boundary violation can trigger people’s innate threat response in the form of fight, flight, freeze or appease.
And this is understandable. As a society, we haven’t been given a safe space to process our own individual feelings about this issue. And we can’t hold space for each other’s feelings when we haven’t been given the space to process our own.
When I share my story, responses from others often mis-attune with my own emotional reality in these two ways:
- underreaction, which mis-attunes with my need to have my hurts acknowledged.
- heightened reaction, which mis-attunes with my need stay connected with the nuances and complexities of my own emotional experience.
6 Lack of nuanced language
Because of the social taboos that prevent us from talking freely about this topic, we as a society lack nuanced language with which to discuss it. As with all life experiences, sexual boundary violations within families exist on a spectrum ranging from energetic harm to emotional harm to physical harm, etc. There is endless variety in our experiences, yet we lack a shared language and understanding with which to talk about it.
7 Murky memory
When something is hard to talk about, we don’t get to process it with others while it’s happening. And this is one of many factors that make traumatic experiences difficult to remember with clarity. The lack of clarity in our memory dovetails with internal and external pressures to deny, minimize or forget these “hard to talk about” experiences. I’ve written more about this here.
How Do We Heal When It’s Hard To Talk About?
If we want to relieve the pressure that our “hard to talk about” experiences place on our mind and body — sustained pressure that can manifest in stress symptoms — we need to relieve ourselves from the burden of holding it all in silently and alone.
But we also need to do this safely. We hold things in to protect ourselves from threats like rejection, retaliation, judgement and alienation. So, when we approach the project of opening up, we need to do so gradually and intentionally, building support and safety layer by layer as we go.
We can do this by taking small risks (like journaling or telling a safe friend/counselor/family member/support group) and alternating those risks with soothing and safety for integration (like making time for fun and relaxation, setting the challenging topic aside for a while to build strength in other areas of life, gathering reinforcement from the allies and connections you forged through disclosure, taking a break from or setting boundaries with those who don’t offer support.)
You’ll inevitably overdo it from time to time. You’ll push yourself too far or too fast and get a symptom flare-up. That’s a normal and inevitable part of the process. And the sooner you forgive yourself for it, the more easily you’ll recover.
You’ll also find that your goals change as you move along in your process. When I first set out on my healing journey, my goal was to get validation and attunement from my parents. And while they’ve made their best attempt at that, I eventually realized that they will never be able to offer me the kind of unconflicted attunement that my nervous system needs for healing.
Instead, my greatest healing has come from giving that unconditional validation, empathy and care to myself.
But I would not have been able to get there without gathering courage and permission from the support of healing allies along the way — folks I connected with in therapy, among trusted friends, in support groups and even people I never met whom I felt connected with through their writing and podcasts.
Before I could take the courageous step of fully validating my own experience and feelings, I needed to establish the reassurance that I would still have a safety net of people who support and accept me. I’m grateful that, in my case, that includes my parents. That certainly isn’t always the case — for many, chosen family becomes a viable alternative.
Establishing a network of healing allies gave me the courage to be unrelentingly on my own side; to believe myself without reservation; to be the unconditionally supportive, acknowledging, validating, protective and loving parent to myself that my nervous system craves and needs to feel safe and stood up for. It is the greatest healing. And the tool that’s helped me most is self-compassion journaling. It’s an ongoing work in progress. This essay marks another layer in the process.
I hope that my imperfect and still-unfolding journey offers you some encouragement, support and permission to take the next doable step that feels right for you, starting from wherever you are right now on your path of healing, self-love and integration. There’s no rush. Your intuition and your body will tell you how much is enough for now. Give yourself permission to honor the wisdom of your body’s innate pace.
And remember: Whenever you take a risk to move your healing forward, match the intensity of that risk with double the amount of soothing, fun and relaxation! That’s what I’ll be talking about in next week’s post. 😍
With warmth, gentleness and steady encouragement,
➡️ If you need support with chronic pain and anxiety, take my FREE QUIZ called “Why the *bleep* am I still in pain?!” so I can help you get some clarity.
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