In the previous post, I provided a useful metaphor for understanding the personal problems many of us have and why talk therapy often fails to get rid of the mental, emotional, or behavioral weeds that grow in the garden of our lives.
Discovering the Underlying Roots
In recent years, I have become thoroughly convinced that a significant, often unrecognized cause is emotional or psychological trauma. Emotionally distressing or shocking events that have not been fully
processed or integrated are the seeds that produce the weeds of toxic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. While some people bear no lasting effects from such experiences, many others form psychological imprints that inform and reinforce beliefs that, in turn, generate feelings of uneasiness or overwhelm.
Years ago, I met Inga, a female client who was physically assaulted by a gunman outside of her house. In the 9 months since the assault, she had been unable to approach her house alone without crippling anxiety. She clearly acquired the belief “I’m not safe outside my home when I’m alone.” In our first session, I hypnotized her to believe that she was now safe, given the added security measures she had installed. Unfortunately, that suggestion was ineffective, because the memory of her assault provided evidence that she was, in fact, not safe. Her subconscious mind was not willing to let go of a belief that seemed vital for self-protection.
In order to alter her limiting belief, I had to change Inga’s perception or memory of that event. The actual change work in our second session took only minutes, after which the memory itself was no longer distressing (it was comical, in fact), and the belief that triggered her emotional distress changed. In fact, she reported that in the following week, she could not describe the previously traumatic experience without laughing and that she was able to approach and enter her home by herself without nervousness. Bear in mind that she retained full knowledge of her assault, but her irrational hypervigilance was replaced by calm and rational alertness.
As an added bonus, Inga’s eating habits immediately improved, even though we did not address that directly. It would be easy and technically incorrect to say that the assault caused her anxiety or worsened her eating habits. In fact, the cause was the belief she formed as a result of the assault. After all, other people might experience a similar assault and suffer no lasting effects, because they somehow perceive or remember it differently, or because they subconsciously attach a different meaning to the event.
While it can be helpful to have conscious awareness of a potentially traumatic event, it is not necessary. I don’t need to know when my client first learned to be nervous, codependent, or addicted to food or alcohol. In fact, the client may be unaware that an event was traumatic, especially since many events seem insignificant when viewed from an emotionally detached perspective.
One natural example of detachment is when an adult recalls a childhood event that now feels slightly uncomfortable but was overwhelming as a child. This phenomenon explains the erroneous statement, “time heals all wounds.” It is not the passage of time itself that heals but what happens to the memories through the passage of time. Many people who have experienced trauma do not passively heal over time. Emotional scar tissue may develop, coupled with diminished functionality, but that is coping, not healing.
Stay tuned for my next piece, in which I’ll dive deeper into the nature of emotional trauma and how self-awareness can open the door to freedom.