“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.”– Laurell K. Hamilton, American fantasy and romance writer
“Gisela, come back here!” yelled the teacher. “Please come back here right now!”
“No,” Gisela cried and bolted for the door. “I must go home – I can’t stay here!”
The date was July 1943. The place was Hamburg, Germany. The event was a horrific bombing campaign carried out by the Royal Air Force and the United States Army Air Forces entitled Operation Gomorrah. Gisela was only in grade school at the time but remembered that morning when the air raid sirens screamed to life. Teachers rapidly ushered frightened students out of classrooms, down long hallways and into the basement of the building. Terrified, Gisela broke free from the group and ran alone into the street.
“I don’t know why,” said Gisela, thinking back on the event, “but I had to leave.”
As the bombs began to fall, Gisela sought refuge in narrow back alleys, abandoned buildings and even in a cemetery where an exploding bomb had produced a large crater in the ground.
“I had been told to dive into a bomb crater and hide there if I could find one.”
Gisela could remember white bones scattered everywhere as the explosion had unearthed the remains of residents buried ages ago in the graveyard. The scene was surreal.
Early childhood trauma can have a tremendous impact on a youngster’s self-esteem. But, unlike adults, children process trauma differently. Typically, children don’t possess the coping skills or the rationality necessary to interpret and understand what’s happening around them.
The world of a younger child is understandably myopic and self-centred. I remember a friend telling me she and her spouse had decided to separate. When they sat down with their six-year-old son to explain the situation, he started crying and asked if it was because he hadn’t cleaned up his room. Both parents were moved to tears by the child’s question.
Deep-seated beliefs can be formed as a result of trauma. As in the example above, children may deem themselves the cause of the trauma. They may conclude that their actions have made them unworthy or unlovable or, worse yet, that it is unsafe to love someone or something, as this will ultimately lead to disappointment, heartbreak and abandonment.
In an attempt to prevent the possibility of future abandonment, fear, pain or a loss of control, the child may draw the following conclusions and devise the following strategies.
The world is unsafe; therefore, I must protect myself. I will trust no one, love no one and confide in no one. I will be independent and self-sufficient. No one enters my world.
The world is unsafe; therefore, I must become passive and compliant. I have no control, so I must work hard to get along with everyone. Everyone is smarter and knows better than I do.
The world is unsafe; therefore, I must be hyper-vigilant. I must always be on the watch for danger and anticipate the worst. I can take no one at face value, as everyone has an agenda.
The world is unsafe; therefore, I must be angry. I must always be prepared to defend myself and strike back before I can be struck down. My anger makes me intimidating and powerful.
It’s easy to see how such foundational beliefs can negatively affect one’s worldview and self-image. Each of these beliefs originates from a place of fear, and none supports the development of healthy self-esteem. Overcoming the damage of past trauma requires effort and awareness. That said, here are some steps that may prove helpful in dealing with your childhood trauma.
Challenge your thinking. Take a hard look at your current belief system and its limitations. For this, I recommend The Work of Byron Katie and the Four Questions: Is it true? Can I absolutely know it’s true? How do I react, what happens, when I believe that thought? Who would I be without the thought? For more information on this process, visit www.thework.com.
Seek closure. A powerful process I recommend is to write a letter to your younger self. Everyone needs help at different life stages but often doesn’t receive it or heed it until much later. By reaching back in time with a letter to your younger self, you can recognize and validate the struggle you experienced back then and bring about healing.
Get support and help if you need it. The first step is to acknowledge the issue. The second step is to reach out a hand for assistance. This can be as informal as sitting down with a close friend or as formal as seeking the help of a trained therapist or medical professional.
It was nightfall before Gisela found her way home. Upon seeing her alive, Gisela’s mother clasped her tightly to her chest, rocking and weeping uncontrollably. Between sobs, she told Gisela a bomb had struck the school, collapsing it and killing everyone inside.
It would be a lie to say Gisela came fully to terms with the trauma experienced in her war-torn childhood. She always carried with her a degree of heartache and guilt. She did, however, live a long and fulfilling life. I remember her saying once that reconciling the past requires us to be bold yet patient. I’m only now beginning to understand what she was trying to tell me.
I remember reading once that children who suffered trauma cling to the hope that growing up will somehow allow them to escape the past and experience freedom. But, without awareness, the damage inflicted in childhood will continue to haunt us in adulthood. To build your self-esteem is to build a bridge between what was and what can be. It’s never too late to start.
Murray’s, I enjoyed this story. I look forward to reading more. As I have had a lot of trauma in my life.