As a life coach for trauma survivors, my conversations tend to follow certain themes. It is never boring though. The experiences are vastly different within those themes. And I am always amazed at how my clients work through the maze that is trauma recovery. When I can use those themes to provide new perspectives in recovery for all my clients, I am in the best place as a coach. But this work can be difficult. And there is one statement I hear repetitively from most of my clients.
“Why do I feel worse than I did since I started this recovery work? I must be backsliding.”
This is a natural reaction to feeling new emotions for the first time. It can feel overwhelming. If we have been dissociated, it can feel like it is coming out of nowhere. To our traumatized parts, it can even feel like we are being punished for trying. And society isn’t helping with their persistent messages about the instability of emotions. But when we become emotional, it isn’t a sign that we are getting worse. It is a sign that we are healing. We are coming back into the body where the emotions reside. We are processing the emotions that must be felt and released, so we can heal our trauma and find a more peaceful life. But through our traumatic experiences, we have been taught to look at it the wrong way. So let me discuss three ways we might mistake growth for a backslide.
Our fear of emotion propels us into a panic. We have spent a lifetime afraid of our emotions. There were rational reasons for this in childhood. We were constantly chastised, humiliated and punished for our emotions. We were invalidated by our abusers for feeling anything at all. And when we did try to feel them, our child minds did not have the ability to process those confusing experiences. So we felt overwhelmed. Our choice to shut down our emotions made so much sense at the time. We didn’t have a choice. But those same beliefs and fears about emotions (and their memories) still live in our system. And our inner parts don’t believe anything has changed. Until we can help them to see the differences, these fears can make us see emotion as a very bad thing. And unfortunately, the defenses against emotion can make it feel worse. Imagine a wave hitting a brick wall.
The message within the emotion gets misinterpreted. In many cases, the emotion itself can make us feel like we are backsliding. This is because all traumatic emotions are translated in our minds as being about today. This is how our defenses keep us from addressing the past. So an emotion will come up from the body and the mind will tell a story about it. It doesn’t mean the story isn’t true. It doesn’t mean we aren’t triggered. But the emotion is about so much more than this moment. This is the most impactful when we are dealing with futility. When futility and hopelessness come to visit, your parts are sharing how trapped and worthless they felt in childhood. But your mind will translate that futility to the present moment. Suddenly, your steps toward recovery seem completely hopeless and futile. When in reality, the expression of the futility is what we need to move us to our next step.
The reason for the emotion is misunderstood. As I mentioned earlier, we will often see emotions as punishment or an attempt to hold us back. This is a belief held by the controller who is trying to move forward while constantly being inundated with the past they are running from. Our traumatic beliefs might lead us to believe that our emotions are meant to stop us in our tracks. But our emotions are here to signify a threshold in our healing. Our emotions are here to tell us that something important lies right around the corner. We are about to discover something, overcome something or take a new step forward in life. This emotion is here to release so we can go to new levels. When we can see this emotion as an open door to a new threshold instead of a backslide, it takes some of the pain from the experience.
The next time you feel emotional, don’t let your defenses tell you it is a problem. Don’t let them convince you that your emotions are the enemy. Emotions are a good sign. They are not a backslide. And they are here to bring you forward in your life. It is the defenses that keep you stagnant and unchanged. Real recovery is messy. Anything else is just a theory in the mind. It won’t lead you where you need to go. If you are emotional, you are not backsliding. You are going deeper.