The Value of Reflection

“In the absence of reflection, history often repeats itself and parents are vulnerable to passing on to their children unhealthy patterns from the past. Understanding our lives can free us from the otherwise predictable situation in which we recreate the damage to our children that was done to us in our own childhoods….By making sense of our lives we can deepen a capacity for self-understanding and bring coherence to our emotional experience, our views of the world, and our interactions with our children.” ~ Dr. Dan Siegel, Parenting from the Inside-Out.

Last week I commented about some of my readings in Freud, who developed the theory of the repetition compulsion which states that, absent significant efforts to overcome the programming established in infancy and toddlerhood, adults will compulsively repeat their trauma patterns throughout their lives. All the empirical evidence points to the need for substantial corrective and healing intervention over many years, for in addition to the obvious problems they create in interpersonal relationships, childhood trauma and neglect affect the brain in ways that can actually be seen and measured through brain imaging and psychological testing.

I’ve been working on a certificate in Jungian Studies through courses taught by several of the world’s most prominent psychiatrists, neurobiologists, and other experts on trauma. Thus far I’ve learned that there’s a large body of research that indicates beyond doubt that child abuse and neglect cause sobering and significant long-term effects. The only saving grace, they say, is the possibility of reflection–having a healthy human being who cares for you, reflects your dysfunctional belief systems and behaviors to you, and trains you in new and healthy ones. In short, what New Testament Christians refer to as “accountability” and what Buddhists refer to as living “in community” are much more than outdated means of healing: they are the way to healing. There is, as far as I’ve been able to learn in 20 years of study and experience, no other path to healing other than healing in community with others who are healthier and to whom we can be accountable.

I’m halfway through the coursework, and one of the most surprising things I’ve learned is that chronic emotional neglect and verbal cruelty have far worse long-term effects than physical abuse, unless the physical abuse included repeated sexual molestation. For example, Bessel van der Kolk states that being told, “I wish you hadn’t been born, you’re a burden, your birth was a mistake,” and similar messages will have a far more deleterious effects in general than childhood physical abuse. Being treated as if you’re invisible, worth less than others, and being scapegoated as the “bad child” or “unwanted child” all have long-term effects that are as significant as those seen in children who were physically abused. “Words hurt” is true.

With regard to sexual abuse, brain structure and behavioral research has established that the form of sexual abuse matters less than other factors. It’s a common but mistaken idea that penetration is ‘worse’ than having been fondled or having had a parent or expose himself or engage in other violations of a child’s trust. One study at the University of Massachusetts found that as many as 90 percent of individuals who had been sexually abused or molested as children developed subsequent drug or alcohol addiction. The traumatized brain, damaged in its ability to regulate itself, sought any means of self-medication available. Those who did not self-medicate somatisized their traumas, with over one-third developing significant physical illness, chronic disease, or other bodily manifestations of trauma.  Many psychiatrists believe that only pharmacological intervention can change brain chemistry and help people regulate themselves, insisting that no one can change brain chemistry or cure brain damage by reason alone.

Shock reactions, fear, and shame throughout childhood inhibit brain development in areas that process perceptions of reality, the ability to relate to others, and the ability to reason. Individuals who lived much of their childhoods in fear and anxiety increasingly lose the ability to reason once aroused. Van der Kolk states that when the fight-flight reaction is aroused in neglect or abuse survivors, they need to be hugged and calmed before they can even begin to reason or perceive reality as it is. The idea of a hug as a prescription for healing makes me smile.

Over many years of living and working with traumatized people, I’ve seen that reality is malleable for the traumatized. They see what they need to see–it’s not a matter of choice, but of biological necessity. Healing is possible, but unlikely unless ongoing relationship with healers and a healthy community is established and continued in. I have known this from a religious perspective for many years, because the Bible is clear in its directives that Christians live with and love one another in mutually cooperative and accountable ways; Buddhists, too, teach the necessity of true community if one hopes to become whole. To hear this taught by psychiatrists, neurologists, and psychologists as well is to have come full circle as a person of faith. As Saint James wrote, “faith that is seen is not faith.” It’s science.

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