Years ago, when I was going through my rocky teenage years, my mom and I were having an enormously difficult time getting along. This isn’t a terribly unique phenomenon, but my anger with my circumstances was escalating to the point of self-injury. So we decided I should try therapy.
My therapist suggested EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In brief, the therapy utilizes one of various forms of bilateral sensory input to help suffers of PTSD or other traumatic experiences reprocess their inadequately processed memories.
“But I don’t have any traumatic memories,” I remember saying. “I had a normal childhood.”
But what I discovered was that I didn’t think I had any traumatic experiences because I was viewing my life through the lens of an adult. The eyes of a child process the world very differently. This revelation not only helped me through this tough time with my mom but also changed the way I view my emotions in general. Here’s a brief recap:
When I was a girl we moved across the country. Separation from family and other distresses caused my mother to slip into depression. There was lots of crying at home and some arguments, but nothing that I would have ever called traumatic. It was a situation outside of my control, and as an adult I fully recognized and embraced that.
But a child sees the world much more black and white. Something is wrong with mom. She’s sad. Dad isn’t fixing the problem, so I must step in. Every day I tried to fix my mom and make her happy. And every day I failed.
This was the core issue. As I child I took it upon myself to fix a situation that was well beyond the realm of an 8-year-old to fix. The result was anger, frustration, confusion, self-doubt, and, most of all, resentment.
But I didn’t recognize any of that! I was a grown-up now, I understood the difference between being a failure and being in a no-win situation. What’s there to go back and reprocess? Well. That 8-year-old was still inside me somewhere, frustrated and unresolved.
So I tried the EMDR technique over two separate hour and a half sessions. My therapist employed bilateral auditory tones on a pair of headphones, which has some sort of effect on the brain that I don’t understand in the slightest. We went through vivid memories I had of my mom crying or having an argument with my dad. I was able to shed bodily tension I didn’t realize I was feeling at the recollection and let my brain process them to the point of apathy. I came out feeling amazing. I came out feeling like a new person.
In a final exercise I spoke to the 8-year-old. I let her relax and let go. I let her play video games without concern or worry. I remember asking her if I could play with her and she said “No thanks.” It made me laugh. I used my right hand to write a letter to her and my left hand to write her responses. She said she felt like she had waited a long time to meet me. It was fantastic and freeing.
But what I learned from the experience had much longer lasting effects than helping me through one issue. It helped me realize that, in one way or another, we are all traumatized. Not in the horrific way we associate with the word traumatic. But in such a way that we don’t realize we need to go back and retrain our brains.
The effects carry over into our adult lives. We are angry, resentful, sad, and afraid and we don’t stop and ask why. We just assume that our surroundings make us this way and it’s our circumstances, not something on the inside, that needs fixing.
But we all need fixing on the inside. Whether we saw sickness, divorce, unhappiness, or disappointment as a child, somewhere deep inside we carry a part of that.
Now I’m not saying everyone can or even should try EMDR or other similar therapies. But we should all acknowledge that when we have a deep emotional response to something, it’s not someone else’s fault. I touched on this briefly in the “Daddy Issues” post. It comes from within. Happiness is not a circumstance. It’s a perception.
Stop and ask yourself why you’re feeling this way. Why do I feel angry, sad, or afraid? Does the situation really warrant this reaction? Or is there something deep inside me that is agitated by these circumstances?
The next time I’m about to yell or cry or run, I want to have this tool at my disposal. The ability to retrain my brain to look for the reasons and deal with them analytically, rather than let my feelings control me indefinitely. And I still may yell or cry or run! But I want to be a happier, healthier me. And I think it really starts with acknowledging that we’re all broken a little on the inside, so that we can aim to fix ourselves.