Childhood Trauma

I was speaking with someone who said he had lots of unshed tears from childhood trauma, and he needed to go back there (perhaps in therapy) and finally cry those tears in order to break free from the suffering he traced back to whatever it was long ago. I told him I thought that was the wrong approach, and later sent him this clarifying message.

I think that if a person is experiencing suffering traceable to childhood trauma, the absolute last place that person should go for healing is back into the trauma, trying to shed tears not shed at the time. I know that’s how the psychologists since Freud anyway have looked at this – go back and confront whatever it was back then, and cry your tears, and then you’ll be free of it. (That’s what the Kleenex in the therapist’s office is for.)

But to my mind that is dead wrong. Barring situations where people are being actively psychologically tortured, or are suffering from physical pain, the source of suffering is never in the external trauma but in the person’s reaction, often a neurotically continuing reaction to trauma long since past.

First Noble Truth: the world is full of suffering. Second NT: the source of suffering is attachment – to having what you want, and keeping what you have, and not getting what you don’t want. (Often what we want to have, or keep, or avoid, relates to our fragile self-image.) Third NT: to defeat suffering, outwit attachment. So whatever they did to you, or me, or anyone way back when, the solution is not to go back there, or look outside your head for some external stimulus. The suffering (which is what we are trying to alleviate, not the trauma) might have been connected to the stimulus at the time, but now it is connected only to the response.

So the present response is where the healing needs to be. Never in the past, always in the present. The present memory of the past event triggers a burst of present suffering. Not every second – only when the memory appears as a thought. That synapse is where the problem lies – learn to notice the association of the memory with suffering, and recognize it for what it is, and it will lose its power to make us suffer. As the Buddha taught us back in the day, there are three poisons: attachment, aversion, and ignorance (that is, mistaking the illusory for the real). Those poisons in our thought-stream (especially ignorance) are what cause us lingering, left-over suffering, and they are what we have to overcome, not anything that happened long ago or even yesterday.

Thus I have heard.

August 2018