Drama, Trauma and Time Travel
Many of my clients seek therapy because they find themselves overreacting to minor events with major emotions. We call this drama, and it’s a hallmark of dysfunction. The overreaction happens because you are unconsciously reacting to a small present event as though it’s a big, traumatic scary event from your past. Anxiety attacks, rage, jealousy and the desire to flee are all the reactions of a small child who is terrified, overwhelmed or abused.
When you find that you can’t shake a bad event that happened, and keep reliving it; or you are reacting to your mate, your boss or a relative in old, painful or emotional ways; your reaction is an indication that there’s something in your memory that needs to be resolved. Sleeplessness, impulsive behavior and stressing over small things also may indicate unresolved past events.
It’s easier than you may think to resolve a current or past traumatic event or to unearth the memory of emotional, physical, or psychological pain from your childhood that is troubling you. The following exercise can be useful for handling many emotional upsets. For example, if you’re having a recurring dream that troubles you, you can use this exercise to replay the dream, and it won’t bother you any more. By using scenes from the present and the future as well as the past (a quarrel with your current mate, a worrying future encounter with someone who's angry at you, or a presentation you’ll be making on Monday) you can use this to detox the situation and practice new skills.
To allow yourself the full impact of the exercise, without interruption, read the following steps into a recorder and play them back.
1. Invoke a troubling scene. To begin, sit quietly by yourself, and close your eyes. Visualize yourself as a small child in a scene from childhood or other event that was painful. This is the early event that you are going to resolve. You will learn how to correct the scene, take care of yourself and then forgive whoever created the problem, and forgive yourself for your own participation. Allow the troubling scene from your memory to appear around your child self. You may get a mental picture, or if not, just imagine the scene as you remember it. Use your senses of sight and sound to establish your scene clearly, unless this is a scene of childhood abuse or incest. In that case, you may find it too painful or stressful to use all the senses, so allow yourself to keep your distance, by just thinking of the scene, and not developing as much sensory information. If your scene is very painful, or frightening, view the scene as objectively as you can, as though it is a story about someone else, or a movie.
2. Enter the scene as an adult. Like a time traveler from the future, visualize yourself in the scene as the grownup you are today. There will be two of you present, the small child you were, and your modern, adult self.
3. Take charge of the scene. Now it's time to take charge of the scene and protect your child self. Do whatever is needed to stop the adults or other children from upsetting, frightening, hurting or neglecting the child you were. If the other children or adults involved are too badly behaved angry or out of control, you can make them leave or remove your child selfif you want toyou have total power here, in your imagination. Use that power to make a safe environment and to provide protection for your child self. If you like, you can also surround your child self with loving and protective people.
4. Take care of your child. As the child in this scene, you may be frightened, angry, confused, feeling helpless, or overwhelmed with griefas the adult, you can be rational, effective, competent and reassuring. You may encounter some resistance to doing this, in the form of feeling incapable of taking care of your child self. But remember, you can do this over and over in your mind until you get it right. You can try to fix the situation in several different ways, before you decide which is best.
Visualize removing your child self from danger; comfort and reassure; correct any lies your child self was told (that he was stupid, or it was her fault) by telling your child the (positive) truth (he is intelligent, no child causes her own abuse, the adults were wrong); and take time to begin to establish a friendship with your child self. If you see that your child self needs some information or help, provide it. Promise that your child will never be left at the mercy of ignorant, malicious, incompetent, or uncomprehending people again.
5. When your child self feels safe, discuss forgiveness. When you have corrected the scene enough that your child is out of danger and feeling safe, talk with your child about what happened. Discuss what went wrong and who made mistakes, and decide how to avoid being the victim of those same mistakes again. Once you and your child both know he or she will not be hurt again (because you'll do what it takes to protect him or her), you'll find that your child will be ready to forgive the people who hurt him or her, and will understand that they just don’t know how to behave. Help your child see that whatever happened was not his or her fault, and your child self doesn't have to make the same mistakes the others made, or repeat the mistakes he or she made.
6. Take your child to a safe place. Close the scene by visualizing your child self in a safe, secure place, completely out of danger, such as the home you live in today, or a favorite safe place from the past. Reassure the child you that you'll be there when you’re needed, and tell him or her how to get your attention when he or she feels in danger. This means that your adult, rational self will not leave your emotional, child self alone, dependent, and at the mercy of people who are hurtful. Do not leave the scene until your child self feels calm and secure.
6. Repeat regularly. After you have done this exercise the first time, you can keep your promise to keep your child self safe (and build self-trust) by time traveling back to your child self as often as needed, until it becomes an unconscious habit. Once you’ve done this many times and become proficient, you will not need to close your eyes to be in instant contact with your child self; you will be able to imagine being with your child self at any time. Doing this exercise repeatedly, whenever things go wrong and bring up painful memories, will eventually clear out traumas, and correct the damage done in childhood, while helping you build new patterns of behavior and reinforce positive beliefs. You’ll find that you instinctively know when someone or something is hurtful to you, and when you’re being hurtful to others. You’ll also know what to do to correct the situation, (don’t be alone with violent or emotionally hurtful people, don’t allow yourself to be in tempting situations, and so on) and you’ll feel safe enough to forgive those who are confused and behave in hurtful ways, because their behavior will not be dangerous to you.
By learning how to use these tools, and then applying them to your specific issues, you can move from old, negative dysfunctional behaviors to new, thoughtful and positive ones. With new information and habits, you can build a new conception of self, freed from the old definitions and beliefs. Once you’re in charge of your own behavior, you can resolve old problems and free yourself to run your own life.
© 2012 Tina B. Tessina adapted from: It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page) ISBN 1-56414-469-9
Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California, with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction (New Page); How to Be a Couple and Still Be Free (New Page); The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again (Wiley) and The Real 13th Step: Discovering Self-Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the Twelve Step Programs (New Page); Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage and her newest, Lovestyles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She publishes “Happiness Tips from Tina”, an e-mail newsletter, and the “Dr. Romance Blog.” Online, she is “Dr. Romance” with columns at Divorce360.com, Wellsphere.com, and Yahoo!Personals, as well as a Redbook Love Network expert. Dr. Tessina guests frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC news. She tweets @tinatessina and is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tinatessina and http://www.facebook.com/#!/DrRomanceBlog
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