Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships

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9781558745100: Heartwounds: The Impact of Unresolved Trauma and Grief on Relationships

Trauma has been defined as an interruption of an affiliative or relationship bond. If left unsettled, past grief and psychological trauma can continue to impact our adult relationships and cause us pain in our entire lives. It's possible we may not even realize what is happening to us because usually relationships fail in parts rather than in total. Early childhood losses or traumas can create pain that is relived in adult intimate relationships. Intimacy can provide both an arena for re-enacting old pain and/or healing it. In this fascinating work, noted psychodramatist Tian Dayton shows readers how relationships can be used as a vehicle for healing, personal growth and spiritual transformation. Through fascinating case studies and probing exercises, Dayton helps readers get in touch with the deepest parts of themselves and heal the wounds that plague them.

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About the Author:

Tian Dayton, who holds a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and an M.A. in educational psychology, is a therapist in private practice in New York City. A fellow of the American Society for Group Psychotherapy and Psychodrama and a faculty member of the Drama Therapy Department at New York University, Dayton presents psychodrama workshops and training nationwide.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LOSS AND TRAUMA

The tragedy is not that a man dies,
the tragedy of life is what dies
inside a man while he lives.

— Albert Schweitzer

The Wound That Can't Be Seen:
Healing the Wounded Heart


Any creature that bonds grieves when it experiences separation—whether it be an elephant kicked out of the herd, a duck that has lost its mate or a mother who sends her child off to college. As humans, we are biologically designed to form kinship bonds through which we learn the lessons of love, caring and intimacy. When those bonds are broken, a piece of us breaks or is traumatized by that loss. Then we go through life hungry for what is missing. When we avoid the experience of grief, we lock ourselves up in the loss; we carry around an unhealed wound.

Humans are physical beings, existing in time and space. Scientists tell us today that our emotional bodies are just as physical as our corporeal bodies—only harder to see and measure. Healing is biologically driven: We cut ourselves, we clean and suture the wound. Then we rely on nature to complete our healing process. We cannot reknit our flesh, but nature can. So it is with emotional wounds. Wounds to the heart need to be cleaned in order to naturally heal. A wound to the psycho-spiritual body can be just as crippling to the whole person as a wound to the physical body.

Life is full of losses. Passing wholly through the stages of mourning—whether it be for a loved one, a job, a divorce, a child who has left home or a stage of life—not only strengthens the ego and the inner self, but increases our trust in life's ability to repair and renew itself. It deepens our inner relationship with the self.

Grieving serves a number of important functions. It releases the pain surrounding an event or situation so that it will not be held within the emotional and physical self. Grieving allows the wound to heal. If we do not grieve, we build walls around the ungrieved wound in order to protect it, even though these very walls can keep healing experiences out as well.

I have asked myself a thousand times what is the difference between a person who can live a healthy balanced life and one who cannot seem to get life together in a productive manner. We all face problems. But some people move through them and some remain stuck. I have observed that clients who succeed in therapy exhibit or acquire certain qualities:

They are able to self-reflect—that is, they look at their own thinking, feeling and behavior and have enough emotional distance from their self-identification so that they see themselves realistically.
They take their own good advice and live by it rather than spending valuable time and energy digging trenches, then sitting in and defending them. They identify what they are feeling and articulate it to themselves and others, which gives them the ability to face the pain of loss.
They identify their issues and live with a realistic rather than an idealized view of themselves, and when life hurts they are able to own their issues and work with them.
They cope with loss by calling it by its correct name, and move through the emotional turmoil of a grieving process.
They separate the past from the present, which allows them to live in today without sabotaging it with unresolved, unfinished business from the past.
They find meaning and purpose in their struggle, which is how spiritual transformation and growth take place.
They use life struggles not only to get through but to grow, thus deepening and strengthening their relationship with life and self and others.

I find it very exciting and hopeful to see this process at work. Over and over again I have seen lives that were in shambles turn around and become happy and productive. I have witnessed people who were caught in chronic despair awaken to their own pain, process it and get better. These are not overnight miracles. They are not the result of thinking the right thought, going to the cutting-edge seminar or seeing the perfect therapist. They are the result of surrendering to the grief process, having the courage and willingness to walk through it and the commitment to stay with it for as long as it takes. Healing is a series of quiet awakenings, born of the willingness to struggle to have a true and honest encounter with the self.

We have, in attempting to explain the complexities of the human mind and our relationship with self, created the field of psychology. But in our quest to contain and describe pathology, we have forgotten the philosophical roots of the field. The philosophers of ancient times took on no less of a goal than to better understand the whole of the human spirit, body, mind and soul. The ancient Greeks and yogis did not research representative control groups, but spent their lives in lifelong contemplation and observation, first of self and then of others. They looked at humans and attempted to order the functions of both mind and spirit. When psychology ignores the spirit, it goes its way without a conscience, without that very energy that first gave it life. Without a spiritual philosophy, life is reduced to only what we see. Scientific observation has expanded too much for life to be reduced to this narrow and superficial vision.

The field of psychology expanded very quickly after World War II in order to address the traumas of war, and perhaps this partially explains why its focus has remained so pathologically oriented. Perhaps this happened because psychology made its alliance with the Newtonian model of science, and broke off from philosophy and art. But the human spirit has always sought to express itself at the deepest level through art, writing, music and ritual. These are the voices of the soul, the vehicles through which inner turmoil and grief are worked through and brought from silence into song, through shadow into light. Throughout time we have expressed our humanness through the vehicles of body, mind, heart and soul. Possibly a society less inhibited in this personal expression would have less need for violence and less buried hurt flowing into the underground river of emotional isolation and psychological illness.

We can suffer loss in many ways. A person can be lost not only to death but to divorce, addiction, separation or alienation. The stages of mourning and bereavement following the death of a loved one are similar to what I observe people go through in the process of therapy, whether or not they have lost a loved one to death. Often the people I see in the field of addictions have lost a loved one to addiction, divorce or mental illness. In the case of children of divorce, the children lose the warmth and reliability of both parents in the home. They often feel left behind and deeply confused. "If Daddy can't get along with Mommy, then how can I? Should I move away too? What happened to our family?" Similarly, the children of alcoholics may still have the parent in the home, but they have lost access to their loved one. Their loved one is there, but emotionally the experience of those children is that their mother or father is lost to them, a prisoner of their addiction and unavailable to the children who need them. Often children of parents with psychiatric disorders such as clinical depression or psychosis feel that they can neither emotionally or psychologically find their parents, nor can they rely on them to help them with their own developmental needs on a consistent basis. Children who are physically, emotionally or sexually abused may feel the loss of innocence or childhood.

Clients that I serve seem to need to go through a process of active grieving of early childhood losses in order to be able to move into adult roles. If they do not go through this, and if they remain locked in the pain associated with early loss, they unconsciously have such a strong yearning for the original lost object (person or experience) that they spend much of their time hoping, wishing and trying to make their present-day adult situations into relationships and careers that will give them what they lost—which is, of course, not possible. Consequently, they move through cycles of excitement and disappointment, disillusionment and abandonment of their endeavor that closely mirror their earlier experience and serve to retraumatize them. Their access to adult roles is blocked because they are stuck in the unfinished business associated with their child roles. These are wounds that can go unattended in our need to "get on with life." Oftentimes, these ungrieved wounds lead to emotional problems and depression later in life.

Where do the grief and sadness and fear go when we, as a society, no longer honor the depth of loss and support someone through it? We seem to see feelings of grief as a sign of weakness rather than strength. In fact, true grieving both requires a strong ego and builds a strong ego because it asks us to stand beside our own pain and allow ourselves to have it. It asks us to be strong and compassionate and wise enough to hold our own woundedness in our hearts without abandoning ourselves at this very crucial moment. There is nothing weak about this. It is a sign of love and contact with what is real and alive in this world, and it requires the wisdom to give ourselves the right to be human.

The aforementioned are dramatic types of losses, but as we live our lives, we experience various ranges of loss on many levels. The loss of youth, the loss of our physical strength and prowess as we get older, the loss of hair, the loss of beauty, the loss of career, the empty nest syndrome—the list goes on. How we learn to cope with loss greatly influences how deeply we allow ourselves to experience life, and how successfully we are able to modify old roles and adopt new ones.



Giving Voice to the Wound

There are two concepts of catharsis: the Aristotelian one of purging inner pain, and the one that arises out of Eastern religion that holds that "a saint, in order to become a savior, [has] first to save himself" (Moreno, 1946). In other words, he has to become self-actualized. "Catharsis" in Greek means to cleanse. Working with and through pain is one of the ways that cleansing occurs within a person. Whether the pain is self-imposed, as in the case of the aesthetic, or visited upon us by a life circumstance out of our control, it can burn away the attachments and preoccupations of the ego-centered self. Orthodox psychotherapy, too, sees self-purification as the first task of the therapist or priest before and while helping others: "Physician, heal thyself" (Luke: 4:23). According to Andrite Vlachos, a Greek Orthodox theologian, "The truly physician-like nous (mind, intellect) is the one that first heals itself and then heals others of the diseases of which it has been cured" (Orthodox Psychotherapy, 1994). We might say that one aspect of grief is totally self-centered while another is universal, illuminating our deepest and most intense attachments in life. Then, in a spiritual awakening, we surrender control and the belief that anything is everlasting except the soul, the seed of life itself.


Filling an Empty Hole

Hurt people search the world for just the right relationship that will make everything all right forever, that will fill the empty hole, provide missed nurturing and give them the life, love and security that got derailed because of trauma. They become fixated on finding it and so begin a lifelong search, but they search for the wrong thing and they search in the wrong places. Their black-and-white thinking causes them to see the solution to their problem as being a solution, a person, a job and so on. Each new relationship becomes a hope for being saved, for turning their life around. When the person disappoints or the job is less than wished for, they return to a position of helplessness, seeing themselves once again as having been cheated. Rather than look within themselves to find out what they are doing (or not doing) to contribute to the emptiness they feel, they look outside. "I've made another bad decision," "I only choose unavailable, messed-up people," "My boss is impossible" and so on. Their very hurt and irrational shame render them unable to turn the microscope back upon themselves to ask the hard questions that would lead to a resolution rather than a repetition.

When people or animals are traumatized, they rely on primitive survival strategies. Fight, flight and freeze are survival mechanisms. They allow us to get through a situation alive, but they do nothing to help us resolve or integrate. They flood the brain and body with chemicals that put the system on red alert and are designed to help us cope with danger or acute stress. When they are burdened through overuse, they can affect a person's ability to assess normal situations. Later in life, victims of trauma assess each situation as if it were a threat or a danger, and the intensity that these trauma survivors carry within themselves distorts their reaction to normal life circumstances, inhibiting their ability to have normal relationships. They see danger where it doesn't exist, offense where none was intended. They attach themselves anxiously to people, driving them away because of their neediness. The fact that they have not learned to modulate their interactions with people means that they tend to overreact, shut down or withdraw (fight, freeze and flight). So once again they fall back onto their black-and-white thinking, which in this case manifests as "I made the wrong choice again," "Things will be fine when I find the right person—this was the wrong one" and so on. Because of this kind of all-or-nothing thinking, they are unable to stand back, assess a relationship and make appropriate adjustments to make it work. To fit themselves into the relationship and the relationship into themselves; to compromise, adjust and work it out. Instead, their life comes to mirror their trauma reaction—intense involvement or withdrawal, nothing in between.

Often, trauma survivors don't understand what compromise feels like; they experience it as a loss of self because they haven't learned how to stay connected with another person or situation while maintaining a sense of self—to modulate their inner world and, by extension, their outer world. They repeat rather than resolve, react rather than listen, and withdraw or fuse rather than engage. Or they may go on automatic pilot, remaining physically in the relationship while on the inside they have broken their connection with it. They interact with their intellect, doing what they think is called for, but they shut off the part of themselves that interprets on a feeling level, and their interaction is based not on what they feel and sense but on what they think. They lose their ability to pick up and interpret the subtle cues that would help them read the relationship dynamics and adjust themselves, or else they overreact to signals, reading into them more than is there. The all-or-nothing relational pattern is a direct result of shutting down the nonsurvival systems such as emotions.

Compounding this, trauma survivors frequently use liquor and drugs to medicate the pain and isolation that they experience, reaching for a chemical solution to their problems. This is why, when addicts get sober, they are often in emot...

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