Not too long ago, I had a wonderful conversation with a *young teen. He was struggling with years of abuse by his biological mother and the impact it had on his relationship with himself and others. On this day, we were exploring his lack of curiosity at his refusal to consider giving himself self-compassion for what he had been through.
The idea of giving himself compassion appeared to make him uncomfortable. I watched his jawline hardened, his breathing become shallow, his body lean back and away from me and his once shiny, sparkly eyes become dull and vacant. I asked him, “What just happened? What changed?” “Nothing,” he responded. His voice was lifeless. “I noticed that your jaw tightened and your breathing changed. Did you notice those changes?” I asked. His gaze shifted from across the room to me. His eyes were hard. “Nothing changed,” he said. “Have you noticed that we were talking back and forth before and now you are responding with one or two-word answers?” He looked down at his hands and nodded his head affirmatively. Noticing the change in our conversational pattern was progress.
Interpersonal trauma, such as what this young man experienced, can cause us to disconnect from ourselves and others to survive. We cut off our experience from ourselves. We don’t feel the terror, the slamming of our hearts against our chest, or our breath caught in our lungs.
After the trauma is over, we continue to separate ourselves from the experience by avoiding talking about it, thinking about it, and any reminders of it. We continue to disconnect from ourselves so that we don’t feel the emotional pain and the terror in our bodies. We disconnect from others because they have the potential to harm us. We avoid developing close relationships because it
reminds us of how vulnerable we are and how easily someone can hurt us. As a result, our lives become smaller as we try to control every aspect of our lives to feel safe.
This young man did not feel safe in his body nor in his relationships with himself and others. Many times we talked about the importance of reconnecting to himself and to safe people around him to reclaim his life. His ability to notice our conversation change was progress in this direction.
I engaged him in some body percussion to help him reconnect to his body and regulate his emotions. After a few minutes, his jaw softened and he smiled. A few seconds later he took a big breath. I returned to our conversation. “It appeared that talking about self-compassion caused some intense thoughts and feelings. It looked as if you were shutting doors internally and disconnecting to handle all of that.” He nodded yes.
“I want you to know that I am not asking you to do this thing I am going to ask you about. I am just curious about what your brain is thinking and how your body is responding. What do you think would happen if people were able to give themselves compassion for what they have been through?” He studied his hands. His body remained open, and his muscle tone was soft. “World peace,” he said softly. “World peace,” I repeated back to him making sure I heard correctly. “Yes,” he replied as his eyes met mine. “How would that produce world peace?” I asked. “People wouldn’t be so angry,” he explained. I smiled. “So if people gave themselves compassion then we would have world peace because people wouldn’t be so angry?” “Yes,” he said his voice deepening. I wanted to jump from my chair and shout from the rooftops about how smart he was. Instead, I nodded my head. “I like that thought,” I replied. A huge smile crossed his lips. His face beamed. “I’m going to steal your idea,” I told him. His lips broke out in a sideways grin. “You can have it,” he laughed. “World peace through self-compassion, beautiful,” I said.
I felt the beauty, and the wisdom of his statement wash over me. In a moment of profound courage, this young man realized the power of having compassion for one’s self even though at that moment he could not give it to himself. It touched me deeply because it took courage for him to even consider the idea and then he gathered his strength and thought deeply about it. To have self-compassion an individual must be connected to his experience, and to the impact, it had/has on his functioning. Looking this deeply requires great courage for anyone. For a survivor of trauma, it is even more profound because the survivor often views his own body as betraying him and as dangerous to his survival.
Trauma disconnects us. Compassion connects us. Compassion for one’s self is the gateway to compassion for others. If individuals dared to connect with themselves, to look deeply at their experiences and the harm and hurt these experiences caused and give themselves compassion, their anger would lessen as they were able to process the pain of their experiences. They would be freer to connect with others, to see others differently, to interact in the world without trying to control and manipulate others to stay safe. That is the bedrock of world peace. And it came from the heart of a young man who has suffered and had horrible experiences at the hands of other humans. Out of pain can come great wisdom, if we only listen.
Photo by Zoltan Tasi on Unsplash