Allowing Space to Grieve the Childhood Loss of the Authentic Self

The greatest loss we will ever experience is the loss of the authentic self. It is a loss that severs us from our life force and essence. This loss of the authentic self in childhood is a disenfranchised grief arising from a loss that has not been recognised or mourned. It is a hidden sorrow that can remain buried in the shadow of the unconscious mind. In The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller speaks to how this profound loss emerges from an absence of emotional validation and understanding throughout childhood. Miller describes how people survive the emotional abuse of childhood through the ‘gift’ of their bodies numbing that pain. The body automatically goes into a freeze response when there is no way to escape the frightening situation, as a way of protecting us from feeling the intensity of emotional and physical pain. Our bodies respond in the same way to an emotional threat as it does to a physical threat. The childhood experience of emotional abandonment is paralleled to the psychological death of a parent. The rejection of emotional expression throughout childhood is a deep empathic failure which can lead to developmental trauma. I invite you to pause throughout reading this article and place your hand on your heart to allow space to be with any tender parts, emotions and sensations that are arising.

Developmental Trauma

Developmental trauma is defined by Bruce Perry as trauma occurring in the period from conception to the first four to five years of life. Developmental trauma which stems from emotional abuse and toxic childhood stress can be one of the most elusive forms of trauma for a person to identify in the absence of physical scars. The emotional scars remain invisible yet, insidiously leaving deep imprints felt throughout a lifetime and transmuted through the cells across generations. This loss of the authentic self is an intangible loss which is often experienced as a pervasive sense of emptiness, feeling like you do not belong and that something is missing. This severing from the true self often gives rise to a spiritual crisis as a part of the journey of seeking resolution to this inner conflict.

The Fragmented Self

The neurobiology of inner parts work offers a beautiful way to more deeply understand the somatic experience of early trauma in the body. The true self remains hidden as the false-self fragments into different parts to carry this pain and allow survival. The hurt child within you comprises of many orphaned, fragmented parts of self which carried the burden of this pain. Each part is comprised of implicit trauma memories stuck in the body, made up of neural pathways cut off from other parts of the brain. Those who have been disenfranchised in their loss, will often remain stuck in a continual cycle of self-disenfranchising their inner experience, seeking to hide the inner pain from others through internalising self-blame. They often feel consumed with guilt and a sense of betrayal of their parents to ever talk about shadow aspects of their childhood. This self-invalidation and self-abandonment repeats the painful cycle of childhood experiences of invalidation. These feelings of isolation, self-alienation, silence and shame lie at the heart of disenfranchised grief. Interpersonal neurobiology shows how developing somatic mindfulness can bring more regulation and soothe the amygdala by activating the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, the part that allows us to witness our inner experience. With guidance, we can strengthen the adult, compassionate-self witness part which can recognise these different parts being activated through tracking body sensations and create more space in the body. By responding from the adult self to hold the hurt child within, we can allow the warmth and attunement to be felt in the body in ways that were missing at that time. Often, we need a trusted guide, such as a somatic therapist, to help us to learn this new language of the heart and body.  

Impact of Childhood Trauma in the Body

Founder of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine, highlights how trauma lives in the nervous system, not in the event. Trauma results in a loss of connection with ourselves, with others and with the world. It is often how we were responded to by loved ones in the aftermath of frightening experiences which leaves the deepest imprints in the body. Early life stress impact the biology of the nervous system. Due to the ways the autonomic nervous system impacts all other body systems, a biology of trauma will have a ripple out impact in our bodies. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study has shone a light on the connection between early childhood trauma and chronic health problems. Some of the ways we can see the impacts of adverse childhood experiences, include in the emergence of some of the following health-related conditions:
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Migraines
  • Asthma
  • Sleep problems
  • Autoimmune conditions, including chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Chronic pain
  • Thyroid disease
Childhood trauma can also lead to mental health conditions, including: anxiety, depression, OCD, PTSD, phobias, eating disorders, addictions and personality disorders. The lack of acknowledgement of developmental trauma as an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), has contributed to challenges of practitioners identifying the deep impacts of developmental trauma. It also leads to frequent misdiagnosis of early trauma with other diagnoses, including ADHD.  

We Must Choose Attachment of Authenticity

Gabor Mate powerfully captures the cost of losing our authentic self in his book When the Body Says No, explaining how the body will find a way to say no when are unable to. Gabor emphasises the major link between a compulsion of meeting the needs of others above your own as a major risk factor for disease. He talks about how, for the sake of survival, as a child we must choose attachment over authenticity. If your parents did not accept your emotional expressions of anger or sadness, then you learn to hide those emotions, and squash your authentic expression, to stay connected to your parents. Growing up in a home without a healthy sense of boundaries leaves you vulnerable as an adult to a constant invasion of boundaries by others. It leaves you open to being ensnared by the invisible layers of enmeshment, which can be so slippery and murky to identify because the self feels so enveloped within this. Attuning to the needs of the parent above their own needs becomes the survival strategy of the child. Abandoning the authentic self to please others becomes a prison which separates you from deeper connection in relationship with others. These losses will remain unrecognised across a lifetime until a light is able to enter through the cracks of the wound to illuminate what has been lost.  

Reclaiming the Authentic Self

Reclaiming the authentic self involves bringing the relational repairs that were missing during childhood. Just as these wounds occurred in relationship, so too are they healed within relationship with trusted others, including furry friends, safe relationships or a sacred therapeutic relationship. We reclaim the true self by allowing our disenfranchised grief to have a voice through the body which allows what has remained unspoken to be spoken. Somatic validation opens the portal to allow the river of grief to flow through the body and be fully honoured and expressed. With support, this loss can be integrated into the fabric of your somatic narrative, through the eyes and heart of the enlightened witness part. Reclaiming your voice and sharing your authentic truth with yourself, opens the pathway to sharing your truth with others in your life. Honouring the ways the survival parts of self have kept you safe through survival patterns nurtures self-warmth and self-compassion for the wisdom of the body to try and seek safety. This enables a softening towards these survival parts of self where the gifts within can be reclaimed.  

Somatic Healing

Finding a somatic practitioner who understands developmental trauma, and can support healing the deeper layer of trauma in the body by nurturing regulation and safety, can be an integral part of healing. The very heart of trauma healing is restoring the safety essential to allow all the emotions which have been unacknowledged to be honoured and allowed a safe passage through the body in a timing that is paced by each nervous system. This safety supports the body to share the story contained within the cells to nurture the integration of neural pathways integral to the authentic self. This is how we come back home to ourselves. Somatic healing helps to restore healthy boundaries which is vital for reclaiming the authentic self. Through tracking our body sensations, known as interoception, we reconnect to our body impulses and the innate capacity of the body to heal. We begin to differentiate between where we end, and the other person begins. This differentiation enables us to feel into the felt sense in the body of what a body ‘no’ feels like, and a body ‘yes’. A pivotal part of somatic healing is restoring healthy aggression to allow the fight flight energy that was thwarted at the time the ruptures occurred, to be completed through the body. It supports those emotions that have been suppressed from childhood to be able to flow through and be fully acknowledged. Through supporting the completion of the stuck survival energy, we can reconnect to our life force and to the innate healing capacity of our body. Integrating somatic touch can be vital to repairing and healing.  

Rewiring Neural Pathways

Somatic healing modalities help to develop new neural pathways for regulation to change the stress physiology in the body. By receiving support to strengthen interoception, we can help reclaim the innate resiliency of the body. This includes strengthening the capacity for neuroception, a term coined by Stephen Porges to describe the body’s ability to sense threat and safety in the environment, which is compromised through trauma. Somatic Experiencing, developed by Peter Levine, and Somatic Practice, developed by Kathy Kain and Steve Terrell, are body-based trauma healing modalities that nurture regulation and resiliency. Somatic Practice works with the stress organs of the body to change the stress physiology. Both of these somatic approaches integrate Stephen Porges’ research on the Polyvagal Theory and his insights on how essential nurturing the neuroception of safety is for trauma healing. People who have experienced early trauma have adapted to scan the world in terms of potential threat. Supporting a person to build their interoception is a vital part of nurturing a felt sense of safety in the body.  

The Gift of Trauma

It is so important to know that there is so much we can do to restore the innate capacity of our body to heal from trauma. Our bodies have an inherent wisdom and will search for the light, just like a sunflower seeks the light. We can seek support to help our bodies reclaim that innate resiliency and wisdom. The gift of trauma is so beautifully described by Peter Levine: Trauma sufferers, in their healing journeys, learn to dissolve their rigid defences. In this surrender they move from frozen fixity to gently thawing and, finally, free flow. In healing the divided self from its habitual mode of dissociation, they move from fragmentation to wholeness. In becoming embodied they return from their long exile. They come home to their bodies and know embodied life, as though for the first time. While Trauma is Hell on Earth, its Resolution May be a Gift from the Gods.” Peter Levine, In An Unspoken Voice. By Francesca Redden, June 11, 2018