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The Magic of Compassion: Acknowledging the Pain of Preverbal Trauma

Why is it important that we realize whether a preverbal trauma is still affecting us? Hasn’t it resolved by the time we are adults? Hasn’t it been entirely forgotten? Why drag the old into the present? Why contaminate the now with the was?

If only life were that simple. The truth is, much of the time, trauma that we experienced before we could talk is not resolved; it still haunts us. We don’t remember that early pain explicitly, but implicitly. Unknowingly our present is contaminated by the past and has been for many years, even decades.

In my case, I had healed completely from the condition that warranted stomach surgery at one-month-old—a blockage preventing the passage of food. I began to successfully digest food and gain weight and have never had any stomach problems since. Unfortunately though, the surgery negatively impacted me psychologically; I had no idea why my life was so laden with problems, including depression, panic attacks, and acts of self-harm. It has taken many years to understand.

Consequently, I am charged with writing about this issue; I want people to become aware that an early trauma could still be hurting their lives and that the acknowledgment of this, in itself, is a huge step in healing. I was reminded of this truth recently, reading the psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach’s words in her book Radical Acceptance: “As the trance of unworthiness becomes conscious, it begins to lose its power over our lives” (23). Similarly, as we accept the agony we suffered from an early assault, we gain sympathy for ourselves. Simply allowing ourselves to be open to the severity of the impact of the wounding begins the healing process.

We have been taught that we couldn’t possibly remember what happened to us so early on. But our bodies remembered—our breath, our skin, emotions, nervous systems, and so we suffered. Our bodies “kept the score,” as renowned trauma expert Dr. Bessel van der Kolk puts it. But with our new understanding, compassion can do its magic.

2 Responses to The Magic of Compassion: Acknowledging the Pain of Preverbal Trauma

  1. Thank you Wendy for restating in simple, elegant and understandable language the real possibility of preverbal trauma affecting us, of the importance of how those affected regard and deal with it, and challenging the very common response of, “Come on, move on!” or “Get over it!”
    Facebook’s Groups for people affected by infant and adult pyloric stenosis are mostly visited by people with physical questions and frustrations. But not only: these Groups’ posts have made clear to me how many parents are still or have been affected emotionally by their little one’s illness, surgery, and what can come with the latter. A few others (like you and I) have arguably been affected by our parents’ unrecognised truma, and have lived most of our lives trying to put together some deep-seated but hard-to-understand emotional issues, issues that have been linked with pre-verbal trauma only in recent years.
    Thank you for exploring these issues here and for sharing some of the light others have shed on them.

    • I am very moved by your Comment. You understand so deeply what the stakes and consequences are of being in denial of the effects of pre-verbal trauma. I love that line about the fact that we “have lived most of our lives trying to put together some deep-seated but hard-to-understand emotional issues.” I suppose we are lucky to have figured out the etiology/cause of our distress. What a relief to know it has a source we can name. And what a solace it is to have someone–you–to share the burden of the difficulties and the joy of understanding. Let’s keep the sharing going!

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