Finding meaning in the aftermath of childhood trauma

Through my own personal journey of trauma I have come to appreciate the possibility for personal growth that traumatic events can bring.

Traditionally trauma has been discussed in terms of its negative impact on psychological development and function. Commonly, trauma is related to symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD); having a negative view or sense of self, difficulty experiencing positive emotions, experiences of feeling dissociated or detached and an unexplainable sense of fear, are all symptoms of PTSD.

In more recent years, with the emergence of positive psychology, the perspective on trauma has broadened to include the positive psychological growth that can occur, known as Post-Traumatic Growth (PTG). Essentially PTG explores the psychological benefits, experienced as an outcome of psychological growth, resulting from the experience of a traumatic event. It is thought that PTG tends to occur in five general areas:

  • An opening up to new possibilities that were previously not thought of or considered
  • Experiencing a deeper sense of connection in relationship to others
  • An increased sense of one’s own strength or resilience
  • A greater appreciation for life in general
  • A deepening of spiritual beliefs or significant change in an individual’s belief system

My own mental health difficulties where grounded in experiences of prolonged childhood trauma, the impact of which I felt for many years. With the help of medication and psychotherapy, I came to terms with the actual events of trauma in a reasonably short space of time.

What was more difficult was the coming to terms with the impact trauma had on my functioning in the world. For many years I was surviving rather than living, I felt disconnected from myself and those around me. My experiences seemed so alien to others that I struggled to find commonality or support in sharing stories of my childhood.

I was estranged from family supports, and felt shame over the evident hurt and pain I carried. I felt alone, and often unable to grasp what was happening in my internal world. As a result I became a master at portraying everything in my life as being good. I found it hard to trust anyone and used my external world to mask the chaos I felt internally. Eventually though, cracks began to show, ultimately resulting in me attempting to take my own life on a number of occasions.

I often hear people say they would never change their experiences, no matter how difficult they were, because it might change who they are today. I appreciate this sentiment and must confess an admiration for such a humble stance. Personally I can’t say that I wouldn’t undo what was done if I had the chance, but I have come to find some meaning to those experiences. I want to share some of the changes I have gone through along the way:

Curiosity – Instead of denying emotion or uncomfortable feelings I have learned to get curious about why I am feeling what I am feeling. If you take the time to sit with uncomfortable emotions you become less reactive and more proactive in understanding what your body is telling you and understanding what it is you need.

Honesty – There is no human being that hasn’t behaved in a way they are not proud of in order to have a need met. In cases of childhood trauma we often develop many maladaptive behaviours trying to get our needs met, by being honest with yourself and others you bring awareness to these behaviours and create opportunity to change.

Not all of you is hurt – I used to get so overwhelmed by the physical feelings of hurt and pain, coupled with the racing thoughts of ‘you’re not good enough and everyone’s going to find out’ that I believed their wasn’t a cell in my body that wasn’t damaged… it wasn’t true! There was always a part of me that knew everything was going to be okay, I needed to learn how to hang out with this part more, and over time it grew and became stronger.

Compassion – I needed to learn how to have a healthy relationship with myself and with others, this is something I still work on today. Accepting that you will make mistakes, and having compassion towards yourself when you do, is crucial to healing past hurts. I also found that I could have compassion for others that behave in ways they are not proud of, because everyone does!

You deserve – believing you deserve a place in this world, that you deserve to be loved with out having to convince someone of your worth, that you deserve to be cared for, that you deserve to be supported, to have a place were you can share the weight of your worries… these where, and if I am honest still can be, things that I struggle to hold a solid foundation in. Slowly I am finding people to surround myself with that are helping me remind myself that I do deserve to be supported, loved and cared for.

Victim – Holding onto a feeling that you have been wronged makes you a victim and stops you from healing your wounds. The difficulty is, what happened to you was awful, it shouldn’t have happened, you are entitled to be angry, it is understandable, but know that holding onto the position of ‘I am entitled’ stops you from allowing your wounds to heal. This is a trap many people fall into, it has only been with the help of an exceptional therapist that I have, for the most part, not fallen victim to my pain.

I feel privileged to be in a position where I have the skills to reflect on the road I have walked. To be able to say I have found meaning from the struggles I have overcome. I still need to pay attention, at times my behaviour can still be automated by my past, but I am quicker now to recognise it. My awareness gives me the choice to be compassionate when I fall into old ways. For anyone that is still struggling, be patient, have courage and know ‘this too shall pass’.

Help information

If you need help please talk to friends, family, a GP, therapist or one of the free confidential helpline services. For a full list of national mental health services see yourmentalhealth.ie.

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Pieta House National Suicide Helpline 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie – (suicide prevention, self-harm, bereavement) or text HELP to 51444 (standard message rates apply)
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)

If living in Ireland you can find accredited therapists in your area here:

Aaron Galbraith
Aaron Galbraith
Aaron is a Social Worker in the area of Homelessness and Addiction. He also works as an Independent Youth Mental Health Advocate and sits on the board of the Mental Health Commission. His own lived experiences of mental health difficulties inform the passion he has for improving mental health services particularly for those from marginalised groups.
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