“I hate dark places,” said Danielle. “When I stand outside a dark room, about to go in, my body is filled with anxiety and fear. It’s because of those years when my ex-husband would be waiting in the dark, depressed and angry.”
All of the women in the “Surviving the Holidays” workshop, many with a shared history of abuse and past trauma, held a focused, empathetic silence.
Danielle was wondering whether empathy might help her heal further, beyond the realization that her present anxiety was linked to the past. And she was willing to bring her compassionate self into the memory, to speak directly to her frightened, paralyzed self. As she imagined bringing both of her selves together, she stopped speaking for a moment, emotion welling up. “I want you to know that you survive this,” she said to her younger, frightened self, “and the kids survive this – you’re more resilient than you realize. I know you are so exhausted and scared right now, and how much you need hope and support and tenderness and care. I want you to know you’re going to be all right.”
“She’s a part of you,” I told Danielle. “If things hadn’t been so hard, she would not still be frozen outside the dark room. With this compassionate connection, you can bring her back into you, and make her a part of you again, so that she knows you have survived, and so that all of her resilience and life energy is part of you again.”
Danielle closed her eyes and let herself sink into the sense of reclamation and rejoining. “It feels good,” she said. “It feels right.”
Because our brain stores our emotional and traumatic memory in the amygdala, which has no sense of time, there are parts of us that remain forever trapped in the loop of trauma until they are reclaimed and reintegrated. There are a number of approaches to this unification and healing, and I find the confluence of Nonviolent Communication empathy and Interpersonal Neurobiology to be particularly powerful.