One of the most common experiences in trauma recovery we don’t talk about enough is the doubt and anxiety that weighs on many survivors’ minds about whether what they remember was real at all.
We want to think that would be obvious— we remember what we remember.
But for many survivors, particularly survivors of complex trauma (i.e., abuse, neglect, or other trauma that occurred over time; was inescapable; and/or was entwined with their close relationships at developmentally sensitive ages), remembering and acknowledging what actually happened can be a tricky thing.
Many survivors have the experience of “knowing” what happened to them, but not really believing it was that bad…even if they would tell anybody else that the same things happening to THEM was horrible.
Some survivors have the experience of their memories being inconsistent or incomplete— leaving them insecure about how accurate or valid what they DO remember is.
For many survivors, thinking about what happened to them is a sad, overwhelming experience— and the temptation can be to deny or minimize what happened as a way of managing those painful feelings.
There are LOTS Of reasons why remembering what we went through and managing how we feel about it can be complicated.
It subsequently makes recovery complicated, in that some survivors arrive at adulthood, wanting to heal, wanting to move past the trauma responses and other emotional and behavioral struggles that are ruining their lives…but they’re not quite sure where to start, given their complicated relationship with what they do or don’t remember.
Even trauma survivors who have been doing recovery work for awhile fall into the trap of wanting to deny or disown what happened to them.
Very often the culture and the people around us send us VERY mixed messages about how we “should” be thinking about or responding to what happened to us.
We’re told that we shouldn’t “dwell on the past,” or that we should “move on”…yet, when we try to “move on” by getting clear and realistic about what happened to us, we’re told we’re “choosing” to remain “stuck” in our painful memories.
Multiply that kind of feedback times years or decades, and you end up with many survivors having ambivalent relationships with the reality of what they went through and the appropriateness of what they’re experiencing now.
No question: it is super frustrating for our memories to be a little (or a lot) scrambled.
It’s hard to know how to feel about a past that doesn’t neatly fit into a coherent narrative.
A big part of recovery is piecing together the narrative of our life in such a way that it makes sense— and allows us to relate to ourselves and our experience with compassion, instead of confusion or frustration.
You need to know that it’s not unusual to have mixed feelings about what you do and don’t remember.
You need to know that it’s common to go back and forth on the question of whether what you went through was “really” “all that bad.”
You need to know that almost everybody who has experienced complex trauma has a complicated relationship with their memories— and, often, their sense of self.
You need to know that, even if you doubt how valid your experiences, reactions, and feelings are at times, you DO deserve compassion and support.
You need to know that acknowledging the weight of what you went through doesn’t make you “weak” or “attention seeking”— though there’s also nothing wrong with seeking care when you’re in pain.
Yeah. It’s not fun, having to tiptoe our way through the emotional minefield that is our complicated pasts. I, too, wish it was all easier, more straightforward, less laden with anxiety and potential shame.
Just keep coming back to your commitment to being on your side.
To having your back.
To not attacking yourself.
To not picking up where your abusers and bullies left off.
Keep coming back to the fact that you are, first and foremost, committed to your recovery— even when the voices of anxiety and doubt seem determined to drag you off course.
Just manage today.
This hour. This minute.
You can do this.