Finding a place for life’s pain to lessen its impact

We can explore the landscape of our life’s events, mine our memory and craft a narrative that makes sense to us.

Joe’s father was always critical of his kids. He was quick to punish them for the smallest infraction. Joe recalled a road trip where he and his siblings were horsing around in the back seat on the way to visit some family friends. His dad stopped the car and asked Joe if he wanted to get spanked on the side of the road or at their friend’s house. Joe couldn’t wait to leave home the moment he turned 18.

My parents divorced when I was 13 years old, a few months after my grandmother, who lived with us for five years, passed away from a sudden heart attack. It was one of the most challenging times in my life. I never felt so alone.

Many of us have painful experiences we endured as children — divorce, loss, an alcoholic parent, or worse. There is no qualifying exam for becoming a parent.

Challenging life experiences have their enduring impact on adults. So much of the trajectory of our lives depends on the circumstances of our birth — the family we are born into, the place we live and our socio-economic status. Indeed, so much can be predicted by the ZIP code we’re born in. This has little to do with who we are as a person. But it can have an enormous impact on who we become.

Difficult life events can influence us in both negative and positive ways. As Bessel Van der Kolk notes in his best-selling book, “The body keeps the score,” sustained early life trauma or neglect can impact the development of our brain and how we respond to external stimuli. Our fear-driven brains can react with a flight, fight, or freeze reaction without any real provocation. Some adults, with difficult childhoods, can lack trust in others. They are always waiting for the “other shoe to drop.”

But there are also positive impacts as well. Many survivors of trauma are fiercely independent and self-reliant. They are strong, persistent and resilient. They have an ability to overcome barriers and challenges. And they often have great compassion and empathy for others. They want to help their friends and loved ones who have pain and suffering.

Survivors want to “work through” these early life losses. They hope to “let go” of their fear and pain. They want to rid themselves of the aftereffects of these experiences.

But is that possible?

In my experience, we can never rid ourselves of anything we’ve experienced. All our life’s events are part of who we are and have become. We can explore that landscape, mine our memory and craft a narrative that makes sense to us. One that has a beginning, middle and an end. We can develop self-compassion and a sense of equanimity about our life course. We can develop awareness of how we react to the world around us and learn to respond differently. We can learn how to cultivate inner peace and hopefully, the experience of joy and love.

We can’t get rid of painful life experiences, but we can find a place for them in our inner garden where they have less sway over our lives.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www. everettclinic.com/ healthwellness-library.html.

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