I once worked with a young woman that had a very traumatic childhood. She had been sexually abused by her brother and teacher, emotionally abused by her mother and physically abused by her father. When I met her she was a very unhappy person with low self esteem, severe depression and anxiety and at times she was self harming and suicidal.
‘Amy’ (not her real name), had been in counselling for many years and during this time the only support her counsellor could offer was to keep her from hurting herself and to get her through one crisis from the next. While this was very important, they were not able to work on what was underlying this behaviour. When I began counselling Amy she was ready for things to be different and wanted to get better but didn’t know where to begin. It took a while for Amy to develop trust as she had been so hurt in the past by people she looked up to.
In counselling I helped Amy to recognise her anxiety symptoms and triggers and to support herself through the use of grounding techniques. During the times when Amy felt relatively stable in her life, we began to examine childhood experiences and process the feelings around these events. Amy was able to identify and release these feelings that she had bottled up for so many years.
By examining these past events we were able to explore the impact that these had on her at the time and were still having on her now. She was able to challenge negative and inaccurate beliefs she had held and see how these were contributing to her low self esteem and negative view of the world.
Through identifying messages that Amy took away from her childhood experiences she was able to see how these were linked to the way she interacted with others and even in the risky behaviours she engaged in (as one of the messages she took on was that she mustn’t be worth caring about so why should keep herself safe).
I encouraged Amy to explore and build up her identity. Amy began to learn more about herself, what she liked and didn’t like what things she found helpful and unhelpful and most of all she figured out that she was a good person and the things that happened to her in childhood were not her fault.
This exploration supported Amy when she had her down days, as she was able to recognise what she could do to make herself feel better. When we are young and we are sick or sad our mother or caregiver often comfort us and know how to make us feel better. As we get older we need to do this for ourselves. We are all different and so for some people when they are feeling low they might nurture themselves by snuggling up on the couch with a blanket and watching their favourite TV show. For others it is calling up a friend and getting support from those around them. It is important that you are able to identify what works for you so that you can self sooth and get yourself back on your feet.
While the counselling process is different for everyone, hopefully at the end of it everyone has the same outcome. That is, they are able to process past traumas and identify the impact these have had or may still be having on them now, the ability to challenge negative and unhelpful messages, increased understanding about their own processes and behaviour patterns, the ability to identify and access internal and external supports and finally the knowledge that things can be better.
Amy reported that at the end of counselling she felt like she knew herself better, and had learned how to keep herself safe and happy. Yes she may still have days where she feels down, but she now knows how to identify where these feelings are coming from and is able to help herself. Amy also learned that these feelings would pass. Amy said she felt happier within herself and was able to block out and challenge negative messages and allow in more positive ones. She had goals for the future and believed she could achieve anything she put her mind too.
I am happy to report that four years later Amy is now married and just had her first child. She is a great wife and mother and is breaking the cycle of abuse that occurred in her family.