Let’s face it, not many of us get through childhood emotionally and physically unscathed.
Whether it’s falling out of a tree and breaking an arm or being bullied at school, life is full of experiences that could be potentially traumatising.
But what makes the difference between temporary pain and upset and something scarring us and triggering us years and even decades later?
We can’t always stop bad things happening to our kids, but we can stop bad things from having an ongoing impact in their lives for years to come.
There are two people that every child needs in their life, to get them through the tough times and to lessen any possibility of future repercussions.
These are an Empathetic Witness and a Competent Protector.
Dr. Peter Levine says:
“Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold inside in the absence of an empathetic witness.”
So what is an Empathetic Witness?
An Empathetic Witness is someone who gives the gift of their Presence. An empathetic witness attunes to someone and listens with acceptance and without judgement. They show compassion and care without necessarily trying to fix or change anything.
If somebody has been through a difficult or threatening experience, to be seen and heard and understood and validated is INVALUABLE. It is healing. Often nothing more is needed.
On the other hand, one of the results of the absence of an Empathetic Witness, is a feeling of victimhood. Without an empathetic witness, a person can carry around this sense of themselves as a victim, for the rest of their lives. I write more on this here.
So the next time you feel exasperated about someone who “always acts the victim” recognise where it comes from and send them love instead. And watch this powerful little video from the movie Good Will Hunting. Robin Williams gives a perfect example of being an Empathetic Witness.
The Competent Protector
Babies and young children are completely defenceless. They cannot protect themselves. They need someone to take care of them and keep them safe. They need someone to protect them.
In order to learn how to stand up for themselves and eventually protect themselves, children first need to experience their caregivers protecting and standing up for them. In the absence of a Competent Protector, they don’t feel safe.
And children need to feel safe in order to explore, create and play. So do adults.
If the parents themselves are the threat and there is no one there who is protecting the child, children grow up with a life long sense of not feeling safe. This later develops into all sorts of symptoms – from tight muscles and headaches to constant hyper-vigilance which can lead to chronic fatigue and other auto-immune conditions.
But don’t take my word for it, read Dr. Gabor Mate’s book “When the Body Says No”. You will be blown away by the research showing the stress-disease connection.
What to do if you didn’t have people playing these two roles in your life
In reading this, you may have realised that you did not have someone playing these parts for you. And maybe you can see how it has had lasting effects in your life. It could be that you find it hard to take risks or that you feel nobody ever listens to you.
Maybe, you can never relax, or you always feel anxious.
Whatever it is, it can be resolved.
In my practice as a trauma therapist, there are two ways I help people with this:
- I teach people how to become the Empathetic Witness and Competent Protector for themselves so that they need never go through life again feeling unseen, unheard and unsafe.
- And we live this out in sessions. I take on the role of Empathetic Witness for my clients and model this to them. And we renegotiate trauma in their lives through bringing in a Competent Protector
It is possible to trauma-proof your kids. You can’t always stop bad things happening to them. But you can massively reduce the impact by being there as an Empathetic Witness and Competent Protector.