Scar tissue is thick and fibrous.
It is our body’s way of healing the tissues destroyed from a cut, or surgery, or muscle damage.
At first, we may not feel pain, but over time, when nerve endings regenerate, pain rises to the surface and demands our attention.
When emotional trauma, whether from childhood or adulthood, is not processed, it lodges inside our bodies as emotional scar tissue. It is emotional energy that has been denied flow and is now trapped.
Years ago, I had reached out to my sister seeking assurance about a marital issue I was going through. My memory of what exactly was said is fuzzy, but what I do recall is sitting in my car at a railroad crossing watching a mile-long train pass, feeling gutted by the firm line she drew in the sand about how much vulnerability was appropriate in our relationship.
Other emotional wounds are older, the scar tissue thick and ropey. When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I watched a mini-series on Sunday evenings. Although I no longer remember what the series was about, I recall how deeply I connected with the characters. They felt real to me. I loved them. When the series ended and the credits rolled up the black and white TV screen, I felt pain in my chest, like a deep slash exposed to air. I was surprised by the tears that flooded my cheeks but couldn’t stop myself from feeling.
My mom saw me and asked why I was crying. I told her the best way I could, that I was going to miss the characters in the series, that they felt like my friends who were now gone forever. My mom, I imagine, was exhausted from taking care of my baby sister and did not have the energy or time to sit with me to process the sadness I was feeling in that moment.
Each of us carries around our own versions of painful childhood vignettes. They are rich in detail and unprocessed emotions. For me, these feelings and beliefs are probably embedded in my left shoulder, the one with limited movement and scar tissue from a torn rotator cuff. They live there with other beliefs like: “You are a flake. Your feelings don’t matter. Who do you think you are? What do you have to be sad about?” And some that I’ve accepted as truth about myself without ever questioning who or where they came from.
We carry these beliefs with us like scrabble letters in a velvet pouch. When we are denied self-expression by another or are judged harshly; when our feelings are not respected or acknowledged; when the same emotional string is strummed, and the echo reaches that deeply stored hurt in our bodies, our reptilian brain reaches into that pouch for proof in order to keep us small and safe. These beliefs show up again and again as out of proportion reactions in our adult relationships.
For years, I nursed my traumas and pain with red wine. I used alcohol as an anaesthetic. Every evening at around 5:00 p.m., a glass or two of Merlot would quiet down the uncomfortable scratching from the trapped emotions. “There, there,” I’d coo and take another sip of the magic elixir until a feeling of a gentle numbing around my heart would ease the discomfort, and I’d escape having to feel anything.
In the spring of 2018, an anxiety attack landed me in the hospital. I left my job. An emptiness of byzantine proportions engulfed me. I drank more, numbed myself with anti-anxiety medication when the feelings of inadequacy reached critical levels. I lived in a perpetual state of fear and anxiety about my life and who I thought I was. I began and abandoned projects I believed would lead me out of the purgatory I was in. This state lasted for 18 months.
In January of 2020, I made a decision to give up alcohol and Ativan and dove heart first into the work of healing my childhood trauma. I joined group therapy focused on intrapersonal healing, and a few months later, a 12-step Codependents anonymous group.
It is at this time that I came face-to-face with my inner victim. We all have one, lurking behind the hurtful beliefs we keep alive inside our physical aches and pains. I began the work of transforming victimhood into self-empowerment, self-respect, and self-love.
I have learned that the only way to heal unprocessed trauma is to stay with the painful feelings each time they show up. When the scratching from my viscera rolls in, I stop. I close my eyes. Breathe. Focus on where in my body I’m feeling the emotion. I put my concentration there and imagine that I am spreading it, like paint, through the rest of my body. Sometimes I double over, curl up on the floor, hug my chest, and murmur words of comfort to my inner girl. I remind her that I am her parent now, that I am taking care of her, and that the great mother Universe is holding us both.
Each episode may last five minutes or a half-hour. The important thing to remember is that it passes. I have not died from emotional pain yet.
Next, I move my body to ground the emotion.
I usually take myself out for a walk outside. Or bake, work with my hands, wash dishes in sudsy water, create something out of nothing. I lean into the discomfort. Stay with it. Breathe through it. Scream, dance, and shake it out. The pain may continue; the tears may flow more freely. I let them. I do not question why they fall, do not judge and label myself. I allow what is moving through to make its way out.
Each time I repeat this process, I am showing my inner girl that she can trust me to be there for her. I become her inner parent. I say to her: I am here. You are loved. I am here. You are loved—until a sensation of calm returns to my body.
A wailing session in a warm, Himalayan salt bath is also a good practice. I emote—let it ring out. The grief I am feeling may belong to me, or it may be ancestral pain I’ve been carrying. I remind myself that I do not need to understand the reason why it’s coming up. My job is to let the emotions flow out, to pay homage, and respect to that which had kept me safe and is no longer needed for me to live my most authentic life.
Feeling it all is followed by a softening in my body and the slowing of thoughts. Stillness takes its rightful place inside my heart. These are sensations of allowing, of acceptance, and surrender to something much bigger than myself. It is here that I make a connection with a being so benevolent that I can find no words to describe it. It is here where I feel safe to live my life from a source of infinite creativity and love.
Healing work is messy. It is not an overnight quick fix. It’s not work to be completed in a Monday night workshop or even a weekend retreat.
I’ve dedicated the past 11 months to breaking down thick emotional scar tissue. I’ve grown strong teeth and faced down my oldest fears. I’ve tapped into courage and curiosity and drawn strength from determination and discipline.
This work will bring up unprocessed pain decades old, and if you are ready to feel it all, it will deliver you to the threshold of your most authentic life.