2021 marks the year that I celebrate 12 years working as a therapist and my 10-year anniversary of using EMDR as a healing modality. January always gives me an opportunity to reflect on my professional growth, including the evolution of the people and problems I am best suited to help. 12 years ago I started my professional career as a therapist in Hospice care. I believe in the power and importance of this work, but quickly realized that I had lots of work to do around loss and grief before I could be in a supportive role. I moved on to serve children and adult survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. What a sweet spot that was for me. 12-years-younger me thought I would always be working with this population in recovering from the horrible things that happened to them.
Flash forward to the present and I still serve survivors, however they make up only a small percentage of the people I help. The current evolution of myself as a therapist brought me closer to home, it brought me to a desire to help people recovering from attachment trauma, especially the trauma of emotional neglect or abuse perpetrated by our parents.
Very frequently sexual abuse and assault survivors don’t continue the relationship with their perpetrators. The work they do, the incredibly hard work they do is to recover from not only the memory of the abuse, but from the imprint the abuse left on their bodies. The difference in helping individuals with attachment traumas is that their perpetrators are the parents that they love and must continue to navigate relationships with. That is not to say that some individuals aren’t sexually traumatized by their parents, because sadly that is true. But, for the purpose of this exploration, I am seeking to explore and validate the challenges of emotional neglect.
How does a person navigate being hurt by their parent in this way? How do you show up for a holiday dinner and the very parent that has caused you so much suffering is also the very parent you can’t wait to tell about the killer promotion you got at work?
We are such beautifully complicated humans is what I keep learning over and over from the people I work with and from my own continuous efforts at trying to understand myself better. The very relationships that caused us so much pain can also be the places where we grow ourselves up. That’s a phrase I use with folks all the time because when we have been emotionally neglected there are parts of us that haven’t matured. We may tell people “I had to grow up quickly” and that isn’t a lie, but growing up in that way without the benefit of unconditional love has consequences. Sometimes we don’t know how to handle it when relationships get hard. Sometimes we don’t know why we are so anxious in so many situations. Sometimes we don’t understand why, despite our best efforts, our relationships with our children aren’t what we hoped they’d be. And sometimes we loathe or dislike ourselves so significantly that we turn to an addiction to hide from ourselves.
We are so richly complex that we can take the stinky onion that is our very self and continue to peel back the layers, slowly uncovering our true self and slowly healing the parts of us that are wounded. We can do that and take a step forward, learn something new and then sometime later wonder “how am I back in the same position, making the same mistakes again?” The biggest thing I’ve learned in the last 12 years is that the path to healing isn’t linear. The wickedly jagged, and wildly unpredictable, path to healing reminds me of the kayaking event I had on the Swannanoa this spring. We headed out with our new kayaks from our neighborhood, planning on getting out at the nearby park. We were definitely feeling ourselves. We came to a downed tree that blocked our way. In our inexperience, we thought we’d paddle up to the tree and then figure out how to navigate getting our kayaks over the tree. We did not account for how much the current would change when we got close to the tree. My husband capsized, and when I did the same, I nearly decapitated my beloved. I share that story not only to remind myself to wear a life vest on the water, but also to illustrate that you just never know what you’re gonna get. Healing is like that sometimes too, even for me on the other side of the couch. I am constantly surprised by what comes up and always in awe of the human spirit.
We are all finding our way to healing from something. Suffering is a universal truth and much like taxes, you can count on it. We connect with people deeply because they understand our suffering. One of the problems of surviving emotional abuse is that connecting gets tricky. You deeply want to connect, but because you feel so unworthy at your core, closeness usually makes you withdraw or push others away.
Therapists are good at sticking with people. I tell my new clients that the relationship we create is a great place to work out their stuff because I can’t get mad at them! They can show up as their flawed selves and they can expect me always to say “how’s that working for you?”, but never to say I am through with you. That there is some big time healing!
I love this job because there’s always more to learn. I very slowly become better at this job session after session. The gosh darn truth is that my clients are helping me grow up too. See, in order for me to be the best I can for them, I have to grow. A therapist not growing is a therapist without vision.
Lydia Kickliter, LPC
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