Heal old hurts

What lies beneath the human behaviour we witness? All we really see is the behaviour. We can only guess at what drives a person to do what they do. Even asking them will often not be enough. Most of us are unaware of what is generating our behaviour, especially the patterns that repeat throughout our lives.

What lies beneath almost all behaviour is pain. Pain compels us to act. We instinctively react to avoid pain and to move towards pleasure. Many therapeutic and motivational models are geared around creating goals and generating behaviour based on our moving-away-from and moving-toward strategies. This is one step toward knowing yourself by using the unconscious systems that are in place. This does not, however, deal with the real underlying pain. It can also be counter-productive to the healing journey by building defences and further separating thoughts from genuine feelings, thus disconnecting us further from our true selves.

I will never forget when, in a therapy group, I was told that others could sense the great pain I was holding onto. I thought that was crazy as it did not match my experience at all. I could not feel the pain. I was just looking to overcome (transform) a stubborn pattern of behaviour that was affecting my career. Like others who were in therapy to find more creativity or to communicate better with a loved one, I was looking for higher performance. When my defences began to crack and I felt pain, I was furious. I just wanted to do better at my career. “What is all this pain I am feeling?” It was like lifting the lid off a volcano that I didn’t know was there.

What is emotional pain?

Emotional pain is caused by unfulfilled needs. When our needs as a child are not met we can only take so much of the pain. Most of it has to be repressed. It will remain in our system until it is resolved. The pain is imprinted in our brain and remains in our cellular memory.

A child from birth needs love, security and affection. It expects that these needs will be fulfilled and that its parents will not only be fully aware of its needs at all times but will act instantly to provide it with everything. To be deprived in any way is a shock to the system. I do not mean to be deprived of a silver spoon in its mouth, but rather deprived of love, security and affection. Deprivation threatens the child’s survival and this will stress their system. Pain can also come from complications before or during birth. Survival requires that all this pain not be felt at this time.

As a child grows, they will express their needs to caregivers. I recognise my children’s cries when they are hungry, upset or need affection. They express their needs constantly. Most parents can tell rueful stories of sleeplessness when trying to settle newborns. It can be one of the most testing times of life, especially when it’s a new experience. Others are willing to pass on their wisdom.

I was told by an older woman that she was not woken by her daughter at night after the first couple of nights as she let the baby “cry herself out”. Experience in therapy rooms with clients re-experiencing crying out for parents in the night has demonstrated how devastated a child can feel when their expressed need is unfulfilled. The pain experienced can be enormous. Again, this pain is overwhelming for the young system and is repressed in the cause of survival.

It’s almost impossible to be continuously present for a child. We are not perfect and cannot be perfect parents. Therefore, by definition, we all had imperfect childhoods and had unfulfilled needs and hence stored emotional pain. We are all wounded to some degree. This could be considered a part of the human condition. (It does not, however, excuse cruelty of any kind to infants.)

Repressing the pain

As we repress the pain, we also repress the memories of the initial negative experience. The natural pain killers in the body are used to dampen the pain. This is why long-term physiological effects can be caused by any trauma as the body adapts. Memory stored from birth in the brainstem becomes disconnected from the prefrontal cortex where our conscious mind operates. As these deeper memories become disconnected, we find ourselves unable to remember by force of will or conscious thought alone. The only access we have is through our feelings.

Dr Arthur Janov, originator of primal therapy, describes in his book The New Primal Scream the “gating” or repression of pain as “a process which controls the perception of pain”. “The gating system separates thinking, feeling and sensing levels of consciousness.” He considers that when we say someone has lost touch with reality we are unknowingly referring to the process of gating, which has effectively disengaged one level of consciousness from another.

The principle of gating and separating thoughts and feelings makes it difficult for us to be our own therapist and work it out. We will never be able to consciously describe what lies beneath in ourselves until we authentically feel and express that which we originally repressed. The conscious mind is disconnected from the original pain, making it impossible to do pure talk therapy on these early wounds (those occurring at a preverbal stage). An understanding of what happened at an early trauma does not dissipate its power over our reactions.

Imprints, images and core wounds

A variety of therapeutic approaches hold there is one central or initial wounding that takes place and can be reinforced to influence our psychological and physical development. What the pathwork lectures ( call “an image”, is referred to in Core Energetics therapy as a “core wound” and in Primal therapy “an imprint”. Most agree that this imprint can be caused by one sufficiently traumatic event or a repeated experience of an unfulfilled need, such as feeling abandoned by a parent who is consistently physically or emotionally unavailable.

Once this imprint or wound is in place, our experience of the world is distorted. A lack of attention we may experience as abandonment while another without this wounding may not notice this lack of attention. As the initial experience is repressed we build further layers of defence.

Our experience at different stages of our development will impact on how our particular characterology is formed. It’s said by some that our character is in place by our seventh birthday, while others believe it can be as young as three. Arthur Janov describes in his book Primal Healing how Primal therapy differentiates between two main prototypes created by birth trauma or earlier. If a baby experiences a birth with heavy chemical pain relief, it may be imprinted as a “parasympathetic prototype”. If the baby experiences inadequate oxygen, he will try not to use too much energy. He will be born “passive and lacking in energy”.

This imprint results in an individual who does not try too hard at anything. “His focus is ‘inward’ not ‘outward’.” This imprint is a result of the baby’s survival mechanism and the psychology and passivity become “hardwired”. This is our human organism’s response to excessive stress. This pattern can be reinforced by an infancy in which the parents continue to repress the child’s self-expression. Conversely, a child who strives to overcome this may create success but always fear the passivity underneath.

Janov describes another prototype as “sympathetic”. He will always be “giving everything he’s got”. He fought to survive at birth. When the going got tough, he struggled on. The only option other than striving is death. This imprint leaves the person with an aggressive attitude to life. To stop driving and trying means death. This can be a powerful motivation for material success, as the sympathetic prototype must succeed, but there may be a constant feeling of “No one will help me. I must do this on my own.” This belief can impact on the individual’s relationships for life.

In Core Energetics therapy, the initial imprint, or core wound, is considered part of our character structure. Influenced by the work of Wilhelm Reich, Core Energetics sees a complex melding of five character types, created over the first seven years of life, to create our characterology. This characterology is the defence against our wounds and pain as well as the driving force of our behaviour.

Experienced Core Energetics therapists can read the likely age of the wounding as well as the likely defensive reaction from the distortions in the body. This is not to pathologise but rather to assist the therapist in guiding the client back through the traumatic experiences to healing.


“If you are experiencing strange symptoms that no one seems to be able to explain, they could be arising from a traumatic reaction from a traumatic event that you may not even remember. You are not alone.” So begins Peter A. Levine’s Waking the Tiger — Healing Trauma. As you walk down the street and encounter “normal people”, it can at first glance be difficult to tell who has trauma in their past and almost impossible to tell what caused the trauma.

The body’s systems that allow us to survive the critical periods of trauma also allow us to bury the memories in our subconscious and cellular memory. While the birth experiences and early life imprints may be described as developmental trauma, the other causes of trauma are unlimited. Throughout our lives, we can face danger and have traumatic responses. As you consider the possibilities ranging from car accidents to surgery, exposure to violence, sexual, physical and verbal assault and any other kind of physical accident, it is difficult to believe we can live a life escaping the effects of trauma.

With war being front-page news around the globe, there’s a continuing debate on the impact of trauma on military and civilian survivors. How do we help people who return to our shores with post-traumatic stress disorder? In WWI, there were examples of soldiers being disciplined for cowardice. Treating a freeze immobility response to trauma with a firing squad is not the recommended technique these days, though. In the case of war, the cause of trauma may be easy to pinpoint, while others may not be able to identify the traumatic event in their history. It can be so well covered over that even when something was experienced as life-threatening at the time, only the body reminds us today.

Trauma can be a mystery. Why is one person traumatised by a particular event while another is not? On a seemingly benign level, one child’s moment with a friend’s loud dog leads to fear of every other dog, while her younger brother attempts to put his hands in dogs’ mouths and pull their hair whenever possible. The symptoms we experience can be wide and varied. Hyper-vigilance may be the response to a perceived threat and one of our defences against pain. This aroused state drives us to constantly find a source of the threat in our environment. If the arousal is too great, we can “freeze” like a deer in the headlights.

The physiological responses to past trauma are effective at driving our behaviour during everyday situations. Traumatic coupling (when an aroused state evokes old trauma patterns) provides a particular response to one stimulus. The individual is virtually powerless to respond in any way other than the ingrained one. Despite full awareness and desire for an outcome, it can be impossible to override the body’s reaction. This can be a great clue that the root cause of a behaviour is trauma.

It wasn’t until I began reading and studying trauma that I became fully aware of a pattern of my own that had been frustrating me for years. I have now returned from making a cup of tea along with some deep breathing — more evidence that whatever this is, I want to avoid it. My heart is beating quickly, I have picked my fingernails and my mind is going blank. I am anxious. “How ridiculous. I am just writing. There is no threat,” I tell myself. I cannot even remember the pattern I was going to write about. This is known as traumatic activation and has triggered four of the components Peter A. Levine says are present to some degree in a traumatised person: hyperarousal, constriction, dissociation and freezing (immobility).

Peeling back the layers

Our reasons for peeling back the layers to discover what lies beneath are personal. Some feel a gnawing inside that there has to be more to life than what they are experiencing. Others are so confronted by life there doesn’t appear to be any other option. The pain that lies beneath has surfaced. Maybe a chronic illness has created the urgency for the search inside. Material success is perhaps being thwarted by continual relationship drama.

After trial and error and the search for the perfect partner fails, the focus may turn to the self for the question of happiness. Some of us look at our journey through the healing arts and realise we have all the while been looking to heal ourselves. An owner of a consultancy I worked for told me that whenever he advertised for qualified counsellors to fill a position, all he met were people who wanted counselling. At the time, I felt insulted but now understand his perspective. The myth of the wounded healer is not without foundation.

What we find as we peel back the layers will surprise us. Our awareness grows and so does the frustration at not having all the answers. Why this is not a simple process I do not know! The authors and therapies I have discussed here take a holistic approach. Healing cannot be done in the mind alone. The pain principle is that in youth, or in a traumatic experience, we could not face all that was happening. For healing we must go back and allow the body to complete what it couldn’t earlier. We have invested a lifetime in defending against doing this. Why would we want to again experience something that was overwhelming and too painful?

This seems to be the paradox of healing. As a stronger, older, more mature person with support, we can re-experience the pain and unfulfilled need from the past and complete it. Only an authentic experience will bring the desired results. We allow the body, without being overwhelmed, to titrate, or take one small step at a time, release the memories stored in the “reptilian brain” and vibrate free from the cellular memory.

While this principle may seem simple, it requires skilful support and guidance so as not to re-traumatise. The other difficulty lies in getting to the core wound, or imprint. To work through the defences requires patience and cooperation. While some may have done it on their own, expert support is always advisable. Approaching the core requires gentle but determined steps.

Beneath the pain lies freedom. The freedom to fully feel pain and joy, grief and love, while staying present. We have awareness of ourselves and others and our behaviour is our choice, not driven by unconscious processes and avoidance of pain. True healing brings this choice and freedom from the symptoms that lead us on the search for what lies beneath.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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