What we know about the brain and how developmental trauma affects the brain is quite fascinating. As I wrote about in an earlier blog, early trauma affects how the brain produces hormones, how the limbic system develops, and more.
But how can we undo what was done? Reparent ourselves? Fix that part of us that was damaged by abuse, abandonment, neglect, or medical trauma, loss and accidents that happened when we were so young?
This is where working with the part of you that is vulnerable, scared, and has unmet needs is so powerful. Often called ‘inner child work,’ I prefer to think of it as the vulnerable part. Often it’s a child, but sometimes it’s a young adult.
More importantly, what makes this part of us so potent is not age, it is the presence of unmet need. It is vulnerable, and could really use your support.
First, it may be helpful to understand how developmental trauma affects how your nervous system develops.
Developmental trauma occurs over the period of an individual’s early development (in childhood).
Sometimes, this trauma occurs before memory has fully developed, meaning that the individual cannot necessarily remember the events. I was interviewed about pre-verbal trauma on this podcast by therapist Elizabeth Cush.
However, the nervous system always remembers, and the individual’s emotional reactions can reveal past trauma.
In some cases, the developmental trauma is complex – there were repeated instances of trauma over a period of time, as in the case of abuse.
In my work, I have seen developmental and complex trauma in the case of individuals who had a string of horrible events that all occurred in the early years but which were completely unrelated: for example, parental divorce, a car accident with traumatic brain injury, a friend dying in the teenage years, and a serious illness that required medical intervention.
In my blog on complex trauma, I even described this kind of ongoing trauma as appearing to be ‘bad luck’ – because it’s all so random, and yet so powerfully harmful!
The great news for healing is that working with our vulnerable parts is very effective when it comes to developmental trauma
Parts work is about recognising that our personality is made of different parts that sometimes help us, but sometimes hurt us.
There may be a part of us that is wounded, and vulnerable, and this part of us may have certain behaviours, for example withdrawing, or screaming.
There are other parts of us that are very wise. Like that part of you that is able to give the perfect advice to a dear friend and when she’s going through something difficult.
Therapists have long recognised the importance of parts, and when it comes to developmental trauma, working with the part of you that’s vulnerable is a huge key to healing.
The ‘vulnerable part’ of you is the one that didn’t have a voice, and didn’t have any resources for help when they were very desperately needed.
This part of you felt all alone in suffering, and probably developed some ways of behaving in order to compensate for this lack of support,
In addition to creating unpleasant symptoms like over-emotionality or shutdown, as an adult, the vulnerable part of you may mask itself in unpleasant behaviours – like tolerating intolerable relationships, accepting emotional abuse, being very needy or very avoidant.
The vulnerable part of you may emerge when triggered, in certain situations, and suddenly you may find yourself shaking, or emotional, or depressed.
Working with the vulnerable part of you is a way to healing and wholeness, because essentially now you’re able to meet your own needs as a mature adult, tending to the part of you whose needs were not met earlier.
In this way, developmental trauma begins to heal. Because you are able to go into the time where your development was frozen in time, your trauma and hurt kept a part of YOU frozen in that moment of time, and you’re able to help start that timeline again and progress through your inner memories and beliefs in order to view it from a mature, loving, self-compassionate lens.
Step 1: Recognizing your vulnerable part and really calling it out
Begin to notice that vulnerable part of you when you have symptoms or behaviours that kind of don’t necesarrily make sense, or which are very notable in being different from your normal behaviour!
You will know it when you think to yourself, “that’s the part of me that was always hurt by xyz, and feels xyz, so has this response.”
Noticing it well and often comes with time and practice.
Step 2: Validation
When you feel that you have awareness of some of your parts and their origin in your personal timeline (in your past), it’s time to validate the parts.
Remember, the vulnerable part of you is a part that didn’t receive the validation that it needed, much less the support that it needed, or the protection that it needed. So it’s important to validate how much that vulnerable part of you suffered, and however you validate it is right. You might simply state ‘wow you are really upset!’
Or you might cry and say to yourself that really sucked and I really feel sad or angry. The important thing here is not to turn away, but to fully see and validate the experience of that part of you that was unable to express itself at that time.
Step 3: Compassion
This is a bit trickier because how you extend compassion to your vulnerable self is totally unique to you.
You can imagine what that vulnerable part of you most needed – a hug? Reassuring words?
Imagine doing that then.
You will know when you’ve nailed it when you feel emotional as you imagine it.
It’s worth noting here that the brain cannot tell the difference between ‘imagining’ doing something and actually ‘doing it’. That is to say, the same parts of the brain are activated when you imagine and when you do, and this means that even the process of imagining extending compassion to yourself is healing and helpful – retraining, for example, your limbic system over time to have different reactions!
Working with your vulnerable self can feel a little bit like playing make believe with a pretend part of you – but give it a go. I find that it is often the missing piece in the healing journey.
How we love ourselves and treat ourselves matters, not just for healing, but for how we experience giving and receiving love!
Want more? Get My 6 Step Roadmap to Holistic Healing
- 3 Common mistakes people make when embarking on a healing journey;
- 3 essential components of an effective treatment plan;
- Appendix of common trauma symptoms, and what no one tells you about the reason behind common symptoms (from panic, to memory problems, from depression to insomnia);