Trauma as Tribal Initiation
Harriet joins us in this episode and shares her how her childhood molestation led to compulsive eating, a fear of men, painful sex, and other hallmarks of traumatic experiences before she was taught to conceptualize her trauma as an unfinished tribal initiation. She shares her story in this episode.
Accepting Trauma as Real and Valid
Harriet tells us she was molested by a neighbor at the age of nine, but her mind quickly blocked the memory. When she remembered the event at the age of fifteen, her first thought was, ‘This happens to loads of people.’ She mentions that this happened thirty years ago, in a time that didn’t discuss topics like child abuse openly, but she knew enough to be aware that others had similar experiences.
She talks about minimizing her trauma by comparing her own experiences to those of others, and deciding that her pain wasn’t too bad, because her experience was not especially violent or awful. By reading Peter Levine’s book Healing Trauma, Harriet learned that comparing trauma is misguided because trauma is marked by feeling overwhelmed and unable to escape. She recalls this insight as liberating.
Remembering the Trauma
Harriet says the memory of the abuse resurfaced when her father, a social worker, was making videos for his job. Harriet describes turning away from the camera while playing the role of an abused teenage girl when the memories came flooding back.
She explains that her memories resurfaced in later years too when she was 22 years old and volunteering at a homeless hostel. One day a man who’d been staying at the hostel was arrested for molesting a child, and Harriet says she felt like ‘the curtain was drawn back’ and she saw her difficulties clearly. Harriet reports that this experience made returning to the job intolerable, as it stirred up awful emotions, but it also made her understand that her trauma was a major problem, and not something to be ignored. She explains that this incident led her to seek help, but counseling and medication proved unhelpful.
Harriet’s Younger Years
As a teenager, Harriet describes intense self-hatred and a desperate longing for a boyfriend despite an instinctual, intense fear of men. She explains that she coped with these emotions by overeating. For her, food was a rare source of pleasure. She explains that her self-image of being an awful person and a desire to be bigger and safer fuelled her overeating. Despite these difficulties, Harriet excelled at school and went to college.
After working as a teacher for a few years, Harriet tells us she met her husband, who was the only man she’d ever felt safe around. Her desire to have children encouraged her to push past her struggles, which allowed her to have two children. Harriet explains that she always felt pain with sex, and never found it to be a pleasurable experience.
Making Peace with Her Emotions
Upon reaching 40, Harriet tells us that she was determined to conquer her food issues. After hypnotherapy, self-hypnosis, journaling, and a lot of reading Harriet discovered a book that she says changed her life, The Language of Emotions by Karla McLaren. By discovering the useful and harmful instances of emotional expression, Harriet says she was able to shed her shame about her emotional dysregulation and better manage her feelings.
Understanding Trauma as Tribal Initiation
Harriet tells us about a full chapter of McLaren’s book around trauma. In that chapter, she describes tribal initiation as a three-part process. She says the young boy is removed from the support of a tribe, then experiences an ordeal by struggling while away from his support system. The final part is the victorious return to his support system; it is this third step that Harriet and McLaren tell us is missing for trauma victims.
Harriet also mentions that people who don’t pass the initiation return to the tribe and must go out again until they find their ordeal and they can be acknowledged as an adult member of the tribe. They assert that this parallels the habit victims of abuse have of seeking out more abuse. Harriet explains that this made it easier for her to forgive herself for choosing abusive situations in her youth, as she was able to recontextualize it as a subconscious attempt to be welcomed back to her tribe as a full member.
Reaching Stage Three
She explains that in the modern world, we still need the community experience of tribal life, but she admits we often have to welcome ourselves back to the tribe while applauding ourselves for what we’ve survived. Harriet also mentions that we often form our own tribes in private or professional life to give us the acceptance and community we need.
Harriet states that she spent many years as a self-professed victim, but she was able to reach stage three instead, and use her history to provide help to people with similar backgrounds to overcome their struggles.
Rewards of Resolving Trauma
Sometime after reaching stage three, Harriet explains that her marriage ended and she was able to date again. Unlike in her previous life, she found men exciting and attractive instead of frightening. She says it felt like being a teenager again, but this time without the trauma damaging her life. Now, Harriet reports that sex is pain-free and extremely enjoyable.
Harriet reminds us that horrible experiences happen to many of us, but there’s no undoing the past, so it’s best to find the gift in the experience. She advises people to find the lesson in our experiences and employ those benefits to reframe the experience as a component of our backgrounds, rather than as a defining characteristic.
She explains that being vulnerable without being a victim is an incredibly powerful position that allows us to reassure others—and reassure ourselves—that there are others with similar experiences who you can help by processing your past and reaching stage three.
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