Where are the wise adults? The vital importance of reparenting ourselves

Trauma and 2020

As we approach the end of 2020, most of us will breathe a sigh of relief. It has been a memorable year, and not for good reason. I imagine most of us are hoping that 2021 will be an improvement — that covid will disappear, that the economy will recover, and that we can lick our wounds, pick up the pieces, and put them back together where we can, learning some lessons along the way, and taking the silver linings with us. 

This month’s newsletter features our collaboration with the How To Academy, a conversation between psychiatrist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, one of the world’s preeminent experts on trauma, and psychotherapist and author Benjamin Fry, who specialises in the nervous system and stored trauma. 

For many of us, 2020 has brought a lot of collective trauma, anxiety and nervous system dysregulation, due to the uncertainty and fear around Covid, the loss of loved ones, economic hardship, and the feeling that good leadership seems in short supply (especially in the UK and the US).

Where are the wise adults?

Just as early childhood trauma and stress are often the result of neglectful, absent or abusive parenting, so this collective stress has often had us asking where are all the wise adults? Who is in charge? And why aren’t they doing a better job?

Many of us have had to become more self-reliant, whether tending to loved ones who are sick, or to ourselves, as the health services are overrun and we are told to stay home anyway; having to make ends meet in the face of loss of business; having to manage and motivate ourselves and our kids to attend online work or school. The onus has been on us as individuals to step up to the plate and take charge.

In these circumstances, those who have done best are often those who have the most resilience to adversity. Obviously material factors play a huge role here — a good bank balance and assured income gives us a leg up in the resilience department.

But just as important as material safety, a sense of emotional resilience is essential to our wellbeing. Those who are less triggered by unresolved trauma or nervous system dysregulation, and who are not stuck behaving like terrified children, petulant teenagers, or critical adults, but rather like wise adults, will do better. This is generally true in life, but especially during difficult times. 

Becoming the wise adult

While we all have these parts — the terrified child, the petulant teenager, the critical adult, and while most of us also have some childhood trauma or neglect, and a more or less dysregulated nervous system, it is in our interest, and that of those around us, that we develop inner resilience, that we learn to reparent ourselves into wise adults, that we heal our trauma, and balance our nervous systems. This is vital for several reasons: 

  • So that we develop our own resilience in the face of life’s inevitable stressors, and are equipped to deal with whatever comes our way
  • So we can act as wise adults in the absence of good leadership in our countries and communities
  • So that we can be better parents, partners, lovers, friends, children, teachers, therapists, doctors, colleagues, employees and bosses 

My interviews on the polyvagal theory with Professor Stephen Porges, and with Benjamin Fry on the nervous system, drove home the responsibility we all have to manage our own nervous systems, which are the bedrock of our mental health, and therefore of our social and communal health.

As Professor Porges points out, if we all had better regulated nervous systems and were able to project feelings of safety to those around us, our societies and relationships would function better, be more peaceful, productive and harmonious. 

Benjamin Fry demonstrates that a more balanced nervous system which has discharged stuck energy from past trauma, and is neither overreacting nor under-reacting to present circumstances, underpins our ability to show up as wise adults.

Healing our nervous system and integrating disparate parts of ourselves is essential to becoming the wise adult, the compassionate parent to our various terrified, traumatised, frozen, rebellious, critical inner children, teens and adults. But how do we do this? 

In a word, we all have a responsibility to DO THE WORK and reparent ourselves daily. 

How to do the work

It takes work to reparent ourselves on a daily basis and show up in the world as the wise adult, shepherding our various parts, managing any stored trauma and nervous systems, husbanding our finite energy and inner resources, and responding in an appropriate and measured way to people and situations.

But the work is worth it, and the world would be a better place if we all took responsibility for showing up in this way, and helping others to show up in this way too.

Address your childhood trauma

When we heal our trauma, whether from childhood, from Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), or more recent, we help restore a sense of safety and integrity to our body and mind. This sense of safety and integrity is often essential to us acting and speaking in ways that are kind, considerate of others, thoughtful and constructive.

We all have a responsibility to do this inner work, which involves first becoming aware of where we are stuck in unhelpful patterns of behaviour, often driven by acting from dissociated parts of ourselves and in response to unfinished trauma reactions, and choosing to behave in ways consistent with our wise adult. 

This work will also help restore our biochemical balance. Indeed, trauma and chronic stress can dysregulate our biochemistry — hormones, neurotransmitters, inflammatory markers, and gut for instance — like nothing else, and must be addressed before biochemical balance and therefore health, can be restored.

Different types of therapy can be helpful to addressing childhood issues and trauma, but somatic therapies tend to be more beneficial than cognitive ones.

In particular, EMDR, sensorimotor psychotherapy, somatic experiencing, neurofeedback, TRE and internal family systems therapy can be helpful for trauma and for integrating our various parts.

Yoga, qigong, and other mind-body therapies can also be very helpful for trauma.

Cognitive therapies such as CBT may provide benefits for some, but are usually less effective for healing trauma and the nervous system.

Read more about mental therapies.

Read more about mind-body and somatic therapies.

Rebalance your nervous system

We do this by exploring and addressing unfinished reactions to past trauma or neglect, usually resulting from our childhood and ACEs. We identify and address what causes us to overreact or under-react inappropriately to situations or people, so that we can adjust our reactions to what is really going on in the present, rather than act as though we are reliving the past.

This work usually needs to be done under the supervision of a compassionate adult (ourselves, in combination with our therapist), and as with trauma work, is most effectively addressed via somatic therapies.

Read more about how to fix your nervous system.

Read more about mind-body and somatic therapies. 

Practice self-care

Self-care can take many forms, but essentially involves looking after ourselves like a good parent would look after a child, so that we are resilient to the inevitable stressors of life, and can not only survive but thrive.

Arguably, self-care includes all of the above. It consists of addressing our childhood trauma, rebalancing our nervous system, and ensuring that we are aware of the psychological issues holding us back from living our best lives as our best selves.

But self-care is also the more mundane but equally important practice of daily habits which nourish and restore us, while shunning habits, situations and people that deplete and drain us.

It means that we have a responsibility to manage our calendars, work load, technology, relationships and emotional health so that we are not overwhelmed, over-stressed, and over-stimulated, or undermined and under-stimulated.

Practicing self-care involves dedicating some time and attention every day to meeting our own needs, healing and caring for ourselves.

Far from being selfish, this will benefit others if we do it properly. As the zen expression goes “when I change, the whole world changes”. Or as the airlines always say, “put your own oxygen mask on first before putting on your children’s”. Or as the bible says “love thy neighbour as thyself”. 

And yet despite all these cultural and religious messages, we often think that taking time for ourselves is a waste of time, or selfish, or are just not even aware of what we need to do to look after ourselves. 

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we are assuming that the most basic of our needs are taken care of (food, sleep, shelter, safety). If not, then meeting our needs may require starting at the bottom of the pyramid and working our way up to self-actualisation.

Each person will have different self-care needs. For some it may be to connect more with others, for others it may be to spend more time alone. For some it may be spending less time on technology and more time in nature, for others it may be eating more healthily or exercising more. For some it may be making time to meditate, read a book, or having an epsom salt bath, while for others it could be painting, singing or dancing.

Self-care could also mean demanding more from your relationships — more respect, intimacy, help, attention, or freedom for instance, or walking away from relationships and situations that are unhealthy. And self-care could also be making sure you get the right therapy, as explored above.

Find out what your self-care needs are, what feels sustainably nourishing, healing and healthy for you, and practice these daily.

When we learn to look after ourselves and meet our needs, taking the time to heal past traumas and balance our nervous systems, reducing current stress levels, improving our nutrition and lifestyle habits such as sleep, exercise, exposure to nature, and practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation, we become better parents, children, partners, lovers, friends, therapists, doctors, employees, bosses, colleagues and citizens.

Many of the sections of this website have good advice on daily self-care practices:

Read more about how to improve your nutrition. 

Read more about how to relax. 

Read more about how to manage your stress.

Read more about how to manage your technology and social media.

Read more about how to meditate. 

Read more about how to exercise right. 

Read more about how to sleep better. 

Read more about how to get more exposure to nature and natural light. 

Read more about how to improve your relationships.

Read more about mind-body therapies. 

The challenges of practising self-care

Often, those of us who carry childhood wounds (and let’s face it, most of us do in varying degrees) have a hard time looking after ourselves, or putting up healthy boundaries.

We can’t always identify what is best for us, and even when we can, we don’t always implement it, because we don’t feel we deserve to look after ourselves, or may not even know how.

We may have a tendency towards addiction, codependence and other self-destructive behaviours.

Even though self-care is essential to our wellbeing, it takes effort. And it’s often when we’re exhausted and in desperate need of self-care, that it can be hardest to actually implement.

It’s usually not about sitting around binge-watching netflix and eating ice cream, though for some type A workaholics driven by their inner critical adult, this may actually be a good thing to do from time to time. It’s  about identifying, and then meeting our needs for nourishment, healing, rest and restoration.

We must learn habits of self-care which we may never have learned, and develop enough self-worth that we feel worthy of looking after ourselves. Whether these habits originate from a place of self-love, with a desire to look after this precious being that we are, or whether we are faking-it-until-we-make-it, developing habits of self-care will in turn feed our feelings of self-love and self-worth. The key is in the DAILY PRACTICE.

So this is a plea to us all to really look after ourselves — our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual selves in whatever we need for our own resilience and wellbeing.

The world needs more happy, wise and healthy adults which in turn will lead to happier, healthier children, colleagues, friends, lovers, partners, parents, bosses, doctors, therapists, teachers and citizens.

Wishing you all a very happy, healthy, fulfilling and peaceful 2021!