Russian Doll inside: Holding the trauma of our past to live more fully in the present.

Many people including myself have had experiences that make feeling vulnerable or intimate a bit more overwhelming than it needs to be.  Maybe you had experiences at school being bullied, with parents who were unavailable for support, an abusive or painful heartbreak which left a trail of mistrust and fear.

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Image courtesy of Bradley Davis (CC BY-ND 2.0)

When we encounter a current situation that might resemble one of these experiences, those past feelings can get stirred up and leave us feeling confused, anxious, angry or feel that we want to keep people away.  For myself at times like this I usually don’t feel ‘like my-self’, with feelings that seem unsafe to express to anyone except those I feel close to and they aren’t always available to talk.  I have found that the feelings can affect my immune system, my digestion; supressing my appetite or make me clumsy (although to be fair I’m not usually that graceful anyway!).   These bubbling feelings can affect every day functioning at work where I need to feel focused, positive and confident but they leave me wondering how to pull myself together emotionally when I feel like liquid inside.

At those times I have found it helpful to visualise my life contained in a series of layers in time, like a Russian doll; each layer marking a point in my life where a particular feeling was very strong, such as an experience of family loss, betrayal or feeling alone. The layers go deeper, backwards in time until finally at the point of birth where are my first experiences of being with my parents; the most tiny and vulnerable Russian doll layer.

Connecting overwhelming feelings as belonging to one of those layers has been a helpful way to bring me to a sense of safety in moments when the emotional layers of past and present start to merge.  A way of both owning my emotions (- it is often tempting to blame outwards on the person triggering them!) and knowing that because they arose from my past and are seeping out in to my present that I can contain them; at least until they reduce and until I am able to talk to someone I trust (this is vital).

Finally imagining myself as the outmost layer of the Russian doll as I am now and drawing a boundary around my emotions helps me to stop and take a breath, ground myself in the present and to understand the difference between my feelings and what triggered them. I feel more able to respond the way I want to rather than just react and most importantly brings me back to the self I want to create right now.

We are all so vastly unique and complex, having experienced unspeakable things that creating a structure to help us identify what layer is operating within us can allow us a vital space to climb out.

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