Any time I walk into a classroom, meeting or party, my assumption is that roughly fifty to eighty percent of the women present have been sexually, physically or emotionally abused before the age of 18; and that these experiences have compromised optimal neural integration and development to some degree; and that the same is true for between half and ten percent of the men in the room. While very likely true, these are assumptions I might be well-served to examine more closely.
When I first got wind of these statistics, my first response was much like Sigmund Freud’s, which Harvard psychiatrist, Judith Herman details in her book Trauma and Recovery – “This can’t be true! There must be something else to account for these reports.” But then I took a look at my own personal history. It’s one that includes multiple incidents of each form of abuse. None of these incidents were reported to anyone who would ever make them part of any national statistical database. They were, in fact, never reported to anyone period. But the important issue here isn’t one of statistical accuracy – few professionals can even agree on what actually constitutes a truly traumatic experience. The important issue is that our children have been robbed of their ability to smile.
I think that losing our smile happens like this: somebody (most often someone we trust or are dependent upon for our survival and well-being) perpetrates something our neurophysiology isn’t adequately developed enough to be easily able to handle. In any form of abuse, there is often pain, shame, threat, violation and isolation. These are significant pieces; perhaps an even more significant piece is that many times we are immobilized by the abuse and often left with few direct ways to freely express the experience out of our brains and bodies. As Mark Twain observed, most of us are only afforded free expression from the grave. What a sad shame.
Awakening to Reality
One of the great findings of social neuroscience research, I think, are the findings which confirm that traumatic experiences, unaddressed, definitely do impact neural integration and development. And they do so for our whole lifetime, often without us even realizing it! I’d like to repeat here what noted neurologist Bob Scaer has said on the subject: “The cumulative experiences of ‘life’s little traumas’ shape virtually every single aspect of existence. This accumulation of negative life experiences molds one’s personality, choices of mate, profession, clothes, appetite, pet peeves, social behaviors, posture, and most specifically, our state of physical and mental health.”
But every instance of abuse is unique, and such experiences can’t be painted with a broad brush. I recall being at a writing workshop once where one of the women wrote intimately about her own incest experience. What was most traumatizing to her was not the incest experience itself – it was the fact that there was no room in her world to express the real truth of the experience – the fact that she liked it! She didn’t feel coerced or abused or violated in any way, except by what came afterward. It was the abhorrence, denial, hysteria, shock, shame and avoidance she encountered in other people after the fact that caused her problems. That’s what made her lose her smile. Does this mean that we should accept and condone incest? Not in the least. But it could mean that we might be serving those who’ve had the experience best by examining our own assumptions and impulsive reactivity first. Doing so might help make it safe for them to tell the real and whole, complex and multi-layered truth of an overwhelming experience. And by allowing this truth-telling, might we also be allowing them the ability to maintain their smile?
The Eye of the Heart
Attar, the great 17th century Moroccan rabbi said, “If the eye of the heart is open, in each atom there will be 100 secrets.” How might each of us open the eye of our own hearts and place its secrets in the service of reclaiming and protecting the innocent, trusting smiles that our children were born with? How might you, reading this, begin the work of reclaiming your own Beginner’s Smile?
* Previously published on Mindful Mom.