Many decades after the war had ended, holocaust survivor Dr Edith Eger finally began to do the inner work necessary to thrive in her life. She said “At Auschwitz, at Mauthausen, and on The Death March, I survived by drawing on my inner world. I found hope and faith in my life within me, even when I was surrounded by starvation and torture and death.”
However, of her life after the war, she said “My inner world was no longer sustaining, it became the source of my pain, unstoppable memories, loss and fear… I tried to banish the memories of the past, I thought it was a matter of survival.”
Then she reflects “Only after many years did I come to understand that running away doesn’t heal pain… (In America) I was further geographically than I had ever been from my former prison, but here I became psychologically imprisoned… running from my past, from my fear.”
Dr Egar, now a renowned psychologist, also observes “There is no hierarchy of suffering. Nothing makes my pain worse of better than yours”.
She has worked with many patients, both those with overt trauma like her own, and those suffering from more covert chronic trauma of childhood development in a world where parenting has centered on controlling behaviour and ignoring feelings for far too long.
Dr Gabor Mate, another child of the holocaust, agrees and says “Trauma creates coping mechanisms. One way is soothing that leads to addictions, but another way is, if you get the message that you’re not good enough, then you might spend the rest of your life trying to prove that you are, compensating by taking on too much”.
I recognise all these dynamics at play in my own life. I realise I was compensating my whole childhood for my mother’s poor relationship with her father: an abusive, alcoholic liar who died of lung cancer when she was only seven years old. It understandably shaped her whole way of being in the world, as does everyone’s childhood.
My mother was always afraid of anyone getting the better of her, or of us, of being duped, and — as such — had strong unshakeable opinions about the way things should be and a very controlling nature. As children, her reaction to our behaviour (my brother and I) dictated the landscape, and I was never sure whether she would be angry or calm, but she was angry a lot.
To compensate I became hyper attuned to everyone else’s feelings in order to anticipate danger, a perfectionist to ward it off and highly anxious in my relational attachment style.
Like Dr Egar, mum banished the memories of the past and talked about them very rarely, and she certainly made no concession that she had been shaped by her own childhood experience in a way that did not allow her to be the fullest expression of herself.
Now a mother myself, I have been forced to confront the unhealthy behaviour patterns I myself adopted as a child many times over. When I read Dr Egar’s words about her return to Auschwitz decades later, I recognised the truth of them straight away:
“Arbeit Macht Frei, seeing those words made me realise they do spark with a certain truth. Work has set me free I realise. Not the work the Nazis meant — the hard labour of sacrifice and hunger, of exhaustion and enslavement. It was the inner work. Of learning to survive and thrive, of learning to forgive myself, of helping others do the same. And when I do this work I am no longer the hostage or prisoner of anything.”
When I was listening to an interview with Sarah Durham Wilson this week, author of Maiden to Mother: Unlocking Our Archetypal Journey into the Mature Feminine, she really spoke to this sense of many of us being stuck in our child selves.
She talks about the journey of meeting with the maiden (or master) the little girl or boy inside who has been waiting to be mothered for a very long time, about journeying to the underworld (the hurts experienced and the compensations we made) where you start to forgive and release, to alchemise the pain into mothering wisdom. The pain becomes medicine.
This is what makes Dr Edith Egar and Dr Gabor Mate so good at their jobs and able now to speak on world stages about their experiences and lessons, not just from their own lives, but that of the many thousands of people they have helped. They have taken their pain and alchemised it to medicine.
And so this is the task that Sarah Durham Wilson points to. The journey from the patriarchialised mother, where it’s all about keeping you small as a (so called) act of protection, to the great Mother consciousness, which is the opposite and says “you are perfect as you are and cherished always”.
My own healing journey has attracted many more opportunities through other relationships over the years to see all the unhealthy patterns and behaviours I adopted. My work right now is to break the pattern of fighting to have my opinion heard, of my chemical addition to chasing closeness from those unable to give it (the emotionally unavailable), and to ease the pervading sense of anxiety over constant rejection and abandonment.
To break the patterns of codependency, enmeshment trauma, and an anxious attachment style, I’m learning to have and hold healthy boundaries, to have reasonable expectations within relationships and communicate my needs directly without blame or criticism, to take responsibility for feeling my pain and discomfort rather than trying to avoid it by jumping into my head, or trying to fix others’ problems, and to take responsibility for regulating my nervous system.
I vowed to my closest friends that I will keep heading into the underworld to alchemise my pain until it becomes medicine, to keep going in and meeting the cherishing mother until it becomes how I talk to myself and others, and to bring that energy out into the world just as those before me have done.
What unacknowledged pain is there within you? What hurts did you compensate for as a child, what coping mechanisms did you develop, that may now be creating limitations in your life? Are you ready to head into the underworld and do your personal work? Is it time to heal ourselves and to bring back the cherishing mother energy that has been absent for a long time?
If you enjoyed reading this, you may enjoy How to Attract the Blissful Relationships You Actually Deserve, Great Relationships Happen When You Put You First, The Almighty Growth Opportunity in Dealing With Emotionally Unavailable People, Get Emotionally Healthy — Is It Time to Break the Chain of Pain? and Risk Losing People to Make Room for Those Who Can Honour and Cherish You. To be the first to receive these posts, you can also opt to subscribe to my blog.