Listener Questions: Engaging Past Trauma and Our Families of Origin

We recently invited our social media followers to send in questions that they would like to hear Dan Allender address. We are honored that so many of you sent in questions and comments.

We’ll begin by addressing some of the questions about confronting past trauma in general, and trauma involving families of origin in particular. What if our past trauma is too painful to bear? Should we address our parents about trauma in our upbringing? How do we stop the trauma cycle with our own children?

Dan addresses these questions and more in this episode, hosted by Melissa Dowell from the Allender Center.

Listeners and friends – we are grateful for your questions. Stay tuned for more episodes in the future in which we’ll unpack more of the questions that were submitted.

Listen to previous Listener Questions episodes:

Episode Transcript:

Dan: We have asked you listeners to offer some of the questions that just remain from some of the things that we have covered over many moons. And so today we’re going to engage some of those questions. And I have the great pleasure of being with Melissa Dowell, who is the, I don’t know how to put it better than the content guru of the Allender Center working to create, shall we say, products that actually help people engage some of the work that we do. But Melissa, I’m gonna have you introduce yourself a little better than what I just did, and then we’re gonna jump into some of the questions that you’ve curated and that seem wise to engage. So welcome.

Melissa: Thank you.

Dan: Great to be with you.

Melissa: Thank you for having me. It’s very generous of you to call me a content guru as I have created no content for the Allender Center. I merely package your content and make it… I, as manager of product development, I listen to what our audience has to say, wants to hear about, and looks for ways that we can take your content or any of our many incredible teachers at the Allender Center… How can we make that content accessible and applicable in lots of different ways? So that’s part of this process.

Dan: And let’s just debate a little bit before we get much further. And that is that there is something that we want to give, but so often what we need is to receive. And you have been that remarkable presence that has taken in feedback, taken in critique taken in information to help us shape reshape reform, what we do. So I do still think of you as a content guru, but I appreciate your nuancing. But do you kinda see my point?

Melissa: Absolutely. I’ll take it. I’ll make a t-shirt that says that and I’ll wear it proudly.

Dan: Yeah. And we probably shouldn’t go into too much detail, but I do wear one of the Allender Center t-shirts you created quite often. And because it is a lovely color I often get responses and then somebody’s like, What’s the Allender Center? And it’s like, I don’t know. It’s too long of a question.

Melissa: That is the goal. The goal of having an Allender Center t-shirt is to say, I don’t know what it is.

Dan: Yeah. Well, at a soccer game where I’m wearing it and I’m really just shouting at my granddaughter to keep running.

Melissa: Shouting for your granddaughter. Shouting for your granddaughter.

Dan: Yes, yes. And at her, both for and at and with. And maybe against and toward. But other than propositions, take us into some of the questions that you have curated.

Melissa: Absolutely. And I wanna thank the listeners for submitting so many incredible, heartbreaking, fascinating… You’re getting my interest peaked with these questions that you’re submitting. So thank you to all of you who have submitted questions. I’m sure this won’t be the last time we do it. There will be more opportunity for you to ask your questions but today we’re gonna focus on many questions that came in specifically around confronting trauma and how our families play into those trauma stories.

Dan: Big questions.

Melissa: And with that… Yeah. Oh yeah. Big questions. And these are anonymous of course. So I will dive in with our first question from our audience. This person writes, Could you make the connection between the importance of processing your story and not necessarily needing to focus on your story of trauma to heal? They are citing someone saying that sometimes focusing on your past trauma can make it worse instead of better. And would love your words of wisdom on the difference I think of how I’m interpreting it. And Dan, I’d love to hear how you are too of processing your story, confronting your trauma, but maybe not having your trauma be always at the forefront of your brain. 

Dan: Oh, again, to start this off, let me just say that whatever we do and responding to the questions which are both really wise and totally legitimate, the problem is we don’t have the context of what that person’s bringing with the question. And that keeps the answers or responses at one level, a little palsied. It’s like, I would love to be in a conversation with that person. To hear a bit more about where, so I just wanna say that the goodness of the question cannot be responded to as well as I’d wish without knowing the context and the person. We don’t know that. So we’ll just dabble and see if we can be of at least some help. My first response is, look, when you deal with past trauma, there will be a degree of retraumatization. We’ve talked about this with regard to memory, and that is memory is not a videotape of what occurred. It’s not a recording it, it’s actually in so many ways the story we tell about what we can hold. And so in that sense, it is a form of fiction. Now, when I say fiction, I don’t mean false. I mean it’s a story you’re creating. It’s true. So it’s most fiction. So when I say that it’s retraumatizing, when you begin to recount some of the shards of memory into a larger narrative, what’s gonna happen is your body, your brain is actually going to produce some of the biochemical responses that actually occurred during the trauma itself. Meaning there could be anxiety, which is another way of staying stressed by a chemicals, there could be a sense of horror and therefore a rise in what we normally refer to as the amygdilic response of creating cortisol. So nobody should step into their past without an awareness. Their body is going to be engaged. So the question that we often bring is this, can you engage the particularity of your past, any portion of it with kindness? And if not, then the question is what can we do to help you move toward a growing kindness? This is not a polarity of you’re kind or you’re not kind. There are degrees of kindness. And so when you are aware that you’re beginning to feel angry, you’re feeling aroused with a certain degree of your body feeling connected to this event, and be it anxiety, anger, or any other emotion, can you step back and begin to take into account, literally count like, I’m feeling this and can you own what your body is experiencing? And then to ask the question, Can I honor that? Can I bless what my body is feeling and how if my body is being ramped up and I’m feeling flooded, what does it mean to be able to say, I’m gonna close this chapter right now, I’ll come back to it, but I don’t have to proceed. Like. I’ve been thrown into the deep end and if I don’t swim, I’ll drown. If that’s the approach to trauma it, it’s already a failure of kindness. So I think there is, and I’ll go back to the verb I used regarding the responses. Can you dabble, get your toes, get your feet in the water, then maybe slip a little deeper and then be able to go, I think that’s enough for now. And then to be able to codify that, what did you just do for the 30 minutes you engaged? And could you take a note or two on your computer in a diary in a journal and be able to say, this is what my body experienced, this is how far I got, and I have a sense that what I need to move into is this next portion, but I will not rush. I will not make it a kind of, let’s get this over with so I’m healed. That bears no kindness.

Melissa: That is a really good point. And it connects interestingly to another question from our audience, which is very similar. How do I bear the disgust I feel when looking at my own story? Sometimes it feels reliving or relieving to tell the truth of my stories, but sometimes there’s intense hatred, shame, disgust that comes in. Is there such thing as trauma buildup and is it likely that results in anxiety and panic attacks?

Dan: Wow. Well that’s a multi-structured question. So it is, let’s just start with the word disgusted. When there’s disgust, it is in one sense one of the most intense experiences of contempt. So the actual biological base of contempt is disgust or distaste. And that sense that we smell or we ingest orally something that makes us internally ill. So that judgment that there’s something about my story about me that’s worthy of disgust in and of itself, what I would say is you are participating wittingly or unwittingly in a curse. You are judging that 8 year old, 12 year old for what they experienced, what they endured, what they took in some sense ingested. And you can engage that with a certain level of horror. But with regard to the word disgust, it is that judgment of something so ill, so vile, so toxic that you can barely stand to look at that young one that you once were with any degree of grief or anger on their behalf. So all of us, I’m just not gonna get into specifics. All of us have done things that others would view as disgusting and that we even as an adult would say is distasteful or, and the word we don’t very much use is it smells, but is there care, empathy, is there a sense of horror on behalf? And if that’s there, then I can promise you the natural disgust that would be there when we’re in the presence of a dismal or a distaste won’t evaporate, but it will not remain as the primary stance of our own heart toward that 8, 10, 12 year old. So when I’ve worked with people who have been forced to experience some of the most egregious and heartbreaking abuse, of course there’s going to be a natural response of something that wants to turn away that literally feels nauseous with just owning that portion. But what I’m underscoring is, can you feel the grief of what that young 8 year old, 12 year old suffered and rage fury on their behalf, that they were forced to have such deep portions of their dignity violated? That’s where anger and grief are in many ways, the antidote to a kind of disgust that could be the basis of judgment. And that’s where I would say when we hold grief and anger together, there is a kindness that ensues that indeed takes away something of that judgment. Now let you go back now to the second portion of the question. Restate it. See if we can make that connection.

Melissa: Is there such thing as a trauma buildup, as in, I think as I’m interpreting that if you’ve let it simmer for too long and you haven’t dealt with it, is it gonna come out stronger in the form of anxiety and panic attacks and being triggered more often? I think is how I look at that.

Dan: Disgust. Let’s go back to that is so in some sense, revulsive like food poisoning, once you have had food poisoning over salmon, it is gonna take you a long time to, when you’re offered a fine salmon In our lovely Pacific Northwest, you might be hesitant, but over seasons of engagement with greater kindness, most of the time your appetite will come back and you’ll be able to eat a good salmon. Again. Here’s the problem when you don’t begin to address the nausea, the sense of disgust, but again, in a framework of kindness, we just can’t erase the disgust. But we can hold that disgust with kindness. Yes, it builds up and in one sense energizes greater contempt. So we have contempt upon contempt and the layers of contempt become this solidification of I don’t don’t know how to put it stronger than self-loathing. And when that’s the case, you, you’ve come to something where you despise. And I think the way the questioner wrote was, you hate yourself. Yes. That’s layer upon layer of disgusted, unaddressed, build up in a kind of, I don’t know much about cars, but whatever part of the car that builds up with something or other that keeps it from running. That was a really helpful metaphor.

Melissa: No, I can’t help you. Sorry.

Dan: I can’t, I don’t even, Let’s just leave that one. You’re just left with the sense that the machine is not gonna work, the person’s not going to work, and that just requires that carbon detoxification to be able to get one sole body moving in a direction that bears on and flourishing.

Melissa: That is a good point. We had a lot of questions specifically around trauma and family, family of origin. So I wanna move us into that space ’cause I know there’s a lot to unpack there. So a question that came in: I have recently begun to understand my story and recognize a lot of harm that came from my parents. It’s a painful process and my sibling believes that the biblical way to handle it is to sit my parents down to explain what they did wrong and give them the chance to apologize. He thinks it’s the only way I’ll ever be able to move forward. I don’t think they are capable of understanding the damage since much of it is repeated patterns, very ingrained and covered in religious tradition and language. Do I have to confront my parents? Is that what the Bible says I have to do and I’m just looking for a cop out?

Dan: No. You see, this is context, isn’t it? And person. So maybe the answer is yes, maybe the answer is no. But we can’t engage that rich ending of the question. But let’s start with this. In Proverbs 26 it says confront a fool or they’ll be wise in their own estimation. The literal next verse is, don’t confront a fool basically, because they’re gonna beat you up. Alright? So which? Then you have Jesus saying, if your brother sins against you, rebuke them. And if they repent, forgive. And then it’s also said, love covers a multitude of sin. So here what we can begin with is there are no easy answers if you follow Jesus, if you want easy answers, read a self-help book. But if you want Jesus, then what’s gonna have to be the orientation? The approach is how do I grow in wisdom? And let’s just say it very bluntly, no one grows in wisdom without massive failure. So in that sense, this is too big an issue to just go fail. So I am not recommending that you kind of go, “Hey, mom and dad love to drop by for an hour and let you know how you failed.” That’s gonna go over about as well as pulling a hand grenade, whatever it is, and throwing it in, not good. On the other hand, the pretense that they can never address the matters of their own failure because of their own religious tradition or age, or even their own dogmatism or narcissism. Again, what I’m saying is both sides strike me as don’t buy that polarity. So I think one of the great gifts is the ability to invite people to the truth in a way in which, and I’ve used this metaphor many times where you’re not saying to somebody, Oh by the way, I want you to run 26.2 miles today a marathon should be trained for. Buying the gear does not prepare you. It’s good, buy the gear, but begin a process of training. So in that sense, confrontation of anyone, but particularly our parents, has to be done with wisdom over time in a way that in one sense, if I can use this word, hooks the hearer to invite them to what they claim they want to be. So the question is, what do your parents claim they want to be? And if they’re followers of Jesus, then at some level, directly or indirectly, they’re saying they want to become Jesus. In which case, if they are in a religious tradition that owns sin, then we talk about sin as lust and anger. So a question that could be posed is, I, I’m finding the reality of facing my own sin harder and harder, and yet it’s right in front of me almost every single day. How have you two grown to face your own failures? You’re not saying “you failed me, let’s talk about it.” You’re inviting them into a conversation that ought not be a hundred percent foreign to anyone who says they’re a follower of Jesus. And so if they go, well, you know, just have to be honest and own up to some of your own flaws. And it’s like, well, yeah, but flaws. This is what gets to me. Jesus is such a, it just deals with so much hyperbole. Like lust and anger is adultery and murder. Do you guys ever see yourselves as adulterers and murderers? Cause it’s hard for me to see. I think I sin, but I don’t think I’m that bad. How about you? Okay, yeah, I know what I’m doing but camouflage is not inauthenticity when you’re in a war, in this case on behalf of someone. So I think the framing of this again for the brother who said, you will never have X, Y, or Z unless you confront part of me says there is a truth to that. But why use the word confront? Why not invite? Why not have conversation? And then when it gets rebuffed, which let’s for the moment assume it will, well then be able to say, Dad, you just shut down. What’s going on? Name the face. Mom, you just got busy and walked away. Is this a conversation you don’t want to be in? So when you begin to name people’s process in not addressing their own uncomfortability or their own fear, now you’ve upped the ante. And in that upping the ante, it’s a point of clarification. I was with a friend the other day and after about, I don’t know, I’m gonna say about 45 minutes or I was very curious about what was going on in his world. And we had maybe, I don’t know, 15 minutes left before we were not gonna be together. And I just said to him, “Look, you have a lot going on and I’m so grateful we’ve had a good conversation. Is there anything you wanna ask me? Because not a single questions come with regard to my world.” And he looked at me and it was like, Oh, that’s just true. Like, yeah and I’m good. I really am good, but I also don’t wanna leave basically going, it’s not mutual. Everything doesn’t have to be equal to be mutual, but we have to have a freedom to engage these comfortabilities that invite one another to greater care. And he was truly struck by, in one sense, the disparity. And he said, Are you okay for me really not to ask much of anything right now? And I’m like, Oh, I’m really good because you’ve got a lot going on in your world. But I would hope when there are other conversations, it does not end up with me listening and asking for 45, 50 minutes and you not engaging, ’cause I know you care for me. And if there are no questions, no concerns on my behalf, it’s not mutual. So sometimes uncomfortable and somewhat confrontational conversations can really end in really, really good things. But that’s back to are you wise and do you know who you’re dealing with? And if you’re dealing with a fool and are you willing to call your mother or father a fool, then you need to operate with a different approach. This is something I deal with in the book “Bold Love” than dealing with somebody who I would call a normal sinner. And so we need to be able as brokenly as we do to in some sense, diagnose who we’re dealing with and therefore context determines how we engage the truth.

Melissa: And I hear you also offering that as you do, if you decide to approach a conversation as much as you can, bring curiosity on behalf of your parents, on behalf of your sibling and kind so it offers so much kindness.

Dan: So well said. Make sure you say that a little bit more, like what are you inviting people to?

Melissa: Well, and this is a hard thing to thank you for bringing us back. This is a hard thing to ask someone. Again, I don’t have the context of this person’s story and what they experienced from their parents. So to invite them to offer curiosity and kindness to their parents that’s a big ask, and maybe it’s not the right time, but if it is… if you, as Dan was mentioning if you’re able to assess that your parents may be open to a conversation and it feels like they are not fools, can there be curiosity on their behalf on kindness for the people, the humans that they are, and maybe what they’ve experienced? That’s a big ask.

Dan: That’s huge. I just can’t help but think. At one point, my two daughters went to visit my parents This was many decades ago, and I got a phone call after they’d been there for maybe six hours, and both were on the phone and I don’t remember which child spoke first, but one of them said, “We we’re having a really hard time dealing with your mom.” And I’m like, “Oh, what’s going on? And one or the other said, “Oh, we’re not asking that. We’re okay. We’re we’re fine. We don’t need any help. We just wanted you to know we just have a better sense of your own craziness and what you endured. And I’m like, Oh, what you’re calling essentially to say I’m crazy, but you know the context. And they were laughing. “Well, you’re not always crazy, but there are certain things about you that we’ve always kind of had this question about. But being around your mom for six hours in the way that we have as adults were clearer.” And just the gift, again, we’ll go back to this word attunement. Attunement is so powerful. It may sound again so anemic, but the idea that somebody gets me feels what my body, my heart has endured, and we need to have attunement to our own parents. Again, it’s not a simple process and developmentally, in one sense, it’s pretty hard to ask a 16, 18, 20, 22 year old to bear something of that when they’re just beginning to name something of the harm they’ve endured. But the maturational process will be where we’re not excusing our parents, not justifying, but actually feeling on their behalf how their world, their eon, their parents, the uniqueness of their own trauma has shaped them in one sense to be both broken and beautiful. And our ability to hold that gives us so much more access to speak truth to one another.

Melissa: That is lovely. Thank you, Dan. Let’s do two more questions and then we’ll wrap up for today. There are two questions around trauma cycle, so I’ll condense them into one. We’ll talk about the cycle of trauma. This person has been on a healing journey. They’ve been in therapy for the past year and a half. They’re working through childhood trauma and they’ve become aware of the times that they’re behaving in familiar ways to what they experienced in their upbringing. Their greatest desire is to stop the trauma cycle in their family and feel greatly burdened to find that they have already repeated, painful experiences with their own children. They said, obviously, through my healing and awareness, I’m changing the narrative, but how can I repair previous wounds and trauma in their lives? How can I identify if they are responding from trauma? So as a parent?

Dan: Oh, this is maybe the hardest question so far, because there is no question that we harm the ones we love. In fact, the ones we love the most often bear some of our most significant failures because the stakes are so much higher. I failed my children worlds more than I failed my neighbors because I love my children more and I want goodness for them. So part of the paradox is, yeah, save for their college education or training school and save for your retirement and save for their therapy. Beyond that, the next sentence is, there are two things that you can do that are problematic. The first is to be effusively apologetic. “So sorry. I know I’ve really, I…” it’s like, what do you want for your kids absolution? I forgive you all the harm you’ve done, et cetera, cetera, cetera. Look, don’t. Your child is not a priest that you find absolution and forgiveness from ownership facing it, being able to say, You know what? I’m angry I’ve scared you and I’m so grieved and I hope we can develop a better relationship where you see the signs of my anger and you have more freedom to name it. So apologies ought to be bound to action, not merely absolution. And when they’re not, what’s the child supposed to do? Okay, mom. Oh yeah, yeah. Or where actually even the plaintiff efforts are not for forgiveness, but actually, Oh no, mom, you were great. Oh dad, you were, Yeah, you had a few moments. And it’s like, no, no, na, give that up. On the other hand, don’t pretend you’ve not done harm. So having conversations, and in Becky’s book, she describes an evening where the question of what they remember regarding their childhoods that they have not talked about ended up one of the hardest evenings and sweetest evenings we’ve had as a family where they began to talk about their sense of not only our failure but the harm that had not been owned. And we both got defensive, we were both hurt, but we stuck in there long enough to be able to talk about what we knew and what we didn’t know and what we now know. And thankfully, all three of our children are parents. And the experience of being a parent is certainly one in which you begin to develop a little bit more mercy with regard to your own parents because of the awareness. All that’s going to one core point without an awareness of what it is to be beloved and to know that forgiveness does grant ground for both humility, but also for freedom from contempt. I don’t know how a parent lives without a sense of being both beloved and forgiven. Otherwise it is the hardest job in the world. It is one of the best jobs in the world. It isn’t a job, it’s a calling. And in that, the calling is in so many ways to be an example. Paul talks about in First Timothy chapter one, I am an example of the grace of God but what he said before was, here is a worthy statement of worthy of your full acceptance. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the worst. So that’s the framework without it becoming sloppy and sentimental, nor rigid and mechanical for us to be able to rebuild and build and rebuild and rebuild our relationship with our adult children.

Melissa: Well, I have one final question to go out on. I really like this question. How does someone decide when they’re good enough or ready to be done with seeing their counselor or their therapist

Dan: Good enough? Yeah. Oh my gosh. You’re ending with that one.

Melissa: Yeah. Okay.

Dan: Yeah. All right. Let’s just say that the first major phase of looking at one’s life is a kind of engagement with the present in the key relationships of your life, your spouse, your partner, your friends, your children. In other words, what you’re gonna do in that first phase is begin to get a sense of the relational complexity, brokenness, and beauty of your life. That’s gonna open up a second huge phase. And that phase is going to be understanding more how you’ve come to respond in the ways you’ve done. And that will open up both the family of origin and also the framework of one’s trauma, one’s sexual history one’s violations of where one has harmed others, where one has been harmed. And that’s going to unearth a lot of shame, a lot of heartache. And so the engagement with grief, loss and shame, again, if we say the first phase, I don’t know, it’s a long time. Second phase, it’s a longer time. And then that growing sense of freedom, freedom I can name without aduring and assaulting myself while simultaneously grieving and honoring that sense of it is the kindness of God that leads to repentance. You’re beginning to see repentance play out and you’re taking risks in relationships past and present. And as you begin to do so, you’ve got more of a mess. And so you’ve got more to think through. But what I would say is when you’ve begun to think far more, how can I bring goodness to others, including myself, but goodness to others? And it becomes, in one sense, therapy is meant to become the playground of imagination for how it is we want to shape the world both individual, familial, but also at a cultural level to reflect something of the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. So as you begin to address not just your life, your family, your relationships, but you begin to address the reality of misogyny and patriarchy, you begin to address white supremacy. You begin to address the stories that have shaped you individually, familialy, corporately, and you begin to imagine how you want to play in the world to say, hell no, and heaven, yes. It’s in that frame that therapy is actually some of the sweetest and deepest and most profound, and I wouldn’t want you to lose the privilege of being able to be with a good presence as you’re imagining, and in some sense, taking risks and striking out in new terrain. But there will come a point where you realize that whatever you’re paying for that particular hour or session that you’d actually rather buy a new dress or buy a new, I don’t know, whatever, it’s, it’s not just the mercantile, It’s actually when you begin to go I’m having conversations with a dear friend and I’m paying for it. I think we are in the termination phase, but that’s not a week or two. That’s where some of the final work that you do with a good therapist is begin to address the issue of one day you’re gonna die, and how will I end? How do I wish to end? And how can I address the fact that I’ve had so many poor endings? How can we have an ending that’s very different than what it used to be? That’s when you know it’s about time to end,

Melissa: And may you find a good playmate in a therapist, that would be our hope. Amen.

Dan: Yeah. Amen. Delightful to be with you, Melissa. I look forward to the next time we get to do this.

Melissa: Absolutely. Me too. Thanks, Dan.