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Reflections on Alice Miller

Childhood trauma is stored in the body.

Key points

  • After reading Alice Miller's books, one is left with the impression that happy childhoods are only an illusion.
  • Miller's great insight Is that childhood trauma is stored in the body—in our very cells.
  • A mind-body technique like "focusing" can be effective at releasing traces of trauma from the body. 

Today, April 14, is the anniversary of the death of the great Swiss psychologist and psychoanalyst Alice Miller, who died on April 14, 2010. Miller is best known for her books The Drama of the Gifted Child: The Search for the True Self and The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting.

There are few psychologists, therapists, or psychiatrists who have not come under the spell of Alice Miller's work at some point in our careers. And I would venture to say that most of us agree with her—at least to an extent. We have witnessed in the therapy room that the denial of childhood suffering leads to emotional and even physical suffering in adulthood.

With laser focus, Miller demystifies everything we thought we knew about our childhoods, including our views of our parents and even our religious beliefs. Reading her works, we come to think that happy childhoods are more or less illusory.

For Miller, depression, anxiety, and even physical illnesses are rooted in childhood trauma. Trauma doesn't necessarily mean being the victim of sexual or physical abuse. It can be emotional abuse like the child not being listened to, nurtured, or respected. Childhood pain is often about what is not given and what needs are not being met as much as about what is directly perpetrated.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (known as the ACE study) is a strong validation of the connection that Miller makes between physical illness in adulthood and traumatic experiences in childhood. (To take the short ACE quiz to discover your own childhood traumas, click here.)

Source: Anemone123/Pixabay

Childhood trauma leaves its traces in the body, in our very cells. And because trauma's vestiges are physiological, conceptual thinking—"the talking cure"—doesn't tend to open traumatic experiences up to consciousness or release them from the body. I have found that a gentle technique called focusing, which I learned from psychologist Eugene Gendlin at the University of Chicago, is an excellent technique for releasing the body's memories of trauma.

With focusing, clients put aside conceptual thinking and focus on a felt physical sense of what might be making their lives unhappy. The "felt sense" can be in any part of the body. Some people store the memory of trauma in their chest, some in their stomach, some in their neck. Terms like "butterflies in my chest," "feeling like something was ripped out of my heart," "feeling emptiness in my stomach," "feeling like my soul was raped" are examples of the kind of "felt sense" my clients have expressed to me during a focusing session.

These physiological felt senses, sometimes expressed in metaphor, are the gateway to the genuine feelings that have been suppressed since childhood and unknown to us. However unacknowledged, as Miller puts it, they "go on eking out an existence in the cellar of our soul."

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