"Instead of turning toward the lingering dark thoughts, I began turning toward a different inner voice, one of love and hope. I began healing; I began speaking to myself with kindness and compassion."
Marisa (She/her) from @littlebent_notbroken is a mental health advocate turned life coach. She recently received her certification as a trauma-informed life coach and is also working toward her ICF accreditation. In her 1:1 coaching offering, as an inner dialogue coach, Marisa works with her clients to discover their inner critical voices and address the fears, worries, or expectations revealed through these voices; cultivate a wise, compassionate inner voice; and integrate a loving inner dialogue while embodying self-love and compassion. Marisa shares her healing journey of surviving childhood abuse, overcoming perfectionism and people pleasing, and unlearning harmful limiting beliefs to help others with a similar background feel seen and heard and less alone. It is Marisa’s mission to help other survivors reclaim their birthright of self-love and compassion and empower them to live their lives full of freedom, joy, and independence.
SWY: Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself and your story with childhood abuse and trauma?
M: Hi, I’m Marisa! I am a mental health advocate turned certified trauma informed life coach. I became passionate about helping others navigate their own healing journeys after having to take the “long way around” in my own journey.
Growing up, I experienced chronic emotional and mental--as well as physical--abuse from a caregiver, because of which I battled depression and suicidal ideation for most of my teenage years. But I didn’t realize I was experiencing abuse, because of people in my life who made it seem like this was “normal.” That this is how all parents were--especially Asian moms: over-protective, demanding, and with high expectations. All parents yelled, all parents were mean, all parents were unfair. It felt so much more than that to me, but I didn’t have the words to explain what was happening to me or what I was feeling--mainly because I was so dissociated, I simply couldn’t even register what was happening in the moment.
Before I get deep into my story, I want to note that I recognize my parents are human and parented the way they knew and did what they thought was best. AND I recognize it was detrimental to my emotional and mental well-being. I’m often told “She’s your mom. Of course she loves you, she just expresses her love differently,” to which I say, “Yes, she’s my mother, AND that doesn’t excuse her harmful words and actions that left lasting wounds. Yes, she may love me, AND she did not show up in a way to meet my emotional needs.”
I could go down the timeline and circle instances in my life of “little T trauma” (sprinkled in with some “big T trauma”) that stacked up to become an unbearable weight on my heart and mind. From a lack of privacy and trust, to a lack of emotional support when my best friend died, I’m overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness, fear, anxiety, sadness, and guilt when I look back on my childhood. From my earliest memories, I remember feeling like a burden, like I had to apologize for my existence because I believed I was the reason for all of my mom’s stress. I grew up hearing “Don’t have kids, Marisa, they’re not worth the headache.”
From my earliest memories, I remember (literally and figuratively) tip-toeing around to become as quiet and small as possible, reading the room, and taking a mental inventory of the house to keep myself safe. Hypervigilance had become my normal state of being.
Food, clothing, housing, education… it all felt conditional. Any time I made a mistake, got a bad grade, or forgot to do a chore, some core basic need was threatened to be taken away. And as a kid, I was confused because I recognized my mom was the source of my basic needs, but she was also the threat to them. (Which I’ve come to learn is considered a disorganized attachment style: wanting to flee from a source of threat to a caregiver, but the caregiver is the source of threat. A confusing situation to be in as a kid.)
And then came the gaslighting. Gaslighting is the act of manipulating a person into questioning their thoughts, memories, and even their own emotions. It can sound like “That’s not what I said,” “You’re remembering it wrong,” or “You’re overreacting/You’re being dramatic.” All of which I had heard, creating more confusion in an already confusing relationship and making me feeling even more trapped and hopeless.
By the time I started high school, I felt alone, confused, unloved, and unwanted. I wanted to disappear. I often fantasized about running away, but was too scared of what punishment awaited me if I were to be found. It was around this time I began battling suicidal thoughts, but I felt like I couldn't tell anyone. I knew if my mom found out how I felt, I would be punished. I had convinced myself that if I disappeared, no one would care or even notice.
But for some reason I kept going. I started going to therapy and taking antidepressants in secret. Then, almost a year later, it wasn't so much a secret anymore (a whole other story) and I moved out on my own and thought I was all better! But healing doesn't happen without the actual intention to heal. I continued living life unconsciously, unaware of my self-sabotaging, limiting beliefs and hypercritical thoughts.
SWY: What brought you to your journey of self-healing?
M: For so long, my identity was wrapped up in my pain, in my trauma, in my poor relationship with my mother. My spirit was broken and I wanted to be saved--not knowing that I had all the power within myself. It's embarrassing to think back to conversations with new people in which I would overshare about my past and my depression because I thought it would be like the movies and this person could fix me, heal me, save me. But they didn't and instead of seeing this as evidence to self-heal, I thought this “rejection” meant I was unlovable, I was a burden, I was too broken, and life would be better without me.
Because of these limiting beliefs I carried, fueled by the “proof” that the one person in the world who was “supposed” to love me unconditionally didn’t, the voice in my head constantly tried to convince me that no one would care if I died and that I would finally be free.
As an adult, my unmet childhood needs came out in harmful ways. I searched for love and validation in all the wrong places: social media, work, strangers, friends, and dating apps. It was exhausting and toxic. I was miserable. I was sad. I was angry. I was tired of baring my soul to people who never seemed to reciprocate. I wore stress like a badge of honor. I hated myself and my life once more.
All the while my inner critic was on a constant, loud loop:
"You're not pretty enough."
"You're not smart enough."
"Of course they stopped talking to you. You're not interesting. You're not anything special."
"Why are you such a screw up?"
"What is wrong with you?"
One day I realized that voice wasn't mine. It was a combined voice of past critics in my life. So I said, “Enough, I don't want to feel like this anymore.”
Instead of turning toward the lingering dark thoughts, I began turning toward a different inner voice, one of love and hope. I began healing; I began speaking to myself with kindness and compassion.
It was not easy--like learning a whole new language. I felt like there was an inner war between two parts of myself: the ego who wanted to keep me safe in what felt comfortable (even if it wasn't healthy) and the wise inner adult who wanted me to be happy and healthy. I felt pulled between remaining cynical and angry with the world and becoming more compassionate and understanding. By giving more thought and energy to becoming my best self--I promise this is not a cliche--my world brightened. I'm happier, lighter, and freer. I no longer immediately criticize myself or the world or seek external validation.
And by letting go of the coping mechanisms and self-sabotaging behavior that no longer served me, by becoming more compassionate with myself, I found I was kinder to and less judgmental of not just myself, but the world around me.
SWY: What are some tools you use to heal childhood wounds?
M: Overall, healing my childhood wounds has looked like meeting unmet childhood needs: empathy, compassion, kindness, love, safety, and understanding. I’ve found ways to give these to myself through time and practice. One of the biggest challenges was learning to love and trust myself again. The belief that I was unworthy, unlovable, and unwanted was so deeply ingrained into me that any little mistake or slip up resulted in me berating myself like I had been before.
- Keeping a short morning routine has been one way to regain that self-trust. I give myself a list of one or two manageable things to do either in the morning or at some point throughout the day. And even if I only complete one or none of them, I extend myself grace and compassion.
- Therapy has been a great resource in being able to share my thoughts and feelings freely in a non-judgemental space.
- Journaling has been a helpful tool in getting the critical or confusing thoughts out of my head where they’re more “tangible.” Journaling has helped me identify which thoughts or beliefs I’ve carried around about myself or the world that aren’t actually mine. It’s also been a great way to track my progress from where I was when I was going to therapy in secret, to where I am now--still healing, but free and happy.
- Reading has also been very healing and helpful, especially in the beginning of my journey, in finding the words I didn’t have before and helping me realize I’m not alone.
SWY: What are some ways that you honour your inner child? What are some ways individuals who are healing from their childhood wounds could honour their inner child?
M: Because I spent most of my childhood confined to my bedroom (very Rapuzel-esque), the biggest way I honor my inner child now is by giving myself safety and freedom: freedom to take up space, to give into cravings, to come and go as I please, to do what brings me joy, and the freedom to make mistakes.
In addition to giving yourself the love, support, or compassion you needed as a kid, another piece of advice I could offer those on their own inner child healing journey is to reconnect with childlike joy. There is a beautiful, pure way children look at the world, full of wonder and possibility, I think it can be so healing to allow yourself to see the world through that lens. Some ways to reconnect with that lens is through play and creativity.
And lastly, this is something I had to do recently for my own inner child: remind it that you’re there for them now, you’ll protect them, thank them for having done what is needed to for survival, and tell them you love them.
SWY: You offer coaching services known as ‘Little bent, not broken’ and it’s 1:1 inner dialogue coaching, could you tell us a little bit more about this service?
M: As you can probably tell from my own story, a lot of my healing focused on reframing negative internal beliefs and thoughts I had about myself and I incorporate that into my work. In addition to general life coaching, my 1:1 inner dialogue coaching offering focuses on discovering the inner critical voices we carry and addressing the deeper fears or expectations these voices reveal; cultivating a compassionate, loving inner voice that’s louder than the inner critic; and integrating that loving inner dialogue while embodying self love and compassion.
Together we explore with curiosity as we tap into the client’s inner wisdom and resourcefulness. My mission is to empower survivors of abuse to reclaim their birthright of self love and compassion and live lives full of freedom, joy, and independence.
SWY: What advice would you give to individuals who are just beginning their self-healing journey?
M: There’s so much I want to say! Bear with me:
1) Be kind and patient with yourself. Healing is unlearning and relearning. We’re unlearning all of the beliefs, thoughts, and coping mechanisms we’ve held onto for so long but that no longer serve us, and we’re replacing them with healthier habits, self love, and compassion.
2) Healing is not linear. “Falling back” on an old coping mechanism or finding that an old wound keeps resurfacing doesn’t mean you’re failing or regressing.
3) Healing is not “one size fits all.” What worked for me may not work for another person. What has worked for my friends didn’t work for me. Everyone’s needs are different, even if we have a similar background. There’s no shame in finding what doesn’t work. Finding what does work may include some trial and error.
4) Healing has no deadlines. There is no expiration date on the healing journey. You’re not healing “faster” or “slower” than anyone else. The person you’re trying to find, “who you are,” isn’t going anywhere. You’re on the right track and right on time. There are no expectations about when you should “get over it” or “be over it.”
5) There is no step-by-step checklist. Healing doesn’t always look like “Let’s address everything that happened from ages 0-10, heal all of those wounds, and move onto ages 11-18.” This goes back to the linear piece above: sometimes the same wound may keep coming up, or a new wound is activated because of a new situation in life. That doesn’t mean you’re failing.
6) Healing is not “good vibes only.” Grief, anger, and sadness are all welcome and, dare I say it, necessary on the healing journey. Healing isn’t about feeling good all the time, or feeling nothing. It’s about being able to feel the feelings, recognize where they might be coming from, and respond with love and compassion (vs reacting from that wounded place).
7) “Self-healing” doesn’t mean you have to go through it alone. I believe there is so much healing in community, in being surrounded by people who respect and understand you and want to support you. That could look like a tight-knit group of friends, or a therapist or life coach. Self-healing just means not relying on external sources to do the inner work for you. You hold the answers, you know what you need better than anyone else, but you don’t have to figure it out alone.
8) You are an ever-evolving human being, not a never-ending self-improvement project. It’s okay to rest, to take breaks from learning and exploring, and give yourself time to integrate new knowledge, information, or insights with curiosity and compassion.
9) Don’t forget to celebrate how far you’ve come while on your way to where you want to go. Be proud of your big and little wins! Appreciate how far you’ve come! Just taking that first step in choosing to break the cycle of abuse, to face those inner demons, and be the best version of yourself you can be...you should be very proud. I’m proud of you!
Above all, remember that while you may have been bent by trauma, you’re not broken