Over the course of a therapy, I often reframe emotional flashbacks as messages from the wounded inner child designed to challenge denial or minimization about childhood trauma. It is as if the inner child is clamoring for validation of past parental abuse and neglect: “See this is how bad it was–how overwhelmed, terrified, ashamed and abandoned I felt so much of the time.” When seen in this light, emotional flashbacks are also signals from the wounded child that many of her developmental needs have not been met. Most important among these are the needs for safety and for Winnicottian ‘good enough’ attachment.
There are no needs more important than those of a parent’s protection and empathy, without which a child cannot own and develop her instincts for self-protection and self-compassion—the cornerstones of a healthy ego. Without awakening to the need for this kind of primal self-advocacy, clients remain stuck in learned self-abandonment and rarely develop effective resistance to internal or external abuse, and seldom gain the motivation to consistently use the 13 tools for managing emotional flashbacks at the end of this article.
I believe this type of dissociation also accounts for the recurring disappearance of previously established trust that commonly occurs with emotional flashbacks. This phenomenon makes it imperative that we psychoeducate clients that flashbacks can cause them to forget that proven allies are in fact still reliable, and that they are flashing back to their childhoods when no one was trustworthy.
Trust repair is an essential process in healing the attachment disorders created by pervasive childhood trauma. PTSD clients do not have a volitional “on” switch for trust, even though their “off” switch is frequently automatically triggered during flashbacks.
The therapist therefore needs to be prepared to work on reassurance and trust restoral over and over again. I have heard too many client stories about past therapists who got angry at them because they would not simply choose to trust them