In the last few weeks I lost track of how many times different clients uttered the phrase, “I must be crazy” as a way to make sense out of their symptoms or struggles. It’s so poignantly common for trauma survivors to conclude that something is inherently wrong with them. Personal flaws and shortcomings become the explanation for complicated or troubled relationships, unrealized goals that peers have already achieved, ongoing self-destructive choices, or the tendency to unconsciously sabotage successes.
On the surface it might be difficult to understand why anyone would cling to a self-narrative that is so negative. The impact is emotionally and psychologically debilitating and can create a perpetual self-fulfilling prophecy: believing “I’m crazy” influences choices and behaviors that then reinforce and solidify that idea. So why is it such a universal core belief for trauma survivors? When any child or adolescent is profoundly harmed and traumatized by a caretaker it’s untenable to face the horrifying reality that someone who is supposed to be safe and trustworthy, instead, betrayed them and caused them great pain. So rather than trying to navigate that overwhelming truth, children convince themselves that they were harmed because there was something fundamentally wrong with them.
As traumatized kids enter adulthood, they further perpetuate this idea as they begin to experience the reverberating impact of their abuse or neglect. The residue of trauma can make it difficult to trust intimate relationships, have clarity about a life path, feel grounded and present, feel comfortable expressing feelings, engage in self-care, or feel confident, worthy, and loveable. As these struggles unfold, survivors tend to compare themselves to others and typically feel “different” and a beat behind.
...believing “I’m crazy” influences choices and behaviors that then reinforce and solidify that idea.
Desperately trying to make sense out of this disconnect brings them to two potential pathways. One path requires tremendous bravery and support as it forces them to face the reality that their parents fell short, unintentionally or deliberately harmed them, were narcissistic or sociopathic, or simply didn't care. Given our biological wiring and the intense need for attachment, this option is almost always impossible to initially accept.
The only other way to make sense out of their difficulties is to come to the conclusion that they are “damaged,” “broken,” or “crazy.” Walking down this pathway serves as a powerful protective function; it allows them to retain a sense of loyalty to their family, preserves the tenuous thread of connection that may exist with their caretakers, and lets the abuser off the hook, making it possible to keep loving them. Additionally, many survivors fail to see any connection between their childhood experiences and current struggles, so jumping to the conclusion that they’re “crazy” seems like the only logical option.
The end result of therapy is not “all or nothing.”
Therapy can go a long way towards helping trauma survivors re-evaluate and eventually let go of the false belief that they are “crazy.” But as that process unfolds it’s so important to identify and work through the inevitable grief and anger that surfaces once the realization about their parents’ limitations or cruelty is faced. It’s equally important to know that even with this newfound reality, clients always have the right and, oftentimes, the biological need, to feel positive and loving feelings towards their parents. This needs to be honored and respected, too. The end result of therapy is not “all or nothing.” Clients can let go of self-blame and shaming labels, face painful truths about their upbringing, hold abusive parents accountable, and still hold a space in their hearts for loving them.
What are the ways in which you think "I'm crazy" can serve a protective function?