Even the wisest words can ring untrue -- it's all about context.

This blog curates the voices of the Division of Psychoanalysis(39) of the American Psychological Association. Darren Haber, MFT, psychotherapist in Los Angeles, submits this post.

Context is everything, even in recovery.  Imagine that a 12-step sponsor, laying on the “tough love,” tells an anxious, self-absorbed newly sober person to “Get over yourself.” The person, hurt, unused to such blunt directness, drops the sponsor, and wonders if the program is really a fit. Some might say he’s being “resistant.”   

But what if he was sexually or physically abused by an alcoholic parent who used to say, “get over yourself” or “don’t be selfish” if even passing mention was made of the abuse?  Furthermore, what if he was forced as a child to dissociate or deny the abuse, has pretty much forgotten or minimized it, and therefore can’t understand why he has such a strong reaction to his sponsor’s remark? He now feels hurt and stupid, so that in combined with the piercing blow he criticizes himself for feeling pain, telling himself something like, “He’s the expert, and you know nothing.  So get over yourself already, selfish brat.” And so he rebels, or forcibly complies (accommodates)…which works for a while, until those feelings resurface with a vengeance, risking relapse, or infidelity (and divorce), loss of work, compulsive spending, etc.  

Quite a bind.

Unfortunately this happens too often, whether the context be recovery or some other well-intentioned group or program with rigid tendencies. I once attended a meditation class where one newcomer stated he liked to meditate with his eyes closed and had been doing so for a while. “That’s not the instruction,” the teacher said curtly. The fellow left at break and never returned. 

What makes retraumatization even more complex is the apparent lack of context for searingly disruptive emotions. Memory and personal meaning is compromised when recognition or acknowledgment of early trauma is deflected or denied, requiring the child to dissociate from feelings and perceptions, a person’s personal reality—only to have them inconveniently erupt, in PTSD-type fashion, when (for example) the person feels “corrected” by an authority figure later on.  Worse, most realize that their “defiance” put relationships to idealized figures at risk. This is why these episodes are often trailed by a crippling self-loathing—the pain of which is, I believe, what ultimately leads to self-medicating. 

Reactivated trauma-affect—terror, rage and volatility—appear to be rooted in the here-and-now, given how our brain stores traumatic experiences: as present dangers, even when circumstances are different.  As Robert Stolorow once said, “There is no ‘post’ in PTSD.” 

Adding to all this is the moralistic voice that develops within the child, in parallel to parental instruction to shut up.  This voice is often more hard-edged, in order to insure the child doesn’t make waves and risk abandonment.  The implicit threat of the “shut up” is an “or else” that implies permanent exile or dissolution of the family, due to the child’s honesty.

Unfortunately, if one is the grip of a trauma onset, struggling with tumultuous feelings or ghostly “flashbacks” where esteem and confidence are perilously fragile, even the most benign of spiritual slogans may come across as echoing earlier authoritative demands for (literal) self-sacrifice: “You’re taking this too personally…don’t sweat the small stuff…your ego has to be destroyed.” These phrases, for some, may result in epiphany and a spiritual awakening.  For others, they may create a psychic fragmentation wherein the person feels an a-historical sense of displacement, inadequacy and isolation.  This becomes even more problematic in environments where opportunity to acknowledge a person’s self-fragmentation, or risk thereof, instead becomes a well-meaning but intrusive “correction” of attitude, rather than the accurate empathy and informed suggestion a person may need. (I.e., a referral to a professional who can help facilitate, not compete with, the person’s spiritual participation.)  

I have some personal experience with this. When I first got sober, I’d been practicing meditation for several years with a Buddhist sangha (spiritual community), founded by a renowned rinpoche whose disciples were now teaching and leading meditation retreatsI hadn’t quite planted my feet in recovery (for some of the reasons alluded to herein), and was profoundly depressed, at times borderline suicidal: feelings formerly masked by drugs and alcohol. However, I hadn’t yet received the necessary assistance in uncovering the historical roots and causes for such pain, and was utterly unmoored.  Desperate, I asked a much-respected teacher what her suggestion was.  “Cheer up,” was the response.  I glanced at her, puzzled.  “Feeling depressed means, try harder,” she said, the discussion concluded.

My heart broke at just that moment. 

I realized only recently that this is why I haven’t been back since. After therapeutic excavation, I realized “try harder” is what I used to hear in expressing the pain I felt in growing up in an alcoholic circus of a family.  It seemed that I was the problem, a belief seemingly underlined in the re-enactment described above.

Even within recovery, many program veterans told me not to seek the help of psychiatrists or therapists. Fortunately I ignored them and found a sober psychiatrist. The help I received saved my life, and enabled me to participate in both therapy and recovery; last summer I celebrated 13 years clean. 

I was lucky; many others I know were not—including my sister, who died of addiction.

Consider these phrases from well-known spiritual authors: “When you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation or accept it.[1]”  (Eckhart Tolle)  “When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering[2].” (Don Miguel Ruiz)  “The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong[3]." (Gandhi)

Some, of course, will find these phrases spot on, while others might interpret them as an argument against vulnerability or “wimpiness,” in favor of a kind of strength that faces the world with “proper” courage. In other words, get in line, soldier…neatly paralleling the m.o. of families who keep their skeletons closeted.  I have, in my practice with hundreds of addicted people, not found such aphorisms to be of much help.  

I cannot overstate the danger of any sort of rigid, either/or organization that unwittingly retriggers and then reinforces dissociation and minimization of traumatic feelings and perceptions, however helpful and “right” such thinking appears.  Traumatic affect can, dependent on circumstance, be bypassed or dissociated for a while, can hide subtly under the radar, may even need to be dissociated, at least temporarily, in order for new behavioral routines to take root.  But they will eventually, if untreated, likely lead to the festering of other addictions (food, sex, nicotine, etc.) or emotional volatility. Just as once-a-week psychodynamic psychotherapy is probably not sufficient for a person with acute addiction, ignoring or minimizing early trauma if reactive behaviors or mood imbalances may very well inhibit or prevent the kind of social participation required.  Just as disregarding all treatment or recovery programs in favor of psychiatry or psychology may be perilous, sticking solely with globalized spiritual tools to treat such injuries may in the end amount to dangerous half-measures indeed.    

[1] Says the moralistic inner-critic: “You can’t do either; guess you’re stupid.”

[2] “You’re way too sensitive.  Pathetic.”

[3] “Even Gandhi thinks you suck!”

About the Author

Kristi Pikiewicz

Kristi Pikiewicz, Ph.D., is managing editor of the American Psychological Association's Division of Psychotherapy DIVISION/Review.

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