Steven, 25, fails again at school. There are many reasons; he is distractible, he smokes too much weed, and he doesn’t really like to study. But, what sticks in his head are ancient words from his long gone father: “Steven, you're lazy. You'll never amount to much.” His narcissistically inclined father may have said these words in exasperation, but it's now part of Steven’s identity. “I really won’t amount to much.”
Suzanne, 33, remembers her deceased mother very well; it’s just not pretty. Her Mom yelled – a lot. No doubt, many mothers (and fathers) are “yellers” but Suzanne’s mother was truly scary. She'd be okay one minute and fire a nasty missile the next. Now, Susanne remembers fear; and she brings this fear to her adult life. She trusts little and runs a lot.
Sadly, Suzanne’s relationships don’t last long.
Complex Trauma: Acute trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are well known to the public. You experience a terrible event. Perhaps you were in Afghanistan and saw your best friend disintegrate in front of your eyes. That's acute trauma. Months, if not years later, you have flashbacks and nightmares about the event; that's PTSD. But what about being hurt with a thousand little cuts and being unable to escape? That’s complex trauma.
Steven could not escape his critical father.
Susanne could not escape her moody, angry mother.
Both were traumatized.
Think about it. When a small child is attacked by a grown adult – it hurts.
When a small child is attacked by the person she counts on for nurturance – that’s damaging.
When a small child is belittled or frightened and has no escape – that triggers fight, flight or freeze.
Steven Freezes: Like a deer in headlights, Steven freezes in the face of academic challenge. He already has some strikes against him. He has attention issues, and clouds his mind with weed. But, he also BELIEVES that he is destined to fail. So, what does he do? Freeze.
When the work gets a little hard, he can’t study. His brain shuts down. And, his deceased father talks to him loud and clear; “You are a failure.”
Steven needs to let his dead father rest in peace.
Suzanne Runs: Like an animal sensing danger, Suzanne flees at the first sense of anger or disappointment from a lover, a co worker or a boss. It is ruining her life. She tells herself that “I just don’t like confrontation.” But, it’s really about trauma from her deceased mother.
All relationships involve some conflict; and often anger. Suzanne keeps it all at bay. She only dates docile men. And, when she feels attacked she bolts; with no relationship lasting past one or two fights. “I just hate it.”
Suzanne needs to let her dead mother rest in peace.
The Past is the Present: The great American playwright, Eugene O’Neill made an important observation in Long’s Day Journey into Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. It’s about how the past can dominate the present - only to become the future.
The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future too.
-- Long Day's Journey Into Night
There is no present or future, only the past, happening over and over again, now.
-- A Moon for the Misbegotten
The Past becomes the Future – Yes or No? You may identify with Steven or with Suzanne. Or, you may have had an alcoholic parent or experienced a nasty divorce or perhaps, you were beaten or worse. These past events all qualify for complex trauma – if not more. Are you easily triggered?
You fight too much – only to alienate those who you love.
You run too easily – frustrating those who you love.
You freeze too easily – becoming ineffective and shutting down.
Consider 8 Ways to Heal:
1. Psychotherapy can help identify past trauma. Steven may talk about his father; and how that relationship gets played out in his life. Suzanne will have to deal realistically with her deceased mother. She may have been loved, but she was hurt as well.
3. Identify your triggers. Everyone who's been traumatized has triggers and responses. Get to know yours. For Steven, it's hard assignment that puts him back in the headset of a worried ten year old. He freezes. For Suzanne, it simply can someone who raises his or her voice. She is, once again, like a six year old overwhelmed by an enraged mother. She runs.
4. The Trigger-Response recreates the past. When you run, freeze or attack, you end up recreating and therefore, re-enforcing the past. You freeze and people think you are cold and stonewalling. If you run, nothing will last. And, if you rage in response to being triggered, you are doing what was done to you. People will withdraw or be injured; not a good outcome.
5. Good therapy also helps you to rediscover your strengths. We are not just damaged creatures, but also living beings with power and talents. Many people discover strength they never knew they had in treatment. This, in turn, gives you more motivation to overcome the trauma of your youth. With competent psychotherapy you may be able to gain the strength to deal with being triggered, without harming others – or yourself. Happiness is that important.
6. Alternative treatments like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and DBT may help as well. These treatments help with muting the triggers that are neurologically embedded in your brain. Remember that the fight, flight and freeze response has an evolutionary purpose. It protects the organism from dangerous situations. You may need specialized expertise to overcome this programming.
7. Often trauma is found alongside other psychiatric disorders like Anxiety or Depression. An intelligent use of psychiatric medications can reduce the trigger-response effect and give you an opportunity to create a future response that is not dictated by your past.
8. Spirituality can be invaluable. No one can tell you HOW to be spiritual, but for many, some form of faith can truly detoxify. (As long as you are not in a faith that makes you more anxious and burdened.) People may have hurt you, but a new life is yours for the taking. Look up at the stars. Smell the fresh air. Sense the opportunity in every moment. And, know that you are part of something larger than you. It settles the soul.
The Power of Letting Go: We often speak of the dead with the words;
“He (or She) Should Rest in Peace.” Yes, they should.
Yet, we often don’t think about the ways that people who are gone still impact us, even though they are not here. Your mom or dad may be gone, but their hurt remains. And, you have some choice to live a better life despite what happened to you.
Eugene O’Neill opened the door. The past does affect the present – and the future.
But, contemporary psychology opens the door wider. You can be free from your past.
It starts with consciousness. Then, the journey is up to you.
For more from Dr. Banschick:
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Your Children (Amazon)
The Intelligent Divorce - Taking Care of Yourself (Kindle)
The Intelligent Divorce- Taking Care of Yourself (Amazon)
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