As you exit the womb, you emerge with many built-in survival programs. And the primal fears you’re adaptively endowed with could relate to drowning, suffocating, being violently attacked, or any precarious situation that might put your life at risk. It’s intrinsic to your nature that your life begins self-protectively, with a whole host of defenses ready to deploy against outward perils.
When, however, you actually experience a serious threat—whether, say, through being struck by a tornado or a rageful, out-of-control parent—then, what might be called “acquired defenses” automatically get added to your innate arsenal
So, is this a good thing ... or maybe not? What I’ll be proposing here is that these environmentally generated defenses represent a secondary, largely negative, consequence of trauma. And they can lead to all sorts of self-defeating behaviors.
Alluding to the above title, consider that Wikipedia offers two principal sources for the exhortation “Never Again!”—referring to the strong resolve not to repeat past trauma. The first, proclaimed by the Jewish Defense League after the Holocaust, is one of several including that emphatic directive and is subtitled “A Program for Survival” (by Meir Kahane, 1972). The second derivation for this powerful mandate of resistance is called “Normalcy Never Again!” and in fact constituted the original title for Dr. Martin Luther King’s celebrated “I Have a Dream” speech.
In both declarations, written on behalf of oppressed minorities, the thesis is the same: Namely, we can’t passively allow ourselves to be treated as anything less than human. We must stand up for our humanity. And such a protest affirms our human dignity, pride, and self-respect.
Nonetheless, on an individual basis, such an adamant, absolutist reaction to protracted situational trauma is unwise. It can be overblown and lead to a life of belligerence, underachievement, relationship hindrances, and self-defeatism generally.
So, what exactly does personal trauma do to you that, going forward, can promote such negative repercussions?
The words “never again” telescope the determination to steer clear of—or actively fight against—any situation that, consciously or unconsciously, resembles the original trauma. And such a resolute stance fosters an intense, rigid, and frequently disproportionate reaction to what at first had been both unexpected and frighteningly uncontrollable. But it’s one thing to become more vigilant about something that, without advanced notice, originally overtook and overwhelmed you. It’s something entirely different when possibly necessary vigilance morphs into over-cautiousness, over-self-protectiveness, extreme avoidance—or over-the-top aggression. Yet when past trauma invites you to distortedly magnify possible threats to your survival in the present, you may not be able to help but react inappropriately.
For example, if a woman is raped and has never been adequately desensitized to that horrific trauma, it might be impossible for her not to see every man she meets as a potential rapist. And that could render remote any chance she might otherwise have to establish an intimate relationship. Physical closeness beyond a certain point could set off deafening alarm bells to at once fight, freeze, or flee. It’s impossible to relax and let go when one’s psyche senses the imminence of a life-threatening crisis. (And here it might be added that, just in general, if someone has experienced a brutal betrayal they may well be wary of trusting anybody thereafter—regardless of how much, realistically, such suspiciousness is justified.)
The rape example illustrates what may be termed a single-event trauma, which afterward can have an enormous impact on one's emotions, beliefs, and behaviors. But every bit as common is complex trauma, which refers to a repeated pattern of abuse and neglect that typically goes back to childhood. So if, say, as a child, your parents badly neglected you because they were both narcissistically self-absorbed. By default, you may have decided that you needed to adapt to this situation by raising yourself. Once, however unconsciously, you determined that your caretakers could not—or would not—meet your dependency needs, you defensively decided to deny them altogether. For your various efforts to express them were met with such harsh disapproval that your resulting feelings of rejection and abandonment were, cumulatively, nothing short of traumatic.
Sadly, generalizing (or rather, overgeneralizing) from these ongoing parental refusals, you may have concluded that the best way to adapt to others was, independently, to distance yourself from them: make no demands, regularly affirm your autonomy, and defensively downgrade anything pertaining to intimacy—now inextricably linked to emotional pain. And it’s easy enough to imagine how, as an adult, such an adaptation would be both dysfunctional and maladaptive.
A part of you still hungers for the nurturing relationship you so sorely missed in growing up. Yet a more dominant, child-engendered protective part regularly assures you that such a bond is not only unattainable but that striving for it could reopen extremely deep childhood wounds. And that, assumedly, could re-traumatize you. So you contrive to maintain a safe detachment from others, literally guaranteeing that your unmet needs from the past will never be met. Ironically, in such instances, old wounds aren’t even subject to healing because, "purposely,” they’re not consciously recognized.
Alternatively, depending mostly on your biological make-up, it’s possible that in a relationship, unaware, you’ll present your partner with a “bill” to compensate for all the painful neglect you suffered as a child. And implicitly insisting that they pay the balance of what you always felt your parents owed you, you could be compelled to make inordinate demands on them: On their time, attention, affection, succor, empathy, validation, encouragement, guidance, trust, respect, dedication, etc. That’s neither fair nor realistic.
There’s an expression in 12-step programs that the adult allows what’s offered to be enough. But regrettably, your so-called “inner child” can be insatiable. For what the child in you really craves is the love and devotion from your parents, not merely a proxy for them. So, almost inevitably (unless the other person is an inveterate people-pleaser), the relationship is likely to break down under the strain. And, of course, this would further confirm that in life you’re on your own, that no one genuinely cares for you or will “be there” for you.
I could give countless other examples of how trauma doesn’t simply make you more sensitive to possible negative outcomes but hypersensitive—rendering you more likely to overreact (or, in certain instances, underreact) to anything your mind associates with the earlier trauma.
Deeply disturbing experiences engender a skewed or errant expansion of your innate survival programming. So without undertaking some type of psychological healing, you may be doomed to resort to various defenses when current circumstances make such outdated survival stratagems not only gratuitous but woefully self-sabotaging.
I should conclude by mentioning that these no longer relevant defenses can take many forms: active or passive, rageful or reticent, over-involved or dissociative. But however they might express themselves, they’re no longer in your best interests. Without a doubt, they came into existence to protect you. But finally, your welfare is much better served by learning how to safely neutralize or moderate them. That way you can, at last, remove their irrational power over you.
Note: Some readers might be interested in a related post I wrote for PT earlier: namely, "Trauma and the Freeze Response: Good, Bad, or Both?"