Have you ever had a heated discussion with a co-worker who was criticizing your work and you found yourself armpits-sweating, shoulders tense, all wound up, pulse-gone-wild, clenched-fist and later you realized- WAIT! It just wasn’t that big of a deal. Why was I so freaked out?
Or maybe you overheard someone talking behind your back about how your parenting screwed up your kid, and you left the conversation fuming, ears-hot, nostrils-flaring and you started to choke-up, and realized WHAT THE HECK! What does she know about what I’ve gone through with that kid? Why did that shake me up so much?
When you find yourself experiencing painful emotions that are disproportionate to the event, you are reliving a past trauma that you haven’t resolved.
What trauma, you ask?
What if you weren’t in a serious car accident, aren’t a wounded veteran, weren’t abused by your parents, or haven’t lived through a tsunami?
Actually, the brain can’t tell the difference between obvious or “big” traumatic events and small, quiet traumas, according to Dr. Shelley Uram, a Harvard-educated psychiatrist. Dr. Uram tells us that “trauma triggers” not only interfere with our everyday lives, but also lead to addictions and other psycho-emotional disorders.
That’s not saying that every time you get in a fight or someone judges you that you’ll imprint a new neuroplastic trauma groove in your brain that will “trigger” with each future event.
Rather, most “trauma triggers” get laid-down as tracks in your brain as you’d expect- due to some grim event, like a serious accident, death of a lover, or a robbery. And mostly, it will seem that you’ve recovered from the trauma. In some cases, however, depending on how you react to the trauma, your brain may have permanent neural changes.
And if the trauma is severe, prolonged or life-threatening, you may experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and the effects can last for years. Serious trauma can also be a result from a bunch of small incidents that happen over a long time, such as repeated verbal or emotional abuse, childhood abuse or neglect, soldiering in a war, or domestic violence.
When the brain’s amygdala gets stuck in overdrive, like in these repetitive traumas, the memory database gets corrupt and keeps sending out danger signals, even when the danger has long since ceased.
It’s all in how you dealt with the trauma to begin with. When you carry around a trauma as a part of your “life story”, you tend to relive the original trauma, causing you to feel small, helpless, unloved and shamed. And the trauma becomes a part of your identity, difficult to shake no matter how many years pass.
When you create a story about your trauma, you not only remember the wound-inducing trauma, you become the wound.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk, teacher, and peace activist describes through the Heart Sutra how you cling to beliefs about life:
“If we take something to be the truth, we may cling to it so much that even if the truth comes and knocks at our door, we won’t want to let it in. We have to be able to transcend our previous knowledge the way we climb up a ladder. If we are on the fifth rung and think that we are very high, there is no hope for us to step up to the sixth. We must learn to transcend our own views.”
You hold onto traumatic stories because your identity becomes “wedded” to the story- you are the story.
If the plot of your story was “somebody did something to me”, or “I didn’t get what I deserved”, then you are also wedded to blame (they did it) and shame (I am a victim and not good enough).
You blame when you’re uncomfortable or experience emotional pain, as when you’re angry, hurt, shamed, or grieving. You blame so that you can let go of the discomfort.
Shame is the voice of perfectionism, or our feelings of inadequacy. Shame is what keeps us stuck in “what should’ve been.”
If you’ve read my blog posts, you’ve heard my own life stories about growing up with a parent with mental illness and the abuse and neglect that can occur in those conditions. While I don’t claim to have a patent on those experiences, like many others, I carried around those stories like a wounded warrior carries a shield, thinking I could defend myself against the further pain.
I didn’t get that my armor was preventing me from the creating the connections that would resolve the pain.
When the brain gets stuck in overdrive trying to protect you from the world, you learn to disconnect, or dissociate, the clinical term used by psychiatrists in conditions like PTSD, depression and anxiety. But it doesn’t take a diagnosis to feel like you’re fighting the world, one enemy at a time.
When you are feeling this deep sense of “unlovability”, you disconnect from others by moving toward, moving away, or moving against, according to Dr. Linda Hartling and others (2000).
Remember when you kept your mouth shut even though you knew the words coming at you were wrong or offensive? Or you have a cocktail or two every day after work because facing the judgment and criticism at work or home is more than you can bear? That’s Moving Away from the pain, or the people you think are causing it. Children who have been abused learn to be invisible to avoid further pain.
Moving Toward people is when you attempt to please or appease them, despite the relationship not working so well. You choose to stay in relationships that are not good for you by disconnecting from parts of you that matter. Adults stay in abusive relationships by dissociating in this way.
And if you believe that someone in your life is shaming you, and you haven’t faced the original source of the shame, you direct your resentment and rage at them, or Move Against them to gain power over them. You use shame to fight shame. Bullying others is a form of moving against.
Sticking to your story leads to getting stuck in your emotional pain.
Your worthiness, your core belief that you are enough, comes only when you can live inside, and despite, the story you created about your past.
The key to finding your way out of shame, and back to connections with others, is to uncover the “story” about your life, and find courage to leave it behind.
Hiding behind your story is not brave. You cannot find real love in a marriage, a parenting role, in friendships, or in work relationships if you do not have self-love and acceptance for all of you. Accept the truth behind your story, and the raw human vulnerability that comes with that.
I dare you to do it. Turn around and face your story and the painful emotions that are behind it. Be vulnerable. Examine what your “truth” is, and move on from the story. Let go of the trauma, so you can move toward the joy and trust found in healthy relationships.
Leave me a comment below to share the way you see yourself or others moving toward, away from or against others to hide from their story.
Holly Woods, Ph.D. uses Integral Coaching and Somatic Experiencing to help adults who are weighed down by stress or trauma, and who want to be free of the overwhelm so they can find a life full of joy and purpose. Sign up on the Right or Click Here to receive a Free Report and to receive my weekly newsletter. Please forward to a friend if you liked this post!
how does one deal the feeling of rejection when one’s housemate excludes one from his fun activities and which he invites everyone to go with him but one? so much pain goes right to the stomach as if it is being socked at. Unable to stay in the empty house or do meditation in this instance. thank you.
That’s a hard one, and I’m sure it leaves you feeling vulnerable and exposed. Notice the messages in your body, they’re an indicator of what you’re experiencing (e.g., rejection, fear), but you don’t have to get stuck in the feeling. Listen, notice what’s arising, allow the sensations without creating all kinds of stories in your head about it (e.g., I’m unworthy, nobody likes me) and then move on. Find something else to do that meets your needs, brings you joy, creates wonder. There’s a whole world out there beyond those walls.