Carl Jung said, “I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.”
This assertion is particularly relevant to those living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that’s triggered by experiencing or witnessing a traumatic, life-threatening, or otherwise terrifying event such as combat, rape, a catastrophic accident, domestic violence, or severe child abuse.
Symptoms include nightmares, intrusive memories of the trauma, chronic feelings of fear and horror, hypervigilance, intense emotional reactivity and irritability, and avoidance of people, places, and things that act as reminders of the trauma.
Those with PTSD can also experience flashbacks that are so vivid they feel as if they’re actually reliving the original experience. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and memory problems are common consequences.
Encounters with malevolence
People diagnosed with PTSD almost always encountered malevolence in some form and were devastated by it. The devastation occurs because such willful malevolence is the hardest thing to comprehend.
Although suffering of all sorts is painful to endure, to encounter someone who wishes that suffering upon you and takes measures to bring it about is a whole different level of horrible.
A child who experiences severe abuse is psychologically incapable of understanding the cruelty inflicted upon them. The child’s underdeveloped mind struggles to understand why this terrible thing happened, what it had to do with them, and what it means about them and the world.
Their inability to resolve this ongoing confusion leaves abused children anxious and fearful of encountering further evil. This lack of resolution of their concerns is what results in their intense anxiety, terror, and flashbacks when encountering environments or individuals that resemble those associated with their trauma.
This reflexive response to anything that reminds them of their abuse operates by the same mechanism as one’s reflexive response to seeing a snake or unexpectedly hearing a loud sound.
Before the conscious mind has time to logically analyze the threat, the unconscious mind recognizes it as potentially pain-inducing, causing a person to instantly leap away from the snake or hunker down when they hear the loud sound.
Classical conditioning at work
This is the power of classical conditioning, and humans aren’t the only ones who are subject to it. If a dog is scolded with a rolled up newspaper, it’ll instinctively cower or flee when seeing even an innocuous rolled up newspaper in an entirely threat-free environment.
Such ingrained responses remain trapped in memories and in the unconscious until one is fully capable of articulating and analyzing them, thereby freeing themselves from their power.
In psychotherapy, that process is initiated by having the patient ask themselves, “What exactly happened? Why did they make my life miserable? What were the causal pathways that put me in that position of vulnerability?”
They need to specify these things as carefully as possible, because the part of them that’s hanging onto those ingrained responses wants to know if they’ve changed enough so that what happened won’t happen again.
The reason past trauma continues to bubble to the surface is because the anxiety system needs assurances that painful past experiences won’t be repeated in the future. Only then will it cease sending out constant false alarms to potential danger, and only then will the sufferer find peace.
Three common trajectories
Although there are a variety of different life outcomes for those who suffer PTSD-inducing trauma, there are three common trajectories.
In the first trajectory, the survivor of trauma concludes that there is something deeply flawed about themselves that brought on or warranted the abuse. They often develop a timid, deferring, and overly-accommodating demeanor which allows others to continually cross their boundaries. The abuse convinced them they’re not worthy of taking up their own space or even having rights to their own life.
These individuals exhibit behaviors common to animals of prey, which makes them vulnerable to future predators who are naturally skilled in spotting those features.
This all happens because they answer the question of “Why did this happen to me?” with something along the lines of, “Because I’m inherently flawed and deserved it.”
A second common trajectory is identification with the aggressor. Their abuse convinces these individuals that the world is a brutal dog-eat-dog place where the only options are to be predator or prey. They develop an I’m-going-to-get-them-before-they-get-me mentality.
They become preoccupied with preventing further vulnerability to avoid additional abuse. They focus on becoming strong like their abuser, and overcompensate for their deep-seated fear of being vulnerable by becoming excessively aggressive, callous, and abusive themselves.
These individuals often become bullies. They blame their victims for the abuse they receive because, like those in the first trajectory, they blame themselves for the abuse they themselves received. They just repress it more that the first group.
Their trauma has convinced them that it’s a sign of strength to abuse, and a sign of flawed weakness to be abused. Whoever they abuse is therefore in the wrong simply by virtue of the fact that they’re receiving abuse. It’s twisted logic, but profound trauma has a way of twisting all manner of perceptions.
Multiple studies have found significantly higher rates of child abuse and other traumatic experiences among the incarcerated than in the general population. It is not difficult to imagine how undiagnosed and unresolved PTSD could have contributed to their crimes.
Until a person thoroughly processes the causality of how they ended up being abused, and builds skills to avoid or overcome abusive situations, they’ll feel a pull to either of these two trajectories as either a fight or flight response.
The third trajectory occurs when the individual has someone in their life who acts as a mentor or role model and who represents a more positive worldview. Someone who embodies emotional resilience and who exhibits a belief in the goodness of the abused individual, as well as in the goodness of humanity.
Such a figure presents an alternative to the trauma-induced belief that, “It’s a cruel world so I have to get other people before they get me” and the belief that, “The reason I was abused was because I’m fundamentally flawed in some way and deserved it.”
Those who have survived severe trauma and have received this kind of intervention from someone who truly cares about them may still develop PTSD, but will present as high-functioning. They may suffer from intense anxiety, flashbacks, night terrors, hypervigilance, irritability, and other symptoms, but they don’t resort to self-abuse or abuse of others.
Recovery from PTSD
Attempting to convince someone who has endured life-shattering trauma that their PTSD-induced fears and anxieties are unfounded, or that the world is actually a safe place, is pointless. Because it’s fundamentally untrue. And they know it’s untrue.
You don’t make people safe by making them naïve. You make them safe by making them strong, fully conscious of the source of their suffering, and aware of the dangers that do exist in the world so they can build the skills and confidence necessary to combat or avoid them.
Police officers and military personnel do this by developing a noble warrior mentality that becomes a deep part of their character. They integrate a philosophy of good and evil so it can make them someone who’s stalwart and indomitable, and who will move forward in the face of threats that would otherwise induce intense fear and anxiety.
In a similar way, psychotherapy helps those with PTSD develop tools they can use to conquer their persistent trauma-related fears and anxieties. It’s essential that the patient realizes that they’re much more capable than they think.
The fear remains until it’s listened to. It speaks until you’re safe. Its purpose is to alert you to dangers you’re potentially recreating by avoiding your history.
Jung was right; you can’t control what happened to you. But you can control how you react to what happened, and you can control who you ultimately become. Your trauma doesn’t have the power to do that – only you do.
An excellent example of this can be found in the stand up comedy of these Long Island, NY veterans. They’re members of the Project 9 Line, a nonprofit organization founded by Patrick Donohue that uses the arts, including stand up comedy, to help veterans overcome the trauma of combat.
Refusing to let their trauma win, these vets perfectly embody the spirit of the noble warrior who conquers the evil that sought to define and defeat them. True heroes who prove that each of us has the power within us to be our own hero.