As a trauma survivor, I’ve held certain beliefs so closely that they were not distinguished from fact.
If you were to point them out to me, however, I’d deny that I believed them. I suppose that’s because these were more than beliefs to me. They were my reality. But no one knew it. I was cool, calm, and collected on the outside. Inner life was a full-scale tropical storm; a perfect recipe for imposter syndrome.
Why did I cling to such beliefs when they were so self-destructive? This is where it gets complicated. I’ll try to explain as the post continues.
1. Belief: I am weak.
I survived – not unscathed – because I am strong. For most of my life, however, I have been ashamed of my utter weakness, as if I should have been able, as a child, to handle child abuse.
Let’s think about that one. How do children end up convinced of their weakness for succumbing to something about which they had no choice? Still, this a commonly reported symptom. When you’re subject to overwhelming mental or physical force by someone who is stronger than you – and forced to do things you have no natural desire to do – what else are you to conclude? You end up just knowing you are weak.
Further, when you cannot fight off the disconnection you feel from others, tragically, you take this as additional evidence of your weakness. How can we remind ourselves that we are, in fact, strong? We’re strong for the very same reasons. Every experience in life that has taught us that we’re weak actually proves the opposite.
2. Belief: I am shameful.
I’m often helped to understand shame by contrasting it with guilt.
I learned through my study of NLP that we often feel guilty when we violate our own standards. With shame, we feel like we’re violating others’ standards. With shame, we’re convinced we fail to measure up to some social expectation that others have no problem with.
The twistedness of it all is palpable.
It’s challenging to feel hair-trigger shame at the slightest provocation (or with seemingly no provocation) and somehow convince your body to calm down because it’s being irrational. Most of us can be intellectually convinced that we’re not necessarily less than anyone. But we don’t need to be reminded of that when being hijacked by a sudden attack of shameful feelings.
Shame is baked into the cake because, unfortunately, the only way for a child (who doesn’t distinguish well between self and other) to make sense of an unthinkable violation against the self is to conclude that the self must have deserved to be violated. In fact, it may be impossible to separate the violation from the conclusion that you deserved it. Somehow, you just know you do because it happened.
This is my default self-preservation strategy. Hiding is a great, non-violent and preventive self-preservation tactic. It just works.
The problem is when you perceive normal, non-threatening situations as a threat. It doesn’t take much to trigger a trauma survivor because our brains live on the alert, anticipating the slightest risk of anything that could possibly be construed as danger.
Sometimes the only way to be completely calm is to be alone in a room with a door that locks from the inside.
The worst-case scenario is to be triggered when you’re in a situation where simply leaving would be disastrous (or so you imagine). There you are, ridiculously trapped in a social situation.
You can’t leave because there’s no cause for it (even though you may be convinced otherwise). You can’t stay because you feel intolerably uncomfortable. The shenanigans you might pull to get out of the situation while maintaining the appearance of normalcy can be mind-boggling in and of themselves.
A word about changing beliefs
Since beliefs are merely interpretations of reality and not reality itself, they can be disproven and cast aside. Imagine believing that it’s raining. Then, you look outside and see sunny skies with no rain. What happens to the belief? Of course, you could hang onto it but most likely that belief would instantly vanish in light of evidence to the contrary.
Beliefs about ourselves are subject to the same rules. The problem with beliefs born of trauma is that the original evidence is – through no fault of our own – emotionally painful and overwhelming. Traumatic memories are also stored in such a way that they are hard-pressed to become a normal part of our life story.
To make matters worse, the typical, positive beliefs about the self that are bandied about in families, schools and on television, seem far, far, away. When a friendly figure on a television show tells you that you’re wonderful, you just know they can’t be speaking to you.
Is there no hope to be had?
There is hope! It comes from the fact that these negative beliefs, although pervasive, are still false. It may take a while to assign responsibility where it belongs but it can be done. The mind and body can be re-educated after trauma. This is no easy row to hoe but, with the right help, it can be done. One initial step is to recognize that you may be carrying around distorted beliefs about yourself and others – beliefs that were born of trauma and designed to protect you from further abuse.