It finally happened. Therapy finally sucked. I cried. It was hard. This is when you know that you are going to do some real work. This is why you are there.
I was given homework last week. I was to reflect on why receiving compliments was so hard for me. I can receive compliments from women for the most part: “Jules, what a nice pie! What a nice job on that _________!” That’s easy enough. How about this? “Your hair looks good!” That’s easy because I can always defer to my stylist: “Thank you! My stylist always does such a great job.” Or this? “Those jeans look really good on you!” I can even deflect that one: “Oh, thanks! I think it’s the cut. Gap makes some pretty decent jeans. I think this one is extra flattering.”
But, receiving a compliment from a man? Well, now, that’s just not the same: “You look so sexy in that skirt.” I stare wide-eyed. “You’ve got great legs.” I think I’ll never wear a skirt again, I think to myself. “You smell amazing.” Would it be okay to adopt a no bathing policy? “I could stare into your eyes for hours.” Sunglasses. All the time. That’s the ticket. “You have beautiful hair.” You know, Sinead O’Connor had such an edgy look. I might adopt it. I bet I could pull it off.
Sexual compliments? Oh, no no no no. Nope. “You are such a great kisser.” Uh…”I love your body.” Uh…”I want to _______ because your ______ is so amazing.” Let’s not and say you did, okay? In fact, I’ll be contacting the witness protection program now. Take one last look at my ________ because it’s running away now. Fainting goat doesn’t even begin to cover what happens to me. I’m fairly certain that the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty was inspired by me, the sexual narcoleptic. Compliment me in bed and I go stiff and fall asleep.
I am exaggerating to make a point while making fun of myself, but there is some truth here. I really do not know how to properly receive compliments from men particularly if the man is attracted to me. If there is any sexual context to a compliment, then I freeze, feel violated, and want to flee the scene. This is a problem, and I want to solve the problem. This is what we talked about in therapy today. Did we find the root of the problem? Yes. Was I surprised by it? Yes.
I was very surprised by the origin of my reaction although I need not have been. Trauma weaves itself into our brains. It’s hard to figure out where it all goes until we start living our lives to the fullest. Suddenly, we hit a wall. Repeatedly. “I wonder why I can’t get over this hurdle?” or “My response does not match the size of this problem. I am overreacting here.” When I see this pattern, I tend to think that I might be having a trauma-based reaction. Surely enough, my inability to accept a compliment and even enter into any kind of flirting with a man is rooted in a trauma. This is noteworthy. Why? This trauma is twenty years-old.
It occurred when I was in captivity after being abducted. It was a sexual torture scenario involving extreme conditioning in order to produce compliance in me. This process is known by human traffickers as “breaking in”. My appearance and sexual attractiveness were very important to the man who abducted me since I was going to be put up for auction. My compliance was equally important. So, he spent a lot of time conditioning me in various ways to be compliant. One way in which he did this was to make me lie down on my back, hands by my side, completely naked, while he rubbed lotion all over me for as long as he wanted. During this exercise, he would comment on my body and all-over appearance. He would compliment me. I would keep my eyes closed tightly unless he told me to keep them open. I would try to tune him out as much as I could, but it was harder than one would think. Of all the things that I endured, this is one of the things that I hated the most. He would tell me to act like I enjoyed it. I never could. I could never pretend that I liked it. I hated him. He used very explicit language with me, and those words felt very shaming and humiliating to me.
For some reason, my brain has linked this experience with men, in general, paying me compliments. This is what was discovered in therapy today. I had no idea that the two events were coupled together. Separating from my soon-to-be ex-husband has unearthed latent trauma and brought it to the forefront. This is very good. You want to know what’s lurking beneath the surface. You want to find the connections in order to sever them.
If another person enters your life, for example, who challenges these hidden beliefs, it might be difficult. In my case, if a man came along and began praising me, complimenting me, and the like, I would be challenged a great deal, and this could be triggering. The thing to do then would be to chase down those triggers rather than avoid compliments or relationships. We want to challenge our false beliefs and unhook those biologically based traumatic memories. Yes, they did happen to us. Yes, those traumas were powerful, but that was then. This is now, and our brain needs to know that. I need to know as deeply as I can know that when a man pays me the most benign of compliments that he does not intend to drag me off to make me lie down against my will so that he can rub lotion all over me in preparation for selling me. That’s absurd, but, because I did experience this in the past, my brain thinks that it’s a real possibility again.
So, how does one untangle this? My session ended, and I was left to contain my emotions and tears. I have experience with EMDR, containment, and trauma-based therapies. I might attempt to use my imagination to create new scenarios in my mind to separate the original trauma from the present, and I know at least one person whom I can enlist to help me in this endeavor. My therapist and I, however, will have to come up with strategies next week to address this. I want this trauma back where it belongs–in the past. I want to respond appropriately in the present. I want my voice back, and I will achieve this.
We often have to chase down our trauma to be fully in the present and revisit old ruins–climb the beanstalks and slay the very old giants as it were–if we want to be the people who we know we really are. Healing from trauma is not a fairy tale. You don’t have to wait for someone to kiss you awake. You just have to be willing to try. And keep trying. Every day.