The Red Herring Effect

I was about to hit my stride when I wrote “Your Narrative Brain and Trauma Recovery”, but then Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came around; I became contemplative and pondered the nature of healing and what keeps us trapped in the same cycles.  What is the nature of this repeating trek around the same mountain? Why do we do this? Posing the question in different terms, what prevents us from actually progressing and stepping onto the path to a new place? A destination of our choosing?

I suspect that it has something to do with truth and our capacity for grief.  Resiliency in a word.

What is resiliency?

“Healthy, resilient people have stress-resistant personalities and learn valuable lessons from rough experiences. Resilience is the process of successfully adapting to difficult or challenging life experiences. Resilient people overcome adversity, bounce back from setbacks, and can thrive under extreme, on-going pressure without acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways. The most resilient people recover from traumatic experiences stronger, better, and wiser.

When hurt or distressed, resilient people expect to find a way to have things turn out well. They feel self-reliant and have a learning/coping reaction rather than the victim/blaming reaction that is so common these days.” (Al Seibert, PhD)

It’s the learning/coping reaction when distressed that I want to discuss largely because we live in an age that is saturated with information.  There is too much to know and too much information to sift through.  How do we discern good and useful information from bad and useless information? When does doing helpful research turn into avoidance behavior and an excuse not to engage in decisive action? The world has changed drastically in the last twenty years, but humans have not.  We are still the same.  We still need to cope.  We still need relief from our suffering.  Our maladaptive coping strategies just look more sophisticated, and we might look more resilient than we actually are.

What point am I trying to make?

Sometimes in our process of trying to shake loose our bonds, we might feel like we are doing a more effective healing work than we really are.  Using my own journey as an example:

It’s no secret that I hail from an abusive family of origin.  My father and his wife were paragons of godly virtue and morality in public but nightmares behind closed doors.  It was systematic abuse meant to breakdown my personality, and it was intentional.  After I left my family, I felt ambivalence towards my father, but I felt nothing short of hatred towards my step-mother.  It was white hot, and I felt ashamed to feel such intense negativity.  I wanted to rid myself of it.  Ground it.  No matter what I did, I couldn’t.  She bore witness to all he did.  She egged him on.  She suggested certain actions.  I believed that some of the abuse would never have even happened had she simply been silent.  I blamed her entirely.  To me, it was her fault.

But was it?

As I progressed through the therapeutic process, I observed that I had placed all the blame for my father’s abuse upon my step-mother because I could not come to terms with what was actually true.  It was my father who abused me.  My father.  And, fathers are not supposed to abuse their children.  There had to be a reason for the extreme scenarios that I experienced.  I felt that I could reason my way through my experiences, but logic simply does not apply to the excruciating pain left in the wake of trauma.  Was my step-mother responsible? Yes, she was.  She enabled the abuse, but my father was responsible for my well-being.  He was supposed to model paternal love, caring, and nurturing, and he did the opposite.  My step-mother had nothing to do with his failure.  That was all on him.

Sometimes, during our healing process, our mind casts out a red herring.  A red herring is something that is intended to distract us from the more relevant issue.  Sure, my step-mother and I had things to resolve.  She was culpable, but my focus on her guilt distracted me from the more relevant issue–my father’s misdeeds.  If I was ever going to heal, then I had to stop focusing on the lesser crimes, release my hatred, and turn my attention toward the real issue that I was so vigorously avoiding.  I had to accept the hard truth that my father failed spectacularly in his role, and I was suffering inordinately for it.  It was very hard to accept.  Why? His spectacular moral failures led to questions about myself that were too painful to ask much less answer, but that is exactly why the therapeutic process exists.  It provides us with the context to dig our way through and out of the mire of the grief, pain, and confusion that the trauma of abuse leaves us with.  It is imperative, however, that we use the desire for truth as our shovel as it were.

That relentless drive to know the truth of our circumstances as well as the truth behind our habits, coping strategies be they maladaptive or healthy, and those things that fuel our thoughts and beliefs is what goes to stoking resiliency.  I am convinced of this.

So, be on the lookout for any red herrings in your life.  They often feel like truth, and in some ways they are, but they can keep you chasing your tail and circling the mountain for years when, in fact, you really want to find the road that leads you to the life you most desire.

Further Reading:



One Comment on “The Red Herring Effect

  1. Oh my gosh, I am sure many people have used the same terminology before but this is the first time I have read the “around the mountain” phrase, a term I have used many times myself.

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