I have been trying to find an appropriate way to write about a particular “emotional” experience that I have endured for years. I wouldn’t blog about this were it not for the fact that most survivors of trauma seem to experience something quite similar. What is it?
It isn’t exactly the Foreshortened Future experience, and it isn’t the “catastrophizing” thought distortion either. One could say that it is a combination of both. It is somewhat unique unto itself. Essentially, it is a fundamental feeling of dread that something terrible is going to happen. It usually comes out of nowhere most often when nothing terribly stressful is happening and particularly when you’re feeling happy. It almost feels like you’re being watched, but it’s not paranoia. As if Life Itself is watching you. Waiting to destroy your happiness. To inflict something torturous and terrible on you. It is the emotional experience of “the other shoe is going to drop” x 100.
It creates fear and panic. An anxiety extraordinaire. And no matter what I’ve done in terms of CBT, DBT, EMDR, and therapy, this flavor of terror has stubbornly stuck around. I’ve grown so tired of it that I generally don’t discuss it when it strikes. I live with it until it passes. It is so familiar to me. I cognize myself out of it, and my therapists praise me for that. I don’t feel good about it. I feel exhausted and somewhat defeated. This just doesn’t feel good enough.
In the midst of one of these unusual “anxiety attacks”, a friend suggested I try breathing essential oils. There are some oils that are particularly good at crossing the blood-brain barrier and affecting the limbic system. I had those oils on hand. I gave it a shot, and it was effective. I was pleasantly surprised. She then suggested that I introduce some cognitions while smelling the oils the next time. This experience felt very similar to EMDR using essential oils (and I do not recommend doing that if you have a lot of unresolved trauma because it was remarkably potent).
What came to mind, quite out of the blue, during that most particular feeling of dread was an ordeal from my time with trafficking. It came so far out of left field that it stunned me. I said out loud, “What does that have to do with anything?”
I’ll write about it here because I think that it is so important in terms of present experiences of trauma and anxiety that we can experience. I did not receive any justice in terms of the legal system regarding my trafficking experience. I got away and survived it. The man who abducted me was never caught, but he knew where I lived. And, he knew where I was going to go for college. He made threats to find me and murder me when I was in the trafficking environment should I try to escape. Law enforcement agents explained to me that should I see him, I was to notify them, but they admitted that I was vulnerable to “secondary contact”. For at least two years, I lived with feelings of terror and dread that he would find me again. I had nightmares. I looked over my shoulder. I checked and double-checked my car. I wouldn’t go anywhere alone. Whenever I relaxed enough to start to enjoy myself, I suddenly couldn’t because he might show up. That might be the time that he would make good on his threats. It probably took a full five years to stop looking over my shoulder and another ten to stop believing that, at some point, he was going to find me and kill me. My heart still skips a beat today if I see someone who resembles him.
How does this connect to the present dreadful anxiety attacks? I suspect that what is happening today are actually the same feelings of dread that were related to the post-traumatic experience of leaving the trafficking environment, but they have lost their context. Those feelings were never processed. So, they continue to play out until they are processed. I never talked about them. There was no one to talk to during that time. I just had to start college and pretend that none of it ever happened. Those feelings are so strong today because I was in a marriage that triggered those feelings of dread and enlivened them. They are now front and center. They appear as an emotional flashback void of visual cues. The way to deal with them properly is to go all the way back to their source, but, if you have profound trauma, do not do that alone. You need the guidance and support of a trained clinician.
I am always fascinated by how we function. Our brains seem to be fighting us, but they aren’t. We just lack information. What amazes me more is that when we’re finally able to listen and receive information, our brains speak to us. When I finally sat down and asked, the memory came forward clearly. I almost dismissed it because it made no sense to me.
I encourage you to take time out of your day or week to journal or pay attention to what your mind is offering. Some of it is white noise and cognitive distortions, but not all of it.
And, if you really want to look into something interesting, then check this out:
I’m supposed to be doing homework, but it’s cold and snowy. I am entirely unmotivated to study the alimentary canal.
A thought occurred to me when I was stuck in traffic a few days ago. I’ll start with a question.
How many times have you fallen down or gotten hurt? If you really had to answer that question with accuracy, what would you say? I don’t know if I could answer it. I’ve injured myself a lot. I’ve eaten it too many times to recall with any accuracy. Falling off my bike? I fell into a pile of gravel once, and that was a bloody disaster not to mention humiliating. I almost fell onto exposed rebar once and barely escaped impaling myself. I sound like I starred in MTV’s “Jackass”. I’ve almost drowned more times than anyone should just because I overestimated my own swimming abilities in relation to ocean conditions. I was bitten by a shark once. It didn’t keep me from going back into the water. I’ve been mildly electrocuted twice. These are all ridiculous injuries. My injuries probably sound tame compared to some people. You know, the adrenaline junkies? Their tales of thrill seeking are epic. Compound fractures and missing teeth. As soon as they can stand upright, they’re clinging to another rock face like Spiderman.
Why do we get back up again after we get hurt and get after it with relative confidence? Why don’t we fall apart? I really thought about this. Why do little kids fall, skin their knees, cry, and then get up and start running again?
Because they know that they will heal and be okay. They don’t have faith that it will happen. They know. We have evidence that we will heal because our bodies are designed to do that. We watch our wounds heal. We feel the itch of the tissue regenerating.
Many of us think that it’s odd when parents coddle their children just for getting scratched up.
Why? Because scratches heal! Broken bones heal. We recover from surgeries. We are tougher than we look and even feel. So, most of us are not too afraid to take reasonable risks with our bodies in terms of getting in a pool, riding a bike, running fast, rollerblading, rock climbing, etc.
Why are we then afraid to take risks emotionally? This feels like a very legitimate question. I’ve been pondering the question and wondering what a sound answer might be. The answer I came up with is that we might believe that we won’t heal. Or, we don’t know how to heal when we sustain an emotional injury. Wouldn’t it be easier to take emotional risks if emotional healing occurred in the same way that physical healing did?
I pose the question this way because uncertainty acts as a primary source of anxiety for almost all of us. We might be willing to try new things if we knew more about the outcome. In terms of physical risks, we are far more likely to take risks because we know that our bodies heal. But, our hearts and minds? Well, that’s different.
How familiar is this? “I don’t know if I want to get involved. I could get hurt, and I just don’t know if I can go through that again…”
If I break my leg, I can go to the ER. If I break my heart, where do I go? How exactly do you heal a broken heart? How do you heal from major trauma? How do you heal from chronic anxiety? There are too many opinions to give a discrete answer.
And there is another element at play here. Culture. If I break my wrist or lacerate my arm, is there anyone who will tell me that it’s not possible to have my injuries treated? Will someone point at me and say, “Good luck with that. You’re going to suffer for the rest of your life with that broken wrist.” No. That’s ludicrous. Going further, if I slipped on wet pavement after a thunderstorm and fractured my elbow, would anyone tell me, “All concrete sidewalks are bad. Never trust a sidewalk. You will always get hurt! From now on, only walk on grass lest you break your elbow again.”
No. You will not hear that.
Will you hear Broken Elbow songs on the radio? Will you be bombarded with chorus after chorus about the depravity of concrete sidewalks and even roadways and the danger they pose to your vulnerable elbow? How the sidewalk beckoned you, promised it would support you as you walked and its blatant betrayal? How dare it collect water and mislead you permitting you to slip and break your elbow! Those rakish sidewalks! Manipulative elbow-breakers!
Uh…no. You will not hear that. But, how many songs do we hear and even love that are all about the broken-hearted? How many movies do we watch repeatedly that are devoted to the heart break experience? You haven’t truly lived until you’ve had your heart torn out, right? There is a collective belief that being heart broken is terrible and almost romantic. And, for some, impossible to recover from.
I want to challenge this. I want to start by putting an idea out there that we are capable of healing emotionally and mentally just as we are capable of healing physically. It makes no sense that our bodies are designed to heal as efficiently and elegantly as they do, but our psycho-emotional selves would not. I hypothesize this because the ability of our bodies to heal and maintain that ability is so heavily dependent upon the state of our psycho-emotional state. In other words, if we are unhappy, anxious, scared, and in a state of emotional pain, our immune function is impaired. When we are happy, at peace, and well, we don’t get sick; we heal better; we fight off cancer; and we thrive.
If this is potentially true, why are so many of us suffering psycho-emotionally? An idea came to mind as I was turning these questions over in my mind. I thought of my grandfather. My grandfather grew up on a farm on an island that was rather remote. During one winter, he and his brother were sledding, and, during the downhill race, my grandfather hit a tree and broke his tibia. He sustained a compound fracture. With no medical help nearby, my grandfather’s family did the best they could to attend to the fracture. It never healed properly. For the rest of his life, he suffered with circulation issues and pain in his leg and even ulcers as he aged. All this because his injury wasn’t properly set and healed improperly. Note here that his injury healed. The body did what it does. It healed. It just healed improperly because the healing needed an outside intervention to direct the healing.
I suspect that our minds and spirits heal, but, like my grandfather’s leg, without outside intervention to direct a healing process, we heal improperly resulting in improper “blood flow” leaving room for infection and incessant pain. Had this type of problem presented today, surgery would be done to re-break the tibia, reset it, and induce a proper healing. Rehabilitation would be done during the healing process in order to direct the body’s healing process. The body knows what to do. Sometimes its energies need direction.
Applying this paradigm to our psycho-social selves, what would happen if we believed that we can and do heal? What would happen if we viewed our current psycho-emotional state as a healed state in which perhaps our injuries were not set properly? Our body has the ability to heal. It healed. At the time of the original injury it did not receive the appropriate care it needed to heal so that it would return to its pre-injury state?
Was my grandfather’s leg still broken? No. Did he do the best he could at that time with the resources he had available to him? Yes. Did anyone blame him for the scars in his leg? No. If he had undergone a reparative surgery to correct the poorly healed injury, would that have been a shameful thing to do? No. Would that have been beneficial? Yes.
Therapeutic interventions, nutritional changes, psychiatric supports, various types of exercise, pursuing healthy relationships, making important changes in your life to bring about healthy changes, using different healing modalities, etc. are all reparative changes to “reset” breaks that didn’t heal properly. Changing our language around our own healing process goes a long way into changing how we view ourselves, and that goes a long way into eradicating shame and fear of uncertainty.
Once you begin to believe that you can and do heal, you may find yourself making changes that you’ve only dreamed of. It is an idea I’m considering. It’s got somethin’…
So, as always, keep going.
It’s been too long since my last post. Forgive me, faithful readers.
I was not prepared for how I would feel after I reported the ongoing sexual harassment–the Sean Situation.
One imagines that it would be empowering. From experience, I can tell you that it really isn’t. For me, it’s embarrassing, and, when you read the numerous accounts of men and women who delay initial outcries, one of the reasons that they do not say anything after sexual harassment and/or violence is shame. There is something keenly embarrassing and humiliating about being touched, groped, sexually harassed, and verbally harassed. It is supposed to be that way. These encounters are not mutual. They are embodiments of the power differential. One person has the power to coerce. The power to push down. The power to silence. The power to cause another person to mistrust their own instincts. The power to shift blame onto a victim.
For me, disclosing these experiences to people in power, to the people who will make decisions on how to proceed, was not ideal. I felt rather like a curiosity. The Dean of my school wanted to meet with me. He read my disclosure. He stared at me with his ever-present smile and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I felt confused.
That’s the moment I knew that I was going to have to take a strong position. The administration would not advocate after all for their students even with a perpetrator among them. I wrote the administration a very diplomatic but strongly worded letter citing their own policies concerning harassment on campus. I used their own definitions of harassment and sexual harassment and juxtaposed it with my on-campus experiences with Sean as already disclosed for the legal record. I asked them to implement their policies. As a result, Sean was reprimanded. His teachers were notified of his behaviors and will monitor him.
I see him in class every week. It is impossible not to notice him. He sits in front of me.
Someone might ask, “What was so bad about that?”
I try not to describe any of this from the mindset of feeling victimized per se. I don’t enjoy that feeling. I like feeling strong. I don’t, however, want to disclose personal information to anyone at my school about my life in terms of my former marriage or the reasons that marriage ended. After you escape an environment wherein there was domestic violence and abuse, there is something almost magical about the idea of starting over. Going to a new place where no one knows you. No one knew you when you were drowning or looked like the walking dead for a few years as you were trying to figure out how to leave.
In a legal disclosure, you must disclose everything that occurred between you and the person harassing you–even why you didn’t report it initially. In explaining the situation to one of my teachers who has come to know me fairly well, I gave him background information. I felt compelled to disclose that I had experienced domestic abuse in my former marriage. This was the primary reason I didn’t report Sean’s behavior for a year. I wasn’t sure that he was even harassing me. Compared to what I had been experiencing, his behavior was somewhat oppressive, but I didn’t require surgery for any of it. My compass was somewhat broken. That information was passed on to the teachers on the administrative board of my school who are also teachers I see daily. They now know very personal information about me–information I really wanted to remain private. In the grand scheme of it all, does it matter? No. In terms of cultivating dignity, does it matter? It sure as shit does.
Rebuilding a sense of dignity and keeping it might cost you something, and advocacy be it for yourself or others will most definitely cost you something. Sean won’t be able to harass other people now. To be honest, I didn’t expect to feel so personally disrupted by it. I thought I would just sail through it, but I didn’t. After the disclosure and meeting with the Dean, I didn’t want to leave my house. I didn’t want to go to school. I felt some kind of re-victimization by the entire process particularly when I had to tell the school to implement their own policies. Do the right thing even if only for the sake of doing the right thing!
I think, however, that doing “the right thing” probably always costs us something whatever the right thing happens to be. It is why it is so exhilarating and encouraging when you see someone do it. And, it’s why you have to find some kind of identifying strength in doing it in private. There are many times when we make decisions to do the right thing, and no one will ever know what we did. Only we know. We know how much it costs, and we know how it feels not to be validated for it. You must learn to self-validate and find some kind of strength that endures in the knowledge of your own integrity. This is essentially grit.
This is the back end of resiliency and character development. At some point, making better choices and living with integrity become the only decision to make because you no longer care what anyone knows or thinks about you. You only care about what is the best and most integrous decision for the circumstances–regardless of public opinion or personal cost.
Honestly, I want to be in the company of people like this. People like this make the world better. There is no shortcut to this sort of character development. It happens through suffering and a commitment to bettering oneself in spite of and with it along with a refusal to embrace cynicism and bitterness.
So, if there could be a bright side to closing the chapter on this circumstance, then perhaps it is knowing that I was true. I know what I value. I know what I want.
And, you know, knowing what you want is a big deal. There was a time when I wasn’t sure about anything.
2018 sure has been interesting, hasn’t it?
As always, keep going. You never know what’s waiting for you around the bend…
Happy New Year, y’all!
So far, 2018 has been eventful. Two weird things have happened. I shall begin with grad school.
I just started my second year at a Traditional Chinese medical school. Only three more to go!
Anyway, I have zero complaints about my program excepting one. His name is Sean, and he’s been harassing me for about a year. I didn’t recognize his behavior as harassment until it was pointed out to me and labeled as such. I thought he was just a really annoying, clueless arse of a guy who needed some serious mentoring.
Last Friday, I reported his behavior to one of my professors in an attempt to get some advice. Sean is in one of my classes this term, and he targeted me in class almost as soon as class began. He then used your run-of-the-mill intimidation tactics later on the same day. I found his behavior to be annoying at best and fear inducing at worst. My professor happened to be the newly appointed chair of the Bio-Western Medicine Department; I didn’t know that. With that position comes legal responsibilities such as mandated reporting. After I ran my situation by him, he went ballistic.
He has a strong “dad energy” about him and an established moral code. My seeking advice on whether I should ask the teacher of my shared class with Sean to run interference for me turned into a huge legal matter. The college’s attorneys were called. I had to write a statement for a legal record. I now require escorts. The police may be notified in order to establish a better record. They will seek to expel Sean due to the nature of his harassment. Frankly, I was and continue to be stunned.
And, I’m now somewhat scared. I don’t know what’s going to happen in the coming weeks. Sean is also retaliatory.
So, as I pondered all my interactions with Sean as I wrote out the disclosure, I wondered why I waited so long to say anything. Why did I not report the harassment sooner?
I think the primary reason that I didn’t report anything was that I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was truly sexual harassment. I’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace before, and it was severe. A fellow employee started with highly inappropriate remarks like, “Wow, you look really wet today.” If I he found out that I had been on a date, he would pass my desk and taunt me: “I bet you rode that guy like a bucking bronco…” Finally, one day, he cornered me in the women’s bathroom and refused to let me leave. To me, this is a clear example of sexual harassment.
I reported him after a few months of his on-going acts, and the company fired me. Not him. They were in the middle of an IPO and didn’t want any trouble. That’s how it was twenty years ago. If a woman reported sexual harassment, she was often not believed, or she was punished in some way.
In this case, I had to ask myself if I was still operating under that premise. No. That wasn’t it. What caused my inaction? I think that one of the primary causes of my personal confusion was the fact that there were witnesses to almost all of Sean’s misbehavior, and no one acted surprised or indicated that his actions were out of the norm or a violation of social mores–save one person. She and I both agreed that he should not be working with patients. He was predatory. Neither of us knew what to do about it. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to us to report him.
I realized yesterday that we do look to those around us to gauge the normalcy of a situation. If everyone seems okay with someone else’s behavior but I’m not, then what? Am I overly sensitive? Do I have a reason to feel uncomfortable? Am I easily “triggered” because of past trauma? There is a lot of room for self-judgment here, and other people judge, too. There is such a long tradition of sexual misconduct and its normalization within our culture. Simply look at Harvey Weinstein and the narrative accounts that have exploded and expanded around him. His actions against women are utterly deplorable, and many people knew what he was doing. There is no defending him. And yet when questioned, the people who lived and worked around him say, “Well, he was a terrible guy, but we didn’t know he was doing that…”
That isn’t true because when these same people are pushed to tell the truth, they confess, “I suspected, but I was afraid of him. I didn’t want to lose my job.”
Fear of retaliation is a very real thing. Fear of not being believed, I think, is the other reason people don’t report. Bullying and sexual harassment are largely normalized behaviors, and targets of said behaviors have to prove that they didn’t misunderstand the “attention” far more than the accused has to prove, well, anything. Women also have the burden of defending their lifestyles, choice of clothing, and sobriety in terms of whether or not they made themselves vulnerable to harassment.
In fact, sexual crimes against men and women are the only crimes in which a perpetrator can openly admit to the crime but be declared innocent of any wrongdoing. What do I mean by this?
If a man is accused of sexual assault, he could say that he was confused because the woman was dressed quite scantily. He thought she was interested in him sexually, and he never recalled her saying ‘no’. This explanation is still enough in some states to exonerate someone. He could even admit to raping her and still use this explanation and muddy the waters. If a woman got drunk at a party and became apparently flirtatious even to the point of dancing in only her underwear, a man could rape her and claim that he misunderstood because she was almost naked. And, he could go so far as to say that he heard her say ‘no’, but her state of drunken undress communicated–to him–otherwise. She would then be blamed for her sexual assault and told to keep her clothes on and refrain from drinking at parties.
Now, if we apply this logic to other crimes, then anyone standing outside holding their wallet would be blamed for getting mugged. A thief could easily say, “Well, they were holding their wallet right in front of me. I assumed they wanted me to have it. So, I took it.” Car thieves should be jacking far more cars since cars are everywhere. If it’s in public and on display, then isn’t that an invitation to steal it? Well, no, that’s just ludicrous.
And yet we still blame victims of sexual crimes and find ways to normalize myriad forms of sexual harassment. Women, I have found, are especially good at this particularly when they witness it, and I have been wondering why this is. I wonder if it’s because most women have been sexually harassed at one time or another, and we have grown accustomed to it. Perhaps we don’t recognize it when we see it, or we believe that we just have to put up with it because it’s just part of being female. Sort of like cramps. We see another woman enduring harassment, and we shrug. Welcome to the world, honey. It’s a man’s world. Get used to it.
Also, many successful men and women are often judged to have domineering, entitled personalities. Women can sexually harass, too, and the idea of ambitious, entitled, mercurial personalities binging on success and bringing in loads of money to corporations is practically a trope. With that cliché comes the meme of the handsy boss who takes what s/he wants, and everyone who works with him/her just has to put up with it. This is exactly why Harvey Weinstein got away with rape and sexual harassment for so long in Hollywood. It is, in part, why sexual harassment in work and educational environments is known about and tacitly condoned–these people are really good at what they do. So what’s a little ass-grabbing here and there?
I think the tide is changing around this issue. That may be why my college is taking such swift action. I am not especially angry about any of this. I have questions more than anything. How could this have gone on for a year? Why didn’t I recognize it for what it was? Why didn’t anyone else even after witnessing it? Sexual harassment is very slippery and hard to pin down, and it is this way by nature. It is subjective in experience, and, when left unchecked, it can become dangerous. This is where I’m at now. He has the potential to become retaliatory, but that is something that can be reported to both the school and police. I watched and waited for too long.
The other weird thing that occurred happened yesterday as I was studying. A patron of Caribou Coffee approached me as I was hard at work, nose deep in my text books. He is a rather inappropriate personality, always telling disgustingly shocking jokes involving body parts and sex. I have never liked him. And, he loves to find me when I’m sitting in the corner unable to flee so that he can blitz me with his dirty jokes.
Yesterday, however, he apologized to me for “being that guy”. He explained that he had been at a bar and witnessed another man harassing women with shock jokes and crude sexual energy. He observed how the women responded to him, and he didn’t like it. He realized that he was that guy. He said that he knew he needed to grow up and stop. His mother had recently passed, and he wanted to do something better with his life.
I was truly surprised to hear him say this. Sometimes I feel a little cynical and wonder if people want to be better. He did. It was a welcome reminder considering the circumstances.
People can and do change.
So, what does 2018 hold then? Well, I think I can say for sure that it is worth investing energy in your own safety and personal care. What you would do and want for others close to you, you must do and want for yourself. This is how my boyfriend put it to me last night as I was voicing my concerns over this current legal matter. He asked, “What would you do or want for one of your daughters if they were dealing with a guy like Sean at their college?”
Are you kidding? I would be driving to school daily to pick them up and lining up escorts until it was all settled. I would be seeing to their personal sense of safety 24/7. He indicated that this was what I should be enforcing for myself. Oh boy…
So, for you, whatever situation you may find yourself in currently, ask yourself how you would handle it were it happening to someone beloved by you. Then, apply that answer to yourself. That is your standard. It’s hard, isn’t it? This is the beginning of self-compassion.
Perhaps this is the theme of 2018. Practicing self-compassion.
Do for yourself what you would do for others. This is an outstanding starting point when you don’t know what to do.
Happy New Year once again.
My daughters and I did something a bit unusual for us yesterday. For the first time in my life and henceforth theirs, we did not celebrate Christmas Eve. When I was married, our family was interfaith in terms of family tradition, and my family of origin defines the word complex in terms of faith traditions. This year, we celebrated Hanukkah, but it wasn’t quite that easy. I grew up amongst Scandinavians. Dyed in the wool Scandinavians. For my family, Christmas is all about the traditions. The food. The holiday decor. The annual trek to Ingebretsen’s for the food. The music. It was never about the gifts. It was an excuse to be Swedish or Norwegian. I mean, to really be Swedish or Norwegian.
I have always associated Christmas with Scandinavia. With my grandparents. With their home cultures. And with very cold weather. It has never felt like a spiritual tradition to me for this reason, I suspect.
So, yesterday, Christmas Eve, the evening upon which all good Scandis celebrate Christmas, I did not. This year, my daughters and I re-examined our family traditions. Going forward, what do we want to keep, and what do we want to leave behind as we re-create our family?
A divorce changes everything. In our case, it changed it for the better, but the dynamic in our home is still vastly different now. We can practice Judaism openly without fear of reprisal from family members. We do not have to keep anything for the sake of keeping it just to appease–to keep a false peace. We can be deliberate about our practices, and that freedom to choose feels like a privilege.
So, what did we do? This might sound funny, but…we watched Christmas movies all day. We stayed in our pajamas and chose movies that we liked or remembered liking. “White Christmas” was the front runner. I made the traditional cookies that my Great Aunt Evelyn always made during the holidays while we lounged and reminisced. The last movie of the night was Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday”. I saw this movie in the cinema in 2006 which blows my mind because I so clearly remember it. The part that hit a nerve in me when I saw it then and nearly ran me over last night was Kate Winslet’s monologue:
“What I am trying to say is I understand feeling as small and as insignificant as humanly possible. And how it can actually ache in places that you didn’t know you had inside you. And it doesn’t matter how many new hair cuts you get, or gyms you join, or how many glasses of Chardonnay you drink with your girlfriends. You still go to bed every night going over every detail and wonder what you did wrong or how you could have misunderstood. And how in the hell for that brief moment you could think that you were that happy. And sometimes you can even convince yourself that he’ll see the light and show up at your door.
And after all that, however long all that may be, you’ll go somewhere new, and you’ll meet people who make you feel worthwhile again, and little pieces of your soul will finally come back. And all that fuzzy stuff, those years of your life that you wasted, that will eventually begin to fade.”
In 2006, as I sat in the dark of the theatre watching Winslet so brilliantly speak out these words, I ached inside. I knew that something was terribly wrong in my life then. I knew that I was diminishing. I was not on the right path. I wasn’t playing the right part. The character of Arthur Abbott, played by Eli Wallach, remarks to Iris, Winslet’s character, during their first dinner together why she is miserable in her life:
Arthur Abbott: He let you go. This is not a hard one to figure out. Iris, in the movies we have leading ladies and we have the best friend. You, I can tell, are a leading lady, but for some reason you are behaving like the best friend.
Iris: You’re so right. You’re supposed to be the leading lady of your own life, for god’s sake! Arthur, I’ve been going to a therapist for three years, and she’s never explained anything to me that well. That was brilliant. Brutal, but brilliant.
That is what struck me last night eleven years after I’d seen this movie for the first time. You know, if I could sum up why we go to therapy, it would be Arthur Abbott’s remarks–to learn to play the leading role in our own lives. Not a supporting role to someone trying to usurp that role in our lives. To be the star of our own story. It isn’t an elegant process that happens in two weeks as it does in “The Holiday”, but it can happen.
So, that is what I would wish for all of you as 2017 comes to a close. I wish for all of us that we would become the leading men and women of our lives–the stars of our stories. The stories might be adventure, fantasy, romantic comedy, drama, slapstick, epic, or sitcom. It’s my guess that they will be all of the above.
May it be a life worth living and story worth telling in the end.
Shalom and keep going.
And Merry Christmas, everyone!
I want to talk about negative core beliefs and dissonance–and perhaps a way to challenge them effectively. Bear with me as I get there. I have written a lot about my last two years in therapy with a neuroscientist. I didn’t know initially that he was an official neuroscientist (who taught at the college level) who also happened to be a social worker, but that’s what he was. He specialized in “difficult cases”. I didn’t think of myself as a difficult case per se, but I imagined that my history would qualify me for that label once my full case history was trotted out.
I’ve written before that my most powerful negative core belief is “I am disposable. I am expendable.” It is hardwired. I have processed almost all of my maladaptive core beliefs at this point, but this one is like the final boss in a video game. I can take it on over and over again, and over and over again I lose. It’s not “online” most of the time, but when it’s activated, I fall. I cannot refute it. There is no line of thinking that will stand up to it. No amount of EMDR has defused it. This is why I agreed to continue therapy after my therapist moved. To try to get at this particular core belief.
As I was sharing my frustration and fear about dealing with this with someone close to me, an idea was brought forth. He commented, “You can’t nullify a person, right? That came up for you early on in therapy. Your sense of morality doesn’t allow you to do that. You view all people as significant regardless of past acts. Is this true?”
Well, yes, I do. Frankly, it has made dealing with my parents a pain.
He continued, “Philosophically speaking, would you find it immoral to view another human being as disposable?”
Yes. I would. Humans are not disposable.
He then asked, “So, would it violate your own sense of morality and personal philosophy to view yourself as disposable? To agree with that?”
Why had I not asked myself this before? How had I not seen it from this perspective? I do not believe that I can have a double standard. There are not two sets of rules in the universe. If it is true for others, then it must be true for me. That is one aspect of integrity. How I view and treat other people must also apply to myself. If I view other people as having inherent worth and in no way disposable, then how could I view myself in an opposite way?
This is where the arguments start. This is what I would like anyone who has a profound struggle with a deeply embedded negative core belief to take note of. Challenging a core belief doesn’t change it. You must think of this like a boxing match. Once you find a statement or a strong sense within yourself that you can hold onto that matches the strength of your negative core belief–that matches its energy, then you can throw the first punch. Like this:
What will happen next? Heisenberg, your profoundly negative, most likely biologically embedded core belief, will get up and come at you with evidence. That is exactly what mine does. Heisenberg is cold, mean, and extremely smart. He uses evidence from my past to prove why I am disposable, and the case is airtight. And, the more you listen, the worse you feel. The more monstrous that core belief becomes. As if it takes on a life of its own until he’s doing this:
Those feelings that you have at this moment are defined as “dissonance”. Why? They are the gap between what you are starting to know is true about yourself or situation and what you feel is true about them. This gap can be shallow or a deep abyss. This is why emotional dissonance can be so dangerous and hard to manage. This is where the spin-outs and target behaviors can happen. I typically freeze and can’t reach out. Emotional eating, cutting, high-risk behaviors like gambling, high-risk sex, substance abuse and emotional dysregulation are all common manifestations of falling into this gap.
Now, a negative core belief doesn’t sound that bad on paper. Why would someone react in such an extreme way? It is a matter of what that core belief represents and triggers. In my case, my negative core belief centering on expendability was literal. I was trafficked. I had a literal price tag put on me and was sent to an auction. Men actually bid on me. It was the most dehumanizing experience that I could never have imagined as an 18 year-old. I was put through experience upon experience meant to rob me of a sense of identity so that I would come to experience my own person as an object void of self. That is the purpose of the “breaking in” process. Once you are no longer a person, you are compliant. The problem for me in all of this was that I fought the process in captivity and left that environment with a sense of self albeit a very traumatized, compromised one. Years later, when there is a trigger, the past becomes present, and I am faced with this old but very effective lie. It is biologically embedded with the actual trauma. This is the neurology of trauma and beliefs acquired with trauma. This is why we suffer so much when we flashback–even with something as seemingly benign as a negative core belief.
Part of battling it out in the therapeutic process is identifying that which you solidly believe to be true with someone who can parse your language. When someone gets to know you, they can often help you discover your values and truths–the truths that you take for granted. This can prove to be quite useful when you can’t see what’s true anymore staring up from the bottom of your dissonant abyss.
What is a better strategy? Don’t fall into the abyss. Well, that’s brilliant. How do we avoid that? Go back to that moment when Heisenberg is giving you the finger. In the past, I didn’t have anything that could adequately refute the case he made against me. I would fold every time and free fall. Now? I still feel the onset of panic when that profoundly negative belief comes online, but I honestly know that it cannot be true because it does not line up with any of my beliefs about humanity. How could it be true? Once I sat with that, I let it go further. If I’m not expendable or disposable but a person treated me as if I were, then who in that situation had acted badly? Me or the other person? Clearly, the other person. This is an easy conclusion, but it is a very difficult idea to internalize when you grow up under gaslighting conditions or presently experience them:
“We treat you like this because you are bad.”
The truth is this:
“We treat you like this because we are bad.”
Change one word in that statement and the meaning is completely different. Gaslighting is very common: “You are the problem which is why we hurt you. You are the problem which is why you were sexually abused. You are the problem which is why X happened to you.” What perpetrator is ever going to admit, “I have the problem which is why I hurt you”? Nary a one most likely.
So, there you are staring down Heisenberg. He’s coming at you with your terrible belief, triggered by something that you can’t control like a phone call from that person, something a person said to you, a feeling you had when something happened that made the past present in an instant. It could be anything. When this experience is beginning to crescendo, do not try to change how you feel. Do not try to change Heisenberg. He never changes. Bring in your own strength–your own hitter. I figured this out because I realized that some of our very malignant core beliefs do not belong to us. They originated in our trauma and are not natural to our personalities or nature. We may have held onto them because they helped us navigate extreme and painful circumstances, but they no longer help us. They hinder us. This is the definition of ‘maladaptive’.
This is what a solid refute will do to your Heisenberg:
Your challenge will become the wall to your Heisenberg. Heisenberg does not stop showing up when stress shows up. Your neural connections have created a fantastic pathway for him. The more you use your challenge against him, however, the more you weaken his pathway until there are potholes in your neural connections. It will look something like this:
After a few months of challenging Heisenberg with the same new thought that might be one of your beliefs: “I can’t be disposable because it violates my own personal sense of morality,” my personal Heisenberg is starting to do this:
He leaves before anything serious starts.
In my mind, I thought for years that dealing with negative core beliefs was all about changing them, but then I realized that a negative core belief was a lot like Heisenberg of “Breaking Bad”. Heisenberg, much like Dr. Jekyll’s Mr. Hyde, was an evil alter ego. A negative core belief is a negative alter ego of a functional, adaptive thought. It’s a thought gone rogue. It served a purpose, but its present existence has long outlived its original purpose. Now it just keeps on comin’ because that’s what it does. Like a cancer.
I can try to kill Heisenberg or strengthen my other thoughts in order to overcome him. Where is the effort better spent?
So, the key here is finding the right challenge. That is the most important part of the process in taking down a malignant core belief and arguably the most difficult. I would assert, however, that the prior work done in therapy, which included EMDR, laid the foundation for present insight.
The other strategy I have used in the past and model in this post is externalizing and naming a toxic feeling in order to separate it from yourself and your identity. I have identified my most feared maladaptive core belief as “Heisenberg” in order to differentiate every idea associated with it from myself and my identity. This draws a distinct line between me, my own thoughts, my hopes for my present and future, and what I would like to think about. This is highly effective for dealing with negative emotions.
For anyone experiencing the abysmal free fall or struggling with repetitive negative thoughts rooted in malignant core beliefs, there are strategic ways to deal with them and eventually defeat them. It takes time and consistency, but it is possible.
I want to talk about how finding out what motivates you can lead to personal liberation. To do that, I will take you back to my junior year of college. I was something of a fresh-faced know-it-all with something to prove. I didn’t really know what I wanted in terms of a future career. For most of my life, since the age of 4, I was certain that I was going to be a doctor, but then I discovered the theatre. Yeah, that old cliché.
So, I did what many confused perfectionists do. I went to college and hit it hard. My entire identity became about doing well in college. Learning, of course. That was my priority, but I could not do poorly in anything. I had to receives As on everything. In my mind, I was proving my parents wrong about me. What I didn’t have the insight into then was that I was building an identity around performance and actually fortifying the very lies that I was trying to disprove. My worth became proportionate to my professor’s evaluations of me. I entered college a perfectionist. I became a superperfectionist during college. Every mistake I made grated on me and drove me harder. I studied all the time. I lacked a social life, and that seemed justifiable to me. I was building a foundation for a future career path–whatever that would be.
The results of these painstaking efforts were inclusion on the Deans’ lists of the colleges I attended, scholarships, and recognition, but I hated it. I didn’t feel a sense of accomplishment. What if I failed? The anxiety grew greater the higher I climbed, and my personality had become distorted. When I look back, I see someone whom I would not like today. I was one of those intellectual snobs who would metaphorically wear black turtlenecks and chain smoke at cafés at midnight while discussing the merits of the intellectual movement in Europe vis-à-vis the developing social pragmatism of America.
Then art history happened. For some ridiculous reason, a medievalist at one of my colleges pushed me in the direction of art history. It made sense. My great-grandfather was a landscape artist in his country of origin, and my grandmother was an artist as well. I had the language background for it, and I met the intellectual snob criteria for graduate level courses. Perfect.
That is when I met the Flemish Professor. He was a brilliant man and teacher. He made art history seem accessible and easy. Suddenly, I could see art history as a viable career. I took all of his courses–medieval art history. There were, like, six. We got to know each other. We had a good collegiate relationship. It was during the end of my junior year that he suggested I take his graduate course on the cathedrals of Europe. To me, at that time, this was a coup not to mention a fascinating course of study. It was in this class that he handed me the topic for my art history thesis.
If you find yourself asking what the heck a Catalonian retable is, then you’re not alone. That was my response as well except with more colorful language. This is a retable in case you’re wondering:
This was a thesis based on research. Well, the only access I had to Catalonian retables was through large, cumbersome books. Two large, cumbersome books. Both of them in German. For some reason, the Flemish Professor thought that I spoke German because I told him that I got bored while living in France and took an introduction to German at The Goethe Institute. I left being able to count, conjugate, and perhaps order a beer, a piece of cheese or a piece of cake. I would confuse the two. In other words, I would do really well at Oktoberfest.
The only other published research in the entire world at the time was one French article. That’s it. Two German books and one French article. The Flemish Professor asked for a 10-page “thesis” about Catalonian retables based on this? I gave him a 13-page paper, and I used all three sources. The only three sources on Catalonian retables in the world at the time. That’s how obscure the topic was. He checked off on my outline and bibliography.
Do you know what this professor gave me for a grade? Hold on…
A C. A C!!!!! I died on the inside. I took that paper and marched into his office. I put it on his desk and demanded an explanation. Something I have never done before, but I felt he owed me that particularly since he signed off on every aspect of it. We went head to head. The sources were incomplete he said. There were only three I said. In the world. It wasn’t long enough he said. He asked for 10 pages I said. I gave him 13 which was a miracle. Why didn’t I use more of the German material he asked? I don’t speak German I said. I countered him on every criticism. He had nothing to stand on.
“The grade stands. There was a misunderstanding.”
And then he crossed his arms and made something akin to a pouting harumphing noise. Politics?! Was this my ego coming up against his far more established ego? What? I was incredulous. How was I supposed to live with this? Dear God! A C in the class? I went home and had an existential crisis. Who was I? If I got a C, then what? Maybe I really was stupid after all. Maybe my parents were right. Maybe I just hit the ceiling of my abilities in the academy. Maybe I peaked. Maybe…maybe…maybe…maybe…
This all sounds ridiculous. I know that, but when we think about the things that set us off on any given day it isn’t so unreasonable. I know what caused this crisis. I started college two weeks after I escaped trafficking. That blows my mind when I really ponder that. I went from being a sex slave to a co-ed in two weeks. I compartmentalized everything. I threw myself into academics and performing, and I found out that I was good at it. My whole world rose and set on earning high marks in everything, and it fell apart when I didn’t. I didn’t know who I was apart from performing–performing perfectly. From being perfect. This core belief somehow protected me from ever having to deal with what caused me to develop that maladaptive strategy. Underneath my consistent efforts to climb higher and be the best festered a toxic mélange of self-loathing, terror, and despair. If I wasn’t good in the academy, then I wasn’t going to be good anywhere. It was my last hope, or so I thought. The Flemish Professor ripped me apart when he gave me that C.
And it was one of the best things that could have happened to me because it forced a reckoning. I hated who I had become. I didn’t enjoy the hoop jumping, politics, and ass-kissing that I had to do at university. I hated the esoteric and seemingly useless topics of study. Catalonian retables? That’s not going to cure the world of its ills. Furthermore, I realized that I wasn’t actually studying because I liked it. I had lost my integrity. I had become a divided person–a dis-integrated person. Maybe I always had been. I didn’t even know.
Receiving that C, as small a thing as it is in the grand purpose of life, was a catalyst for immense growth. I stopped and reconsidered my path and my purpose. I made life changes after that class that changed the course of my life for good. I also realized that if I was going to do something with my life that mattered to me, then it need be because I’m invested in it for reasons that resonate with my character and who I desire to be rather than proving a point to people who actually don’t care about what happens to me now or in the future. The past should not corrupt the present nor my future.
That was two decades ago. Ironically, that C was the best grade I ever got.
All this is to say that you may have had or are currently having experiences that ignite you in ways you never expected. Your brain and heart may be on fire with existential despair or desolation. You may be up against something that is breaking your brain. Or perhaps your identity is on the line in a way that you never expected. After dealing with recovery from profound trauma for almost three decades, I can safely estimate now that these kinds of experiences can be some of the most useful for emancipating us from ourselves and prisons of our making. Most often, we did not create our cells, but we have a strange gift for keeping ourselves locked inside them through our self-judgment, personal and secret vows, self-loathing, need for vengeance, and constant comparisons between ourselves and others, and ourselves from the past, present, and future through these words, “I didn’t expect that my life would look like this at this age.”
There is no easy way to make a new key for an old prison, but what I have learned is that it all starts with questions. And, the first question is usually, “What would happen if I tried ____________?” Rethinking our present requires imagination and willingness. It also requires giving up our fear of pain. It will hurt emotionally and spiritually to integrate, but it hurts more to remain compartmentalized. This I know from experience.
These are my observations as I continue to walk the road of attempting to live an integrated life. May your entry into the forthcoming holidays bring you peace, merriment, and a deep sense of joy.
As always, keep going.