Nine Things I’ve Learned

I used to write a lot about trauma and the nature of it largely because I was in the middle of dealing with it.  For me, I would try to get outside of my own traumas and inspect them as if I were looking at a car I might buy.


“Where do I begin?”

That works for a while–the distancing.  It restores to you a sense of control, and for people who have been traumatized feeling in control is meaningful.  It brings a sense of empowerment, and that makes a huge difference when you’re doing “trauma work”.  But, what about those things called “triggers”? What happens then? Honestly, it feels a bit like this:


Eventually, however, we have to take a meaningful look at what traumatized us.  That is what many of my trauma-related posts are about–trying to live a meaningful life while also stuck in the “glass box of emotion”.

But, what about life after the trauma work? What do I mean by that? Well, I can tell you what I did during the trauma work.  I shut my life down because I had no energy to power it.  Metaphorically, I had a small generator, and that only kept necessary systems online.  I withdrew from almost everything that involved socializing because I did not have the emotional energy to interface with other people.  I was too sensitive at that time to deal with the normal flaws and foibles that characterize the human race.  I could barely reach out to my friends.  I was just trying to stay afloat.  We are talking about surviving here.  Getting out of a serious domestic abuse situation is not easy.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

I lost friends in the process.  There are people who will not understand, not believe you, or who who will shame you for taking the actions you did.  It all contributes to a very rocky healing process and extenuates the grieving.  Alas, after the initial shock, the therapy, the fallow period in which you feel utterly broken, and the slow ascent out of the pit of despair and pain, you can and do emerge.  You will be “remodeled”.  You aren’t the same, but you are still you.  So, what now? Three years after my ex-husband moved out, what have I learned?

  1. If you commit to a process of therapy, you will heal faster.  I was in therapy for two years.  It contributed to the healing process for me post-divorce in ways I couldn’t have accomplished on my own.  I am a die-hard believer in therapy although you need the right therapist.  A bad therapist will create more obstacles, but you will leave his/her office with interesting stories.
  2. There will be moments when you will feel discouraged about your life, and that’s normal.  When you are living in an abusive environment, almost all your energy is spent trying to adapt to it.  You are focusing entirely on your abuser or negative circumstances in order to anticipate what s/he will do next or what will happen.  If you have children, you will also be trying to protect them.  Your health and emotions matter little.  If you sustained physical injury as well, you may try to brush it off as quickly as possible while pretending it never happened.  That was my M.O.  When the perpetrator of abuse is no longer present and the circumstances change, the first thing you feel is a wonderful sense of relief and joy.  I was elated.  My therapist warned me that the years of trauma that I had packed away in my body and psyche would come forward as soon as I felt safe.  I said, “Nah…no way.”  I was so wrong.  I spent over a year processing that pain, and it was extraordinary.  Basically, I was ugly crying in my bedroom every night wishing I would just die.  Eventually, that stopped, but it won’t stop until you finish the process.  So, commit to it with all you’ve got.  Then, move forward feeling much lighter.
  3. You might be afraid to meet new people, or you might feel the opposite–stoked to get out there and meet everyone.  Initially, I felt so raw that I struggled to socialize.  I was also blamed by more than a few people for being abused with very typical victim-blaming statements (ex. “I can’t believe a person as smart as you would let something like that happen.”).  I simply didn’t feel like trying to make new connections.  I also didn’t want new people meeting me in the context of such a transition.  I felt defective somehow, and I think that feeling is normal considering how often people imply it however wrong they are.  This does fade as you heal, but it is okay to stay in the relative safety of your safe space until you’re ready to get out there again as long as it doesn’t become a prolonged exercise in avoidance.  Then, you’ll have new things to discuss in your therapist’s Hot Seat.
  4. There comes a point when you come alive again.  At some point in your healing process, you reignite.  I do not know if any singular factor acts as a catalyst, but I do know that an energy returns that wasn’t there prior.  For me, it was when I went back to school.  That was an external manifestation of a shift in my beliefs.  I reached a point where I believed that I could start over.  I wanted to build a life that mattered, and I wanted my daughters to see what a woman was capable of–what it looked like to get up again.  I found my worth again and believed that what I wanted mattered.  I started to acquire hope.  This is a very good sign.  Go with it and see where it takes you.
  5. You will love and be loved again.  This was something that only resided in the realm of fantasy for me–even when I was married.  I felt so overlooked and worthless during the last years of my marriage.  Everything revolved around what my ex-husband would and would not do.  I deleted so many parts of my emotional and intellectual repertoire to stay that I hardly knew who I was anymore when the marriage ended.  I couldn’t answer basic questions like, “What is your favorite kind of music?” or “If you could go on a vacation, then where would it be?” We could only listen to his preferred music, and we never talked about vacations.  I never had an iota of privacy, and he mocked almost everything that I liked.  So, I lost myself.  Meeting someone new was a glorious surprise, and I’m still surprised by it daily.  I did not think that it was possible for me.  I know that it is common to say, “If it is possible for me, then it’s possible for you.”  It is true though.  It is possible for you.
  6. Let yourself be happier than you believe you deserve.  This is still very hard for me, but I try. I, therefore, anticipate that it may feel difficult for you at times. There have been moments in the past three years when I have felt a limitless sort of happiness.  When I feel it, I want to dampen it because fear is on its heels.  I have never experienced sustained goodness in my life.  Ever.  This is often the case for people from abusive or dysfunctional families and/or circumstances.  When you begin to believe that your environment is safe or you begin to trust those around you, circumstances and people often turn against you.  You can’t relax.  You can’t trust.  You can’t believe.  You can’t rest.  You must always be on edge, read the people in your midst so that you know how to react, and be ready to fight or flee.  Happiness or joy can never become something you truly want.  Surviving is the goal.  This is the reality of a trauma survivor, but it need not be your reality for the rest of your life.  So, I suggest allowing yourself to feel happiness and/or joy when it comes and then allow it to stay within you longer than you are comfortable with it.  The anxious thoughts will no doubt partner with your happiness–“What if _______ happens?”, “What if _________ dies?”, “What if _________ turns out to be just like _________ and hurts me?” There are myriad distorted anxieties that the brain throws at you when you begin to relax into happiness.  That’s okay.  Allow yourself to feel happier than you believe you deserve to be in little bits.  Eventually, you can sustain it for longer periods of time, and that state of being will normalize itself.
  7. Getting triggered isn’t as bad as it used to be.  I experienced a triggering event yesterday, and it came out of nowhere as triggering events often do.  Initially, I didn’t even know why I was upset.  I thought I was overly sensitive and felt foolish.  When I finally came to the reason, I felt oddly grateful and somewhat annoyed.  I realized that I still had emotional work to do around some of the emotional abuse in my former marriage, and, admittedly, I’m tired of the subject.  But, the recovery was relatively fast, and I could see it more objectively than I once did.  I didn’t get sucked in and stay triggered for hours upon hours.  This is progress! Triggering events are still painful, but they are now more representative of data points.  I can use them to gain traction now rather than sink to the bottom of the emotional Laurentian Abyss.  It does get better and easier, and you come to see yourself not as a victim of something but simply as yourself.  That change in self-definition is a huge turning point.
  8. You will eventually become more interested in your future than your past.  This can be a hard thing to grasp, but it’s akin to a paradigm shift.  When you endure a lot of therapy, you are naturally past/present oriented because you spend all your time sleuthing for past problems and traumas that affected you in the present.  This is useful to a point.  Eventually, we must begin to see our lives as present/future oriented, and that can be extremely difficult for people who have endured trauma largely due to the little talked about symptom of PTSD called a foreshortened future.  What is a sense of a foreshortened future? Essentially, it means that you cannot plan for yourself because you cannot imagine your own future.  You simply can’t see it.  Some therapists define it as a person believing that their life will be cut short and define the symptom as an avoidance symptom in PTSD.  I think that they’re wrong.  I rely on neuroscience for this one.  The brain relies on our past experiences and narratives to construct future narratives and make plans for us.  An extreme example of this is an amnesiac patient.  Patients with amnesia cannot make plans for their future.  Why? They have no memories of past experiences so their brains cannot tap into past experiences to project possible narrative outcomes when planning for the future.  So, people with traumatic experiences and PTSD have narrative experiences characterized by traumatic experiences.  If all a person has done in their lives is adapt to trauma, then all of their time and energy is spent focusing on and adapting to someone else (a perpetrator) or to traumatic circumstances (poverty, war, highly dysfunctional or abusive circumstances).  Never have they learned to plan.  They have only learned to adapt on the fly usually around someone else’s behaviors or circumstances.  Planning is a skill.  Learning to “dream” about a future where good things can and do happen to and for you is also a skill particularly if you have never once experienced that.  It must be learned in a safe place where one can be taught how, and where once can learn to practice it.  The future doesn’t exist yet.  We help to create it, but this idea is elusive at best when you perceive the past to have ruined your present.  You must embrace the idea that your future is yours even if you can’t feel it or see it yet.  It is yours as surely as your past is behind you.  This one takes time, but it is possible to learn this skill.
  9. You will recover your resiliency.  This is a big deal.  We are all resilient creatures.  Humans can survive almost anything, but we can also reach breaking points.  The point here is that you can come back from that.  There are days when it will feel like you won’t or can’t.  Don’t believe everything you think or feel.  That is folly.  Getting up again after setbacks, no matter how bad, is what resiliency is all about.  Developing grit and shifting your self-definition from one of a victim to a person who can and will get up again is where the rubber meets the road.  Changing how you view yourself in relation to the people who hurt you matters the most right here.  For me, my personal statement has been: “I will not let people of that quality take the best out of me.  I will get up again.”  Remembering this has given me the fuel I have needed to keep going when I have felt truly overwhelmed.  At some point, you will turn around and look back taking in how far you’ve traveled.  You will see that you did indeed get up again and walk miles.  No one said that the healing process was easy or felt good.  I will tell you that it hurts profoundly, but it does not hurt forever.  There comes a point when you something shifts.  You will begin to feel more peaceful than you feel anxious.  You will discover joy and feel that more often than you feel fear.  Fear and anxiety can become habitual states of being.  They are familiar, and we know how to feel like that.  Joy and peace? Not so much.  Those must be cultivated and invested in.  And…fought for.  The culture we live in does not value joy, peace, civility, and kindness.  If you want that in your life, you have to cultivate it, fight for it, and stand guard over it.

At this point on the road, this is where I’m at.  I’m sure in a year I’ll be somewhere else, but it is reassuring to know that we don’t have to stay where we are now.  We can get up and move.  As always, I wish you all great peace and…

Keep going.





The Power of What If

This idea came to mind yesterday as I was beginning to dread my next EMDR session.  EMDR itself is fine.  It’s the time in between sessions that I truly dislike.  My brain has gone into hyperdrive, and traumatic memory after traumatic memory is pouring forth like Old Faithful.  It’s unpredictable just like Old Faithful, too.

In an attempt to make the best of it, I’ve been trying to play Match the Core Beliefs.  In my thinking, these memories aren’t coming forward without cause.  They must have something in common.  So, I’ve been writing them out in an attempt to uncover any hidden core beliefs.  It’s actually been a good strategy.  As I’ve done this, I’ve felt a bit better–less hypervigilant and irritable but irrationally fearful.

Fearful of what? Nothing and everything.  Just…randomly afraid.  Afraid that someone I know will die.  Afraid that everyone I’m close to will suddenly decide that I’m too something (fill in the blank with whatever quality seems most repellant) and run away.  Afraid that another catastrophe will befall my family.  Maybe it’s just the ebb and flow of general panic.  I am keenly aware of all of it.  I can even observe it from a rational distance.

So, this notion popped into my head yesterday as I was observing the flow of my rather anxiety-provoking thoughts.  “What if you told yourself the opposite of what you feared to be true? What if, instead of all the cognitive distortions that might actually be legitimate based upon your life experiences, you actively engaged your self-talk and told yourself the opposite?”

Well now, that sounded positively ludicrous! My brain spins tales that make the Brothers Grimm sound like Mother Goose! How could I possibly tell myself something…positive?

Then another thought: “You let yourself get all worked up and run over by the negativity in your mind.  Why not let yourself get built up by positivity that you deliberately create? If you are willing to respond emotionally to negativity, then why not take some control and respond positively to better thoughts that you have a say over?”

This little voice had a valid point.  I would have been offended were I not somewhat fascinated.

“Okay, how do I do this?”

“What’s making you the most upset? What is weighing on you and causing you anxiety?”

“Where do I begin?” I replied sarcastically.

“The most anxiety?”

Sometimes the answers that come forward are surprising.  We think that we know ourselves so well, and, in some ways, we do.  Other times, we don’t like something we see in ourselves because it doesn’t line up with our values or our self-assessment.  We want to be viewed by others as one way when, in reality, we aren’t that way at all.

I am excessively self-reliant, and it is a value that both my parents upheld fiercely.  To ask for help was akin to admitting to stealing.  Needing help was a character flaw.  Needing help was selfish.  If you needed help, then something was wrong with you.  It’s like they were raising a tiny Teddy Roosevelt.


“Just look at her! We’ll have her naming national parks and riding a horse in no time!”

My father insisted that I learn to tie my shoes when I was 3 because I should not need his help for anything.  I learned to dress any wound that I had at age 4.  As an adult, I find asking for help very difficult, but, at the same time, I find excessive self-reliance as displayed in my parents ridiculous.  Asking for help is appropriate and good and yet I have been criticized for my self-reliance.  I am, however, heavily conditioned never to ask for help.  I was punished severely for needing help as a child.  A visceral response occurs in me at the moment that I need it.  On some level, I am convinced that people will actually abandon our friendship should I seek their help.  This is what one would call a core belief.  Core beliefs are not rational.  They are often conditioned responses that rise up within us under pressure.  I was taught that asking for help=selfish=punishment=abandonment.  So, under no circumstances can you let anyone see you sweat.  To need is to be abandoned.  To need is to be innately inadequate.  To need is to be somehow inherently repulsive.

I don’t intellectually believe this at all, but there is a part of me that has been conditioned to behave that this is true.  I fear that this is true.

Well, now what? I am very uncomfortable with admitting this.  Furthermore, asking anyone for help makes me almost sick to my stomach, but I know that being allowed to help someone is very validating.  I also know that refusing someone the privilege of helping can cause feelings of rejection and illegitimacy.

“Ah,” my fearful mind says, “what about being beholden to people?” My mother used to help me and consider it a debt.  Nothing was ever given freely.  Strings were always attached.  That is another reason for my excessive self-reliance.  There was no such thing as a gift in my family.  I learned early on that everything was quid pro quo.

My reassuring mind then says, “The people in your life now love you, and they know you.  They want to be there for you.  You can ask them for help.  They are not waiting to hold your past against you or even your weaknesses.  Love does not do that.  So, you can tell yourself that you are safe, loved, and valued in the present, and the people whom you have chosen are for you.  No one is going to throw you away or run from you because you feel like you are too much but not enough at the same time.  Or, you can continue to buy into the nightmares your brain throws at you.”

Well, that’s cheeky, but it might be true.  A part of me gave another part of me a stern talking to, but it got my attention.

When do we say enough is enough in terms of fearful and negative self-talk? If we can go down the “What if…” road that leads to hell, then we can just as easily go down the “What if…”road that leads to heaven.  “What if this all goes to shit?”…”What if this turns out so much better than I ever thought it could?” Two mindsets.

Which one do I choose? I know which one I want to choose.  I want the path of hope.

It’s hard, and it is a choice.  So, keep at it.  It does pay off.


EMDR and You

Let’s talk about trauma for a moment.  I’ve mentioned EMDR in other posts, but let’s really discuss it for clarity’s sake.

What is EMDR?

Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic approach that emphasizes the brain’s intrinsic information processing system and how memories are stored. Current symptoms are viewed as resulting from disturbing experiences that have not been adequately processed and have been encoded in state-specific, dysfunctional form (Shapiro, 1995, 2001, 2007a). The heart of EMDR involves the transmutation of these dysfunctionally stored experiences into an adaptive resolution that promotes psychological health. For EMDR to be applied effectively, the clinician needs a framework that identifies appropriate target memories and order of processing to obtain optimal treatment effects.” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)

Does that sound like a mouthful? Let’s simplify it.  Imagine, if you will, that your brain has two buckets for storing memories of experiences.  We will label one bucket “adaptively processed” and the other bucket “maladaptively processed”.


The Adaptively Processed Bucket

In your adaptively processed bucket, all of your life experiences that you have “processed” as understood are dropped–even the bad ones.  You have understood them and given them meaning.  They might have been traumatic at one point, but they no longer resonate with that painful quality.  You can recall them without feeling triggered.  You can now look back and say, “Ah yes, I understand that now.  I can derive something from that.  I can put meaning to that suffering.”  Or perhaps there is no meaning to add to the experience, but you can find a place for the experience.  It has been adequately processed, and it doesn’t hurt acutely any longer.  It is a memory at rest, untethered from other memories.

pail-of-dirty-water-579x435.jpgThe Maladaptively Processed Bucket

All of your maladaptively processed memories are dropped into the maladaptively processed bucket.  These are memories of traumatic experiences that your brain cannot understand or give meaning to.  They tend to have a “snapshot” quality about them and emerge quickly when a new experience occurs with similar emotional echoes.  Here is a helpful explanation about how we learn and store memories:

“Consistent with other learning theories, the AIP model posits the existence of an information processing system that assimilates new experiences into already existing memory networks. These memory networks are the basis of perception, attitudes, and behavior. Perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with associated memory networks (Buchanon , 2007). For example, the reader can make sense of this sentence because of previous experiences with written English. Similarly, burning one’s hand on a stove goes into memory networks having to do with stoves and the potential danger of hot objects. A conflict with a playmate (“me first”) and its resolution (“we can share”) is accommodated and assimilated into memory networks having to do with relationships and adds to the available knowledge base regarding interpersonal relations and conflict resolution. When working appropriately, the innate information processing system “metabolizes” or “digests” new experiences. Incoming sensory perceptions are integrated and connected to related information that is already stored in memory networks, allowing us to make sense of our experience. What is useful is learned, stored in memory networks with appropriate emotions, and made available to guide the person in the future (Shapiro, 2001).” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)

This explains why traumatic experiences are hard to get over particularly repeated exposure to trauma.  One traumatic experience in a lifetime of relatively positive experiences is unwanted and damaging, but repetitive traumas create what I call a Trauma Train.  Every new trauma is like a car being added to a locomotive which is the original trauma.  Soon, small events, which may not in and of themselves be horrible, feel catastrophic because they echo the original trauma which may have been devastating.

What does this look like in real time?

I’ll use the example of molestation during childhood.  1 in 4 women experience sexual abuse during her lifetime and 1 in 6 men experience it.  This is common.  I’ll tell this in a narrative form:

Jane was sexually abused by her stepfather.  It started when she was 9 years-old.  He fondled her on and off for a few years, and he made her watch him masturbate.  She doesn’t have many visual memories, but she remembers how she felt.  She remembers her acid stomach when he touched her in her bathing suit area, and she remembers how his hands felt touching her body.  Her stepfather would always put his hand around her neck.  Consequently, Jane hates to wear turtlenecks and scarves, and she feels very nervous and even gets migraines when she gets indigestion.  She doesn’t really know why.  Jane has never enjoyed dating.  She hates the particularistic feeling of butterflies in her stomach.  That feeling makes Jane want to run away and hide.  She doesn’t like men to touch her, and she doesn’t like to make out or be intimate in any way.  The feeling of their breath on her neck makes her want to vomit.  The thought of having sex is too much for her.  She once saw a penis, and she did throw up.  Jane feels defective, alienated, and terribly lonely.  She doesn’t want to feel alone.  She doesn’t know why she struggles so much when her friends enjoy dating and going out.  She just stays home and dreams that one day she’ll feel more confident.

What can be said about a scenario like this?

“Problems arise when an experience is inadequately processed. Shapiro’s AIP model (1995, 2001, 2006) posits that a particularly distressing incident may become stored in state-specific form, meaning frozen in time in its own neural network, unable to connect with other memory networks that hold adaptive information. She hypothesizes that when a memory is encoded in excitatory, distressing, state-specific form, the original perceptions can continue to be triggered by a variety of internal and external stimuli, resulting in inappropriate emotional, cognitive, and behavioral reactions, as well as overt symptoms (e.g., high anxiety, nightmares, intrusive thoughts). Dysfunctionally stored memories are understood to lay the foundation for future maladaptive responses, because perceptions of current situations are automatically linked with associated memory networks. Childhood events also may be encoded with survival mechanisms and include feelings of danger that are inappropriate for adults. However, these past events retain their power because they have not been appropriately assimilated over time into adaptive networks. The AIP model views negative behaviors and personality characteristics as the result of dysfunctionally held information (Shapiro, 2001). From this perspective, a negative self-belief (e.g., “I am not good enough”) is not seen as the cause of present dysfunction; it is understood to be a symptom of the unprocessed earlier life experiences that contain that affect and perspective. Attitudes, emotions, and sensations are not considered simple reactions to a past event; they are seen as manifestations of the physiologically stored perceptions stored in memory and the reactions to them. This view of present symptoms as the result of the activation of memories that have been inadequately processed and stored is integral to EMDR treatment. ” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)

The purpose of EMDR then is to transmute these inadequately processed memories to adaptively processed and integrated memories:

“After successful treatment, it is posited that the memory is no longer isolated, because it appears to be appropriately integrated within the larger memory network. Hence, processing is understood to involve the forging of new associations and connections enabling learning to take place with the memory then stored in a new adaptive form.” (EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model)

EMDR works.  It moves those maladaptively processed memories to the adaptively processed bucket.  I have done EMDR in the past, and I am about to embark on the process again.  I highly recommend EMDR to anyone who wishes to move from living in a triggered, traumatized state to a more integrated state.  My therapist recently told me that EMDR can address the lesser discussed PTSD symptom of the sense of a foreshortened future, and that blew my socks off! If EMDR can actually address and heal that, I might do something crazy like… a picture of myself wearing an ugly Christmas sweater on my blog.

I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep EMDR in mind if you are looking to heal from trauma.  It’s a well-groomed trail out of the mire.

Further Reading:

EMDR and the Adaptive Information Processing Model: Potential Mechanisms for Change


Overcoming a Sense of a Foreshortened Future

I have been thinking about this idea of The Reboot, which I wrote about in my previous post.  Clearly, I’m not entirely empty in my old noggin.  I had an actual thought and pondered it, too! Have I ever felt like this before in my life?  Why, yes, I have!

After I graduated from college I felt a lot like I do now.  Aimless.  Anxious.  A bit scared.  That’s a good question to ask by the way: “Have you ever felt like this before?” It helps you gain insight into what’s going on internally and responsively.  We often know a lot about ourselves with the advantage of hindsight.  Looking back upon my 22 year-old self, I know exactly why I felt so untethered and aimless after I graduated.  I can blame that lesser known symptom of PTSD called ‘a sense of a foreshortened future’.  I’ve written a few blog posts on this topic over the years.  It has dogged me relentlessly, and I’ve never been able to fully shake it off.  It’s very difficult to even describe how it feels.

I think that the best way to describe what living with a sense of a foreshortened future feels like is to relate it to the concept of object permanence.  Object permanence is the term used to describe the concept that objects exist even though they can no longer be seen or heard.  This is why, for example, babies love the game peek-a-boo.  Very young infants have not yet developed object permanence so they, therefore, do not know that their mother, for example, exists when they cannot see or hear her.  Peek-a-boo must then be a very thrilling game for babies if you think about it.

Apply the concept of object permanence to your own concept of survival.  Imagine playing a metaphorical game of peek-a-boo with your life.  One day your sense of security is in front of you.  The next day it’s gone.  Another day, it’s been given back to you.  Another day, it’s vanished.  This endless game of “Will I live or will I die?”, or at least a perceived sense of dying, begins to define one’s reality.  Nothing is permanent.  Security and a sense of being loved, the most coveted and needed objects, are never permanent.  What happens to a person who lives like this? If a person can develop Stockholm Syndrome in as little as 72 hours which shows just how little it takes to completely break down a personality, then what do you suppose happens to the neural networks of a person’s brain who is exposed to long-term trauma?

“Children learn their self-worth from the reactions of others, particularly those closest to them. Caregivers have the greatest influence on a child’s sense of self-worth and value. Abuse and neglect make a child feel worthless and despondent. A child who is abused will often blame him- or herself. It may feel safer to blame oneself than to recognize the parent as unreliable and dangerous. Shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and a poor self-image are common among children with complex trauma histories.
To plan for the future with a sense of hope and purpose, a child needs to value him or herself. To plan for the future requires a sense of hope, control, and the ability to see one’s own actions as having meaning and value.  Children surrounded by violence in their homes and communities learn from an early age that they cannot trust, the world is not safe, and that they are powerless to change their circumstances.  Beliefs about themselves, others, and the world diminish their sense of competency.  Their negative expectations  interfere with positive problem-solving, and foreclose on opportunities  to make a difference in their own lives. A complexly traumatized child may view himself as powerless, “damaged,” and may perceive the world as a meaningless place in which planning and positive action is futile. They have trouble feeling hopeful. Having learned to operate in “survival mode,” the child lives from moment-to-moment without pausing to think about, plan for, or even dream about a future. ” (The Effects of Complex Trauma)

What can we learn from this in order to overcome something as complex as a diminished future orientation? I think that asking questions of ourselves is the place to start:

  • How do I feel about myself (do I feel worthless or inherently bad?)
  • How would I rate my self-esteem?
  • What is my self-image like?
  • Do I blame myself for any past mistreatment or abuse? Do I make excuses for the person or people who hurt or neglected me? (e.g. “Well, s/he had a hard life.” or “They didn’t mean to do what they did.”)
  • Do I feel hope about my future?
  • Do I feel that my present actions can affect change somewhere as in what I do matters?
  • Do I feel like what I say or do matters?
  • Do I feel powerless?
  • Do I feel competent? Do I feel capable?
  • Do I feel like damaged goods? Do I feel broken? Has anyone ever told me that I was broken?
  • Do I feel like no matter what I do it won’t make a difference anyway so why bother?

Anything that disempowers you in the present will detract from your ability to see into your future.  It keeps your mind looking into your past.  You become locked into a past/present paradigm because the mind, from what I have understood, wants to solve the unsolvable problems .  And, what are these unsolvable problems?

  • mother/hate
  • father/abuse
  • uncle/sex
  • grandmother/neglect
  • teacher/shame
  • grandfather/violence

We are supposed to be loved and nurtured by the adults in our lives so that we can grow up to reach and even exceed our potential.  The mind will never be able to resolve and overcome the impossible and diametrically opposed realities that we knew.  There are no answers for them.  There is no way to balance these equations.  Then what? We get stuck in an endless feedback loop of shame, self-blame, sickness, and slow deterioration seeking attachment because we are made for attachment, and, yet, we can’t.  We survive.  In the now.  Stuck in the past because we need to find an answer.  We must fill in the variables.  Solve the problems.  Do we exist outside of what we experienced? Are we defined by these bad experiences? Are we permanent? Is anything that anyone says even real or believable?

Who are we anyway?

It is like living in a constant identity crisis.  Until we find a way to stop the cycle.

How do you put a stop to this and begin imagining a future? Oh, isn’t that the question!

I can only speak for myself.  If you were exposed to complex trauma for an extended period of time, then I would suggest taking those questions to a therapist trained in dealing with trauma.  Not every therapist is equipped to help you.  I would also suggest meditating on the idea that you do have a future.  There is time ahead of you.  Also, there is no rush to figure it all out today.  Whatever dreams you may have held dear at some point in your life might still be possible, and, before you naysay, ponder this.  Even if it takes you ten or twenty years to accomplish something, don’t be so quick to give it up.

The time is going to pass anyway–whether you pursue your desires or not.

The question then is: What do you want to do while the time passes? You do have a say even if you feel like you don’t.  This is how you begin to overcome a sense of a foreshortened future.  It’s not easy.  In fact, it might be incredibly daunting.

It is, however, oh so possible.

Further Reading:

Effects of Complex Trauma







Learning to Deal

In my last post, I talked about learning to make plans for yourself in the context of possessing a sense of a foreshortened future.  This can feel almost impossible if one has poor distress tolerance.  Distress tolerance is very important when it comes to learning to make plans for the future because it’s our ability to trust our own resiliency that enhances our self-esteem and gives us a sense that we can overcome present and future challenges.

For example, I used to have very low tolerance for disorder in my environment including loud noises.  Well, don’t have children then, I say to my past self.  I would feel very marginalized and overwhelmed when loud people entered into my home.  I really liked to be hospitable, but I would become very anxious upon seeing a messy kitchen.  When my children got old enough to ask for their pre-school friends to come over and play, my initial reaction was one of horror.  Another child? In my house?  I would consent because I wanted my kids to have fun, but I hated every moment.  I felt adrift internally, out of control, and invaded.  My environment was too loud, too messy, and disordered.

Why was I like this? Well, I grew up an only child until my mother remarried when I was 11.  I was also a latch key kid beginning at the age of 7.  I spent most of my young life alone.  I’m also an introvert.  When I experience stress, my first coping strategy is to seek time alone.  My next coping strategy is to clean because cleaning gives me something to do while I process my emotions.  When my mother remarried, however, my quiet life of solitude changed.  I had two new stepsisters who were both older than I, and my mother’s marriage to her husband can only be described as “nuclear”.  The fighting was epic.  If you were to watch the movie “War of The Roses” with Kathleen Turner, you might get a sense of what went on in our household for seven years.  My stepsisters and I cowered in our bedrooms most of the time hoping that an object thrown in the heat of the moment would not strike our heads.  Sometimes it was just so absurd that we emerged just to eavesdrop.  Sometimes the cops showed up because a neighbor had complained.  I was either terrified or amused at that point.  We were that family.

So, as an adult, I had almost no tolerance for normal expressions of frustration, anger, or negativity.  If someone looked at me sideways, I would start trembling, and then I would start cleaning something.  Must exert control over something.  Clean something! Anything! The healthy part of me would speak up and tell me that this was no way to live.  I didn’t know that what I was experiencing was anxiety.  I didn’t know that it was rooted in PTSD, an anxiety disorder.  I didn’t know that I needed to increase my distress tolerance.  I just knew that I needed to learn to relax.  I needed to learn to leave messes for a while in exchange for some fun, but I had never done that before.  I was not allowed to do that growing up.  Ever.  Growing up, if I left a dish on the counter or, God forbid, crumbs, my mother would lay into me like I had just driven the car through the garage door.  If I left streaks on a window or mirror after cleaning them, she would make me do every mirror and window in the house for good measure even if they were already clean.  I once attended a birthday party at my next door neighbor’s house.  I chose to go to the party first rather than clean my room.  I was going to clean my room afterwards.  My mother came to the party, humiliated me, and made me leave early because I had not cleaned my room before going.  We were not allowed to do anything, enjoy anything, or have fun unless we had met her standards for cleanliness, and her standards were military.  She even did the white glove test on my bedroom furniture and once bounced a quarter off my bed to ensure I had made it properly.

I’m not sharing this to vent or garner sympathy.  The reason I put this out there is because low distress tolerance exists in people for a reason.  Human behavior originates in something.  My former inability to enjoy life. filter out the background noises, and deal with a certain amount of environmental chaos was really tied to a tremendous fear of my mother.  I was programmed.  When I made a point to deal with the root issue, my mother, my distress tolerance for the troublesome environmental factors increased.  I began deliberately exposing myself to the very things that caused great anxiety in me.  I invited my daughters’ friends over.  They made messes.  I made myself sit in the discomfort of it.  I increased my distress tolerance.  I deliberately left crumbs on my kitchen counter.  I didn’t make my bed.  I even left streaks on the mirror in the bathroom.  I made myself miserable so that I could teach myself that I could be highly uncomfortable but functional at the same time.

In my mind, this is the heart of distress tolerance.  I work with my daughter on this very idea almost daily.  I ask her questions like:

  • Can you feel sad but function at the same time?
  • Can you hallucinate, know that what you saw was a manifestation of your brain misfiring, feel anxious about it, but still go on to function?
  • Can you feel very irritable to the point of wanting to act on it but still choose to do something functional with your body while feeling that feeling?

Tolerating unpleasant emotions does not mean that we accept or justify what caused us to feel that way.  I don’t justify my mother’s behaviors.  I don’t accept them as life-giving or even good.  I do accept, however, that I feel the way I feel.  I accept that I don’t like how I feel sometimes when I’m reminded of what I experienced growing up.  I also accept that I can feel a negative feeling and still be functional.  I don’t have to say, “Nope.  Shutting it down.  I can’t deal with this.”

What if I can deal with it? What if it’s just so uncomfortable because I’m not accustomed to sitting with it?  What if I don’t trust myself to handle it because I was never allowed to feel anything in my former environments? What if I was always told that how I felt didn’t matter? What if I was told that feelings were opinions, and my opinion was stupid? There are a plethora of things that we might have been told that prevented us from realizing our own resiliency, but it doesn’t mean that we accept them as truth.  It also doesn’t mean that we can’t begin practicing now.  We can, at any time, give up the line, “I can’t deal with this,” and replace it with, “I will learn to deal with this.”  Once you change your mindset from one of helpless victim to empowered and learning adult, the world opens up to you.  Maybe you won’t like your choices, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t have them.

Yesterday, I had a choice.  A family member emailed me–AGAIN–wanting information about my mother.  I’ve explained to this person more times than I should have to that I’m not in a relationship with my mother.  I don’t want to give too many details because I don’t want to discuss my mother with her.  I have never desired to vilify her.  Suffice it to say, if an adult child tells a family member that there is no relationship, that suggests that there are problems.  Be respectful for goodness’ sake! Don’t keep asking me if I’ve talked to my mother! Don’t you understand what feelings your lack of empathy provoke in me? There is, however, never understanding.  So, I get emails that say things like this:

It sure would be nice if I had a picture of you and the girls to show your mother when I see her next month.

I’m not a fan of the passive approach.  Just say what you mean.  Embedded in this statement is a request that I send her a photograph of my family so that she and my mother can discuss me.  Nope.  Not gonna happen, and I told her as much.  She is getting in the way of a process that has been set in motion.  One that has the possibility of actually doing some good.  When people begin to interfere, believe my mother’s distortion campaigns, and attempt to force reconciliation, I pay a very high price usually in some form of retaliation.  I won’t endure this sort of behavior anymore.

How we bounce back from interactions like these tell us a lot about our distress tolerance.  When I read that email, I groaned aloud.  I complained to my husband.  I emailed my family member, and then it was over.  I emotionally moved on.  It was contained.  No crying.  No panic.  No cleaning rampage.  Alright, I might have said something about someone having the emotional intelligence of a sea anemone.  Otherwise, it was handled.  I did not say that I couldn’t deal with it.  On the contrary, I said, “Good grief, now I have to deal with this!” Take note, however, that my language described my capabilities.  I can deal with this even if I don’t want to deal with this.  Not wanting to do something is very different from not being able to deal with something.

Distress tolerance.  It’s something that every person on the planet needs, and every day provides us with an opportunity to practice it.  Once you begin to believe that you have what it takes to tolerate varying degrees of distress, you are that much closer to being able to imagine your own future.  Why? Because if the future is scary to you but you believe that you’ve got what it takes to overcome scary and distressful situations, then you’ll have the resiliency to begin taking risks.  And making plans about a future that you know nothing about? Really, what’s riskier than that?

Looking Ahead


I don’t know to whom I need to attribute this image.  It’s one of those images that gets passed around Facebook and Pinterest, and everyone LIKES it.  It feels inspirational.  It seems like something one might hear at a political rally or in a stump speech.  There’s a reason, however, why this image and its embedded statement move people.  There’s a reason why people who have been traumatized or profoundly wounded read this and feel…weird.  Perhaps excluded.  Like something about the idea of having a vision and future doesn’t really apply to them.  It feels like a romantic or fanciful notion that Anthony Robbins preaches to extort money from emotionally impoverished people who are easily manipulated.  A vision.  P’shaw.

But, if you have been victimized in your life, then sit back and try imagining where you might be in five years.  Ten years.  Twenty.  Can you do it? Can you see yourself accomplishing what you’ve always wanted? Can you financially plan for it? Are you able to imagine your own future? In color?

I can’t.

I know some people who can.  I’ve met people who really get into the whole Let’s-Write-Down-Our-Dreams-For-Our-Lives thing.  They really bond over talking about the future and their vision of it for themselves.  They are, in fact, visionaries.  They love “dream” talk, and they love listening to motivational speakers who are very future-minded.  Their eyes are always on the horizon.  I wish I were like this.  I’ve never been able to conceptualize the idea of The Future.  I thought I was just strange.  I ran away from the motivational speakers in high school.  I avoided all discussions of the future aside from what could be done in the now.  I didn’t know why I was like this.

I do now.

It’s called a sense of a foreshortened future.  I’ve written about this before, but it’s a topic that’s important to discuss because it impacts every area of our lives.  It’s a lesser known symptom of PTSD.  Why? Because acute symptoms of PTSD involve hypervigilance, startling easily, nightmares, and flashbacks.  Once those symptoms fade people often think that their PTSD is healed or in remission, but what about this sense of a foreshortened future? That doesn’t really describe an acute symptom of PTSD, does it? No, not really.  How does something like this develop? Well, think about trauma and how we cope.  We are exposed to something that our body and brain view as a threat to our survival.  When we are trying to survive we are only concerned with the moment.  We no longer think of the future.  We no longer plan.  There is no point to planning beyond the next few moments because the point to surviving is living through this present danger.  The nature of PTSD is that we are fooled into believing that we are still stuck in a dangerous situation.  Our ability to plan or even look ahead is disabled.  How does this manifest in real time?

I can only speak for myself really without citing academic articles.  My plan during adolescence was to get away.  I had to survive high school and go to college so I developed tunnel vision.  I stopped encoding a lot to memory during my teen years simply because I had my eyes on one goal–get away.  Far, far away.  I had to work my ass off to earn a scholarship and leave everyone behind.  I have only vague memories of high school all of which are mostly unpleasant.  I do remember the violence in my home.  I remember the trauma.  That’s in Technicolor.  That’s what motivated me to work.  My time in captivity is almost in black and white.  The days just blur into each other.  Even then though I knew I had to get away.  I was, of course, terrified, but I was almost equally pissed off that I had worked so hard to get away from the horrors of my family of origin only to end up with a human trafficker.  I wasn’t going to go out like that.  I had to go to college.  That was my goal.  That was my vision.  College.  I had earned it.  That’s what helped me overcome my paralyzing fear in captivity.  I was, I guess, sort of pissed off that I was being kept from reaching my goal.

When I did finally graduate from college I stopped functioning well.  I did not know why.  For years, I never understood myself.  I had done extraordinarily well in college.  Many doors opened up for me in the academy.  What was wrong with me then?

Well, due to a sense of a foreshortened future I had only ever been able to see my future as far as college graduation.  I never believed I would live beyond that.  I could not plan for or envision my life beyond Graduation Day; hence, the existential crisis that followed.  I was not able to manage money.  I was not able to feel grounded.  I was anxious all the time.  I was not able to practice self-care beyond what an adolescent might do.  I was flaky, self-absorbed, and extremely insecure simply because I lacked ontological anchoring.  When you believe that your life really has no future, co-morbid disorders crop up as well like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).  Anxiety disorders are common where there is a sense of a foreshortened future particularly OCD because a need to be in control of, well, something is so necessary.  The more control one can have the better.  I used to have OCD to the point that I couldn’t leave the house unless all the tassels on all the area rugs in my house were perfectly parallel to each other.  I would not be able to sit still or focus on anything unless they were perfectly straight.  If there was visible dust on anything in my house, I would feel panic.  If there were crumbs in between the couch cushions, I would panic.  If the top sheet on my bed was not put on just the right way, I couldn’t sleep in my bed.  I would wake my husband up just to fix it.  I drove myself crazy trying to keep something in my world orderly because I had no sense of control anywhere else.

Eventually, I just fell apart.  I didn’t want my daughters to follow in my footsteps so I began dealing with my OCD issues by leaving the tassels on the rug askew.  It was like being tortured.  I made myself only dust once a week as opposed to daily.  Panic! I wouldn’t allow myself to even look in between the couch cushions except on Fridays.  Only then could I vacuum.  And, I’m not allowed to wake up my husband to adjust the sheets.  I just have to live with it.  Oh, the pain! But, I did it.  I even leave crumbs on the carpet now…for a few days! Victory is mine! This triumph over my anxiety has come, however, with addressing my lack of vision about my own future.

I still can’t see or envision having a future, but now I know why.  And, I know that it’s reasonable.  I survived a murderous psychopath who not only tried to sell me but also threatened to kill me! More than that, I tricked him and got away! And then there’s my family of origin…

We have to give ourselves credit for all that we’ve overcome to get where we are.  We are going to be scarred.  I may not be able to envision my own future, but I have people in my life who can.  This is what love means.  We find those people and ask them what they see in our futures.  We ask them to be seers for us.  Dream for us.  Think big for us because our imaginations are too small where our own lives are concerned.  I can see to the top of Mt. Everest for so many people.  I can see all the way to the bottom of the Marianas Trench even, but, when it comes to my own future, I get stuck.  I look in the mirror sometimes and I see the words scrawled above my head, “The girl who got away.”  Even I know that this is not good enough.  It’s an identity rooted in the past, but my brain’s been traumatized.  I need help sometimes.

For you, it’s okay if you need help, too.  It’s completely normal if you can’t see your own horizon or even the next few steps that everyone else can see except you.  It doesn’t mean that you’re weird or stupid or an outsider.  It just means that your brain developed differently because you were wounded along the way.  You experience time differently than others whose brains weren’t exposed to trauma.  It also means that it’s important that we ask our trusted allies for help in this area because we do need vision in life.  We need to know in our knowers that just because we can’t discern a future or dream a big dream or hold tight to a big, fat vision doesn’t mean that one or two or five don’t exist for us.  It just means that we haven’t crossed that threshold yet, but we just might.  And until then, keep asking the people who love you what their dreams for your life are because the last thing we want is to be rooted to our pasts particularly when our futures are quite possibly so good.

‘For I know what plans I have in mind for you,’ says Adonai, ‘plans for well-being, not for bad things; so that you can have hope and a future.’  Jeremiah 29:11