Working Through Life
Last week, as I recorded a Wellness Boost on trauma that lasts after a car crash, I began to think about trauma in our lives. Some traumas occur in a moment in time, like an accident, and some are ongoing like verbal abuse, perpetual invalidation, or being continually afraid in situations and not feeling safe.
I have really been paying attention to my trauma response. What usually happens is my brain is triggered and goes off-line. Even though I am an adult, I know I am safe, and I am pretty levelheaded, I begin to feel fear creep in, and like a flash – BAM! – the frontal cortex of my brain goes completely dark. All I can really think about is ending the conversation, crying, or being louder/yelling/wanting to punch something. When this happens, I sit with my feelings.
By no means am I a master at observation. It’s a new skill that takes much practice. I am learning to calmly say what I’m feeling as it’s happening, so the person I’m with doesn’t feel the brunt of my distress. This works both ways. For example, I have said, “My brain is off-line, and for some reason I don’t feel safe talking about this. I’m going to need a minute or maybe a day or two.” This only works in a conversation when the person is calm and supportive. If I’m being yelled at, I’ve learned to just end the conversation and allow myself to have a good cry while I reset my brain, or call a fellow energy worker to do the reset for me, if it’s too much.
Maybe you’re wondering what created this behavioral response in me; I wonder that, too. I’ve traced it back to being scared as an empathic child – feeling all my big feelings, and my parents’ big feelings felt overwhelming. As a kid, I couldn’t tell what was mine and what was theirs. It’s only been in the last few years that I have gotten really clear on what’s me, and what’s someone else. I also learned how to handle my emotions, just as all children do, through mirroring. I would mirror the parent’s emotion but then would be in trouble for not being happy. My parents always wanted me to be happy which is sweet on the surface, but a huge disservice because it wasn’t ok to be sad, angry, or worried. And trust me, I lived with a stomach ache and an overactive triple warmer from my anxieties and worry all through junior high, and into college, just trying to “be happy.” Picture me armpits sweating, depressed, crying alone, feeling insecure, riddled with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue.
What I learned was to shut down my feelings and needs – suppress, suppress, suppress – in order to make the other person happy, because feeling their unhappiness and disappointment was doubly worrying for me; now I had my emotions to juggle, and theirs. So, I stopped standing up for myself. I acquiesced to everyone’s needs, I dated guys too long because I didn’t want to hurt them (Why was it okay to hurt me? We’ll talk about that another day). I kept friends who used me, and I became a people pleaser.
I was less overwhelmed because, in a way, because I was controlling their response by making them happy at my expense. This behavior made me appear happy on the outside, and often I was, because I could feel their happiness, too. But at some point, little by little, I became resentful as well. I was angry deep inside, and very much felt taken for granted; like I didn’t matter. I started to unwind what was mine and what wasn’t, and I began to change. I spoke up a little more. I fought for myself a little more. I let go of making everyone happy. I sat with my feelings. I made angry, hurt art. I cried, and then I cried some more. And with time, I started to realize I could change it all. I could call it what it was, I could take off my rose-colored glasses and see what was vs. what could be. The reality was I had created one world trying to be happy but it was an alternate universe, one in which I was terribly unhappy. So, I made changes. I resigned from my job. I found my vocation. I became more loving to myself. I healed through energy work, Reiki, journaling, exercise, long walks alone, art, and breath work.
And then I changed how honest I was in relationships. I left my marriage. I worked through all the feelings with my mom before she passed, and accepted deep in my soul that she did the best she could out of love, and it helped heal me. It empowered me.
I still struggle to have hard conversations. I delay, I debate, I overthink, and I journal until I summon bravery, and I do it. It’s going better than I had imagined. I am still changing, still growing. I don’t want trauma to control my life, my level of vulnerability, or my ability to truly connect to peace. I am doing the work, every minute of every day.
Perhaps some of this rings true for you; perhaps none of it does. I have watched enough people healing in eight years to know that you, too, have suffered some trauma in your life that made you feel unsafe, or unlovable, or not enough. No one gets off this earth without some deep hurt. You can heal. You can be gentle and ask yourself what would help you heal. Perhaps learning to self-soothe is your first step vs. numbing the pain with TV, alcohol, busyness (my favorite mind-numbing activity), drugs, or food. You can change your thoughts and say, “I choose to sit with this until I figure it out.” You can take a walk, reset your brain, commit to change, communicate, and try again.
While it might not always be comfortable, it is worth it to feel safe, secure, and have real open communication. Observing my thoughts has helped me learn how I feel, what I think, and how to recognize I am not my negative feelings or thoughts. I’ve learned to use energy work to reset my brain and bring it back online so that I feel safe, allowing me to be vulnerable with others. I’ve learned to observe and not absorb everyone else’s emotions. And it feels amazing! I want you to feel amazing.