Their trauma is ours. Our healing is theirs.

I’m going to share something that might seem a little “woo-woo,” but I believe in it wholeheartedly and find it fascinating…

Yesterday, my therapist and I were talking about trauma and how it affects not only the person who lived through it, but also their children. And not just in the way you might think. A traumatized parent doesn’t just teach their children to be fearful through their words and actions. Children of traumatized parents are actually born with fear inside their DNA.

In 2013, a study was published in which scientists trained male rats to become fearful of a smell by pairing exposure to the smell with an electrical shock. Later, they ran an experiment on the offspring of these male rats and found that the babies were also afraid of the smell even though they had never been previously exposed to it. Not only that, but they were also born with more neurons in their noses and more brain space devoted to detecting that particular scent.

The implications of this are widespread and, to be honest, frightening. This means that I am not only dealing with fears and anxiety related to my own trauma, I am also dealing with the results of trauma passed down to me by my parents. This is shocking enough on it’s own, but last night my therapist told me that the woman who pioneered a method of brainspotting dedicated to generational trauma has discovered that trauma—and the healing of trauma—does not only affect the future, it can also affect the past.

(This is where it’s going to get really woo-woo.)

She shared the story of a client she’d been working with who suddenly broke into heart-wrenching sobs and kept repeating “This isn’t mine. I don’t know how to explain this, but this sadness isn’t mine.” My therapist then explained to her how generational trauma works and asked her to stay with the experience and tell her what she was thinking and feeling and allow herself to feel it. As the client continued to sob, she started seeing visions of bombs exploding and people running and realized she was in Germany during the war. As it turns out, the memories belonged to her grandmother. But the most incredible thing? As the granddaughter began the work of healing, the grandmother (who suffered from extreme depression and PTSD) also began to heal.

The idea that the healing of one generation could affect the trauma of a past generation sounds crazy, right? But many of those who have spent their lives working with this type of trauma have seen this multi-generational healing take place time and time again. They have seen entire families become healed from disfunction on both sides of the family tree when just a single member of that family heals. And if that seems too crazy to be true, consider this: in an experiment called The Double Slit Experiment, scientists have found that the simple act of observing something changes it. If that weren’t fascinating enough, it was also discovered that this change happens regardless of when the observation takes place. In other words, even if the detection happens AFTER the event, the mere act of observation changes the results.

There are energies that govern this Universe we cannot begin to understand. We are all connected.

 

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Owning My Story

During one particularly ugly fight, my partner made a list of all the horrible things I had said to her. These are a few of the worst. There are many, many others. I share them here as a way to bring to light what I would normally seek to hide and prevent the shame of having said them from holding power over me.

 

A few weeks ago, my (now ex) partner created a facebook group entitled “Own Your Story.” Created on the basis that “shame cannot survive exposure,” she hoped to establish a safe place for people to share things they felt shame over. This is something I have utilized my blog for, for years. It is a place for me to share things I would normally keep hidden and secret–things I least want people to know–because I know first-hand that there is a power in sharing. Over the past year, I have said and done many things I am deeply ashamed of–things NO ONE has known about, until very recently, when I finally gathered the courage to share with some of my closest friends. I now share publicly in an effort to remove the last remnants of shame and make myself accountable in the future. This is my story….

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“Why did you stay?”

The first time I ever met someone who related the story of an abusive relationship, this was the first question I asked. She, like so many others I later met, couldn’t answer. I never understood that.

Until now.

Now, I know. Now I understand–from the perhaps uncommon perspective of experience as both the abused and the abuser–how abuse happens so incredibly slowly it is difficult to recognize while it’s happening. I understand how, even once you see it, you can’t quite figure out how you got there. I understand how, even after months of experiencing (and, in my case,) inflicting suffering, you can’t quite figure out how to end it. How to leave. And so you stay. You try. You work. You hope. You read nineteen books on creating healthy relationships and twenty-three books on overcoming emotional abuse and speak to five different therapists about your trauma and triggers and childhood wounds and none of those numbers are exaggerated. You cry and beg and plead and negotiate and make promises you find yourself incapable of keeping.

I am not ignorant. I am an extremely self-aware woman of 41 years who has studied psychology as a hobby since childhood. Every behavior I tolerated and participated in over the past year were things I knew about BEFORE I entered this relationship. And yet, I found myself powerless to stop it and powerless to change. This is a very, very difficult thing to admit.

I have debated long and hard about sharing this story (semi) publicly (I will block our mutual friends,) because it is not just my story. But because writing is my primary way of overcoming shame, I know that sharing is an important step, and it is an especially critical step at this time in my life. As this is not just my story, I will remain vague regarding the details, but I must make one thing clear:

I am no innocent.

What happened between my partner and I over the past year marked one of the worst (and, paradoxically, best) periods of my life, both in how I was treated and in how I treated others. I would eventually liken this period to the image of my partner and I building a snowman, passing balls of snow between us, gathering more snow with every pass, until the snowman we eventually erected became the very definition of abominable. That is not ALL we built, however. And that is what has made it all so incredibly difficult. I did not—and still do not—want to end this relationship. But neither can I stay.

 

“You are going to feel like hell if you never write the stuff that is tugging on the sleeves in your heart — your memories, your truth, your version of things, in your voice. You own everything that ever happened to you. Tell your stories.”
—Anne Lamott

 

My version of this story started on our first trip together. Her version may start earlier. Perhaps when I invited her over for the first time, and she saw that Jon and I still acted as a married couple in many ways. Or perhaps during those times when I refused to limit the frequency of my phone conversations with a recent ex. But for me, it started when our plane landed and I did what I had always done when away from home: texted my (then) husband to let him know I’d arrived safely. At the time, Jon and I were still legally married and living together. We had not had a sexual relationship in over two years, but remained best friends and had decided to continue cohabitating for the sake of our children. My partner had known this from the time we met, over six months prior, and I had told her that this, and other friendships with exes, had been the downfall of some of my previous relationships. I warned her not to date me if she felt she would have a problem with these relationships. She assured me she wouldn’t. But that day, she said she felt threatened. She felt that in texting him, I was relying on Jon as a caregiver and she didn’t appreciate me checking in. We argued about it for quite some time, but everything she said eventually sounded reasonable, and I thought “well, it’s not a big deal. I’ll just text the kids to let them know.”

From that moment, our relationship became run by fear and insecurity as each of us worked diligently to make the other feel “safe.” We genuinely thought this was what we were supposed to do—that this was what a healthy relationship looked like–each of us taking responsibility for the other person’s emotions. Sometimes this was voluntary and we both gave things up for the benefit of the other. Often, however, it was not. Through a series of emotionally-charged and verbally abusive conversations, seemingly logical arguments, threats, and a very, very, very slow inch-by-inch push of boundaries, we both ended relationships that were extremely important to us and stopped doing things we once loved. It all made sense to us at the time. I recognized that some of my boundaries with exes were unhealthy, and she recognized the same in other areas of her life. We genuinely loved spending time together and let other interests lapse. The problem was that mixed in with things that were truly logical and reasonable and good was an undercurrent of extreme fear, insecurity, and control. Soon, we were unable to go more than a few days without descending into horrible fights. As time went on, we both found ourselves saying and doing things that felt completely out of character. After months of this, I began reading about emotional abuse, horrified to discover that not only was I being abused but, worse, I was abusing my partner. I made a list of things I was doing that fell under the definition of abuse and went through a number of therapists seeking someone who could help.

Over the course of those sessions, I began learning why I was acting out, why my behavior had gotten so far out of control, and why I was allowing abuse to happen to me. I learned (and am still learning) how events from my past had caused excessive trauma and how, in this relationship, my core wounds were being (to use the words of my therapist): “deeply, somatically triggered” in a way they never had been, before. This caused me to not only accept behavior that I ordinarily wouldn’t tolerate, but also caused me to lash out in horrific ways that were extremely out of character and incredibly damaging. The same can be said for my partner, as I was also triggering her deepest core wounds and causing her to act in ways that were uncharacteristic.

I am DEEPLY ashamed of the ways I treated my partner—the things I said and the ways I acted. I offer no excuse and share this as a way to both combat the near-debilitating affects of shame and also to hold myself accountable in the future.

This is not who I am. This is not who I want to be.

She and I have since begun a period of no-contact. I do not know if this will be permanent, and I do not know what will happen from here. I cannot help but hope that we will eventually heal and make it back to each other, but for now I know I must remain single and work on the things that have brought me to this place in order to prevent it from ever happening again. There are no words to express the remorse I feel for everything that has happened over the past year. It is not possible to articulate just how much regret I carry. The only comfort I have is in knowing that I will not stay in this place. I will not continue to be this person. I will figure this out, and I will change.

To all those I have hurt along the way, to those I gave up, to those I forced my partner to give up (even if you never read this), and to my partner, especially:

I am deeply, deeply sorry.

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Related Articles:

Turtle Shell Security

Fireproof

Taming the Dragon

 

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A Little Leaven

“I am convinced that the negative has power. It lives. And if you allow it to perch in your house, in your mind, in your life, it can take you over. So when the rude or cruel thing is said, I say, ‘Take it all out of my house!’ Those negative words climb into the woodwork and into the furniture, and the next thing you know they’ll be on my skin.”
—Maya Angelou

I can still remember what it felt like, shedding my uniform the moment I got home as if it were covered in filth, the hot tears rolling down my face, the lump in my throat as I choked out the words: “I just don’t like who I am anymore!”

I was twenty years old, working a job I loved with people I didn’t. My co-workers at the nursing home were sarcastic, nosey, impatient in their care, talked badly about each other and the residents, and complained all the time. And little by little, I found myself slipping into those same behaviors utterly against my will. I sometimes felt nearly possessed–completely powerless not to engage in acting that way, no matter how hard I tried to stop and even though I found my own behavior abhorrent.

It was the first time I’d ever experienced the principal Angelou talks about here–the one referenced numerous times throughout the bible admonishing us to be careful of the company we keep. Because it is a law just as reliable as the that of gravity: We become like those we spend our time with. Whether we want to or not.

Eventually, we begin to consider it normal. Sarcasm is “just how we talk” in our family. Gossip is “just what we do” with our friends. Criticism is “just how we motivate people.” Nasty, hateful, condescending remarks are “just how we cope.” But that experience, twenty-some years ago? It taught me a very valuable lesson about the power of influence: If a certain behavior is not a part of the character I want to build or who I want to be in this world, then I must limit my interaction with those who participate in that behavior. No matter who they are. No matter how much I love them.

Since that time, I have carefully guarded the energy I have allowed into my home and diligently limited my interactions with those who participate in behaviors I wish to see less of in my own life. I have even censored my facebook feed to keep from being bombarded with negative comments and sarcastic or condescending humor (this is especially difficult during election years!) But recently, I have been slipping in this area, and have found myself repeating those same words from so long ago:

“I don’t like who I am, anymore.”

I DO NOT LIKE WHO I AM.

It is a painful, but necessary, realization. And the steps to change this will be neither simple nor easy. But they are necessary.

“Energy is contagious. Either you affect people, or people infect you.”
– T. Harv Eker

There is no middle ground.

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Taming the Dragon

“The brain sees what the heart wants to feel.”
–Shallow Hal

I read this recently and thought it perfectly summed up something I’ve been working on for a few years (and more so lately): Paying attention to the motives and meanings I assign to events that happen in my life. When it comes to romantic relationships, especially, I can easily assign negative meaning to otherwise neutral events, because even though my heart doesn’t actually want to feel rejection, it is hyper-vigilant about looking for rejection in an effort to protect itself, and so I constantly interpret events based on that fear. For instance, if my partner chooses to spend time with friends or family instead of me, my story becomes: “she would rather be with them.” Or if she’s conversing with an ex who tells my partner they miss her, I assume this must mean the ex still has romantic feelings toward my partner. And God forbid my partner reciprocate that sentiment, because then all hell breaks loose inside my mind. If my partner “like’s” other women’s pictures on facebook (and especially if she comments on them,) if she doesn’t text to say “I love you” when I leave the house, if she’s too busy with friends or family to talk when I call, if she shares something funny she sees with someone else rather than with me… these all get interpreted in my mind as some version of “she doesn’t care” or “she’s going to leave” and there are literally thousands of ways my fears and insecurities can be triggered on a daily basis.

The interesting thing to me about this is that it’s not something that happens to everyone. I know plenty of people who don’t assign this sort of meaning to events and circumstances, and my therapist says this is because these people have am inner sense of safety that keeps them from being afraid of rejection and abandonment, and it allows them to interpret events like this from a place of love and acceptance instead of fear. By contrast, I am hyper-vigilant in searching for any evidence that even remotely looks threatening. Because I hold the terrifying belief that people are going to leave or suddenly stop loving me, my mind feels it must constantly look for threats and work to keep this from happening at all costs. As a friend recently said: I am constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, and trying to do all I can to keep it from doing so. Unfortunately, this means that I not only look for potential threat, I also find threat where none exists, much like the survivor suffering from PTSD whose heart might race at any loud noise, regardless of the source.

This tendency to interpret events through the lens of what we already believe is called confirmation bias. I have written about this in depth before, but in brief, confirmation bias is our tendency to search for and interpret information in a way that confirms what we already believe. It leads us to subconsciously ignore facts that run contrary to what we assume is true and actively search out information that confirms our opinion. You can easily see this play out if you’ve ever had an overly-sensitive friend or partner who gets offended by a missed call or canceled plans. No matter how many calls you’ve returned or how many get-togethers you’ve attended, the day you miss one, this person feels hurt and rejected. You may reason with them saying “but I did x and y and z, how can you think that I don’t care?” But in that moment, they’re caught up in their story—interpreting the missed call or event according to what they already believe or fear—and cannot be convinced otherwise.

Why? Because “the brain sees what the heart wants to feel.” (Or, in this case, not what it “wants” to feel, but what our past experiences and trauma have taught it to feel and work to protect itself from.) The good news is that with effort we can literally re-train our minds not to think this way by paying close attention to our thoughts. I wrote more about that here, but one quick and easy tool I have found and am working to apply is a suggestion by Martha Beck, who says the best thing we can possibly do in this struggle is to imagine our fearful thoughts as coming from a little dragon perched on our shoulders whispering terrible things. She says rather than believing those things, struggling against them, or trying to find 1,763 ways to keep ourselves “safe” from what it tells us, we must simply pet the dragon on the head and say: “there, there, thank you for sharing. Now go to sleep.” (Similar to a process I described years ago, here.)

Today, I am reminding myself that my dragon particularly loves to whisper tales of rejection and abandonment, and if I listen I will find these things even where they do not exist. Today, I am reminding myself that fear is just a feeling, and right now–right this very moment–I am sitting in bed with a laptop in front of me and none of the terrifying things I am afraid of are happening. As Jonathan Fields once said:

“Fear is an anticipatory emotion. Once you’re in the moment and you have the ability to actually respond to what’s in front of you, fear becomes nearly impossible to sustain.”

I don’t want to spend one more precious moment of this life making myself miserable ruminating over something that might happen. I don’t want to spend my time miserably trying to figure out how to keep from feeling future pain, while inflicting actual pain on myself with thoughts of fear regarding the future. My worry has yet to result in a problem-free existence, and during those relatively rare times when the things I fear actually do come to pass they’ve never been as bad as what I anticipated them to be, and, one way or another, ALWAYS come with the strength I need to get through them.

Today, I am reminding myself:

“Worry is a misuse of the imagination”
– Dan Zadra

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Related Articles:

Confirmation bias – how our thoughts shape our reality and how we can use this to create a better life

Revolution

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Fireproof

Yesterday, my therapist and I spoke about control. Specifically, the desire to control people and things outside ourselves. She said exactly what every mental health professional and book I’ve ever come across has said–that the only thing in this world we can control is ourselves. But then she added something I’d heard, before, but never quite understood. She said that when we feel fear, it is because we do not TRUST OURSELVES. That fear is a lack of confidence in our own ability to manage the things that happen or might happen to us.

She went on to say that this lack of confidence is the root of all anxiety. That those of us who suffer with anxiety are constantly looking to control everything external about our lives, because we are afraid that if the thing we deem bad or scary happens to us we will not be able to handle it.

“Every fear has a root,” she said. “Our job is to find that root, because once we find it, we can then address the core need that drives the fear.”

For instance, I struggle with “FOMO” (fear of missing out.) Whenever my partner goes places and does things without me, I become anxious and afraid. But that fear, like every fear, has a root—it’s not about my partner doing things without me, it’s about the fact that somewhere along the way I learned that others going and doing things without me equaled rejection and abandonment. So my core need is to belong and my fear is a lack of confidence in my ability to handle rejection and abandonment.

Here’s the amazing thing about this:

If I walk the fear backward, I eventually get to the root of my own lack of confidence, and that is something within my power to change. To give an easy example, (though not one I’m currently struggling with) if I walk backward through the fear, the statement: “I am afraid my partner will cheat on me,” eventually becomes: “I am afraid of rejection, losing my partner, and losing trust” which eventually becomes “I am afraid that I cannot get over rejection, I cannot get over losing my partner, and I do not know how to trust once trust is broken.”

The difference might seem slight, but it changes everything. In the first statement (where most of us usually stop), the only possible action I have to prevent my fear from becoming a reality is to constantly monitor my partner for signs of cheating and try to control their behavior in an effort to make sure that never happens. With the last statement, however, the solution can be found within myself. I can learn how to handle rejection in appropriate, healthy ways; get over loss; and trust again, even after heartbreak.

And in that tiny, tiny shift, the world suddenly looks a little less scary. I may not yet know how to trust again if my partner cheats on me, but I can learn. And in that, there is a tremendous amount of peace. My job becomes less about making sure nothing “bad” ever happens, and more about making sure I can handle whatever happens. Whether it’s the loss of a home, a job, a relationship, physical health, or the failure of achieving a lifetime goal, my focus changes from making sure these things never happen to building the skills and acquiring the tools necessary to become confident in my ability to travel successfully through everything that comes my way. As Glennon Doyle once said:

“Every time I’ve walked through the mess that I thought would burn me up, I’ve come through unscathed. And after doing this often enough you learn that you can go through anything. The secret is not that I have to avoid the fires, but that the fires will never burn me up.

I have learned that I am fireproof.”

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Breadcrumbs Home

In Jordan Peterson’s book “Beyond Order, 12 More Rules for Life,” he lists rule number two as:

“Imagine who you could be, and then aim single-mindedly at that.”

Peterson asks the question “who could you be, if you were everything you could conceivably be?” He makes the point that we are all compelled forward by things that inexplicably grip our attention. He likens these things to lamps along a dark path—part of our unconscious processes which serve to develop our spirits and bring us into the life we are meant to live. He writes: “You do not choose what interests you. It chooses you. Something manifests itself out of the darkness as compelling, as worth living for. Following that, something else moves us further down the road to the next meaningful thing, and so it goes. The adventure of our lives.”

Martha Beck says something similar in her book The Way of Integrity: “Every single choice is a chance to turn toward the life you really want.”

Glennon Doyle calls this “following the ‘next right step.”

Anne Lamott likens it to driving through a fog at night: We can only see as far as the headlights, but we can make it all the way home that way.

What is the life I really want? For almost a year now, I have struggled with this question. I have allowed what others wanted for me, or what others told me I ought to want, to throw me off balance and set me off track. I have followed the voices of those around me–voices of those I love, voices of those I trust, voices of those who have sincerely had my best interests in mind–but whose voices WERE NOT MY OWN. Until recently, when I looked up and found myself deeply lost inside what Martha Beck calls “The Dark Wood of Error.”

Suddenly, I realized that I’d lost touch of my OWN voice, that deep “knowing” that has been guiding me for the past three years. I’d lost my peace, my serenity, even, at times, my capacity for basic human kindness. This realization terrified me. I told someone recently that I feel lately like every single decision I make is the wrong one. And I realize now that this feeling comes from the fact that for the past year, many of my decisions have not been my own.

There is only one way I know to move out of this “dark wood”: One step, one choice, one decision at a time. One slight move toward the life I want. One tiny turn toward the things that inspire me, resonate with me, and bring me joy. One breadcrumb after another until I find my way home again. Regardless of what anyone else thinks. Regardless of how anyone else responds. As Beck writes, and I have found to be true in my own life, “every single choice is a chance to turn toward the life you really want. Repeatedly putting a little less time into what you don’t love, and a little more into what you do love, is your next step in the way of integrity.”

What does this mean for me? It means I choose my own path, which will, by necessity, look different than anyone else’s. It means I suffer the consequences of other people’s judgment. It means I may, and probably will, lose people along the way. It means, as Heidi Priebe wrote in her essay, You Should Choose the Lifestyle You Want Over the Person You Want, “I throw myself into the heart of possibility instead of staying comfortably settled inside of certainty. Because I owe it to myself to do so. I owe it to myself to live the greatest life I’m capable of living.”

Even if that means I have to live it alone.

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Turtle Shell Security

My therapist recently told me that it is not within my power to make other people feel safe and that safety is something we must each create for ourselves. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, lately, especially as it relates to some of my destructive patterns within relationships.

Studies have shown that our feelings of safety are developed when we are very young. If parents manage to create a safe environment for their children and maintain a proper bond with them, those children will eventually come to view the world as a safe place and relate to it as such. (In psychological circles, this is defined as Secure Attachment.) This feeling of safety becomes a core part of who that person is just as solidly as a shell is part of a turtle.

But if we do not have that—if our child selves are not bonded with our caregivers or kept safe by the people who are supposed to keep us safe—we never develop this core sense of safety. As adults, biologically driven by the need to feel safe, we spend our lives searching for it, trying on this relationship and that relationship, this environment and that environment, this new thing and that new thing, all in an effort to find safety in the same way a shell-less turtle might try to squeeze himself into a conch shell. But the thing about turtles is that they don’t belong in conch shells. Turtles belong in turtle shells, and turtle shells are grown, not found.

And this is where things get hard. Because whenever I experience pain or fear or any emotions I deem negative, those feelings hit my soft turtle parts where I’m lacking a protective safe place. My response to this is most often to reach out to those closest to me, begging them to change their actions, meet my needs, do this, do that, go here, don’t go there, say it this way, do it that way, in short: FIX IT. But the thing is: everything anyone does to “fix it” is like squeezing a turtle into a conch shell. It might give me the illusion of safety, but in the end it just won’t work. There are always parts left uncovered, and no matter how many shells are found and no matter how many ways they are configured, nothing—not one single thing anyone ever does—will ever work. Because at the end of the day, the only safe place that will ever truly protect me is the one I create myself.

And this is work that only I can do. This is work that is done through allowing myself exposure to the things that scare and cause me pain, dealing with my own emotions, learning how to self-regulate, creating personal boundaries, developing healthy coping skills, learning effective ways to communicate, etc. And as I do each of these things, moment by moment, day by day, I grow a little bit of shell. And then a little more. Until one day, I have a safe place that I can take with me anywhere I go that will give me the security I want so much, no matter what life brings my way.

Others may be able to help with this process, and support should certainly be sought along the way, but ultimately only I can create my own safe place.

This is my work.

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