When the world around you becomes unstable, there are two basic energies you can adopt. For those who went through trauma as a child, it’s hard to avoid getting stuck in one of them.
As much as we need safety, inside and out — we also need growth. If you have Childhood PTSD and you always favor self-protection, then times of crisis like we’re going through right now are likely to make your symptoms worse and worse. So what can you do to stop this?
As I’m writing this, we’re almost four months into a worldwide lockdown, and we’re just emerging from an intense period of protest and unrest. (If you’re reading many months or years from now, I do hope you’re in a more peaceful and loving world than we are at the moment).
This is a hard time – particularly for people who have been through trauma. By trauma, I mean abuse and neglect and exposure to addiction and mental illness. But trauma is also the type of things we’re seeing or experiencing right now — people killing, attacking and screaming at each other; people living in fear that violence is always about to break out; people going through what you maybe went through when you were a kid – being dehumanized, locked up, beaten or bullied, stereotyped, scapegoated or lied about, or blamed for things you didn’t do — getting cast out, excluded, disinvited, banned, unfriended — feeling afraid to express yourself, to be yourself, to question what you are told… trembling inside at the thought of speaking up, or defending other people, being forced to comply, to conform or be silent, until in the end, you silenced yourself. You shut yourself down, and why? For self-protection.
Is there anyone watching this turbulence who isn’t feeling all that trauma coming back up? Around me I see a whole lot of traumatized people. I see dysregulation, something traumatized people don’t often have control over, because after childhood trauma, getting hurt can throw us into a brain and nervous system reaction; a kind of mental and physical chaos, where emotions flare up or go totally numb.
Either way, when traumatized and dysregulated people come into contact with a new trauma, like those we’re coming into contact with right now, unhealed people will go off like a grenade. Some will explode outward, and some will explode inward, into self-hate and self-harm and self-erasing. Each of us, in an unrecovered state, is a microcosm of riot — or lockdown. You might find yourself going back and forth between both extremes, because that’s what we do.
Childhood PTSD loves extreme thinking. When you’re lost and dysregulated, extreme thinking can provide an anchor, but the price of having this anchor is that you stay stuck.
I want to show you a more balanced way to care for these two competing needs within yourself: the need for self-protection and the need for growth. I won’t lie and say “Oh growth! Yay! It’s the only way to go!”. We need growth, but we need self-protection too.
So, let’s look at self-protection and what’s good about it. Self-protection is how you step back from turbulence and give yourself space to get your equilibrium. Self-protection is how you set boundaries, how you stay aware of your own limits and don’t put yourself into situations where you know it’s going to be too much for you — maybe you stay away from any place where people are yelling or throwing things, or hurling words, because you know you get so dysregulated that you end up falling into behaviors or moods that’ll turn your life upside down. Then you really can’t solve anything.
Maybe you don’t have contact with people who have abused you — or you maintain a relationship with them, but you keep it light, and don’t get into long visits or deep conversations. There are situations other people can handle but sometimes we’re not there yet, and for the sake of our continued healing, we protect ourselves.
But, if we’re not also attending to our need for growth, self-protection can turn toxic. It turns into that very thing that traumatized us: the isolation, the self-silencing, or self-righteously trying to silence or shame other people, not because they’ve done anything criminal, but because we just can’t handle our own reaction to them.
This urge to block out or push down other people who make us uncomfortable can go to horrible extremes. It’s how wars start, and it’s how genocide ends. So self-protection is a good thing that must be balanced by growth.
Now let’s look at growth: Growth is that urge within us for self-examination, to envision who we want to become and how we need to change to get there. Growth means reaching out, asking questions, learning, challenging our assumptions and beliefs and listening and reading and befriending people with different ideas and experiences. Growth is thinking for ourselves, taking action and taking responsibility for ourselves and for problems in the world that we can help to solve.
Growth taken to the extreme can become grandiosity and insensitivity to the feelings of other people, and that too can be isolating. All that action can be a way of numbing out for a person with Childhood PTSD. It can be a set up for a breakdown. It’s good to take big leaps but to keep our healing moving forward, there is also a time to pause and remember self-protection, to call to mind who you really are, how you really feel, what your limits are, to give a little space to get your thinking a little simpler and clearer.
So… self-protection and growth. Self-protection helps us stay measured and steady, while we grow and become who we really are. Then the next time you find yourself in a crisis, you handle it differently. You’re steadier inside, and stronger, and wiser. If you’re ever going to help people or change the world, you’ll need to be steady, strong and wise.
So work on that, and watch for those people who have those strengths, and how they handle problems, how they resist easy divisions and judgments of other people, how they’re able to keep calm even when other people are yelling all around them. How they seem to naturally emanate a feeling of goodness, and how the people around them seem to soften a little, and stand up straighter, and become open and willing to approach the problems they’re facing with something more real.
That’s because calm and goodness is infectious. Hate and chaos are infectious too. You have to choose. Calm or chaos. Hate, or love.
And even though in any given day or situation, love may seem weak or irrelevant or it looks like consent for abuse and injustice, it’s not. If you meet hate with hate, you might knock down your opponent that day, but the change you crave never comes.
It’s love that can arrest the chaos, even in the pain and rage. It’s the one thing that’s made real and lasting change over time. You can force the behavior that looks like obedience or justice but after a day or two, you won’t be satisfied. The good feeling you had for a minute comes up hollow, because only love would ever fulfill the thing your anger actually needs. Not tolerance, but love. Only love from the people who have hurt you and held you down would ever reach the insides of your bones with that sense of true justice and healing — that they would see you with the eyes of love, not only for the goodness in you that’s been ignored, but the goodness beyond what you even knew was in there. It would transform everything, wouldn’t it? It would make it so much easier to go through life. You couldn’t help but feel love right back,in that part of you that struggles with that, and you deserve to feel and receive it.
You deserved it when you were little and you deserve it now. We all know in our hearts it needs to be set right. If it seems like such a faraway dream that this love would ever be given to you, or that you’d feel it? I know! It seems that way!
Maybe you feel cut off, with nowhere to even start. You’ll want to grasp at things — accusations or sticks or lawsuits. There’s a time and a place for those, but no stick, no person or government is powerful enough to just make people be kind and just and loving. And yet, in certain moments, we’ve experienced that kindness and love.
Love grows through a different mechanism. It spreads from one person to another. And just as a little virus that you can barely see with a microscope could bring down the world economy, the tiniest of changes inside you, from a tight, shaky sour place of isolation, to something stronger and more balanced between self, and the world, who you are now, who you will become — safety, and growth — this shift could be the thing that changes everything. It starts inside. It develops right along side the healing of that primal injury that comes from abuse and neglect, and that’s our ability to feel and connect with other people.
This is a place of struggle for just everyone with trauma. The reason we heal is not just to feel better, it’s to become our real selves, and there may be opportunities to use your own experiences of suffering and healing, to be the change that you want to bring to this world.
If you think you may have Childhood PTSD, take my quiz here.
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