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Trauma-Driven Decisions: How to Stop Before They Happen

If you had trauma when you were little, I’m going to guess that you’ve made some really bad decisions in your life… strange self-sabotaging decisions about relationships, jobs, or the way you express yourself when you’re angry. 

And you know you’re doing something that’s not right because the people around you are giving you that concerned, judgy face. Do you know that face I’m talking about? 

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But because of that agitation inside from past trauma, you can’t see in the moment that you’re making a terrible decision. So instead of pulling back to think, perhaps you blame the people judging you, thinking “They don’t understand me!”  

And then you make that self-destructive choice anyway — to move in with someone you just met, or marry someone who treats you badly, or go the other way and choose to isolate yourself, or to storm out of a job you actually liked and needed — because your past trauma got triggered and you felt this urgent need to make the feeling stop. Have you done this? 

These are the decisions that change the course of your life — cut you off from what you want and keep you stuck, and in danger of even more trauma. I call these trauma-driven decisions. 

You thought you were doing the right thing, but your trauma was distorting your perception.

If you’ve made some decisions that were driven by past trauma, I want to help you change that pattern — to look at how you know that’s what you’re doing, and teach you how to make better decisions going forward, even if you’re still in the early stages of healing from what happened to you.

A trauma-driven decision is when you choose something important without being in touch with what you actually want, with your own values, or with what is in your best interest. In the moment you have to make that decision, you’re thinking — “Oh no, I’m trapped!” Or “I better take whatever I can get or I’m going to end up alone.”  Or you submit to pressure to make a financial decision that you KNOW on some level isn’t a good idea.

Why do we do this?

It could be dysregulation, which you’ve heard me talk about a lot. That’s the chaotic state you may have experienced when something triggers you; you might feel flustered, or your mind goes blank, or you’ll react with strong emotions or even emotional numbness. A lot of systems in your brain and nervous systems are going slightly out of sync when you’re dysregulated, including your mood, your thinking, and your physiology. In particular, it can complicate your thinking when you’re making a decision. This study out of the University of Wisconsin explains what happens.

For people who experienced abuse and neglect in childhood, a present day stressor can short-circuit your reasoning and make it hard to assign appropriate “weight” to the relative risks involved in the decisions that face you.  You can’t see the downsides of them — not accurately and not in the moment. 

And at the same time, the stress of the decision heightens your emotions. Let’s say you’re on a first date — you know you shouldn’t rush in but just the act of trying to decide what to do at the end of the evening can shut down your ability to evaluate risk. It can increase the emotional intensity that’s telling you Yeah! Go do it! There’s nothing to lose! 

And this fuzzy decision-making can happen in all areas of your life, when you’re thinking of buying a television, or when you feel like giving your boss a piece of your mind, or when you’re tempted to tell a small lie about something. 

In the moment it seems like no big deal. But with CPTSD you’re normal sense of what’s a good idea and a bad idea is shut down. You can’t sense the potential consequences. Not really. 

From the outside it looks like plain old impulsiveness, and yes, that accurately describes what it is.  But that’s not what it feels like. And I want you to think about these feelings because they can help you to notice when you’re about to make a trauma-driven decision. Just noticing this can help you pause your decision making and use your tools to re-regulate yourself and get a reality check. 

We need that, because CPTSD can cause us to make major decisions for reasons other than what’s best for us.  Our trauma can distort reality and drive the decision. Anger does it. Shame does it. Hating ourselves does it. Trauma brings up harsh emotions and we become willing to do anything to make the feeling stop.

CPTSD can create a constant emotional background in which there is desperation just to feel OK. It can drive you to grasp on to rash decisions for what feels like survival, or what feels like the only chance to have that one good thing you never had, and it feels worth it to just go for it no matter what happens after that. I understand that. I’ve been there. When you make some ridiculous sacrifice to know the feeling of fulfillment  just for a little bit. To try to feel some dignity, some legitimacy. 

And you know on some level it won’t work out but at least it’s something instead of nothing. At least you’re trying. So when you’re in the process of deciding something destructive, that’s not what it FEELS like. 

Sometimes the trauma driven decision is to say terrible things to people. It seems so necessary in the moment. Something uncomfortable happens and your trauma thinks — See? Everyone does this to me and I’ve got to stop it! 

So you say something hurtful, or never speak to them again. And you know, it hurts you more than it hurts other people most of the time– but make no mistake — trauma driven decisions CAN hurt other people. Especially the ones who depend on you.

So let’s go over ways you can tell when you’re making a trauma-driven decision: 

  1. You’re telling yourself that a situation you’re about to get into may be bad, but you’re rationalizing it by telling yourself that without this relationship, no one will love you, or no other place will hire you, or no other landlord will rent to you. This is what I call Crapfit. You go running out on something you normally feel is a good part of your life — a job or relationship or friendship — out of anger, or shame, or panic, or to make someone “see how it feels.” I’ll show them… Have you ever done that?
  2. You think about hurting yourself. This is the ultimate trauma-driven decision, and if that’s happening for YOU right now don’t even read the rest of this. Please reach out to a person who can help you. If you need online therapy, click here. 
  3. You do something another person wants, only because you’re not yet strong enough to say it’s not what you want. Sometimes this is people-pleasing, or coercion.  Or sometimes it’s just confusion about what you want.  CPTSD can make it hard to hold that knowledge when you’re in the presence of other people who express themselves easily about their wants and needs. If you think you don’t deserve to have a voice when you’re making decisions with someone else — that could be the trauma talking.  
  4. You could be making a trauma-driven decision when You find your standards for what’s acceptable are going ALL over the place. One day you say you won’t tolerate something, the next day you have some reason why this time it’s OK. We’ve all done that, right? 
  5. You’re accepting unacceptable things with the rationale that in the future, you’ll start requiring something better, or in the future the other person will change, or in the future, you’ll change, or you’ll have different choices. 
  6. When you’re thinking about making a tough decision, you find yourself avoiding talking to anyone because you suspect (or know) that they’ll see right through it and call you out on it. So either you hide, or lie, or omit little details to avoid their judgment, basically because you’re ashamed because you KNOW the decision is not a good one.  

What can you do? Here are seven things:

  1. Write down what you REALLY want in your life. Don’t omit things just because they seem impossible. Keep this as a reference when stress, dysregulation and pressure to make a fast decision about something tempts you toward accepting less than what you want. 
  2. Slow down your decisions. People with CPTSD just do better when they have time to consider big decisions, especially if emotions like fear, lust or anger are running high.
  3. Run decisions by a trusted friend or mentor. This needs to be someone who has at least some wisdom about life, and who has your best interests at heart.
  4. Four, you can do some research on your options. This is called due diligence. You can get online, do some research, ask people who might have faced this decision before. 
  5. Five, when someone else is involved in your decision making, you can muster the courage to express your concerns about going forward. Sometimes when magical thinking is happening between two people, it only takes one person to say how they really feel, or what they fear, and the magic vanishes, leaving behind the real part — which is good. Reality is where you want to be. 
  6. If you have to make a big decision alone, you can try thinking of someone in your life, living or dead, who loves you and cares about you, and Ask yourself — given what I know today, what would THEY tell me to do? Or what would a person who doesn’t have CPTSD do? Is this something that needs more time, for me to figure out whether it’s good for me? Is this good for my children? (what’s good for them is generally good for you.)
  7. While you’re thinking it through, check in with yourself. Some things you can ask yourself are: Is there something you know, but you’re trying not to see? Are you choosing next steps that will lead to those things you really want, or keep those options open? Is there anything you don’t like about the choice you’re considering?
  8. And finally, with any choice that worries you, think for a moment if you are still able to make a different choice. With the choice that worries you, visualize what steps you’d take, and what it feels like to change your mind. You might not change your mind, but at least the possibility of changing your mind is real to you and doable for you, and you can see how that feels. 

One great thing about healing trauma is that you have choices. That means when you make a mistake (and we ALL make mistakes) you’ll have the ability to see it and do something about it, and get back on your path quickly.

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