Growing up with abuse and neglect can give you a habit – a pattern of behavior where, when something makes no sense and you feel confused by it, you PRETEND it’s perfectly clear.
It’s understandable why anyone who is living in fear would do that; it’s self-protection, so people won’t get mad, so they won’t leave you, so you don’t have to feel foolish for misreading someone’s intentions. But confusion is one of those side effects of early trauma that feeds on itself and ends up winding its way into your whole way of thinking and being. And this can go on so long, you can’t remember anymore how you really feel, versus what you PRETEND you feel.
You get so used to feeling off balance and having to GUESS what people around you are feeling that you lose your ordinary powers of perception to READ reality accurately.
You might be in a relationship that you thought was serious but then find out the other person thinks of you as “on the side,” for example. So you force yourself to be “fine” with the arrangement. Or you might be having coffee with a new friend but it dawns on you that your friend is trying to sell you something – so you pretend you’re interested in the sales pitch. (Maybe you even bought something just to avoid the awkwardness of saying anything.) Or you might lack clarity in a work situation; you were promised a raise by a certain date and nothing happens, nothing is said about it. So you pretend this was never discussed or promised, and stay silent. Or worse, you become self-critical for understanding the original promise “wrong.” Or you imagine you must have done something wrong to change the boss’ mind. Should you say anything? You decide to say nothing, and stay for years in grudging silence that has a vague cloud of shame around it.
These are the kinds of dilemmas that rise up in your life when you’re not confident in your own discernment – when you have no clarity. I’m going to talk about how to tell when that’s happening, and what to do about it.
When you were a kid and you got mistreated, one of your coping mechanisms might have been to just go into a fog of denial.
Let’s say you witnessed a violent argument in the house. Everyone pretended it didn’t happen, so you pretended too. This fog of denial may have helped you tolerate the horrible implications of what you actually saw. It helped you carry on with your little-kid life, having friends, and going to school. Your skill in blocking this out was incredibly valuable, because chances are, if there was violence one time there was violence a lot of times. There was a lot you couldn’t afford to LET IN to your consciousness.
But now you’re an adult. If the fog of denial is still one of your (unconscious) reactions to stressful experiences, you may find you’re still responding to mistreatment, instability, anxiety and danger by blanking out – by pretending everything is fine. If so, it’s likely you also find you struggle in many ways to stand up for yourself, to set boundaries, and to ask questions! But rest assured, these agreeable behaviors that passes for being “nice” or “easygoing” is neither nice, nor easy.
Being foggy is a vulnerable state where your Childhood PTSD behaviors tend to activate into high gear – clinging, obsessing, people pleasing, or ”crapfitting” (that’s my word for when you fit yourself to crap — to unacceptable situations or people). Discernment is then complicated by abandonment wounds, where every time you think of leaving, it’s as if a switch flips in your mind, and you lose your will, your discernment about what actions would be best. You stay paralyzed in a fog. You probably blame yourself. Maybe you have trouble recognizing danger, or feeling love, or knowing when you’ve worn out your welcome and it’s time to get up from your friend’s table and say good night. Or you might have a tendency to block out a painful truth with something you think explains it away. Like maybe someone you’ve been dating says they feel like the relationship needs to end.
But instead of feeling the pain of rejection, you get busy researching mental health conditions that could explain why they want to leave you – and you start pushing books on them and trying to “help” them. People with CPTSD often go into helper mode when their security feels threatened. You’re not crazy. That instinct to stay unclear about reality is a survival strategy from your childhood. It helped you get through painful experiences with your spirit still intact. Good job! That’s how traumatized kids survive.
But now, as an adult, if you still don’t have a clear awareness of who you are, what you want, what it’s fair to expect of other people and whether they should even be in your life – you’re on a path toward pain and emptiness.
Without clarity, your life fills up with things you never wanted. It’s time to heal from the past and to find your way forward, to happiness, to love, to fulfillment. To do this, begin by thinking for a minute about times in the past when you were NOT clear. Let’s say, you find out someone you’re dating is lying to you about who they are and how they spend their time. And once you find out, you think “I knew it! I thought something sounded wrong but I ignored the red flag!” That’s you having good information, but not being clear. You didn’t trust your judgment so you went into that nice cozy fog where you could have a little more time in the relationship that you HOPED this would be. But then, not only do you find out that the red flags you saw and ignored were actually REAL, but you realize that this was probably obvious to everyone else in your life. (In fact they were probably telling you so.) And what a person in the fog of denial is likely to do in that case, is not break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend – it’s to block out the friends who saw reality. That further isolates you, and isolation is the perfect place for the fog of denial to spread and take over your life. That’s how so many people with trauma find themselves stuck in intolerable situations. And the good news is, no matter how long this has gone on, you can change.
It’s noble work to try to face your own problems, though it’s not always easy to do. A good place to begin is with the relationships now in your life. The goal is to learn which people are good for you to associate with, and which ones have red flags flying all around them. And you can do this by remembering the choices you made going into these relationships — either positive or destructive – that got you where you are right now.
I know from my own healing years how HARD it can seem, to look at yourself honestly in those moments. The temptation is to slip back into the fog, but everything depends on being here, in CLARITY.
Clarity feels GOOD. It feels clean. It feels peaceful. A lot of stress falls away, even when the truth you’re facing is that you need to leave a relationship or two. Some of what you’ll face is how you were mistreated. But you’ll also see how sometimes you played a role in this by convincing yourself “It’s probably just me.”
And sometimes it might have BEEN “just you!” Sometimes we ARE unreasonable. Sometimes we’re the ones who are neglectful, or hurtful, or even abusive.
Being this way will hurt you whether you do something about it or not, but when you face it, you can heal it. You are no longer blocked by the fog of denial. When the denial is gone, what’s left is this wonderful power called discernment. It means good judgment. It means being able to tell good from bad, right from wrong – to know when is it “just me,” and when should I get the heck away from someone.
There are two skills that will accelerate your powers of discernment. They’re very simple but probably rusty if you’ve been living in a fog. One is, to tell the truth. You’ve got to be honest with yourself and with others. The second is, to ask questions. When you’re confused by something another person says or does, you ask for clarification. Like have you ever been invited to a restaurant but were nervous the whole time because you didn’t know if it was a date? Or you didn’t know if the person who invited you meant to PAY for you or not? Has this kind of ambiguous situation shown up for you over and over again? Or maybe you were flirting with someone unavailable, and you knew that was inappropriate, but you were afraid if you said something, it would ruin the moment?
Here’s what to do: You just say out loud what’s going on, or you ASK. You say, “This is weird, it feels like things are getting a bit flirty here.” Or you ask, “Hey, when you invited me out, were you planning to treat or should I plan to pay for myself?” Or you say, “I’d love to go to dinner, but before I say yes, I hope you won’t mind my asking… is this a date?”
It feels SO embarrassing to ask the question or state the obvious but you know what’s so great about it? No more confusion! Whatever the situation IS can be made clear to you, and you can proceed accordingly. How many times did you hide your feelings, not ask the question, or put up with crappy treatment and assume it was “just you?”
Think about this: If you were ever in a relationship where things turned out NOT to be what you thought, would it have changed things if you blurted out the truth of what you were noticing WHEN you first noticed it? Saying the truth really kills the romance sometimes, and that’s what you want! Because if truth ruins everything, something was already seriously not right.
Speaking up early is also how you can clear up limerent or “piney” relationships — where you’re pining away for someone who is very happy to keep things ambiguous. It’s embarrassing to get rejected but so much better to have it happen early and get it over with than to build your life around some unavailable person who just basks in the warm sunshine of your unconfessed devotion year after year.
If you’re going to heal your perception and take on this project of courageous honesty, it helps to have at least one person to whom you can pour out your heart, and whom you can trust to be both kind and REAL with you about what THEY see from the outside. They can support you in doing things in a better way. This isn’t always something you can get from friends, because they’re either too hard on you or too easy on you, and either way that’s not helpful. It’s not uncommon for traumatized people to have no friends they could ask for this kind of support. So, in addition to being honest and asking questions, the third way to develop your powers of perception and clarity is to develop a support system of friends — perhaps a therapist if that’s been helpful to you, and/or a 12-Step group, where other people are changing their lives in similar ways.
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