When I was a kid, my bedroom was my sacred space. Whenever I walked in, I entered a space that was uniquely mine. It was filled with stuffed animals, Barbies and white wicker furniture. My favorite childhood room as a kid had large windows that overlooked a deck and a big back yard. These were the windows I sat by on Christmas Eve watching for Rudolph’s red nose in the sky. They were also the windows I stared out of and wondered when the screaming in my house would stop.
One day I had to leave my favorite room. It was all so sudden. I have a vague memory of everything being gone. Even my favorite stuffed white Persian cat and an LSU tiger my father had brought back from a trip. I couldn’t understand why. When I asked my mom, she declared that the bank had taken it all, even my bicycle with the sparkling pink strings hanging from the handlebars was gone. Even after we moved, I found myself looking at other houses we drove by wondering what other child was playing with my toys and my bike.
I will probably never know why the bank took all of my personal things. All I know now is my father was an alcoholic who wrote bad checks, lost his job and not long after his mental health. Because he was no longer able to pay the mortgage, we lost our house, and everything in it.
I tell this story, because reading Bob Goff’s book Dream Big brought back memories of my favorite childhood bedroom. When it was emptied and I could never return, everything in my life changed after that. Bob’s book is about learning how to recognize what is most important in our lives. He is one of the few authors I am able to read who mentions Jesus and brings me comfort. In his book, he asks the question if we cleared our faith rooms of everything, what would we bring back in?
When I think of my childhood room, there were those few favorite toys like my stuffed animals that I continued to miss; there’s even a little part of me that misses them now. Two items were important things to me, because they were gifts from my parents. I realize now the loss of them was so big, because they were reminders that my parents had thought of me when they were on a trip. They reminded me that I mattered.
Our faith room, like my childhood bedroom, is the most sacred space in our lives that represents who we truly are, and the the things that fill our lives, some that are most important and some that just take up space. Emptying our faith rooms, allows us to see more clearly what we really need.
Emptying our faith rooms, allows us to see more clearly what we really need.
I found as a survivor of spiritual abuse that Bob’s exercise was very beneficial to me. I believe those of us who have experienced religious trauma live in faith rooms full of much clutter, confusion and doubt. It’s difficult to know what is the baby and what is the bathwater, what to throw out and what to keep.
In allowing myself to think about my own faith room, memories of another important room in my life resurfaced. I can still imagine my favorite room filled with only empty space. Bob asks his readers to imagine what they would bring back to their empty rooms; those things in their faith journey that had brought them real joy and peace. If you cleared your faith room, what would you bring back? What would you leave out?
If you cleared your faith room, what would you bring back? What would you leave out?
I love when Bob says that we don’t need a bunch of 20 dollar words for our faith to be lived out in our lives. What we need are those things that really matter to us, because these are the things that will bring lasting joy and peace to ourselves and others in our lives.
I heard so many words when I was a part of the institutional church, so many things that sounded like they mattered at the time. Now these words only remind me of how people don’t always live like they talk. Words are not trustworthy, only actions reveal what truly motivate us.
Words are not trustworthy, only actions reveal what truly motivate us.
For a long time I spoke the words well. I thought if I said all the right things sooner or later my words and my actions would match. It never happened. These days the words don’t occupy much space in my faith room.
My experiences with Jesus on the other hand do. Those moments when I felt the most pain and experienced His words spoken to my heart matter the most. They are the words that I will never forget. When He said I’ll never leave you not forsake you, He meant it. Jesus is Who I want back in my faith room.
The relationships I’ve had with others are what I want back in my room, too. I haven’t missed rushing out of the house on Sunday morning feeling like I didn’t look my best. I haven’t missed the pressure I felt at times to be serving more in the church. I haven’t missed the parts of the worship service that didn’t really cause me to feel any closer to God. But I miss the people. The kids who ran up to me and gave me hugs. The teens who cried after a Bible study and shared things they couldn’t tell anyone else. The friends we spent time with and turned to when we needed encouragement. The worship practices when we sang the songs that moved our hearts together. I’ll never stop missing these things. What would you miss the most if everything was gone?
What would you miss the most if everything was gone?
Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ.12Anyone who builds on that foundation may use a variety of materials—gold, silver, jewels, wood, hay, or straw. 13But on the judgment day, fire will reveal what kind of work each builder has done. The fire will show if a person’s work has any value.
I Corinthians 3:11-13
Context: the situation within which something exists or happens, and that can help explain it.
GRACE is a non-profit organization that works with Christian organizations to recognize, prevent and respond to abuse in these environments. I have benefitted greatly from the educational materials they provide. If you or someone you know has been impacted by abuse in a Christian environment, I encourage you to reach out to GRACE. I believe every church should take advantage of the free educational resources they provide. Every Christian should work diligently to recognize, prevent and respond to abuse. There are no excuses.
This morning I watched a video posted by GRACE titled The Spiritual Impact of Abuse. The video is a conversation between host Pete Singer and Victor Vieth, former child abuse prosecutor and Director of Education with Zero Abuse Project. I stopped the video after only a few minutes in when Victor quoted Viktor Frankyl and said, “It’s not suffering that’s unbearable, it’s suffering without meaning.” The host responded by talking about the role of context in PTSD. He said one of the major symptoms of PTSD is intrusive memories that cannot be controlled. He said we get these intrusive memories, because events occur without context. When we don’t understand the context, the memories keep coming back trying to find a context. He went on to say how the role of spirituality in abuse destroys context.
His words hit home with me. Those of us who suffer with PTSD understand what it feels like for our brains to get stuck in painful memories and the questions of why we suffered. The answer to the why question often determines what we think this means for the rest of our lives.
One of the reasons it has been so difficult to return to church is there are so many reminders of past trauma in these type of environments. I realized after listening to Pete talk about the role of context in PTSD, that the reminders of abuse do not bring the most pain, rather it is the meaning I make of the memories that bring the most suffering.
The last time I visited a church the conversation in a small group was around why we suffer. Before I was abused in a Christian environment, I had had this conversation many times without getting upset. However after having experienced abuse, I left this particular evening overwhelmed, confused and hurting and I haven’t been able to put into words until now why.
When I experienced abuse in a spiritual environment, the sovereignty of God played a big role in explaining and excusing why the abuse happened. Sin makes us humble and more empathetic to others who sin I was told. God is sovereign and does not waste anything that happens in our lives. Because of this, we can ask forgiveness, move on and learn from it all without accountability. After all, God works everything together for our good and His glory.
Recently, I read an article in the New York Times concerning the negativity around news media in reporting Covid cases around the world. The article stated that negative posts are more frequently shared on social media than positive ones. The article made a profound statement. They were careful to report that the negative articles were not reporting falsehoods. Rather, the problem was in what facts they were choosing to emphasize.
The rationalizion that kept me in an abusive environment for almost a decade was not based on falsehoods. The statements made were founded on truths in scripture that were emphasized.
Unwinding the truth from the lies in the huge tangled ball of yarn of spiritual abuse has been overwhelmingly difficult. I have spent several years in therapy to help me do this. The lack of understanding in the church surrounding trauma and abuse has made it even more difficult. This is why I am so very thankful for organizations like GRACE who are working diligently to change this. For every abuse survivor, there is a lot of work required of us to be able to become functioning members of society again. We do this best with safe support. Who better to provide this than a faith community?
The real context of why I was abused is I went to a spiritual leader and asked for help. He took advantage of his position and my vulnerability and abused me. I make this statement not as an attempt to judge or condemn. I make this statement only because it is of utmost importance to my healing that I understand the why the abuse happened. Because when I understand the why, then I can understand what it means for me.
What is God’s plan for my life?
What role has suffering played in this plan?
Abuse is never a part of God’s plan. God’s plan involves lifting burdens, restoring our souls, bringing beauty from the ashes left behind by our suffering. He sees, hears, and knows our pain. He values our tears so much He stores them in His bottle. God’s ultimate motivation and nature is always based on love. And love does not ever abuse.
If you have suffered as a result of spiritual abuse, it is important that you understand the why, too. The why is not you. The why is someone chose to abuse you. Once we understand this, we can better understand what this really means for our lives.
I admit that I still experience the painful sense at times that my suffering was without meaning, especially on the days when I forget the why. On the days when the pressures of life and my lack of control feel suffocating. I probably always will. This is where self-compassion and loving, safe support comes in. But there are also other days when I can see the blue sky, the trees, the birds and a family who mean so much, and I find all the courage I need to keep moving forward.
It’s not anyone else’s place to tell us what our suffering means. This is a journey of discovery we must find ourselves. However, we can come alongside one another and listen, support, love and ask good questions.
As a trauma recovery coach, this is what I am honored to provide. If you would like to take advantage of a free zoom session with me to determine if coaching is right for you, please reach out via email: email@example.com.
What do you believe about God?
When did you first start to believe this?
How does this belief cause you to feel about yourself and God?
Teresa Pasquale is a licensed therapist and author of the book Sacred Wounds, A Path to Healing From Spiritual Trauma. In a podcast I listened to yesterday, I heard Teresa say something I have been thinking about ever since. She said what we believe about our spirituality is the most important thing in our lives, and so many times we allow others to dictate to us what we believe. Her words brought up a moment of deep grief over all that I had lost in my relationship with God, because I had allowed others to cause me to doubt what I had experienced and believed concerning God.
As a trauma survivor and codependent, I have in recent months come to understand that one of the ways my nervous system responds to threats is by fawning. Fawning defined by Pete Walker in his book Complex PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving is:
A fourth type of triggered response (which) can be seen in many codependents.(Codependency is defined here as the inability to express rights, needs and boundaries in relationship; it is a disorder of assertiveness that causes the individual to attract and accept exploitation, abuse and/or neglect.)I have named it the fawn response…the fourth ‘f’ in the fight/flight/ freeze/fawn repertoire of instinctive responses to trauma. Fawn, according to Webster’s, means: “to act servilely; cringe and flatter”, and I believe it is this response that is at the core of many codependents’ behavior.
When I think I am in danger of being harmed by another person one of my first responses to protect myself is to fawn. It feels painful and humiliating to admit that I given others what they want in order to survive. We have all most likely done this at some point in our lives. Our boss calls us into his office and tells us if we don’t redo a project up to his standards, we might lose our job. It would be easy to apologize for falling short of his expectations, even when we knew we had done exactly what he’d asked. When our livelihood is at risk, sometimes we sacrifice our own voices in an effort to save ourselves. While there may be certain times in our lives that this type of behavior seems necessary, a lifetime of these patterns of behavior results in a person losing sight of who they really are, which is the case for many of us who grew up with childhood trauma.
In my own story, the only way I was able to survive in my home with an alcoholic father was to give him what he wanted. Because when he did not get what he wanted, there would be hell to pay. One example was when I spilled a whole gallon of sweet tea on the kitchen table. We had just sat down to eat, and the syrupy liquid spread across the table running down onto the floor. His first response was to raise his voice and scream at me for being so stupid. I immediately began to apologize and clean up the mess. Even while I was cleaning up, he continued to fuss and shame me. I told myself I had to learn how to be more careful, so I would never do something so stupid again.
What does all of this have to do with what I believe about God?
Sadly, many of my beliefs about my Creator were of an angry God who expected perfection from me. He was the voice inside my head telling me I was bad, stupid, and would never amount to anything when I made a mistake. I learned in the trauma coaching class I recently completed that these types of beliefs about oneself are called The Lying Triad and it’s Dark Guard. It is not uncommon for children who have grown up with abuse and trauma to believe about themselves:
They are to blame for their abuse
They are bad and unworthy of good things
They are shameful
They are powerless
Sadly, we begin to believe because people treat us badly that we are bad.
I had projected onto God what I had experienced from my earthly father. I lived a large part of my life in fear that I was going to mess up and spill the tea, and thinking that God was going to make me pay. Every bad thing that happened in life caused me to wonder what I had done wrong.
I believe it has always been God’s desire for me to know the truth about Him and myself. Thankfully, as an adult kinder people entered into my life who treated me with care. One such person was a doctor that I worked for. After he prescribed me some anti-anxiety medication, not long after my father had passed away, this doctor told me that God was a loving father. Because he was a person who modeled this to me, I was able to consider that maybe God was not who I thought He was. He encouraged me to read a few Bible verses. As a result of reading these passages, I understood that God loved me and was nothing like my abusive father. I share more about this experience in this post.
However, even after this experience with God it didn’t take me long to forget what I had learned when another abusive person entered into my life. This time it was a religious leader. I had no idea of the unprocessed trauma in my life when I asked him for help, and became entangled in a toxic relationship with him for the next several years. Sadly, it is not uncommon for abuse victims to be abused again. I heard someone say recently that trauma that is not transformed is transferred. I have found this statement to be very true in my own life. However, the opposite is true as well. Trauma that is processed with a safe person is transformed and not transferred. Abusive cycles stop and true transformation can happen impacting future generations in a positive way for years to come. I believe this is God’s ultimate plan.
What do you believe about God?
When did you first start to believe this?
How does this belief cause you to feel about yourself and God?
But Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people. John 2:24
I can still almost feel the heat of the sun on my bare stomach from one of the days when my cousin and I were sitting in the low beach chairs next to an old bauxite mine filled with brilliant blue water turned that color from the minerals used to make aluminum in the dirt below it. We munched on Golden Flake BBQ potato chips and sipped Pepsi-Cola from a can. It was one of those days I wished would never end.
My mind has drifted back to this memory several times over the course of my life. It was a good day when I felt safe, accepted and with few cares in the world.
Sometimes I forget that I am still that same girl who was able to enjoy the present moment and soak up the sun. Sometimes I forget that it is OK to give myself permission just to be present.
I think this moment stands out so profoundly in my mind, because throughout my childhood there were many moments I did not feel it was safe to be present for. The pain was just too much.
It is not uncommon for survivors of childhood abuse to cope with the pain of abuse by dissociating from the present.
Teresa Pasquale defines dissociation in her book Sacred Wounds.
The primary coping mechanism for those who have experienced trauma and couldn’t physically leave their circumstances may have been to numb out. This can mean shutting down feelings, but it can also involve completely removing oneself from the situation. When mind and spirit exit an experience entirely, it is called dissociation. Dissociation can be the floating above yourself and seeing what is happening experience, often experienced by those who have survived sexual trauma or extensive physical abuse.
I learned in counseling a few years ago that I am someone who has been dissociating as a way to cope for most of my life. Many of my childhood memories are foggy bits and pieces of traumatic events mixed in with a deep sense of shame that somehow these bad things were my fault. Today, as an adult it is still difficult for me to remain in the present moment especially the difficult ones. I recognize it is because my brain learned a long time ago it was safer to escape.
A big part of my healing journey has been learning how to practice self-compassion. I acknowledge that dissociation was the only resource I had as a child when bad things happened. On the worst nights with my adopted father, my vivid imagination gave me the ability to be somewhere else. On his bedroom wall there was a newspaper copy in a frame of the Footprints poem. I loved the beach. The thought of the waves rocking me back and forth like a mother would her baby soothed my soul. When the darkness came, I learned how to imagine the beach. It was so real, I could almost feel my body rocking back and forth on calm ocean waters. Dissociation felt like a gift from God then.
However, as an adult dissociation has not served me well. When we cope by escaping, we miss the things that are bringing us harm without even knowing it. When I was abused as an adult by a religious leader, dissociation kept me in a toxic relationship for almost a decade. It was only when I began to process this abuse with my therapist, that I could begin to understand that my mind was removing me from the present moments in an effort to escape suffering and shame. Her compassionate care helped me to see that his abuse was not my fault. When she was present with me in my suffering, I learned that it was OK for me to be present as well.
It takes work for most of us to stay in the present in our world full of distractions. Sometimes we need an escape. Television feels like a warm blanket wrapped around my throbbing mind at the end of a stressful day. It is OK to be kind to ourselves and soothe ourselves with a good show. A psychologist once told my husband that a certain amount of denial is even good, otherwise we might not get in the car and drive down the road. It’s all about balance. Those of us who have experienced trauma struggle with this balance. Our brains default mode is survival rather than homeostasis. I have learned that balance is not natural for me. It feels unnatural for me to be still and allow myself to notice my breathing and my feet on the floor. Sometimes it feels like a waste of time to open up this blog and begin to write. I am learning that healthy brains like healthy bodies take work. Sometimes I reap the benefits of making better choices. Sometimes I put on a few extra pounds. This is about balance, too and learning to be kind to oneself in the process. Because the more we learn to love ourselves, the more we are able to be present with ourselves.
Healing takes time. One step at a time. One day at a time. One moment at a time sometimes 5 minutes at a time. Especially when it’s hard. Keep moving forward. Even when you fall behind. Find safe beings who will love you unconditionally in moments of intense pain.
Grounding, mindfulness, and guided relaxation practices can help teach the brain and body to stay present and focused in peaceful moments so it can access those resources also in distress. For more severe dissociation, therapy with a trained trauma therapist is necessary to learn ways to contain stress and find safe space in the mind, body, and physical world. Once the brain-body system can integrate a sense of safety, it will begin staying present rather than exiting when stressed. Teresa Pasquale, Sacred Wounds
Grief helps us face and ultimately release what happened or didn’t happen to us. I read this this morning in the book by Dr. Edith Eger called The Gift: 12 Lessons to Save Your Life.
Her book caused me to ask myself some important questions around my childhood losses.
Losses that daily make appearances in my life as an adult.
Losses that cry out for my attention and compassion.
What did I want that I didn’t get as a child?
There were times when I caught glimpses of these things in my life. Just long enough to have hope that they would continue. Only to be crushed when they ended.
We were eating at a nice restaurant in a Georgia mall. I was so excited about my meal of a giant hot dog covered in bright orange American cheese and French fries. I felt special getting to eat there with my father. He got a Reuben sandwich. I couldn’t wait to see the Mynah bird in the pet store across the mall. His name was Arthur. He wasn’t for sale. They had another bird they were selling named Merlin. But he was too expensive. If my father had kept his job. If we hadn’t lost everything. If my parents had stayed together, maybe I could have gotten the bird. Stayed at the same school. Lived in the nice house. Maybe I would have felt safe to be myself. I thought it was my fault that they ended. My adopted father was abusive and an alcoholic. My mother his enabler. I was a scape goat. I was an escape from his pain, too. I wanted to be a kid who had parents who raised me to be who I was supposed to be, not a kid who believed she was to blame or that she was to fix their pain.
These are the things I’m still grieving. I survived despite what they did. I have given my own children the freedom to be themselves. I haven’t done it as well as I would have liked. But I do believe I gave them the chance to at least be themselves without fear of thinking there was something wrong with them. I have overcome much. I have made many mistakes. But I am not a kid anymore. I do not have my parents screaming at me for messing things up. It is safe to be myself. To enjoy the restaurant, the birds, without fearing the bad that is to come. I always believed if I prepared myself for what was to come it wouldn’t take me by surprise. Maybe if I did everything right I could keep the abuse from happening. That was the only hope I had.
I can buy the bird if I want to. I can be myself. Bad comes for everyone. It is unavoidable. No matter what we do. We can only live one day at a time. One moment at a time doing the best we can with the wisdom God gives us. We cannot control the choices of others. We best get out of the way and let them choose for themselves when they are self destructive. Don’t take their blame. Give them back their choices. Accept whatever happens in life. Be grateful for the good. Grieve the losses. Honor them by paying attention. Give others what you didn’t get that you needed. Forgive yourself for going after those things in unhealthy ways. Make better choices. Learn from your mistakes. Don’t take the blame for the abuse of others. Love while you can. Without expectations. Without planning to. Just be present. To the moment. To the birds and the dog and the cat. On the walk. Unloading the dishes and the laundry. Driving through the traffic. Turn up the radio. Let down the window. Breath the fresh air and the gas fumes. While you wait. It all matters. They matter. You matter. In a New York minute everything can change. But right now is all we have control over. Choose to be alive in this moment.
If you or someone you know is interested in my services as a trauma recovery coach, please see my new coaching page on my website. I am offering for a very limited time a free 30 minute discovery session.
This morning I read another article about pastor exposed. Every time before today when I have read one of these articles I confess that I feel justified in my decision to leave the church. But this article was different.
Even though I had never met this pastor, I had followed his sermons online for years. The things that he said made a real and lasting impact on my life. After listening to one of his sermons, I realized the weight of a lie I had been carrying had become too heavy. I sent this pastor an email from an anonymous account. I told him what had been happening. In his compassionate response back he said, Come out into the light.
His email gave me the courage to call a counselor for the first time. It began the process of opening the door to freedom from an abusive relationship with another pastor, and I will always be grateful for this.
But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” Ephesians 5:13 & 14
When anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible for everyone to see. Sadly, the world does not shed a compassionate light when darkness is exposed. Everyone has an opinion. And the saying is true…most of them stink.
I am as confused as most about the sexual sin, abuse, pride, political idolatry, racism, and bigotry being exposed in religious organizations daily. I find myself wondering at the rate things are happening what the church will look like in another decade?
After having been abused in church, I no longer feel safe attending. I tried for several years to continue to attend, but the triggers were just too much. It was an act of self-compassion to make the decision to stop going. It has also been an effort to hold on to my faith.
As I said earlier, many of the exposure articles I have read have given me justification for leaving the church. Last week, I read a Twitter post from a pastor who made a generalized statement about a Christian not going to church is like a cancer patient not getting chemo. Sometimes it feels like the church is great at pointing out what everyone else is doing wrong, but falls way short of addressing the darkness inside the walls of it’s institutions.
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? I Corinthians 5:12
Even though I have lost so much faith in the institution of the church, I have not lost faith in Christ.
What does it look like for the light of Christ to shine into our darkness?
Too many times I let the responses of others be where I look to find the answer.
The loud judgments in the comments section.
Or the denial of those who minimize, excuse or remain silent about what brings us harm.
Christ does not condemn.
Christ does not deny or dismiss our pain.
He whispers to us in our slumber to wake up.
He collects our every tear in His bottle.
He turns over the tables in the church where abuse is overlooked.
He breathes into our lungs and gives us life.
Over and over and over again.
I’m so thankful He came into my darkness and showed me His true light. It was the only way I survived.
My heart is grieved and disillusioned by another pastor exposed. It would be easy to dismiss my pain with cynicism and apathy. It would be easy to judge.
But then I remember the door to my own dark prison opening and the light shining in. I remember His compassion and grace and the feel of His healing breath into my lungs keeping me alive.
And I’m so thankful that it really is all about His grace.
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
Brain scans reveal that the amygdala of a person who has experienced trauma in childhood is actually larger than those who have not experienced childhood trauma.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself asking myself the same question over and over again, Is it trauma or is it a real threat?
Our bodies and brains are truly amazing. They signal us when something is not right. They work together to move us into action or non-action to get us out of harm’s way.
An oversized amygdala, however, will communicate that there is a threat at times when there is no current threat, only a reminder of a previous one. A larger amygdala can result in a state of hypervigilence for many trauma survivors.
Even after years of therapy and my recent training to be a trauma recovery coach, I still struggle to tell the difference between a real or a perceived threat.
If you are dealing with the same struggle, I encourage you to be compassionate towards yourself. The ambivalence that comes about with this type of uncertainty can easily become a shame producer.
Writing is an act that helps me to transform my shame into curiosity. When I write what I am feeling I am better able to see all that is going on inside. As I can more clearly observe my shame, I can begin to slowly understand where it is coming from and how to process it in a healthy way.
Shame is never useful. When it is hidden away inside ourselves, we often develop maladaptive coping mechanisms to escape it. A few examples of these are overeating, overspending, drug use, or codependency, etc. I spent a lifetime trying to cope with my shame in unhealthy ways. Only when I started to write, could I discover what was happening inside and begin to experience relief. Now, when the all too familiar shame arises I am able to recognize it and process it rather than try to escape it. Writing has become what is called an adaptive coping mechanism for me. Adaptive coping Mechanisms are internal resources we discover on our healing journeys that can replace our maladaptive ones. Writing is just one example. It’s important that we each discover what is most helpful to us and allow it to become a practice in our daily lives.
Recently, my oversized amygdala kicked into overdrive. My first reaction was to fawn. Fawn is a reaction of our autonomic nervous system that causes us to react to a perceived threat by people pleasing. I started apologizing to the person in front of me for getting overwhelmed by their behaviors that reminded me of an abusive personality in my past. When I was a little girl, sometimes the only way to keep myself safe was telling my father what I knew would not upset him. He was the type of person who when in pain blamed others for what he was feeling. When I spilled the tea on the table by accident and he started to overreact by screaming, I apologized for making him overreact. It was the only way I could bring safety to the situation. If I argued with him, it would result in an escalating situation that would go from bad to worse. The individual standing in front of me recently had a similar way of reacting to problems. Rather than taking some responsibility for things going wrong, this individual shifted responsibility to others, and went on a tirade when he didn’t get what he wanted. He reminded me of my father after having only met him a few times. Initially, I didn’t understand what was happening. When he was standing in front of me going into a mini tirade, all kinds of emotions came up that were difficult to hide. I did what I knew best how to do smile and go along and agree. When I got home later that day, alarm bells started to go off inside my brain. They were so loud that I wanted to hide inside my house and never see this person again. I heard the words run. Get away as quickly as possible. It was unrealistic to avoid dealing with this person. I knew I would see them again. I needed to figure out a way that I could deal with this person in a healthy way. The first question that overwhelmed me was my reaction a trauma response or a real perceived threat. In this situation, I now recognize it was both. While this individual was not in a position to abuse and blame me as my father had, he was not a safe person to be around. When a person is unwilling to deal with their own responsibilities and is shifting blame to others, they can feel like a loaded weapon looking for the next target who could just as easily be you. I understood in my dealings with this individual that it was important to understand what my responsibilities were and what his were, and set clear boundaries for myself to protect myself from being harmed by him. Ultimately, I decided it was best for my emotional health to avoid this person. Thankfully, I was able to make changes that made this possible. If you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to be kind to yourself and find safe people to support you. Ask yourself what changes you can make to best take care of yourself.
When we are faced with the question is it real or is it trauma, it is most important that we acknowledge to ourselves that everything we feel is important. As a trauma survivor, there are changes in my brain that may cause me to overrespond to what feels threatening. However, I have discovered that these responses are happening for a legitimate reason. We should never minimize or cast them aside. Being kind to ourselves means we pay attention to all that we feel and process it in ways that are helpful. When we process our responses, sometimes we may discover that we just need to remind ourselves that we are adults who can take care of ourselves, and no longer children trapped in abusive situations. However, sometimes our trauma responses may give us insight to problems that may not get better and we can make the choice to remove ourselves from them. When we honor our responses, shame subsides and we are able to move forward into making choices that are best for us.
A tremendously helpful resource is a book I recently started reading The Gift by Edth Eger.
For more information on the fawn response, visit Pete Walker’s website.
Another great resource to learn more about our nervous system responses is Deb Dana’s Befriending Your Nervous System: Looking Through the Lens of Polyvagal Theory.
I enrolled in the Initial Trauma Certification Program online with IAOTRC in August of 2020. In the middle of the pandemic and having recently made the decision to not return to my current job, not much was clear about the direction I needed to go. When I read the description of the program, I decided to enroll. I was disappointed to learn the class was full. I emailed Sarah, and only a few days into the program I got an email from her letting me know a spot had opened up. I was excited to have the opportunity and immediately started to attend an online Zoom class that week. I’d never used Zoom before, but like everyone else in 2020 I learned how to adjust to doing things differently. I have worked in the mental healthcare field for several years and am not unfamiliar with trauma informed care. I also have a history of childhood trauma and spent a few years in therapy. I was very impressed with the training I received at IAOTRC. Not only did it build upon the foundation I already had in trauma informed care, but they explained the neurobiological effects of trauma in ways that I was able to understand more clearly. Every class provided me with rich information and resources that would enable me to begin work as a trauma informed coach. The observation and participation groups taught me at a gentle but steady pace to apply what I had learned in the classroom and gain confidence in my ability to coach. This is not a program where certification is easily obtained. It is a program that will require participation and effort. However, if one is committed to learning, certification will be an obtainable goal. Not only do I highly recommend the program, but I also encourage those in a position of caring for others especially in healthcare or religious environments to enroll in these classes. I have experienced first hand the harm that can come from others in these environments who are not trauma informed. I am so very thankful for the safe learning environment provided at the IAOTRC. Not only do I feel competent to coach, I also have experienced real hope for myself and others who have experienced trauma after having enrolled in this program.
I recently starting listening to the Audible presentation by Deb Dana, LCSW Befriending Your Nervous System. I am only a couple of chapters in, and I find myself stopping to take notes and to write this blog. It is a resource rich in understanding how our nervous system works, and how understanding this process is extremely helpful in our healing process as trauma survivors.
Did you know that when our nervous system is in a survival state that our brains by default go to self-criticism? According to Deb Dana, this is a normal reaction from our nervous system when we do not feel safe.
Deb cites Kristen Neff’s book Self‐Compassion: The Proven Power of being Kind to Yourself .
This is a moment of suffering. Suffering is a part of life. May I be kind to myself.
Deb encourages her listeners to write their own statements that are similar to Neff’s, so we can be reminded when we do not feel safe that our nervous systems are just doing their jobs.
Here is my statement:
I do not feel safe in this moment. My body and brain are reacting to what is happening. This is a normal reaction for anyone. Remember to be kind to yourself.
As a trauma survivor, what I tell myself about what is happening can make all the difference in my ability to keep moving forward in the moment. Brain scans reveal that the amygdala is often larger for trauma survivors. We are hypervigilent to danger. This means that sometimes a reminder of past traumas can cause us to see danger where there is not an immediate threat. Again, this is a normal response. It is the job of our brains to keep us safe. When bad things have happened in the past, our brains work actively to keep them from happening again. It is not a reason to be critical of ourselves, however because our prefrontal cortex (the reasoning part of our brains) goes off line when we are in survival mode logic can go out the window.
This is why it is incredibly helpful to understand these processes when we are not in a survival state. Planning ahead is what will give us the resources we need when we feel unsafe again. I am learning that understanding what happens in my body and my brain when I feel unsafe, quietens the loud, critical voices of a survival state.
Implementation of self-compassion into our lives is a process that takes practice. I don’t know about you, but taking care of myself is sometimes easy to forget, especially when things feel out of control or chaotic. For the past few weeks, I have been training at a new job. Learning something new, changing my routine, and getting to know new people is especially difficult for me. When difficulties arise, my sympathetic nervous system reacts to the chaos by overwhelming my brain with loud, critical voices that proclaim:
You will never learn this. You’re overreacting and making life more difficult for everyone around you. Everyone thinks you are an idiot.
And sometimes when I’m really overwhelmed the voices proclaim that the world would be better off without me. This thought comes when I feel trapped in a situation that seems unchanging and hopeless.
Once there was a little girl trapped in an abusive situation with her father. She could not escape. All she could do was try to figure out what to do to keep it from happening again. Because she was a child, the only power she had was to try and change her behavior. When this didn’t stop the abuse, she believed that there must be something terribly wrong with her.
When my sympathetic nervous system storm passes, and the shame rolls in for my having overreacted, I remember this little girl. A little girl who needed to be rescued. A little girl who needed to be loved.
I’m all grown up now, but there are times I still long to be rescued and loved. These are the times that I can acknowledge what I feel and offer myself self‐compassion. These are the times when I can reach out to safe people or even animals who give me the healthy love and compassion I need.
Today, I want to be hard on myself for overreacting to the chaos in my current circumstances. I want to feel ashamed for being so vulnerable and afraid, and for believing that the world would be better off without me.
But today, I will remember that I wasn’t created to give up. I was created for love.
And so were you.
No matter what you may be going through, know that you are not alone. You matter. You are worthy of love and self-compassion. You are worthy to be treated with respect. Life can be difficult. It’s ok to acknowledge this and move forward even when you feel like you totally messed things up. Abuse is never your fault. It’s ok to ask for help.
2020 hit us with a lot. 2021 is no walk in the park either.
Everyone we meet is fighting difficult battles. Let us be kind to one another and to ourselves.