All of us grew up on those fairy stories that involved an enchanted royal person being turned into some sort of frog, or toad, and who required their true love – usually another good-looking prince or princess – to rescue them by giving them a kiss.
As soon as that happened – voila! Instant hunk, instant supermodel, with impeccable manners, a great dress sense and daddy’s enormous fortune and 58 estates in the country.
But even in the middle of all those ridiculous fairy tales, there is a nub of truth, and something useful that we can prise out, and use to our own emotional and spiritual advantage.
Because today, all of us are walking around believing that really?
We’re a reptile.
We’re a frog.
We’re a toad.
Doesn’t matter how things look on the outside, deep-down on the inside, we think we’re green, ugly and cursed.
But that’s not true.
The famous Jewish mystic Rebbe Nachman of Breslov wrote a whole tale about a Lost Princess – i.e. the soul of every single one of us – and the trials and tribulations that each of would face, before we could rescue her from the palace of ‘no good’ and restore her to her rightful place.
So now, here’s where we going to mix things up in an interesting way, because a few weeks’ ago, I discovered an excellent potential short-cut to that whole ‘finding the lost princess’ process.
Before I tell you more about it, I just want to underline something:
Visualisations like the one I’m going to share with you work best when they’re done from a place of deep honesty. There are a lot of people out there who deep down believe they are a frog, but try to pretend that superficially, they’ve already found their lost princess (or prince).
The following visualization probably won’t work so well for them, because the key to getting it to work is transforming the frog into the princess / prince.
But if a person can’t accept that they really are relating to themselves as a frog in the first place, they can’t really do that.
It’s a staged process:
THE KISSING-THE-FROG VISUALISATION
It’s always best to do these visualisations in a place where you feel safe and secure, and where you won’t be interrupted by people or phones.
Think about your ‘inner frog’, and try and bring it to mind. What colour is it? How big is it? What is it sitting on, what is it doing?
Next, describe its behavior:
This is an angry frog.
It’s a spiteful frog.
It’s an ungrateful frog.
It's a lonely frog.
It's a scared frog.
It's a self-hating frog.
Now, walk over to that frog, and give it a kiss. (You can also give it a hug, and say kind words to it – whatever comes to you.)
Now, watch it transform into your lost princess.
If that doesn’t happen, ask your frog what’s blocking the transformation, and pay careful attention to the answer, as for sure it’ll be a big clue about what you may need to continuing work on, or some other insight you hadn’t realized before.
You can repeat this visualization as often as you want, until you finally get that frog to transform into the true princess / prince that’s really inside each one of us.
But as mentioned above, the key to pulling the transformation off is to stay alert for the ‘warts’ each time they surface. Acknowledge them, deal with them, then transform them. But whatever you do, don’t just ignore them and carry on pretending you’re perfect and have nothing else to fix or work on.
We’re all down here to work on improving our character.
With no exceptions.
When we’re little, everything in the world seems so much ‘bigger’ than it actually really is. How many times have we returned to a place we used to frequent as a child that used to seem so much larger than life when we were little, only to find it strangely shrunken down into nothing so special?
That ‘big-ness’ we experience is part of the magic of childhood, in some ways, but it can also lead to some big issues as adults, if we were never taught how to handle the ‘big-ness’ of our problems and fears by a caring adult.
A kid, left to themselves and their own imagination, will always imagine the worst, and fear the worst.
If a parent is late returning one night, and there is no caring adult on hand to help the kid express what’s bothering them, and then to teach them how to ‘self soothe’ and to manage their feelings of anxiety down, that kid will spend the whole night fearing the parent got murdered on the way home, God forbid.
(I had this fear a lot, as a kid, and then when I was a mum, it transferred itself to worrying about my kids, and I’ve had to do a whole bunch of work on it, for years, to shrink it down to anything approaching ‘manageable’.)
Or, say the kid has a headache. If they aren’t given the help required to really acknowledge that pain in a calm way, they’ll start fantasizing that they’ve got a brain tumor, God forbid, or some other serious and potentially fatal illness.
All the hypochondriacs out there, this is how it got started!
The ‘big’ fears and anxieties we had in childhood were never calmed down, explained away, soothed or shrunk by the adults in our lives, so our childhood brain took over the job of providing the commentary on what was really happening – and it made even the smallest mole hills seem like the biggest mountains.
So now, we’re adults. And now, life is full of issues and problems and challenges at every turn. And it’s full of yucky, spiteful and difficult people. And unreasonable expectations.
And we’re still trying to deal with all this stuff with the childish, primitive part of our brain that is completely overwhelmed by the ‘big-ness’ of everything it has to deal with and process.
So how does it react to all this?
It over-reacts. It goes ballistic at the drop of a hat. It runs away from every hint of a problem, or freezes up and goes blank, or reaches for the bottle, or the pills, or the internet.
And that’s totally understandable. But it’s not the ideal way of dealing with the challenges of life, especially if you actually want to be able to have calm, loving and nurturing relationships with other people, and to feel happy, satisfied and coping.
So what’s the answer?
At its most basic, it’s this: Try to make as many thing as possible ‘no big deal’.
To put this another way, it’s the art of trying to relate to life as an adult, and not from the mindset of a scared and anxious small child.
And this is really going to take some work, believe me.
Especially in today’s politically-correct world, where making things into a big deal has been raised to an art form.
But here’s what you should know about all those yucky people who are so quick to start escalating small mistakes, small mis-judgements, small errors into the biggest of ‘big deals’:
They are very immature personalities.
They literally never grew up. They are still stuck in a world-view that was formed in early childhood, and that has never expanded, developed or matured since.
And this is how crazy people think.
And we can’t let ourselves get caught up in that warped, dramatic, OTT view of things.
So, we forgot someone’s birthday, and they are going ballistic. It was a mistake, and mistakes happen. The upset person also sometimes forget important dates and events. This is actually not such a big deal.
So, you don’t want to invite a particular person to your dinner party. You don’t have to always invite them to your events and functions. It’s ok to see other people, mix in other groups. This is actually not such a big deal.
So, my kid didn’t get into the right school, or didn’t want to go to college, or wants to go around the world for a year, against my will. This is actually not such a big deal.
Ditto, for that weird ache you keep getting in your shoulder, ditto that you can’t afford to live in the neighborhood you really like, ditto that your latest project at work was a massive failure.
Stuff happens all the time that we don’t like, and that inconveniences us and upsets us and that can make life stressful and miserable for us.
This is life.
But the key to going with the flow, and coping, and still feeling happy most of the time, is to just keep playing down the things that are occurring, and to approach life as much as possible as a grown-up.
It’s not easy, it takes a lot of practice, and a lot of getting God involved in the process of trying to ‘grow ourselves up’, but the benefits are so tremendous. If you don’t know where to start, go HERE to take a look at all the articles and practical tips I’ve put up about C-PTSD.
I know, so many of us are addicted to that drama and excitement and rush of experiencing everything as ‘big’. And there is still a place for ‘big’ in our lives.
Just not at other people’s expense.
And not at the expense of our own peace of mind and health and happiness.
We can’t keep squandering all the energy required for a huge response on all those myriad, day-to-day small things. Because energy is finite, and there are far better things we could be using it for.
The founder of chassidut, the Baal Shem Tov, taught that the whole world is a mirror.
It sounds like a very simple concept, but if a person can actually internalize this idea, it’s the key to real inner transformation.
The basic idea is this: Like attracts like.
If I myself am full of jealousy, hatred, anger, hypocrisy, arrogance and self-righteousness – just to list the things I’m currently working on myself – then I’m going to attract lots of that type of stuff into my own life, and it’s going to really annoy me.
Because God knows that we all have a blind spot when it comes to figuring out our own bad behavior and nasty character traits. We might be the most jealous person in the world, and still never realise just how much bad stuff we’re wishing on other people, because we’re secretly coveting what they have, or all their success.
Ditto, for anger and hate. While it’s usually much harder to hide things a really bad temper, and volcanic outbursts of rage, we’ll still make every effort to try to dress these bad character traits up as ‘justified’ in some way, and even ‘holy’.
And the same thing goes for all the other negative character traits that exist in the world. We’ll either ignore that we have them, justify them as being ‘good’, or make a bunch of other excuses for why our bad behavior and yucky traits really aren’t so bad, or so yucky, and why everything that’s happening in the world is really
just everyone else’s fault.
This is human nature.
So what does God do, to help us really figure out what we need to work on and change? He sends a whole bunch of difficult situations and ucky people into our lives, to give us a clue as to what we ourselves need to work on.
Whatever we’re noticing in others, that we can’t help but take ‘personally’ and get very upset about, on some level, we have the same problem.
There are no exceptions to this rule.
But then, people come along and they say: “I had awful, abusive parents. How can you say that the mirror principle applies to me?! I was 100% the victim, I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was just a child!”
And honestly, there is a lot of truth to this argument. The small souls in our care are extremely easy to damage and hurt and twist out of shape psychologically, that’s part of why every parent has such a big responsibility to be working on acknowledging and then working on overcoming our own bad character traits with every fibre of our being.
But let’s explore what tends to happens to that poor, abused kid when they grow up, and they are no longer totally helpless and powerless.
The first thing to acknowledge is that if we ourselves were emotionally neglected, or flat-out abused in childhood, we have a huge wall to climb, in order to not repeat and pass on the same abusive behaviors to our children.
And this is where the mirror principal really starts to come into play, because people can so easily get stuck in a perception of themselves as the permanent ‘victim’ who is only ever sinned against, and who never does anything bad to anyone themselves.
While this mindset was probably true in childhood, it’s certainly no longer true when the person becomes an adult, and it’s definitely not true when that adult become a parent themselves.
But when a person consistently views themselves through the prism of being a ‘permanent victim’, they will never really acknowledge their own character flaws and problematic behavior.
And that’s why all the abusive people out there tend to believe that they are totally justified in their abuse of other people, including their own innocent children, because they are still seeing themselves as blameless victims.
Again, it’s completely understandable how this mindset comes about. But even so, God still wants us to get a grip on what’s really going on, and fix things, so we don’t pass the problem down to the next generation.
So now, let’s go back to the victimized kid who has now grown up.
Probably, she really doesn’t like herself very much. Probably, she has huge issues with toxic shame, which will kick in and overwhelm her every time she thinks she might have done something wrong. Probably, her fight / flight / freeze / fawn stress response will be permanently on high alert, and very easy to activate.
If someone or something triggers her into ‘fight’ – she’ll come out swinging and raging and hating.
If she gets triggered into ‘flight’ – she’ll run away into work, or doing kindnesses for all the neighbors, spending all her time in Facebook, or she’ll literally go AWOL and file for divorce.
If she gets triggered into ‘freeze’ – then that’s when depression and escapism come into the picture, whatever will close the world down around her, and let her hibernate inside her own head.
And if she gets triggered into ‘fawn’, then that’s when she’ll completely step outside of herself, and totally cut herself off from her true thoughts and feelings and emotions to try to give the other person what she thinks they want, so that they’ll leave her alone.
Let me ask you something:
What do you think it’s like, growing up with a person like this for a mother?
What is the child of this person experiencing?
And here is where we get into the real meat and potatoes of this post.
If that parent doesn’t like herself, then she’s also not going to like whatever she sees in the kid that reminds her of herself. And because so much of this is usually playing out under her emotional radar, she’s going to lash out the hardest at the kid’s characteristics that she herself has most repressed.
And each time she does that, she is being the abuser, not the victim.
Now, what about the toxic shame?
People have toxic shame because as a child, they were ridiculed or punished for making even minor, completely normal mistakes and errors. Instead of seeing that the thing they did, the action they did, was wrong, the parent gave this kid the sense that they themselves are fundamentally flawed, bad and worthless.
When you’re getting that message as a victimized kid, you tend to develop perfectionist tendencies, to try to minimize the times you’ll get carpeted – and then flooded with toxic shame - for making a mistake. Highly controlling behavior goes hand-in-hand with these perfectionistic tendencies, and again we can understand why.
A lack of ‘perfection’ will lead to punishment, and awful feelings of toxic shame. Trying to micro-manage the environment is a way of trying to minimize the likelihood of anything going ‘wrong’.
The problem is – no one is perfect. The problem is also, things can and do go wrong, even with all the meticulous planning in the world. With a lot of effort and focus, it’s maybe possible for the controlling, perfectionist person to keep the world running the way they want to when they’re in the office, or at the gym.
But at home? It’s a completely different story.
So now, what’s going on when that victimized kid grows up, and has their own family?
If they haven’t realized what’s going on internally with their own feelings of toxic shame, unreasonable perfectionism and need to control – they are going to ‘punish’ their own children harshly for making even minor, completely normal mistakes.
And so, the cycle starts again.
But if this parent still feels like they are the victim, they won’t own up to their own abusive tendencies and behavior towards their children. Often, what’s stopping abusers from putting their hands up to their bad behavior is the awful feeling of toxic shame that floods them whenever there is any hint that they might have done something wrong.
But now, they really are doing something wrong – even, lots of things wrong – that they can’t or won’t admit.
And having a person like that for a parent is extremely difficult and challenging for the child.
Once again, the victim has become an abuser.
NOW, WHAT ABOUT AN OUT-OF-CONTROL STRESS RESPONSE?
Ok, that awful, traumatic childhood we had means that we are primed to fight, run away, freeze and fall into depression, and / or turn into a disassociating people pleaser.
For sure, people only get like this because they went through some very challenging, difficult experiences.
But now they’re a grown up, and now they are the parent, the boss, the president, and they are tyrannizing the people around them with their awful rage fits; or ruining their relationships with their inability to really relate; or neglecting their kids, their responsibilities, their spouse because they are ‘frozen’ into a small, depressed bubble where they just can’t see past their own miserable headspace; or stuck in some plastic, unreal, unemotional version of who they think they should be.
What’s it like growing up with a parent like that?
And so, the cycle starts all over again, with the ‘victim’ becoming the abuser.
So now, how can we stop this awful cycle from continuing?
Enter: The Mirror Principle
When you grow up being constantly blamed and shamed for pointless nothings, or constantly ignored, or constantly attacked, or constantly made to feel bad for wanting normal things like love, affection and real conversations, you aren’t going to trust other people when they tell you ‘you’ve got a problem’.
And who can blame you?
You’ve heard that from the day you were born, because the ‘permanent victims’ in your life were trying to make all of their own problems and issues your fault.
But at the same time, you for sure still have a bunch of your own issues, that if you don’t get a handle on, are going to lead to you becoming an abusive ‘permanent victim’ in turn.
So, God arranges things so that you will be constantly surrounded by people who have the same bad character traits that you yourself have. Like it not, these are the people who you’ll be attracting into your space, and into your life.
Because like attracts like.
And now, you have a choice. Either, you can decide that you are still 100% perfect, and that you have absolutely nothing to work on yourself (which is the classic stance of a perfectionistic, permanent victim, and usually leads to a person being diagnosed with some sort of a personality disorder).
You can accept the mirror principle, and start to explore what God is trying to show you via the people in your life who are upsetting you.
THE 1% RULE
There is no such thing as being 100% right.
If you are caught up in some sort of distressing altercation with someone, or if someone’s behavior is upsetting you, then you own at least 1% of the problem.
There is at least 1% of the work to be done here, and you have to go and figure out how you may be treating others the way this yucky person is treating you, or acting in a similar way to the one you are so upset about, or harshly criticizing in others.
Let’s give an example, to try and make it easier to follow what I’m saying.
ANGRY HUSBAND, ANGRY MUM
Let’s say, you married someone with an awful temper. If the toilets aren’t cleaned just so, he’ll storm out in a rage. He’s constantly insulting you, and criticizing you. He can get enraged if the cable TV stops working, or if the car breaks down.
You’re scared of him, so you go into ‘people-pleasing’ mode to try to manage the situation.
Superficially, it looks like this man isn’t your mirror at all! You’re being super nice and accommodating as much as possible, while he’s raging and abusing.
But now, take a look at what’s going on with the kids.
This woman isn’t scared of her kids, and as the adult, she’s in the position of ‘power’ in the relationship. And sure enough, there’s an awful lot of anger being blasted in their direction.
She berates them for not doing their homework properly, blasts them for how they dress, and is constantly criticizing them and blowing up at them.
The mirror principle is playing out.
Is her anger as extreme as what she’s experiencing herself, from her husband? Arguably not. But she still has a lot of her own inner work to do, to overcome her anger and rage.
Now, if the woman in our example believes herself to be a ‘permanent victim’, she won’t understand that she actually has the same problem as her husband. She’ll blame him 100% for all the issues that are going on in the house, and she won’t take any responsibility for her own abusive behavior of her children, which she’ll tell herself is not a big deal, and justify as being ‘normal’.
In the meantime, her own relationship with her kids becomes extremely strained.
Now, the mirror principle is going to kick again, as the kids start to relate to the mother with more and more anger.
Again, God is giving her a chance to see what she herself needs to work on.
At least 1% of this problem is hers. At this point, she can either knuckle down to see how her own behavior and negative character traits are contributing to the problem, or she’ll pretend that she’s 100% perfect, the “permanent victim”, and that all her children’s anger issues are nothing to do with her.
We all have resistance to acknowledging our own faults and flaws.
If we have issues with ‘toxic shame’, then that resistance can so easily turn into an impenetrable mantra that “we can do no wrong”, and that we are always just the permanent victim.
But all of us are down here because we have work to do.
So next time you see something you don’t like, or experience some behavior that you find unusually upsetting or emotionally wrenching, take a moment to try to figure out what God is showing you about yourself, that you need to work on and fix.
Because I guarantee, at least 1% of the problem lies with us, and not the other guy.
One of my correspondents asked me a really good question:
How can we actually forgive the people who have really hurt us, especially when we’re still suffering from the problems they’ve caused us?
It’s an excellent question for a number of reasons.
First, let’s just take a step back to say that there are many gurus and ‘spiritual guides’ out there who like to promote and encourage something that I call ‘superficial forgiveness’.
Superficial forgiveness is where the person who was hurt hasn’t really processed what occurred to them properly, and still has a lot of emotional unfinished business with the person who hurt them.
Yet, that person is ‘forced’ to ‘get over it’ as quickly as possible, because we live in a society that – at least superficially – is a very big believer in ‘forgive and forget’. It’s part of the overall cultural zombification process that tells us deeper emotions don’t matter, and that keeping up appearances and maintaining polite relations is the most important thing.
So what tends to happen is that when we get seriously or chronically hurt by someone, society encourages us to stuff down the very valid feelings we have of betrayal, anger, sadness and upset, and to move straight into ‘forgive and forget’ before we’re really ready to do that.
And when that happens, we end up in a very hard place where on the outside, we’re operating from that place of ‘superficial forgiveness’, but on the inside we still have a lot of anger and vengeful feelings that simply have never been recognized, and never been properly worked through and processed.
And this is one of the best short-cuts I know of to turning into an emotional zombie, and / or developing some severe mental health issues, and / or becoming chronically ill.
Another important point to make is that we can only forgive something that we've actually acknowledged. For as long as we're in denial about what was truly done, or how we truly felt about it, we can't actually forgive.
So, what’s the solution?
This is what I believe works so much better than ‘superficial forgiveness’.
STEP 1: Acknowledge the hurt that was done to you, and validate your feelings.
Your feelings are subjective. We aren’t talking about an objective judgement of what has really happened here, and you don’t need to worry about ‘proving’ your case against the other person.
What you need to focus on is:
This stage can’t be skipped, and it’s the foundation for being able to really forgive further down the line. Where the hurt was profound, or long-lasting, or the result of an enormous betrayal (as is often the case when we’re talking about the parent-child relationship) – this part of the process can take a very long time.
Like, years, sometimes.
Why does it take so long in these situations? Because usually what happens is that the children of emotionally immature / absent and / or abusive parents aren’t allowed to experience their own feelings in a genuine way.
That’s far too threatening for an emotionally-dysfunctional parent.
So instead, the child is encouraged to view every interaction, thought, and feeling through the parent’s emotional lens, and that’s usually calibrated to make the parent come out looking as good as possible, at the child’s expense.
It’s a subtle, but incredibly effective form of brainwashing that sadly is so, so common in today’s world. And it can take the child years and years to really rid themselves of seeing the world simply as an extension of their own parents, and then to really feel all the things that they were never allowed to feel.
Like hurt, betrayal, sadness, jealousy, fear, and rage at how unfair it all is etc etc.
So dafka, when those people’s true feelings start to defrost, there’s a lot of repressed ‘uck’ that has to work its way out of the system, and be properly processed, before they can look to really forgive.
Another very important factor which can slow the process of real forgiveness up is how much of a threat the person who hurt us still poses. That’s one of the main reasons why it’s so much easier to forgive someone once they’ve passed away, because your subconscious is no longer scared for you to let your guard down around them – they’re dead! They can’t hurt you any more.
But, when people are still in a position of power, or still in a position to harm you in some way, or you still have that fear inside of you that it’s dangerous to come off red-alert around them – you’ll find it much, much harder to forgive them 100%.
So, now we’ve spelled out how crucially important STEP 1: Validate your own feelings really is, we can move on to:
STEP 2: How to really forgive the people who hurt us.
People are built in such a way, that we need to be able to ‘get things off our chest’ in some way, before we can really let go of things. But, when we’re dealing with people who have seriously hurt us, that’s usually impossible.
These people usually lack self-awareness, empathy and compassion to a very large degree, so confronting them with what they did to you will usually only lead to them lashing out, and trying to close you down any way they can.
That’s not going to end well for either of you.
So then, how can you get ‘closure’ without actually speaking to them?
The answer is to sit somewhere quiet where you won’t be disturbed, and to imagine talking to them in your head. Say everything you need to say – repeatedly! Yell, curse, accuse – whatever you need to do to ‘get it off your chest’.
And then, give them the opportunity to respond – still in your head.
Usually, they will start to explain a little about what’s really going on with them, and you’ll start to get some stunning insights into the internal demons the other person is battling.
Again, that doesn’t excuse or justify their bad behavior, but it does explain more of it, and it will help you to understand more about the huge challenges that other person actually has, internally.
If the hurt was huge or chronic, you may well have to repeat this process of ‘talking to them in your head’ a few times over, every time some new emotion, or some new aspect, comes up again in your life, that you have to deal with.
The goal is to get closure, to have your say, and ultimately, to forgive, and I’ve found that visualizing the person in your head, and saying whatever you need to say to them, is the single best way of doing this.
Now, you’re ready for STEP 3: Bring it back to God.
I know that people who come from religious traditions that don’t believe in reincarnation will find what I’m about to say challenging, but everything that happens to us down here is arranged by God, and is connected to fixing us, and our souls, on some level.
We have no idea what we did in a previous life, but if we got sent back down here in 2018, the odds are very good that we were the abusive parent last time round, we were the fraudster and thief, we were the cheating spouse, we were the cold-hearted murderer.
And if we didn’t make amends to our victims during that lifetime, then the only way to pay down and rectify those sins where we hurt other people is to experience the same sort of suffering ourselves.
Does this excuse the people who hurt us?
But, fundamentally, they are just being used as the stick in God’s hand, to rectify some wrong that we ourselves committed in a previous lifetime.
Again, for as long as you haven’t worked through the previous steps of:
You simply won’t be able to get to Step 3, which is where you can really see and internalize and accept that God was behind it all.
And that’s another reason why ‘superficial forgiveness’ is so poisonous and damaging, spiritually, because until and unless we have really worked the hurt through, as described above, we simply won’t be able to internalize that it’s all from God, and all for our good, somehow.
There are no quick fixes with these things, there are no short-cuts.
The people who are telling you to ‘forgive and forget’ are usually dealing with their own massive, and massively suppressed, mental and emotional health issues.
True forgiveness usually takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of inner work, courage and effort, and it’s predicated on first truly understanding what was done to you, and how badly it hurt you. Only then can you move on to really forgiving the other person, and then bringing it all back to God.
But when you finally do reach that stage of forgiving them 100%, it’s the best feeling in the world.
The answer is both absolutely yes, and absolutely not.
Why absolutely yes?
Firstly because so many people today have C-PTSD, whether they know it or not, that having typical C-PTSD reactions to life is really far more normal than most people still realize or understand.
C-PTSD doesn’t just happen when you experience terrible, overt abuse as a child, God forbid. As Pete Walker points out in his excellent book: Complex-PTSD, From Surviving to Thriving, sometimes the hardest cases of C-PTSD occur where no obvious child abuse was happening.
It’s just that the parents were…completely absent. AWOL, emotionally. It was a home, a family, where no-one ever really discussed feelings, where the emphasis was put on keeping up superficial appearances, where children (and everyone else) were always expected to swallow down their true feelings, their true thoughts, and to not rock the boat.
Often, these homes had some sort of tragic or difficult circumstances, or some enormous loss that had been experienced in the past, that had been swept under the rug, and which no-one wanted to talk about or discuss.
So the kids grew up in this hermetically-sealed ‘plastic’ atmosphere where they picked up the very strong unspoken message that having feelings, or trying to express your inner dimension, or talking about anything more than very superficial subjects, was dangerous, somehow, and should be completely avoided.
The best way I can think of to try to put across what happens in these types of homes is via Stromae’s video for ‘Papaoutai’ (‘Where are you, dad?’), in the post below, where the kid is trying so, so hard to pierce through the parent’s ‘plastic’ exterior – but in the end gives up, and becomes an unfeeling robot himself.
THE RISE OF THE SCREEN
Screens compound the problem of emotional neglect and emotional absenteeism, and also cause it. The compound it, because when people feel uncomfortable ‘being them’ around other people, they take refuge behind the screen – the TV, the internet, the text message or tweet.
But of course it also causes the problem, because when a parent is so wrapped up in the SCREEN, they have no time or attention to spare for the kid, who then experiences an emotionally AWOL parent, and in turn grows up with C-PTSD issues caused by emotional neglect.
So, part one is: most people today have some form of C-PTSD, whether they realise or not, and that is what is behind most people’s mental and emotional difficulties today.
So, you’re in good company!
Part Two: Let’s look more at whether someone with C-PTSD can live a ‘normal’ life.
The answer is yes and no.
If you understand that there is no such thing as ‘normal’ for anyone, and that each of us are unique, and that each life will run along it’s unique course, then it stands to reason that you can’t live a ‘normal’ life – and neither can anyone else.
But, if you’re talking more about whether you can still live a fulfilled and satisfying life; and whether you can get to a point where you can diminish the C-PTSD enough to really start enjoying life and being happy, and fulfilling your potential – then the answer is definitely yes.
Again, it’s hard to really go into massive details on a Quora answer, so let’s try to boil things down, to give concrete, solid steps of how to do this, as briefly as possible.
1) GET EDUCATED ABOUT WHAT REALLY CAUSED THE C-PTSD, AND HOW IT’S AFFECTING YOU IN MYRIAD WAYS
The single best way of doing this is to read Pete Walker’s excellent book.
It can be hard reading – and I personally don’t agree with Pete’s approach of keeping hold of his anger against his parents long-term (more on this in a moment) – but Pete does an unparalleled job of explaining the different types of dysfunctional family dynamics that actually cause C-PTSD.
And, he does an excellent job of explaining how most of the ‘melt-downs’ that C-PTSD people have, where they get whooshed back into some very negative and hard-to-deal with states of mind are actually just flashbacks to a child-hood state of mind that was never properly processed.
Pete gives a lot of practical tools to show you how to start processing these ‘undigested’ emotional states, and if you follow his instructions, you will start to see a lot of the C-PTSD symptoms start to abate and diminish in both frequency and intensity.
2) LEARN HOW TO LET GO OF YOUR ANGER AT PARENTS (and the others who hurt you), AND FORGIVE
I can’t stress enough, that stage 2 can only be attempted once you’ve 100% internalized and accepted just how bad it really was for you, as a child, and you’ve validated your childhood emotions and experiences 100%.
If you try to jump to forgiveness before you’ve really bottomed-out how dysfunctional family dynamics and behaviors really caused your issues, and your C-PTSD, you will get stuck in the problem.
There are no short-cuts:
First, face up to what really happened to your ‘inner child’, to your younger self, and make no excuses for the bad behavior that was doled out to. Feel all the upset and anger you need to feel to start to heal, and to ensure that you’ll take care of yourself properly from now on, and give yourself what’s required, emotionally.
Repressed emotions are part and parcel of the C-PTSD.
Once they are released and properly digested and internalized, the triggers that spark them off will start to fade and dissolve – and you’ll find yourself coping with life, and its challenges, in a much healthier, easier way.
And part of doing this is to really feel what you weren’t allowed to feel as a kid, and to experience what was too hard to experience as a kid, and to learn the lessons from it, and to take the steps required to protect yourself going forward.
But - don’t stay in that angry place!
Don’t feel like a victim for the rest of your life, because holding on to all that negativity after you’ve validated it, learned from it, and made the changes you need to protect yourself in the future will only keep you stuck in the past.
And the past is not a place where it’s good for people with C-PTSD to dwell, any more than is absolutely necessary to properly progress through stage 1, above.
OF course, it’s easier said than done to really forgive. Practically, how can we do this?
The first bit of advice is to read another excellent book by Mark Wolynn, called: It didn’t start with you: How inherited family trauma shapes who we are and how to end the cycle. (see the vid above).
This book brings some of the science to explain how trauma, traumatic reactions and responses, can literally be passed down the genes to descendants, via a process called epigenetics.
To give one obvious example, the book explains how the grandchild of holocaust survivors can ‘react’ in the same way as someone who went through the holocaust, even though they may have been born 50 or 60 years after the end of World War II.
The grandkid literally has PTSD, C-PTSD – but they have no conscious memory of where it’s coming from!
And when the trauma is ‘in the genes’, i.e. coded into the body’s DNA, that can make for some hugely overwhelming, monstrous reactions that seem to come out of nowhere – until you really make the links that Wolynn makes in his book.
THE NEXT THING TO DO IS LOOK INTO FINDING A GOOD ONE BRAIN PRACTITIONER IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD.
One brain uses muscle testing to ‘find’ where the trauma is actually being stored in a person’s body, and subconscious, and memories, and can literally get rid of specific segments of it in just one or two sessions.
It’s particularly effective for trauma that occurred before the adult brain really developed (or that you’ve inherited, and thus have no conscious recollection of).
Because the One Brain therapist will muscle test to locate what age the trauma occurred at, and if they can’t find it in your lifetime, they’ll go backwards, up to 7 generations, to see which ancestor’s trauma ‘issue’ you’ve inherited, physically.
I know it sounds weird – Wolynn’s book explains the science in an easy –to-understand way, and I can only tell you that I know of many, many people who it’s helped, to get rid of C-PTSD symptoms and triggers that were very firmly embedded, and making their life miserable.
The One Brain main website is HERE.
I've written a lot about C-PTSD here on the website, and you can see some of the pertinent posts about how to overcome C-PTSD below:
c-ptsd 101: I've got c-ptsd! now what do i do to get rid of it?
c-ptsd 101: how 'inherited trauma' can give you c-ptsd
c-ptsd 101: how to raise emotionally-healthy kids
c-ptsd 101: how to tame the inner critic
Below, is the 'masterlist' I put together for how to tackle C-PTSD across all three levels of body, mind and soul:
TIPS TO TACKLE C-PTSD AT THE BODY LEVEL
The key thing to remember here is that traumatised people are physically very stressed and tense people.
The more primitive parts of their brain is continually sending them messages that the world is a scary, threatening, dangerous place, which means:
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD BODY:
NOTE: If someone experienced any form of physical abuse, then even touch can be a very triggering event for them. In these situations, ‘pet therapy’, or having a safe bond with a dog, horse, or other ‘loving’ animal can be an important first step to desensitising the C-PTSD body to physical touch.
(Click the grey for more details and / or information for how to do each of these things):
Other things to try include:
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD MIND / EMOTIONS
HOW TO CALM DOWN A C-PTSD SOUL
TO SUM UP:
No-one is normal, so give up on that idea.
But, you can definitely live a happy, fulfilled and emotionally-healthy life, once you learn where the C-PTSD is really coming from, how it’s really affecting you, and to learn the lessons the negative emotions are really coming to teach us.
Validate your own feelings and experiences 100% - and then do your best to forgive the people who hurt you (while still protecting yourself 100%, and staying with a realistic picture of the true circumstances and situations you find yourself in).
If you need more help (and most people do), consider One Brain, to help you get rid of the traumatic memories that may be embedded deep in your subconscious mind, or even, inherited from your ancestors.
It’s not easy, but you will definitely see things move and improve if you stick with it, and just keep picking yourself up every time you fall down.
Seeing as most of us are probably coming off a week or two of vacation and ‘family time’, I thought it would be timely to devote a post to ‘family outing flashbacks’.
From my experience, these tend to take two main forms:
1) An urgent need to GET OUT OF THE HOUSE at any price, and to avoid spending time as a family unit in the claustrophobic area called ‘your home’.
And / or
2) A violent dislike of going anywhere with your family, even for short day trips out.
Family outings contain the seeds of so many potentially traumatic triggers because there’s a lot of factors in the mix that can be very challenging for C-PTSD people, especially around the issues of controlling / being in control, and having to be in close proximity to others who may trigger feelings of powerlessness, helplessness, being invisible, and anger and depression (amongst other things).
And that’s just if you’re the kid!
If you’re the parent, there’s also the big risk that you may find yourself controlling, bossing other people around and ‘laying down the law’ in a way that suits you and what you want to do, but that severely curtails the healthy self-expression of other people in your family.
So, how can we traverse the potential minefield of taking a family outing and still avoid all these C-PTSD-inducing triggers? Here’s some suggestions:
1) Accept that flashbacks are going to happen - As soon as you realize you’re going into a meltdown about your family vacations being a mess, and your family life being stressful, and that you’re not a good enough mother or parent, etc, and that everyone is going to grow up so warped and unhappy because you DID or DIDN’T do [fill in the blank] on vacation…. press pause and acknowledge you’ve gone straight back into flashback mode, and aren’t thinking rationally.
Only proceed with your vacation plans once you’ve calmed down, followed these steps and have moved out of flashback mode.
2) Make decisions as a family and be prepared to compromise - Easier said then done, I know, but healthy interactions are based on the art of compromise. No-one can have it all ‘their way’ all of the time unless they’re a dictator, narcissist or psycho, so be prepared to back down on some of your own preferences.
10 common areas that require compromise and that should be discussed and clarified beforehand include:
3) Figure out WHY you want to go on an outing.
This maybe sounds obvious, but so many people do family outing because they think they SHOULD, and not because they really want to. If after discussing all the details it becomes clear that a family outing is just not really workable or doable at the moment, then don’t do it! If a kid really doesn’t want to go, don’t force them!
If there’s something you really hate doing but you’re feeling pressured into it - either find a way to make it acceptable, or don’t do it.
4) Allow yourself to not go on a family outing.
So many of us have C-PTSD issues around family outings as adults precisely because we often experienced some very difficult, horrible situations while we were meant to be ‘enjoying’ the family time.
If it’s not going to build your relationship with your family, or if it’s going to put you and others under tremendous amounts of emotional stress and pressure, skip the outing and do something else less intense and more productive.
I know ‘everyone else’ is still doing it - but you only have to take one look at the long faces, the stressed expressions, and the arguments and tension going on around all these family outings to realize that often, it’s a much nicer idea in theory than it really is in practice.
One of the most fundamental things to understand about C-PTSD – and basically any issue that is causing an individual to have some intense ‘friction’ with other people – is that any person who frequently beats themselves up is almost certainly going to be beating other people up, too.
Pete Walker, in his excellent book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving, gives a very insightful explanation for why this occurs:
“The ‘inner critic’ is the part of your mind that views you as flawed and unworthy. The outer critic is the part that views everyone else as flawed and unworthy….The outer critic… uses the same programs of perfectionism and endangerment against others that your inner critic uses against yourself... Via it’s all-or-none programming, the outer critic rejects others because they are never perfect, and cannot be guaranteed to be safe.”
Perfectionism, where we hold ourselves and others to impossibly-high standards is pretty self-explanatory. By ‘endangerment’, Walker means that C-PTSD people are always on the look-out for ‘clues’ that other people are going to ultimately be as toxic and damaging for them as their very difficult relatives were.
Of course, everyone, even nice, relatively sane, kind, generous, patient people will have a ‘off’ day, and occasionally react in a less than optimal way. We’re all humans, remember, and NO ONE is perfectly-mannered or switched-on all the time.
The problem for C-PTSD people is that because their primary caregivers were overwhelmingly ‘negative’ and damaging to be around so much of the time – i.e. genuinely caring, attentive and empathetic behaviour was very much the exception, not the rule – they view every imperfect ‘lapse’ as a sign that really, that otherwise ‘nice’ person is going to end up treating them just as badly as their difficult, abusive or absent parent did / does.
This is such a hard proposition for most C-PTSD to deal with (especially when they haven’t yet figured out that they actually have C-PTSD….) that it makes regular interactions with other people far too scary. It’s much easier to rubbish everyone else, and focus on their faults, in order to keep a ‘safe’ distance, than to let your guard down, and risk getting sucker-punched again.
Which is why so many of the C-PTSD people who are at the very beginning of their healing process frequently find it so very difficult to maintain good relationships with others, for any period of time.
Of course, this can be fixed! So don’t despair, and don’t give up of turning things around and developing much more forgiving, genuine, authentic and healthy relationships with others, but the starting point of the healing journey has to be awareness of what’s really happening because of the C-PTSD, and why.
The take-away point from this post is that for as long as you’re continuing to expect unreasonable perfectionism, and to be very hard on yourself, you will inevitably also be incredibly hard on other people and their ‘normal’ lapses into imperfect behavior – including your kids and spouse.
THE FOUR STRESS TYPES
Another thing to add here is that your main ‘stress’ type – i.e. FIGHT/FLIGHT/FREEZE/FAWN – will also very much affect how the dynamic between inner / outer critic really plays out in your life, in real time. (See the infographic.)
FIGHT types nearly always polarise over to constant ‘outer criticism’, and controlling behaviours of others, and very rarely acknowledge that this is attitude is a corollary of having an enormous inner critic at play. Fight types are very prickly, to prevent people coming too close, but will also expect 100% compliance for their wishes, viewing anything less as complete betrayal and ‘abandonment’.
(Yes, that’s why ‘fight’ stress reactions are typically underneath so many so-called ‘personality disorders’ and anti-social behaviour.)
FLIGHT types tend to flip the most between the two poles of inner and outer critic – and are typically the ones most caught up in ‘comparisons’ with other people and competitions to see who’s doing the best or worse. When they’re ‘winning’ – they’ll be highly judgmental of others. When they’re ‘losing’ – they’ll be highly critical of themselves.
FREEZE types often fall into making blanket statements about the whole of humanity being bad, untrustworthy, rotten and unfixable. Again, this is a defensive move which gives the FREEZE C-PTSD person the justification they need for retreating away from the outside world, and wrapping themselves entirely up in their own misery and imagination. (Again, ‘FREEZE’ types are typically identified as having issues with depression.)
Again, the outer criticism is married to a very harsh ‘inner critic’ that makes the FREEZE person feel completely worthless and pointless.
FAWN types rarely risk making openly critical statements of others, whatever the justification. They tend to be the most self-critical of all four groups. But, that doesn’t mean that FAWN types only ever beat themselves up, because as we’ve learned, if you’re regularly beating yourself up, than it’s GUARANTEED that you will also regularly be beating others up too, especially your kids and spouse.
Because FAWN types hate confrontation, most of their ‘outer critic’ attacks will be conducted via passive-aggressiveness, where other people are ‘silently blamed’ and railed against for causing all the issues.
Passive-aggressiveness can be very tricky to deal with, as it’s often so hidden away. Here’s some of the more common examples of passive-aggressive behaviour identified by Pete Walker:
Again, the main take-away point from today’s post is simply the understanding that ‘inner critics’ always come along with ‘outer critics’ – and that both are unhealthy ‘evil inclination’ behaviors. Being able to evaluate ours, and others, behaviour is clearly a very crucial skill required for good emotional health.
That’s the whole idea between the Jewish concept of making a daily accounting of our thoughts, words and actions, to see which ones may have been a little ‘off’, and require some work, or rectification. But healthy, compassionate self-evaluation is worlds away from beating ourselves up for not being perfect.
One of the most challenging things of coming to terms with C-PTSD is the knowledge that you will almost certainly pass at least some of your issues over to your children.
This happens for a few different reasons, like:
1) You often aren’t aware of all the ‘stuff’ that you’re doing wrong, or not doing right as a result of your own C-PTSD for years and years, which means you pass along a lot of funny ideas, fears, knee-jerk reactions and unhelpful behaviors to your kids before the penny even drops that something is not quite right, here.
When many people start to make the link between their own experiences in childhood and their C-PTSD tendencies as adults, it can hit them like a hammer-blow to realize that they’ve been treated their own children in many of the same unhealthy, C-PTSD-inducing ways.
2) The C-PTSD itself causes us to lose perspective about ‘how bad’ we’re really doing, as parents.
Don’t forget that C-PTSD is often characterized by:
So then on top of dealing with our own C-PTSD, we often then get caught in a double-bind of having to deal with searing guilt, shame and self-loathing about the fact that we may have not treated our children 100% perfectly, and passed many of our C-PTSD tendencies on to them.
SO HOW CAN WE DEAL WITH THIS IN A SANE WAY, AND GET PAST THE OVERWHELMING FEELINGS OF PARENTAL GUILT AND SHAME?
Here’s what’s worked for me:
1) Put God firmly in the picture.
There are no ‘accidents’ going on here. Everything is planned down to the smallest, minute detail, and God has designed the situations that both we and our kids needs, in order to really meet our full spiritual potential.
(Clearly, this doesn’t give you a ‘get out of jail free’ card to abuse your children whenever you feel like it, as part of their ‘spiritual tikkun’. There is a huge difference between trying and wanting to treat our children properly and occasionally falling down (like we all do) and making absolutely no effort to acknowledge and tackle our negative character traits, and how they are impacting our children.)
Just like our C-PTSD issues ultimately brought out the best in us, and helped us to develop some humility and hopefully also a much stronger connection to God, it will do the same thing for our kids, too.
2) Accept the reality of the situation without running away.
This is to counter our ‘extreme perfectionist’, who wants everything to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time, and who gets very upset with us (and our children….) if we can’t deliver that on the parenting front.
Again, perfectionism is a key C-PTSD-induced trait. Real people aren’t perfect. Being ‘imperfect’ is 100% fine, as long as we don’t start blaming ourselves for being awful people and beating ourselves up all the time for ‘ruining’ our kids.
If / when we fall into those tendencies, we’ll start feeling even more frustrated, angry and bad-termpered, which will ironically cause us to lash out a whole bunch more at our kids (and ourselves…).
So accept your imperfection as happily as you can! ‘Perfect’ parents are the ones who are doing the MOST damage to their kids.
As a general rule of thumb, if you can admit your imperfections to your children and regularly apologize to them when you’re out of order, your kids will grow up emotionally healthy, even if you’re not a 100% ‘perfect’ parent.
3) Identify how much of your parental guilt is justified, and how much is a C-PTSD-induced emotional flashback.
When you start blaming yourself for ‘ruining’ your kids, or start feeling toxic shame or guilt for being a ‘bad’ parent, it’s crucially important that you recognize that this reaction is a C-PTSD-induced emotional flashback, and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
You can read more about emotional flashbacks HERE, but the main thing to remember is that the horrible feelings we feel when we flashback are usually NOT related to the situation we’re dealing with in the current moment.
Sure, we FEEL like a monster, like a disgusting human being, like a piece of trash, because we forgot to pick the kid up on time, or had a ‘rage fit’ at them for spilling the juice. But really, we just ‘flashed-back’ to the overwhelming feelings we had from childhood, that are now ‘dressed up’ in the present situation.
The sooner we recognize this, the sooner we can move out of the ‘flashback’ space, calm down, apologize, and get on with life in a much more equitable manner.
One of the hardest things for a C-PTSD parent is that we’re often governed by instinctive, and intense knee-jerk reactions to situations that then also traumatize and sensitize our own children in an unhealthy way.
To give a common example of this: C-PTSD people are usually hyper-vigilant and ‘on edge’, fearing danger and disaster around every corner.
A C-PTSD parent can easily freak-out about the danger of broken glass, for example, in a way that then creates a lot of trauma around ‘broken glass’ for the next generation.
And so it can continue….
The key is to separate the REACTION from the SITUATION, and to try to calm things down as quickly as possible. This is definitely work, but it can be done, and even just having the mindfulness that you’re freaking out irrationally can be very helpful to recognize, and also to share with your children.
4) Don’t forget that kids are our mirrors.
And then use that knowledge to have more compassion for yourself. Inside, you still feel like a confused, lost, lonely small kid sometimes, especially when you’re caught in a flashback. Use that knowledge to have compassion on yourself when you’re losing it.
Recognise that when you’re yelling at your kid, or blaming them, or guilting them, or whatever it is - you’re really still just yelling at yourself.
The more compassion you have for yourself, and your human frailties and issues, the more compassion you’ll naturally start to have for your kids, too.
If they’re struggling, that’s a sign that on the inside, you’re also still struggling. And it’s not your fault or their fault, it’s just a ‘message’ from Upstairs that there’s still some work to do to fix the problem.
So the main person to work on and worry about is YOU, not your kids. Once you’re nicer to yourself, you’ll automatically be much nicer, gentler and more accepting of your kids, too.
5) Don’t fall into despair.
Don’t give up! These issues are very difficult, and have been going on literally for generations. But when God is in the picture, EVERYTHING that’s broken can be fixed, albeit with a lot of struggle and prayer.
Again, the rule of thumb is that if you believe YOU broke something, believe YOU can fix it. When it comes to our children, we CAN fix it, but sometimes we have to eat a lot of humble pie, and do a lot of apologizing and a lot of acknowledging our flaws and issues before we get there.
Our children are very forgiving, and they genuinely love and accept us. The problem usually is that WE are not forgiving of ourselves, and we don’t genuinely love and accept ourselves.
That’s the C-PTSD reality.
But don’t despair of having a good relationship with your children. Sure, they will have their problems and struggles as a result of our imperfect parenting - that’s the way God made the world.
We are all down here to work on ourselves and to fix our character flaws.
But don’t let the inner critic tear you down for that, because it’s a normal and natural part of the world that every parent will mess up their kid in some way.
If you can show your kids how to practice acceptance, awareness, humility, and self-compassion, and how to connect back to God when the ‘troubles’ strike, then you are giving them the biggest present of all.
If I was writing these things in a more logical order, I probably should have done this one a little earlier on, because it’s so crucial to understanding the mechanism of how C-PTSD actually operates in real life, and how it can take your ‘emotional legs’ out from under you.
Let’s remind ourselves first about what causes C-PTSD:
It’s when you have an experience, or more usually a number of experiences, where you feel threatened or abandoned by your primary caregivers.
Small kids are very simple creatures, with very simple needs. They are also very vulnerable, and very reliant on the adults on their lives to fulfil those simple, basic - but still absolutely crucial - needs.
When that doesn’t happen, when a small kid experiences their primary caregivers as being ‘absent’ from the picture when they really, really need their help (which happens with emotionally absent parents) AND / OR experiences them as ‘dangerous and threatening’ (which happens with abusive parents) - the small kid experiences some huge emotions of fear, shame, and abandonment.
These are the main overwhelming ‘flashback’ states that this small kid kind of gets stuck in when they grow up as an adult with C-PTSD, and that then automatically triggers their preferred fight-flight-freeze-fawn response (what Pete Walker calls the ‘4Fs’, in his book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving).
As we’ve also learned previously, many C-PTSD people feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, people-pleasing behaviours and anger a great deal of the time, especially if they haven’t yet figured out what’s really causing the problem.
It’s comes with the territory of C-PTSD that not only is your ‘4F’ response (or responses…) to ‘stress’ more intense than for other people, and also lasts longer, but it’s also much more easily triggered for a C-PTSD person, than for someone who wasn’t traumatised in the same way.
DISSECTING HOW C-PTSD FLASHBACKS WORK
OK, so now we’ve set out the stall again, let’s try to dissect what exactly a C-PTSD flashback is, and what it does to you.
Say, you’re trying to get the lid off the spaghetti sauce jar, and you can’t. Unbeknownst to you, this small problem is enough to trigger a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness that immediately segues into a ‘flashback’ feeling of when you were small and felt so abandoned, useless and powerless.
Typically, what now kicks in is your ‘inner critic’ aka evil inclination, who usually starts up with heaping doses of abusive name-calling and degradation, like:
“You’ll always be a failure!”
“You can’t do anything right!”
“What sort of loser can’t even make pasta for supper?!”
Etc. Very often, these will be the same sorts of things you were actually told in childhood, either by other people, or by your own evil inclination, that was going all out to make you feel even worse than you already did.
Now that your ‘inner critic’ has painted the situation in the worst possible colours, and pointed out how terrible it is that you can’t even make pasta (making a ‘mountain’ out of a molehill); and / or made it seem like you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself or others in any useful way, that usually kicks off some more huge feelings of fear and shame.
Fear shows up whenever we feel we aren’t ‘safe’ or that we’re in terrible danger (like, of starving to death or having our kids taken away by the social services, because we can’t even make pasta for them….)
Shame, (and I’m really talking about toxic shame, here), shows up whenever our self-esteem has been given a huge battering, and we lose all confidence in our abilities to do, or even to just be.
As a result of all these overwhelming feelings of fear and / or shame, we launch straight into our 4F response, as follows:
FIGHT TYPES - will get furiously angry at the jar, at themselves, at the people they’re trying to make supper.
FLIGHT TYPES - will suddenly remember they have something else urgent they need to do, and will find a way to duck making the pasta.
FREEZE TYPES - will head to the couch, and do their best to ‘escape’ the problem by zoning out, feeling terribly depressed, going to sleep, turning on the TV, aimlessly surfing the net, downing a whisky, popping a pill.
FAWN TYPES - will leave the pasta sauce to spend the next 2 ½ hours 'self-abandoning' by being a shoulder to cry on for their suffering friend.
Of course, I’m generalising wildly, but you get the idea.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT….
What happens next is that if the C-PTSD person doesn’t work out what’s really going on, they will now add ‘opening lids’ to their long list of subconscious things that should be avoided at all costs, if they don’t want to feel bad again.
And this is the way that more and more very mundane ‘triggers’ accumulate, that can really start to have a huge impact on the daily life of someone who has C-PTSD.
HOW TO STOP A ‘FLASHBACK’ IN ITS TRACKS
1) NAME THE PROBLEM: Say out loud: “This is a flashback, it’s from the past, nothing ‘bad’ is happening now.”
2) REASSURE YOURSELF: Tell yourself that you’re not in danger, and that you haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t going to get into trouble with your parents.
3) ACKNOWLEDGE THIS IS A PASSING PHASE: While the feelings of fear, shame and overwhelm used to seem as though they would last forever when we were small, as adults we know that these feelings are temporary and won’t last forever.
4) IDENTIFY THE FEELINGS UNDERNEATH THE ‘FLASHBACK’: This is crucial for reconnecting to that small, terrified ‘lost’ part of yourself that you’ve actually just ‘flashback-ed’ to, and for helping him / her to start feeling better. Here’s some common examples of the real feelings that are hiding underneath a flashback: small, overwhelmed, scared, ‘no-choice’, powerless, stuck, petrified, sad, heart-broken, lonely.
5) COUNTER THE ‘INNER CRITIC’: Again, this takes some practise, but as soon as the inner critic / evil inclination starts trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, and paint the situation in the worse possible colours, or make out like you are the most disgusting, awful person in the world - close them down! Tell yourself: “This is my evil inclination talking, and it’s trying to kill me…”
6) GET ANGRY AT YOUR ‘INNER CRITIC’: When you were little, you couldn’t stand up for yourself, or put things in the correct perspective. As an adult, you don’t have to accept the insults and lies that your evil inclination is telling you! Fight back and defend yourself! Insults and abusive comments are completely unacceptable - even when they are coming from yourself!
7) ASK GOD FOR HELP, AND FOR EMUNA TO KNOW THAT EVERYTHING IS COMING FROM HIM, AND IS REALLY OK: While I’ve put this down here at 7, you can do this at every stage of the process. Connecting to God like this can instantly stop a flashback in its tracks all by itself.
8) FOCUS ON YOUR BODY AND YOUR FEELINGS, INSTEAD OF YOUR THOUGHTS: This will bring you back to the ‘present’ and get you out of your flashback mode. Take a few deep breaths, stand still or sit down and stop rushing around, if you feel scared, or ashamed, don’t fight it. Accept that feeling these feelings is part of your healing process, and that they won’t last forever.
9) ASK GOD TO SHOW YOU WHO OR WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR FLASHBACK, AND WHY: This is another crucial part of the healing process. Once you figure out what set it off (in our case, the feelings of powerlessness that came from being unable to open the spaghetti jar), just knowing that means that you’ll be able to do things differently or better next time around.
10) BE ON YOUR OWN SIDE: Reassure yourself that you are really good, and that all those negative feelings you were feeling in flashback mode - like something terrible is about to happen to you; like you’re the most disgusting person in the world; like you are the biggest waste of space on the planet and don’t deserve to be alive, God forbid - aren’t real, or true.
Be on your own, ‘small kid’s’ side, and tell yourself that you are allowed to make mistakes, that you struggled mightily growing up, through no fault of your own, and that with God’s help, it’s all going to turn around for the good very soon.
This is not going to get fixed in five minutes, and you shouldn't expect too much from yourself too soon, or start beating yourself up when you can't deliver on the overly-ambitious timetable you may have set for yourself.
This is long-term work, so please give yourself the time and space it requires, and relate to yourself with as much compassion, caring and love as you can, when you catch yourself reverting to ‘flashback’ mode.
In our superficial world, so many of the people who should know better - like fitness instructors, naturopaths, and other ‘alt-health experts’ - like to make a very big deal about healthy eating. On the one hand, they are absolutely right that the quality and quantity of the food we eat does profoundly affect our feelings of health and well-being.
MSG, for example, is known to strip the myelin sheaths from nerves in the brain, which can literally lead to brain damage. Also, if we aren’t absorbing enough B-vitamins (which is not the same thing as just eating enough B-vitamins), that can also leave us feeling very tired, depressed and overwhelmed.
So yes, eating healthy is definitely a good thing, and should be followed as much as possible without developing any fanatical food tendencies.
But here’s the thing: no part of the body is more responsive to emotional stress, and particularly trauma-induced emotional stress, than the stomach and the alimentary canal. That means that repressed emotions are nearly always at the bottom of eating issues, so ‘willpower’ by itself simply can’t fix the problem at its root.
I’ll set out a little of the science explaining what is going on physiologically in the body and why at the end of the post, but first, let’s take a look at some of the common ways this link between eating habits and C-PTSD can play out.
EMOTIONAL NEGLECT AND OVER-EATING
If someone grows up in a home with emotionally-absent parents, it’s very unlikely that any expression of strong, negative emotion (especially by the child) will be tolerated. This is usually because the parents themselves are disconnected from their own negative emotions, and find themselves being triggered into a very distressing fight-flight-freeze-fawn response when faced with their child’s strong emotions.
Their inner critic (aka the evil inclination) will also waste no time piling on a whole bunch of toxic shame and fear on the triggered parent, causing them to react in a very harsh way to their child’s display of negative emotion.
If the parent is a ‘fight’ type, they’ll lash out with angry words, fists, or both. If ‘flight’, they’ll literally run away from the kid, and remember something ‘urgent’ they have to do. If ‘freeze’, they’ll turn their music / movie up to full volume, or do whatever else they need to do to ‘drown out’ the problem like pouring a whisky or popping a pill. And if they’re ‘fawn’ types, they’ll nip next door to go and baby-sit for their poor, struggling neighbour instead of dealing with their own poor, struggling kid.
Point is, when a kid gets taught that feeling strong emotions, and especially strong negative emotions, is somehow dangerous, bad, ‘wrong’, or will unleash punishment upon them, they quickly learn to stop doing that.
There are many ways that strong negative feelings can be pushed down, or ‘repressed’, but two key habits are holding the breath, and trying to ‘self-soothe’ the negative feeling with food, instead. But because the feeling is being pushed down, instead of being acknowledged and aired-out, it can sometimes take an awful lot of food to try and keep it ‘under the surface’!
When this same ‘negative feeling’ is triggered in someone with C-PTSD as an adult, they will automatically reach for the cake / chocolate / carbs to continue trying to keep it ‘down’. It has nothing whatsoever to do with willpower, and everything to do with a triggered reaction to stress that causes a ‘negative feeling’ to emerge, that the person has learnt must be squashed at all costs.
Once the person with C-PTSD slowly learns how to acknowledge the negative feelings they are repressing, and learns safe ways of expressing those feelings in a way that won’t overwhelm them, the need for the food disappears by itself.
LOSS OF APPETITE AND FEAR
Another very common trauma-based reaction to eating occurs when a traumatised person loses their appetite. This is a physiological reaction to fear, and again, people with C-PTSD are often hair-triggered to over-react to perceived threats in their environment.
While someone who doesn’t have C-PTSD won’t be taken out by their boss’s bad mood, a traumatised person may well take it as a sign that the boss doesn’t like them, and that their job is on the line etc, with all the attendant fear and stress that will then trigger internally.
FOOD IS THE FIRST ATTEMPT TO ‘SELF-SOOTHE’
I’m giving just two of the more common ways C-PTSD can affect our eating habits here, but psychiatrist John Bradshaw really summed things up when he said: “Almost everyone who grows up in a dysfunctional family has an eating disorder.”
The main point of this post is that if you’re having serious issues with food, it’s almost certainly a sign that there were aspects of your childhood and your family dynamics that left you traumatised, and with some form of C-PTSD to deal with.
Food is the first way we were able to try to ‘self-soothe’ when we felt abandoned, bewildered, lost, hurt or terrified as a very small child. As adults, we need to try to unclog all the negative feelings that are hiding underneath our issues with food, and to teach ourselves how to ‘self-soothe’ in healthier ways.
(At the end of this series on C-PTSD, I will do a post, or even a couple of posts, discussing the practical ways to do this, BH.)
FOOD, STRESS AND THE VAGUS NERVE
Ok, so now we’re ready to understand a bit more WHY the digestive system can get so out of whack when we’ve been traumatised. The plain English version is that when we get stressed / fearful / threatened / attacked our bodies tense up as a result, and the first place that ‘tenses’ is the alimentary canal.
That’s why people can get butterflies in the stomach, stomach aches, or diarrhoea when they feel stressed / scared / anxious.
Biologically, there’s a long nerve in the body called the VAGUS NERVE that connects the brain, lungs, heart, stomach and intestines. This vagus nerve governs the body’s viscera, and it reacts very strongly to the cues we’re given from the external environment, such as faces, expressions, body language etc.
Researcher Stephen Porges first coined the term: ‘neuroception’ to describe the physiological process of evaluating the relative danger and safety we feel in our environment that primarily occurs in what’s called THE VENTRAL VAGAL COMPLEX, or VVC.
When we’re socially engaged with others in a positive, healthy way, the Ventral Vagal Complex sends messages to our heart and lungs to slow the heart rate and breathe more deeply, helping us to feel calm, peaceful, happy and relaxed.
But, if we experience some sort of ‘threat’ or danger, the first place that registers is on our faces and in our voices: we start sending out ‘help!’ signals to our environment, to see who is going to respond, step in, and help us to feel safe again.
FIGHT OR FLIGHT
If no-one responds to our first cries for help – in whichever way they manifest themselves – then the body’s Fight or Flight response comes online next.
This is regulated by the Limbic System, and is under the jurisdiction of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The heart beats faster, we breathe more shallowly to innervate our body with oxygen, preparing us to run away from the problem or fight it off.
If this next stage doesn’t work to solve our problem and help us escape the ‘danger’ or threat we’ve identified, then the last ‘emergency’ physiological reaction (FREEZE) kicks in, which is governed by the body’s: DORSAL VAGAL COMPLEX. This system of nerves goes down below the diaphragm, to the stomach, kidneys and intestines.
It dramatically reduces the body’s metabolism, leading to a state of FREEZE, dissociation or collapse. To quote Bessel Van der Kolk, writing in The Body Keeps the Score:
“This system is most likely to engage when we are physically immobilized, as when we are pinned down by an attacker or when a child has no escape from a terrifying caregiver…Once this system takes over, other people and even we ourselves, cease to matter.”
THE BIOLOGY of C-PTSD
When someone is being traumatized, or when they are having a ‘flashback’ to an experience of being traumatized, as very commonly happens with adults with C-PTSD, this is how the body responds:
First, the frontal lobes of the brain shut down, which is what’s sometimes called ‘disengaged executive functioning’. At the same time, the body’s pituary gland starts sending out messages to the whole of the body that it has to be primed to defend itself, and protect itself at all costs.
These messages are sent to:
1. The facial muscles – that contort into a threatening, angry expression designed to ‘scare off’ attackers.
2. They thyroid gland.
3. To the heart, lung and larynx, priming these organs to start producing more oxygen (shallow breathing) ready for fight-or-flight.
4. To the stomach and GI tract – effectively stealing the energetic ‘juice’ required for non-essential digestion of food, causing the stomach processes to slow down or stop completely.
5. To the adrenal glands – triggering the release of stress hormones. All of this causes some severe disruption to the body’s healthy functioning, leading to any number of unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unbearable physical sensations, feelings and issues.
The traumatized person can be so busy trying to ‘manage’ their physiological symptoms and pain – which have often been going on for years and years, so that they often don’t even register their ‘permanent stomachache’ etc consciously – that it leaves very little energy over for anything else, both physically and emotionally.
Again, to quote Bessel van der Kolk: “Attempts to maintain control over unbearable physiological reactions can result in a whole range of physical symptoms, including fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue and other autoimmune diseases….
“Being able to move and do something to protect oneself is a critical factor in determining whether or not a horrible experience will leave long-lasting scars.”
And of course, small children are the least able to move or do something to protect themselves, which is why so many of the people who grow up in dysfunctional families develop C-PTSD, and why so many people with C-PTSD have eating disorders and other digestive and physical issues.
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