“I need to work harder to make amends for my past,” my client hesitantly tells me. “What amends?” I say, “Someone hurt you badly, you don’t have to make amends for that.”
She pauses. It’s a radical new idea to entertain—something that turns her world upside down like a snow globe that’s been shaken, sending iridescent confetti everywhere.
When people have a trauma history (be it a romantic relationship, a case of workplace bullying, or childhood abuse), they get stuck in certain patterns where they continue to hurt themselves. This opens up raw wounds that make it even harder to heal; As time passes and re-triggering piles up, it is a compound interest that works against you. You’re exhausted mentally and physically the longer you carry a burden, and start feeling as though this is what you’re condemned to for life.
The thing is, trauma isn’t what happened to you in the past. It is how it continues to replay and relive in your body, down to sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures. I can be sitting with a client in a quiet peaceful room, and when recounting his story, he tells me that he smells petrol, the way he did 30 years ago as a child. And that is precisely how powerful trauma is. Your brain and body do not know that then is not now.
5 lies our trauma tells us
You are damaged goods & your needs don’t matter—so you better play “Ultra-Nice”
People with trauma are surprised that their feelings and needs matter. Not only were they taught that they don’t, they were also actively punished when they tried to express themselves, even a bit. Then, they were told they’re damaged goods in order to keep them dependent on the relationship.
Sometimes as they’re coming out of the situation and seeking support—or way after the abuse is over—they may face unkind or ignorant people who ask questions like, “You can’t have been very smart then to have gone through that,” or “Looks like an education didn’t matter.” The shame is a potent dose of salt on raw wounds.
Your feelings do matter and you don’t have to go along with everything someone else wants. You don’t need to play ultra nice and speak in platitudes and phrases that mean nothing apart from being nice. Here, I think a lot of Mila Kunis’ character in Luckiest Girl Alive. Pleasing everyone at your own expense hurts you more.
You have to prove your worth, so you over-perform
Everyone who’s been abused knows the times they broke down and did stupid things—when traumatized, that is precisely how the body makes you act. Quite often, an abuser also engineers situations where you bite the bait, and then you react, following which they blame you. (Never mind if they started it first, and deliberately.) So we know what it’s like to have been out-of-control, and how it makes us look non-credible, an unstable loose cannon.
As such, you may work hard to prove your resilience and stability by refusing to react to others and working harder to keep it all in. Even if it’s simply asking for support, like a lift home or someone to do their share of the chores—you’d get an F when it comes to receiving, and an A+++ when it comes to giving.
You may believe that because someone knows you have a history of trauma, they may think you could break down at any time, so you work super hard to be chirpy and cheerful, and not speak up when they are being difficult. And of course, this ends up making you prey for more toxic people, who can sniff this out from miles away.
And then the over-performing—which has likely cultivated in you since you were young, especially if you’ve got a Type A personality and were taught to people-please—will seep into other areas of your life, like friendships and work. So naturally, you are exhausted. And the more depleted your batteries are, the harder you have to work.
Boundaries, empathy, and forgiveness are an entangled mess
It is likely you weren’t taught what boundaries are, or were given the implicit message that they don’t matter. That’s alright, most of us never learned boundaries in school.
What goes a bit deeper here, though, is that to you, boundaries are synonymous with pugnacious, ungraceful behavior. So not only does it leave quite a distaste in your mouth, but you think you don’t have permission to have them. Then, you also don’t know how to express them—what do you even say that doesn’t make you sound like a quaking mess?
Or you may have gotten to a point where you’re great at boundaries with some people in your life. A common thing I hear is, “I am great at boundaries at work, when someone crosses them, I tell them straight.” Okay, that’s good. But if your Achilles heel is when it comes to people you fancy, then you lose all boundaries, that is bad. Because these people are more intimate with you than your workmates, AKA they have greater potential to hurt you.
And here’s why: It’s likely that you are overly-empathetic with the people you fancy or care for. You have been well-trained in the art of understanding why people are the way they are, and you think that just because you empathize, you have to be the bigger person and understand. So you give them incredible leeway and continue forgiving them—because that’s what “nice” people do.
But you forget that in doing that, you’re hurting yourself more. You forget that you need empathy too.
You are bad for having certain thoughts…and even gut feelings
Another client told me how she remembered writing something in her journal, but couldn’t find the entries. She later realized that in her shame for having those thoughts that her then-partner had hit her, for daring to write that down, she had stapled those pages together.
Trauma makes us feel ashamed and guilty for even having realistic assessments of a situation, because we feel we’re betraying someone else or hurting them. I remember when I went to my doctor to get the domestic violence on official record, I felt like the worst human being in the world. I wondered, was I hurting him or potentially sabotaging his future? Yes, objectively all the abuse had happened; Yet I still felt I needed to protect him.
And then, many of us who have been hurt by a toxic person all remember how our gut was screaming to run away initially. That something was wrong. And yet we felt bad for even judging someone, so we over-rationalized…and we joined in the dance.
You don’t deserve a good relationship and fall into ones that hurt you further
Regardless of how you saw your self-worth, trauma makes us believe we don’t deserve a good relationship. And what we end up doing is synonymous with the 4Fs: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn.
We may fight, meaning we sabotage a good relationship, by calling it boring, or simply doing things to make them break up with you. Some people also race towards new relationships even in a fragile headspace, because they feel like they need to prove they are still desirable, unfortunately choosing toxic partners in the process.
Or in flight, we run away from good people. Sometimes, we freeze by not engaging or by putting ourselves in relationships that retraumatise us and numb us further.
Otherwise, we fawn. And the worst is when we fawn for bad people, especially those who seem to want a relationship but actually don’t. So even if they are net worse than good for us, our memories are selective in that we remember the disproportionately smaller good times, and dismiss the bad ones.
We work harder, bend over backwards, and tell ourselves that if this person doesn’t choose us, it’s all our fault. And in the meantime, the neglect, abuse, and rejection compounds the effects of trauma, making it harder to walk away.
Why the nervous system makes us operate this way
Your nervous system—which consists of your brain, spinal cord, and the nerve cells that connect them all—doesn’t want you to die. Its sole purpose is to keep you alive, and it knows that in dangerous situations like abuse, you can die.
So it reacts in the 4Fs of fighting, freezing, fawning, and flight, to keep you alive. In a dysfunctional situation, that is helpful. Except that these become well-vascularized muscles of habit way after you leave the situation, and you’re unwittingly stuck in those loops.
For example, say you’re feeling stressed and uncomfortable sitting on a train, and it’s a hot day. You start to panic, and the visceral feeling of your heart slamming against your chest and the inability to breathe is too much for you. You dash out at the next stop, legs shaking, and you slowly calm yourself down. But like a bad incident of food poisoning, the train is associated with your body as a danger zone, a place where you might break down again because it’s already happened once, and a place where people can laugh at you.
And so you avoid the train. And the longer you avoid the train, the harder it is to get back. One month becomes ten years, and maybe the train morphs into airplanes and crowded places. It becomes easier to put provisions into place to get around in your life, for instance only taking holidays by car, and never eating out. You might meet people who understand, but you will always know that you’re making life harder for them, which eats you up from the inside. And your world shrinks more and more.
This is how an initial traumatic experience can spiral into things you do and things that people do to you, that re-trigger you further. In an attempt to right the wrong, your brain brings you to similar situations unconsciously, and because it’s with the same type of character, it feels like a house of mirrors and a bad magic spell—what we call “repetition compulsion.”
So your 4Fs responses grow. And your world shrinks inside you and around you. You may isolate yourself, or even start interpreting benign expressions as hostile, and the vicious cycle getting stronger.
What to do about it
Your needs, feelings and boundaries are more-than-valid
Of course your needs matter—if you honor others’ needs, then it makes perfect sense that other reasonable, decent people honor yours. So, consider who has honored your needs and work from there, such as spending time with them, and voicing out the things you’d like to do.
Start small, down to, “I don’t like cake,” or, “I don’t watch sitcoms,” and “What could we do instead that we’d both enjoy,” instead of going along with anything. You’ll be surprised at how this compounds into courage and healing.
And this syncs into boundaries. You have permission to have boundaries, and expressing boundaries can be done in a graceful manner. Those people who are your idea of pugnacious boundaries may simply be pugnacious people who are perverting what boundaries means, for instance, calling their controlling behavior or digs at you their “boundaries.”
Pick up a book or two on boundaries (I recommend Terri Cole’s Boundary Boss), and listen to how people talk about how they learnt to have boundaries, as well as write up a few basic scripts you can memorize or read off. Remember, like with voicing your likes and dislikes, you will be clumsy at first.
Know how to handle boundary violations, as well. But first, remember that boundaries apply to all people, not just the ones you don’t fancy. Of course, people inadvertently violate boundaries at times. If this person is sorry and repairs the violation, and doesn’t do it again, then you know they are sincere; Otherwise, talk is cheap.
y. Of course, people inadvertently violate boundaries at times. If this person is sorry and repairs the violation, and doesn’t do it again, then you know they are sincere; Otherwise, talk is cheap.
You are due empathy
If you are considerate and thoughtful to others, there’s no way giving empathy to yourself can suddenly make you a bad person. In fact, research consistently shows that when we over-give, we burn out in terms of empathy. And that can make you not care at all. So if you want to be a decent human being, the case is strong for giving yourself empathy.
As I tell my clients, think about it this way: your “Good Karma Bank” is brimming over, all you need to do is withdraw some of the interest and spend it on yourself.
And most crucially, you do not owe anything to someone who abused you. Of course the situation wasn’t 100% bad, of course you had some benefits and some good times, and that doesn’t mean you have to keep paying your dues in terms of empathy and effort to them.
What to do now that you understand the mechanics of the abuse
So, now you understand it’s not your fault you were abused, and the relationship was engineered to break you. Toxic relationships having the same dynamic regardless of era or culture telling you it’s not personal.
Draw a timeline. Whatever you did, felt, or thought before you understood trauma and abuse, that’s what you can’t change. Going forward, it is now your responsibility to heal.
The first step in breaking the bad magic spell that is repetition compulsion is knowing it exists. As in, it’s not all on you to single-handedly work über-hard to prove your worth so someone who doesn’t care about you will magically pick you. If they don’t want you, they don’t want you; You can’t convince a person to want you, and you also lose their respect in the meantime. The only thing you are teaching them is that they can exploit you and get away with it.
You are allowed to call things out in your head for what they are. If someone behaves badly, there is no judgement on judging them. If you have a bad thought cross your head—as we all do—as long as you don’t act on it, you are a-okay.
You cut out the people who make you feel like crap. Especially the naysayers who make you feel stupid for have hurt you previously, or the people who make you prove you’re “stable” now because you’ve had a traumatic history.
Write a list of the things you don’t need to tolerate anymore—because since when was suffering a badge of honor? As I tell my clients, if someone drives past your front door and throws excrement every morning, yes you can technically clean it up. But why do you tolerate that? Similarly, think about all the things you don’t need to suffer through anymore.
And more importantly, focus on what makes you shine. You may question what your weak spot was that made you such juicy prey for abuse, as compared to someone else who might have just walked away.
The thing is, we all have our weak spots; A person with great boundaries might be bad at something you rock at. So use your strengths to catch up on strengthening your weak spots. For instance, I used my empathy for others, turned it inward, and taught myself boundaries in record time.
Last, whether or not you want a relationship next, or whatever form sex and intimacy takes, that is on you. You don’t need to rush to prove anything, nor do you need to listen to what others prescribe.
One of my personal epiphanies was that, while I’d left the metaphorical playground for many years, I had turned into my own bully. I couldn’t blame my ex-partner for everything—nor did I ever want to—rather the responsibility was mine to figure out the continued habitual loops trauma was keeping me in.
Yes, those actions kept me alive in a dysfunctional situation, but like that playground, I’d left that. I had to leave it in my head too, so my body knew I was safe. And the only way is to train yourself is to honor yourself. You deserve goodness and love, like what you give the friend and lover you are so considerate to.
Thoughtfulness is how you heal from trauma wholly, not because you lived to tell a story. Instead, you’re practicing protocols to keep your nervous system safe. Otherwise you wouldn’t even recognize good people, opportunities, and feelings, even if they keep flinging themselves at you.
In that way, honoring yourself slowly winds the hands of the clock in your brain, until the day you can definitively declare, “Then was then. Now is now.”
Keen on healing from trauma or exiting safely from a toxic relationship? Contact DrP to learn more about a structured program tailored to you.