“When people experience trauma, they feel bad; children, in particular, think they are bad when they feel bad. Chronic bottom-up dysregulation and distress lead to negative identifications, beliefs, and judgments about ourselves.”
—L. Heller and A. LaPierre, “Healing Developmental Trauma.”
Unlike previous years, at least since I became an atheist, Christmas this year wasn’t the depressive shit show that it has is. Usually, I lock myself away, alone, hating the entire world for being so festive. I did decide against being with my family for the holidays, choosing instead to spend it with friends and family of friends.
One of my early anxieties about therapy was the fear that it would dislodge all of the toxic dark matter packed into my subconscious. Worse, that I’d end up in a psychiatric hospital. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. Yet these anxieties have been present even when working with my current therapist, although I’m finding that it doesn’t need to be that way.
The past few days I’ve been getting back into Healing Developmental Trauma, the book I referenced in a blog post a few weeks ago, taking it in slowly and thinking. A lot of what I’ve been reading has triggered various memories and feelings—good, but unsettling.
“To regulate the nervous system, it is more effective to work consistently with the organized “adult” aspects of the self in order to integrate the disorganized, regressed “child” aspects.” (22)
So I’m learning to live more in the present instead of the past, and to listen more to my body through things like yoga and mindfulness. I’m currently in the chapter on the Connection Survival Style. Right away I was hit with this opening paragraph:
“As a result of the earliest trauma, individuals with the Connection Survival Style have disconnected from their bodies, from themselves, and from relationship… To manage the pain of early trauma, some individuals disconnect from their bodies and live in their minds… when asked what they are feeling in their body, [they] find the question challenging, anxiety producing, and often impossible to answer.” (37)
I ran into the latter part of this description a month or two ago at yoga when my teacher asked at the beginning of class what we’re feeling in our physical and emotional bodies. Admittedly, this was before I’d had any coffee so it was already hard enough to think, but so often I turn up a complete blank when asking myself this question: “What are you feeling?”
According to Heller, the compromised core expression for this survival style is: “I am… I have a right to be.” He also lists some of the associated “shame-based identifications”:
- Terrified and inadequate
- Shame at existing
- Feeling like they never fit in
- Feeling like they are always on the outside looking in
- Burden on others
A real-world example of this was two Sundays ago when my car broke down. The average quote from a few shops within the free AAA towing range was $350. Aside from borrowing a car to get to band practice, I’ve been mostly homebound for the last two weeks.
You could insert a joke about men never asking for help, but in my case there is a great deal of anxiety in doing so, or in feeling needy. When I was subsisting largely on unemployment last year while job searching, I felt incredibly embarrassed and humiliated. I didn’t want to see anyone for fear that they’d ask what I did for a living.
This also meant that for the past two weeks I haven’t been to yoga, which has been a huge stress-reliever for me, both in the exercise and in the community. I didn’t want to ask anyone for a ride there as I live about twenty-five minutes south of the studio, didn’t want to be a burden on anyone (I almost wrote “unnecessary burden” just now), and didn’t want anyone looking at me as a failure because I couldn’t afford to fix my car.
But the truth is, I don’t feel worthy of help, that it’s selfish to ask, that there are others more deserving, that I’m less if I require assistance. It was a shock when people actually showed up to help me move in May, or to my birthday party… hell, whenever people are excited to see me! These feelings run deep into the core of how I see myself as a person.
Heller goes on in this chapter to describe some of the behavioral characteristics of this type (I’ll list just a few that particularly describe me):
- Use interpersonal distancing as a substitute for adequate boundaries.
- Withdraw in emotionally disturbing situations.
- Tend to relate in an intellectual rather than a feeling manner.
- Seldom aware that they are out of touch with their bodies.
- Feel like a frightened child in an adult world; do not know how to deal with or appropriately manipulate their environment.
- Strong need to control self, environment, and other people.
I have a distinct memory from around age eleven or twelve of being in the car with my family, and for whatever reason feeling disappointed and angry with my dad, and deciding that from that moment on I would renounce love entirely; that it was intellectually inferior; that it was inconvenient and messy; that enlightened persons shouldn’t need any form of love.
[Insert Nibelung steel strikes here.]
Not sure why I had that reaction, but it’s defined my relationship style: my tendency to withdraw when feeling overwhelmed or stressed, to avoid people, to live in my head, and to feel overwhelmed in social situations.
“Because of their inadequate sense of self, they often try to anchor themselves in their roles as scientist, judge, doctor, father, mother, etc. When functioning in a role, they feel comfortable and they know what the rules are; being outside a specific role can feel frightening… They tend to withdraw or break contact in emotionally disturbing or stressful situations.” (39)