Trauma

Boundary Problems in Dysfunctional Families

Have you ever had the experience of someone who stands too close to you when they speak? It’s strange how we can recognize right away when someone crosses that invisible boundary line into our personal space.

According to Henry Cloud and John Townsend in their book Boundaries, boundaries are similar to property lines.  They define what is your responsibility and what is someone else’s responsibility.  They separate “me” from “not me”. 

Let’s use a fence in your yard as an example.   The fence line separates your property from your neighbor’s property.  You wouldn’t climb the fence and mow the lawn in your neighbor’s yard: it would be inappropriate to take on that that level of responsibility for him or her.  Similarly, you wouldn’t want your neighbor to use your property as if it were their own.

Emotional, physical, and relational boundaries work in much the same way.  They are intended to protect you from harm.  They help you to experience goodness in a way that feels safe.  If a lack of boundaries led to you to feel the need to mow the lawns of everyone on your block, you would likely overexert yourself and be unable to maintain your own yard.

Yet it is important for these boundaries to be permeable: in a sense, to have a gate.  That way, you can let your neighbors come over to visit and get out to spend time with your loved ones.  Without permeable boundaries, you’ve built a fortress and isolated yourself inside.

The structure provided by these boundaries offers safety to those inside of them.  It allows you to be confident in what you own.

Boundaries in our Families-of-Origin

The easiest way to see boundaries in action is to watch parents rearing their children.  Take a toddler.  Toddlers need limits.  They need to know that if they place their hand on a hot stove, they’ll be burned.  They need to be protected from harmful and dangerous activities.

At the same time, a toddler’s inquisitiveness about the world is a creative gift that can be quashed by strict rules based more on parents’ desires than children’s needs.  Good boundaries with children are intended to provide safety rather than punishment or control.

If a child is exposed to a certain type of boundaries during development, they’re likely to internalize those boundaries.  These can take the form of healthy boundaries and awareness of limits.  But in dysfunctional families, often boundaries are more problematic.  These boundaries can be too rigid, too loose, or an unpredictable combination of the two.

If you’ve been able to identify dysfunction in unspoken family rules or family roles in your family-of-origin, you may resonate with some of these descriptions below of the effects of unhealthy boundaries in your family.

Types of Dysfunctional Family Boundaries

Too Rigid/Strict

Parents who offer rigid boundaries use authoritarian parenting strategies or “helicopter” parenting.  They attempt to protect their children by exerting too much control over them, not allowing them the opportunity to learn through failure.

These boundaries can feel more like walls than a fence: they are meant to keep the bad out, but they also prevent any nurturing or good to get in.  These families may lack healthy affection and physical touch and struggle with intimacy.  They might be characterized by a lack of praise or affirmation, focusing more on criticism and judgment for decisions.  There is a tendency to hear more negatives than positives from these parents.

For the child, this style of boundaries can lead to dependency on the parents to define reality with a corresponding fear of risk-taking or failure.  Impossibly high standards can be internalized in a way that fosters shame when they can’t be met.  Perfectionism can develop, as this style of parenting associates a child’s value with their performance.  Adults raised in this environment can experience stunted creativity.

Too Loose

Parents who offer too few boundaries and allow their children to have an inappropriate amount of freedom in childhood are opening their children up to harm.  Similar to having no fence at all, the child has no idea where the limit of their responsibility are and are left vulnerable to harm.  In childhood years, this can lead to engaging in more high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol and drug use.  Children end up having to make adult decisions as children because they don’t receive adequate guidance from their parents.

Too few boundaries, while it might sound appealing especially to adolescents, can actually be scary for children, as they don’t know how to keep themselves from getting hurt.  They miss out on learning skills necessary to protect themselves from harmful behaviors or experiences, and therefore face confusion and uncertainty in childhood.

In adulthood, those who had few boundaries can struggle with responding well to “no.”  They may overindulge or have difficulty with discipline or follow-through.  They may struggle with emotional regulation, as parents with loose boundaries often give in to temper tantrums, preventing children from learning healthy ways to cope with emotions.

Unpredictable Boundaries

One of the worst boundary styles parents can offer is an unpredictable combination of both strict and loose boundaries.  This can happen when one parent offers strict boundaries while the other offers more loose ones, or when one or both parents alternate between the two extremes.  This is typical of families with alcoholism or other addictions due to personality changes surrounding using the drug of choice.

Children in these families are given confusing messages of what is right and wrong.  They alternate between the walled-in isolation of rigid boundaries with the fear associated with no boundaries at all.  Never knowing what they can expect is crazy-making.

These children have learned to always be on guard for how their parents will respond.  It’s easy then, as adults, to be wary of relationships and people-please to control others.  They may lack confidence in setting limits with others because if they attempted to do so with their parents growing up, they would be unsure of what type of response they would receive. 

Which boundary style was present in your family growing up?

Are you dealing with the after-effects of rigid or loose boundaries in your family-of-origin?  Do you feel like you always have to be perfect and despair when you don’t meet the high expectations you set for yourself?  Do you struggle with discipline and setting limits with yourself?  Recognizing the links between these present-day behaviors and past experiences is the first step toward healing.  At Restored Hope, I help you explore how your past influences your present, offering counseling to help change your future. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor office.

Making Space for Your Inner Child

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Do you ever wonder why you naturally go to destructive behaviors or habits without knowing their origins?  Do you feel like a child sometimes, overcome with shame about your behaviors but uncertain why you chose to respond in what seemed like an immature way?  Do you notice other adults acting like children, with corresponding temper tantrums or dependence on others?

These behaviors are often responses to childhood trauma or stress that you picked up as a way of surviving their impact because they worked, even if they aren’t healthy to use as adults. How can you get rid of these habits that have been holding you back?

The key is getting in touch with your inner child.

According to Google, the inner child is “a person’s supposed original or true self, especially when regarded as damaged or concealed by negative childhood experiences.”  This inner child, or child within, is the original core of who you are that has been affected in both negative and positive ways by life experience.  It often involves a sense of childlike wonder and trust, playfulness and fun. Issues arose when negative experiences and their corresponding messages interfered with your connection to your child within and problematic coping strategies took over. 

Why is it important to make space for the inner child?

For many of us, basic needs for nurture and support were not fully met in our families of origin.  You may have experienced either big T or little t traumas throughout your childhood that taught you certain messages about yourself and the world around you. 

One measure psychologists use to assess levels of trauma in childhood is the ACE score.  This list checks for areas of major, big T trauma.

At the same time, there are several basic needs of children that often go unmet in dysfunctional (or even functional) families.  In his book Healing Care, Healing Prayer, Terry Wardle names several of these needs including:

  • Connection and belonging

  • Unconditional love and acceptance

  • Safe and loving touch

  • Attention and assurance

  • Protection

  • Praise

  • Play

  • Role models/teachers/supporters/allies

  • Opportunities to learn without punishment or pressure

  • Permission to feel and express

  • Age appropriate challenges and choices

As you look through this list, which needs were not met for you in your family growing up?  To be honest, it’s an extremely rare family that meets all of them.  When you identify which needs weren’t met, be curious about how you have been affected by that lack. 

Sadly, we’ve often been told to grow up and let go of childlike wonder and awe we experienced when we were younger.  Perhaps due to your family-of-origin trauma, you had to grow up too soon and care for siblings or yourself.  Maybe you never had the chance to get to know that younger part of yourself.  If we ignore this inner child, it will come out in behavior patterns we dislike.

In every real man, a child is hidden that wants to play.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

How to Make Space

Get to know your inner child.

Look through pictures of yourself at younger ages and notice how you feel about the individual in those pictures.  Identify what he or she liked or disliked.  Did that child have any particular needs?  How was he or she feeling in the picture?  Or at the stage of life when the picture was taken?  Identify which of the above needs were not met in this child’s life, and come to terms with the fact that the inner child had unmet needs. 

Visualize past pain and ask what your child within needs.

When you notice painful emotions, shame, or destructive behavior patterns coming up, listen and see if the inner child is telling you something.  Pay attention to the emotions you’re feeling, thoughts running through your mind, and sensations coming up in your body and see if they connect to a similar experience in the past.  In those memories, ask the younger version of yourself what he or she needs.  Sometimes simply allowing that inner child to have a voice can make all the difference.

Write a letter to a younger version of yourself.

If you connect with one of the photos of yourself or an image from past pain, address that child with your adult self by writing a letter to him or her.  Include the things you wish that child could know about the world and any advice you would’ve given him or her.  You might even imagine entering into that child’s experience and giving a hug or a comforting touch.  This is part of allowing your adult self to re-parent the younger version of yourself. 

Recognize your behaviors that come from a rebellious inner child.

When your inner child isn’t being honored or heard, you might notice problematic patterns surfacing in your life.  For example, you might be caught up in perfectionism and feeling exhausted, leading to harsh words toward your spouse or your child.  Identify where the perfectionism comes from: is it a coping strategy from your childhood?  What might your inner child have needed when that perfectionism first came to be?  Giving yourself the kindness and care you longed for at that point in your life can lead to healing and change.

Spend a day with your inner child.

Think about the activities and pastimes you loved as a child.  If possible, pick a specific age and identify some of your greatest desires and most enjoyable experiences during that time period.  Maybe you loved the carnival or the zoo as a child.  Or you could spend hours outside exploring in the woods. Take yourself on an outing for the day and let your inner child lead the way. 

A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.
— Pablo Neruda

Play!

The power of play is greatly underutilized and incredibly important.  Take the insights you gained from your day with the inner child and create awareness of moments in daily life where you can be in touch with your child within.  Take time to rest or enjoy a beautiful walk outside.  Go to a park and hop on the swings or pull out a favorite childhood board game and play with a friend.  Read a book series you loved when you were a kid.  Bring out some painting supplies and paint or draw a picture.

Additional Resources

If you’re interested in learning more about the topic of inner child work, here are a few books that may interest you:

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Do you recognize behavior patterns that stem from coping strategies picked up in childhood?  Are you disconnected from your inner child, but hoping to learn more?  Are you stuck in trying to change, but unaware of any past trauma?  At Restored Hope, I offer supportive counseling services to help you overcome problematic behavior patterns that are holding you back from living wholeheartedly.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to find out more and schedule your first appointment.

Finding Your People: Social Support in Addiction and Trauma Recovery

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In an early season of the television show Grey’s Anatomy, Christina, one of the main characters, has to undergo a medical procedure.  To do so, she needs to designate an emergency contact who can help her out if needed.  (If you’re a fan of the show, you know which scene I’m referring to.)  She writes down the name of Meredith, leading to an iconic phrase the show repeats through the seasons: “You’re my person.” 

We all need our “person.”  Or, in all honesty, our “people.”  We need those who can support us and help when we’re facing crisis.  But what if the biggest crisis you are facing is your own or your spouse’s struggle with sex and love addiction?

Maybe your spouse has just found you out and the behaviors you thought you could keep hidden from everyone are now coming to light.  Maybe you’re on the other side, discovering your spouse’s addiction, and you feel isolated and alone because of the shame tied to revealing his or her secret to others.  Having people to turn to and rely on when battling against sex and love addiction and trauma can be incredibly difficult, but it is essential for effective recovery.

Why is it so important?

For the Addict

We know that addiction thrives in secrecy, and accountability to others is a necessary component of maintaining sobriety.  Fear of feeling ashamed or rejected can keep you quiet.  But when you have people who know, they are more likely to hold you accountable for your actions because you’ll have to talk with them about it.  Honesty with your therapist is a great place to start, but you’ll also need to talk to people you can access more easily when you’re experiencing craving or wanting to act out. 

Speaking up about your addiction releases you from shame, paradoxically enough.  When you hear others’ stories and find similarities with their experience, you know experientially that you’re not alone.  Addiction is isolating because you can feel as though you’re the only one who struggles, and yet knowing others’ stories helps you rely on them for reassurance and validation when shame threatens to take over.

Talking to other individuals who have struggled in this area can be a helpful way to get feedback on what’s worked for them in their recovery.  When you’re on your own, it’s difficult to know how to stop.  But you can learn so much from people in recovery and notice your experience change as you integrate that new information.

For the Partner

Partners of sex and love addicts need to break through the feelings of isolation that come with discovery of a spouse’s addiction.  The pain and agony of finding out can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, grief, fear, and hurt.  These can be overwhelming when experienced on your own.  You might feel guilt or fear about sharing about your spouse’s addiction with others because of how it reflects on you or your self-esteem.  And yet you need to find a place where people can support you and help you not to feel so alone on this side of the trauma.

This support also allows you to have accountability for self-care and boundary setting.  Sometimes hearing from others about their experiences setting boundaries with their addicted spouse can help you have a better picture of what boundaries feel right for you.  These people can also connect with you if you’re having a hard day, listening to your difficult emotions or even offering practical help like taking care of your children.  Talking to others can remind you of your right to stand up for yourself, give yourself a voice, and practice self-care.

Another reason for connection is to find a safe place for yourself.  Lack of safety and stability in the home is a symptom that crops up often for partners in the wake of addiction.  Triggers can send your mood swinging back and forth as you relive the past years of your life in light of the addiction.  Finding a place where you can be with a friend or group on a regular basis can ease that burden by providing a consistent safe space in your life.

For Both

Sex and love addiction is an intimacy disorder often related to attachment wounds from earlier on in life.  Partners in trauma may also experience triggers related to their attachment style.

Attachment is a word that describes your experiences with caregivers at a young age.  These early attachments influence how you see others and the world around you, and they affect later relationships in life.  If your parents or caregivers were comforting, nurturing, and responded to your needs such that you felt loved, you’re set up to have a secure attachment.  But if your caregivers were unable to comfort and nurture you effectively, either by offering too much attention or not enough, you may have grown up with an insecure attachment style.  This is common if your caregivers dealt with their own experiences of addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health struggles. 

The good news is that these attachment styles aren’t permanent.  You can “earn” secure attachment through involvement with safe individuals in your life who offer nurture and comfort to you through their relationship with you.  Creating secure attachments in your adult life is a major reason why social support is so essential in the recovery journey for both the addict and their partner.

How to Find Support

12 Step Groups

12 Step groups are an effective starting place to find community with other people who understand what you’re experiencing.  Find a group that’s a good fit for you by attending at least six times and seeing if you feel connected and supported.  The best groups for sex and love addicts are Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous (SA).  If you’re local to Michigan, these fellowships are particularly active and have several meetings in the Ann Arbor area.

There are also 12 Step groups for partners of addicts to address their own trauma.  COSA and S-Anon are great options for finding a safe place to talk about your experience and receive support.  If you aren’t comfortable attending a group specific to sex and love addiction, or there aren’t options in your area, Al-Anon is another great resource as a recovery program for friends and family of alcoholics.

Church-Based Support Groups

Finding a support group at your local church is also a helpful option.  If you’re a Christian, a church-based support group can be a helpful way to integrate faith into your recovery journey, as well as find support systems and accountability. Celebrate Recovery is a Christian 12-Step based program in churches around the country.  In the Ann Arbor area, churches such as NorthRidge and Oak Pointe offer groups for addicts and partners of addicts.

Therapy Groups

Many therapists offer group therapy as an additional option for extra support in your recovery.  There is often an extra layer of safety in these groups because they are run by therapists who maintain confidentiality and manage group dynamics.   

Existing Relationships

As an addict, you may struggle with telling anyone you are close to due to the shame of how their opinion of you might change.  But part of recovery involves coming clean in all areas of your life, including with people who are important to you.  While early in recovery, identify the people who are safest for you: those who are least likely to judge you and who you would trust to hold you accountable or support you.

As a partner, safety is incredibly important, as you are likely experiencing intense emotions and may be deciding whether to stay or go in the relationship.  Telling someone who’s going to bash your spouse or, alternatively, try to convince you to stay isn’t always helpful.  Instead, look for people who would be supportive of you no matter what you decide and share with them.  Consider your motivation to tell and the long-term ramifications of telling others. 

In Intimate Treason, Claudia Black and Cara Tripodi recommend using the image of a stoplight to decide who might be safe to tell.  Make a list of people you’d like to tell and rank them in terms of the three lights: red, yellow, and green.  Green individuals are supportive, safe people who you can trust with just about anything.  People in the yellow category may not feel safe to turn to for emotional support, but need to know for logistical reasons.  Those in the red are people who are unlikely to be supportive, will toss around blame, or may minimize the behaviors.  You might find, in this process, that family aren’t always safe to rely on emotionally at first, but may need to know for logistical reasons, such as when you are separating.

Have a conversation with your spouse and decide together who you will tell about the addiction and the corresponding trauma.  For the addict, you might feel challenged and uncomfortable by being asked to share your story, but openness is key to recovery.  For the partner, having a conversation allows you to feel free to talk to people without feeling guilt about telling your spouse’s story.  For individuals who are in the “yellow” group listed above, write out a short script as a letter informing them of the necessary information without going into too much detail and agree upon this together before sending it or talking to them.

While recovering from addiction is one of the most painful experiences you will likely go through in your life, the gift of lasting and supportive friendships that can come from that experience is one that can’t be matched.  Lean into this chance to build connection and community.

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Are you feeling isolated and alone after finding out about your spouse’s addiction? Are you an addict who is struggling with feelings of shame and having a hard time opening up? Have you felt disconnected from others as a result of your struggle with trauma? At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you work through the roadblocks that are in the way of recovering from addiction or trauma, including the experience of isolation and loneliness. Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Fairy Tale Farce: A Review of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists by Eleanor Payson

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What comes to mind when you hear the word “narcissist”?  The word gets thrown around a lot today as a synonym for selfishness.  The millennial generation gets stereotyped as narcissistic because of increased focus on the self or use of social media to present an image.  But narcissism in its truest form is more insidious and damaging than the stereotype we assume.

In her book The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson outlines how to recognize both the overt and covert narcissist, different relationships you might find yourself in with a narcissist, and how to set boundaries to keep your sense of self intact.

According to the DSM-5, someone with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is characterized by:

  • Grandiosity and self-importance

  • Need for excessive admiration

  • A lack of empathy

  • Preoccupation with fantasies of success, power, love, beauty, or brilliance

  • Belief in personal uniqueness or specialness

  • Sense of entitlement

  • Envy of others

  • Belief that others are envious of him/her

  • Arrogant or haughty behaviors or attitudes

  • Manipulative behavior with others 

For a narcissist, his excessive self-absorption is a protection against unconscious but powerful feelings of inadequacy.
— Eleanor Payson

While a diagnosis of narcissistic personality disorder requires at least five of these criteria, someone with narcissistic traits can have milder symptoms.  You might notice that he or she is sensitive to criticism, has rigidity and criticism toward others but leniency toward the self, and projects his or her own issues on others. 

NPD individuals can never admit wrong and are expert manipulators to convince you that they are right.  They can often be dismissing of your needs, leading to a non-reciprocal relationship.  If you don’t serve a purpose to the narcissist, they don’t give you the time of day.

Addiction, by its very nature, is narcissistic.  While sex and love addiction doesn’t necessarily correlate to NPD, many narcissistic traits are present in addiction, such as lack of empathy, manipulative behavior and gaslighting, entitlement, fantasy, and a sense of uniqueness.

What I Learned from This Book

Overt and covert narcissists are different, with the covert narcissist more difficult to detect.

Overt narcissists are what we would typically imagine: someone who is charismatic, engaging, and loves the spotlight.  You often feel special at first when this individual pays attention to you, but they become less interested in you when the spotlight is off of them.  They have many friends, usually at a superficial level.  They crave admiration and support, which their charm allows them to receive.

Covert narcissists are less showy, drawing you in by being attentive and listening, but eventually becoming controlling and detached when you disagree.  They express anger in passive-aggressive ways, and you struggle to determine where you stand with them because they are aloof and indifferent. This type of narcissist blends in well with helping or service professions, such as church involvement or counseling.  They gain a sense of power or value from association with their “cause.”

Relationship with a narcissist involves loss of the authentic self.

The inadequacy the NPD individual feels is mitigated by seeing others as an extension of the self.  Thus, when you are in relationship with the narcissist, it becomes easy to lose awareness of your true self.  You might not be aware of your own emotions and have intense negative beliefs about yourself, stemming from the criticisms of the NPD.  You can end up developing codependency and caretaking for the NPD.  You might focus more on the expectations of others instead of your own desires. 

The confidence we so desperately need comes only from our authentic self.
— Eleanor Payson

Understanding your own strengths and value is the path to getting to know your authentic self.  Learning who you truly are can help you see the flaws in the NPD’s thinking about you more clearly.  This will then lead to more resilience to negative messages about yourself.

Notice early and get out if you can.

The major takeaway this book offers is education on how to recognize a narcissistic person.  If you aren’t already in relationship with an NPD individual, or if you’re in the early stages where you still have the freedom to leave, this book offers you the opportunity to learn about warning signs and take action.  Payson emphasizes multiple times that believing you can change a narcissist is risky behavior: the best way to deal with narcissists is to set boundaries or leave while you still have the chance. 

Boundaries and self-care are essential.

Yet once you’re entrenched in a relationship with a narcissist, assertiveness becomes indispensable.  When I work with partners of sex addicts, boundaries and self-care are the first areas I target as necessary for empowerment.  Therapy can help you as you explore how to set effective boundaries with the goal of giving yourself a voice and speaking up for yourself.  Know that this will likely require practice with safe people first, as the narcissist is a master manipulator that can twist the conversation.  You’ll also need to learn new strategies for setting boundaries.

Your primary work involves developing the ability to validate your thoughts, feelings, and needs along with an ability to stand up for yourself in the relationship.
— Eleanor Payson

Your reactions are a clue to discerning the narcissist.

When you are always trying to please someone else or gain their approval with a corresponding loss of self-esteem, you might be dealing with a narcissist.  You may notice yourself becoming the primary giver, ending any reciprocity in the relationship.  You might find yourself caught in lose-lose situations regularly.  The pain associated with these reactions is like a light turning on in the dashboard of your car: it’s an indicator of the need to change.

There are a variety of situations where you might have contact with a narcissist.

In particular, the parent-child relationship is explored at length in the book, likely because it can lead to repetition of patterns from childhood in adult years, or addictive tendencies that arise as coping strategies from a traumatic childhood.  If you are a child of a narcissist, you must to understand that the parents’ behaviors aren’t your fault.

Beyond the parent-child relationship, you might see a NPD individual in a romantic relationship, friendship, work relationship, or even service professional.  In the workplace, Payson recommends communicating everything in writing, getting emotional support outside of work, and involving a third party in discussions.  If you’re in the process of looking for a therapist, she recommends interviewing your mental health professional and checking out a few options before making a final decision.

Ultimately, this book offers both warning and empowerment.  Payson gives you the skills to recognize the narcissist in your midst before you become established in relationship with him or her.  Yet she also offers empowerment to learn about your authentic self, practice assertiveness, set boundaries, and stand up for yourself.

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Are you dealing with the ripple effects of having a narcissistic parent?  Are you currently in a relationship with an addict who is showing narcissistic tendencies?  Do you see some NPD qualities in yourself?  If so, there is hope.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you lean into more of your authentic self, learn how to set effective boundaries, and release the your insecurities.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Understanding Ambivalence: How Recognizing the Push-and-Pull of Your Desires Can Set You Free

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Think of the last difficult decision you had to make.  Maybe it was as simple as where you’d like to go out to eat or as significant as a change in career path.  What makes the decision difficult is the tension between the options: you might desire some more than others, or fear the downside if you make the wrong decision.  Eventually, the choice is made when one benefit outweighs the other and you feel confident enough moving forward.

But what happens when you get stuck between two desires?  Or worse yet, when you feel two opposing emotions about something at the same time?  Have you experienced loving someone and hating them in the same instant?  What about wanting closeness and intimacy, but pushing others away by your actions or words?

In these examples, what you’re experiencing is a phenomenon called ambivalence. 

What is ambivalence?

Ambivalence is often thought of as apathy or indifference, meaning you don’t care much about something or that it doesn’t matter to you.  On the contrary, ambivalence involves strong desires or emotions in opposition to one another.  You may feel pulled in two different directions at the same time, or you might flip-flop back and forth between two feelings.  This can take place in both simple decisions (where should we go for dinner?) as well as major desires (is this the person I want to marry?).

As time passes and you struggle to resolve these opposing emotions, you might find that you do experience a form of apathy.  The indifference is a numbing response to exhaustion from the tension of trying to balance both sides at once.

What in my story might cause ambivalence?

Ambivalence is common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault as they deal with the aftermath of their abuse.  In many cases, the abuser is someone with whom the survivor has a close relationship.  Positive memories and experiences with that person get mixed up with the abuse, and the confusion of feeling drastically different emotions toward the abuser can be overwhelming. The survivor may also struggle with aspects of sexual abuse that felt good when they confront the damage it has done in their lives.

Similarly, many partners of sex addicts experience the addict’s behaviors as a sexual violation against the partner.  Confusion around staying in the relationship to work things out or leaving is common as they try to reconcile the person they love with the addiction that has destroyed their relationship.

For addicts, shame is a major factor in ambivalence.  Addicts live a double life, attempting to balance the addictive thoughts and behaviors with the normal, everyday self.  Breaking off into these two versions of the self helps to ignore or deny the tension of ambivalence around the double life.

Ambivalence can appear in depression and anxiety as well.  If you’re anxious, you may hate being alone but feel terrified of breaking into a group or connecting with others.  In depression, ambivalence can appear when you lack the motivation and energy for self-care and yet know that the way to feel better is through exercising, spending time with loved ones, or other activities to take care of yourself.

How can I recognize my ambivalence?

One common characteristic of ambivalence is all-or-nothing or black-and-white thinking patterns.  The rigidity of thought patterns requiring a choice between two extremes is what makes the tension between them feel so difficult.  Sitting in the gray area of wanting two things equally and being unsure of what the right next step is can be stressful.  Often, that leads to a desire to escape.

That desire to escape is where apathy and numbness come in.  When alternating back and forth between the two desires or emotions becomes too much, you feel defeated by the struggle.  Rather than staying with the tension, you might just throw in the towel and numb out with addiction or distraction. 

How can I deal with my ambivalence? 

Acknowledge that there are gray areas.  Instead of the rigidity of black-and-white or all-or-nothing thinking, allow yourself to recognize that you can (and are!) feeling or desiring two seemingly opposite things at the same time. 

Press into that knowledge and explore your ambivalence with God and others.  Talk about it with a therapist or trusted friend and explore what might be coming up with each of the desires.   

As a Christian, ambivalence leads to greater intimacy with God.  So many Psalms contain ambivalence: lament, pain, and crying out to God; followed by reminders of the goodness of God and his character.  Often the Christian life involves suffering while also seeking to place hope in God.

Name your desires, even if it hurts to put words to them.  The naming of desires is painful because it involves grief, in understanding that your desires aren’t met yet and you may never see those desires realized.  But recognizing and working through that grief leads to life rather than numbing or escapism.  Addicts in particular struggle to know their true desires, as addiction has offered immediate relief or numbing from desires in the past.  In owning and acknowledging desires, addicts receive freedom to seek out other ways to meet that need instead of through addictive behaviors. 

Learn to practice acceptance. Acceptance isn’t settling for the status quo or pretending that things are okay when they really aren’t.  Instead, acceptance involves recognizing the reality of where you are right now in this present moment, and reminding yourself that you’re okay.  If you aren’t satisfied with what you’re experiencing in the present, acceptance invites you to explore what you might like to change in the future.  Accepting your ambivalence helps you to begin to be curious about it and seek out the story behind your ambivalence.  Understanding your story opens you up to change.

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Do you struggle with ambivalence often in your life?  Have you gotten to the point of numbing and indifference after a long struggle with ambivalence?  Or do you notice rigid and inflexible thinking patterns that make it difficult to make decisions or practice kindness toward yourself?  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling services to help you understand your personal story of ambivalence and how you can move forward into greater acceptance and awareness of your desires.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

Unspoken Family Rules: How They Shape Your Decisions Today

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Have you ever noticed how much families differ from one another?  If you’re married, dating, or have even lived with a roommate, you’ve likely experienced friction as a result of these differences.  You’ve learned certain patterns from your family-of-origin that are different from other families.  Perhaps your loved ones clean differently than you do, cook certain recipes that have been passed down through generations, or have a different morning routine.  These patterns aren’t necessarily negative: just different.

But what happens when the messages you’ve absorbed from your family-of-origin create problems for you?  Maybe your spouse wants to talk about their feelings when they happen, and your philosophy is just to keep quiet and move on.  Perhaps apologizing is difficult because it wasn’t modeled for you growing up.

We assume these patterns of behavior are “normal” because we don’t know anything different.  We expect others to act in the ways our family did.  However, what we come to realize is that these patterns of behavior aren’t always healthy.  Unhealthy coping patterns learned as a result of these unspoken family rules can lead to addiction and dissatisfaction.

What are unspoken family rules?

As a child, you likely had some rules that were clearly outlined.  A curfew, allowance, and chores often have direct and clear expectations.  However, there are often “rules of engagement” in relationships, such as how you speak to one another, the way in which emotion is handled, or identifying who is responsible for consequences.

When these rules are unspoken, as is often the case, you learn them more by the response when you unknowingly break one.  You also might learn from your parents’ modeling of behaviors.  If your parents never talk about their feelings, for example, the precedent is set for you to do the same.

We internalize these “rules of engagement” and pick up unhealthy coping as a result.  If you were taught that it wasn’t okay to experience a negative emotion like anger, then you aren’t given tools to handle anger when it comes up in your adult life.  You may shy away from it or find yourself exploding when it arises and then feeling intense shame. 

Common Unspoken Family Rules

Don’t talk.

This family rule doesn’t mean that you aren’t speaking to one another, but instead that you don’t have conversations about uncomfortable topics.  Certain areas of discussion are off-limits.  This breeds secrecy and hiding, both inside the family and outside as well. 

You might notice this with an alcoholic or drug-addicted parent.  All the family members may be aware of the problem, but you don’t talk about it, instead discussing lighter topics and ignoring the larger issue.

Don’t feel.

Have you ever seen the film Frozen?  (If you’re the parent of young children, my guess is you’ve seen it more times than you’d care to admit.)  In the movie, Elsa has magical ice powers that spiral out of control when she feels negative emotions.  To manage these powers, her parents isolate her and explicity tell her “don’t feel.”  But she soon finds this is impossible, and the plot of the film unfolds as she loses control of her emotions.

It is impossible not to experience negative emotions.  But if they are unacceptable in your family-of-origin, you don’t learn how to manage them properly.  You might become numb to certain emotions or struggle to control them.  Emotions may be seen as a sign of weakness.  Christian parents can sometimes give messages that certain emotions are sinful or signify lack of faith.  Emotions such as anger, fear, hurt, and sadness are commonly minimized and implied as unacceptable.

Another way a child can absorb this unspoken rule is by observing parents’ strong reactions to negative emotions.  If your parent becomes abusive while angry, you’re likely to avoid anger out of fear of losing control.  If you had a parent who was consumed by sadness or depression, you may have learned to take on the role of the positive one who brought up the mood, and sadness will feel foreign to you.

Blame-shifting.

Anyone who breaks unspoken family rules becomes the scapegoat, taking on the blame.  If you speak up as a child against these family rules, you get targeted.  Others who break the rules are blamed as well, such as extended family members who attempt to change dysfunctional family dynamics into more healthy patterns.

If you talk about your parent’s addiction to a teacher, for example, your parents may punish you severely and blame you for the problems the parent is now facing.  You’re told consequences are your fault for speaking up.  The teacher may be made out to be the villain and blamed for their role. 

Children are great observers but horrible interpreters.  When you’re told there’s something wrong with you as a child, you believe that what your parents are saying is true, even when it clearly isn’t.  As an adult, then, you’re more likely to distrust any positive qualities and focus on the negative.

Deny any problems.

Similar to the “don’t talk” rule, denial involves hiding problems under the rug and pretending they aren’t affecting you.  Phrases like “stop making such a big deal out of it” are a hallmark of dysfunctional families.  Imagine an alcoholic parent whose spouse enables by covering up the addict’s behaviors.  Children then learn to minimize their parent’s drinking, even when it leads to abuse or other problems.  In domestic violence situations, children may learn to lie about any injuries they sustain.

This can lead to dissociation in adults, where you cut yourself off from any negativity in your life and compartmentalize to avoid distressing thoughts or feelings.  You might doubt your perception of reality because it had been questioned for so long as a child.

Boys should be… Girls should be…

You may have picked up how boys and girls are supposed to act in a variety of spoken or unspoken family rules.  Phrases like “boys will be boys” or “girls should be prim and proper” are often used to direct behavior.  Often these gender roles can be exacerbated by traditional “Christian” values that often have little basis in Biblical truth.

Appearances are everything.

Focusing more on the external than the internal is a common unspoken family rule.  Perhaps you learned to put on a good face even when there are problems at home, addiction, or arguing.  Body image issues can arise from this rule as well, as you may be taught to wear makeup or be a certain clothing size to hide any emotional distress.  You are taught to pretend that everything is okay on the outside while your emotions are raging on the inside.

Your value comes from what you do/produce.

This unspoken rule teaches you that academic achievement, financial success, Christian service, or some other measure of external success is what makes you worthwhile.  You might feel like you have to be a “good kid” at the expense of being able to make mistakes.  As an adult, you begin to question your value when you make mistakes or fail.

What are the unspoken family rules you experienced growing up?

How can you name these rules today so that you can break the patterns?

  • What were topics that were off-limits for discussion in your family?

  • What emotions were unacceptable in your family?

  • Did you learn to shut off any negative emotions?  Which ones?  Why?

  • Where do you tend to place blame when something goes wrong?  Yourself?  Others?

  • What gender roles did you learn from your family?

  • When do you find yourself putting on a mask to pretend everything is okay on the outside?

  • Is it okay for you to make mistakes?  Where does your value come from?

As you reflect on the above questions, are you becoming more aware of the dysfunctional patterns in your family?  Have they impacted the way you interact with others or feel about yourself?  Do you find yourself swallowed up by shame or unable to feel certain emotions?  My role as a counselor at Restored Hope is to uncover these distorted messages you carry around and help you experience a new, healthy way of relating to yourself and others.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment at my Ann Arbor counseling office.

How to Cope with Trauma-Related Anger

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The experience of sexual abuse or sexual assault as a child, teen, or young adult can have traumatic effects throughout your life. In a similar vein, betrayal by a spouse who is a sex addict can shatter your sense of normalcy and leave you reeling from the traumatic backlash.  It is normal to experience anger in response to traumatic events.

Yet we often fear or avoid anger because of its perceived destructive effects.  We throw around statements like, “hurt people hurt people,” as though it’s a given that anger stemming from hurt will harm those around us.  If you watched parents express anger with violence or abuse, you’re more likely to be primed to believe that anger is unacceptable.  However, anger is not inherently bad nor is it harmful.

Reactions to Anger

There are various different ways in which we naturally react to anger caused by trauma.

Uncontrollable outbursts of anger

Anger may feel like it is constantly simmering under the surface, waiting to burst out at the slightest provocation.  You could be more irritable and likely to lash out at others around you.  You may feel out of control of the intensity of your anger response.  You might also experience shame, especially if your anger is directed toward your loved ones, or it is similar to unhealthy expressions of anger you experienced as a child.

This type of reaction to anger can involve violence, either with physical action or with words.  If you are becoming violent with those around you, please seek help.

Suppressing your anger.

If anger isn’t acceptable to you, you may take your anger and turn it inward as self-contempt or self-loathing.  This is a common response for women.  At its most extreme, this suppression of anger can turn into self-harm behaviors, drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, or suicidal thinking as ways to express the anger that has no other outlet.  Sometimes suppressing anger can be encouraged by religious backgrounds that place an overemphasis on forgiveness and equate anger with sin.   

If you are actively having suicidal thoughts and considering taking your own life, please care for yourself by calling the Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Numbing out.

A third way might be ignoring anger through distraction or numbing, until you are no longer able to access the anger itself.  You may know it’s there or see it come out from time to time, but you just can’t get and stay angry.  This can come after prolonged suppression of anger when the body adapts to the response of the mind.  It can also be a way of dissociation or detaching from reality when the trauma has significantly affected your sense of self.

Healthy Response to Anger

Anger is a natural response to perceived injustice or wrong being committed against you.  In many cases of trauma, the anger is justified by the wrongful actions of an abuser or betrayer.  You can recognize the emotion of anger as acceptable because feelings alone do not harm anyone.  In fact, anger can, at times, indicate love or care for other people, like your children or fellow survivors of abuse.  You can learn to use your anger to serve you and help you move forward, rather than destroy your life.  The more aware you become of your experience of anger, the more able you are to manage it effectively.

How to Deal with Anger

Get into therapy.

First and foremost: if you are a survivor of trauma, whether it is from your childhood or from more recent experiences, the most effective way you can work through it is through therapyEMDR-Certified therapists and trauma-informed therapists do specialized work in treating trauma.  Find a therapist who you click with and trust them to be your support as you walk through the anger and other corresponding emotions that arise from your trauma.

Identify your go-to response to anger.

From the list above, identify yourself: are you someone who stuffs their anger down, only to turn it inward on yourself?  Do you find yourself lashing out at others and feeling angry all the time?  Or do you numb out and find it difficult to experience or express anger at all?  Examine the origin of this automatic response: did your family or parents handle anger in this way?  In the opposite way?  Where did you learn to express your anger in this way?  Acknowledging that anger is learned helps you to feel empowered to learn new ways to deal with anger.

Identify other emotions that are intensifying the anger or getting in the way.

Your anger may be directed at your abuser in the case of sexual abuse, or your spouse in the case of spousal betrayal and addiction.  However, you might find outbursts of anger in the present moment have nothing to do with the individual who wronged you: instead, they may be directed at individuals you interact with in everyday life.  It may be connected to stress, feelings of overwhelm, hurt, disappointment, or sadness.  Explore how any of the emotions behind the anger might be difficult for you based on past experiences.

Conversely, if you struggle to access your anger, examine what might be getting in the way.  Perhaps fear of how you will react or how others will perceive you prevents you from feeling comfortable experiencing your anger.  Follow the narrative through with these questions: if I really allowed myself to get angry, what do I believe would happen?  How true do I believe this is?

Slow down and notice your body.

When you feel anger coming up, hit the pause button.  Slow yourself down for long enough to check in with your thoughts and experience.  Notice your body’s physical response to the anger.  Describe or draw the anger: what color is it?  What shape, size, and texture?  Is it moving or standing still?  Where is it located in your body?

Write a letter to your abuser or betrayer.

For those who are pointing the finger of self-blame at themselves, it can be helpful to write out a list of the reality of how the other person harmed you. This can assist you in feeling justified anger at the abuser for their actions, rather than directing that anger at yourself.  I’d recommend you write this letter as a personal exercise rather than a letter to give to the abuser or betrayer: this will help you feel more freedom to express the full weight of your anger and be as honest as you’d like.  If you find yourself wanting to share that letter, talk with your therapist and support individuals before making that decision.

Reframe your anger as a “dashboard light” telling you there’s something wrong.

Use your anger as a tool to indicate something’s off.  It could be that you need to step up your self-care through contacting a supportive friend, attending an extra therapy session, or practicing a breathing exercise.  If you learn to accept the anger as it arises and examine what your anger is telling you, it will help the angry feelings to dissipate.  This increased awareness of the messages of anger can help you channel that anger into assertiveness and setting boundaries in relationships that trigger your anger.

Speak out on behalf of others currently experiencing trauma.

Channel your anger and frustration over past trauma into service for those who are experiencing similar situations.  Write letters to government officials about fighting back against human trafficking or legislation related to sexual abuse.  Attend events or rallies to support causes that empower women.  Volunteer at a domestic violence shelter.  Get involved in survivor’s groups where you can find others who have been through similar experiences.

Release anger through physical activity.

Often anger can feel like restlessness or pent up energy.  When anger threatens to overwhelm, channel that energy into physical activity that will increase your endorphins and help you release your anger.  Take a kickboxing or self-defense class to help you to feel empowered and able to defend yourself.  Go for a long run and imagine the anger releasing into the ground with each footfall.

Write a statement affirming how you will deal with anger.

Negative beliefs about yourself or the world around you can perpetuate feelings of anger.  Once you’ve identified the sources of your anger and your influences on how you experience or express anger, identify faulty thinking patternsthat make it difficult for you to feel in control or safe.  Write a statement reminding yourself of what is true about your anger that gives you support and grounding during intense experiences of anger.

Do you struggle with outbursts of anger that seem to come out of nowhere?  Or do you have difficulty even accessing anger?  Are you afraid of what will happen when you feel anger?  Do you have a history of trauma?  At Restored Hope, I offer personalized, trauma-informed counseling to help you understand the effects of trauma on your daily life, as well as release the triggers and anger that continue to arise.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me today to schedule your first appointment.

How to Deal with Triggers from the #MeToo Movement

It’s safe to say there’s been quite a bit of impactful news about women and sexual abuse in the media lately.  Fromthe women’s march in January 2017 and 2018, the #metoo movement that swept through social media, and the series of revelations of sexual harassment from male celebrities and ensuing consequences, it is clear that the rights of women are taking precedence in our world.  Locally, the MSU Nasser trial has been heating up in national media and the shock of the sheer numbers of victims has been appalling to many of us.

I’m not an expert in these news stories.  I’m not well read enough or as conscious as I could be.  But I do know that this increase in awareness of women’s issues can have some huge effects not only on our culture and our world, but on what I see in my office.  As I work with both my partners of sex addicts and female sex addicts themselves, I find that these news stories are triggering all sorts of past experiences of abuse or harm in their marriages or elsewhere. 

Here are some of the good things I see in the increasing conversation around women’s rights.

We are speaking out against sexual violence and abuse more than ever before.

You only have to turn on the TV or scroll through your news feed to see stories of women speaking out about sexual abuse and sexual violence.  If you’re a survivor of sexual abuse or harm, my hope is that this prevalence helps you to realize that you are not alone.  Sexual abuse has been kept a shameful secret for many women for too long.  In a culture that normalizes objectification of women, women can feel complicit in their sexual abuse, or as if they were at fault for the harm that was done to them.  To hear other women speaking out to say that sexual harassment and violation is wrong and that they are not at fault for what was done to them can give you confidence to know that the abuse was not your fault.

Objectification and oversexualizing of women in our culture is being called out.

I recently visited an auto tech in the area to get my tire pressure checked, and as I was leaving the facility, the male technician working on my car called me “sweetie.”  I don't believe he meant any harm by that comment, and in the past, I certainly wouldn’t have thought much of it.  In fact, I might’ve seen it as a compliment.  But in the wake of the cultural turmoil over women’s issues, I felt uncomfortable.  I realized how that tiny word was reflective of a cultural norm that subtly sexualizes women.

Pornography is another major component of the oversexualization of our culture.  Women in these films are viewed as sexual objects that are only meant to be used for gratification and pleasure.  Women are perceived to be welcoming of violent, abusive sexual acts.  A number of studies have shown a link between use of pornography and sexual aggression.  These films can communicate the myth that women enjoy sexual violence or aggression, and that her “no” is more of a “maybe.”

We are beginning to see gender inequality as an issue unconsciously in existence for longer than we previously thought.

According to author and sex addiction researcher Marnie Ferree at a talk I attended of hers this fall, violence in pornography is reflective of greater cultural issues that have been there long before the mass production of adult films.  The stereotypes appear in the sexual realm through these images, and they feed back into gender inequality.  Gale Dines, author of the book Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked Our Sexuality*, talks about the impact of pornography on sexuality and outlines some of the stereotypes that have crossed into daily life.

 

I believe these are positive changes.  But at the same time, the growing conversation can be triggering for women who have experienced sexual abuse or harm, or whose husbands have been engaged in addictive sexual behaviors.  Areas that previously were ignored or pushed under the rug cannot be ignored any longer.  It is important for women who feel triggered by these news stories to both receive support from others and take action to care for themselves.  Here are some thoughts I have on ways to take action in response.

There is a needed shift toward speaking the unspoken cultural messages associated with being a woman.

A therapist friend shared this article with me that speaks about the unspoken cultural expectation that women have to feel uncomfortable and ignore their discomfort.  As women, we are brought up to believe that being uncomfortable is the norm: in order to be attractive, women have to wear tight clothes and high heels.  “At every turn, women are taught that how someone reacts to them does more to establish their goodness and worth than anything they themselves might feel.“  This is most obviously demonstrated in the acceptance that many women have that sex is painful rather than enjoyable.  When we begin to accept our feelings of discomfort as normal, then we don’t know how to tell when our discomfort is related to real issues, and that can lead to being taken advantage of sexually.  We’ve lost the sense of knowing when we can say no.  

We can’t deny the impact of sexual addiction any longer.

When we read about the court case of Larry Nasser, we hear the stories of his 168 victims and the impact his actions have had on their lives.  While pedophilia and sexual addiction are not synonymous, I would not be surprised to find out that Nasser was a sex addict as well.  Regardless of what we think about compulsive sexual behavior, I believe we can all agree that it is a problem.

Women who are married to sex addicts face the reality of the pain of objectification on a daily basis.  If you’re in this position, it is likely that your life, marriage, and sense of healthy sexuality have been ripped apart in the fallout of your spouse’s addiction.  Reading stories in the media about sexual abuse and harm can trigger your own personal pain of being married to an addict.  Practicing self-care, monitoring your triggers from the media, and seeking to stay in your window of tolerance can help you not to become overwhelmed by these media stories.

Shaming and condemning is not the answer.

In response to these claims made above, we may get fired up and angry to a point that we cross over into man-hating and shaming all those who struggle with objectification of women or sexual addiction.  And to be fair, it is difficult to demonstrate compassion to offenders or the accused.  But as an addiction therapist, one thing I know to be true is that shame feeds addiction. The more ashamed an individual feels about their addiction, the more likely they are to turn to the things that helped them to self-medicate in the first place because addictive behaviors are incredibly efficient at making the pain go away.  Addicts need compassionate people who can see them in their pain and help them to heal.  While you might not be able to provide that compassion, you can lead those you know who are addicted to people who can help.

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Have the stories of sexual abuse and harm in the media hit close to home for you?  Do you find yourself avoiding the coverage if only to get a break from the triggers that are thrown at you every time you turn on the news channel?  Have you felt afraid to talk about your personal experience of sexual harm because you’re uncertain if you’re just making it up, or if it really did matter?  I believe your story is important and valuable, and I want to create a space for you to use your voice to speak up about the harm you experienced and see healing from the pain you feel about it.  Restored Hope is a therapy office offering counseling in Ann Arbor.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.

*This is an Amazon affiliate link.  Click here to read more about Restored Hope’s Amazon local  associates policy.

Why Can't I Feel? Dissociation and Emotional Detachment in Response to Trauma

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Back in 2013, a film was released called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which features Walter, an ordinary man who lived a fairly uneventful life but daydreamed about a fantastical, adventurous life to escape bullying by coworkers and unrequited love.  I loved how this film portrayed Walter’s tendency to do what his mother called “zoning out,” where he would engage in a fantasy that distracted him from the pain he experienced in his daily life.  Check out the clip below to see how this played out in his life.

For Walter, this daydreaming was a form of what we call dissociation.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation, or emotional detachment, is a defense mechanism used to cope with distressing or overwhelming emotions.  It involves disconnection between your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  Often it begins as avoidance of past memories of traumatic events or of negative emotions.  While all of us experience this emotional detachment from time to time (have you ever binge-watched an entire Netflix series without knowing where the time has gone?  Or zoned out on the highway and completely missed your exit?), dissociation is particularly common in survivors of trauma. 

With past experiences of abuse or trauma, dissociation serves as a survival tactic that keeps us from becoming overwhelmed by the pain or trauma we are experiencing.  Dissociation is particularly common with sexual abuse or assault, and it is associated with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.  However, as we adopt these patterns of emotional detachment that were helpful in the past, they can become patterns we continue with later in life, putting us in constant survival mode.  Often dissociation is caused by parents who do not teach emotional regulation skills to their children, and therefore children don’t know how to cope with these emotions when they surface and are overwhelmed by them.

In extreme cases with severe trauma, dissociation can transform into a more serious psychological disorder.  However, most often the process of dissociation does not lead to this extreme.  In fact, most people emotionally detach from time to time, and it doesn’t turn into a more severe disorder.  However, it can impact struggles with depression or anxiety as numbness sets and in and replaces healthy experiences of emotion.

How do I know I’m dissociated?

It is incredibly easy to dissociate in our daily life.  We have so many opportunities to be entertained or distracted.  We “check out” and avoid because life is too painful or stressful.  This detachment can be functional and seem like it works to control emotions, but you might find that the dissociation eventually controls you.

Here are some indicators that you might be dissociated:

  • numbness

  • apathy

  • memory gaps

  • feeling of being outside of yourself, as an observer of your life

  • feeling disconnected from surroundings

  • “checking out” or drifting off

  • feeling as though the world around you is distorted or not real

  • avoiding or “stuffing” emotions

  • daydreaming

  • difficulty remembering events

How can I change dissociation in my life?

When you notice emotional detachment or dissociation in your life, there are several ways you can choose to re-center yourself and connect to those emotions that you find yourself avoiding.

Practice a grounding exercise.

The first step in getting in touch with your emotions involves slowing down your physiological reaction and paying attention to your body.  This can happen as you practice mindfulness and breathing exercises that allow you to observe the sensations you feel inside yourself.  A particular favorite of mine is the 5-4-3-2-1 senses exercise referenced in this article, which helps you connect with what you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste right in front of you.

Remind yourself that you are safe in the present moment.

In the midst of these grounding exercises, emotions can arise that you didn’t know were there.  In those moments, you might find yourself triggered by a past memory or anxious about an upcoming event. Repeating key phrases during this grounding exercise like, “I am safe now.”  “I can handle what is coming in my life” or any other statement that helps you to feel peace can ease this pain. 

Pay attention to where emotions are centered in your body.

When you begin to identify the emotions that arise, notice where you can feel the sensation most clearly in your body.  Often, when I meet with children, I’ll have them color an outline of their body with colors that represent different emotions, in terms of where they feel that emotion most frequently in their body.  If you aren’t currently feeling any strong emotion, spend some time thinking of the major emotions (happy, sad, angry, afraid) and how you would describe their presence in your body in the past.

Keep an emotions journal.

Often we aren’t aware of our emotions because we are moving too quickly through life, or we’ve never taken the time to identify them.  Instead of rushing through your day without checking in with your emotions, spend a set time each day reflecting on your emotions and how they affect you.  Use a tool like this feelings wheel to answer the following questions:

  • What am I feeling right now?

  • How do I know I’m feeling that emotion?

  • Where does that emotion center in my body?

  • What triggered this feeling?

  • What do I want to do because I feel this way?

  • How do I wish I were feeling?

Look for patterns in your emotions and how you respond to them over time.  Notice if there are certain emotions that lead to dissociation.  Identify if there are times you felt that emotion in the past which may lead you to want to avoid it in the present day.

Self-soothe when you’re experiencing negative emotions.

Our emotions serve as a red flag indicating unmet needs or desires in our lives.  Use these indicators to consider the desires you’re feeling and seek to either care for those needs or self-soothe in ways that calm your emotions.  Feeling angry?  Take some time to exercise to release that pent-up energy.  Feeling sad? Practice good self-care by taking a bath and soaking in the warm water.  Feeling stressed?  Give yourself a day off to relax around the house and do something you love.

As you begin to approach dissociation or emotional attachment differently, you’ll find yourself integrating emotion into your life differently.  While this process may be painful at first, with time you’ll come to appreciate the richness of your ability to access emotions throughout your life.

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Do you feel disconnected from your feelings?  Do you often feel as if you’re outside of yourself and observing what’s going on around you?  Do you have a past history of traumatic memories that lead to your avoidance of situations that cause you to feel the same emotions?  Know that you are not alone, and there is help for you.  At Restored Hope, I offer counseling at my Ann Arbor therapy office to address issues of trauma, dissociation, and emotional detachment.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here today to hear more about how I can help.

The Many Faces of Trauma

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We’ve talked on this blog before about the various signs and symptoms of trauma you might experience.  In that article, I referenced the difference between what I called “big T” traumas and “small t” traumas.  But how do we categorize those different events?  Maybe you’ve had the experience where something you thought was “normal” ended up having a greater negative impact on you.  What types of events can be defined as traumatic? How do different stressful life events affect how we process and deal with trauma?

“Big T” traumas

A “big T” trauma is a uniquely identifiable and significant distressing event.   You might immediately associate these type of events with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  PTSD involves a cluster of symptoms that interfere with daily life, including: exposure to a traumatic event, re-experiencing through flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about self or others, and heightened reactivity.  Significant traumas such as these can lead to feelings of isolation, due to the distinctive nature of these events.  The individual who experienced this trauma may also feel a greater pull to avoid reminders of the trauma and experience a sense of helplessness over circumstances.

Recently, we’ve been faced with horrendous scenes of destruction in the wake of two major hurricanes that ripped through the southern states of our country.  It is easy to see the effects of these major events as trauma that affects the individuals whose homes were damaged or destroyed and who are now displaced.

Examples of “big T” traumas include:

  • Physical or sexual abuse in childhood or adulthood

  • Sexual assault

  • Natural disasters

  • Sudden and unexpected death of a loved one

  • Witnessing the death or injury of someone else, particularly a loved one

  • Domestic violence

  • Robbery

  • War

  • Military service/combat

  • Acts of terrorism

  • Car or airplane accidents

“Small t” traumas

“Small t” traumas are distressing events that are smaller in scale than “big T” traumas, but often occur over a more prolonged period of time. These traumas are more persistent and subtle than the “big T” traumas, and can be just as painful as a result.  They are especially impactful for those who experience them in childhood. While typically those who have faced these types of trauma do not have enough criteria to be diagnosed with PTSD, they may experience symptoms of trauma that mimic the characteristics of this disorder.

I imagine this type of trauma like a series of waves in the ocean.  The first time the waves sweep your feet out from under you, it’s relatively easy to recover.  Once you’ve regained your footing and tried to stand, however, you find you've been knocked off your feet again as the current pushes another wave toward you.  Before long, you become exhausted by the process of trying to stand up to the current.  "Small t" traumas are often minimized by the individuals who are facing them because they do not carry the label of a significant trauma, but this persistent nature is just as impactful as the “big T” traumas.

examples of “small t” traumas include:

  • Betrayal/infidelity by a spouse

  • Emotional abuse in childhood or adulthood

  • Non life-threatening injuries

  • Family or work conflict

  • Bullying or harassment

  • Divorce

  • Loss of a significant relationship

  • Sudden relocation/moving

  • Legal issues

  • Loss of a job

  • Financial distress/poverty

  • Being the child/spouse of an addict or individual with mental illness

  • Ongoing parental criticism

  • Parental disconnection and disengagement

Life Stressors

Sometimes even positive life experiences can create increased stress levels that lead to distress or anxiety and compound the symptoms associated with a more major trauma.  The Holmes and Rahe stress inventory is a measurement used to identify how some stressors (which can be either “small t” traumas or positive events that created a pattern of stress) may be affecting you today.  The interactive survey here helps you to identify how stressful life events have impacted you this past year.

Examples of significant life stressors include:

  • Planning a wedding/getting married

  • Starting a new job

  • Moving across the country

  • Having/adopting a child

  • Holidays

Each of these traumatic or stressful situations is handled uniquely by different people.  How you respond to trauma is related to your predisposition and personality.  However, one factor that has been shown to affect the experience of traumatic symptoms is avoidance.  The more a person avoids the traumatic experience, the more likely they are to integrate that trauma into their psyche and have a harder time recovering.  Instead of choosing to avoid the pain , allow yourself to feel impacted by it and seek the help you need.  These traumatic events can be painful, and they deserve care and compassion.

What are some of the experiences listed above that have caused trauma in your own life?  How are you coping with that trauma?

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Have you been experiencing the symptoms of trauma but haven’t been able to put a finger on why?  Have you experienced an event in the “small t” trauma or stressor category that you are still being impacted by today?  Whether you’ve experienced a large-scale or small-scale traumatic event, you deserve attention and care.  At Restored Hope, I offer trauma counseling at my Ann Arbor location, and I’d love to help you on your journey to process rather than avoid the pain and experience greater healing.  Give me a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear more about how I can help.