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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 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.

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.

Am I Going Crazy? Seven Signs of Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress

Here you are again.  It’s 2am, and you’ve woken up in the middle of the night after disturbing nightmares.  You don't really remember what happened, but you're still feeling deep and intense fear.  You can’t fall asleep again, and your mind is racing with anxious thoughts.  Why am I up in the middle of the night again?  What happened to me wasn’t even that bad, people have had much worse things happen to them.  I mean, it probably was partially my fault anyway.  There must be something wrong with me.

You hear the sound of a siren or a car alarm on the street outside your house and you jump back, startled.  Suddenly, an image flashes into your head of discovering your husband’s betrayal.  Your emotions do a complete 180, and you’re furious.  Adrenaline is coursing through your veins, your heart starts to pound, and you feel wide awake, like you could jump out of bed and run a marathon.  Seriously?  I am sick of everyone trying to blame me for the things he’s done.  You would yell and scream and throw things too if you found out your husband was cheating on you with multiple women. You feel sick to your stomach.

Finally, exhausted by this burst of adrenaline, you curl under the covers of your bed and the tears begin to fall.  What is happening to me?  Eventually your sobs slow down and lull you back into fitful sleep.

Experiencing the effects of trauma can be disorienting, distressing, and lonely.  You might look at your reactions and feel as though you are crazy.  In the dictionary, trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.  As psychologists, we define trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster,” which is accompanied by several short and long term effects.

But this definition limits our understanding of trauma.  Yes, events such as abuse, violence (sexual or otherwise), tragic accidents, and serious injuries are major traumas that cause lasting effects, and are what would be explained by counselors as “big T” traumas.  Yet oftentimes people experience smaller-scale traumas that accumulate over time, or what we would call “small t” traumas.  These include such events as effects of divorce, emotional abuse, complicated grief, betrayal in the form of an affair or sexual addiction, or various other events.  These events can have similar traumatic effects and symptoms of a major trauma. 

What are some indicators that you might be having a response to trauma?

You witnessed and were impacted by one or more distressing events.

It may be clear to you that you have experienced a traumatic event.  "Big T" traumas are often easy to discern and connect to your symptoms.  However, you may have a tendency to minimize the impacts of "small t" traumas as you compare them to the pain of more major traumas.  I’ve often heard minimization of emotional abuse in families or the impact of divorce simply because it was considered to be “normal” in your family.  If you experience symptoms of trauma but aren’t sure why, spend some time with a counselor or trusted friend talking through your past experiences to get a reality check on how normal they actually were.

Vivid imagery of the traumatic event pops into your mind at the least convenient moments.

When you’re out driving in your car, spending time with friends or family, or even in the middle of the night in the form of a nightmare, you can be tormented by vivid memories of the traumatic event.  Not only do the images arise, but they often leave an emotional mark on you as you experience intensity of emotion similar to when you were experiencing the trauma.  Often trying to push away the images or stop thinking about it doesn’t work: attempts to ignore the thoughts only serve to intensify them.

Your emotions are intense and shift rapidly between anger, fear, sadness, numb, and everything in-between.

Mood swings are incredibly common in trauma, as the traumatic re-experiencing can trigger a storm of negative emotions.  One second everything is fine, and the next, you're a puddle of tears on the floor.  You could become easily irritated or annoyed, being harsh with your loved ones.  At times, it can feel like you’re completely disconnected and cannot access emotion at all.  This intense fluctuation of emotions can be bewildering and seem to prove the mistaken belief that you're crazy.

You’re more suspicious and startle easily.

Prior to the traumatic experience, you may have never thought twice about walking down the street alone in the dark, sleeping in your house by yourself, or your husband’s late nights at work.  Now that the trauma has happened, however, these events take on a new component of fear and worry.  You might notice yourself becoming jumpy or on edge, reacting strongly to unexpected loud noises or events. 

You’re isolated and withdrawn from your friends and activities you used to enjoy.

Often the painful emotions that accompany traumatic events lead you to withdraw from relationships.  You might avoid friends or loved ones because you worry they won’t be able to understand what you went through.  They might ask about how you’re doing, but you don’t want to talk about it anymore.  Your energy levels are likely much lower, so you may lack motivation or energy to do the things you used to love to do.

While you were once confident, now your self-esteem is crushed.

Shame is often a major component of trauma, either in the form of blaming yourself for the event or experience, or receiving messages about yourself from the event that have left you questioning who you are.  According to Bréne Brown, shame is the intensely painful experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.  Experiencing shame in connection to a traumatic event can be confusing, especially if you’ve had a strong sense of self prior to the experience.

All you want to do is stop thinking about what happened, so you avoid reminders.

You might stop going to a certain restaurant or area of town where you experienced the traumatic event.  You may have discovered your husband’s betrayal by viewing his browsing history, so even opening your computer may trigger that twinge of fear.  Being in your childhood home can bring to mind memories of emotional abuse, so you avoid even visiting your hometown.  If you notice yourself going out of your way to avoid certain situations or people, you might still be reeling from a trauma you experienced.

Do any of the above statements describe you?  If so, be kind and caring toward yourself and get the help you need.  Seek out a counselor who works with trauma to help you on your path toward healing. 

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Are you tired of feeling triggered by reminders of the trauma you experienced?  Are you exhausted from sleepless nights filled with flashbacks of painful memories?  Do you feel like your mood swings make you feel crazy?  At Restored Hope, I want to help you experience rest and peace from the anxiety and depression that often accompany trauma.  At my Ann Arbor office, I focus on creating space for you to process and heal from your experiences of pain and distress.  Give me a call today at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to talk with me today.