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Trauma Isn’t Lazy

Trauma survivors seem to worry more than most that they are being ‘lazy’ when they aren’t 100% productive. Let’s expose that lie, shall we?

The traumatized brain is anything but lazy. In fact, it is over-worked, over-stimulated, over-active, and over-stressed. Trauma survivors have an enlarged amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response. In a survivor, this response goes haywire. It cannot perceive between something that happened in the past with what’s in the present. The brain remembers trauma in the form of flashbacks that constantly re-create the experience.

A traumatized brain is always on alert. Hypervigilance is constantly running in the background, assessing the situation and trying to report back to the rational brain what it finds. In order to keep up with everyday situations, it often must work hotter and harder than a brain without trauma.

Say a non-traumatized person wants to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. No sweat, right? It requires almost no thought, and it can usually be done under a minute. Someone with a traumatized brain who tries to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will grab the jar of peanut butter, and think about their friend with a peanut allergy who visited last week. Their brain will scold them for not making a better effort to remove all peanut products from the home before their friend visited. They will feel shame for not being a better friend, and noting that if anything did happen to their friend, they will surely would be blamed. This will probably trigger an emotional flashback of the way they were constantly blamed for things in the past. Once that has passed, they will grab the bread. They will be thinking about GMOs, and how that has an impact on health. Then, they’ll think about all the pb&j’s they’ve made for their kids. “I fed them junk that probably screwed them up for life…” The traumatized brain goes on and on like this in every situation, on every possible topic, relentlessly. Unchecked, it will continue to wreak havoc, until the trauma survivor collapses in exhaustion.

This is why traumatized people often burn out quickly compared to others. Their brains are working harder than most, and yet, survivors seem to carry a ton of guilt over the quantity and quality of their accomplishments. This is the nature of trauma that stems from narcissistic abuse. The brain was tricked into thinking it’s responsible for things that it is not. Many survivors had abusers who told them they were lazy, insignificant, or downplayed their accomplishments. So naturally, when they struggle to complete tasks due to an overworked brain, those negative messages get reinforced.

We all have goals, and chances are, we’d all like to accomplish them sooner than reality permits. For those with traumatized brains, it’s their number one job to heal. Rather than measure life in whatever external measures communicate success, whether that’s the number of laundry piles folded or number of sales closed, think about some internal goals. How many times did I catch my own negative self-talk? How many times did I recognize that my body was tired or hungry, and did I give it what it needed?

Re-shifting these priorities can make a huge difference, but it’s especially a challenge for those of us who cope by making ourselves too busy to face our trauma. When we take our own busyness away and replace it with really checking in with ourselves, it often means feeling uncomfortable feelings. It means tuning in to body, mind, and spirit that doesn’t feel so hot. That takes time and energy that our tired brains don’t have a lot of extra juice for. Sometimes, it seems easier to push through because it numbs us from fully feeling our pain. The result is almost always an inevitable crash. And when we crash, we feel like we are being “lazy.” And so goes the vicious cycle.

If this sounds like you, do yourself a favor. Give yourself permission to rest. Give yourself permission to daydream. Do something indulgent that is objectively and truly lazy, on purpose. Recognize and reward yourself for all your brain is doing to heal.

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Ten Tools for Trauma Survivors

A couple years ago, I hit a serious wall.  I was emotionally and physically exhausted, but didn’t understand why. Sure, I was a mom, wife, graduate student, and ran a business, but this exhaustion went much deeper than my chronic state of busyness, hyper-vigilance, and hyper-focus. Sure, I knew I had a rough childhood and had gone no contact with my parents ten years prior. I got on with my life. I made many positive and deliberate changes so I didn’t repeat their patterns, but I hadn’t fully unpacked just how vast that black hole of childhood trauma was. For me, awakening to the impact of my childhood trauma has happened over many years, with thousands of tiny steps toward recovery. But one day, the truth of it hit me so hard, I had to drop everything to process it. I had no choice because my body and brain simply gave out. I had to grow or succumb. I chose to grow.

I threw myself headlong into the task of really looking at my issues. You could say I was hyper-focused about trauma recovery, and you wouldn’t be wrong. I found a trauma-informed therapist and started EMDR therapy. I read all of the books. I joined online groups. I researched. I studied. Did I mention I was hyper-focused? As a result, the scales fell from my eyes and I really saw the impact of my own trauma. I gained much deeper insight into why I didn’t feel successful in spite of success, why I felt responsible for things that weren’t my fault, the source of what was making me physically ill, and how I coped to survive. As I made more connections and opened more doors into traumas locked away, I entered into a process of deep, soulful grieving. Much of it had been stored up in me for over forty years with nowhere to go. Grieving became my priority and I learned to ride its wave. I learned that grief doesn’t really end. Like the ocean, it thrusts and recedes in a constant flux.

If you are looking to go down the path of trauma recovery, chances are you’re feeling some form of anxiety about it. It’s a hard road. Trauma recovery requires great courage, and it happens on its own timeline. But if you’re like me, eventually it becomes a necessary road. For much of my life, I knew there was unprocessed “stuff” I had to deal with, eventually. When I got to the place where I had to choose between growing or succumbing, I decided whatever was behind those locked doors in my mind couldn’t be as bad as the consequences of a life of denial and fear of the unknown. I am so glad I chose to confront the terror of my past, because I was able to learn who I really am. I finally got to free myself from the clutches of abuse and neglect.

So, what helped me? Here is a list, in no particular order. Hopefully there are a few new things to try out. Your list will probably look different from mine. Part of the process of recovery is to seek out your own likes and dislikes to figure out what works for you.

1. The Ace Study. Go to Aces Too High to get your Adverse Childhood Experiences score and read more on the study that links ACEs to chronic illness. Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk is also a great intro to ACEs.

2. The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk. This is a great explanation of the neurobiology of trauma, and how it manifests itself in the physical body. Check out this overview of van der Kolk’s work:

3. Pete Walker‘s books, The Tao of Fully Feeling and Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. These are perhaps the best books I’ve read on unlocking and grieving trauma. Walker described my experience so perfectly, I had to put his books down every paragraph or so just to process. I have never felt so seen and understood by an author.
4. Trauma-informed therapy. I was wary of seeking out a therapist due to several unhappy experiences trying to seek counseling with my abusers in the past. What helped me was searching specifically for the term, “trauma-informed.” I actually didn’t realize that trauma was at the center of my issues when I sought it out, but I had a hunch it “might” be. In a similar way, I used to think I “might” have been abused, but wasn’t sure, since I was always told (by my abusers) that I was being too sensitive. The confusion from gaslighting and denial can have such a strong hold, it isn’t until one is immersed in therapy that the problem becomes clear. If you suspect trauma, you owe it to yourself to see a trauma-informed therapist. Therapists can specialize in all sorts of things, which may or may not be helpful for your specific needs, which is why you want someone specially certified in this area.
5. EMDR. EMDR is a form of exposure therapy, developed by Francine Shapiro. There are other techniques for trauma, but EMDR seems to be getting the most traction. I personally like it much more than talk therapy, which seems to have its limitations, especially in reaching the automatic physiological responses which drive me as a person with CPTSD. Some people see relief right away, especially for singular traumas. For those of us who have years of formational trauma, expect years of EMDR to uncover the layers. It’s important to find a therapist who is trained and certified via the International Association of EMDR, not just somebody who took a short class. Check out the association for referrals.
6. TRE. TRE stands for Trauma Release Exercises, developed by Dr. David Berceli. They are simple exercises which isolate the psoas muscle, and help to release emotional tension which is stored in the physical body. What’s nice about TRE is that it is complementary to other therapies, such as EMDR, as a way to release what comes up. If an emotional flashback triggers a stress response in my body, TRE is my go-to for releasing it. I find it more effective than yoga and other forms of stretching, though yoga is effective for many and arguably a more popular option. You can find a trained provider through the association here.
7. Trauma Coaching. This is perhaps the resource I’m currently most excited about. Trauma coaches usually work in tandem with therapists and other mental health professionals to help you focus on your recovery goals. Therapists tend to work with your past, while coaches work with you to create the future you want. Trauma Recovery Coaches are specifically trained, and often specialize in a specific form of trauma. Need someone who understands birth trauma? There’s a coach for that. Need someone who gets narcissistic abuse? Trauma coaches can help you. Additionally, coaches offer a variety of services which can be available anywhere with a wifi connection and fit into any budget. Check out the International Association of Trauma Recovery Coaching for a referral.
8. Online Resources. There are a lot of great online resources, which I’ve found to be extremely helpful in understanding my own trauma. Do a search on Twitter or Facebook for trauma recovery, narcissistic abuse, or any other hashtag that applies to you. Some folks that I love and follow in the trauma recovery community are Bobbi Parish, Athena Moberg, Shahida Arabi, Shannon Thomas, Lisa Romano, and Michele Nieves.
9. Other Books. Check out The Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller (an oldie but a goodie), Healing From Hidden Abuse by Shannon Thomas, Stop Walking on Eggshells by Mason and Kreger, The Complex PTSD Workbook by Arielle Schwartz, and Psychopath Free by Jackson MacKenzie. There are a ton more, of course.
10. Community. The goal in trauma recovery is to learn how to draw ourselves closer to others who are safe and healthy for us. Relational trauma that stems from abuse must ultimately be healed through relationships with others. It’s not a solo sport. Of course, for many of us, this is the scariest aspect of recovery. I can read about trauma and lurk online all day, but if I am not actually connecting with other humans, I am not growing and healing. Online communities that understand trauma recovery are a great place to start. Join a secret Facebook group or find more community through a trauma coach. If you’re like me and feel you have been misunderstood for most of your life, it is essential to surround yourself with others who “get” the impact of abuse. For many of us, that’s not always our friends and family; it’s a larger community of survivors.
Last but not least, it is important to know that trauma recovery can only happen if you are 100% safe and free from abusive people in your life. It’s impossible to do this sort of work and still be under the influence of an abuser. As you recognize more patterns, expect to evict more people from your life who do not prove themselves safe. It can be difficult, but your life and wellbeing depend on it. You are absolutely worthy of a life that is fully your own, free from abuse.
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The Difference Between Trauma and Anxiety

I’ve been living with the effects of complex trauma for a long time, but for many years I didn’t know what it was. Off and on throughout my life, I’ve struggled with what I thought was anxiety and depression. Or rather, In addition to being traumatized, I was anxious and depressed.

All mental health is a serious matter, and should never be minimized. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, it’s important and urgent to find the right support for you. No one gets a prize for “worst” depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has CPTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.

For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. General anxiety can often be calmed with grounding techniques and reminders of what is real and true. Mindfulness techniques can help. Even when they feel disconnected, anxious people can often acknowledge that they are loved and supported by others.

For those who have experienced trauma, anxiety comes from an automatic physiological response to what has actuallyalready happened. The brain and body have already lived through “worst case scenario” situations, know what it feels like, and are hell-bent on never going back there again. The fight/flight/ freeze response goes into overdrive. It’s like living with a fire alarm that goes off at random intervals twenty four hours a day. It is extremely difficult for the rational brain to be convinced “that won’t happen,” because it already knows that it has happened, and it was horrific.

Those living with generalized anxiety often live in fear of the future. Those with complex trauma fear the future because of the past.

The remedy for both anxiety and trauma is to pull one’s awareness back into the present. For a traumatized person who has experienced abuse, there are a variety of factors that make this difficult. First and foremost, a traumatized person must be living in a situation which is 100% safe before they can even begin to process the tsunami of anger, grief, and despair that has been locked inside of them, causing their hypervigilance and other anxious symptoms. That means that no one who abused them or enabled abuse in the past must be allowed to take up space in their life. It also means eliminating any other people who mirror the same abusive or enabling patterns. Unfortunately for many, creating a 100% abuser-free environment is not possible, even for those who set up good boundaries and are wary of the signs. That means that being present in the moment for a complex trauma survivor is not fail-proof, especially in a stressful event. They can be triggered into an emotional flashback by anything in their present environment.

It is possible (and likely) that someone suffering from the effects of complex trauma is also feeling anxious and depressed, but there is a difference to the root cause. Many effective strategies that treat anxiety and depression don’t work for trauma survivors. Meditation and mindfulness techniques that make one more aware of their environment sometimes can produce an opposite effect on a trauma survivor.  Trauma survivors often don’t need more awareness. They need to feel safe and secure in spite of what their awareness is telling them.

At the first sign of anxiety or depression, traumatized people will spiral into toxic shame. Depending on the wounding messages they received from their abusers, they will not only feel the effects of anxiety and depression, but also a deep shame for being “defective” or “lame,” or “not good enough.” Many survivors were emotionally and/or physically abandoned, and have a deep rooted knowledge of the fact that they were insufficiently loved. They live with a constant reminder that their brains and bodies were deprived of a basic human right. Even present-day situations where they are receiving love from a safe person can trigger the awareness and subsequent grief of knowing how unloved they were by comparison.

Anxiety and depression are considered commonplace, but I suspect that many of those who consider themselves anxious or depressed are actually experiencing the fallout of trauma. Most therapists are not well trained to handle trauma, especially the complex kind that stems from prolonged exposure to abuse. Unless they are specially certified, they might have had a few hours in graduate school on Cluster B personality disorders, and even fewer hours on helping their survivors. Many survivors of complex trauma are often misdiagnosed as having Borderline Personality Disorder or Bipolar Disorder. Anyone who has sought treatment for generalized anxiety or depression owes themselves a deeper look at whether trauma plays a role.

Recovery from the Pandemic Depends on How Safe We All Feel

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We are collectively experiencing a traumatic event on a global scale. Some of us, because of past trauma, feel the effects more than others. All of us are impacted, to some degree.

For some, this collective trauma may be a new experience. Some may notice that they feel more tired, less able to focus. Perhaps their dreams are more intense right now. Perhaps they wonder if they’re acting paranoid. Perhaps they’re feeling stressed or anxious over seemingly minor things. These are just a few of the symptoms that “full time” trauma survivors live with on a daily basis. As one of them, I’m finding it curious that all of a sudden, so many people are experiencing my “normal.” Even with years of understanding triggers and making modifications, I can be caught off guard. Chances are, many of these symptoms will disappear for the general population, once the threat is gone. For those of us who have already experienced multiple traumas, the bone pile simply rises.

Even if someone believes their personal situation “isn’t that bad,” chances are, their lives are impacted by those around them who struggle with overwhelm, isolation, and uncertainty. For many of us, not just the trauma survivors, the added stress means our window of tolerance is much smaller, and everyday tasks are even more difficult to accomplish. The compound effects of this suffering will play out for years to come.

 So, how will it get better, and when? Trauma recovery is a long road, and it often means processing and reclaiming our own thought patterns and behaviors. As someone who lives with complex PTSD, there are a few things I’d like you to know about healing after a traumatic event.

Do What Feels Safe.

There’s a difference between being physically safe from harm and actually feeling safe. When it comes to trauma recovery, both steps are essential. Unless a person is 100% physically safe from harm, an eventual feeling of safety can’t happen. It’s not until someone feels safe that processing a traumatic event can happen. That means we are years away from fully processing what’s happening on both a personal and global scale.

In a domestic violence situation, a survivor must get completely away from their abuser before trauma processing can occur. There will be an undetermined amount of time where the survivor will be looking over her shoulder after the threat is gone. This is also an important step in recovery, and it matters how patient and kind we are to ourselves in the in-between stage of being safe and feeling safe. If we don’t graduate into feeling safe, we never get to fully process what happened. Instead, it will get shoved into the subconscious part of our brain where it will leak out sideways and cause a host of somatic and emotional problems.

So, in a pandemic where there’s no guarantee of physical safety, how do we feel safe? The answer lies in reframing and taking ownership of our own personal experience. Do what makes you feel safe today.

If you are feeling social pressure to react or respond to the pandemic in a way that compromises your own personal feelings of safety, here is your permission to stop doing that. It’s important to know that your path to recovery cannot depend on anyone else’s opinion of your choices. There will always be people out there who will fail to understand or empathize with you. Around 6% of the world population is clinically incapable of feeling empathy. A larger percentage may be capable, but due to social, cultural, and behavioral circumstances, are less likely to cultivate it. If you have to explain empathy to someone, it’s probably a lost cause. Do what makes you feel safe, regardless. If taking extra precautions in a pandemic makes you feel safe, you are not paranoid or living in fear. You are living your life in a way that makes sense to you. Do what makes you feel safe.

Do What’s Necessary To Help Others Feel Safe.

Say you’re feeling like things are under control in your area, but your spouse/ friend/ child/ neighbor feels anxious or stressed about the state of affairs. You can help the people around you get to a place where they feel safe much quicker by validating their concerns and honoring what feels safe to them. Nurses know how to care for patients based on the patient’s perception of pain. If we are to heal collectively as a society, we must learn how to care for those near to us based on their perceptions of safety.

By the way, there’s no such thing as being too safe in a pandemic, and many will be too reckless, with consequences that will impact the people around them. I suspect the recklessness of others will inherently cause as much trauma as the pandemic itself. Abuse is the disregard for someone else’s basic right to exist in physical and emotional safety.

Don’t let anyone’s opinion shame you into making choices that make you feel unsafe. Stay away from people who condescend and bully others for being “wrong.” Gaslighting and cognitive dissonance abounds right now, and if you’ve experienced emotional or psychological abuse in the past, these toxic behaviors are especially hard to ignore.

The most important thing you can do to avoid the effects of long-term trauma is to ask yourself, “Right now, do I feel safe?” If the answer is anything but yes, make whatever adjustments are needed until it’s a yes. When it’s time to make changes and modifications about the pandemic, ask yourself this question at every new step, and make necessary adjustments. The answer might lead to bigger decisions about the kind of people, workplaces, and environments that are right for you. Be brave, and choose safety.

What you need to feel safe might look different than someone else’s. That’s okay. Focus on your needs and allow yourself to voice them. Trauma recovery is about feeling safe, seen, heard, and loved. It’s about your right to exist without fear of violence or condemnation.

Next, ask yourself what you can do to help others feel safe. Two people can live side by side and experience the same stimulus, but their neurobiology responds to it in completely different ways. This is why it’s common in homes where child abuse is taking place that siblings have different accounts of the severity of trauma. The same is true of  the collective trauma of a pandemic. Even if no one got sick or died in their immediate circles, Some will emerge unscathed, some will be mildly inconvenienced, and some will spend the rest of their lives suffering from flashbacks of this time.

Right now, collectively, we are in survival mode. Depending on your go-to coping mechanisms, you are likely experiencing some form of fight (anger, arguments, frustration) flight (tuning out, avoidance, dissociation) freeze (not identifying needs or speaking up, feeling numb) or fawn (trying to “fix” others, distraction through good deeds, people-pleasing) as a way to manage your stress. Coping mechanisms can also alternate and be combined.

Managing the fallout of trauma will be the next great hurdle once we overcome, or burn out from, survival mode. Doing what you need to do to feel safe is paramount right now, because if you get into the habit of denying your own sense of safety, trauma will inevitably be a part of your life for the long haul.

It’s Mothers Day, and All I Want is to Grieve

I dread Mothers Day, and the weeks leading up to it. Around the first of May, it begins. That uncomfortable feeling that swells up in me whenever I see some flowery advertisement featuring happily bonded mothers and daughters posed in their soft-focus, perfectly lit scenes of domestic life. But it’s so much more than the advertisements. The cultural expectation is heavy, that we’re all supposed to have mothers who love us.

The grief I feel around Mothers Day revolves around the basic fact that I don’t know and will never know what it’s like to be loved by my mother. I don’t know and will never know what it’s like to feel safe. I don’t know what it’s like to have a mother to confide in, or trust. I don’t know and will never know what it’s like to be nurtured, or counseled, or guided. For me, Mothers Day is a reminder that I grew up without those things, I transitioned into adulthood without those things, and I will go through the rest of my life without those things.

I’ve come to accept the fact that there are some things on this earth I will never have, and the circumstances I was born into are out of my control. I have children of my own, and I’m grateful know what it’s like to be a mother who loves her children. It means the world to me that I’m able to give my children what I never had: love, compassion, understanding, attention. My kids get excited about Mothers Day, and I do my best, for their sake, to smile and play along. But the truth is, stopping the cycle of abuse and loving my own children does not make the grief go away. In some ways, grief is amplified, because I am now even more keenly aware of what I never experienced as a child. Breaking cycles means that every victory in creating happy memories for my children is tinged with horrific memories of my own childhood.

As someone who is cut off from her entire family of origin due to narcissistic and psychological abuse, grief is an everyday part of my life. After years of therapy and strategies for living with complex trauma that is rooted in events that go all the way back to my earliest moments on earth, I’ve made peace with the circumstances of my life which do not resemble a “normal” situation. It’s not just unloved daughters who feel left out on Mothers Day. It’s women who have lost children of their own. It’s women who struggle with infertility. It’s women who have blended or other other types of complicated families. It’s women everywhere, who feel the weight of not measuring up to expectations.

There must be a better way, to hold each other to a different vision for our lives. There must be a way to honor good Mothers without creating pain for everyone else. There must be a way to free people from the obligation to take difficult and abusive mothers out to brunch, or to send them cards. I take some solace that, at least this year, due to the quarantine, I will not be asked to stand up in church so people can clap for my fertility. As a child of narcissistic parents, being put on a pedestal for a day makes me feel extremely uncomfortable. I don’t want to be adulated. I want a reciprocal relationship with my husband and children that is rooted in mutual love and trust.

Mother’s Day is a problem I don’t know how to solve. All I have are coping strategies, which mainly revolve around avoiding or downplaying the event. But moms are encouraged to do what they want for the day, right? All I really want on “my” day is time and space to grieve.

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Why No Contact is Essential if You Love Your Abuser

I love my abusers. I feel compassion for them. I can rise out of my own hurt feelings to see their humanity. I understand the challenges that shaped them, and I grieve the abuses that happened to them. However, none of this means I ought to be in a relationship with them. Loving them does NOT excuse their behavior or make them safe to be around.

As an empath, I’ve always had a big, tender heart. I feel everything deeply, whether I act on my feelings or not. Whatever emotions swirl around a room are magnified within me. This gives me a great capacity to feel love and compassion, and it also gives me a great capacity to feel pain and suffering. Like many other empaths, my spidey-senses were honed through childhood emotional neglect. In my formative years, picking up on the thoughts and feelings of others was a survival skill. It gave me a split second advantage on whether to hide from my angry, alcoholic father or to fawn for attention from my emotionally distant mother. I learned how to please others by anticipating what they wanted. Usually, in my childhood home, giving my family what they wanted meant entirely disappearing.

In a way, by going no contact with my parents and sibling means I’m still giving them what they want. The difference is that I now see it as a key component to a healthy life. In the early years of going no contact, I was still doing it for them. I took on all the responsibility for it. It wasn’t their abuse that made me leave, it was my inability to deal with it. I carried all the guilt and shame for it. I felt like an ungrateful freak and a loser who couldn’t handle her own family.

What compounded these feelings of shame for me is that I didn’t know how to frame it for others. The other day, I was listening to an audio recording from just three years ago, where someone asked about my parents. My answer was suspiciously vague and dodgy. I struggled to explain that I wasn’t in contact with them, and my voice was dripping with guilt. I tried to describe something my mother did, but it came out sideways. My unprocessed shame made me sound like a liar. I sat there in agony because my inadequate explanation prompted the person who asked to lecture me on trying to reach out to them. He didn’t get it, but there was no way for him to get it, because I couldn’t say the most obvious thing: My parents are abusive and it’s unsafe for me to be around them.

I think many of us struggle with these scenarios, and it doesn’t help that parental alienation goes against societal expectations. I’ve come an astonishingly long way to reclaim my voice and put the responsibility for the dysfunction where it belongs, and I need to remember that. However, I still have days where I struggle. I know I am trauma bonded to my abusers. There are yet-to-be-healed parts of me that ache for a family that does not exist. Exactly zero of my life milestones have been witnessed or celebrated by my family of origin, even ones they physically attended. It’s a giant wound that explains why I struggle with recognition today.

Sometimes I’m angry about it, but most of the time I’m sad. Even though I know it’s essential, holding this boundary of no contact is tough to do. It’s especially tough when others don’t understand why it’s important. It’s also tough when I allow myself to feel my love for them, in spite of everything. I’ve let go of any possibility that they could change into some sort of loving, evolved version of themselves that could give me what I need in a relationship. Fully accepting them as the abusive people they are is essential to my growth. Abusers need firm, impermeable boundaries. No contact means I accept reality. It means I am not trying to fix or save them. It means I am now free to form healthy bonds with others who are capable of love.

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Authenticity is Stronger Than a “Tough Skin”

As a writer who has worked in Hollywood, I often hear people offering this advice: “You need a tough skin in order to make it in this business.” A “tough skin” is supposed to ward off the bad feelings that go along with rejection, which is a job hazard I live with on a daily basis. Anyone who stretches beyond a comfort zone is prone to hear it in their line of work. Some people say it to absolve themselves of responsibility for saying things that hurt people. Some people say it because they heard someone else say it, and never really thought about what it means. There are plenty of scenarios that are tough to deal with, but I reject “tough skin” as solution, along with the notion that I need to be anything different than who I authentically am.

I have the opposite of tough skin, literally and figuratively. Every lady-scented body wash stings. Every clothing tag prickles. Sounds are often too loud. Lights are often too bright. Emotions are overwhelming. I am, by definition, and in every way, a highly sensitive person. Some days are more challenging than others, but I embrace my sensitivities, because they are valuable assets.

Being highly sensitive means that I am always tuned in. I pick up on nuances of speech and facial expressions that others miss. I’ve been a quiet observer of people my whole life, and I’ve gained insights which help me write about topics which are difficult to express. I am intuitive and often anticipate the needs of others. My relationships are intimate.

I write for highly sensitive reasons. I believe in the power of stories to heal culture, and I believe we live in a culture that desperately needs healing. We need people with insight who feel things deeply to help point the way toward a sense of interconnectedness and spiritual wholeness. My sensitive nature is an invitation to others to share their vulnerabilities, too. When we are collectively vulnerable, we are collectively seen, heard, and understood.

A tough skin can’t do any of that. All a tough skin can do is repel. There’s nothing brave about tough skin. You know what’s brave? Feeling heartbroken and choosing to try again.

There are few people who are actually good at having tough skin. The rest of us are faking it. Narcissists and psychopaths by definition cannot feel empathy, and they wreak havoc on everyone else in their wake. It’s true that their lack of feeling helps them to persevere in the face of rejection, which is often why they succeed in competitive settings. Narcissists often make sensitive people the target of their aggressions, because sensitive people possess the human connections they lack. The question I pose here is this: why are we pointing to “tough skin” as a solution to what ails us when the only ones who benefit from it are narcissists?

Instead of trying to be more tough, I propose we all try being more authentic. Feel your feelings, even the hard ones. When something hurts, acknowledge it. Do what you can to nurture yourself. Have some compassion for your own humanity. Hold space for your own beating heart. Believe that the world has room for you, and refuse the notion that you can’t be accommodated as you are. High sensitivity and trauma histories are often linked. When we embrace our sensitivities, we are also reprogramming neural pathways which heal the parts of ourselves which have been insufficiently loved or nurtured.

Rejection is inevitable, but let’s stop catering to mindsets that reward narcissistic behaviors. As a culture, we need more empathy, not less. We need to feel the softness of human touch, not more hard plastic surfaces. Especially in a time where quality human connection is reduced, highly sensitive people carry solutions that might just save us all. Let’s make some sensory-friendly room to receive them.

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Big Goals are not Stand-ins for Love

I have an enormous goal. I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours honing my craft in order to reach it. I’ve spent even more on education and lifestyle changes to give myself the space, time, and know-how to accomplish it. I don’t even want to count the lost wages (and benefits and retirement savings) from soul-draining day jobs I passed up in order to stay dedicated to my goal. I haven’t reached my goal yet, but I’ve done the work and I’m worthy. I’ve been worthy, and ready, for years. I believe in my goal. I want my goal. And yet, it eludes me. Even worse, I am haunted by it. Every day that clicks by, I feel just a little bit more terrible about not having reached it. So, here I am: highly capable, worthy, and miserable.

There are a few reasons for this. The goal I have is the kind that only a handful of people in this world get to experience. It’s lofty as hell. I used to look at the people in that hand and be inspired to know it’s possible, but now I feel shame that I’m not one of them.

Here’s what it feels like. Say my goal is to be an Olympic Gold Medalist. So I train. I do everything right. I make sacrifices. I compete and work all the way up to the top. Say it takes me until I am just on the very edge of being too old for my sport. Finally, I qualify. Dream come true, right? Wrong. I want the gold. So I get to my meet, and then? Nothing. Chance lost. I go back to my home country and spend the rest of my life wondering what the hell happened. Since I didn’t win, and I spent all my time in training, I am now poor. All I can afford to eat are Wheaties from a box that features the winning face of my competitor. Perhaps a healthier person would be able to reframe it, or even spin it into a success story. I did go to the Olympics, after all. But that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to win. And the window of time for me to try again is rapidly closing.

This might be a good time to confess that I hate inspirational sports movies. I’m always horrified for all the other qualified, capable athletes there in the background who gave just as much as the winner, but fell one tenth of a nanosecond short. Because that’s what my life feels like.

It hurts to be here. But here are a few things I know rationally, even if my subconscious isn’t cooperating.

  1. Whether or not I reach my goal, I have value. I have to admit, this is a hard one for me. My wound as a survivor of childhood abuse and neglect is that I feel I must be perfect in order to have value. I often struggle to validate anything I do that isn’t 100%.
  2. There are aspects of my goal that are out of my control. To be honest, it really isn’t up to me whether my goal succeeds at this point, because the last bit depends on someone else who has the power to say yes. I’ve done what I can. All I can do is stay on the lookout for the right people.
  3. Smaller goals count, too. I don’t give myself nearly enough credit for all the small successes along the way. And if I’m really being objective, I’ve already reached a large part of my big goal. It’s just not the fantasy version where I’m swimming in a pool of money and everyone loves me. I struggle with feeling empty when I do succeed. It’s not enough because it’s not the big, fantasy version.  I must separate the illusion from the real goal, and take my power back.
  4. My happiness cannot depend on my goal. This is also a hard one, because even after years of therapy, I struggle to not equate external success with love and connection. I need to cultivate happiness here and now, or it will not be with me in the future. I’m stuck in a loop here, I admit, because what would really make me happy today is some good news about my goal. I need to figure out how to reframe this.

I’ve got a lot riding on my elusive, nearly unattainable goal, which is happens to be just like my parents’ elusive, unattainable love. I’ve set myself up for this, at least subconsciously. I’ve made it a thing. Perhaps it’s the reason I chose this goal in the first place, because if I could win in the face of impossible odds, perhaps I could win the love of my parents, too. Consciously, I’ve let go of thinking I could ever attain love from my parents, and I’ve made peace with it, for the most part. I now need to extricate the need to be loved from my goal, too. Perhaps, if I can do that, I will find love right here and now, in the embrace of my husband and children. Perhaps I can find better ways to love myself. Perhaps then, it will be enough.

 

 

 

 

 

Hey, HR: If You Want a Productive Workplace, Maybe Stop Advertising for Psychopaths?

Dear Human Resources Department,

Your work culture is toxic. How do I know? Almost inevitably, your advertised job opening goes something like this: “Fast-paced company seeks flexible, self-starting multitasker with strong attention to detail who thrives in a chaotic environment.”

Let me stop you right there, HR person, because what you advertise is not a human. Now, I get that you have to fill a position in which the last person quit, having had a nervous breakdown. I know this because I was one of those people having breakdowns when I used to work at companies like yours. I get that you are advertising for an opening which, a couple years ago, was the job of six people. I know that’s not your fault (it’s the CEO’s). But let’s get real, here. You are not going to find someone who does the work of six people and also thrives in a “chaotic environment.” A people-pleaser will get all of the work done. It will probably be someone who has yet to uncover the root of their low self-esteem, which compels them to answer your ad. But a person like that will not thrive in chaos, they will languish. There is exactly one type of person who thrives in a chaotic environment, and that’s a psychopath.

Do you really want to hire another psychopath? I’m sure you’ve hired many of them in the past. Psychopaths are awfully charming, especially in interviews. It might look like a good idea, at first. They always look great on paper. So great, in fact, who needs to bother meticulously checking their references? Working in HR, it must be a relief when someone so self-confident walks through the door and convinces you they are the answer to all your staffing needs. Psychopaths project all kinds of confidence, but lack empathy, which make them uniquely suited to stepping on others to get ahead. Funny though, how the “chaos” you hired them to handle never goes away. In fact, perhaps now they are your only consistent employee because everyone else in their department keeps having breakdowns around them. So obviously, you do what any discerning HR person does: you promote them. Eventually, the psychopath you hired will become the CEO, and your job will be merged with five others while they’re off promoting their New York Times best-selling book on achieving high productivity in chaotic workplaces.

I have a proposition for you. Instead of trying to hire people well-suited for chaos, why not seek to reduce or eliminate the factors that contribute to a chaotic environment? Usually that starts with offering the right support. Even in environments where the “chaos” is not co-workers, but the population you serve, such as a school or a jail, there’s a lot you can do to support a calmer, safer, more inclusive environment for everyone.

Remember that insecure, people-pleasing employee you hired who is on the brink of quitting because of their insufferable, psycopathic boss? Promote that person instead. Offer them leadership training. I guarantee you will not find anyone more loyal and hard-working. Give your employees mental health benefits, and you will really see them thrive. Get rid of the psychopaths and replace them with kind, honest, empathetic people. Listen to employees when they are overworked, and make adjustments. As a human resources representative, you are the front line in deciding what kind of work culture your company has. Instead of advertising to people-pleasers and psychopaths, try building a healthy space that attracts creative problem-solvers, critical thinkers, and builders.

Sincerely,

Someone capable, with healthy boundaries, who chooses to be self-employed

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What I Want To Say to the Person Who Just Escaped My Abuser

I recently learned that someone left one of my abusers. As much as I would love to take her to coffee and have a long, heartfelt conversation, it is neither wise or safe for me to make contact. I’ve had zero contact with my abuser for many years, and I never met the person who left. The relationship I had with the abuser was not romantic, but the person who left married him and had children. Even from a great distance, enough has trickled back for me to be very concerned. I’ve been praying for the safety of her and her children for years.

Many of us feel the urge to reach out to the other victims in order to warn them or to validate our own experience. I feel connected to this woman I’ve never met, because of the abuser in common. I bet we observed the same behaviors, and need to sort out similar issues about ourselves as a result. In different circumstances, I imagine we could be friends. I desperately want validation and closure for my own traumas, but I also know that in this case, making contact is a bad idea. I would be risking my own privacy and safety, which I value far more than closure. I have no idea where this person is at, whether they are healthy or toxic, or what degree of contact they still have with the abuser. And, who knows? Maybe I’ve got it all wrong. I could be projecting my experience onto her, although it’s unlikely. I have enough information to make an educated guess that her entanglement with the abuser was far more toxic and complicated than mine.

So, here’s what I would say if I could talk to her:

I want you to know it’s not your fault. You seem like a kind and nurturing  person, and I’m guessing you were groomed to feel responsible for him. I don’t know you, and I’m not going to presume to know how you are feeling in this moment. I’m guessing that there’s a whole range of emotion that goes along with your decision to leave. But I want you to know that I am so relieved that you found a way out.

I hope you have the support you need. I hope the new community you planted yourself in has the resources to help you and your children. I imagine you are devastated, emotionally and financially. I know very little about you, but from what I’ve seen, you are resourceful and creative. You have what it takes to survive this, and what you did was very brave.

It must have been hard. You must’ve felt so isolated. It was hard to watch, even from a great distance. No one deserves to be treated that way. I am proud of you for having the strength to recognize what’s true, even though all the gaslighting and manipulation.

You did the right thing by leaving. There is no circumstance where the abuser could have gotten better, seen the errors of his ways, or felt remorse for his behavior. He’s pathologically unable to do those things. By leaving, your children now have the opportunity to thrive. I hope you continue to heal and rebuild your life. I am rooting for you.

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When Your Own Narrative is a Life or Death Issue

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We all know how it feels when someone gossips about us. We’ve all been on the receiving end of sensitive information about someone else that’s none of our business. We’ve all said something out of turn about another person. The sting of betrayal is hurtful and annoying, but for many, it’s not a huge deal. It’s just another bump in the road of life. For those who are at risk, traumatized, or in recovery from abuse, seeing their story spin out of control in the hands on another can be a life or death issue.

Survivors of emotional and psychological abuse who have been gaslit by their abusers know the anxious, gut-wrenching, migraine-inducing experience of trying to cling to fading bits of truth when their abusers insist that red is blue and down is up. If they have survived leaving an abuser, they know the trail of destruction that goes along with it. They’ve been subjected to smear campaigns designed to make them look like the unstable, abusive one. They know what it’s like to confront friends and family during that smear campaign, to set the record straight, only to find out that their abuser has succeeded in turning others against them. Survivors of abuse know what it feels like to let go of people they once loved in order to reclaim their own sanity. They know what it’s like to feel isolated and alone, with no one left to trust. Those who have survived an abuser know that reclaiming their truth is paramount, and often, it’s the only thing that’s left.

That is why a survivor’s narrative, told from their own perspective, is the key to their health and wellbeing. Standing in the truth of who they are comes with a great price. So, when others gossip about them, or insert unwelcome opinions, it’s not just annoying. Losing control of their own narrative triggers a stress response so great that it could lead to major depression and suicide.

When a survivor’s story is co-opted by someone else and spun into another person’s opinion of what happened, it mirrors all the same wounding messages and actions of their abuser. This is why it’s extremely important to allow people to tell their own story, in their own words. At risk people already feel like outsiders. Many feel insufficient or defective. To filter their narrative through your lens means you are stripping them of their identity and their dignity.

If you know sensitive information about someone, don’t spill it to others. Give that person every opportunity to claim their own narrative in a way that makes them feel empowered. It’s never your job to tell someone else’s story. If you want to be in the life of a  survivor, offer them the gift of their own voice. And then, listen.

Processing Trauma is a Privilege

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Processing trauma means you are going to the trenches in order to heal. You’re wading into the deep, murky waters of your subconscious mind to free up the gunky messes that rooted themselves long ago. It’s expensive financially, and even more so energetically. It’s hard, painful, all-consuming work, and it requires a ton of courage and grit to do it. Anyone who faces their trauma deserves a medal, all the ice cream, and an extended exotic vacation to their destination of choice. But let’s also remember that being in a position to even begin to process our trauma is an amazing privilege and a gift in of itself.

There are a lot of people who never get the space to process trauma. Perhaps they are not in a safe environment, which is required for opening up. Perhaps their abusers are long gone, but their coping strategies lead them down the road of other toxic relationships. Perhaps they are workaholics who keep themselves so busy (as a coping strategy) they have no bandwidth for personal growth. When someone adapts to “survival mode” as their primary way of life, it is extremely difficult to feel comfortable in an environment where there is no stress trigger. For these people, just getting through the day is enough. Diving into their stuff is not going to help them if they are still in an environment that contributes more stress to the pile. In order to get to the starting line for trauma processing, the journey of creating a safe, stable environment must come first.

There are a lot of people who want to start, but are too caught up in their own cognitive dissonance to “go there.” The funny (and by funny I mean sad) thing about trauma is that it gets in its own way. Even when someone desperately wants to release trauma and step into a new way of experiencing life, the negative voices of trauma get in the way. Oftentimes, an abuser’s discouraging messages get internalized into relentless de-motivational thoughts. The “tape” can be so loud and so strong, nothing else can break through. “You can’t do this.” “You’ll never heal.” “It’s useless to try.” Other types of cognitive dissonance can be in the form of minimization or denial. “It’s not that bad.” “I don’t have is as bad as other people.” “That was a long time ago, I should just get over it.” These thoughts do virtually nothing to heal trauma, and oftentimes are the very blockades to growth. For those who struggle with similar thoughts, it is essential to recognize them for what they are. Sometimes, cognitive behavioral therapy or other types of therapy that address negative thoughts rather than traumas can be a first step to be ready to get to the deeper issues. Just be careful not to confuse the two. Trauma is somatic, and needs a different approach.

There are a lot of people who simply have no interest in wanting to open that closet and look those skeletons in the eye. They are not interested in growth, even though it would mean releasing what hurts them and drawing them closer to those who love them. Many are totally cut off from their own feelings. Some may have personality disorders which prevent them from any form of self- reflection. Perhaps outwardly, they come off as confident or even dismissive, but inside (regardless of their level of awareness of it) they are rooted in their own fear and deep shame.  Recovery is least likely for this group.  People simply can’t heal from something they fail to acknowledge. Sadly, being cut off from their own trauma is what makes them most likely to project their trauma onto others.

It has taken me an entire lifetime to become ready to face the deep, dark ick that once controlled me. For many years, I was aware of it, but knew, or feared, I wasn’t ready to really face it. I eventually got to a place in my life where I was free of any abusers in my immediate space, but so worn down with the load I was carrying, I simply collapsed physically, mentally, and emotionally. From that place of sheer exhaustion, I surrendered to the process of uncovering the root causes of my stuff, piece by piece. I had to let go of work that was keeping me too busy. I had to let go of thought patterns that shielded me from the truth. Processing trauma, allowing myself to feel my feelings, letting myself grieve, acknowledging that my feelings and experiences were valid, these became the building blocks for my new life. In this new life, I am grateful for the journey. As hard as it is, I see that it is a privilege. I don’t think I’ll ever be glad that the abuse happened, but I am able to acknowledge that this journey I’m on has shaped me into one kick-ass, rad, lovable human. And for that, I am grateful.

When the Narcissist Wins

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Here lies an uncomfortable truth. Narcissists win. They seemingly win all the time, at almost everything. Many of them are highly successful people, at least when it comes to achieving material things, and, in fact, all of their nefarious narcissistic traits seem to help them more than hurt. Of course, when they win, they look awesome. Sure, it’s carefully manufactured, but that illusion often shines so bright, it becomes difficult to comprehend that it’s not real, even for those of us who know better.

For those of us who have been abused by them, this is a devastating reality. As much as we’d like the karma police to do their job, it seems the narcissist never experiences what should be inevitable consequences of their hurtful actions. Here we are with all of our human empathy, morals, and values, and there they are, throwing people like us under the bus on a daily basis, not only getting away with it, but winning at it. So much winning.

One of the reasons why narcissists win is because they were the ones who made it a competition in the first place. Normal people consider those they are in a relationship with as a companion or an equal. In the mind of a narcissist, even the most benign relationship is something to conquer. Friends, family, and lovers are seen as opponents. Co-workers, bosses, and employees are all competition. Heck, even the check out clerk is someone a narcissist tries to dominate. Oftentimes, others are not even aware they have been pitted against the narcissist until it’s too late. By the time someone clues in to the game, the narcissist has already smeared the other person’s credibility to others and is making off with whatever esteem, fame, money, or glory they were after. Narcissists declare themselves winners and everyone else losers before their so-called losers even realize they were a pawn.

For those of us who were once aligned with a narcissist, losing to them especially hurts. It hurts because most of us were looking for love or friendship, not competition. Many of us are mirror opposites of the narcissist, which is what made us prey to begin with. Because we are hurt and angry that they got away with it, we are pegged as “jealous” over things we never envied in the first place. Because we are the caring, compassionate ones, we are pegged as “bitter” when we are double-crossed by someone who intended to do harm. And yes, perhaps we do find ourselves feeling envy or bitterness as a result of the situation, but those feelings don’t belong to us. They were projected onto us by someone who actively sought to destroy us for their own personal gain.

I tend to be a cheerleader for just about anybody, but there are a few narcissists on this earth I deeply wish would fall flat on their face, literally and metaphorically. Those people have lied, stolen, and cheated their way to success. But here’s the thing. If I focus on the unfairness of it all, the narcissist continues to win by stealing my peace. Here’s what I remind myself in order to get my peace back.

It’s not a competition. Sure, maybe they made it one, but it’s up to me whether I choose to play. I don’t need to get sucked in to their game.

It’s only an illusion. Narcissists work really hard at appearing to be bigger and better than they are, and it often does work out in their favor. However, the narcissist’s definition of success does not need to be mine. I get to choose how to define my life, and I choose quality relationships and authenticity as core values I treasure that the narcissist will never have.

Their achievement is not my loss. Perhaps I once was the yin to their yang, but I no longer need to be compared to or defined by what they do. I choose to be identified through my own choices, qualities, and actions.

I am enough. I have my own unique set of gifts and challenges. I am capable of many things. I am already whole. I am not dependent on the opinions of others. I am free to live a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life.

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