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Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

It’s a Just World (Not at All?)

I was talking recently with someone who’d received unexpected negative news in relation to their employment. As I spoke with the person, there was a distress evident in the sense that the person could not link up how, after giving so much effort and care to what they were doing, they were still experiencing loss and frustration. I had a hard time knowing what to say in response, because to me the connection between effort and outcome has always been extremely tenuous at best. In other words, I was confused as to why they thought meeting a high standard meant they were going to receive a positive outcome. I live out this principle on a daily basis—I try hard in life—but I do not actually believe in it at my core.

The name for the belief that effort and outcome are strongly linked, especially in relation to morality, is the Just World Hypothesis. In this worldview, good things happen to good people and, if your life sucks, it’s probably your fault. There is a convenient absence of digging into systemic oppression and undue privilege; here, we’re all born on 1st base and the distance we make it in life is solely dependent upon how true and hardworking we are as a person.

A related phenomena is the Law of Attraction. With this philosophy, what happens to us is believed to be the result of our intentions. Some core concepts include: 1) think good things, and that’s what you’ll get, 2) unhappy people bring their own misery, 3) do not speak of hope, speak of actuality even though it is not yet your reality.

We will explore these psychological biases in for today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday. For trauma survivors, I wonder if the Just World and Law of Attraction are more easily perceived as the shams they are, given how quickly and thoroughly we tend to be taught by life that, despite all our efforts, we can be harmed and, no matter how tightly we control our thinking, it can happen again. At the same time, because of the compulsion to repeat our traumas, we may find ourselves trying to resolve our core dilemmas by thinking “this time” we’ll get it right if we just keep trying. Please feel free to share your perspective on how this plays out for you as a trauma survivor in the comments!

Where I’ve personally run into the most problems is in relating to people who buy into one or both of these “theologies,” as it is typically very challenging for them to show empathy. I was once told that perhaps I’d “signed up” for the abuse I experienced before I was born. I’ve also encountered many people who can’t handle acknowledging that anyone has abused as a child as it seems too “unfair.”

To quote Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zero’s, “life is hard.” It is groundlessness and mist, but we insist the shaking soil of our current state must become marble. Believing that the world is an unfair place where no amount of mental sanitation can cure all ills does not make me feel hopeless. Rather, in allowing myself truth instead of denial, I feel more ready to roll up my sleeves and try to fix it up my little corner of things as best I can in the time I have. It is when we insist that everyone gets their dues and that hoping equals outcome that we stifle and avert-eye ourselves into a narrow corridor from which there is little recourse, when, as happens in nearly every life, SHTF and we have to deal.

I find it more challenging when I try to extend this philosophy to relating to others who are going through difficult times. The best approach I’ve been able to muster is to 1) ask them how I can be there for them and 2) identify and share the feelings I have in hearing their story in a way that empathizes with their plight and 3) if possible, become involved in dismantling the systems of injustice that are contributing to their difficulties. In relation to sharing my feelings, I typically find that, in response to unjust and depressing circumstances with which others are dealing in their personal lives, I feel helpless. I share this with them at times, not to center myself, but to let them know that I perceive the injustice and wish to right it, but that, if it is of an interpersonal nature, there is little I can do directly to rectify it. For instance, if a friend is having a conflict with a romantic partner, it is not my place to step in the middle of this.

I desire to integrate a more active response to situations where there are institutional and systemic injustices. I have little experience IRL with encountering others who openly name these injustices, and, when I look back on the few experiences I have had, I’ve failed miserably. Rather than responding to these instances from a state of helplessness, I now plan to act in solidarity by contributing to social justice causes. Our world can become more just and our perceptions brighter only through dedicated action in which those who have been systemically wronged are able to take the lead in seeking justice and when privilege, where it exists, is leveraged in order to disrupt the power structures that keep many people marginalized and oppressed.

What is your take on the idea of a “Just World” and the “Law of Attraction?” In what ways do you see these concepts being used to undermine social justice causes? How do you respond to those around you who are going through difficulties over which they have little control?

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Write It, Speak It, Sing It: Why Languaging Our Suffering Matters

One morning on my way to work, my eyes locked on an electronic billboard. Displayed on it was a tearful woman’s face, a reference to #MeToo, and words to the effect of “We believe you.” I felt my breath catch in my throat and was nearly in tears. It was one of the most visible displays I’ve ever happened upon that signified that anyone in the external world actually recognize the existence of sexual trauma and the value of vocalizing it. In passing by the sign again, I saw that it was for a local women’s domestic violence center. The intersection of catching a moment to remember the pain I carry everywhere I go and of realizing the message was evident to everyone driving by impressed upon me again the power of our collective stories as trauma survivors. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving and #EmbodiedHeart post, we’ll explore the difficulties as well as the positive outcomes associated with giving voice to our nightmares and grief.

Unspoken Trauma Harms

The harm done by traumatic events, at least for children, is not based solely on their intensity or frequency. A crucial factor in distinguishing trauma which lingers and scars the mind are those events that are experienced without the compassion of a loved one to help restore the child’s sense of safety and belonging. This experience of violation and danger followed by abandonment creates a hormone stew in the brain known as toxic stress. Toxic stress is linked not only with negative mental health outcomes; it is also linked with an increased likelihood of developing physical disease and even early death. Experiencing horrors, coupled with a lack of a loving witness, crushes body and soul.

Social isolation is a natural outcome of experiencing traumatic events which lack a spoken account. If we are unable to state what has happened to us, our perspective is lost in any retelling of the experience that might happen. In the case of childhood abuse, perpetrators are often more than happy to alter the fundamental facts of the event in order to protect themselves. So, not only are we silenced, we may be made out to be the “crazy one” or the one with “issues.” We may then carry these internalized rejections into new social encounters, always on edge that others will turn against us.

By Body If Not By Word

Traumatic events that are not articulated or held in a supportive environment do not go away. Instead, we may find that we live out that which we cannot voice. Of the many forms this unconscious repetition may take, behaviors rooted in relationship are often the primary expression. For instance, we may enter into and maintain connections with abusive individuals or mistreat our own bodies. In either case, when we are unable to speak our truth, our bodies become the tapestry on which the story of our horror is displayed.

Some of my deepest shame wells up when I can see my little self wanting to be seen by another but also feeling terrified that the other person will treat me as I was treated in the past. In a few key situations where I’ve been “seen” as an adult, the other person has actually acted in a way that re-traumatized me. Past and present blurred into a haze in these moments and I walked away vowing the story must be completely hidden from sight. Mustering the cognitive skills as well as the courage to put impulse to language when my body wants instead to dissociate it is extremely challenging for me.

The relationships reenactments I’ve experienced can sometimes be subtle. For instance, I may find myself repeatedly opening up to someone I know will act in a judgmental or dismissive way towards me. It can take quite a while before I realize I’m stuck in a “trauma trap” and that I need to adjust my expectations and/or behaviors in order to better honor my own needs.

In Story, Healing

Trauma therapies frequently involve narrating what has occurred. Some newer forms of trauma therapy such as EMDR do not include a requirement of the person going into great detail about the story, but they do include both internal and external witnessing. Complementary therapies such as art or movement may enable survivors to make manifest the dark threads through skilled weaving and loosening. I will soon be participating in a trauma-focused yoga class and am eager to see what manifests.

Each character in my story of my childhood trauma has become an internalized entity. The past external event is fixed; the motions and menace existed as is. I feel as though the characters in my head are playing non-stop improv theater, hoping that this time through something will shift and the narrative will no longer hold. That maybe it all didn’t really happen and wasn’t really so bad. On the other hand, some parts of me stand as frozen effigies to the specific trauma that formed them. The past feels full of ghosts and actors.

Although I’ve been in an ebb lately, through #EmbodiedHeart as well as my individual therapeutic work, I’ve made progress in giving voice to who I was and what happened to me. Something in me has decided that speaking publicly in some form may stripe another layer from the façade of “nothing to see here” that I’ve been able to maintain in much of my life. Ultimately, though, what heals is being witnessed in a supportive environment, and, on a personal level, bearing witness to who we were and what happened to us.

Where are you at in your healing journey as a trauma survivor? To what extent does being witnessed promote healing for you? What has helped you to integrate your past experiences?

 

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

The Wasteland and the Dandelion

I’ve felt inspired to write several posts this spring with hints of weeds in them. My reality has begun to match my imagination as dandelions have overtaken my front lawn. I felt only the slightest embarrassment about the unruliness until one of my neighbors commented on it in a negative way. It was at the end of a long and stressful week, so, in my anger, I immediately got a weed-wacker and started hacking at them (my mower is hand-powered so it doesn’t do much). I felt exhilarated by the fact that my “solution” to the issue was only making the problem worse by neatly disseminating the seeds in every direction.

As I sat with the situation and how I handled it, I felt a budding sense of recognition of my old friend shame. When someone judges me, I tend to move through a place of humiliation so quickly that I don’t realize what I’m feeling, and I then either berate myself or behave defensively. Someone else’s reaction to us is secondary to the meaning we give it internally—we only feel shame when we purchase what they are proffering. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to spend some time uncovering the roots of our shame as trauma survivors and relating the specific experience I had in this instance in tending it.

That Which Secrets Hold

Shamefulness births lies and deceit. In the case of childhood trauma, this may take the form of hiding our suffering from ourselves. When we are unable to connect to a part of our experience, we release it into an inner wasteland where it metastasizes and spreads. The more we disown who we are or what we’ve experienced, the more inner control it takes to restrain the outgrowth of our horrors. Through aches and illnesses, our bodies often begin to articulate that which we cannot acknowledge.

Childhood abuse of the physical or sexual nature involves bodily violation whereas mental and emotional abuse violates us psychologically. These defilements, particularly when they occur without an affirming and protective adult to intervene, produce shame. It is in a child’s nature to eat shame as deserved; after all, if the abuse is committed by a loved one, the alternative is to reject the very body and being of those to whom the child is closest.

In some cases of abuse, abusers may be making manifest their unprocessed and shamed traumatic past. I believe this can heighten the chances that the individual who is acting in an abusive manner will, in the moment, deliberately induce shame in the child as way to further distance themselves from their past. Only my body knows what this really means–it is too painful and difficult for me to put into words what it feels like to become a conduit of another’s self-hatred. If we have no other reason than this to work on our own shame, I think we have reason enough.

But It Blossoms Into Tears

So, if we are trauma survivors, it is likely shame has gained a foothold. Should we, as my neighbors clearly expected of me, head off for pesticides and torches and get it gone? If only it were that easy. Shame is a cancer that splits each time you cut into it, resilient and resistant. We can’t weed-wack our way out of it.

I believe the function of internalized feelings of shame is often to hold back grief. Rejecting a part of ourselves as sullied and vile because of what happened to us allows us to break the timepiece and stay in the moment of terror, rather than to move forward to face our little self and grow. Who are we with the inclusion of all of our scars and sorrows? Every time we pause to allow another’s judgment to creep in to how we picture ourselves, we disallow ourselves comfort for whatever we are appearing “less than” in comparison. I pride myself on respecting other’s boundaries and needs, so my neighbor’s observation on the state of my patchwork-grass exposed a lack of attention that didn’t fit with how I wanted to be seen.

Going further into the wasteland of shame, I find the aloneness with which I cope each day appears as a scrubby tree whose branches crackle in reminder that if I had a partner or a child or family, my lawn would be nicer because there would be someone to remind me about it and to help me maintain it. A Cheshire-grin jackrabbit hops by, noting that I also “should” be productive and work hard and never stop moving. This is a trauma-time loop where I believed I could prevent the next incident of abuse by staying ahead of it; knowing when it would occur could stop it, so I thought. Finally I arrive at my destination, a small pit of murky water. Here I find my grief. I feel outside of time as I pause in this place. What arises is an awareness that I felt “safe” because I perceived myself to be following the rules of being a good neighbor. By doing so, I thought I would be able to maintain positive relationships with the neighbors I like. The humiliation of shame-induction rises up and the water goes black. The sense in me is that there is no safe place, no way to undo it, no path through which I can go where I won’t be hurt. I am trapped, helpless and alone. My best effort wasn’t good enough and when the cost is body and psychic violation of the nature I experienced as child, failure really matters. Shame, reaching out into oozy mud, covers me. Shame is a tar pit and grief is the only water that dissolves it.

I see her finally, the little self who doesn’t know how to maintain a lawn because she was never taught how to do so. The little self who thought being quiet and staying inside her plat of land would be enough to win favor. The little self who just wanted to have her own home where she wouldn’t be hurt, and who marveled at the dandelions because they made her happy. One tiny moment—a ten second interaction—cast me into the wilderness of my shame and it took me hours to find my little self and transform tar to water. Tears finally come. Judgement is irrelevant when I know I met myself today in this exploration and it was worth it. Sure, I’ll buy a stick to dig out some of the blossoms, but I’ll leave plenty there to mark the pathway out of my shame and back to myself.

Embodied Heart, Surviving & Thriving

Resolving Expectations of Compassion Toward Abuse Perpetrators

A fellow blogger, Alexis Rose, shared an excellent post about her feelings on the word forgiveness.  As I read her post as well as the replies, I felt like the veil finally lifted on what I felt I had been accused of lacking in relation to my abusers by the various people with whom I’ve shared my story. It wasn’t forgiveness as no request had made to do so. Rather, it was compassion. Those of us who have been subjected to the most heinous acts humans can perpetrate are expected to feel empathy and to practice understanding for those who harmed us. In today’s #EmbodiedHeart and #SurvivingnThriving post, I will explore why this expectation may exist and outline best practices in responsiveness for those who wish to support trauma survivors in relation to this topic.

*Please note that I do dichotomize the condition of survivors and perpetrators in this post. I am aware that an individual could fall into both categories; I will not be fully addressing that complication.

But They Had a Rough Life Too…

To me, the function of pushing compassion towards abusers on trauma survivors is that it serves to dismiss any grappling with grief, pain, horror and estrangement by the commenter. If victims and perpetrators can reconcile, what need is there to fully acknowledge the awfulness of the actions and the destruction they cause for their victims? Within this mindset, the discomfort can be wrapped up quickly to move on to a world with less injustice.

As strange as it may sound, those who view abusers with complete hatred and malice—for instance, those who hope they get raped in prison—are simply the other side of the same coin. If the abuser is either monster or another form of victim, we are spared the gut-wrenching realization that all of us have the potential for evil within us as well as the difficult work of having to make meaning out of the actions of those who succumb to it.

Sex offenders (and, to a lesser extent, parents who physically abuse their children) are one of the few true pariahs of our society. The main impulse people seem to have towards them is that they should be banned from everywhere and imprisoned for life, if not outright killed. The hypocrisy, though, is mountainous when it comes to survivors, who are expected to be the ones to redeem them through their acts of forgiveness and compassion. I see value in restorative justice models; however, it is not my job as a survivor to fix the system or the situation for those who violated my being. I view it as an act of cowardess to extend an expectation of reconciliation to those who have been most wronged while absolving one’s self of any need to struggle with issues of evil or to create pathways to restoration. I suspect many such expectations are coated with a little bit of soot-shame: sure, it was the perpetrator’s fault, but isn’t the victim a little defective as well? And, if so, I (speaking here as if I were a non-sexually abused human) can leave the whole messy bunch to figure it out amongst themselves.

The current movement to rehabilitate the men rooted out by #metoo will, I suspect, fall victim to the “fix it yourself” crowd. If such an ill-conceived project as Charlie Roses’ talk show occurs, I fully anticipate a woman who has been sexually harassed in the past will be paraded out to make nice with her former boss or co-worker. I do not have any answers for the place at which the fallen (mostly) men who harm others sexually should arrive, and it isn’t my calling in this lifetime to grapple with this burden. Every time someone tells a survivor they should forgive their perpetrator, or wonders to the survivor what awful things must have happened to the perpetrator to lead them to their behaviors, they thrust some of the most challenging moral questions a person may face: Why do some people defile others? Does evil deserve compassion? Is everyone able to be redeemed socially, and, if so, how do we make it happen? at the people least deserving of pondering them.

To take this one step further, I think again about calling. If there is any justice in this world, I feel there needs to be a 50-1 network of supporters of trauma survivors to supporters of perpetrators. I do genuinely believe some people’s mission in life is to work with perpetrators and I support them in their efforts. At the same time, numbers and substance matter. I was deeply disappointed earlier this year when I learned a Pagan conference I wanted to attend regularly welcomes sex offenders and holds specific meetings for them, while paying little attention to the needs of trauma survivors. I am not saying these programs shouldn’t happen, but the fact that one group’s needs were clearly more valued than another’s turned me off to the whole enterprise. Trauma survivors themselves are not overrun with resources and educated supporters, that much I can ensure you.

Best Practices in Supporting Trauma Survivors in Regards to Abusers

I cannot recall another blog I’ve written where I’ve spoken to those who might be support people to trauma survivors; nearly all of my work is directed at trauma survivors themselves. If you read a hint of anger in this post, it’s there. I’ve been hurt far more than I’ve been helped by others when I share my story. The ones who get it, though, are invaluable.

  1. If you feel compelled to mention forgiveness or compassion for an abuser to a survivor, ask yourself the following questions: Have you yourself volunteered or worked with perpetrators of violent crime? Have you supported restorative justice efforts? How many sex offenders or parents who have had their children removed from them do you care for in your daily life? Perhaps you can exercise your compassion muscle towards the individuals you so strongly feel are in need of it directly, rather than expecting the victim of a crime to do the work for you. We are not your tools of healing; it is up to you to create the changes you think society needs.
  2. Respect the survivor’s boundaries. Do not act as an intermediary between the survivor and the abuser unless it is at the survivor’s request and with their permission. Even then, examine your motives and be prepared to set your own boundaries if you feel compelled to do so. I was betrayed by an individual who knew both my parents and me after I started to come to terms with the abuse. This person gave away my new address to my parents which resulted in them stalking me and me having to go to the police. We don’t need heroes like this; those who know when to say “I’m not comfortable talking to so-and-so for you” may do much more to help us heal.
  3. Know that healing is a process. Part of the recovery from childhood abuse often involves long periods of depression and anger. Feelings of helplessness and hopeless may crop up in you. To some extent, these may be projections onto you by the survivor as they relive and digest their experience. As weird as it sounds, it could be a sign that they really trust you, enough to let you see them “messy.” It is completely understandable that you will need your own support system during this time. With attention to confidentiality, it is vital for you to have others to whom you can turn to help you through your reactions and emotions. We cannot heal ourselves and you at the same time; you doing your own inner work is one of the most compassionate acts you can undertake.

Cultivating compassion towards an abuser is largely irrelevant to the work of being a supporter of a trauma survivor. People may be able to operate in both spheres (one of my most helpful therapists did so), but these types of callings are exceedingly rare. If you are someone who wishes to help trauma survivors, expect them to raise their own questions of forgiveness and reconciliation, and offer them the unfailing belief that they are capable to navigating these waters themselves with you as a steady hand to their shoulder. Do not, under any circumstances, believe yourself more able to paddle through these silt-filled bogs yourself. If you instead believe it is your task in life to support the rehabilitation of those who have harmed others, have at it.

I have varying degrees of compassion for those who harmed me most. As my spiritual journey has evolved, my feelings have grown as an outcropping of the inner work I’ve done, not as an intentional shift in direction. To trauma survivors, my main message is that self-compassion is vital to healing (ironically, it is also the topic on which my free Goddess Spirituality circle this summer will focus). The ways in which you work out your feelings towards those who harmed you are sacred waters; the only people with you there should be those you invite.

Surviving & Thriving

Vulnerability and Trauma

It has been difficult for me to get myself to write lately. I’ve felt like my walls are up. This experience has occurred in concert with working very hard in therapy to dig into my childhood trauma on a deeper level. I feel as though I can only muster so much vulnerability as an individual, and increasing it in one area has unfortunately decreased it in my writing. As I contemplated my experience for today’s #SurvivinggnThriving Tuesday, I pondered the discomfort I’ve had with the word vulnerability, and saw that it is because I associate it with threat. To be vulnerable means to open myself up to possible attack and harm.

What are we afraid will happen to us if we are vulnerable? By and large, I think one “attack” that we might fear is being invalidated. In terms of traumatic experiences, we might be discounted and told that we are remembering things incorrectly. If our memories are factual, we are exaggerating them. If things are really as bad as we say they were, we must have brought it on ourselves. If we were in fact innocent victims, we need to show signs of “healing” like forgiveness and love in order to have our experiences “count.”

While many factors influence the reasons that traumatic experiences—especially those of a sexual nature—tend to get discounted, one aspect that I think stands strong is the fact humans are exquisitely tuned in to each other as social animals. We may be expected to preserve the “tribe” at any and all personal costs. The pressure to conform to the idea that people get what they deserve and to believe that everyone is trying their best can outweigh our willingness to grapple with evil and with the nuance in the nature of human relationships. We may feel a need to trust in authorities such as political leaders, clergy and parents, even when some of the individuals in these places of authority betray their charge.

How can this focus on our place as highly social beings help us in being willing to risk vulnerability, especially when our trauma has come at the hands of other people? As hard as this truth is for me to accept, relationships are a major healing force, perhaps the major healing force from trauma. All of the evidence-based treatments of trauma include an aspect of witnessing, listening, processing, talking, displaying, feeling or in some way being with our past experience of trauma in the presence of a safe and caring individual. A refusal to be vulnerable is likely to serve as an impediment to healing in therapeutic relationships that are “good enough.”

Being vulnerable presents other risks. We may be rejected, judged, criticized, betrayed or humiliated. I’ve shared previously about strategies through which we might discern if another individual or group is worthy of risking vulnerability. There is no gain in allowing ourselves to be mistreated, even if we may sometimes think we can undo the original trauma by defeating it in an adult form. Nothing feels more like failure to me than realizing I’ve been “sucked in” to an adult relationship that mimics an aspect of my childhood trauma, having mistaken the familiar for the safe.

What, though, can we do if we know deep down that we are in a safe relational space, but our walls are still up? I’m still terrified of having unpleasant reactions to my blogs, but honestly thus far *knocks on wood* I’ve had really kind and supportive readers. In parallel, in many offline areas of my life where I’ve taken risks, I’ve expected to be attacked and instead found acceptance. I believe it takes a significantly greater number of experiences of trust to undo a hurt than it takes hurts to break trust. All I can do or any of us can do is to keep trying, knowing this reality. And I believe empathy is vital—for those who have managed to have a lot of safe and loving people in their lives, know that you are indeed privileged and consider offering support instead of incredulity to those of us who may shrink at the first sign of relational conflict.

How have you navigated the terrain of vulnerability? What behaviors do others do that allow you to lower your defenses? How do you find the motivation to open up again after a relational wound?