When Staying Stuck, Means Staying Safe

Have you ever tried a program or self improvement system that has worked for millions of other people- and failed? Have you done this multiple times?

After all that time and money, you still aren’t a size 2, a fitness buff, or a millionaire. In fact, you’re the opposite of everything you’ve been chasing.

4 am wake up? Make that 7:15. Lose 15 pounds? More like gain 10. Make millions on a new business? More like waste thousands in indecision and procrastination.

You know things aren’t working. You want to change- but you can’t. We all know the thought that comes next- “there is just something wrong with me.”

If you’re someone who has struggled with this for years, I’m willing to bet that everything you’re doing actually makes perfect sense.

Let me explain.

People don’t act without reason.

People always have a reason for their actions- even the bad ones, even the ones they don’t themselves understand.

Find the reason, and you can overcome it.

For those who have grown up with psychological violence, this disconnect between reason and action is all the more prevalent. Most of us think, ‘so what my father called me failure, he was right’ or ‘big deal my mom drank too much, lots of people do’ or ‘yeah he was mean, but he never beat me’.

Despite these dismissals, survivors of emotional violence find themselves self sabotaging, reacting in ways they don’t understand, and constantly battling with their own thoughts and behaviors.

The opening example is just one tiny instance of this.

The problem is that many survivors fail to understand what they have experienced constitutes trauma. Even if they do make this connection, many fail to realize these experiences are the root of their most difficult behaviors.

Without this understanding, survivors have little hope of moving forward.

There are real benefits.

What many survivors fail to consider, are the very real benefits of not changing.

The most important among these being safety. For those who have been emotionally abused, there is considerable risk in trying new things, failing, or putting voice to hopes and goals. All these items expose us to ridicule and to shame.

In my experience, many survivors are perfectionists for this very reason. On some level we believe that if we are perfect, we will be safe. The logic, though obviously flawed, makes sense. As children, many of us tried to be perfect enough to end the violence. We thought maybe if we were thin enough, smart enough, skilled enough- it would stop. Thus, even into adulthood, we remain in our tiny bubble of what we can do well.

This is also why survivors so often go into fight or flight when they make a mistake or are unskilled at something. We are waiting for the onslaught. If the violent person is still in our lives, this risk exists in the present. However, even if we no longer have contact with our abuser, the trauma of the past sets off our system nonetheless.

Yet, we fail to label this as a normal nervous system reaction to threat. Instead, we give ourselves labels like ‘socially awkward’ or ‘a sore loser’. Labels that only serve to perpetuate the problem.

We believe we can’t.

We don’t just give ourselves labels. We’ve received plenty from the violent person- labels like incapable, worthless and unlovable.

Psychological violence erodes self-esteem. Many of us have been belittled about our bodies. We’ve been mocked for making the normal errors necessary to learn a new skill. We have been told we are stupid, incompetent and therefore unemployable.

In recognizing this history, it makes perfect sense why we may struggle to go to the gym, or take up a new hobby, or apply for a job. These are actions we’ve been taught we are incapable of. To do otherwise, we must overcome decades of programming – we must overcome some of our earliest beliefs about ourselves.

Further, many children in situations of violence hate themselves as a mechanism of self protection. It was not safe to hate and reject the very person we relied on for food and security. Instead, we decided their actions must be justified. We must be bad. Our needs must be disgusting. We learned to hate ourselves rather than the violent person- as a way to protect a relationship we so relied upon.

Thus, in overturning this belief, we must accept that we have experienced trauma at the hands of our caregiver. Making this acknowledgment is incredibly painful, and understandably- it feels incredibly unsafe.

There are real barriers.

These precursors leave survivors believing that they are the problem. In reality, childhood maltreatment leaves us with very real barriers. Research has linked pain, mental health problems, and low employment to growing up with violence.

These barriers are complex and compounding. Many are rooted in biological changes caused by the violence. These result in certain states of being that are particularly challenging. These states are often managed using dysfunctional behaviors we learned from the violent person. These behaviors then further promote pain and suffering.

In other words- survivors are fighting against much more than their own willpower. Often survivors suffer with depression, substance use, chronic pain, and disease. Many have an insecure attachment style, which is perpetuated by the model of unhealthy love learned in childhood.

When pointed out so blatantly, it makes perfect sense that such conditions are barriers to ‘getting fit’ or ‘finding the perfect partner’.

However, even in acknowledging these barriers, there is a reason to remain stuck behind them. Overcoming substance use, fighting depression, overcoming trauma- all of these things are incredibly scary. It feels safer to remain behind the barriers.

In choosing not to drink, we must look at why we want to. In reaching out to a therapist, we must speak about the things we’d rather not face. In fighting to heal our trauma, we must learn an entirely new way to manage our thoughts and behaviours. We must take responsibility for healing something we didn’t cause.

All of these steps require incredible bravery.

There is hope.

Many readers may be thinking, ‘…but I still want to be more productive, lose weight, get up earlier, start a business, find love…’. Of course you do. However, to do so, we must start at the beginning. We must heal before we can achieve.

Where do we start?

1)     Exercise self compassion. The purpose of this piece is to deliver a single message- everything you’ve done makes sense. Your actions, thoughts and behaviors have been in an effort to keep yourself safe. None of it is evidence that you are worthless or bad- or incapable of change. If you have failed at creating change in the past- it is not evidence that you cannot make change in the future.

2)     Recognize that what is keeping you stuck, cannot get you unstuck. We must come to understand that the tools we developed as a child to stay safe are the very mechanisms that are keeping us stuck. Perfectionism, fear, self isolating- all of these have served us well when the goal was safety. However, they are not the tools that will bring us success or love. While cliché, the saying is true- you cannot repeat the same action and expect a different result. To heal you must learn new skills to overcome your new challenges.

3)     Get support. Survivors fail to seek help because (wait for it) it is unsafe. Saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I can’t do this alone’ is incredibly scary. Recognize that this is holding you back from healing. Seek the support of a trauma trained therapist or other professional.

These steps are scary. Healing trauma is challenging and vulnerable. However, as one of my teachers used to say, ‘just because you are uncomfortable, doesn’t mean anything is wrong.’ In this way, healing will at times feel unsafe- but sometimes that also means unstuck.

About the author

I help manage the impacts of childhood psychological maltreatment.

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