Archive for June, 2012

Recently, I attended a training on trauma and I heard the same old/ same old stuff.  I was practically yawning.  Then I noticed a new idea that really felt crucial to my understanding of trauma.  Essentially, a common definition of trauma was presented:  Trauma occurs when an event overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.  The greater the level of trauma experienced the more coping, or control, that is needed.  I sat up straighter and listened harder when I heard the word “control”.  I had never thought to link coping to a need for control.  When trauma happens often control has been taken away from the survivor.  It makes sense she or he would seek greater empowerment or control following a traumatic event, especially one in which they were helpless in the moment.

Many survivors of trauma cope—during and after the trauma itself—by finding ways to be in control again.  Please note that I’m talking about being in control of Self here, not controlling others.  They often control either by dissociating (pretending they are somewhere else in their heads when abuse is happening, for example) or by insisting on getting their way in the non-trauma part of their lives.  Maybe it’s no surprise that many anorexics are trauma survivors clinging to being able to control the one thing that is truly theirs to control—their bodies (it’s truly an effort to feel in control about their lives, though, ironically it’s destructive to their safety).  The correlation between “coping” and “control” was immediately intriguing for me since it married two ideas that come up a lot in trauma counseling work.

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Being self-controlling is potentially a strategy to stave off being hurt, disappointed, re-traumatized.  Trauma survivors who live their lives with a controlled grip on everything are doing it to possibly keep the anticipated new trauma out.  Psychology has a term for this; “proactive coping” – coping with the aim of heading off a future stressor.  Makes sense. 

But, when does this way of coping using control go too far? 

I have worked with trauma survivors who describe, usually in a light-bulb moment , the realization that their over-control of the world around them is actually robbing them of the ability to build relationships, trust others, let others in emotionally or allow themselves to take calculated risks of vulnerability (being willing to fall in love has to involve the flip-side of being willing to be potentially hurt).  The control was needed in the then-and-there but is now backfiring in the here-and-now of the person’s life.  Sigh.  Thank you coping strategy, you were very helpful.  Now I need you to stop.

Many survivors of trauma have experienced violations of safety, betrayals of trust, feelings of helplessness/ absence of control, often at the hands of an abusive parent or partner who abused their power over them.  It makes sense that  allowing someone else to be “in control” or letting go of being “so controlling” would be difficult given a history of being hurt by those close enough to do such damage.  Years after a trauma, many survivors often feel completely terrified to let go of controlling things and really trust another human being or even a higher power such as god.  It can feel impossible to put faith in someone else that their needs will get met—it can feel like taking a huge risk of getting hurt again.  It’s scary to risk the possibility that needs could go unmet after finally trusting.  And I guess the point is not that it’s silly to not trust when it’s totally safe out there—no—there is likely some amount of risk or “danger” that you could get hurt on some level (even emotionally).  The point is not to convince the Self it is safe when it isn’t.  What counts is to get to the point where it’s ok for things to not be 100% safe, to learn to take a risk, to trust when conditions are optimal, to trust yourself that you could handle it even if it isn’t safe. 

Trauma survivors I’ve worked with in counseling have told me that they get exhausted of doing it all, controlling it all, all by themselves.  And that it gets lonely in that artificial “ivory tower” of control, looking down at others insisting “it really is better this way”; to be independent and separate and safe.  The thing is, this idea that things can be completely controlled is a false.  No matter how controlled someone is, a new trauma could still occur.  There are no guarantees.  Not everything can be controlled, no matter how hard you try.  Thus, “being in control” is an illusion but one that people cling to in order to survive.

I see learning to let go of controlling-coping ways as utilizing the skill we discuss so much here on this site, the skill of tolerating ambiguity.  It is indeed rational on many levels for survivors of trauma to be active in staving off future trauma by being rigid and controlled when it comes to possibly trusting others (this smacks of risk-aversion we’ve talked about before here).  Yet it can rob survivors of a vibrant, lush, in-the-moment experience of life.  This reminds me of the dialectic between Change versus Acceptance that’s discussed so much in DBT.  Without acceptance (letting go) you cannot have change (peace, growth, freedom from trauma).  It’s ironic:  by holding so tightly to control, many men and women continue to be controlled by trauma from the past.  It holds them back in the present.  For those who want to risk coming down from the ivory tower of complete safety, learning to sit with the ambiguity of what could happen—learning to befriend the unknown—could be a door to taking a few risks and possibly leading to greater personal freedom and growth. 

There’s a lot more we could talk about relating to this topic in regards to spirituality, faith, abundant-thinking versus scarcity-thinking.  Maybe we will go exploring these ideas a little deeper real soon.

I ran across this idea this week.  Let’s end on this bit of food for thought:

The Unknown + Trust = Exhileration

The Unknown + Doubt = Dread

current music faves:  katy perry, sufjan stevens, abba

current show faves:  the killing, mad men, happy endings

breakfast today:  toast with nutella and sliced bananas, chocolate milk

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