The lived experience, Episode 3 – This week: Isis, Part 1

My client and I had gotten in touch through an unusual route. I had spoken about my work with someone and that person reached out to me a couple of days later, asking: “Do you do consultations on this trauma topic, aside from your lactation work? I know someone who is struggling with an adult child that has addiction relapses and they are not on speaking terms right now. Both parent and child have a difficult time dealing with all the pain of the disrupted relationship and maybe your knowledge and insights could help them to get things moving again, if only a little bit. The child seemed to have made progress last year, but things have taken a worrying turn for the worse now.” My response had been that I can certainly be approached for this work, although I do not pretend to be a therapist. Then again… as humans, we don’t need to be a therapist to have a therapeutic effect on processes our fellow humans go through. Offering our time and true presence can already be so soothing.

I had felt confident that my knowledge might be of help and explained that such a conversation would have as its goal to figure out what childhood was like for that person, either parent or child. I have a game that is helpful to that end and although it was developed to be used with children, it can also be used with adults. You will then have to ask the adult to pick an age for which they would like to lay the elements of the game. I had said that if I would see the 30 year old child (let’s call them Robin), it would be advisable to have some follow-up care available, because a session with me might bring up triggering and intense memories and emotions.

We had decided that my acquaintance would inform the parent that I could be contacted and while talking a bit further, still, we had discussed Robin’s negative experiences with healthcare providers, which is always a sad thing. We all may come into situations that need specialised care, but if previous experiences with healthcare settings were upsetting or even (re)traumatising, then they can lead to the client or patient to evade care, even though it is really needed. At the same time, it is important to be aware that healthcare providers are also simply human beings with their own life histories and possibly with unresolved trauma. This is why it is so important that we reflect on our own experiences, so that we take care not to work as ‘hurt people who hurt people’.
In my own consultations with clients, I always focus on their autonomy. There is nothing in what I say that they should do; I give them information after trying to support them in accessing their inner wisdom and when we wrap up and say goodbye, it is fully up to them to what extent they decide to apply what I offered them. (Oh, there is one must after all… payment of the bill… 😉)

I had asked my acquaintance whether parent and child were both ready to reflect on their own role in the relationship, because children may bring up tough stuff, experiences that are hard to hear for the parent. Maybe the parent did not know about something or maybe the parent knew at a deep level, but was too scared themselves to dive further into it. It turned out that the parent, like other family members, was about to give up. When parents find it difficult to look at their own part in the dynamics, it is often also very hard to cause breakthroughs and it seems that this parent had trouble finding the courage. My acquaintance had brought in the aspect that when something is ‘your own fault’, it is also something that you can change. My reply had been that I do not speak in this terminology of ‘guilt’, because most of the time, it is not very helpful. There is a fundamental difference between ‘guilt’ and ‘cause’. You can be the cause of something, without carrying reproachable guilt for it.

That is the essence of working in a trauma-sensitive way, being aware that trauma is mostly intergenerational and that everyone has most likely done their utmost within the personal and circumstantial options available to them. That is a crucial realisation. Then again, the child can live with the perception that the cause of their problems lies with the parents. And we must also appreciate how hard it can be for parents to keep faith and constantly rekindle courage to be there for the child if relapses happen over and over again. As hard as it may be, however, if the parents do not work on their own healing, chances are that they diminish or at least complicate the healing potential of the child. For the child, the only option that remains may be to release themselves from the parental influence to completely work on their own healing, hopefully with support from close and cherished others.

During our conversation, new information had come up about the parents of the parent, so quite quickly we had come to the conclusion that, once again, there seemed to be intergenerational pain that gets handed down, without anyone intentionally aiming to do so.
We had agreed that it might be an empowering step for the parent to get in touch with me, seeing the difficult communication with Robin right now. At the moment, Robin was pictured as playing the victim role, partly by posting embarrassing stuff on Instagram and thus causing turmoil among other family members and friends. Guesses were that Robin had been under the influence of drugs while doing so, although Robin had appeared to be clean in the previous year.  I had said that both parent and Robin were welcome and that I hoped that the parent might be able to also encourage Robin to come, even if their own consultation with me might turn out to be difficult and triggering grief.

That was where we had left off. It only took a day for the parent to call me – how brave! We talked a bit, I explained a bit, they illustrated a bit… we got a feel of one another and ended our phone call by setting a date for the week after. I was touched by the courage shown and the confidence given. I decided I would prepare well and make sure I would be able to offer my full and attentive presence.

Next week, we will see how the conversation with the parent unfolded.

The Lived Experience, Episode 2 – This week: Simone, Part 2

Last week, we started with Simone’s memories of her childhood, made clear in part with the help of the Matenspel. This led to a long conversation, in which many facets came to the fore. We will discuss her experiences in more detail in a later publication, because there is so much in her story that shows how much intergenerational trauma has an impact on the well-being and health of those involved.

We talk about the role of Simone’s father in the family.
“My mother was afraid of him and he could also scream at us and say we had to clean our room ‘NOW!’ I was always more critical than my sister and I’ve argued against him a lot, had heated discussions and went against it completely, but yeah…” She makes an appeasing gesture with her hands, holds her finger to her mouth conspiratorially and whispers: “Then my mother said that I should lay low!” She sighs, falls silent for a moment and then continues at normal sound level: “There came a moment when I noticed that my father could no longer handle me verbally; I considered that cool, but the consequence was that he started threatening and that sometimes I was really hit. I thought he was a weakling, that he tried to prove himself right that way. He sometimes tried to play with me, but that physical contact felt very bad and I one day I gave him a huge blow. He was almost floored and angry he was! I said: ‘What do you want? Did I not say stop?!’ After that, such behaviour was over, but the distance between us got bigger and bigger and the worst thing was… my mother always stood up for him.

When I was young, my mother was my everything, but when I needed her support she was not there for me. I really blamed her for that, that she always got behind my father and left me in the lurch like that. She was actually always between my father and me and acted as a messenger, as his interpreter. Later I read a lot about narcissism and realised that she was the ideal ‘flying monkey’ for him. My mother said she had to leave home well before she was 16 to work for another family and never learned to stand up for herself. She was just really scared of him. My sister got along much better with my father; she got a lot more done from him, partly because they shared a number of interests and she started working for him in the business. If you’re talking about symbolic capital… being an entrepreneur, that was an example of symbolic capital in my father’s eyes. That I later completed a college education and always generated a good income… it meant nothing to him. I’ve done all kinds of things I thought my parents could be proud of; my mother would whisper that she was proud of me too, but my father was not allowed to hear that.” Her father distinguished between the daughters in all sorts of things; he used her mother to drive a wedge between the children and her mother internalised that role and also created divisions herself. Many of those patterns have persisted to this day, Simone says, and she sounds both angry and sad.

We talk about what may have caused it all and Simone elaborates on what has come to light in the family over the past few years, the role of the Catholic Church and its abuse, and the painful discovery of porn on computers in the older generation. This brings us to the saddest memories, after previously having discussed the fondest memories. Simone speaks cautiously, but does not have to think long; one memory evokes the other.
“My father thought pregnant women were disgusting; he said that to my sister and to me. I was very proud of my pregnancy and I pointed out to my Catholic father that it was something God had given us after all. He didn’t care about that; a pregnant belly and breastfeeding too… he thought it was gross. There is undoubtedly a story behind this, because such an aversion… it touches you when your father treats such topics that way. In any case, he had trouble with physicality and sexuality. We never saw our parents naked, but he did have an opinion about my body and he could also belittle me. As a child I was a bit chubby and that’s why I was called ‘Plompie’ and for years I kept getting negative comments about my appearance. During puberty I became more vocal, partly because I was appreciated at school for my discussion skills. Then again, I paid a price for my critical attitude: it increased the tension at home and made me very depressed. I started to hyperventilate, became stiff as a board, could hardly get out of bed and got all kinds of physical complaints. As a result, my performance at school dropped drastically. My father said I was lazy and that in my room I did not give a fuck about anything and that was why I got such bad grades, but yeah… I was just deeply unhappy and intensely lonely… The strange thing is that, even now, I often get along very well with people who are intellectually well versed. I feel comfortable with them and I have the feeling that they understand what I am saying when I share my story with them.” Simone tells how that loneliness led to her developing her imagination and talking to fictional people in her secret make-believe world.

The disappointments continued for years: no interest in her studies, no financial support for study costs, no phone calls to find out how she was while she lived in her student room, her father’s absence at her graduation, no attention to holiday stories (but the parents’ stories in the spotlight), a cold demeanor and mean comments from her parents after she had a miscarriage, always fearing to stand up for herself because guarding her own boundaries always led to arguments and sanctions, standing up for others out of a deep need for harmony and an effort to keep or restore the peace but then again becoming disappointed or being blamed, emotional blackmail and threats (‘If you don’t like it, then you can leave!’)… it is too much to mention and it has moved her and made her vulnerable. In her own words, it has shaped her into a ‘pleaser’, based on the fear of not belonging at all and seeing everything fall apart. For years, the fact that she contributed the largest part of the family income also played a role; she did not want to jeopardise that, but because of that she lost touch with her authentic self. The pressure she has felt since childhood has gotten heavier and heavier and that is why she has now decided to work diligently on her mental health.

When I ask if she has developed behaviours that she would call ‘bad habit’ as a result of everything, she looks at me intently across the table. “Oh… that’s a difficult one…” I wait and give her time to think. She sighs. She is silent and lowers her eyes. We are silent together. After a while she looks up: “I know, you know…” “You know…?” “Oh yes, I know exactly what it is… but I find it really difficult…” The silence hangs between us. “And what makes it difficult for you…?” She sighs deeply, hesitates, searches for my eyes: “Shame…” “Shame…?” A little inquisitively, I add: “You don’t have to say it, you know…?” “Yes, I find it really difficult. I’m going to say it! I’ve made up my mind to say it more often if it’s appropriate. I also recently discussed it with my therapist and it turns out that there are certainly more people who struggle with it…” I wait to see how she will continue her tale. “Talking about it is part of the phase I’m in right now.”

She takes another deep breath: “From the end of primary school, I started pulling my hair. I was alone a lot, I had long hair with dead ends and I pulled it out, but later it was more pulling in general and my hair has become very thin, with bald spots here and there. It has a difficult name, trichotillomania. I kept it hidden from everyone, but now a few people know. It went from bad to worse and I had the strangest thoughts about it…” She covers her face with both her hands: “I thought it was so strange what I was doing and was afraid that it would be hereditary if I had children…” She says that it was a relief to talk about it with her therapist, to find causes together and to look for solutions for how she can live with its consequences: fear of a rain shower, not daring to swim, afraid that others will see it and make comments about it… We talk more deeply and come to the question of what it brought and brings her: “It doesn’t hurt, but gives a kind of nice stimulus. I find the thick, wiry hairs and pull them out piece by piece. Evenings when I am alone are the trigger moments, when I have a full head, when I am tired or stressed; then it is a kind of distraction and it feels very nice. It gives me peace of mind, especially when life is heavy and feels like a struggle. At the same time, I am very well aware that the negative consequences such as shame and unrest make life even harder… It is difficult…”

The conversation meanders further to where Simone sees bottlenecks in society for children and young people, to recent changes in herself, and to how she takes brave steps on a path to more inner peace, in which her family is and remains the loving core. Her candour speaks volumes about her courage and her story is another illustration of the impact of early life. More awareness about this can help reflect on how we want to treat the youngest in our society, so that they do not have to ‘heal’ from their childhood. ACE Aware NL hopes to keep making a permanent contribution to this!

The Lived Experience, Episode 2 – This week: Simone, Part 1

It is beautiful late summer weather when I arrive at my interviewee for today, Simone (pseudonym). I suggested we would start with a game and that sounded good to her. She looks happy when I bring out the elements and explain to her what the intention is. We clear the table so that she has plenty of room to play. The idea is that we gain insight into what her world looked like at a certain age in her childhood. She chooses the age of 13 and gets to work. She can choose a maximum of six of the eight coloured ‘mats’ and associate a place of a person to it, starting with ‘I’. After the mats, there are dolls, houses, roads, means of transport, lucky clovers and emojis. She needs time to get the relationships between them as desired. When she feels she is ready, we start the conversation, during which she will regularly look at the ‘Mats game’ elements laid down and will be amazed to see how they reveal all kinds of interactions in her life as a young girl.

She has had a tough time and has started a search; she no longer wants to avoid the source of her pain. She realises that, like a family member, she may not be able to completely silence the voices of the past, but she doesn’t want to feel the pain all the time, find more peace, learn to better guard her own boundaries, that for years she allowed to be crossed. “Sometimes it may seem like I have an authority allergy, but I don’t actually believe that. I can tolerate authority, but I have a highly developed sense for power abuse. And lately I have become aware that abuse of power triggers me. Partly, I already have more insight into the causes of this. My parents came from a strict Catholic background and considered things normal that I don’t find normal at all, such as the distinction between man and woman, but also the way we were treated as children and how my father tried to deal with certain aspects of his position to impress other, as did the pastor.” I nod and tell about ‘symbolic violence‘, the abuse of power and prestige, and Simone recognises the different elements. They will come up a few more times later in the conversation.

During the laying of the game, part of the opening question we always ask has already been answered, namely the question of someone’s background.
“I moved quite often within the northern provinces between the ages of eight and thirteen. Onward from the moval when I was thirteen, I had a really hard time. I came into puberty, lost my best friend and my nice, familiar school, had to part with the dog, who had always been my great friend and for whom, according to my parents, there was no longer room in the new house, and my parents and sister were always working in the shop we had there, so I was almost always home alone. My grandfather died while we were moving. My whole life felt strange to me. I couldn’t find the school. Not even once had my parents cycled the route with me. Luckily I met a classmate on the way who had also just moved there. At school everyone spoke Frisian and I hardly understood anyone. I kind of felt dropped into a totally unfamiliar environment… yes… that move was really traumatising for me. When I think back, I think that is where my chameleon qualities originated: I tried to adapt as quickly as possible so that I could fit in again, but I did not really succeed. I felt like a normal child, but the normal children did not hang out with me, only the children who, for other reasons, did not really belong to the group themselves, felt attracted to me and that, in turn, was something I did not like… Yeah, well… that is how you think at age 13…” She is silent and considers the feeling of that time. “A lot of anger developed during this period. Before that, I sometimes found it difficult at home, but after that move everything got a lot worse.”

Photographer: Cecilia Paredes

I ask who she could turn to in her early childhood.
“That was my mother. I cannot remember ever having a click with my father. He was there, but I often found him annoying. He didn’t understand me and made that quite clear. He was very authoritarian, while my mother was a sociable person, with whom everyone was always welcome to join in. With her, I could be who I was and I loved being with her. I remember one time sitting on the couch with my doll and asking her: ‘Mommy, can I marry you?’ I was very disappointed when it turned out that was not possible.
My father was always working during the week and on Saturdays; he was home only on Sundays and then he was very papistic and stern and cold. On Sundays, we had to look neat and he checked whether my mother had cleaned the house well enough on Saturday. If he did not think so, he would grab the vacuum cleaner and a bucket and do it all over again.
My mother, in the opinion of my grandmother, her mother, was actually married late. She was 27 and the first years there were no children and my grandmother did not like that. When the GP told my mother at age 35, after a difficult birth with me, that it was better if she had no more children, my father saw me as the ‘guilty’ one: now he, who wanted a successor for his business, had been denied that opportunity. He now had two daughters, while he longed for a son. He later said things like: ‘Yes, you were a heavy, fat kid; because of this, mama could not have any more children.’ He laid that reproach at my feet and always thought I was a bad person; he literally said: ‘I have nothing with her.’ I’ve felt that all my life in how he treated me and how he differentiated between my sister and me.”

How would Simone describe her home environment?
“There was a lot of structure in the house, the famous ‘calm, cleanliness and regularity’, and I grew up very protected. We never went on holiday, so I hardly experienced anything as a child.”
She says that she more or less fled the house when she was 18. She did not want to work in her father’s company, but living in her student room made her feel just as lonely as at home: “I ran into the world and into myself. I was like an unworldly girl in a student house with almost all boys. Their parents called so often that they kept themselves out of reach, but mine never called. My parents had not helped me with anything and I had to do everything on my own and usually had to pay for it myself as well. I was shocked by all kinds of things that I had to deal with and was always on my guard. With such an attitude you do not experiment and you become very cautious.”

When I ask about the period that contains her best memories, she is very clear: “That was in my birth house, with the garden there and a parasol, children to play with, nicely colouring, baking an egg… the homely, the cosy – I really liked that and I did not feel that way again after I was 8 years old. My mother was also becoming increasingly unhappy and used me to vent. She was treated as an employee by my father, but she was not paid and sometimes could not live on the household money she received. I used to say: ‘That is ridiculous! It cannot be the case that you cannot buy what you need because he does not give you enough, while you are working hard all week, too, now, can it?!’ She thought so too, but then she would say: ‘Yes, but you know what he is like, don’t you?’ I told her to stand up for herself, but she was afraid of him.”

Next week you will read the continuation of the conversation with Simone, in which, among other things, her saddest memories are discussed and how, in her opinion, these have led to a number of habits that weigh on her.

The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 5 (final)

Last week, we ended with the importance of unconditional love; this week we continue on this path of aspects that help in healing.

“If you look at your life right now and say you are really happy… what are the main threads that give meaning to it?”

“Yeah… my partner of course… He’s just so amazing…” Several times during our conversation, her eyes have glistened and turned red around the edges, but now that she is confronted with the question of what gives meaning to her life, the tears flow freely. She receives a hug, grabs a tissue from the kitchen and sits down again. She says that having a partner who loves her unconditionally is by far the best thing that ever happened to her.

It is amazing to see how in the end, it usually boils down to this: strong, loving relationships with others make humans thrive. We are indeed hardwired for connection. With it, we feel abundance; we grow and flourish. Without it, we feel deprived; we suffer and perish. When we feel heard and seen, we can heal from what was painful. When we feel safe and secure, we can compassionately inquire into ourselves and work on our issues and our healing.

She continues with an emotion-loaded voice: “He’s just infinitely patient with me. I’ve had to deal with all of this shit before and I was talking to a friend who said: ‘Why go to a psychologist now, when you’ve been away for seven years?” I think in the first years I was away from home I was so good at pushing it away, always worried about another visa, or country or whatever. There was never the mental space to grapple with all this shit and go through it and process it. I left at 18 and never dealt with it. Now I feel more secure; I have a job, a loving partner, I’m not stressed about making it to the end of the month anymore. All of a sudden, I have this mental space and things started to come up. That’s when I thought: ‘Okay, I need a professional to help me through this!’ ”

“That’s very brave of you!”

“Yeah! My partner has been there from the beginning of this process, about four years ago. Learning to recognise things in myself, dealing with all the shit coming up, learning to apologise, and he has been so infinitely patient with it all and shown me unconditional love which is like the best thing… Wow! He is definitely on the top of that list.”

“Are you aware that there must be something lovable about you…? I mean he’s not just being a sucker picking up some victim and playing the rescue role here, right?”

“Well… yeah… but sometimes I wonder if I’m just being manipulative once again in making him love me by saying the right words and making him do the right things for me.”

“This is how deep this feeling is rooted… that even if you are truly loved, you’re still wondering whether you’re truly worth it.”

“Yes, absolutely. It’s hard to accept the unconditional aspect of it, because I still feel I’m not worthy of that connection.”

For many people with trauma, the aspect of ‘worthiness’ is very prominent. Losing the connection with our true selves can make it hard to deeply trust that we are worthy of love and connection and joy in life. Related to this, we return to the theme of staying true to yourself, of being authentic and feeling okay with that.

“How authentic do you feel you can be in your current life and work?”

Elizabeth sighs: “Euhm… not very, I think… It depends on the situation, but I always find I’m checking and re-checking myself, especially in social situations. I feel that there is no way I can be myself and people accept me. That is such a bold way of looking at social encounters, that… well… there’s no way!” She speaks with passion and together we laugh about it, consciously aware of the fact that apparently, there is still a long way to go.

We teasingly challenge her: “What would that look like, the authentic Elizabeth?!”

She lightens up: “Very outspoken, very loud, interested in a whole bunch of things! I feel that I’m sort of this all-encompassing bridge between topics and areas of interest that most people do not combine, but I can’t really talk openly about all these topics, because people could be like ‘oh, it’s weird that she’s into that, because our group is not into that’. So yeah… the authentic Elizabeth is much louder than she comes across, and not constantly careful about the way she approaches things. I’m constantly re-evaluating and overthinking things, and that should not be part of my authenticity.”

We speak about the impact of stress on the body, of being alert to danger all the time, after Elizabeth mentions that she had a blood analysis recently and had some unexpected values. She says: “I didn’t realize until now that stress has this very strong impact on the body.”

“Oh, this is interesting! You didn’t realise that until recently? Actually, this is the whole point and it’s called ‘psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology’, describing the effect of the psyche on neurophysiology and the immune system and hormonal regulation. Actually, it’s implied in what some see as an important definition of trauma: it’s not what happens to you, but ‘what happens inside of you as a consequence of what happens to you’. It can be seen as ‘a wound of the spirit’, a disconnection from the self. You were talking about your sisters just taking everything in and suppressing how they felt with regard to your parents. But what we see is that if you suppress or de-press your emotions and feelings, you de-press your immune system and this can lead to so many physical problems and also de-pression.”

Elizabeth looks astonished and interrupts: “My sister is always sick; she always has something!”

“Stress… toxic stress, long-term, chronic stress!”

She listens in amazement about the link she now discovers: “Wow!”

“Also, on the point of using your full potential, high adrenaline and cortisol levels are neurotoxic; they eat away brain cells, which means that you lose connections in the brain that guide your responses to triggers from the environment. You then develop a limited number of ‘routes to go to’ if something happens. The more a route is walked upon, the stronger it gets. It becomes the standard or safe- mode route. It becomes your way to cope with what happens and you have less of a specialised network to respond differently in different situations. The longer you suppress the stress, the bigger your chances are for all types of NCDs, blood pressure elevation, heart problems, even cancer. If you depress your immune system for a long period, your body has more and more trouble fighting health threats and maintaining your balance, your homeostasis. If you dive into this more deeply, it becomes easier to see how stress physiology plays a role in overall health.”

We mention having noticed that several times, she has brought up the ‘shit’ that has come up. We wonder what it is that she would like to heal from most. “Yeah… again, all the things that I’ve internalised that are very unhealthy. For a long time, my coping mechanism was self-harm, like cutting; that’s how I dealt with stuff. That’s something that still needs to be solved. It really feels like I’ve been cheated out of all the things that other people have, like a good relationship with their parents, and I feel very bitter about that and envious of other people who have that… and that feeling can really affect my relationships with other people. Those are kind of the main things that I hope to sort through with a professional.”

“When you say ‘bitter and envious’… could you rephrase that in a more compassionate way towards yourself?” She smiles and softens: “Yeah… maybe like mourning towards what I did not have…?” “Grief…?” “Yeah, grief is a really good word for that. Grief feels like something that is an easier process than envy is for example. You go through stages of grief and work your way up.” “Yes, exactly, whereas being envious and bitter is still very judgmental towards yourself, instead of compassionate…” She nods: “Yeah…that’s true; that is an interesting perspective once again.

We wonder if she has ideas about why her mom couldn’t offer her the caring and attentive buffering protection.

“I mean… I guess this was partly because she didn’t learn how to do that, as she never received it herself. She also generally feels threatened in her own life, I think, in her identity of being a good mother. It’s ironic, because she used to say that sometimes: ‘I’m such a bad mom.’ I think she was very insecure about that. She really wanted control, and because she had no control in her own life as a child in that chaotic environment, once she became a mother and started her own family she felt that she could exert control. She didn’t want to relinquish it and as I was growing up and starting to question more and more, she just kept that feeling of control. I think she was just scared. I think that after I left home, my mom was probably very sad. I recognise that element and I feel more and more just sad for her; the longer that I’m able to distance myself from that anger, I feel more and more sorry for her almost.”

We mention the sequence of behaviour being a result of an emotion that comes from an unmet underlying need. If you acknowledge that, it changes how you view and address the issue. Focusing on the behaviour leaves a lot of underlying pain unaddressed and may not be very helpful. Somehow, Elizabeth must already be on her healing path, because she acknowledges the intergenerational trauma by seeing that her mom’s behaviour was probably based on feeling scared and she feels sorry for her.

We wrap up and thank Elizabeth very much for her openness and will keep her posted on publication. She guides us downstairs and we say warm goodbyes. As we unlock our bikes, the impressiveness of Elizabeth’s candour still lingers. The clouds from earlier in the morning have disappeared and the sun has come through. The seagulls are still there, flying around and screaming, betraying the closeness of the sea. We decide to cycle to the coast line, walk along the beach, and have lunch with the sun on our faces, while letting the story we were honoured to hear sink in.

The Lived Experience, Episode 1 – This week: Elizabeth, Part 4

Last week, we spoke about the impact of being your authentic self on the relationship with caregivers and how their response to that authentic self can impact your sense of worthiness.

This week, we get to the theme of ‘bad habits’, asking Elizabeth whether she has behaviours she would qualify as such and whether she thinks they have manifested in response to her early years’ experiences. She thinks and says: “Not apologising is definitely one I picked up at home. And once I was finally on my own abroad, substance abuse was a big theme, too: I had no experience with alcohol, and was drunk every night. Also: prejudices. I find myself unconsciously being prejudiced about a lot of things a lot of times, even though I work hard to keep an open mind. Self-righteousness is another one, this feeling of ‘I deserve to do this because I’m better and I know that…’ I would say that I’m often very judgmental.” We ask if this affects her work and she says it does. She explains how she works with many different cultures and how people have different work ethics. She gets ‘unbelievably frustrated’ when people do not deliver on time or do not communicate properly: “My immediate, knee-jerk reaction is always ‘Come on, just do the work!’ and I find it horrible to have these prejudices so quickly; I hate it, as it almost feels like racism sometimes!”

Elizabeth shows impressive and remarkable self-reflection in her words, which is a very promising route to healing. If we understand our behaviours as coping mechanisms to temporarily increase our wellbeing, we can more easily work on them and be more compassionate to ourselves, regardless of the length or duration of the healing journey. The sad part of Elizabeth’s words, however, lies in the fact that she clearly recognises that there are characteristics from her childhood years in her present life that make it hard for her to maintain an open, trusting approach towards people in her social environment, be they colleagues or others, despite her best efforts. There is a lot of self-awareness, followed by self-judgment and shame, feeding into a negative self-image, resulting in even more self-awareness. It is a vicious circle, in its double meaning.

“What do you think… what do you see as the driving force behind those thoughts? Where do they come from? What purpose does it serve to think like that?”

“Euhm…” There is a long pause while Elizabeth thinks about an answer. The seagulls fly around the house and we can hear them screaming while we sit together in intimate silence. She takes her time and then tentatively responds: “I think it comes from a place of impatience, of burying yourself and immersing yourself in your work. As a kid, I would escape in reading; I would read and read all the time, immerse myself into those worlds, to be out of my parents’ hair. I was a smart kid, always ahead of my class, and I think that now, if I feel that someone is not up to my competence, it gets frustrating. The tricky thing is…” She takes a long pause and ponders how to progress. She takes a breath, waits a bit longer and carefully continues: “… it feels almost good, feeling better than the other; it’s a frustration but a satisfying one, to feel better than other people. If I really examine it under a microscope, I think there’s an element of that, that it makes me feel good about myself to see that other people have trouble keeping up with my level of work.”

“How beautiful that you use the word ‘escapism’, because some definitions of trauma say that ‘anything that helps you temporarily relieve the pain from the lack of connection, is addiction’.”

“Hmm… you think my reading was an addiction?”

“Well, you don’t have to necessarily call it addiction, but some people say that anything at all that you cannot do without and is harmful in the long term, but will give you a temporary relief of the pain you are suffering from, could be called an addiction in the sense that it is your way of numbing your pain, of detaching and coping with the difficult situation you find yourself in and that gives you a sense of insecurity and not belonging.”

Elizabeth thinks for a moment and says: “Interesting… My parents used to take away my books as punishment. I thought that was funny, because most parents really struggle to get their kids to read, but now that you mention it… Perhaps them taking away my books was also in a sense traumatic, because it was taking away from me the one thing that would keep me sane. It’s an interesting perspective.”

“It can be very interesting to look at it like that, because it can give you a clearer view of ‘what did I need to make myself feel at least a little bit happy and okay, and what do I do to reconnect with myself to who I feel I truly am and how was that frustrated or punished or blamed or shamed by others or used to make me feel guilty?” You can always ask yourself in what way do the ‘bad habits’ serve you; what do they do for you?”

Elizabeth nods: “Yeah, I always really struggled with my self-image while growing up, as my mom would keep telling me bad things about myself that I believed 100%. This, in turn, can change into self-hatred really quickly… blazing self-hatred that I still struggle with, and that becomes a powerful feeling. I think it serves that purpose, the fact that I feel more competent than others in my work, a temporary little band-aid of ‘I’m not a loser, I’m better than them…’ and finding some comfort in that.”

“Indeed. Some trauma experts would say that if we look at our ‘bad habits’ as our own idiosyncratic way of coping, we can become much more compassionate towards ourselves and we can stop using these very negative labels for ourselves. You already mentioned quite a number of such difficult labels regarding yourself, and I recognize them because I can do that as well. Now that I’ve given this concept a lot more thought, I can recognise it better in myself, and I can also see it when other people do it to themselves: ‘I’m just lazy, I’m just confrontational, I’m just dumb…’ Being non-confrontational, for example, can be labelled as a positive characteristic, but if it’s a form of escapism, as it was for your dad, then it could be toxic as well. Therefore, it often really depends on how you label it. If you label your journey to where you are right now as having been guided by your curiosity, you get a quite different flavour to the story than when you label it as confrontational.”

“Yes… that’s very true…”

Elizabeth mentions escapism, dissociation, disconnecting from her happy self in order to prevent arguments with her parents. She also alludes to the punitive measures her parents took to try and control their daughter and take away from her what she felt really belonged to her: an inquisitive attitude, a burning desire to gain knowledge and satisfy her curiosity, ways to connect to her inner drives. The punishment, however, increases the disconnection, both to her parents and to her authentic self. What brave considerations we witness here. We listen attentively and are mentally present with her story, making it obvious that this time it is all about her views and decisions. By creating holding space for Elizabeth this way, a safe space where she is being heard and seen and where her stories are not judged or rejected, together we can take gentle steps towards reframing these behaviours as coping strategies on all parts. It is an honour to be allowed to witness her opening up and sharing her story with us. For everyone with trauma experiences, support and unconditional love are extremely valuable on the path to healing.