Imagine a child who is criticized, constantly. Long-term. Made fun of, humiliated, shamed in front of others. “Why can’t you do anything right?” “Goddammit, you’re useless!” “Shut up….you little shit.” They hear that they are stupid, ugly, pathetic, annoying, too loud, too quiet, too lazy, too….x,y,z….
As a psychologist and teacher, I encounter a lot of personal stories. One person shared with me that, as a kid, they were forbidden by their mom to answer the phone because she told them, in a disgusted tone of voice, “You sound like a retard…everybody asks what is wrong with you, and it’s embarrassing.” Yes, that’s a direct quote. There are SO MANY THINGS WRONG WITH THAT, but the point I want to emphasize here is — imagine a child hearing that kind of thing, constantly….from the people they love and trust and NEED affection from the most — their own family. Imagine how this one memory represents a whole pattern of emotional humiliation and shaming. This person heard these sorts of things, over and over and over again. Year after year after year.
If you really let this sink in, you get a tiny taste of “trauma”. Of how words can be so much more hurtful than sticks and stones. How abuse can be invisible, how people can be emotionally tortured and psychologically taken apart by mere words.
Now imagine this person receiving the good ‘ol dad-advice. “Stand up straight!” “Don’t be lazy!” “Work towards your goals!” “Lift your eyes to the horizon and follow your dreams!” “Get up soldier, just keep going.” “Believe in yourself.” …blahblahblahblahblah…..”
So they try. They try to do better. Put more effort into it. Be more disciplined. Work harder. They try and try and try.
Everything rebels against their success. If they take one step up, their family tears them back down. Their emotional world rebels against their efforts. Who the hell are they to believe in themselves? They feel uncomfortable with their own success. They are embarrassed about their own passions. They feel foolish and unworthy and useless. So they set their sights lower and lower. They chase after momentary indulgences instead of long-term goals. They learn to ‘survive’, but not to succeed.
Imagine this person, later in life, in a relationship with someone who gives them the same shitty messages. These words go right into their heart, like well-aimed daggers. They bloody hurt. They are “triggering”.
People say “they’re just words, don’t let it get to you….” But they can’t. They just can’t. And the result of yet-another-failure is that they feel even worse. They hear the internalized messages — “what the hell is wrong with you?” “why are you so weak?” ……….gee, maybe they really ARE pathetic, maybe they really ARE useless, maybe they really do deserve nothing……..
So…..they isolate themselves. Lose more and more of their precious moments to fantasizing, numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol, under-performing at work, letting relationships wither and die. They play video games, watch trash TV and laugh at the people who are even bigger “losers” than they are.
They create idealized versions of themselves, that future awesome self that they are “just about” to turn into as they start getting their shit together. But, when it comes to the hard work of actual change — changing habits, working towards goals, etc. — the contrast between their awesome fantasy self and their currently-shitty actual self, is just too much. So, instead of doing the hard work, it’s back to the video games, the bong, the detached cynicism, the cutting, the sex addiction, the tendency to lose themselves in relationships with people who treat them as a Less-than. Or, they create an arrogant, angry persona, someone who shouts down opponents on social media, who sees the world in nice&tidy black&white dichotomies where they and their people are Right and Good, and the “others” who see the world very differently are delusional, assholes, or just plain stupid.
Or they do all of these things, bouncing from inspiration to despair to arrogance to sorrow and self-hatred in a spiral of increasing chaos.
You see the effects of other people’s words and actions very clearly in the mental health field. So much of what we call “mental illness” — from schizophrenia to addiction to depression — is “social illness” as much as anything “mental.” Our collective story of mental illness and suffering is, in truth, a story of other people’s nastiness. But because so many of us believe so strongly in “the individual”, we locate illness in the person, even right in their neurotransmitters, just like we locate genius, morality, creativity, and criminality. But none of these things are qualities of the individual that just….somehow….exist in the person. No, ALL of these things come from “outside”. (or more accurately, through the interaction of the person & the situation, but let’s save that full complexity for a future post).
Independence is a delusion. And it’s a dangerous one. Anyone who has been abused knows the deep truth of interdependence, right in their very bodies. The assaulted. The betrayed. The terrorized. The gas-lighted. But also the lonely. The invisible. The unwanted. The ridiculed and rejected.
People live out, in their consciousnesses, their bodies’ attempts to ‘process’ what has happened to them in life; we construct our entire ‘selves’ around this problem of body-world adaptation. It’s good to remember that.
This is why, fundamentally, Love is so freaking hard sometimes, and why those who we love can hurt us the most. When you love and trust someone, you hook your very survival apparatus up to them. You give them your safety, in the sense that everything they do, from their actions to their words, has an impact on your body-mind. Even the most ephemeral of statements they make, “just words”, can re-organize you at such a deep level, that you may never be the same again. You may even fall apart. And I don’t mean that merely figuratively. The body is directly impacted by stress, abuse, anger, fear, in countless ways: heart disease, poor immune function, migraines, sexual problems, chronic pain and god knows what else.
If these forms of suffering happen to young children, the damage is long-lasting. Even lifelong. But when similarly bad things happen to an adult, we expect them to “get over it,” and if it takes them longer than we think it should, we generally turn away from them. After all, the adult has more defences, more cognitive sophistication and ability to “externalize” other people’s nastiness, in effect realizing that the fault lies with the other person. And yes, adults CAN do this much better than kids.
But for any given adult, you never know how powerfully words might affect them. After all, it still hurts to be told terrible things from people you care about, no matter how old you are. And just how deeply those words cut depends on lots of things — like how much you trust and love that person, how vulnerable you have made yourself to them, how many of your secrets you have entrusted to them. AND, how much you heard those same things earlier in your life.
Because remember, adults were children once, and they still carry around the scars of the words and hurtful actions (or inactions) they were subjected to as children. Most of us have still-unhealed wounds in our psyches, and although we may have been able to cover them with layers of adult sophistication and better life experiences, the wounds are still there, and new hurts can reopen those wounds and bring all that “unprocessed” shit right back.
So when someone who has suffered trauma says “I was triggered”, don’t you dare call them a “snowflake” or judge them. Live their life first, feel their pain in your own tissues, feel the immense courage they tap into, every day, just to get through the day. And then, see how you feel about them being “triggered”.