I made a mistake in my last post, and it has caused me some consternation.
More accurately — I made a mistake in my last post, and it has activated a set of sub-routines in my consciousness-program, or “parts of my self”, that function to erase me from existence.
What was this oh-so-terrible mistake? Well, it was saying that the next post would be about an overview of three approaches to healing, but in actuality, the next post should have been about “grounding”. And I knew it! I’ve been thinking about these posts for many months; I knew exactly how I wanted to sequence them. Then, caught up in the flow of writing, I lost that perspective, and made my error.
Ya. I know, right? What a terrible mistake! Horrendous! Whoever said THAT should be ashamed of themselves! Bad things should happen to them! They deserve to be punished! Maybe a miracle will happen, and they’ll just stop existing….
Ok, that’s a little dramatic. Maybe. But here’s the thing — THAT, is how certain parts of ourselves can react when we do something wrong. Or believe we have done something wrong. Or, even if we haven’t actually done anything wrong, just the disapproval of another can trigger the FEELING in us that we’ve done something wrong.
So, others’ disapproval can cause us to react as though we deserve to be punished, or to stop existing.
Yeesh, that would be dangerous in the hands of an abusive person, wouldn’t it? Like, they could really mess with us, even screw with our core feelings of self-worth, if they skillfully made us feel like we were always doing something wrong.
….Hmmmm, I guess that wouldn’t really work. Would it? I mean, if someone keeps telling you you’re doing everything wrong, won’t you just come to the conclusion they’re an asshole, and distance yourself? Who cares what some impossible-to-please jerk thinks?
Well, unfortunately, impossible-to-please jerks are often savvy enough to not let us see their true colours right up front, or yes, that’s exactly what we would do — distance ourselves. But instead, they are sneaky. In the early stages of getting to know us, the soon-to-turn-asshole is often SUPER nice, SUPER passionate, SUPER complimentary. They convince us we are special. So very special. And they REALLY love us. They’ll be there for us FOREVER. We are AMAZING. Etc.
After such love-bombing, it is very difficult to maintain your objectivity. So when the former flatterer turns into the impossible-to-please-jerk, we are SO motivated to convince ourselves of all sorts of things — they didn’t really mean it; they’re going through a rough time and need our support; they had a tough childhood and so they’re not abusive, but in actuality are victims, and what they need is for us to step up and be there for them, be the “special person” that will finally help them heal.
Yes, so many of us want to be Beauty, with our love being the magic medicine that heals the poor, misunderstood Beast. Heck, even Buffy, for all her vampire slaying, wasn’t able to resist falling in love with….yep, a vampire. But of course, a vulnerable one with a “good guy” underneath his murderous exterior. Oh yeah, we just love our Rescuer fantasies.
So, the love bombers and false flatterers and dynamic sweep-us-off-our-feet adventurers hook us, and then, even though those hooks reveal themselves to be terribly painful, even leading us to our doom, it is just so hard to resist getting “reeled in”. When someone convinces you the sun rises with you and the two of you are destined for True Love Bliss together, AND then their uglier side starts to appear, it’s so difficult to cut and run. It’s so tempting to stay, to be “loyal”, to not “let them down”, to convince yourself that they really need you; you’re the only one who they’ve ever really trusted. You just can’t give up on them….not like everyone else has. (Insert sad puppy dog eyes here.)
Once we are the center of someone’s world, or at least are manipulated into believing that we are, we become like putty in their hands. And once they started being unhappy with us, finding faults, being displeased, criticizing, criticizing, criticizing, we’ll knot ourselves into a pretzel trying to make things right again. And the more displeased they continue to be, the more we take the responsibility on ourselves to be “better” — a better support, a better partner, better with managing our own feelings, better with knowing “not to set them off”, better with remembering how to make them feel good. Etc. Etc. Etc.
Whew…..if this is easy to do with adults (and it is), just imagine how easy it is to do with children. All a would-be abuser needs is a vulnerable child, like one who is neglected, or someone who was recently bullied, or rejected, or dumped, or feels insecure or alone for any number of reasons. Getting such a person addicted to your praise and overt expressions of love is like buttering toast; it melts right into Who They Are.
Speaking for myself personally, I know from much lived experience now, that it doesn’t even take a real mistake or screw-up to make me slip into a dissociative fog. It can be as simple as me believing someone may be disappointed, or anticipating it. And no, it makes little-to-no difference if I “rationally” understand that it’s no big deal, step back to put things in perspective, or engage in pretty much any other cognitive re-frame type of exercise. They just don’t work. Not for the little child who wants to die; that shit just doesn’t go deep enough, quickly enough.
Even if I have no evidence the other person is upset; even if, for all I know, the other person doesn’t even know I “did something wrong!” It’s the Inner “Knowing”, that oh-so-certain voice inside that sees everything in a strict binary of Good and Evil, where “self” belongs only in one category, whispering incessantly, “You fucked up. You fucked up. You ARE a fuck-up. You fucking fuck. You should disappear. Do them a favour; do everyone a favour. Make this world a better place, and fucking leave it already. You fuck.”
If I had an inner censor controlling what I’m allowed to hear from this voice, like those TV censors who bleep out swear words and such, then my entire inner monologue would basically be BLEEEEEEEEEEEP, interspersed with jokes and a few “deep thoughts”, to be followed closely by more BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP.
So yes, it doesn’t take real mistakes to make someone who has been transformed by shame, ‘gap out’, isolate, or become self-harming. It can be merely the anticipation of someone’s disappointment, to send you right back to that small self you once were, that little person who internalized such awful things long before they had much of a choice except to trust the people who purportedly loved them.
In fact, it doesn’t even have to be something wrong! It can even be something right! Depending on the person’s trauma past, it is easily possible for success, praise, compliments, even expressions of support and experiences of closeness, to be “triggering.” After all, it’s pretty common for abusive people to pick on someone for their strengths, to use moments of success to bring them down, to give compliments only sarcastically or when manipulating the person to do their bidding, and otherwise to gaslight the abused person to the point that they become ashamed of even their best qualities.
So, you end up with an adult who gets triggered when they fail, gets triggered when they anticipate disappointing someone, and gets triggered when people try to encourage or be nice to them. Think about that for a sec. What a bitch that must be, for everyone else eh? I mean, if criticism triggers a person, but praise, compliments and expressions of support also trigger the person, then….sheesh! What a pain in the ass that person must be! Right?
Well, that’s most certainly what “that person” feels about themselves. That they are a pain in the ass. That they are beyond help. That they should stop wasting your time. That they are a burden. That the more they trust you and reach out, the more they’re going to be hurt when they eventually burn you out and you turn away. They already know all this; this isn’t their first rodeo, and you aren’t the first person who tried to support them, only to give up.
So…okay, this is all a bit of a rambling mess, isn’t it? It’s kind of like what happens when you get triggered, like when you feel bad about something and feel all squirrelly and crazy. So, instead of unraveling completely, you just kind of turn that off and ‘disappear’, or else take overt action to harm or otherwise erase yourself for a while. If this kind of rambling chaos happens, it makes it hard to ever bring anything to conclusion, to ever finish anything, to ever decisively commit to anything. In effect, to BE anything.
It would be good to avoid feeling this way. Which is exactly what ceasing to exist will accomplish. Unfortunately, it also avoids everything good too. Like, your favourite music, the smell of rain, the taste of pizza, or fresh fruit, or your lover. Yeah, the ‘good things in life’. They all get avoided too when you stop existing.
So how else can a person avoid this? How can you avoid getting your brains scrambled by stuff that triggers you?
In short, you can’t. Sorry. At least, not right away, not in the short term. But even if you can’t “avoid” them, you CAN learn to respond to your triggers more healthily, shortening their hold on you and quickening your return-to-functionality. You CAN gain the upper hand. I not only believe this theoretically, I am experiencing it in my life; I know it is true.
To learn to limit the effects of being triggered, you must, absolutely must, learn to ground yourself, to calm down, to re-center so that instead of going all squirrelly OR trying to avoid the awfulness somehow, you learn to….accept it. Stand your ground in the face of it, letting it wash over you, through you, past you, like the treants in the Lord of the Rings when the bursting dam washes away Saruman’s orc army. As you practice grounding, you will, eventually, find that your “roots” penetrate deep, right into the heart of reality; they are most certainly strong enough to hold you until the trigger-state passes.
But the struggle is that you need to be able to “ground” when you’re in crazy-mode and least able to do so. Which means you need to make it simple, easy, and automatic. And sometimes, like I experienced the other day, you will still not be able to do so, and it’ll all go to hell. But hey, every single time you change things, even a little, even buying yourself a few more seconds before you dissociate or freak out somehow, is a success. Every gain can, and will, lead to more gains. And even every failure, if you respond to it by picking yourself up after, dusting yourself off, and committing again, and again, and again to trying again, is also a success. As with everything, the point is not to be perfect at grounding; the point is simply the process, the practice; keep at it, and like the toddler learning to walk by falling down a thousand times, you will learn to ground.
There are many grounding practices out there. My best advice is to simply “google it”, find what resonates with you, and then PRACTICE it. Regularly. Until it’s so instantaneously automatic that the very process of getting triggered, itself “triggers” your grounding response.
I don’t know what will work for you. Probably lots of different things will, although some will be more intuitive than others. But there’s no “perfect” method for all people (as far as I know). Some people find visualizations helpful; some use affirmations; some use prayer. Personally, none of that works for me. My dissociation from the body undercuts any ability to ground using a “cognitive” type of tool.
What works for me is direct, sensory input.
For example, when I have the urge to self-harm, or when I feel myself “fogging over”, then if I can, I step into the shower, splash water on my face, or if a freezer is available, stick my hands inside and pick up cold things. Then, breathe. Just breathe. Let the sensory sharpness take over until the destructive urge passes.
If I cannot access cold or water, I employ the 5-4-3-2-1 method. When my therapist first suggested this, I hated it. I felt it was demeaning and stupid. But, I was hardly in a state to argue, so, reluctantly, angrily, I complied.
“Name 5 things you see” — “Uhhh….you, the wall, my knee…..the floor…..that plant.”
“4 things you hear” — “Uhhh…..traffic…..a dog…..the computer fan…..uhhhh….my breathing.”
“3 things you feel” — “Ok…..fine…..the chair on my butt…..my feet on the floor…..my hands clenched.”
“2 things you smell” — “…..nothing really……uhhh….hmmmm…..ok, yeah, I can smell something perfumey, very faint. Uhhhh…..and coffee.”
“1 thing you taste” — “Um……yeah, I dunno….my own saliva?”
And poof — I’m grounded. At least a little. Enough to take the next step in the moment, whatever that might be.
In my opinion, THIS is the first skill to practice when you start down a path of healing. Because inevitably, you will get triggered. You will get triggered by bad shit getting dredged up. You will get triggered by feeling vulnerable. You’ll be triggered by how you interpret someone’s response. You’ll get triggered when you back-slide and feel like all the progress you’ve made has gone to shit. You’ll get triggered when you do make progress, and your therapist, or someone else, comments on how proud they are of you. You’ll get triggered in lots of different ways, for lots of different reasons. And if you don’t have a reliable way of grounding yourself in these moments, you will inevitably fall back on the coping strategies that have got you this far in life. But of course, if those were ideal, you wouldn’t be reading this in the first place. Clearly, you recognize that your coping strategies are sub-optimal. Some of them are likely downright destructive.
So, step 1 — practice Grounding.
In the next essay, as currently planned, we’ll talk about how to build on your Grounding abilities, and take the next step to healing.
But for sure, you are already on the path. Learning to ground is being on the path. Even reading about learning how to ground is being on the path.
So, congratulations friend. You are on the path. I’m proud of you.
And yes, I really mean that. It’s a big fucking deal, to get honest with yourself about the truth of your suffering, and begin to do something about it. Well done.
(And if that feels triggering, then hey, step 1, right? Ground.)