Traumatic Experiences - Part 1
Tina was sexually assaulted as a child. It was a very painful and traumatic event. Even though decades had passed, certain situations still triggered the memory of the assault causing anxiety and depression. At the time of the assault, Tina didn't tell anyone. It was years before she had the courage to discuss it in therapy. She still has not summoned the courage to tell her mother that it was her uncle who committed the crime.
When the assault occurred, Tina had many unpleasant thoughts and feelings about what happened. The thoughts were repetitive and were always accompanied by very strong emotions of fear and shame. Tina felt dirty and ruined. She felt that because of this experience, no one would ever love her. Even though she was a child and had no control over the situation, she still felt it was somehow her fault. Because she felt responsible for the event, she thought she was a bad person. She thought that there was nothing she could do to redeem herself and she felt the situation was hopeless. There are two issues going on with Tina. 1. Tina experienced a traumatic event; and 2. Tina had many thoughts and strong emotions about the traumatic event.
The first issue is a fact. The event happened. It was physically and emotionally painful and traumatic.
The second issue, the thoughts Tina had, were not facts. Certain thoughts came to Tina's mind during and after the event, however, those thoughts were not facts. Because Tina's thoughts were recurrent and accompanied by strong emotions, she thought they were true. She believed the recurrent thoughts that emerged in her mind at the time of the assault. All of the facts of what happened, the thoughts that emerged in her mind, and the emotions she experienced became true for her as if they were all facts.
Putting aside the gory details of what happened (i.e. the facts), let's discuss the thoughts and emotions that Tina decided were true. Because Tina felt ashamed she decided she was unlovable. This was not a fact. This was Tina's story about the event. Truthfully, Tina had a loving family and friends who loved and cared for her. The fact that she had been sexually assaulted did not change their love for her.
Tina was a child when this traumatic event occurred and was in no way responsible for the actions of a more powerful adult. Nevertheless, Tina somehow felt she was responsible. This too was a story. It was not true but Tina felt that it was. Tina thought that because this happened to her, she was a bad person. Again, this was not true but Tina felt it was true.
Tina was sexually assaulted by a family member that she had trusted. As a result of this experience, she decided that she could never trust anyone. This was not a fact, but a decision she made at the time as a way of protecting herself from further pain. In fact, all of the thoughts that came to her mind at the time of the assault, were her way of trying to protect herself. Because she was a child, she didn't have fully developed reasoning skills or coping strategies. Had the event occurred later in life, her thoughts probably would have been different. But the event occurred when she was a child, and Tina coped with what happened the best she could.
At some point in our life, typically our childhood, we all have an experience that leads us to "our story". It doesn't necessarily have to be a traumatic event, but it arises out of a situation that is problematic or isn't working. It is a universal human experience to acquire "a story". "A story" is a collection of the thoughts we decide are true. They can be thoughts we have about ourselves, others, or the world at large. The thoughts we decide are true define us. They color our world. Our story can close doors or open up possibilities.
Tina's experience undoubtedly had a lasting effect. However, the most profound effect on Tina was the "story" she added to the traumatic event. Her story was that she was unlovable, shameful and bad. Had her story only applied to this traumatic event, it would not have been so harmful. The problem for Tina, and all of us for that matter, is that our story is applied to almost all situations that are problematic or not working.
Whenever Tina's boyfriend became angry, she always felt like she was somehow responsible and to blame. When she encountered conflict at work or with friends or family, she felt she was unlovable. Because she felt unlovable, she desperately tried to gain approval from others. She held on to unhealthy relationships because she feared she would be alone. She lacked trust and approached all relationships with the fear they would betray her. This played out in her life as a series of abusive relationships. She felt unloved and feared being alone. She felt she could never let her guard down and the physical stress created frequent and severe physical pain. She binged on unhealthy food as a comfort when she was upset. This pattern created excess weight and left Tina feeling ashamed of her appearance.
Without question, the traumatic event affected Tina's life but the conditioned mental patterns that emerged as a result of that event had a far greater impact. She decided those thoughts were true. The story that emerged and the resulting conditioned mental patterns shaped her world and her life. The challenge for Tina was to deliberately look at the story that emerged and consciously decide if it served her. Tina needed to look at this conditioned mental pattern, not as true, but as something she could change. If Tina wanted to feel at peace, she would have to change her story. What could she consciously chose? The possibilities are endless... Tina could chose to see herself as loved and loving. She could trust herself. She could accept and love herself as she was. All of these choices are available but as always, it is a matter of awareness and practice. And both concept will be discussed in Part 2.