Imagine a book, a novel, that begins with an explosion on the first page. The explosion disintegrates big things into fragments moving away faster than the eye can follow. There is no way to understand what it means, or know what the world is becoming. The people in the book are either immobilized, their stunned brains on autopilot, trying to gather information. Or they are rushing everywhere, trying to find something to save before the dust even settles. In the background, other people may be fainting or crying. But this book is about the people who are alert, struggling to maintain their identities in a falling-apart world.
This is where traumatic healing begins. The trajectory of healing begins at the point of trauma.
The essence of trauma is loss. We may not understand our trauma as a loss at first. It may feel like a painful blow. Or an experience of confusion or disorientation. Or possibly being stretched beyond our comfort zone, and then beyond. Or we may perceive one type of loss, and then discover a more important loss that only becomes clear later. These reasons are hints of why it takes so long to process certain types of trauma.
The personal stories at Lovefraud give evidence of many types of losses. We have lost money and possessions, jobs and careers, family and friends, years of our lives, physical and mental health. And we are the survivors of relationships with sociopaths. Many of us know someone or know of someone who cannot be here with us, because they gave up on their lives through suicide or got lost in depressions, psychotic breaks or self-destructive behavior.
In some ways, what happened to us is like a situation of unrequited love. We loved someone. They didn’t love us back. It’s a sad, but everyday occurrence. In some ways, it is like an investment that did not work out. Another everyday occurrence. There are certain types of losses that are considered “normal,” expected, and things that people just get over, preferably sooner rather than later. Because they are just part of the randomness of the world that sometimes gives us what we want and sometimes does not. And we are expected to have the everyday skills of dealing with losses and moving on.
But this is not what happened to us, and we know it. We may not know what exactly happened, but we know it was momentous. To us. Because we can’t snap back. Our everyday strategies to minimize losses – saying it didn’t matter, turning our attention to something more positive, making a joke about it, finding some quick fix of our favorite “little drug” to make ourselves feel better – don’t work. We are destabilized at a fundamental level.
If asked about what happened to us in a love relationship with a sociopath, most of us would probably sooner or later use the term “betrayal.” Or being conned. Or being used by someone who didn’t care about us. Or being led to believe in a love or partnership that never really existed. Or being targeted for exploitation.
But all of these descriptions of what happened emerge from later thought, after we try to figure it out. To understand what happened at the time, it might be easier to just work with the terms “shock” and “disappointment.”
Like the people in the first chapter of the imaginary book, something happened that simply astonished us. In a bad way. The explosion took place in beliefs that are fundamental to our identity. A destruction of the most basic source of our emotional security – our ideas about ourselves and our world that we take for granted.
Reactions to trauma
Whether or not we consciously grasp the fundamental nature of this trauma, our primitive survival system does. And it reacts instantaneously to restore a semblance of stability so that we can go on. Instantaneous emotional responses fall into two basic categories – expansion and contraction.
Anyone who has ever been attacked by verbal or physical violence is familiar with the “contraction” reaction. There is a feeling of retreating inward and condensing our consciousness to a small, tight, still, watchful point inside us. We shut down emotionally and separate from what is happening to us.
If this state continues, we become split inside ourselves, often at war with ourselves because part of our experience is not acknowledged as part of us. The parts that “don’t count” or “aren’t real” can become internal restrictions on what is safe to remember or feel. The fear of experiencing the trauma becomes converted to alienation, anger and aggressive defense.
The “expansion” reaction is related to awareness that our previous boundaries of identity have been breached and partly demolished. Our relationship to the rest of the world, in we were defined by our boundaries as separate and “owned” by ourselves, becomes diffused. We may initially feel euphoric, “spacy” feelings as endorphins flood our brain to counteract pain. Our sudden difficulty in determining where we end and the outside world begins may be perceived as ‘destiny” feelings of being chosen or that we belong in the abusive drama.
If this goes on, our separate feelings, values and desires may become increasingly difficult to identify, articulate or defend. In our dealings with external reality we may becoming increasingly ungrounded, “fleeing to higher ground” where we cling to high moral or spiritual principles with a diminished ability to recognize or integrate information that does not match our view of life as it should be. Except for these principles, we may become increasingly dependent on others for information about who we are or our role in relationships or the world at large.
One of the reasons that relationship experts strongly suggest terminating a relationship in which we are shocked and disappointed more than once, is that each time this happens, a trauma occurs. They may be relatively small traumas, and we may think we are managing them. But these little explosions can do more than hurt our feelings. If we internalize their implications about who we are or our role in the world, they literally undermine the structure of our identity. Whether we expand or contract in response, we are slipping farther away from an open, healthy understanding of ourselves as separate, self-governed beings with full use of our emotional resources.
These instantaneous reactions occur at a deep layer of consciousness, where we may not be aware of them. Even though we are adults who, in reality, are free to act on our circumstances and to choose the meaning we ultimately assign to a trauma, these first reactions are the equivalent of the emergency workers who rush to the scene of a fire, extinguishing it no matter what kind of damage they do to the structure in order to stop the blaze. They provide temporary re-wiring to help us get through the immediate disorientation. Later comes the clean-up and rebuilding.
Why we are vulnerable
If we have early history of trauma, as many victims of sociopaths do, that emergency rewiring may already exist as a result of earlier events when our higher levels of thinking were not yet developed. That primitive adaptive wiring may still be in use, because we did not have the independent circumstances that enabled us to act freely or assign our own meaning without concern about outside influences. First-response emergency reactions may still be embedded as the “best response” in the working structures of our personalities, coloring our fundamental views of our position in the world and our life strategies.
The model of trauma response that I am describing to you is based on a synthesis of early childhood development theory, neurological research, and theories about the environmental basis of personality disorders. It is also the beginning of the entire model of grief processing, where the nature of the challenge that we face is to learn something.
In the event of trauma, the first thing that we learn is that we are surprised and disappointed. The context of this learning is that something happens from outside of us that challenges our beliefs about who we are and our role in the world. Throughout our entire life, every person goes through these challenges. It is part of growing up and maturing as a human being in this world.
However, certain types of challenges are especially painful and difficult to process at any age, no matter what internal resources we may have. The characteristics of these events include:
1. Disrespecting – we are not recognized as worth caring about
2. Devaluing – we are used for someone else’s purposes or experience a “force of nature” event, and therefore not separate or special
3. Abandoning – our world does not prevent this from happening
One of the reasons that an understanding of early childhood development is so important to this model is the concept of “good enough parenting.” The infancy and early childhood years are the period in which we separate and develop a separate identity from the “source of all good,” our mothers or surrogate mothers. In developing this separate identity, we also learn freedom to explore and develop independent knowledge and skills.
Ultimately, we come to recognize too that we are not the whole world. And that we live with people whose feelings and intentions are not always the same as ours, as well as material circumstances – like traffic, the force of gravity and things that are not good to eat – that limit what we can do without damage to ourselves.
If we make it through the “good enough parenting” successfully, the “source of all good” that was in the beginning survives in our view of the world and our perceptions of ourselves as part of it. We learn that we have the power to transform vision to reality through our own efforts. Although our world places limits upon us, sometimes discovered in pain, our foundational belief is that we live in an essentially loving and supportive place. The style of nurture we receive is internalized to become skills of comforting ourselves after an unexpected disappointment, extracting meaning that empowers to better navigate the world, and moving on to new goals.
Unprocessed trauma – that is trauma that is not treated with comfort and support of learning and moving on – literally stops that developmental process. Or throws us back into regression, undoing what we may have already learned. If we don’t have the internalized skills of “good enough parenting” a resource, for whatever reason, our built-in need to complete this developmental “thread” of growing up makes us like homing devices seeking the missing pieces to complete it.
Seeking security. Seeking encouragement and support. Seeking freedom to act without risk of abandonment. Seeking emotional comfort. Repetitively seeking the same missing elements and recreating the same relationship patterns as we try to “make right” something that failed in our histories.
In trauma at the identity level, there is only one way to resolve it immediately. That is to fully recognize that the “problem” is external. To activate self-comforting mechanisms to soothe the pain of the shocking disappointment. To extract meaning from the event that empowers us to better navigate the world. And to move on.
These skills are what we see in people who react quickly to everyday traumas, who recognize threats to their wellbeing or early hints of dysfunction in systems or relationships. These are people who respond with apparent coolness, clarity or rationality to suffering around them, or to other people’s projection of meaning upon them. They are centered in their own identity maintenance processes. It occurs naturally for them. Because they are compassionate with themselves, they have no lack of compassion for others. But they also have perspective about what is “about them” and what isn’t.
All of this depends on unshakable belief that the world, including ourselves, is essentially a benevolent place. As all of us know, the learning opportunities of life become increasingly challenging. As our lives progress, we invest ourselves in relationships, careers, children and possessions. Every life includes losses and failures. The more we have invested, the more we believe that something is part of our identity, the more painful a loss or failure is. Every life includes huge challenges to our beliefs that we can survive, that we are good people in a good world, that suffering and pain are the exception rather than the rule.
Beyond the characteristics of particularly painful and difficult-to-process trauma noted above, there are certain circumstances that magnify the challenge we face.
1. The sense that we have been targeted
2. The intensity or scope of the loss
3. The persistence or repeated nature of the trauma
Of these, the last one is the most debilitating. If we have a pre-existing weakness in our trauma-processing skills, do not respond quickly as we recognize a threat to our wellbeing or cannot escape from the situation for some reason, repeated and continuing identity trauma has the effect of cumulatively weakening both the foundation beliefs of our identity and our ability to process loss.
This is the true risk in an ongoing relationship with a sociopath or with anyone who threatens our core beliefs about the essentially benevolent nature of our identity or our world. Many of us make choices to be educated in ways that challenge our beliefs. Attending a philosophy class or learning to ski or starting our own businesses are all equivalent to volunteering for significant learning experiences that we can expect to push us beyond our comfort zones. But we go into them voluntarily, bringing our identity maintenance skills with us, and have the intention of consciously integrating what we learn into who we are.
A relationship with a sociopath is different. The learning challenges we face in the experience are completely different from what we volunteered for.
Not one word of this piece has discussed the sociopath’s characteristic behaviors. This will be discussed in later parts. But from the perspective of our own wellbeing, in particular our healthy maintenance of our identities and our relationship with the world at large, a relationship with a sociopath subjects us to a series of traumatic blows that become more and more difficult to process, and that essentially cultivate diffusion of identity for the sociopath’s purposes.
The next step of healing
Just as the first step of healing occurs while we are “in” the trauma, the second step is likely to begin when we are still in the relationship. Either literally involved with the sociopath as our partner in life, or still attached emotionally to the sociopath with hope for a good resolution. However it also includes internal activities of trying to reframe the situation intellectually, because its apparent meaning is too threatening to our beliefs about our identity and the nature of the world.
This next stage is when we first begin to process beyond the emergency reactions. In the model I am presenting to you, it incorporates both of the “denial” and “bargaining” stages of the Kubler-Ross grief model.
Until then, Namaste. The deep secure wisdom in me salutes the deep secure wisdom in you.
P.S. Here’s a fragment from one of my poems, written in the midst of my recovery process.
They say you can’t learn
until you lose what you love.
They say you can’t get there
until you give up trying.
They say that the way
is through flinging yourself
toward all you ever wanted and loss
that breaks your heart,
dries your spirit to jerking sinew,
and then burns your hope
on the sidewalk in front of you.
They say, through all the waiting silence
you just don’t hear, that it’s not until
nothing is there in the mirror
but a monkey playing its toy violin
that you see
with eyes like windows into another country.
That you see.