Once again the joy and challenges of the holiday season have arrived — accompanied by expectations, hopes and a sense perhaps of inventory taken at this time of year.
We look back on the year with feelings of accomplishment, awe, sadness, happiness and insight. Perhaps with joy; perhaps with regret.
However this year has been, there is an aspect of the passage that’s always helpful to remember: There is opportunity for evolution, development and growth — as painful as this may be at times.
Some may say nothing has changed; I feel just the same as last year. If we look closely at our lives, however, we may notice small, minor adjustments that took place unbeknownst to us.
Perhaps we were a little more compassionate with ourselves when before we had been harsh. Perhaps an experience with another person or some event gave us pause for thought and reflection in a way that had not been considered before.
Taking inventory on the small things in life, the “lesser,” even insignificant experiences, often holds greater significance than we realize. Insight and wisdom from what we may have passed by us as inconsequential.
Charles Dickens, the great author and social commentator of Victorian England, made much note of the importance of how we treat our fellow man. He stressed in his way (in books such as “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol”) the importance of the “small things,” “the small kind gestures,” unnoticed yet relevant. These hold great weight in the big picture of creation and in the leading of a happy and meaningful life, Dickens tells us.
In daily life, perhaps it’s offering a smile, a kind tone, a small consideration, a validation phrase, encouragement, empathy, selflessness without expectation of reciprocity. With those we love, those we like and those we don’t even know. These kindnesses can be healing and strengthening to the core of who we are.
Try it out this holiday season: A simple smile at the store clerk. A gesture of goodwill. A helping hand to someone crossing the street who may appreciate it. A comment of appreciation. Something small warms the heart more than we may imagine. Feel the inner glow!
Have a wonderful holiday season with good wishes, much fun and heartfelt good cheer!
The negative emotional impact of untreated trauma states, and healing interventions
By Katrina Wood, Ph.D
Single-episodic traumatic experiences often result in symptoms of explosive outbursts of helpless shame and rage. Untreated, the inability to process and contain the magnitude of world-shattering experiences wreaks havoc in the lives of many.
These experiences and emotions do not discriminate. They cross socioeconomic borders, penetrating lives in all cultures, races and religions. They haunt the projects and ghettos of our cities as well as the gated communities of our middle- and upper-class suburbs. Shame and rage are rife in society — unrecognized, misinterpreted and misunderstood (Kahn, 1963).
An emotionally unsafe hearth makes for an ill-prepared emotional future
Single-event traumas and cumulative trauma experiences can be disorienting and world shattering. Long-term traumatic states, arguably, are harder to detect or recognize. Shame and rage can result from an inability to express vulnerable emotions as subjective traumatic experiences are undergone, great or small.
The extent to which a caring relational home exists arguably is key to the outcome of trauma. A secure foundation, providing emotional understanding and psychological meaning, is vital for the emotional integration needed to cope with traumatic experiences and events.
Without this crucial “home core,” children and their adult selves remain greatly challenged over time. They potentially lack the resilience to withstand inevitable single-episodic traumas, or life-threatening events.
Discrete trauma states may worsen when experienced with a consistently insufficient family foundation — perhaps creating an emotional time bomb. A voice of shame declares the emotional exposure of the self to be unsafe and unacceptable; a voice of rage represents an attempt to break through such unbearable conflict.
In response to shame’s crippling declaration that feelings are weak, even dangerous, rage declares that feelings do matter: I am vulnerable, but I am safe only in my protective cloak of anger.
Often well-intentioned parents and caregivers, following outdated societal parenting principles, exercise limited skills and awareness by failing to encourage expressions of loss in the context of a relational home. By focusing on the “positives” — the future, and “the bright side of things” — they cause trauma states to become even more pressurized with the expectation that the suffering cease within an expected time frame.
Ironically, by dwelling on, validating and normalizing a wider range of emotions (for as long as necessary), trauma states are more likely to lessen in intensity — to become regulated and integrated naturally.
When this emotional hearth is absent, family members may become confused and bewildered by the sudden explosion of children or adult children, as they reveal historical wounds. These are defenses against unacknowledged historical pain and loss, often delivered with a biting harshness and with critical tirades. (Stolorow, 2007) (Kahn 1963) ( DSM V)
Shifting the focus
Society does not sufficiently view as core values the dwelling on loss, vulnerability or expressions of pain. Yet our common human condition is built upon these shared experiences and emotions. This is precisely where we deeply need to reside collectively, in order for healing to transpire. When pain and loss are muzzled, and adaptive states are applied with mute compliance, shame and rage result. (Brandchaft 2010)
What is a trauma state?
Trauma states arguably are aspects of our affective system that become paralyzed or frozen when emotions are experienced in isolation — usually in the absence of a contextually understanding relational home. Trauma states often unveil a set of painful beliefs that hold vulnerable emotions as unacceptable — and by extension some aspects of the self. These beliefs render a paralyzing inability to address or even acknowledge the existence of unbearable suffering.
Often misunderstood, “Diamonic” rage and anger are likely emotions attempting to break the silence of such excruciating isolation, in an effort to connect. The lack of integration and regulation of such powerful emotions can cause great problems in family systems and the community, however, and may often wreak havoc on the self. When there are no cuts, bruises, or concrete evidence to substantiate painful experiences, trauma states can be difficult to detect. Symptoms not dissimilar to those of PTSD may result.
Anger outbursts, night terrors, dissociation and suicidal ideation are all symptoms of traumatic experiences that include emotional neglect. When child or adult displays symptoms of aggressiveness or becomes combative, they may target a potential scapegoat — a more vulnerable person such as a sibling, neighbor, classmate or coworker.
A child or adult who is unable to state with confidence to another, “Your behavior, your language, your tone, is scaring me,” becomes at risk for developing shame and rage. Over time, the lack of receiving language such as, “Yes, I see you, I see my behavior is causing you distress. It makes sense. I will attempt to modify my behavior for your well-being,” will likely bring forth symptoms of enduring cumulative trauma states, resulting in shame and destructive attacks to the self or to another. (Hopkins 2008) (Jacobs, 1999) (Diamond, 1996) (Widom, 1999)
Example of enduring shame-based trauma states and how it develops in the case of “emotional toughness”
A boy experiences a difficult day at school. He speaks of being pushed around on the play yard. There is distress in his face as he attempts to share his painful and frightening experience with his father. The parent, rather than acknowledging the boy’s experience with interest and concern, quickly dismisses the distress with a curt remark that “boys will be boys.” His son should not be scared but “tough it out.”
The child learns that his feelings, his experiences and his view of life do not matter. He feels shame. He burns with anger. His vulnerability has been stomped upon. He wonders if even “he” matters. Is he lovable?
The boy agrees with his father in order to retain his approval. The boy hides the cumulative shameful trauma states, which continue to develop over the years as his father imposes these principles upon him. His experienced trauma states become a gathering storm, leading to an ill-prepared future for coping with extreme single-episodic life events of loss.
At 13 years old, he discovers that marijuana will deaden his vulnerable feelings and longings. At 16 years old, the boy has experienced multiple losses due to the absence of a relational home, and has begun using heroin as a powerful way to remind himself that no feelings at all are better than experiencing pain in isolation. Minimization and “carried shame” become common adaptive tools, handed down from parent to child, to avoid the impact of overwhelming feelings of unacknowledged loss and longing.
Many families long to share pain, fears and losses with each other. Yet, perhaps from intergenerational and societal norms, they, too, have learned to withhold the deepest aspects of their authentic selves. Due to lack of support and effective treatment, they attempt to cope in dysfunctional ways. Sadly, they become divided and disengaged, existing in painful states of isolation and loneliness for decades.
A fearful yet courageous person who comes into therapy to speak “the truth” of his emotional experiences (in whatever way he attempts to communicate) requires encouragement to express more expansive states or feelings.
Often presenting at first with self-deprecating language and minimization of him or herself, such individuals respond to the keen therapeutic ear and eye. It is crucial for the therapist not to collude, but to recognize that certain behaviors are the result of various strains of traumatic experiences — and that defensive anger often presents for fear of anticipating further shame. (Bradshaw, 1988) (Brandchaft, 2010 ) (Stolorow 2007)
Hope lies ahead. In the recognition and cautious normalizing of essential vulnerability, our fundamentally shared human condition. At its core this is our greatest hope for authentic intimacy, arguably providing long-term sustainable results, reducing toxic shame and debilitating rage.
Strength and healing lie within this awareness. As greater vulnerability is revealed and therapeutically shared with contextual understanding, making way for the expanded expression of affects such as loss, pain, fear, hope and joy, long-term sustainable healing often will result.
Being in a committed relationship is a wonderful experience. Two people in a sacred union, sharing love, responsibilities, perhaps children … their lives.
For some, nothing is more important in this life.
But what about attractions to people outside the relationship — from mild flirtations to overt emotional affairs?
Even in the most committed relationships, there inevitably arise questions about the limits and boundaries of these social interactions.
All couples are different, of course, with varied levels of acceptability and tolerance.
Traditionally, sexual fidelity is at the core of solemn vows. But then some couples seek out alternate sexual lifestyles such as “open marriages.” There is no universal definition of the acceptable and reasonable — what crosses the line, perhaps into dangerous and destructive places.
Crossing the line
Some questions to ask yourself:
1. Do I find myself wanting to be with this other person more than my partner? If this is the case, reflect on why. What is it about this relationship that makes it appear to be more fulfilling than your current one?
2. Do I more often share intimate aspects of my life with this other person than with my partner?
3. Do I call or text this person more than my partner? Do I tell myself I do this because it is work related — or make other excuses?
4. Do I feel I’m hiding something when I contact this other person; is there a tinge of guilt or excited feelings of secrecy when making contact?
5. Do I find myself wanting to spend more time at the office in order to be with a co-worker?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, there may well be something more than casual flirting in the air. Your current relationship is not running at optimum speed.
Check your feelings: If there is a sense of euphoria, excitement, guilt, urgency or keen desire, then turn your attention to any dissatisfaction in your primary relationship.
Unacknowledged pain and loneliness may well be at the root of this behavior.
About casual flirting
While some may think that casual flirting is also off limits, engaging in this behavior isn’t necessarily a sign of trouble: It often just speaks to our normal and natural state of being “social creatures.”
Enjoying the company of another person does not herald abandonment of your present relationship. Enjoying the company of others in a light, jovial and flirtatious way can be enjoyable and healthful.
Some examples of casual (and harmless) flirting:
● An exchange in a bank line with a person whom you find attractive (nothing wrong with appreciating beauty). Engaging her in conversation because you are enjoying her presence and company for that moment in your day.
● You’re introduced to your wife’s best friend. They share a way of viewing the world and have similar senses of humor. You appreciate her and it makes sense that she is your wife’s close friend. You take a few minutes each time you encounter the friend to engage her in conversation and share some humorous exchanges. You do not dwell; the interactions are brief but still sprinkled with appreciation. You are clear your wife is the person you love. You move on with your day.
What to do
The key to recognizing the distinction between flirting and cheating is an examination of intent, desire, vulnerability and fear.
Be mindful of the personal line you’ve mutually established in your primary relationship. Take notice when you may be at risk of crossing over. Assess and reflect. Know why you’re heading in that direction.
If we are afraid of intimacy — fearful of being vulnerable — then we are likely to seek a wide range of distractions. If, however, we pursue true intimacy, then time spent with our romantic partners becomes central to our lives.
Opportunities to stray become fewer and less appealing as significant relationships deepen and take on the richness of time.
More about fidelity & infidelity:
- When cheating signals larger truths
- What a one-night stand can tell you
- Flirting with disaster: emotional affairs
Heart graphic by Svilen Milev
A friend and colleague said the other day that her daughter had started college and was worried about the grading scheme. The college evaluated students based on papers submitted throughout the school year, instead of the traditional exams at the end of each semester.
“Mom, I can’t write papers,” she declared, “I don’t know how!”
Her mother, as most parents likely would do in the situation, sought to reassure her: “Yes you can, of course you can — it’s just a learning curve.”
My friend’s comment was heartfelt and meant to be comforting.
I’m not sure, however, if the terror that struck the heart of her child was recognized or addressed.
In addition to the reassuring signals from her parent, perhaps this young woman needed her fear to be noticed and understood.
After all, the student’s apprehension and uncertainly were understandable. She was used to taking tests; the exposure to regular writing of papers was unfamiliar to her.
Using an approach of both reassurance and understanding, the mother may have helped her child walk into this uncomfortable experience with fewer feelings of isolation — unbowed by thoughts that she was alone in being afraid of the unknown.
This could have reduced her daughter’s shame and made her far less susceptible to withdrawing from what may turn out to be a rich, rewarding part of her academic life.
When venturing into unfamiliar territory, people often focus on the negative. In our inner worlds, unexpressed feelings can be viewed as unacceptable feelings. This is a shame, because so many of the emotions we find unacceptable are quite normal. By sharing these feelings instead of hiding them, we often discover this to be the case.
We only have to look at the character of the Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” — how terrified he was of embarking on the journey through the forest to the Emerald City! — to know how fear can become all-consuming and distorting while we are in its grip.
We need to remind ourselves that the unknown is daunting for all of us. After sharing these feelings with others, we’re more inclined to step into that darkness knowing our uncertainty is part of being human.
Perhaps it is here where our creativity, courage and curiosity combine to produce the ability to inch forward, step by step, secure in our knowledge that we all face the unknown each and every day.
Now rather than, “I can’t do this,” perhaps we may say, “I don’t know if I can do this, but I am interested in trying — and who knows what may come from the exploration.
“I am not the only one to have fear in the face of something new, I won’t be the last and that’s completely normal.”