I don’t really “want” to write about shame and other difficult emotions because it means having to feel into these feelings. And as many of you know, shame, in particular, can feel annihilating. But the origins of shame are sneaky and we tend to think it’s because something is wrong with US. The same is true for chronic illness. That’s why I’m sharing more of my ME/CFS story (chronic fatigue syndrome).
I’m starting to figure out, at a personal level rather than at the cognitive level as a somatic trauma therapist, that shame is something we learn. It’s something that can get triggered not because of one or two events in the past, but from long periods of exposure in our childhoods or across the generations.
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Healing through a trauma lens is helping me get a better handle on being and working with my difficult emotions, which started popping up in the past few years as my state of deep physiological freeze in my body began to thaw. My states of deep exhaustion and freeze at this biological level are much less than they used to be (see more in my ME/CFS story). As a result, these days I feel more of the overwhelming fight/flight/freeze in my emotions, which is part of what my physiological freeze state was protecting me from. It’s been uncomfortable, to say the least.
I also see it as a sign of progress.
In addition to shame, my other difficult emotions such as grief, fear, and anger have also been influenced by childhood experiences. When there is insufficient support to learn how to process, integrate and regulate difficult feelings, our bodies learn to suppress them as a way to protect us from overwhelm. Other feelings such as joy, love and connection can then get suppressed too.
Having these intense and sometimes overwhelming feelings in the past few years hasn’t been fun. But I understand it to be a way station I’m passing through as I keeping healing and working to recover as fully as I can. Learning how to process, integrate and honor my feelings as an adult is how I am reclaiming my disconnected parts and how my body is healing. And it’s helping me start feeling more connected, connection and love – for myself and for others.
I continue this series on boundaries and effects of adverse childhood relationship experiences (ACREs) with the metaphor of my little white fence as my boundary. I add pictures of the garden these boundaries are allowing me and David to plant.
The Tip of the Volcano
Two years ago I set a boundary with my father. I explained it was effortful to do all the listening in our one-way conversations and that it also made me feel unseen. If these conversations couldn’t include me, I was going to shift to a more superficial relationship with him that took less work on my part. To my surprise, my food intolerances of 10 years started improving within a few days.
Last fall my parents called to wish me a happy birthday. When it was my father’s turn he talked for 30 minutes without inquiring about me.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty small event to elicit the kind of anger I experienced, which I sat with, mulled over and reflected on for a few weeks.
At first blush a strong anger response seems an “overly sensitive” reaction to have for something so minor. My internal critic, and our culture at large, might ask, “Am I not able to accept little imperfections in my parents? Can’t I appreciate all the good things they continue to offer me and the fact that I am lucky to still have parents at all, especially ones who care enough about me to call? Why don’t you just interrupt? Am I just a selfish, ungrateful adult-child who is too focused on myself to control my overreactions and who needs to grow up already? Shouldn’t I just take responsibility and stop playing the victim or looking for attention?”
What we commonly fail to recognize in situations like this one, however, is that feelings of anger do not actually “come out of nowhere.” They are not personality flaws or character defects or the purview of the weak. Neither, for that matter, is “doing all the talking”.
Anger is a natural, self-protective mechanism that occurs when we feel threatened in some way, such as when our boundaries or needs are being pushed aside or overlooked. It is also a state with Energy. When getting mad happens after seemingly inconsequential events, it is often a trauma response. An intelligent process in our bodies seeking to protect us and inviting us to take some kind of action.
I also know something from the other side of the equation because I too, fall into “doing all the talking.” Working with this pattern I’ve learned, in hopes of changing it, has been unexpectedly difficult, taken a lot of time, and has required support through relationships such as in trauma therapy and with David. I still do it on occasion, especially when my social nervous system / ventral vagal connection is absent or lessened and as a result I am less able to attune and pick up cues in others. It happens, in other words, when I’m disconnected or in some version of relative freeze. This, too, is a trauma response.
Both of these states – my anger and when I “do all the talking” – represent survival responses. Both represent tips of a volcano peaking above a waterline that masks a dark, solid, rumbling mass that has been growing for decades or generations beneath the surface, out of sight.
These kinds of reactions look like “overreactions” that come out of the blue – until you start to see the big picture through the trauma lens.
What Lies Beneath Strong Emotional Responses
Strong reactions that get triggered today derive from overwhelming experiences from yesterday.
This is something somatic trauma therapists understand and look for.
We also know that the bigger the present-day reaction, the greater the likelihood the past event was not a single exposure but one that happened through much or most of childhood. We know this as complex PTSD, attachment wounding, developmental trauma or what I refer to as adverse childhood RELATIONSHIP experiences (ACREs).
If you then look for context to the situation, it shows you that it is not a single incident or person that is responsible for the symptom, flare or emotional reaction. This understanding then provides opportunities for healing that also begin to remove blame, shame, and judgment.
The experience of supporting my parents emotionally by listening to them and their concerns throughout my childhood and since (when it is supposed to be the other way around) suggests my physiology is quite skillful at repressing my impulses, needs, longings for connection, and ability to feel my own feelings.
Being a “good girl” suggests that the way I might have gotten connection as a child was by suppressing difficult feelings that could not be tolerated in my family system (due to unresolved parental trauma in that system).
The knowledge I have been disabled by a chronic illness whose predominant physiology reflects a state of hibernation suggests there were no other options for connection as a child, whether that was trying to talk about it so it could get addressed and resolved, getting angry as an attempt to make things change, or trying to get away, which is not a realistic option for a child because they are dependent on their adult caregivers for survival.
Experiences that create a physiological, last-ditch-effort, default survival response of last resort known as freeze are not just the “big things.” They can be little things that look normal but that in actuality have been overwhelming for that person.
In trauma research, freeze is a well-known state that is understood to be a normal, natural biological response to overwhelming circumstances when no other options work. It’s not psychological, it’s a nervous system response to persistent experiences of unresolvable threat or insufficient support to overcome those threats.
When holding this very large context to recognize that a person with symptoms of freeze is beginning to have core feelings – such as grief, joy, or anger – a trauma therapist sees how this may be a Very Good Sign.
They recognize that having feelings of the FIGHT / anger response means that the lava is beginning to flow and that the body’s innate capacity for thawing out of freeze is peaking out to see if it might be possible, this time, to overcome or integrate what has been impossible in the past. It is a state looking to reclaim its rightful access to Energy, which gets suppressed in states of freeze.
Symptoms: The Volcano Below the Surface
The kinds of seemingly tiny, insignificant incidents that I reacted to with anger are similar to events that stimulate symptoms for those of us with chronic illness throughout the day, most every day.
These are triggers.
The more we understand our triggers, the more we start to see how our symptoms – new ones, old ones, sudden ones, scary ones, seemingly unpredictable ones, mysterious ones our doctors don’t know what to make of or do with, etc – do not happen “out of left field.” They are the result of ongoing instructions from a nervous system caught in perceiving threat from certain events and experiences that are reminders of events going back years, decades and generations.
We are starting to understand what overt trauma can look like. The covert, however, remains deeply hidden.
As I move more actively into claiming the fullness of who I am and stepping into my purpose, I want to help make the invisible more recognizable.
Revealing more details of my ME/CFS story evokes some anxiety and guilt as well as belly bloating (freeze). Freeze also shows up through intermittent dips in energy levels. Some of my walks this week have been normal and I was easily able to do my larger 45 minute loops. But some days I’ve only had energy for the medium 30 minute route and on others I’ve only gone for a single 20 minute outing. These flares are common responses in chronic illness when facing real or perceived threat.
I am not facing real threat. That tells me these flares come from taking
action that my nervous system perceives will put me at risk (such as in this case by making myself and my family more visible, and risking shaming them or myself). These symptoms are indications my body is still trying to protect me using what
have historically been my most successful survival pathways: freeze and taking care to not threaten my survival through too much action.
To highlight further how ACREs influence not just an occasional experience of anger but also affect chronic illness symptoms and flares, here are a few examples.
I now recognize origins of some of my flare ups that happen when I visit my family. These symptoms reflect the body of the volcano that lies unseen until you have “more eyes” through which to see.
Some of these patterns my body reacts to are “alive” in my family system. In my family system children are a burden, children’s feelings are invalidated, and children are supposed to take care of their parents. These systemic patterns have been influenced by multigenerational traumas.
The patterns my body runs as part of a reaction to growing up in this environment include the following:
- My severe constipation gets worse when I visit family. This is a flare up driven by a physiological freeze response.
- I have had intense, unexpected feelings of terror during visits and occasionally deep longings to flee. I’ve realized this fear is what I likely stuffed (often into my gut) as a child because there was nowhere to go for the connection I unconsciously craved and needed.
- By the last few days of visits with my family I typically “don’t feel like doing anything” – contributing to a meal, setting the table, helping with the dishes… I just want to sit at my computer and scroll. This is a behavioral symptom driven by a physiological freeze response. It can include the biological freeze state of exhaustion although this has been less intense in recent years. This is partly because I make shorter visits (choice is one of the tools we gain as a result of the trauma lens).
- When I get back to my own home after a family visit I tend to be emotionally disconnected. This is another expression of the freeze response. It used to be something David had to point out to me because these are old coping mechanisms I was never aware I was “running.” It has sometimes taken me 2 weeks to come back into the present, into my body, to move through my feelings of grief or anger and back into my ability to feel love and connection to myself and for David. With awareness and work with this particular symptom of freeze, along with shorter exposures, I now tend to recover more quickly. But I still tend to go into relative disconnection at some point during my visits.
These effects of freeze in my system are not solely because of my father or even ACREs. They are, however, influenced by the ways the family system sees children, as well as by a system that operates in states of relative disconnection.
The body of the volcano represents just how extensive and embedded survival pathways can be that influence our physical, physiological, emotional, mental and behavioral health.
My reasons for sharing my ME/CFS story that includes details about my parents walks a fine line. I love my parents and recognize how much they have given me and that they love me too. I know their actions and omissions were not intentional.
Yet my ME/CFS story is also my own. And it gives me a detailed base from which to demonstrate how the dots connect. My story highlights the subtle yet pervasive extent to which ACRES impact us. It also provides an example of how healing early attachment wounds can make important contributions to our journeys of healing chronic illness.
The Impact of ACREs is Under-Recognized
ACREs are a vastly under-recognized, under-appreciated underpinning in bodies that develop chronic illness, mental health conditions and other effects of adversity. Symptoms arise in bodies that have experienced repeated patterns of misattunement without repair: for hours of every day, throughout every week, for months of every year, over 10 or 13 or 18 years and more.
Such exposures have happened during the periods in which our developing nervous systems, immune systems, respiratory and metabolic, musculoskeletal and ligamentous and other systems have been the most sensitive to input from their environments as a critical source of input on how to prepare for and orient to the worlds they are living in.
The more we can recognize that the flames lapping through the waterline come from a volcano rather than a match, the more we then recognize we are not to blame for our symptoms. That we are not doing anything “on purpose.” That it’s not conscious. That our bodies are merely showing us what has happened to us, not something we’ve done wrong.
Recognizing the role of trauma and adversity is how we learn there is a way through.
One we’ve often been searching for, through thick and thin, through office visit after specialty referral after diagnostic evaluation and beyond. Recognizing the role of adversity helps us begin to see that our bodies are our allies, determined to protect us but still caught in the past trying to first help us survive. Resolving trauma helps shift those inaccurate perceptions so the whole of who we are can come into the present.
This is how I’ve gained compassion and curiosity for myself, my body and the disabling effects of early experiences. This is a way others gain self compassion too.
Taking Action: Boundary I
When I felt the anger after my birthday call last fall, I worked with it from trauma perspectives. I felt into what my body and feelings were reacting to.
A part of me felt old grief from feeling invisible and the perception I was unloved. Shame that I must not be “doing it right” if change wasn’t happening. Unworthiness because it felt like I wasn’t worth the effort it must take to connect with me.
I worked with my anger, chewed on it, gave it space, felt and acknowledged the heat bubbling through my chest and out through my head, sometimes waking me up in the middle of the night.
I listened to what the anger was speaking to because anger is intelligent. It exists to protect and to motivate us to take action and protect ourselves. The hot core of my anger was expressing that I didn’t feel connected to, that I didn’t feel like someone of any importance.
I watched to see if these strategies for being with my feelings would be sufficient to help it move through and resolve..
The anger continued: they weren’t.
During a particularly strong bought of rage I took a long walk on a cold December night. I “cranked,” walking fast, eating up the ground and letting the energy of rage bolt through me. I let my arms move around as they wanted to, I noticed the way they rose up and pushed to set a strong boundary of “no” in front of me.
My feelings narrowed down to grief at my Dad’s inability to connect with me emotionally. My anger focused on my seeming inability to have a boundary.
As I hung out with my feelings, focused but not overwhelmed, an image popped into my head and I wondered what it would feel like if I stopped having conversations with my father on the phone. If I told him he was welcome to call me, welcome to email me, welcome to start a conversation, but that I no longer wanted to do all the listening.
My anger settled and resolved for the first time in weeks.
I wondered if feeling that impulse and allowing it to fully materialize in my imagination was enough to convey a sense of having successfully surmounted a difficult situation. If it might embed the boundary I felt and therefore convey the sense of safety to my nervous system. This is one way our nervous systems can resolve trauma indirectly, shift out of fight / flight response and release underlying states of freeze.
The anger came bounding back like Tigger, however, demanding I pay attention. I realized that I had to set a new, actual, verbal boundary in order to respect my body’s needs. In order to own my feelings and regulate my own emotions because it was something only I could do for myself.
In other words, I needed to use my social nervous system and take action. As an adult who had been healing effects of ACREs and complex PTSD for 20 years, I had access to my words and actions in a way I hadn’t as a child.
When I called and my mother was the one to answer the phone, I let her know I would be setting a boundary with my father to no longer be talking with him on the phone. I explained why so that she wouldn’t inadvertently try to get us together during calls, as she frequently does. And so there would be no secrets for any of us to hold.
I explained to her, in a direct and regulated way, that this pattern of emotional unavailability from my Dad was a contributor to my disabling chronic fatigue of the past 20 years. I felt calm and clear if a little bit anxious and shaky from the enormity of what I felt I was doing.
She heard me when I explained why I was setting a boundary.
I’m not sure the extent to which she could hear the part of how such patterns have contributed to my disabling illness.
My father wasn’t available to talk so I planned to call him in a few days.
In the days before talking with my father my mother’s emails started to shift in perspective. At first she acknowledged the boundary. Then she began to wonder, “Couldn’t you just appreciate all the good things he’s done for you in the past and accept him as he is?”
This was not an altogether unreasonable request. But it was one that allied with the spouse rather than fully hearing or seeing the daughter.
Such lack of acknowledgement and support connects to a young part of me that feels like a sentence standing around without a period to complete its sense of “I Am.”
As an adult, however, I can place that period at the end of my sentences.
My mother’s shifting response stimulated some doubt and shame that I was asking for too much, an old sense I might be “getting too big for my britches.” From a trauma perspective, however, I could see it was also an example of why I had had such strong feelings of hopelessness and despair as a child (and for a long time afterwards).
A child’s sense of Self, self worth, and value are shaped by mirroring – by being seen and accurately reflected by the adults around them.
We heal this by attuning to our own inner child or “little ones” with compassion, holding their hands, listening to their impulses, and honoring their needs.
Saying something and setting a boundary tells our nervous systems that we can protect ourselves through actions and words. Then, our nervous systems, cells, physiologies and bodies don’t have to do it for us by freezing or getting stuck in fight or flight modes.
On the morning I called to speak with my father, my mom answered the phone. In a tone that conveyed she was feeling protective of my father, she said they were about to sit down for breakfast and asked if it was going to take long.
The trauma lens helped me catch my survival-based impulse to be supportive and, instead of saying I’d call back another time, I quietly held my stance.
When I told my Dad I wasn’t going to be talking with him by phone anymore and why, he told me he was disappointed and sad to realize that he’d done all the talking again, and that he hadn’t been aware of it and didn’t seem to be able to stop it from happening. It was new and helpful for me to hear his feelings and I shared that I felt sad and disappointed too. A part of me wanted to dissolve my boundary right then, but I felt that I somehow still needed to start with it as a next step. Not for him, but for myself.
I have reinstated my boundary a few times over the past few months, such as after it got overridden when my parents both stayed on the phone for holiday wishes.
Something remains important about holding this new boundary.
I’m not convinced this is the optimal boundary nor a permanent one. I also know that I have not the desire to share much about myself anymore as a way to try to make a two-way conversation happen and that this boundary is just a next step based on trusting something within myself. My Dad recently told me that he doesn’t have the energy, at this time in his life, to want to try to work on such an old and embedded pattern. I understand this and the acknowledgement settles and calms something inside of me.
As a result of holding my boundary, something new is brewing in me. My sense of self worth is taking baby steps in a new direction.
I feel more trust in myself knowing that I can say what I want to say if the need arises.
There is a new kernel of greater respect for myself because a part of me is protecting my younger self in ways she did not experience.
I am also developing a better relationship with the difficult emotions that can arise at the drop of a hat. One of these is a capacity to start befriending the freeze-inducing, no longer “out of the blue” sense of shame.
I started writing this post because I was trying to better understand why I sometimes fall so easily into nearly crippling shame. That feeling of wanting to melt into the invisibility of death, to never again show my face or say something in any way contradictory or different from authority opinion.
My shame can get triggered after I complete an interview for a podcast, after it gets published, or from the wish I had said a particular thing more clearly, which then overshadows the things I did well. Shame can get triggered from fear that others will judge me for not being articulate enough. Or I can fall into shame when I worry I may have inadvertently led someone to think I’m saying it’s in their head.
I see now that this is just a symptom linked to past times when I wasn’t seen or heard. When my child self unconsciously believed she was failing to get emotional connection because she wasn’t doing it right or wasn’t worthy.
It also comes from shame that lived in my home where I grew up. My parents spoke in shaming ways to one another if they weren’t doing things right.
The wounds of shame and lack of connection are subtle yet pervasive. That young part of me sometimes feels like a pressure-filled balloon that’s missing its umbilical cord, floating aimlessly, unpaired as she is supposed to be, unable to chart her own course.
These kinds of feelings, sensations and beliefs are not character flaws. They stem from early relationship experiences.
It’s not only overt expressions of domestic violence that affect a child. Children also absorb and learn from other, littler things, such as conflict and lack of connection between parents and other family members. If such conflicts never seem to get repaired or resolved, children feel it and learn that such experiences cannot be overcome.
Children believe things happening around them are their fault. This is because children are designed to be Nurtured Into Being through the kind, comforting, attuning witness of parents and other primary caregivers.
Understanding and recognizing our inner children and their wounds gives us the tools to heal in the present.
The healing journey is a process of letting the lava begin to flow and thaw our states of freeze. It’s about making room for mobilization energy and for all our parts. This includes anger and standing up for ourselves when there is a need.
I didn’t set boundaries in hopes my parents would change. I made them to respect myself and my feelings and to help my body process and integrate emotions that have been overwhelming in the past. I made them in support of my healing journey.
When we honor our feelings we feel more whole and capable.
When we can set boundaries and respect our needs, we feel safer. We also gain access to our power, strength and energy.
Healing chronic illness and other effects of trauma is a process of learning what is ours that we can take ownership of and responsibility for because it’s something we can change. It’s also a process of learning what is not ours, not ours to carry, and not ours to fix or change.
Feeling safer, more accepting of ourselves also makes it easier to accept others as they are.
Healing trauma, overt and covert, old and new, is liberating. It shows us that we are not broken. We are gardeners, attending to and amending the soil, clearing obstacles to allow for more sunlight, watering, and building on the innate wisdom that lies within us so we can bloom, just as we are designed to do.
ACREs I: Introduction to Invisible ACEs
ACREs II: How I Overcame Severe Food Intolerances in 5 Days
Transforming Chronic Illness: 20 Metaphors and Tips From Gardening With Your Soul
My Chronic Fatigue Story How Understanding Trauma is Making Sense of My Chronic Fatigue (ME/CFS) and Helping Me Heal (My Chrillog)
Martha Eickmann says
Hi Veronique, :)
First off, beautiful garden! (I love to garden, too.) And inside your immaculately cleaned fence. It looks so cheerful and healing.
There are SO many things I wish I could say and condense into a smaller space than it would really take. I relate to so much of what you write about in this post. (But, for me, with my mother’s inability to connect, or see and accept me, that – I am only realizing now, at 42 – is at the center of my own childhood trauma.) It took me so long to get to the place where I had the capacity to face that realization (in any way other than instinctual survival). And I think it is still easy for me to discount the effects, so I love how you put it here: “for hours of every day, throughout every week, for months of every year, over 10 or 13 or 18 years and more”. That really helps put into context the additive weight of these formative relationships.
This passage was also so immensely helpful to me, to understand my own anxiety around “communication perfectionism”: “I see now that this is just a symptom linked to past times when I wasn’t seen or heard. When my child self unconsciously believed she was failing to get emotional connection because she wasn’t doing it right or wasn’t worthy.” This has been my stress-filled MO, particularly in conversation with my Mom, as she allows for zero margin of error. (But that margin, and the full list of errors, only known to her, and only acutely felt my me.)
I must admit, am still struggling to intellectually understand how much of my own 20 year condition can be attributed to trauma, and how much we just perhaps (collectively) don’t yet know about trauma-like responses (strong sympathetic and/or parasympathetic responses) in primary reaction to organic stressors (such as infection, mercury toxicity, Lyme, mycotoxins, GI dysbiosis, spinal/structural issues, etc.), in addition to experiential/relational ones. I find, in my own system, that the more I work away at uncovering and treating all of those types of organic stressors, the more psychological and neurological space I have to deal with and face into all of the more classically trauma-like stressors that I had to put aside along the way, due to the severity of my condition. As I treat infections, detox (and measurably so), and successfully address my connective tissue pain (apparently a classic place for trauma to be stored, and to come under immune attack with exposures to things like mycotoxins), my dreams begin to shift, I begin to tangibly process old relationship traumas, and my nervous system shifts into what I have come to think of “the healing zone” (possibly a healing amount of parasympathetic dominance?…with deep healing sleep, better digestion, etc.), rather than the sympathetic hyperdrive that I have traditionally been stuck in. In other words, all major success I have ever had in symptom reduction and health expansion, have come from a body-mind approach, rather than the opposite.
And yet…the better I get, the more clearly I am also able to see the deep effects of all of the types of relational patterns that you describe here. The swallowed…everything…including any basic sense of self.
I’ve started to wonder if it might ultimately be impossible to separate the effects of trauma, and those of organic stressors? Maybe the mercury built up so high in my system because my detox pathways were impaired by the type of chronic childhood experiences that kept my nervous system (unknowingly) on edge. Maybe various infections – including the one that apparently triggered my condition – took deeper root (made its way to my brainstem and/or core neurology) and held on longer for the same reason. Or…Maybe whatever that infection was (that took me from fully functioning to fully disabled at 22), would have had a better chance of healing (not leading to chronic, stubborn, life-altering illness) had my parents had any kind of appropriate/healthy/normal response to my illness. (Instead they had none, refused to acknowledge it at all, and I had to figure out – from that frightening and fully compromised position – how to survive.) At that point, I have no doubt that my nervous system was putting out, and registering, life-threatening levels of alarm.
And, then again, I now also know that I have multiple autoantibodies that target the ANS, including the adrenaline receptors responsible for constricting blood vessels, and getting blood, oxygen, glucose, and every other important substance to my brain. (That would be another organic cause for sympathetic hyper-drive, as a system is believed to have to fill with many times the normal amount of adrenaline to get signals through the remaining receptors.)
I guess my point is, I don’t know where the ultimate reality is in all of that, for my own system. Some days I feel extremely overwhelmed by all the possible places to put my attention. (A significant chronic stress, in itself.) What is more cause, and what is more effect? (Or, once it is established, is it more a big self-feeding loop?!)
That ALL said, I so appreciate your blog for so clearly representing one path through the task of figuring oneself out. I continue rooting for you as you continue to work your way down through all of the layers of trauma and its echos, and as your health and energy returns. I understand so intimately your concerns over how to balance your own healing with the exposure of your more personal story, and that of your family. I worry about publishing my own work for the effect it would have on my family…(so often think about doing so only anonymously)…and yet, I am also in search of a “chosen family”, and I’m not going to be able to find them without my real name attached to my story. And I need those future relationships – those who know who I really am, and accept me for that – to heal the effects of my founding ones.
(What a conundrum.)
I dearly wish the world could collectively come to see how much we ALL have to gain from working through our traumas, so that there was no shame, and only a collective giant sigh of relief…that whatever was done to us, and whatever we have un-consciously done (to ourselves, or to others) in response, is now better understood, better under our control, and – importantly – far less likely to repeat its damage.
To that end, honest blogs like your own, are a true gift to us all. Thank you. :)
(Apologies: I was unsuccessful in any efforts to pair that down!)
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes indeed – it is difficult to recognize these experiences and as you put it, “easy to discount the effects.” I’m glad it helps to hear how much exposure a child really has to these patterns ie “for hours of every day, throughout every week, for months of every year, over 10 or 13 or 18 years and more.” I keep “getting it” just a little more every day and month and with every new story I hear, including yours.
“Communication perfectionism” – what an appropriate term.
And your healing journey!!! I love how you find that “my dreams begin to shift, I begin to tangibly process old relationship traumas, and my nervous system shifts into what I have come to think of “the healing zone.” I agree, it sounds very deeply healthy PNS.
And this “I’ve started to wonder if it might ultimately be impossible to separate the effects of trauma, and those of organic stressors?: YES. I think this is the crux of it and why it’s so difficult for medicine to understand how this all works and why it’s not psychological. Naviaux’ work on the cell danger response speaks to this.
I suspect antibodies are an intelligent, directed response by the nervous system to alter certain parts of pathways and threat responses deemed unnecessary or threatening. And that all of these responses can grow and eventually interweave to have cascading effects. I see this as why working to heal trauma, rather than medications or directed therapies alone, may be so helpful because it addresses underlying drivers rather than isolated processes within the web that gets woven.
I know just what you mean about difficulty pairing things down – I clearly have the same issue :-). I’m glad you shared so much here.
I agree with you about wanting the world to understand trauma so we can stop the shame, support the healing that sends its effects out in ripples around every one of us as we heal – and that can allow a “giant collective sigh of relief.” Yes again. I figure each one of us is doing just that – one water droplet at a time :-)
Sending love right back,
Martha Eickmann says
Thank you Veronique. ♥️
Thinking about your post today (and reading through some other readers’ responses) triggered a memory of the podcast at the link below, with Gabor Maté and Dr. Laurence Heller. It deepened my understanding of shame to see it as an adaptive protective mechanism (just like so many other manifestations of trauma): one that develops when it is safer to believe something is inherently wrong with oneself, (some inherent flaw that can be changed…and would therefore secure the needed care of a parent…if only I were to do SOMETHING different…if only I could BE someone different than I am), rather than to face the far more dangerous possibility that a primary caregiver is fundamentally unavailable for that care.
(Then we must face this reality, as adults, when it is finally safe(r) to do so.)
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Small world – I just listened to that terrific podcast a few weeks ago before doing an interview with them that will go up there in the next few months. I love Gabor Mate and his work. I have known about Larry Heller’s work for years but had not listened to him before. These perspectives so align, don’t they? One of Gabor’s big takes is that effects of adversity tend to boil down to ACREs / our earliest relationships. He talked about the “Myth of normal health in an insane culture.”
Beautiful post, yet I can not help but notice that vast parts of you and your narrative seem to be unavailable or missing from the picture. You may like to do Dr Capacchione’s CJEA work around the recovery of the Inner Child. Also, soul retrieval with a qualified and capable practitioner (ideally an indigenous or indigenous-trained person) can help retrieve the fragments of the inner infant and inner child parts of self that split off due to trauma. We often take on the shame of a perpetrator during a boundary violation, such as priest abuse, incest, or sexual abuse from a neighbour or teacher or someone else (or multiple combinations of those). Despite your admirable desire to share only what you know in this blog, keeping intuitive knowing or speculation out of it, it is clear that you suffer from unresolved significant childhood trauma (whether institutional, Familial, or otherwise). I remember how nearly impossible it was to breakthrough dissociation and repressed memories to my first clear, vivid flashbacks or unprocessed childhood experience, being surprised because they weren’t what I thought they would be. It took over a year with a unique professional, after several years on a healing journey, and facing the terror of the feared and the unknown, to begin to access the evil narrative written upon my body by others. I wish you courage and peace.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thank you for your sharing. It is indeed probable there are other layers, including layers outside of my awareness beyond the many I already work with and present on my blog, that remain unresolved and unknown. I do use an intuitive part of myself and am indeed careful with how much I share here, which already feels quite vulnerable. I hold your recommendations with gentleness and will see what emerges. Thank you for your wishes and I wish you peace as well (perhaps your courage has already helped you overcome what you needed to :-).
A wonderful post as always, and one I feel a particular resonance with. Trying to decide to let parents know about certain things is something I should have done long ago. I held back for fear or hurting elderly people, who only meant the best, but I have to voice my old and deep anger at their actions. Even if I voice it calmly.
Thanks and all the best to you.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
The calm way was very helpful for me in not triggering further shame and in not actively shaming my parents through anger or blame. I had hoped I wouldn’t have to say anything at all but my body needed something to be said.
all the best to you too!
Renee S. Alter says
Your post came as I perceive it as synchronicity. What you explained in here about parents speaking in shaming ways to each other… and everything else… describes what I grew up with and am still dealing with at age 65. //
I recently sent an email to my ex-husband (still a friend) to establish boundaries and ground rules for our continued friendship. I married him twice, and each time, it was annulled after a year. My fairy tale ended with my having to flounder on my own and survive horrible living situations. About six months ago, he got involved with two different women… and since he couldn’t talk to THEM, he spilled his guts all over me. I DID NOT WANT TO HEAR what he was telling me. I felt suffocated. But I stuffed it down like the ‘good girl’ I’m supposed to be. (Sharing a bed with her? When you wouldn’t share one with me? Helping her with medical and dental bills when you wouldn’t help me? Helping her with rent when you wouldn’t help me? Yet, you think you can tell me what you’re doing without regard to how I might feel?) But because he was still helping me out from time to time, I felt OBLIGATED to listen to him and read what he texted and emailed. And… I kept getting SICKER and more drained. It took months for me to realize it was connected. I picked up a book a week ago and read a snippet about the importance of setting boundaries. It reminded me that I didn’t have any. I was finally willing to risk losing his help if it meant I established boundaries. I wrote out everything I was angry about, but this is not what I sent him. I just sent “boundaries and ground rules for our continued friendship” such as STOP REFERRING TO ME AS YOUR EX-WIFE AND PRONOUNCING MY NAME WRONG. It opens wounds about the time that… And STOP SHARING DETAILS ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH ME. It opens wounds about the time that… I am still bleeding with the aftermath of trauma. Please respect my feelings. // I am still cooling down from the adrenaline it took to do this. // I pray my food sensitivities and chronic pain level improves just as yours has.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Setting boundaries really can get that adrenaline going! And it so helps to have clarity when we set them, as it sounds you had in spades once you figured it out. A gentle congratulations to you and wishing you many positive effects from your Care for Yourself in these tender ways. xoxo
Richa Badami says
What a wonderful blog, Veronique. Thank you for stepping into the vulnerability and using your own lived experience to demonstrate how you navigated your particular situation. I related to so many parts of your story! First of all, I LOVE your garden, and although my heart skipped a beat that you had to cut down that stunning Cranberry tree I was just admiring when it all came together later, it just MADE SENSE that you had to do that. Such a powerful metaphor for life. Over the recent months, I have been on the phone/facetime with my parents more and more with ease, laughter, and joy. This is after a good 5-7 year sabbatical, tending to the many layers of trauma that had emerged as an adult on my own journey of recovery and healing. As someone who interviewed you for a show, I found it hard to imagine you would ever, even remotely, be even slightly uncomfortable, maybe because I just think you are the bomb.com when it comes to your area of expertise. That being said, I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt that every. single. time. I have EVER spoken or made an appearance on any show, whether video or audio, I have felt so extremely triggered, fearful and anxious – so hearing you share this was a big deal for me. That’s why we do what we do, isn’t it? Open up our stories, share them, risking the vulnerability, and doing it anyway! (FYI – my books are arriving this week and I will be shipping yours to you shortly!!!). Thank you for all you do, I am so grateful to have met you. Sending so much love.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Yes, we debated for an entire year about our tree and it was a difficult move to make (so many of these boundaries and moves we take feel like risks and sometimes like especially BIG risks).
Who knew that we both have such feelings of discomfort being visible during interviews eh? I would have never guessed it given all that you do and did and the family members you interviewed on top of it all as part of your own journey :-) – I’m so happy to hear about the laughter and joy coming into your relationships and am so happy for you! It is indeed about finding our ways to do it anyway :-) Thanks Richa!
Marit Digernes says
Veronique, thank you for your bold, fearless and at he same time fine, emphatic and wonderful way of writing about things which is difficult to describe using simple words.
Examples from your own genuine, real life makes it is easier to comprehend and connect to what you are telling.
As always, I can find many matches to my own life by reading your post. Thank you for sharing your genuine knowledge and experience, it really resonates with me and makes me feel more whole.
Best of wishes,
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I’m so glad going into my personal story helps make sense of something, including matches in your own life. That is my hope for taking this risk (which feels quite vulnerable!) and I’m so appreciative that it helps you feel more whole. How wonderful. Thank you and Love to you xoxoxo
Cheryl Miranda says
Thanks, Veronique for this viscerally illuminating post. Really amazing how your physical issues eased after you took some self-protective steps in your familial relationships.
I am someone who is struggling with letting go of shame, I can say this really touches deep in my core. I struggle with guilt and shame, that guilt that they were good sometimes but their goodness was couched with superiority or they looking down on me. Making me feel like I was inadequate for not coping with the loss of my mother, an abusive father, sexual abuse, and scoliosis. Having scoliosis was so shameful both physically, psychologically, and psychically. It is only now with my son’s total acceptance of me as a mother and a pretty amazing human (according to him) that the feeling of shame is slowly dissipating. I feel grateful for having this loving mirror in my life. Now when I feel less than I am able to shift how I see Me. My internal I is becoming more clear.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
It’s an interesting dynamic we can struggle with, isn’t it? That sense that because of someone’s good qualities and care we cannot dislike or say no to things that aren’t supportive or that are painful or harmful for us. Or the challenge when what “looks good” is actually not quite what it looks like or what we are allowed to acknowledge.
I love how you are able to take in being loved and found to be amazing (by someone who it sounds like you gave this to as well). We heal in so many beautiful and often unexpected ways – thank you for sharing this part of your story. I’m so glad your internal is becoming more clear.
I am no expert, though I am training to be a coach.
In the incident where your parents called for your birthday, and your dad talked for 30 minutes without including you… you list several questions.
My question is: why do all these questions include NEGATIVES?
e.g. “Am I NOT able…” “CANNOT I…”
and are yes or no questions?
Perhaps you are asking the wrong questions
and/or they are asking them incorrectly .
“Quality questions create a quality life. Successful people ask better questions, and as a result, they get better answers.” – Tony Robbins
Have you tried asking HOW questions instead?
e.g. “how can I…?”
I find they are much more empowering.
All the best,
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Indeed. “How” questions tend to be empowering and to come from a place of self agency, such as, “How can I make this situation better? How might I act or work with this differently? How might I turn it around this time? How can I learn from the past? How might (an empowered role model) act?”
What’s interesting to note is that the kinds of “Why” and negative questions I included in the post are remarkably common for people with chronic illness. These are effects of trauma and reflect a state of freeze. They are a form of self-blame that has typically been learned, often in childhood, unconsciously and for survival because acts of self agency have been repeatedly ignored, overridden, derided, dismissed or attacked in some way.
These kinds of questions therefore tend to arise from having already tried the “How and What” questions to the point of experiencing nervous system states of perceived threat / lack of safety because agency has been unsuccessful, overwhelmed or even dangerous (such as under conditions of physical or sexual abuse, but also, as in today’s example, through much more subtle experiences).
What I hear more commonly than I ever imagined from those with chronic illness is that such experiences tend to have happened with people in positions of relative power / hierarchy who are “supposed to know more” than we do: parents, teachers, doctors, sports coaches, priests etc. In such situations, we believe them rather than ourselves because we assume they must know more or know better. We assume that we are wrong if they tell us we are, or if they don’t believe what we are saying or don’t look at or wonder about or take responsibility for their own actions, misses, behaviors etc. As a result, we learn to believe that our own impulses / signals / feelings / words / actions / agency must be invalid (or that taking action or speaking up may cause us harm, such as when a doctor dismisses a symptom and tells a patient it must be in their heads).
Turning our ‘How” questions into self-blame is a way in which self agency and empowered action such as communication / boundaries / anger / fight / flight have been turned inwards against the self because it has not been safe. It’s what others have trained a child to believe.
Using a trauma lens, therefore, can help work through the many hurdles persons often face who are seeking support.
Once people with chronic illness become conscious of such “why” questions or “negative questions,” we can explore them with curiosity. This can help remove the shame a person typically holds for feeling weak and disempowered. It provides a place to wonder about their own impulses, such as anger and how this may be appropriate even if not always seemingly appropriate in degree. This makes room to support where such impulses come from, to look at the inner wisdom that has something valuable and valid to express, and to then explore self agency in the kinds of delicate ways often needed when this has been thwarted to the point of eliciting freeze responses (such as my needing to go through 4 or more processes to make a simple request and set a single, clear boundary). That’s because these kinds of impulses that enable us to say no, such as to certain behaviors we have perhaps already worked with for years or decades, may have been suppressed or ignored for our survival.
Ultimately, a trauma lens makes it easier to recognize and work with the often extensive levels of complexity that can arise as we work to develop and strengthen self agency.
Oh my goodness. I don’t even know where to start. I relate to this so much. My mother talks at me all the time, a running monologue, and I feel so unseen by her. I am an only child of a single parent and she wasn’t ever able to see me as a child unless I was in complete wailing distress. She loves me, I know, and she very much wants to be a good mom. I have learned through therapy that what she wants though is her version of a daughter and not who I really am. I don’t think she is able to see me as a person separate from her at all. I have so much anger toward her (she is also controlling and somewhat passive aggressive) and I have moved hundreds of miles away just to be able to feel like I can breathe. But when I talk about it I always feel like a whiner–she comes across to other people as warm and personable and thoughtful, though a bit overmuch. I just last week had a friend tell me that something I was upset that my mom had done was “just not that big a deal” and I should “let it go.” Which made me feel even more invalidated and irate. You have done such an amazing job here of explaining the trauma cycle and why the feelings are so large and why it IS, in fact, a big deal, and why I am unable o simply let it go. Whew!
I have only been struggling with these chronic health issues since contracting Covid last April, almost a year ago,. so am new to all of this and how these emotions affect my body, though I’ve had migraines all my life. I’ve been working with a sponsor through alcohol recovery for the past few years to learn how too implement boundaries FINALLY. My mother has no idea what a boundary is. Your setting boundaries with your father around phone calls is inspiring. Thank you for sharing that story. I’ve subscribed to your blog. I”m looking forward to following your journey. xo
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I’m so sorry to hear about the chronic issues you are having post Covid and CONGRATS on finding your way to implementing BOUNDARIES! Finally indeed. It’s a work in progress for us all, each in different ways as we chip away at some of the impacts of these experiences. Your examples fit right in with all I was saying and I’m so glad the post helps with making sense of things. That alone can make such a difference indeed. Welcome to the tribe!
Marc Scheffer says
Thank you so much for this post. I think you take the uppermost professional way as a therapist yourself to be able to confront yourself, even publicly, with the inconvenient truth in yourself. You show the way by researching yourself honestly. I try to do that myself too, also therapist (in healthy breathing and stressreduction). Well, stress is involved in anyone and it can deregulate breath, that was my own experience. I could solve that partly with Buteyko techniques. Only recent, two years ago, I was pointed to the Polyvagal theory of Steven Porges when educated to be mindfulnesstrainer. When I read about shame and how it can be part of our basic reaction to exclusion I thirst wondered if I had that emotion myself. I was shocked completely to recognize this feeling of shame was part of my life for so long. I did never came in my mind that feeling was shame! Maybe that would be shamefull too?!
Shame feels like a very painful, paralysant state to be in. At 48 ears of age finally something changed when I started doing bodywork. I intuïvely knew I had to do that. Once after such a bodywork exercise I felt completely relaxed. As far as I could remember that had never happened before in my life… I also was amazed the energy of my narcistic father and alcoholistic mother seemed out of my body for that moment!
So this next important step was to recognize the shame. Yes, my career was not as good as expected, my father said to me I was layzy. In fact I was frightened. Also, especialy for him and al not responsible authorities (there is a lot of them of course…).
The ground to feel shame was also the fact I didn’t feel able to continue my work in university and searching for destination ever since. Until in 2010 I could relate with my heart to work that is fullfilling ever since. God bless! The most god blessing element in this so long period of shame and cramp was the 100% unconditional love of my wife. But still I had to solve the shame. Yes by putting boundaries, you are so right. No longer listen to family that talks so much, with so little connection to each other. I can be trapped in talking without listening too. So I have to water my garden every day and count my blessings with to beautiful kids!
Your blog was the blessing of today, thank you for that. I hope you can help and inspire so much more people.
With a salute from the heart,
Marc Scheffer (Holland)
PS You must have heard of the famous female Anthropologist Margaret Mead?
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thank you for being so open in writing about your experience, and for writing all the way from Holland. I appreciate how the body work helped – I hear this from people when they remember an experience like yours where suddenly something is no longer in their body and it’s the first time they’ve ever felt themselves so free and clear. Also, I am so happy for you having 100% unconditional love from your wife and blessings with your kids! My husband’s love is healing for me too. I use polyvagal perspectives every day and every day they help me find self compassion instead of self. Wishing you a lovely practice watering your garden. I have heard of Margaret Mead and I am guessing that’s why you called me Margaret :-)
With a big salut right back from my heart
My family dynamic is so similar to yours. You are giving me clarity and direction towards healing, after years of research, experimentation, and getting worse. You are saving my life by talking about your family dynamics. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
I’m so glad revealing my own story like this is so helpful. You are welcome, welcome, welcome. xoxo
Ayani Oriel Pont says
Now during lockdown, I did not visit my mother, and it was so regulating to stay at my place for all those weeks, not travel around, having very little sensory input in terms of sensory exposure.
1. When I visit my mother, there is a lot of AVOIDANCE going on – I procrastinate, before I leave my flat, I suddenly get busy, doing this and that, not really wanting to leave, and often I arrive at my mothers around 4 pm.
2. when I finally arrive, I already feel stressed out from the 2hr train ride, so I feel rather irritable.
3. the strange thing is: I feel sudden sadness and pain in chest /lung area (last time the pain was so strong, I had to flee basically, I could not stand to stay 5 min longer.
4. As soon as I arrive at the train station, the pain in my chest/lung area has lifted and I feel relief. but feel drained, when arriving at my own flat SAME PATTERN every time.
When I participate in a workshop, where there are many people, I usually fall into a freeze response for 1-2 days after the workshop, feeling depressed and not wanting to do anything.
When I come home, already that will be regulating, my flat is the place I feel safe.
So I usually watch a NETFLIXseries, like Outlander or XFiles, or dive into researching a topic, which all are deeply regulating and help my system to recover.
After 1-2 days, this state lifts, and I am back at my own self.
Autism-Related Catatonia: Shut Downs, Mobility, and Speech Difficulties
So what exactly is catatonia?
Dr. Lorna Wing in the UK was one of the first people to see an overlap between the features of autism and catatonia before anyone else did.
Dr. Amitta Shah, clinical psychologist, and Dr. Lorn Wing have recommended a psychological approach which is based on their finding that stress and anxiety, and side effects of psychiatric medication are the main causes of catatonia-like breakdown (Wing & Shah, 2000).
This is an individual approach which investigates the particular stress for the person concerned and addresses this based on a comprehensive psychological assessment and working with carers and local multi-disciplinary teams to implement a holistic plan.
The main aspects of this approach include the following (Shah, 2016):
early identification of possible indicators
psycho-education to promote understanding of the condition, in particular to carers, professionals and service providers
searching for and eliminating any possible causes such as psychiatric medications
assessment of the person’s autism and their vulnerability to stress
identification of stress factors which may include environmental, lifestyle, and psychological
reducing and eliminating stress factors which may include changes in the environment, daily program, increased staffing and support, etc.
providing verbal and physical prompts to overcome movement difficulties.
Do you know about temporary catatonia/shutdown ?
In 2017, when I was invited to Belgium over the weekend, to spend time with 3 lovely ladies, you would think that this was regulating, right?
But I did not know in advance, what I had gotten myself into, the information I was given beforehand, was VAGUE at best.
And at the time, I had no idea about Trauma and the Somatic Experience approach, so this weekend was deeply upsetting to my nervous system, because there were no breaks – that “trauma-work” we did (NO titration, but basically non-stop, taking turns in telling a painful story from the past..crying) The ladies had no issue but I just froze completely.
So THIS happened: when I can’t get away from people, and have my solitude to recharge, I get into sensory overload and I go into catatonic freeze (like shell shock), don’t interact, don’t talk (because getting the words out is so hard, as the brain does not function properly, I feel so brainfogged at this point (has to do with autism too, not just trauma) don’t move, I just sit there feeling this overwhelming sadness inside.
And after that weekend was over, I was feeling passively suicidal for a WHOLE MONTH (!). It took that loong to recover from sensory overload and come out of freeze response.
Since then I avoided to ever participate in something like this.
If I ever take part in a workshop or training again, I would need to have my single room, and no such intense direct personal interaction.
Veronique Mead, MD, MA says
Thanks for sharing this experience – it speaks to just how important it is for professionals to understand freeze in its oh-so-many forms, including catatonia and how it can show up (what you describe in visiting your mom and in your workshops makes so much sense as a trigger/flare response). And it’s so important for professionals to understand trauma and concepts of titration, boundaries and going at our own pace in ways we need that also support us.
Trauma can be such a tricky area to navigate. I’ve had symptoms and flares after some of my trauma trainings that have lasted for weeks and required trauma therapy sessions for me to recover. It tended to involve interactions I had during practice sessions. The more I understood over the years, the more I was able to recognize what I needed, what worked and didn’t, and to do the self care I needed. Congrats on your learning and self care! xoxo