Real world trauma vs. “movie trauma.”

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I’m kind of sick of the cultural double standard when it comes to post traumatic stress disorder. 

On the one hand, every Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day, we are flooded with posts and exclamations of how much we value our veterans’ service. 

In popular culture, the zeitgeist has shifted dramatically the last several years toward believing people when they allege they have been the victims of sexual assault. 

The subjects of childhood trauma and attachment trauma are very often addressed in movies, TV shows, and documentaries. 

Looking at the situation from the outside, you’d think that the culture had come a long way toward acknowledging the reality of trauma and its effects. 

But I’m not sure we really have. 

Yes, PTSD gets a lot more publicity than it used to. 

And yes, we give lip service to the fact that it is not victims’ fault when they are traumatized. 

But I work with dozens of trauma patients every month— and from them, I hear a somewhat different perspective on how their difficulties are viewed by the world around them. 

It seems to me we still fantasize about an inherent, nebulous quality called “toughness” that makes some people less vulnerable to, or more able to deal with, trauma than others. 

I know of at least one personal development guru who won’t stop prattling on about “grit” (a quality he has decided that he, specifically, has in abundance). 

As a culture, we produce more popular entertainment than ever that portrays situations that, if they existed in real life, would ONLY result in massive psychological trauma for everyone involved…but the “heroes” of these movies and TV shows rarely, if ever, display even remotely realistic symptoms of post traumatic symptoms. 

It does not seem to me that we glorify recovery from trauma. 

Rather, we seem to glorify immunity to trauma. 

We glorify and mythologize people who seem to be able to “take” a lot of trauma, without flinching or having to pause to regroup their lives. 

We glorify people who “push past” their trauma in order to tell their stories…but we rarely hear about the coping skills those people had to develop and the therapy work they had to do in order to get to the point where they safely COULD tell their stories. 

Don’t get me wrong: trauma survivors are among the most courageous, resourceful people on the planet. If you do trauma work, you will witness courage (including courageous vulnerability) like you’ve never dreamt existed. 

But the real experience of trauma recovery is not like an action movie or a Hallmark special. 

As a culture, we need to check our expectations of trauma survivors— and our responses to them. 

When we are confronted, as a culture, with people who are experiencing the common, predictable aftereffects of trauma— such as addiction, anxiety, and dissociation— we do not tend to respond with sympathy. 

Rather, we tend to respond with annoyance and shame. 

We tell survivors to “get past it.” 

We tell survivors to “not let the past control them” (without telling them much about HOW to not let the past control them). 

And we invariably compare real world survivors to the “gritty,” “tough” survivors we see in popular entertainment— and wonder why they can’t be as courageous and resourceful as those characters. 

If you’re a trauma survivor and you’re reading this: you don’t have to compare yourself to anyone in the media or any character in popular entertainment. 

Those personalities and character have heavily cultivated, carefully managed public personas. 

Your journey is your journey. And it’s likely a lot messier, a lot more exhausting, a lot slower, and a lot less linear than anything you see on TV or in the movies. 

Easy does it. 

Recovery takes the time it takes. 

Take the time you need— and travel the path you need to. 

 

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Your addictions will not go quietly.

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Make no mistake: your addictions will not go quietly. 

They will fight for their right to ruin your life. 

They will fight for their right to lie to you about how much better they can make your world. 

They will fight for their right to steal your time, your money, your energy, and your future. 

I always find it kind of laughable when someone opines that overcoming an addiction is just a matter of “willpower.” 

That it’s just a matter of “saying no.” 

That if you just WANTED to overcome your addiction enough, you’d just DO it. 

I think about this whenever I hear anyone smugly proclaim that people’s behavior invariably reveals their priorities. 

Sometimes peoples’ behavior reveals their priorities…but often it’s more complicated than that. 

Often an addiction has its hooks in a person, and has hijacked their ability to make decisions and be honest with themselves. 

Do not underestimate your enemy when it comes to addiction. 

And do not fall into the trap of believing that people can only be addicted to drugs, alcohol, or behaviors like gambling. 

The internet has made it easier than ever to be addicted, in every sense of the term, to a lot of things that are perfectly legal, often free (at least, at first), and even quite popular. 

Never has it been easier to quickly develop an addiction to pornography. 

Never has it been easier to quickly develop an addiction to social media (which comes bundled with other, more complicated and insidious addictions, such as approval and people-pleasing). 

Never has it been easier to develop an addiction to spending, acquiring, and shopping. 

No one is immune to the potential of addiction. 

No one is inoculated simply because they are “smart” or “strong.” 

And, once hooked, no one— literally no one— has an “easy” time getting away from their “drug” or behavior of addiction. 

The good news is: once we see an addiction for what it is, we really can defeat it. 

It’s not easy, it’s not simple, and it’s usually not quick. But it is possible. 

Overcoming addiction requires a lot of honesty with ourselves. That’s hard. 

It requires us to voluntarily say “no” to experiences that, even if they are demonstrably destructive in the long run, often make us feel better in the moment. That’s really hard. 

And overcoming addiction usually requires us to identify things that are more important to us, in the big picture, than avoiding pain and feeling pleasure. That’s really, really hard…especially if we’ve lived lives that have tended to be short on pleasure and long on pain. 

But it’s possible. 

All of it is possible. 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s ugly and it’s tiring and it has a tendency to make you mad at God for creating a world in which our brains are so susceptible to getting hooked on things as stupid as porn or social media or online shopping. 

But it’s also very much worth it. 

I don’t know why we’re wired this way. 

But I know that it’s never too late to rewire ourselves. 

You’re never too old or too far gone to go from “addict” to “recovering addict.” 

No matter that that voice in your head is telling you. 

 

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Victims are not responsible for having been abused. Full stop.

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Vulnerability takes many forms. 

It can look like physical frailty, lack of strength, or lack of size. 

It can look like lack of information or experience. 

It can look like physical or psychological disability. 

It can look like youth— or age. 

Factors that might not make one person particularly vulnerable, might be devastating to another person’s ability to make decisions and defend themselves. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to assessing vulnerability. Everybody’s capacities, including their relative strengths and weaknesses, are at least a little different. 

There is one thing we can say across the board when it comes to vulnerability, however: when someone is vulnerable, they are not responsible for what is done to them by a less vulnerable person. 

Children tend to be more vulnerable than adults, due to their youth, size, and lack of life experience. They are not responsible for what is imposed on them by adults. 

No child is ever responsible for having been abused by an adult. 

No child is ever “to blame” for not having reported abuse or not having asked for help. 

Children are not responsible for the trauma inflicted upon them, or for not being able or willing to reach out for help. 

Most of us might instinctively realize the truth of this. Even though many childhood abuse victims grow up blaming themselves either for being in an abusive situation in the first place, or for having “let it go on” by not reporting, most of us— at least when we step back from the situation— have a hard time holding a child responsible for having been abused by an adult. 

Many of us are not as charitable when it comes to adults, however. 

Many people, even if they are willing to be realistic bout the fact that children don’t “ask for” trauma or abuse, then turn right around and hold adults to a much different standard. 

When an adult is in an abusive situation, it’s often asked why that adult didn’t simply leave. 

When an adult is in an abusive situation, it’s often asked why they let it go on, instead of reaching out for help or reporting their abuser. 

It is very important to understand that many of the same factors that keep children from escaping or reporting abuse, are operational with adults…especially if those adults grew up having been abused. 

In order to escape, avoid, and prevent abusive situations, specific knowledge and skills are necessary. Emotional regulation skills, planning and organizational skills, and behavior management skills all come into play. 

If you can’t manage your fear, figure out how to escape, be able to plan where to go and how to avoid the potential danger presented by an abuser, you’re not going to get far. 

People aren’t born knowing how to do all of that. 

And if people grow up being abused themselves, it’s unlikely they’ve learned. 

In fact, it’s very likely they’ve not learned any of those skills, at least not in an applicable way. 

The variable at play here isn’t age. It’s vulnerability. 

The same standard simply does not apply to more vulnerable people and less vulnerable people. 

Assuming that everyone in an abusive situation had equal resources to escape it is like assuming that everyone has equal resources to pay for attorneys when they get into legal trouble. 

It just isn’t the case. 

The temptation to blame or shame adults who find themselves in abusive situations is strong. 

We like to blame and shame them, because it reinforces this delusion that WE’LL never be in that situation, because WE know how to prevent or escape it. 

Blame and shame don’t help anyone. 

That goes DOUBLE for blaming or shaming yourself. 

We need to get past it. 

We need to realize that abuse situations really do a number on our ability to cope and function. 

And above all, we need to get realistic and compassionate about what abuse victims need. 

 

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Remembering what we know.

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Most of the time, you don’t need a therapist or coach— let alone a “guru”— to tell you what to do. 

That’s not because therapists and coaches don’t know what they’re doing, or because therapy or coaching isn’t valuable. 

(The guidance of self-styled “gurus” may be a different matter.)

It’s because most of the time, we don’t need to be told what to do— we need to be reminded of what we know. 

You have wisdom, intelligence, and experience. 

That’s right. You, right there, reading this. 

If you’re reading this blog, you probably even have a fair amount of knowledge and experience specifically with recovery skills, therapy tools, and personal development programs. 

The value of therapy or coaching isn’t necessarily in all the profound wisdom or new philosophies and tools they make available to us.

We have tools, skills, and wisdom available to us right now. 

The problem is, we very often struggle to remember and use those things when we need to. 

This isn’t our fault. When we struggle to remember or use what we know, it’s not because we’re stupid, incompetent, or worthless— no matter what that little voice in our heads insistently says. 

No, when we struggle to remember or use what we know, it’s most often because we’re stressed, triggered, or exhausted. 

Those circumstances make it difficult for ANYONE to remember and use what they know. 

The keys to successful recovery or personal development are probably not going to be uncovered by paying thousands of dollars to a self help guru for the latest and greatest course in “Mental Mastery and Power.” 

Rather, the keys to recovery and personal development are figuring out ways that work for you— you, specifically— to remind yourself of what you know, when you need to be reminded (and, yes, sometimes a therapist or coach can play an important role in figuring that out). 

How can we remember what we know, when we need to know it? 

First thing’s first: make a list. 

Make a list of every single thing your therapy, your reading, and your experiences have taught you about recovery and personal development. 

No insight is too small. 

Everything that is true– but, more importantly, useful– makes the list. 

You’ve learned ways to reality test your thoughts. 

You’ve learned ways to distract yourself long enough to let a craving pass. 

You’ve learned ways to tolerate pain and discomfort. 

You’ve learned ways to energize and motivate yourself (even temporarily). 

Write them all down. Keep a running list. Add to that list throughout the day as things occur to you. 

Keep your list handy. 

Keep it on your phone, or in your planner, or in a notebook you carry with you most of the time. 

You’re going to need to keep it handy because you’re going to be reviewing it— a lot. 

The not-so-secret secret about all of this is: we have an easier time remembering what we see, hear, read, and think repeatedly. 

I want you reviewing your list of skills and tools— very often. 

I want you reviewing it during down times in your day. 

Review it while you’re on hold on the phone. During commercials while you’re watching TV. While you’re waiting for the microwave to ding. 

Review that list until the tools, skills, and insights on that list become as second nature as your Social Security number or the lyrics to your favorite song. 

Understand: compiling your list and imprinting it on your brain is just a start. 

But it makes everything else enormously, exponentially, unequivocally easier. 

 

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Work hard. Work smart. Stay sharp.

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There’s no guarantee that the things you put work into, will work out. 

I wish there was such a guarantee. 

It’d be amazing if hard work was the only factor that went into whether a project was successful or not. 

Unfortunately, however, we all know the truth: hard work does not guarantee a successful outcome. 

There’s luck. There’s timing. There are the actions and intentions of other people. And there are dozens of other variables— some known, some unknown— that come into play. 

No. Hard work is not sufficient to ensure a successful outcome. 

It sure tends to be necessary, however. 

The trick for many of us is not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because hard work doesn’t guarantee an outcome, that we can somehow get away with NOT working hard. 

While it’s true that hard work will not guarantee an outcome, it’s also very true that the projects that we do put hard work into, tend to be more successful than those projects that we let cruise along on autopilot. 

It’s not enough that our work be hard, or effortful. 

Our work needs to be smart. 

We need to apply our resources intelligently. 

We need to pay attention to the data generated by our efforts, and be willing to adjust our approach in response to that data. 

Above all: we need to avoid going on autopilot. 

We need to avoid getting complacent. 

We need to avoid buying into assumptions about what does work and what doesn’t work— and, instead, be constantly experimenting, trying things out, adjusting our strategy and tactics. 

We need to stay sharp, in other words. 

That’s sometimes easier than it sounds. 

It’s tough to stay sharp when we’re tired. 

It’s tough to stay sharp when we’re frustrated. 

It’s tough to stay sharp when we’ve had setbacks. 

It’s tough to stay sharp when our hard work in the past hasn’t panned out, for whatever reason. 

The thing about recovery and personal development is, no one’s asking you to be superhuman. 

Nobody’s expecting you to do things that are beyond the scope of your abilities. 

Nobody’s expecting you to leap tall buildings in a single bound. 

This whole project is not about “becoming superhuman,” despite what some personal growth gurus claim. (I regularly see posts from at least one who claims his techniques will help you achieve “superhuman performance”— as if that’s actually a thing.) 

This whole project is about figuring out ways to stay sharp in the real world. 

It’s about organizing and using the skills and tools you have— not the skills and tools you wish you had. 

It’s about figuring out what works for you in sustainable, realistic, ways. 

You can do it. 

People do it all the time. 

If, that is, you work hard, work smart, and stay sharp. 

 

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Oh, us silly control freaks.

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In recovery and personal development, it’s enormously important to be accountable for your goals, values, and progress. 

It’s equally important to be realistic about what you can and can’t control. What you can and can’t affect. What you are and are not responsible for. 

If you look around, you see a lot of people lurching to one extreme or the other. 

Some people consider themselves responsible for EVERYTHING that happens in their world. 

You see this a lot with people who are interested in the “Law of Attraction,” which is the idea that humans create their circumstances by what they think, focus on, and visualize. 

Adherents of the Law of Attraction often express that life conditions are mostly, if not solely, the direct result of what people have “allowed” to dominate their consciousness. Thus, if someone is experiencing abundance, it’s because they’ve been focusing on and expecting abundance; or if a person is experiencing lack, it’s because they’ve been focusing on lack. 

I’ll be the first to verify that our focus is enormously important. 

But I don’t think it’s necessarily because our focus “attracts” either abundance or lack. 

Rather, it’s my observation that our focus impacts how we interpret the world around us; what is important or relevant in the deluge of information and stimuli with which we are flooded daily; and what we’re willing to do (or even feel ourselves capable of doing) with our time and energy on any given day. 

In other words, our focus is key— but it’s not our focus that does the work for us. 

We do the work. Our focus determines what we’re willing and able to do. 

I don’t believe there is a universal law or principle that endows us with total control over what we experience. 

I believe that there are things that are out of our control— notably other people’s actions, reactions, thoughts, and feelings. 

As much as we need to take responsibility and be accountable for our contribution to our worlds, we also have to accept— embrace, even— the fact that we are never, ever going to be COMPLETELY in control of our world. 

That goes for the world outside of our heads…and the world inside of our heads. 

This idea— that we’re not, and never will be, in complete control of our worlds— upsets some people. 

(It upsets a lot of people, actually. We humans, as a species, tend to be a bunch of control freaks. Who knew?) 

The thing is: the fact that we’re NOT in complete control of our world— that we never, ever will be, no matter how hard we try— is actually the good news. 

Do you realize how stressful— and boring— our lives would be if we had COMPLETE control over our world? 

Much of what makes life worth living happens outside of our control. 

When somebody else falls in love with us— not because we “made” them, but because who we are resonates powerfully with who they are and what they need— that is an event that is profoundly outside of our control. 

When somebody else finds something we wrote or said valuable or life changing, we may have influenced that— but there is no way to guarantee that everything, or anything, you say or write is ever going to be life changing for anyone (trust me, I’ve looked into it). That is very much outside of our control…and yet one of the most rewarding experiences we can have. 

Many of the situations which we find fun, interesting, surprising, or rewarding, depend upon things happening TO us, over which we do not have control…and us marshaling our resources, experiences, knowledge, and skills, to respond effectively to that thing that happened TO us. 

Trust me: you don’t WANT to be in control of everything in your life. 

What you DO want is to have confidence in your ability to adapt and respond to the things that happen to you. 

It is in adapting and responding to what life throws at us that we grow, have fun, and have the chance to experience mastery and joy. 

Being realistic about what we can and cannot control or affect is not a bummer. 

It’s a life saver. 

 

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Everything is temporary. Even you and me.

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It’s true that it’s often helpful, in recovery and personal development, to get to know yourself. 

But don’t make the mistake of assuming that the “you” of right here, right now, is always going to be “you.” 

The fact is, we change. 

We actually change a LOT over the course of years. 

Some say the only constant in the existence of human beings is that we do change. 

Everything is temporary. 

The reason it’s important to be clear about this is, a lot of people can get plenty discouraged when they look at “who they are”…and they don’t like what they see. 

Maybe they see someone who is not as physically healthy or vibrant as they’d prefer. 

Maybe they see someone who hasn’t yet developed the tools and skills they need in order to live the life they envision. 

Maybe they look at themselves and see someone who has failed or stumbled or fallen short of their potential. 

Maybe they see someone in pain. 

It’s not that these people are wrong to look at themselves and see those things. Reality is reality. Maybe you look in the mirror and objectively don’t like what you see. 

I’ll never tell you to lie to yourself. We see what we see in the mirror. 

By that same token, remember: any time we glance in the mirror, we see a snapshot. 

We see who we are at a particular time, in a particular place. 

“Who we are” at this moment is impacted not only by big, overarching issues such as our values and needs; but also by factors as transitory as our level of energy right now, our mood right now, what kind of day we’re having right now, maybe even our blood sugar right now. 

“Who we are” is fluid. It changes. 

Our level of functioning changes. 

Our level of satisfaction changes. 

Think about your own experience: are you the person you were five years ago? Let alone ten, let alone twenty? 

Yes, you probably bear some resemblance to who you were…but you’re not that person anymore. 

You’ve had experiences. You’ve learned lessons. You’ve sustained losses. You’ve overcome obstacles. 

The “you” of 2009 might not even recognize the “you” of 2019. 

All of which serves to illustrate this point: don’t get discouraged by where, and who, you are right now. 

Who you are right now is not indicative of who you can be. 

We change over the course of months and years anyway. It’s inevitable. It’s going to happen. We are not going to be the same people in ten years that we are right now. 

The trick is to change in a way that YOU choose. 

The trick is to evolve in a direction that is consistent with who you want to be and what’s important to you. 

And the ONLY way we do that is by paying attention, every single day, to what we do, what we think, what we watch and read, and what influences we allow to act on us. 

We can evolve and change by chance, or we can evolve and change by choice. 

We WILL change. 

And, in ten years’ time, we either WILL be happier or less happy than we are right now. 

More functional or less functional. 

More in line with our goals and values, or veering away from what we want and what we value. 

Let’s choose to change and evolve on purpose. 

 

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