If you, like me, are a survivor of abuse, you probably very much want to be seen and heard…except when you don’t.
That is, except when the very IDEA of being seen and heard doesn’t scare the bejeezus out of you.
You may want to be touched, held, physically soothed…except when you don’t.
That is, except when touching, holding, and physical soothing or stimulation doesn’t trigger the bejeezus out of you.
That’s what being an abuse survivor often is: living in two worlds.
In one “mode,” we very much want to draw people close.
We very much want to have connections. To listen and share. To give and receive. To be a meaningful part of someone else’s experience— maybe a lot of peoples’ experiences.
In the other “mode,” though, we very much want to be left the hell alone.
Physical or emotional intimacy actually scares us. We want to prove to ourselves that we don’t need anybody. To get as far away from the hurt we’ve experienced in past relationships as we can.
Both “modes” are real.
Both represent something we need from our recovery. Something we need in order to heal.
Trauma does a lot of things to our habits of mind, but one of the most frustrating is its tendency to cram us into modes of black and white thinking.
Many people reading this know what I’m talking about. We think in all or nothing terms.
It very often goes back to a safety thing: to stay safe, we think we need to avoid ambiguity or nuance. We need to be crystal clear about what a situation is, how we feel about it, what to do about it.
The problem with black and white thinking being, of course, that existing in the world frequently requires nuance.
Certain things ARE black and white— but a lot of things aren’t. Especially things about ourselves, what we want, and what we need.
In order to come to a realistic sense of who we are and what we need, we’re going to have to risk thinking in shades of grey sometimes— and that includes thinking in nuanced terms about whether or how visible we want to be, or whether or how connected to anyone we want to be.
If we try to reduce it all to a black and white “I want to be seen and heard” or “I want to be invisible;” or “I want to be touched and held” or “I want everyone to stay a minimum of five miles away at all times,” we’re going to have problems navigating the real world and real relationships.
The reality is, both can be true.
The reality is, every situation and every relationship kind of has to be navigated on its own terms.
We can’t lay down black and white rules for whether we’re going to let ourselves be seen and heard, or whether we’re going to let ourselves get close to anyone, physically or otherwise— because different relationships are, well, different.
If we try to cram our needs into black and white, all or nothing “rules” as a response to our post traumatic anxiety, we’re going to necessarily be denying and disowning huge aspects of who we are and what we require to create a life worth living.
Not to mention: black and white thinking actually doesn’t work so well, if the goal is reeling in our anxiety.
(Black and white thinking actually tends to exacerbate our anxiety, in that it reinforces avoidance of the thing we’ve rejected, and often results in us getting preoccupied with the unrealistic all or nothing rules” we’ve tried to lay down.)
That’s trauma recovery: learning to live in multiple worlds, learning to operate in multiple modes, learning to navigate the layers of who we are, what we need, and what is safe.
Yeah. It can be intimidating.
Our best shot at realistically figuring it out is to stay grounded, to be as clear as we can be about what we want out of situations and relationships, what’s appropriate and acceptable vs. inappropriate and unacceptable in situations or relationships, and frequently reminding ourselves what the life we’re trying to create looks like.
Easy does it. We manage this recovery task just like every recovery task: one day at a time.