In trauma recovery you’re going to hear, over and over again, that we should give ourselves a break.
You’re going to hear that trauma survivors are WAY too harsh on ourselves— that we tend to assume EVERYTHING is our fault, and EVERYTHING is our responsibility.
If you’re a trauma survivor, you can probably identify with this.
The problem, especially in complex trauma or neglect, is that growing up we didn’t get the attention and emotional safety we needed to accurately sort out what is and isn’t our fault.
Sometimes we were explicitly blamed for things that couldn’t POSSIBLY have been our fault— but we weren’t taught how to realistically stand up for ourselves or set boundaries with the people who were telling us these things.
(Let’s face it, those people were often parents or other authority figures— how COULD we have POSSIBLY been expected to stand up to them or set boundaries with them?)
So we just took it. We took on what they were telling us, implicitly or explicitly.
We made “it’s my fault, even if I can’t quite explain why” part of our self-concept.
Fast forward to now, and it makes a lot of sense why reappraising how much responsibility and blame we’ve assumed in our lifetimes has impacted our view of ourselves and the world, let alone our everyday functioning.
We’re told we need to lighten up. Give ourselves a break. Forgive ourselves.
Yes— that all sounds very good and self-compassionate and appropriate for realistic trauma recovery.
So why do so many survivors struggle with it?
Why is there even a part of MY brain that struggles with it, even as I type this?
There will DEFINITELY be a part of you that is afraid that if you give yourself a break, as all these well-meaning people out there have advised you to do, that you’ll be in trouble.
Our brain tells us we’ll miss something if we lighten up. We’ll make a mistake.
Maybe our brain is telling us that we won’t be driven toward “excellence” if we back off of ourselves, if we DON’T hold ourselves to ruthless, rigid standards.
Giving ourselves a break feels risky, in other words.
It feels like an excuse— or a trap.
As trauma survivors, we’re often looking for the catch. We’re waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Yes, yes, forgiving ourselves might SOUND appropriate and helpful, hypothetically…but if we truly forgive ourselves, treat ourselves with compassion and realism instead of holding ourselves to high, rigid, often arbitrary standards…what will keep us from slacking off?
What if we back off ourselves, and everything goes to sh*t?
I’ll spoil the suspense: everything won’t go to sh*t if we give ourselves a break. And if it does, I assure you, it was going to go to sh*t anyway, ruthless standards or no.
Your brain is right: forgiving ourselves, behaving toward ourselves with compassion and flexility, IS a risk.
But if we’re serious about trauma recovery, it is a risk worth taking.
We MIGHT risk not performing as “well” if we back off of ourselves— but we also MIGHT risk performing BETTER.
Wouldn’t THAT blow your mind?
The idea that we might actually perform BETTER if we were compassionate and flexible instead of rigid and ruthless with ourselves presents its own conundrum: we may not want to know we’ve been so wrong about that specific assumption (that high, rigid, ruthless standard will lead to “excellence”) for so long.
Yeah. It’s a risk. It’s all a risk.
But we’re not going to realistically recover without taking some risks.
And, another spoiler: in trauma recovery we are DEFINITELY going to learn that some of the beliefs and attitudes we’ve clung to for years haven’t been serving us…and that MIGHT not feel great.
We’re going to have to pay that price if we want to realistically, sustainably recover from trauma.
May I offer one more spoiler, though?
That price— the real world price of trauma recovery— is worth it.
It is SO worth it.