You’re gonna get people telling you that other people can’t “make” us feel anything.
We’ve all heard the quote “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
The idea is that no matter what somebody else says to us or how they say it, we’re “choosing” how we feel about it and how we react to it.
How I wish this was true— that we “choose” everything we feel.
But we don’t.
Often our feelings arise reflexively. When we’ve been through trauma, we can get triggered by someone’s tone of voice or the cadence of their speech, and go into a trauma response— and there won’t be any “choice” involved.
Most often our thoughts don’t arise out of what we’re thinking or how we’re interpreting a situation— as much as some people want to believe that it’s entirely our thoughts that determine our emotional life.
Rather, our feelings very often raise out of our conditioning.
When we grow up in abusive or neglectful families, we get conditioned to feel— or not feel— certain things.
Sometimes we get conditioned to dissociate in response to certain things— and, again, there’s no “choice” involved. Our sympathetic nervous system makes that “choice” for us.
From our nervous system’s point of view, if it had to wait around for us to think about everything that happens to us or “choose” a response, we’d have been eaten by sabre tooth tigers eons ago.
Trauma responses are reflexive in response to triggers, much like addictive cravings are reflexive. We don’t “choose” them.
We can decrease our vulnerability to triggers and decrease the intensity and duration of our trauma responses— but that’s NOT the same as saying we are “choosing” whatever feelings or reactions we’re having.
Why is this important to talk about?
Because the “you choose your feelings” shtick comes with an unspoken subtext: “if you’re in pain, you must have chosen it somehow. It’s your fault.”
Trauma survivors are VERY familiar with this subtext.
We get a lot of “you’re making yourself miserable.”
We get a lot of “you have to just (CHOOSE to) let go of the past.”
We get a lot of “you have to just (CHOOSE to) trust.”
Over and over again the culture around us treats us as if these enormously painful, life-ruining trauma responses we’re struggling with are, on some level, “chosen” by us.
Buying into that can deepen the self-blame and self-hate that we already feel.
It can destroy the already-limited motivation we have to work on changing our patterns of feeling and response.
Just because we can CHANGE something over time doesn’t mean we CHOSE it to begin with.
I did not “choose” to be an addict. I can CHANGE my behavior over time, but I can assure you, I did NOT sign up for the original affliction.
Nobody reading this CHOSE to be traumatized, and nobody reading this CHOSE the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of trauma. Trauma responses aren’t “choices.”
We can CHANGE them over time, by getting real about our CONDITIONING.
Responding to conditioning isn’t making “choices.” We do it without thinking, reflexively, instinctually.
Trauma CONDITIONS us. In ways we don’t choose.
Recovery RECONDITIONS us. In ways we DO choose.
One day at a time.