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3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause

3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause
Dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies

Traumatic events change our perception of ourselves, the world and others. Because our sense of safety and trust are shaken and sometimes even shattered by trauma, we “learn” from the pain we feel by changing our views and adapting, cognitively and emotionally, to our circumstances. In developmental trauma – a series of adverse experiences in childhood which affect one’s development –  that change is quite dramatic and it tends to transcend time. Imagine an adult who, as a child, was repeatedly criticised and attacked verbally by an abusive mother and/or father. His rigid and negative beliefs, formed as a result of trauma, would probably prevent him from holding a coherent view of himself as a competent and lovable adult. These beliefs would also serve as to warn him of the dangers of love and intimacy that, supposedly and for him, would apply to all close relationships. Living in a world in where safety cannot be felt even in the family home, this trauma victim would feel empty and lost, as if his existential wound could never be healed.

As dysfunctional beliefs lead to dysfunctional coping strategies, and those, in turn, to mental health and relationship problems, it is worth being conscious of how your thinking could be affecting your happiness. If you suspect to have suffered developmental trauma and would like to become more conscious of its effects, here are 3 developmental trauma beliefs and the problems they cause:

1- “I cannot trust others”

Developmental trauma victims struggle to believe in and rely on other people. That is because they had their trust broken very early in life and at a time of intense vulnerability. Since they were betrayed by those who were close to them – namely their primary caregiver(s), such as their mother and/or father – the damage caused by such loss is far greater. Their fear of rejection and abandonment, even when completely unjustified and unrelated to their current circumstances, often results in obsessive self-reliance. Their lack of faith in people’s good intentions and ability to become a positive influence on their lives make it impossible for them to ask and even accept help, when needed. That tendency gives rise to codependent behaviours and loneliness, as well as it increases their probability of becoming depressed, due to their need to isolate or neglect their own feelings when things get tough. A healthy, intimate relationship with oneself and others is seldom achieved without conscious effort and dedication.

2- “I am unlovable”

When a child does not have her feelings validated or is constantly attacked or ignored, he is not able to separate his parents’ anger and neglectful attitude from his own sense of self-worth. Because children do not have the intellectual sophistication of an adult, they immediately associate their parents’ attitude with something to do with themselves, as if they were intrinsically related (“If my mum is not interested in me/is angry at me, it is because I am boring/not good enough”). Naturally, that feeling of unworthiness is also frequently present in children who are physically and/or psychologically/emotionally abused. In order to deal with the torturing feeling of inadequateness that comes from believing that “There is something wrong with me”, these trauma victims work hard to be noticed and feel worthy of love and acceptance. Self-esteem is low and “built” from the outside in through conditional love. They become perfectionists, codependents, approval junkies and people pleasers, who find it hard to say no. All of which are driven by a powerful fear of rejection.

3- “The world is a dangerous place”

Living in fear creates a state of alertness that shapes the way the brain develops and processes information about the environment. A child that is raised by emotionally unstable, anxious, extremely inconsistent or unpredictable parents, sees the world as a dangerous place filled with threats to his well-being. Guided by the thinking that “something bad is about to happen” and “I am weak/helpless”, as well as the anxiety that follows, his behaviour becomes dictated by fear. The trauma victim’s biased negative thinking and low self-confidence turns everything into a challenge. Making changes, creating new habits, taking risks, standing up for oneself and meeting new people, as other similar behaviours that require self-confidence, are a source of unease, and, in some cases, even panic. Because high anxiety crushes motivation, it gets in the way of personal, academic and professional achievement. It also affects sleep and physical health. Relationships suffer as a result. Anxiety, as a powerful mood killer, makes a person seem inaccessible, indifferent, distant and even difficult, which are traits not usually seen as attractive for those who feel whole and are emotionally intelligent.

As depressing as all of the above may seem, those trauma beliefs that may be causing you so much pain can be restructured. If you identify with the above, start actively challenging negative thinking that is stopping you from trusting yourself and others. Be objective when you catch yourself catastrophizing and stop taking everything personally. Bear in mind that our subjective reality is built from background knowledge, which is organised and categorised through core beliefs. That knowledge – highly subjective and loaded with emotional significance – does not equate, necessarily, to fact.

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own

3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own
Core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it

We organise information about ourselves, the world and other people through core beliefs. Core beliefs are cognitive units of knowledge that allow us to make sense of reality in a way that is coherent with our perspective. They affect how we interpret and store information that is processed by our senses, as well as our feelings and behaviours in relation to it. As they are a product of culture, the environment and the quality of our experience and the relationships we have had over the years, core beliefs not only reflect our history, but also help define it. Because they are so hugely influential on the way we think, feel, relate to others and lead our lives, expanding your knowledge about them can be a productive exercise. To help you achieve just that, here are 3 facts about core beliefs that will make you reassess your own:

1- Core beliefs are often unrelated to objective reality

Because you feel strongly about something, it does not mean it reflects an accurate approach or evaluation. In fact, strong convictions are supported by rigid beliefs. Those beliefs, in turn, are deeply connected to our experience and subjective perspective. Experience is then given significance by emotions, which play a big part in convincing us of the “veracity” of something, even when there is little or no concrete proof to validate it. We are able to observe that process in practice, when we are quick to agree with or reject something or someone without further deliberation. When it comes to making a decision or formulating judgement, the quicker and more automatic your reactions, the more subjective, intuitive and emotional.

2- Core beliefs are stored in the “emotional brain”

Core beliefs are stored in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system. The amygdala is responsible for behavioural and emotional reactions such as anger, fear and responding to stressful situations (fight or flight response), as well as encoding, storing and retrieving memories of events that define our personal experience. Those memories – loaded with emotional significance – are what shape our core beliefs about ourselves, the world and others. When we take into consideration subjective perspective, our past predicts the future. Core beliefs reflect that principle accurately, since they tend to remain rigid throughout an individual’s development, and are indifferent to the changes he or she experiences. For that reason, a single or multiple traumatic events in childhood have the potential to define one’s view of himself or herself as an incompetent and unlovable adult, for instance, and remain unchanged for many years after their occurrence.

3- Core beliefs are at the root of mental health problems

As core beliefs are formed in childhood and are of an inflexible nature, they are prone to filtering information in an extremely biased and often irrational manner. Depression and anxiety sufferers, as well as trauma victims, for instance, tend to hold a very negative view of themselves, the world and others. Individuals who believe not to be good enough and, therefore, are terrified of “looking silly” and being judged by others in social interactions are highly likely to develop anxiety problems. When that anxiety becomes unbearable, they may feel the need to isolate from social contact, a dysfunctional behaviour which is also at the heart of depression. Similarly, trauma victims whose core beliefs about emotions are centred on denial are naturally resistant to approaching their own suffering honestly and proactively. That tendency compromises their ability to manage the effects of trauma in the long term, which may result in debilitating and life changing mental health issues, such as addictions and eating disorders.

If you suspect that your core beliefs are interfering with your psychological and emotional wellbeing, it is worth taking some time to reassess them. To evaluate whether they enhance or hinder your self-esteem, as well as personal growth and development, check in with yourself every time you feel a change in your mood. Ask yourself, “What was I thinking just now?” and analyse your automatic thoughts as objectively as you can. What do they say about the views you hold about yourself, the world and others? What is the tone of the rules, attitudes and assumptions that guide your thinking and behaviour? Are they too strict or flexible? Do they reflect a compassionate or overtly critical perspective?

How to identify feelings of shame

How to identify feelings of shame
Shame is the most toxic of emotions

The relevance of shame should not be underestimated, since it is the most toxic of emotions. Shame not only crushes one’s self-esteem, but it is also at the core of mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Despite being potentially harmful to our psychological and emotional wellbeing, shame is rarely dealt with in a straightforward manner. Because it is so uncomfortable to talk about shame, it usually takes a reasonable amount of talking until most of us feel safe enough to relate our thinking and behaviour to deep feelings of shame, or the core beliefs that fuel them.

As emotional healing is all about feeling whole and connected, it is vital that you learn how to identify feelings of shame. As Brené Brown (2013) points out in her bestseller Daring Greatly, “Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither”. To help you name and shame your shame and deal with it as openly as you can, the following are common feelings and attitudes that are motivated by it:

  • Feeling left out, ignored, unimportant
  • Feeling defeated, vulnerable, weak
  • Feeling rejected, unwanted, not good enough
  • Feeling hate or disgust towards yourself
  • Avoiding social contact or being the centre of attention
  • Always believing in what others have to say about you, especially when negative
  • Feeling inadequate and embarrassed about what you have said and done
  • Finding it hard to accept the whole of you, especially what you do not consider a positive trait
  • Feeling crushed by self-criticism to the point of having thoughts of suicide
  • Refraining from saying anything in social gatherings or giving voice to your needs or opinions for considering them not important or interesting enough to others
  • Constantly worrying about what other people think
  • Not being able to say no or always doing what others want in order to feel valued in a relationship
  • Believing not to be liked or loved, as if it were a fact and not just a thought
  • Behaving in a certain way to gain the approval of others, even when it does not reflect the true you
  • Not having anything positive to say about yourself or your appearance
  • Putting the wellbeing of others before your own or believing it is your duty to care for others
  • Hiding or lying about your age, having a need to look younger
  • Feeling more comfortable with the thought of failure than that of success
  • Feeling like a bad or broken person, or believing that you are the reason why something bad has happened to you
  • Procrastinating or taking a lot of time to do something, so to get it “absolutely right”
  • Thinking that nobody feels the way you do or has experienced the things you have
  • Feeling different or less than others, as if you were not worthy of good things
  • Struggling to accept the good or believe in others’ love or interest in you
  • Minimising the harm done to you by an abusive relationship
  • Feeling you cannot do anything right or achieve what you would have liked in life
  • Staying in a broken relationship for not believing you could do any better
  • Being in denial about how you feel, or doing your utmost to hide your true emotions so not to be “judged by others”
  • Felling used
  • Taking things personally: immediately believing something is your fault/you have done something wrong when others are not as friendly or polite as you would have liked or expected
  • Not being able to take criticism objectively, feeling not good enough immediately after making a mistake or not being able to fulfil expectations
  • Using labels of negative connotation to describe yourself and your behaviour, such as stupid, ugly, fat, etc.
  • Having the habit of analysing your own performance, what you have said and done, in order to identify mistakes or errors in your judgement

Reference:

Brown, B. (2013). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.

How to improve emotional health in 2018

How to improve emotional health in 2018
A healthy sense of self can only be perceived through feeling

Learning how to build a healthy relationship with yourself is all about developing emotional awareness and respect. In order for you to feel whole, it is vital that you learn how to listen, validate and regulate your own emotions.  A healthy sense of self can only be perceived through feeling, be it negative or positive, or an ambivalent combination of both. Since there is no means of learning or even becoming ourselves without it, the value of our emotional health should not be underestimated. If you are determined to live a more fulfilling and pleasant existence, here is how to improve emotional health in 2018:

Become more emotionally aware

There is no better way to become more emotionally aware than simply taking the time to notice how you feel. If you are not able to identify your own emotions with the help of your intellect, direct your attention back to the body. Bodily sensations can often tell you what your brain sometimes struggles to explain through words. How does it feel to be you in this particular moment? Scan your body from head to toe – especially the regions that are prone to registering emotional disturbance, such as the stomach, chest, neck, shoulders and forehead – and analyse what is there. Do you feel a lightness or heaviness in those parts? Is your breathing short or deep? Are those regions relaxed or tense? What can they tell you about your needs and emotional state?

Respect negative emotions

Feeling whole is not viable without emotional congruence. Contrary to popular belief, emotional neglect is not an effective way of dealing with emotions, but a dysfunctional coping strategy that only leads to unhappiness, as well as mental health and relationship problems. If you feel uncomfortable, inadequate, sad or anxious, there is, most likely, a good reason for it. Even if your feelings are dysregulated, exaggerated or do not seem to reflect reality, that in itself is information of a potential mental health issue that needs your attention. Life and self-improvement are unattainable when you ignore or try to repress negative emotions. Being attentive to what is not a good fit and stands in the way of personal contentment, growth and development is a clever attitude for those who want to empower themselves through feeling.

Learn how to self-regulate

Validating your emotions does not mean being completely at their mercy. There are times that they have to be to dealt with and not only felt. Learning how to self-soothe and control your emotions independently is true autonomy. Not dealing with your feelings consciously and proactively often leads to addictions and other mental health problems. In order to deal with negative emotions healthily, motivate yourself and be creative. There is no fixed recipe for relaxation and well-being, since as individuals; we experience emotions in our own unique ways. Discover what works for you and fits your personality through exploring new ways of finding inner peace, be it through exercise, physical activity, relaxation or breathing exercises, meditation, reading, dancing, taking a hot bath, etc.

Seek emotional support

Life is often also made of stressful and even traumatic events that may be difficult to deal with emotionally. If you feel overwhelmed and nothing seems to ease your pain or anxiety, it may be time to seek the help of a mental health professional. There is no shame in feeling vulnerable and in need of a fresh perspective. Most of us go through tough times in our lives, even when we are too proud or ashamed to admit it. If you feel the need and have the means to go see a counsellor, I highly recommend it, especially if you do not feel comfortable talking about your feelings with others or were raised by emotionally neglectful parents. Therapy can be a productive environment in where to learn new problem-solving skills and coping strategies, which become yours for life.

The festive period might not be a cheerful time to everyone, but it has the potential to incite a feeling for positive change in a lot of us. If you “have had enough” of feeling demotivated and empty inside, following the above may help you reconnect with the whole of you, including those parts that have been neglected. To honour who you are in 2018, let go of beliefs about feelings that rob us from our humanity, or the ability to feel and connect with ourselves, others and the world around us. After all, being emotionally healthy is nothing that requires super extraordinary powers, but an honest and open attitude to interacting with the inner and outer world through feelings.

How do you know if you are suffering from trauma?

Despite being extremely common, “trauma” often sounds too strong or scary a term to be included in our personal narrative. That is because trauma is largely associated with life-threatening experiences such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters, accidents and war. It is, however, something that affects most of us and not only car accident victims or soldiers. In fact, trauma is so pervasive, that research has revealed it to affect the greatest majority of the population.

So if that is indeed the case, how do you know if you are one of millions of people who are suffering from trauma?

How do you know if you are suffering from trauma
Trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable

A traumatic event is any situation that is so deeply distressing to an individual that exceeds his or her ability to cope. Those negative experiences are not processed in the brain in the same way happy or “normal” memories are. Because those traumatic memories are not integrated into our memory network adaptively, they affect our psyches in a negative way. Trauma victims/survivors often struggle to let go of the past and manage their emotions effectively, as if they were still in the same vulnerable position they found themselves when the negative event/events took place.

As individuals, we experience life in unique ways. Pain itself is subjective. What can be traumatising to one person might not affect another as deeply. Overall, trauma shatters our blind views of ourselves as unbreakable, as well as our unconscious faith in the goodness of all people. It also vehemently challenges our idealised core beliefs surrounding safety, be it of ourselves in the world or in the presence of those who we know, love and that are supposed to love and protect us. In spite of our need to organise reality in a fixed and predictable manner, human experience is much more complex than our beliefs care to explain. When anything happens that strongly disturbs our foundations, there is a high probability that the whole self will suffer.

Bearing in mind all of the above, any upsetting event may be considered traumatic. We are particularly vulnerable as children to being traumatised by negative experiences that compromise our ability to keep an inner sense of safety.  Since survival is primarily about finding protection against harm to the self and body, not feeling loved, seen, heard or acknowledged by parents, relatives or close friends can result in trauma. An unkind comment made by an angry parent, feeling humiliated by a teacher’s abusive remarks or being bullied by a troubled classmate also has the potential to unsettle a child’s or teenager’s sense of wholeness and inner goodness. If his or her pain is systematically ignored or not dealt with openly by an empathic, consistent and concerned caregiver, it may affect his or her own ability to cope with and overcome that pain.

Regardless of the frequency, intensity or characteristic of a stressful and traumatic event, its effects are very specific and real. When it comes to suffering from any type of trauma – be it “big” or “small”, of a psychological/emotional or physical nature, single or complex – what matters is how you feel as a result of what happened, and not necessarily what caused it. The list of trauma effects is extensive. If not recognised and dealt with proactively, they tend to impact one’s body, mind and relationships negatively for a long period of time. Unresolved trauma leads its victim towards an unhappy and dysfunctional path that tends to end in mental health problems such as anxiety disorders, low self-esteem, addictions, depression, built-up anger, guilt and shame, amongst others.

So if wondering if you are suffering from trauma, I recommend not focusing on judging if what you went through “is bad enough” to be considered as such, but on how you are feeling. Have you struggled over the years to deal with intense emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, shame and anxiety effectively? Do you feel easily overwhelmed by them? Do you feel that life seems harder on you that it is on other people? Do you find it hard to know who you truly are? Do you struggle to build safe and stable relationships? Is it hard for you to talk about or even remember painful memories of your past? If you can identify with the points raised here and have answered yes to at least some of the above questions, there is a high probability that you are suffering from trauma and its effects.

Thankfully, they are treatable. If you would like information on how to heal from trauma and its effects, please contact me and learn how Attachment-Focused EMDR can help you regain control over yourself and improve quality of life.

5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents

Every single emotion we feel, be it negative or positive, has its purpose. Negative emotions tell us when something is not quite right with our bodies. Like positive emotions, they help us interpret information and connect us to our inner and outer worlds. While negative emotions are highly sophisticated alarms that let us know when to move, act or think so to protect ourselves, positive emotions direct our focus to what we like and is important to us. Overall, emotions not only makes us human, but also help us grow and develop, as well as become who we truly are.

5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents
If you struggle to feel whole and connected, you might have been raised by emotionally neglectful parents

Despite its obvious relevance to the maintenance of our physical and mental health, our culture promotes a mentality of repression, denial and even rejection of emotions, especially when negative. We are taught already from an early age – even without direct instruction – to do what we can to supress anger and sadness, for instance, as if they were something to be “managed” and not felt. Our parents learn from their parents how not to address emotional states so not to upset them, and with time become intolerant of their very own negative emotions. When they have children of their own, they feel easily uncomfortable or lost when exposed to their suffering, anger or other feelings of inadequateness, often choosing not to accept or even acknowledge their existence and purpose.

If you struggle to feel whole and connected, be it with your emotions, with what you do, with your own body, self or others, you might have been raised in an environment of emotional neglect. To find out if that could be the case, here are 5 signs you were raised by emotionally neglectful parents:

1- You perceive most negative emotions as purposeless

You are judgemental concerning negative feelings. You see the ones who honour them as weak, temperamental, volatile or irrational. You think that everyone, including yourself, should make their utmost to be “pleasant” and exercise total control over their emotions, as if negative feelings, especially, were wild animals that should be tamed at all costs. You equate intelligence and strength to such “qualities” and emotional awareness and wholeness to vulnerabilities.

2- You find it difficult to tolerate emotional discomfort

If frustration, stress or anxiety suddenly befalls you, you do what you can to deal with such feelings as fast as possible. According to your belief, negative emotions should be extinguished immediately. You achieve that mainly via dissociation, self-medication, denial or avoidance, or through any other quick fix or diversion that makes you feel instantly better. Your reactions to other people’s negative emotional states are as straightforward as your own. If you happen to notice what is going on around you, you find it easier to pretend unawareness or not get directly involved. When dodging them becomes impossible, you downplay the importance of others’ negative feelings with polite but shallow comments, or with the help of platitudes and a stoic attitude. In some cases, you might even feel irritated by their supposed inability to deal with them as “effectively” as you do.

3- You rationalise your emotions

Because you fail to recognise the value of emotions, you use reason alone to justify and explain behaviour. “Plausible” reasoning motivates everything you do, and never an emotion such as insecurity, unhappiness or fear. You left that job not because the work environment made you super anxious to the point you could not sleep at night, but because “it was not a good fit”. You decide to stay in that broken relationship because deep down you cannot even envision the idea of being alone, but to yourself and others it is because “you invested in it for so long”. Anything reasonable enough so that you and those around you never associate how you act on the outside, with how vulnerable you truly feel on the inside.

4- You struggle to connect emotionally with others

Naturally, the distance you keep from your own emotions also makes it difficult for you to communicate how you feel. When you are required to express them, you struggle. That is because the tendency of explaining your behaviour without ever linking it to emotions, be it in relation to your own acts or others’, creates and aura of detachment in which emotional connection becomes virtually impossible. Relationships suffer in such scenarios, regardless of their nature. Loving relationships, particularly, are hard to be kept healthy without emotional closeness and intimacy. In the long term, emptiness and loneliness tend to take their toll, pushing decisions and actions into a new direction. The result of such reassessment is often high resentment and thoughts of separation.

5- You do not feel understood or validated

Even without noticing it, you are betrayed by your own beliefs concerning emotions. The need for being seen, heard, loved and understood will not go away just because you made an effort to invalidate your emotions and supress their expression. We also exchange information about ourselves through feelings, and not only through language. How can anyone recognise and even address your needs when you yourself is reluctant to acknowledge and accept them? Neglecting your emotions, especially when negative, does not favour you or your relationships, but it only turns you into an unavailable automaton.

Even if you have identified with some or all of the above, you can still change the relationship you keep with yourself, and, consequently, the ones you nurture with others. Respecting and honouring your emotions by allowing yourself to feel will give you a renewed sense of self, one that is more balanced and in harmony with your own body. Everyone can learn invaluable lessons from emotions, as well as benefit from their wisdom. To reconnect emotionally, start monitoring how you feel with honesty and an open mind. Do not give into the temptation to rationalise or deal with them as quickly as possible, but stay with them for a while. Then notice what happens, if they linger or fade away by themselves. What are they trying to tell you? Have you taken the time to consider the real implications of ignoring them? What can you learn from them?