Category: <span>Dysfunctional Families</span>

Finding happiness as a relational trauma survivor

Finding happiness as a relational trauma survivor
What is the key to happiness?

What role does happiness play in your life? Do you take it into consideration when making important decisions? How easily do you get distracted by what is going on outside of you and forget about your own happiness? Relational trauma survivors, as those who suffered emotional abuse in childhood are especially prone to neglecting their happiness to create a sense of harmony and safety with others. They often feel guilty for having wants, needs and emotions of their own and sacrifice them so not to risk upsetting others, being rejected and, consequently, alienated. Naturally, it proves a challenge to focus on what makes one happy when attention is constantly diverted to the irrational thoughts and fears of relational insecurity.

In Happiness by Design, professor of behavioural science Paul Dolan suggests that attention plays an important role on how happy we feel. When we consciously focus on what truly makes us happy – and not on what we think should make us happy – we live better, happier lives. That is because the information sensed and communicated by “the experiencing self” is much more accurate than that of “the remembering self” (Dolan, 2014). For all of those seeking happiness, connecting with experience as it happens and establishing right there and then whether its impact is positive or negative is the most reliable strategy. Relying on memory alone and our intellectualisation of how experience has affected us, however, tends to divert our attention from true, authentic happiness.

Therefore, relational trauma victims who value happiness can benefit from observing the following:

  • Be selective with your time and attention. Dedicate them to activities and people that make you feel good (light, cheerful, curious, energetic and lively). Reduce the frequency or cut contact with those who produce the opposite effect.
  • Stop relying on versions of events that minimize the negative effect that certain people and circumstances have on you.
  • Honour your body by holding values ​​that favour your wellbeing, from head to toe. Learn how to tolerate the discomfort that might arise from doing so, as an investment in long-term happiness.

While neglecting one’s happiness and focusing on others’ is often referred to as a noble and selfless act, it causes much unhappiness when practiced mindlessly by relational trauma victims. As challenging as it may seem, replacing such limiting mentality and living a full and happy life is an achievable goal for most of us. If you need help to heal your relational trauma wounds, I highly recommend Attachment-Focused EMDR therapy.

 

Reference:

Dolan, P. (2014). Happiness by design: change what you do, not how you think. New York, New York: Hudson Street Press.

Words as weapons: the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood

If you still go around saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me”, it is time you revaluated that belief. As neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett explains in her brilliant new book “Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain”, exposure to verbal abuse sustained over a long period has other significant harming effects that go beyond low self-esteem. Because the brain regions that process language also control the insides of our bodies, verbal abuse also impacts heart rate, glucose levels and the flow of chemicals that support our immune system. As kind words make us feel loved, calmer, and stronger, aggressive ones have the power to harm our physical health.

Words, then, are tools for regulating human bodies. Other people’s words have a direct effect on your brain activity and your bodily systems, and your words have the same effect on other people. Whether you intend that effect is irrelevant. It’s how we are wired.

Lisa Feldman Barrett, 2020

When abusive individuals use words as weapons to mistreat, manipulate, and control others, their victims also become more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, anger, mood disorders in young adulthood, Immune dysfunction, and more metabolic dysfunction. In view of such facts, the connection between verbal abuse and illnesses of the mind and body should no longer be downplayed or ignored.

Words as weapons the effects of chronic verbal abuse in childhood
Exposure to verbal abuse may harm your physical health

Although the above is of high concern to anyone who works in mental health, what Barrett and other neuroscientists have demonstrated through extensive research on the effects of emotional and verbal abuse does not surprise me. As a trauma counsellor who specialises in childhood/developmental trauma, I have had several clients who grew up in highly dysfunctional family environments who suffer from at least one chronic illness or physical vulnerability like the ones mentioned above. Interestingly, their onset is mostly felt in their late teens and adult years. When our bodies are submitted to chronic stress through our development, the probability of it having a negative effect on our immune, respiratory, digestive, nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems is great.     

It is time our culture stopped normalising verbal abuse, be it in oral or written form. Whether you have witnessed or suffered verbal abuse, be reminded of how toxic it is to everyone involved and take active steps to stop perpetuating it. You can do that autonomously by reassessing your own rigid beliefs about verbal aggression, negative emotions and vulnerability, such as “If I let that get to me, it means I am weak”, and start honouring how you feel with tolerance. Whatever you do, be it getting out of your comfort zone through investing in assertive behaviours or speaking out about abuse, you are actively changing not only your own way of thinking, but that of our collective consciousness.

Reference:

Barrett, L. F. (2020). Seven and a half lessons about the brain. Picador: London, UK

Unattainable validation: when to give up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents

Unattainable validation when to give up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents
Is it time you gave up trying to feel seen, felt and heard by your parents?

Emotional neglect – despite being more commonly experienced than verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse – has painful and lasting effects on one’s development. Greatly misunderstood but ever so present in the narrative of those who grew up in dysfunctional and toxic families, emotional neglect is often a silent but very real self-esteem killer. It is naturally challenging for those who were made to feel like their emotions did not matter to nurture love and respect for themselves. How can one even build a reliable sense of self, when what they experience in their bodies is consistently ignored, denied, and discarded by those whose role is to model (emotional) maturity, congruence, autonomy, and intelligence?

When you grow up in a family culture of emotional neglect, you carry an emptiness that is felt strongly in your body. Emotional emptiness, as a result of failure to connect fully with others, makes one feel heavy, alone and alienated. Some may even feel numb and dissociated, as if they inhabited a body or lived a life that were not theirs. Because we all crave a sense of wholeness to experience happiness, those who suffered emotional neglect are particularly prone to relying on external factors, such as others’ reassurance, approval, and validation to feel good about themselves. Even when their parents are unable to give them what they want, they keep seeking their validation and support in an exhausting and, at times, obsessive fashion.

So how do you know when enough is enough? At what point can you state with confidence that your parents are truly unable or unwilling to validate your suffering?

In Burnout (2019), the Nagoski sisters advise on the following questions to determine a goal’s worth (my comments are in brackets):

What are the benefits of continuing? (Is there a realistic probability of your parents genuinely recognising their neglectful behaviour? How likely are you to feel better in pursuing that recognition?)

What are the benefits of stopping? (What effect would stop chasing your parents’ validation have on your mental/emotional health? How likely are you to feel better as a result of quitting that habit?)

What are the costs of continuing? (What effects feeling unseen and unimportant over and over may be having on your self-esteem? What influence would that continue to have on your self-confidence in relational contexts?)

What are the costs of stopping? (How stopping trying to connect emotionally with your parents may make you feel? How much do you trust your ability to process and accept that loss of connection?)

Even if the idea of not being able to rely on your parents for true emotional support and connection brings up great sadness in the short term, it is worth grieving that loss as an investment for authentic happiness in the long term.  Once you have given up on insisting on fixing dysfunctional and toxic relationships, you will feel freer to focus on more rewarding and satisfying ones.

Reference:

Nagoski, E. & A (2019). Burnout. Solve Your Stress Cycle. Penguin Random House: London, UK  

Why do I feel angry all the time? Understanding anger addiction

Why do I feel angry all the time anger addiction
Anger helps us regulate feelings of vulnerability

Feeling unconditionally loved by our primary caregivers is essential to foster a healthy sense of self-esteem. Unconditional love is experienced when a child feels felt, heard and seen, in ways that meet their most basic developmental needs. Parents who are attuned to their children’s emotions with empathy and without judgement help them nurture a sense of self that is whole, even when experiencing intense negative emotions such as shame, fear and anger. Neglect (including emotional) and abuse sustained throughout childhood, however, lead to developmental trauma and feelings of low self-esteem. As such feelings are easily triggered and not processed functionally with the help of an emotionally conscious and mature other, the developing child is more susceptible to create a dysfunctional relationship with their own emotional, inner world.

Children who are made to feel inadequate for having negative feelings (or any feelings at all) by their abusive and/or (emotionally) neglectful parents and feel powerless and rejected when triggered have little or no access to functional tools for emotional processing. In such cases, they are highly likely to resort to maladaptive coping strategies to deal with their shame, fear of abandonment and other feelings of unlovability to regain some sense of wellbeing. It is logical to want to feel good. It is also human to avoid suffering and try to control it. Problems arise when a given strategy becomes “the only one”, and, especially, when it does more harm than good in the long term. A rare instance of binge eating in front of the television might be okay when it is not one’s exclusive means of tolerating the pain of one’s losses. When that becomes a daily routine to deal with chronic stress, unprocessed grief and feelings of powerlessness and emotional isolation, you got yourself an addiction.

Anger – predominantly experienced as a secondary emotion – helps us regulate feelings of vulnerability. Under its influence we feel respectful, dignified, entitled and righteous. It does so by making us feel energetic, powerful and ready to fight and defend ourselves from whoever or whatever – including feelings – that make us feel small and hurt. In this heightened state of arousal, we experience a high that may become addictive. As the overweight who focus solely on dieting but avoid exploring the deeper, underlying mechanisms that feed their food addiction and, for that reason, struggle to keep a healthy weight – anger addicts remain angry by neglecting the primary emotions that trigger it. Therefore, the reason why you feel angry “all the time” may be centred on fear, reluctance, or difficulty to access the deeper, more painful emotions you have carried from years of (emotional) neglect and/or abuse.

If you identify with the above, I recommend trauma counselling to deal with the effects of complex trauma, such as pent-up anger and anger addiction.

6 Signs of CPTSD

6 Signs of CPTSD
CPTSD makes it difficult to regulate emotions

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder or CPTSD may develop as an effect of complex trauma. Complex trauma results from repeated exposure to adverse events over a prolonged period of time. Adult children of toxic parents and those who were raised in highly dysfunctional environments are, therefore, prone to have experienced childhood abuse and neglect (including emotional) which, in turn, increase their probability of identifying with the following 6 signs of CPTSD:

1- High reactivity and difficulties regulating emotions: unresolved childhood trauma is connected to unprocessed grief, built up anger and deep feelings of loneliness and abandonment depression that require conscious self-soothing efforts. Due to hypervigilance and high arousal levels, however, feelings of anxiety arise quickly and easily, making it harder to understand and manage one’s inner life. Emotions are often felt intensively and without a sense of matching or even belonging to specific context contexts.

2- Changes in consciousness: dissociation, difficulty remembering traumatic events, including the emotions related to it.

3- Negative self-perception: strong negative beliefs about oneself that are felt in the body even when they do not correspond to objective thinking (“I know I am competent/good enough/loveable, but I do not feel that way”). Strong inner critic, tendency to see the world in black and white, impostor syndrome and catastrophising are commonplace.

4- Relationship difficulties: difficulty trusting others and seeing relationships as sources of wellbeing. Natural tendency to gravitate toward abusive/toxic people and codependent and emotionally dependent relationships since they feel familiar and create a false sense of safety.

5- Distorted perception of the abuser: considering the abuser as powerful and able to cause continuous pain, control or even destroy one’s life, even when he or she is much older, physically and mentally weaker and emotionally immature. Tendency to obsess about feeling heard and having emotions and experience validated by the abuser and having recurrent thoughts/fantasies about talking to him or her, explaining things as well as planning revenge, etc.

6- Loss of systems of meanings: feelings of hopelessness and loss of purpose in relation to the world, life, people and spirituality.

Other symptoms may include chest pain, frequent headaches, migraine, armouring, bruxism, gastrointestinal problems, low libido, difficulty enjoying sex, weaker immune system, sleep disorders, flashbacks, avoidant behaviours, suicidal thoughts, higher susceptibility to addictive behaviours and depression.

If you have identified with the above, CPTSD management is possible via a very conscious and proactive attitude that includes a combination of trauma therapy, such as Attachment-Focused EMDR, and dedicated self-care.

Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships

Assertiveness as self-validation in dysfunctional relationships
Adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen

As I explain in my blog article “What is a dysfunctional relationship?”, relationships are considered dysfunctional when they do not favour true intimacy, emotional health and personal growth. In practice, this is observed when needs, opinions, feelings and wants are not validated in a democratic manner. Controlling parents or spouses who lack self-awareness and emotional maturity and, therefore, focus almost exclusively on their own needs and feelings create relationship dynamics that are unhealthy for everyone involved. As a result of their (often unconscious) self-centred attitude, they neglect the wellbeing of their children and partners, which has a negative effect on their self-esteem, ability to honour their boundaries and feel confident in relational contexts.

For those who find themselves as the neglected ones, feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, powerlessness and abandonment are commonplace. As adult children and loving partners of highly neglectful and even abusive individuals do not feel felt, heard or seen, they might dedicate great time and effort in communicating their needs in order to make their voices heard in the hope that their assertive behaviour will lead to behavioural change. While some manage to achieve positive outcomes and affect their relationships favourably, others’ attempts tend to fall on deaf ears. For the latter, questioning the point of being assertive in such discouraging scenarios becomes worthy of consideration.

If cutting contact with difficult people or ending dysfunctional relationships that compromise your emotional wellbeing are not options you are willing to contemplate, I suggest sticking with assertiveness, but as your own personal “thing”.  If your father, mother or partner refuses to hear, see or feel you, that does not mean you cannot do all those things yourself and for yourself. As assertiveness is a gift you give to your true self, when you feel unimportant, invisible, incompetent and/or unlovable in their presence, continue to connect with your body and express how they make you feel, regardless of how you think they might respond. You can do that by saying the following, silently or out loud:

“When you _____ (behaviour), I feel _____ (feeling) and think _____ (thought)”.

Example: “When you ignore my opinion, I feel sad/angry and think I do not matter”.

Every time you repeat the above – even when it goes unnoticed by others – you validate your own feelings. By keeping the connection with your own body and reminding yourself of the impact others have on you, you become your own source of validation and empowerment, which also helps you break the cycle of dependency and dysfunction.