“It happened again.” Jennifer said. “My husband didn’t want to have sex last night and the spiral began. The voice in my head told me that he didn’t love me and that no one will ever love me. I told myself to focus on my kids because they needed me, but then I managed to convince myself that they were eventually going to leave me too. I tried to stay positive and tell myself that I was over exaggerating, but the pain of abandonment felt so real. I mean…it isn’t as if I haven’t been abandoned before! I’m not just making this feeling up!”
As a toxic relationship therapist I am all too familiar with the almighty spiral. Jennifer, like so many others, had grown unfortunately accustomed to spiraling. One phrase, one comment, one picture, one run in with one of “his” friends and the spiral begins. Psychologists call them triggers. Survivors call them life.
Anyone who has lived with a toxic parent or partner can attest that they developed fabulously intricate survival skills just to get through the day. When people don’t feel safe, particularly in their own homes, they experience a flood of chemicals that cause them to go into fight, flight or freeze. Toxic relationships survivors rarely experience “fight” as their go to psychological response. They are typically peacekeepers who are more likely to turn inward. This was especially true for Jennifer.
I asked Jennifer how she tried to protect herself. “You know those huge wooden gates you imagine on castles? The way they move down and manage to keep the entire world out? It was as if one of those gates lowered down over my head and heart so I couldn’t be hurt. I could almost see the gate shutting before my eyes – shutting him out. It was thick and sturdy and refused to be infiltrated. I told myself “It’s fine” and I hid behind the gate and felt safe again. Lonely. Cold. But, safe. And I went on about my day. Polite. Short. Sterile. I refused to be mean, but I also refused to be vulnerable.”
If you have seen Brené Brown on Netflix as she discusses our Call to Courage or been fortunate enough to take in her TedTalk on vulnerability you know that opening yourself up to others requires more bravery than taking on a live grizzly. No amount of pepper spray can save you from the vulnerability of opening up to your significant other after you have been made to feel unlovable by someone who was supposed to love you. Vulnerability is especially difficult for those who have experienced toxic relationships.
Jennifer knew her husband loved her. He had shown his kindness and faithfulness a thousand times. But, when she sniffed even the slightest hint of rejection she no longer felt like he loved her, because her body had memorized the feeling of rejection from years and years of the games and crazy making of her previous relationship. Unfortunately, our feelings can become quite the task master, coloring every thought and reminding us that we deserve the right to act like an angry toddler when we feel put out. Or in Jennifer’s case where her husband didn’t want to put out!
In a valiant attempt to keep her safe her body did what our bodies always do under pressure. Her body exhibited the behavior she had practiced. Her body was used to fleeing so she ran away emotionally and hid inside herself in an effort to protect herself from pain. She couldn’t officially run away so she ran to numbness. Unfortunately, as Brené Brown reminds us in The Gifts of Imperfection “We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones.” Which meant Jennifer’s attempts to protect herself meant shutting herself off to love from herself and her husband.
Jennifer’s ex was out of her bed, but still in her head. The control and games of her ex had not only ruined her past relationship, the leftover pain and trauma was ruining her current relationship. The fear Jennifer had felt in her past, was now showing up as fear in her present, which if not handled properly was going to create fear of her future. You have to heal the trauma to stop the drama. Otherwise drama will keep showing up no matter who is sitting across the breakfast table.
Understanding that this is “This is the story I am making up” is one way to recognize when trauma is talking rather than truth. Brené Brown has found this to be the way successful people navigate the conversations within their heads and hearts. “If I could give men and women in relationship and leaders and parents one hack, I would give them, ‘ the story I’m making up,'” Brown told Tech Insider. “Basically, you’re telling the other person your reading of the situation — and simultaneously admitting that you know it can’t be 100% accurate.” Reminding yourself “This is the story I am making up” is also a way to admit to yourself that you aren’t being 100% accurate.
Your brain is not designed to keep you happy – your brain is designed to keep you safe. If you have been in a relationship wrought with uncertainty, game play, confusion. gaslighting, and never knowing if you are going to interact with Dr. Jekyle or Mr. Hyde then your brain has been in survival mode overdrive. Your nervous system has been flooded, your consciousness has practiced endless escape routes over and over, and you have learned that people are not always who they seem to be.
In Daring Greatly Brené Brown says, “Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” Courage after a toxic relationship means being brave enough to ask yourself if you are interacting with trauma or truth. Brave enough to investigate “the story I am making up” rather than diving head first into the feeling you have practiced for far too long. Courage isn’t just being brave enough to open up to new love, courage is being brave enough to release the past so it doesn’t continue to ruin your future.
- Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection. Simon & Schuster, 2010.
- Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly. Simon & Schuster, 2015.