Last month we discussed the role affect regulation plays in recovery from trauma. Affect is driven by thoughts and in turn, thoughts are informed by meanings. It is useful to note at the outset many of these meanings lie outside conscious mind’s power and scope. Deeper mind, with its vast storehouse of implicit memories and ability to condense meanings and code them in various ways, makes meaning much more than just a conscious construct or a unidimensional belief. Trauma in general, and relational trauma, in particular, ( that rises to the level of an attachment injury) has the power to smash into awareness and leave an indelible imprint, blowing to bits our basic assumptions about relationships, human nature, justice, self-efficacy, and the availability of support or safety in the world.
Think of someone who has witnessed torture or been abused or abandoned with no hope of letup. He or she may reshuffle meanings in a way that refutes any belief in self-efficacy, justice, goodness, support, or safety and hold this refutation on a very deep level. This is the extreme. Others can simply develop a “sore spot” (Johnson, 2007) for the two primal wounds of deprivation or desertion that makes a relationship suddenly seem unsafe, when cued by current negative interactions. It is this disordered meaning, then, that settles into place after the trauma and causes the survivor additional suffering. We see a range of difficulties with trust, a dread of vulnerability, an existential wariness, or at the extreme, a conviction of living on borrowed time and inevitable doom.
Meanings are densely layered and complex. Think of a guy stuck in a traffic jam. No one is having much fun, but this guy is getting in and out of his car in an agitated way, shouts out expletives to no one in particular, and finally beats his fists on his steering wheel until his knuckles bleed. Whatever is going on with this guy, is about a lot more than just the traffic. Think of a tuning fork suspended over other tuning forks. An outer event or an inner one hits a note and they all start to vibrate. Events may “pull up” feelings, emotional tones, bodily sensations, sensory traces, interpersonal vignettes, memory fragments, etc., from across a lifetime that are all congealed in a flash into a composite meaning.
Rapid Resolution Therapy recognizes distorted meaning aggravates trauma in several subtle ways. And these may come from the culture or prior learning. First, there is the equation of troublesome feelings, thoughts, or behaviors with identity. This amounts to defining the self with passing states, or worse, labels. Second, there is the attempt to articulate desires or needs through negation. When someone rattles off how/what they don’t want to be or do, they haven’t yet accessed what they do want, making forward movement almost impossible. Third, the vanishing present. You may hear someone go on about the past, what they or others should’ve done, then jump to predicting the future, equally devoid of new possibility or different outcome. What happened to the present? It just disappeared, and with it, the awareness of corrective action that right now might turn things around. Fourth, introspection and self-analysis. Intelligent people use these to an obsessive degree, albeit with brilliant insightfulness, only to keep themselves stuck. With the headlights turned in, or the driver looking continually in the rear-view mirror at himself, the car cannot be effectively driven down the road. Lastly, one cannot grow up in this culture and escape the explanation of all mishaps by a moralistic outlook. The roots of this go back to Puritan times and even before. Success and doing well was equated with moral rectitude; its opposite was equated with falling from grace or being outside the predestined benefits reserved for the elect. If something bad happened, it’s because someone was somehow not right with God. This person was therefore to blame for opposing God’s will, and their suffering makes sense as a consequence. People should be doing well, prospering, feeling good, controlling things, overcoming, avoiding mistakes, etc. If they didn’t, it’s because they got themselves mixed up with the bad thing, didn’t apply themselves, or got on God’s bad side. In other words, it’s due to their sin. The conclusion that they brought this on themselves and are only getting what is coming to them is the final reductionistic step in a single cause view of the world, thus relieving us of the anxiety of living in a world with multiple causalities. It’s amazing how frequently this disturbed thinking still shows up even in intelligent people. It completely misses the scientific fact that things exist because they were caused; and causes, more often than not, are multi-dimensional and complex, a weaving together of genetics and the environment. Science knows that it is almost never one monolithic factor that explains something, but many factors, which are sorted out over time with painstaking construction of hypotheses and careful research.
When attachment goes poorly early in life, or secure initial attachment is later injured causing what is termed an “attachment wound”, the person is traumatized, and again we have an imprint to which attaches distorted meanings about self and others. When new injuries come about or one moves into a vulnerable state, these meanings emerge and are amplified. Again, think of the tuning fork. Especially in the context of abuse or neglect by those who should’ve protected or nurtured, meanings fall across the self: self is unloveable, defective, the cause of the bad behavior of others, deserving of abuse or abandonment. Or self is adrift in a dangerous world, unendingly and intolerably vulnerable to the betrayal and deceit of others, so self must be vigorously defended at all costs.
A movie that powerfully depicted all these was Good Will Hunting. Will, the hero, was brutalized as an orphan and learned to live on his own, fiercely anti-dependent with even his closest friends. But now as a young man he falls in love with a girl enrolled at the Ivy League college where he is a janitor. It has been a fairy tale of a romance and their love has blossomed into physical intimacy. But it is when she offers her whole-hearted commitment to him and invites him to share her life, he explodes. Putting her love on the line, her needs in his hands, and exposing herself to total rejection rings a big alarm in Will. His deep conviction of unlovability and certainty of inevitable betrayal by others, which have been pushed down into deeper mind for years, explode across the screen. We see his cycle: explode, push others away, numb out, retreat into familiar isolation, live to see another day. If you can call this living. Point is, the strong affect and behavior driven by distorted meanings that lie far below conscious awareness.
Rapid Resolution Therapy seeks to neutralize destructive meanings: through exposing childlike moralisms and egocentricity, by inducing a more scientific view that because things were caused, they couldn’t, on final analysis, have happened any other way; by educating clients that our sophisticated brains, while capable of so much, are also prone to many errors and the attachment of deficient meanings at the point of injury is one of them. Our ability to attach catastrophic meanings and embellish them is a normal response to trauma, but if left unchecked, can lead us astray into a world of intense hurt. For survivors of trauma it is often the case, but interestingly enough, with a strong enough connection, they are eager to transition to a more neutral meaning or even to no particular meaning at all. People find real comfort as dysfunctional meanings are emptied out and events are seen as the result of a vast interplay of genetics and environment, including the brokenness in others, so it is finally ludicrous to place oneself at the center of it all. One assumes a more humble, grateful stance and even the ability to laugh at oneself, knowing the world is not going to unfold according to our preferences any time soon. In this profound transformation, the meanings attached to trauma disintegrate and are emptied of their existential sting.
© Copyright 2011 by Mark A. Chidley, LMHC, CAP, therapist in Fort Myers, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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