Tug-of-War of Trauma Recovery: Our Inside and Outside Selves

hands pulling rope tugWe may have experienced various traumatic experiences in childhood, whether it be abuse, neglect, abandonment, or ongoing misattunements from caregivers that impact our ability to feel safe to attach. Even though the events themselves may be behind us, those internal responses to the traumatic experiences—images, sensations, meanings we create, and emotions—can become “stuck” in the nervous system. They continue to have a “charge.” That charge stays in our system, is stored maladapatively, and is part of our inner world.

At the most unexpected times, this material can push through what we would consider our “normal” day-to-day activities—such as parenting, working, relationship building, and self-care—in the “outside world.” As a result, we may find ourselves in a constant balancing act of pushing back at that charge. Our normal everyday selves, if you will, try to show the world that we are fine on the outside, even though there may be a lot of material that pushes through.

For example, perhaps we are in a discussion with a loved one when, all of the sudden, we interpret that we are being abandoned, even while there is no actual evidence of this. Or perhaps while attempting to set a boundary with a child, we feel feelings of guilt because we don’t feel that we “deserve” to set those boundaries. All of these can be intrusions on day-to-day life, all from past hurts.

Those feelings and interpretations can actually be the experiences of the past clouding the now, stopping us from truly being in the moment. The nervous system is activated and defending itself from a past injustice. Unfortunately, that charge from the past compels your nervous system to act as if the traumatic experience is still happening.

There can then develop a kind of tug-of-war between who we are on the outside and the charges that remain from the past. If the tug-of-war with the traumatic material becomes too much and we become flooded, we may need to go numb in order to be able to still “do” life on the outside. We may shut down. Even if we do, it doesn’t mean that the material on the inside is gone; it just means that we have had to become more unaware of it in order to function on the outside.

One of the most challenging aspects of complex trauma, whether or not pursuing EMDR therapy, is that we must be able to identify and “own” our feelings and experiences. This allows us to then process traumatic experiences from the perspective of being “here and now” and visiting them versus feeling as if one is flooded and still in those experiences. In EMDR language, we look for one’s ability to maintain dual attention. It expands into making sure we stay within a window of tolerance as we visit those memories.

Often, those starting their healing work find themselves in one of two extremes: flooded by feelings all of the time or feeling completely numb.

For some, this may not seem like such a large step, but for the majority of those who are healing from complex trauma, it is in fact very difficult. Often, those starting their healing work find themselves in one of two extremes: flooded by feelings all of the time or feeling completely numb. The numbness often comes because the material in our inside world becomes unmanageable and we become more fearful of that material. We shut down from the outside world because the inside world is so invasive.

We typically learn to dance this dance of “daily life” vs. “inner stuff” at an early age. In infancy, we learn that our attachment to our caregivers is required; we cannot survive without a caregiver or we will die. Period. We also learn that our attachment relationship is dependent upon us being in tune with our caregiver’s reactions—to know what to do, how to act, and how OK it is (or not OK) to have our emotions be expressed and seen in the outside world.

We also determine whether it is dangerous to really identify, own, and be with the feelings of shame, anger, or sadness, even happiness or calm. We then create certain strategies that seem helpful at the time but show up later as distressing symptoms. As outlined in my previous article on blocking beliefs, it is often those cognitive errors that hold us back from fully realizing and being in tune with our past hurts because it was, at the time, too much to fully realize.

In future articles, I will share more about what it means to fully realize and own what was once unrealized, back when we were experiencing past injustices. Similarly, I will share more regarding what it means to own and process feelings we may have deemed unacceptable in order to survive the past.

If you are a therapist and are interested in expanding your knowledge on this topic, especially as it relates to structural dissociation theory, you are encouraged to read The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization (2006) by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • NanaJ

    July 9th, 2015 at 7:19 AM

    I think that at times the numbness ends up hurting the most. You are being hurt and wounded and it is like you may not even recognize it because you can’t feel it. You have chosen to block out all of the pain, understandably, hoping to bury those hurtful emotions. They will come back though, guaranteed.

  • Hugh

    July 9th, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    How can it wind up being dangerous to own those feelings? It has to be be about letting them come to the surface but not about defining who you are.

  • Ali

    July 9th, 2015 at 3:01 PM

    It might be that there is little or no attunement between the primary giver and child, eg, the child who is given the hefty responsibility of attempting to care for the parent’s emotional wellbeing which would involve having to push down their own fears, thoughts and impulses. For example the angry, alcoholic, depressed and/or abusive caregiver.

  • Elizabeth

    July 9th, 2015 at 7:00 PM

    The risk, for many survivors, is that they would be flooded or overwhelmed by the unearthed emotions and memories, causing symptoms ranging from shutting down – inability to carry out job/family/self care, self harm, i.e. decompensation/destabilization. To avoid this, trauma therapists work with survivors to build trust, teach understanding of trauma-induced symptoms/reactions, teach coping skills including feelings tolerence/modulation, among other things.

  • Emoji

    February 7th, 2017 at 3:06 PM

    It is interesting to read this article and think about it as someone who has been working, not as a trauma therapist, but as a caregiver, with unaccompanied minors from, primarily Afghanistan to Europe. In the case of the facility I last worked, the consulting psychologist had to do a special training because, in her estimate, about 80% were experiencing PTSD. As their stories came out to us (we did not ask), it was clear why. These are people whose fathers or brothers were beheaded, in front of them, in the next room, or out in a field. Sometimes, they too had been stabbed with a machete and left to die. Some literature would say they have had three traumatic episodes, and I would add a fourth as they are -re-experiencing it again while the governments of Europe signed an agreement with the (known to be corrupt) government of Afghanistan, which controls less than 60% of the land, to accept the return of these traumatized souls. NOT speaking about the trauma can be a mechanism for saving one’s self, perhaps from suicide. Sometimes, the memories are too traumatic to allow to surface. We had guys having catatonic fits, fits that resembled epilepsy, but were not, and they were brought on by anxiety. On the other hand, it is also true that these things can manifest in nightmares, every night. Patients, consistency, fortitude, honesty, respect, and helping them to recognize that they were having fun sometimes – so that they could be aware of their own abilities to overcome, or live apart from, their ongoing fears and losses, and feel supported when reality (most were separated from their mothers or siblings – and the Afghan government will not provide the Red Cross with information on “single women” so finding them is next to impossible, if they are even in the country after being separated) comes knocking. Again, it is interesting to compare traumas, as it helps to remind one of “how lucky we are” sometimes. Election of Trump aside. ;)

  • jjstar

    July 9th, 2015 at 11:15 PM

    The issue with PTSD is there is lacking in space (place) and time – a pathway – a roadmap in which to PROCESS the memories. So they are shut-down or reverted or bypassed through other pathways – in most cases the inappropriate ones but this is the best that can be done under this circumstance. The way clearing for this pathway does require knowledge of the soul and how the brain/mind/body sets down primal structures pre-language – to then delve into that realm (unconsciousness coupled with superconsciousness), find one moment unrelated to the trauma and then expand with the tools available in that realm. It is not for amateurs. That is for certain. My feeling is only one who has already been in this state – which is a state of being in between worlds – not descending into this world but living in the ethers and guessing/misfiring at reality – and emerged into the new pathway can then be a way-shower to others in the same predicament.

  • carlton

    July 10th, 2015 at 6:05 AM

    I am a survivor of physical abuse and while the last thing that I ever want to have to do is relive that pain, it is often good for me to remember just so I can get fully regrounded and look at how far I have come.

  • Cole

    July 11th, 2015 at 11:22 AM

    It takes a very strong and driven person to survive things like this. Just when you think that you have conquered it, then something can come back and trigger all of those same emotions and feelings all over again.

  • Nicola

    July 13th, 2015 at 11:46 AM

    And there will be days when you feel the pain and days when you don’t
    which can make it even harder to know the triggers
    it’s like it would be easier if it was the same thing every time
    so you could figure out just what is causing the hurt to re emerge

  • jjstar

    July 13th, 2015 at 10:24 PM

    Emotions have turned sour and bitter when they’re channeled the wrong way. Anything and everything can be a trigger. And nothing can be a trigger. All that negativity requires is a notion or a thought to take it to the next level and fester on from there. It doesn’t exist by itself, but needs context – that context is almost 100% connected to relating – the very first layer, the primal foundation set into place en-vitro and 3 years thereafter. What someone did, didn’t do, what I did, didn’t do, what I had wished would have been done and wasn’t etc. etc. Another primary factor in this – is the time aspect. Living in the past – going there obsessively – it’s the deepest groove among the pathways. We live in memory – short-term, long-term and in the shadow of.

  • Janet

    December 27th, 2015 at 11:48 AM

    Going through this may take a long time. Thanks for article. Anyone else not sure of recall fact or fiction, this is my stumbling block, concerning the phrase of ownership, like what is my belief relating to the emotional trauma. Not wanting to attach blame or make excuses but face reality?

  • nessa3

    June 25th, 2016 at 4:10 PM

    For me feeling is to painful and confusing….I’m aware that numbing isn’t good either. I wasn’t allowed emotional expression as a child, so when they do come I have alot of struggle just trying to understand them, allow them? How long? Whats normal?

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