Pursue What Matters
Episode 200: Rethinking Trauma
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Who comes to mind when you think about trauma is that combat veterans, childhood abuse survivors, maybe victims of natural disasters? So while all of these fit today, I want to help you rethink trauma.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:17
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So the term trauma has been thrown around a lot in our society in recent years. It kind of makes me crazy when people use some of these terms very lightly. And you know, it’s easy to be confused about what the term actually means. And to complicate things even more in fairness, the way the term has been used has shifted over the years. And so today, I don’t necessarily want to get into that debate. It’s a contentious one with strong positions on either side. But what I do want to do is to help you get practical in terms of understanding your own history, understanding the history of others. So today, we’re going to be looking at how you might get emotionally hooked in situations, we talked a little bit about that in recent weeks, and how you might find yourself responding to a situation as a scared child rather than as a mature adult, many of us can relate to that experience. So these types of reactions can happen for many of us in many different situations. And yet, if you don’t understand what’s happening, you’re not well positioned to help yourself. And so in psychology, right, the distinction between big T trauma and little T trauma is made often right. And I think it can be a pretty helpful and useful distinction to help those who might experience little T trauma have a little more willingness to take a look at their experience.
Dr. Melissa Smith 2:14
So what do I mean by Big T and little T trauma. So big T trauma is is really what we what most of us think about when we think about a traumatic history. So you think about a circumscribed, catastrophic event that risks life or limb. So the classic examples would be natural disasters would be car accident would be combat would be, you know, maybe physical violence, sexual abuse, that sort of thing. But more and more the field of trauma research, it really is bringing in to light a greater understanding of what we commonly call little T trauma. This is also known as relational trauma. And so it may not be significant neglect physical or sexual abuse within the family, right, because we would kind of think about that more as big T trauma. But the way that I tend to think about it is that it can be death by 1000 cuts, in terms of the emotional integration of a child. So there’s not a one time catastrophic event. But often there may be smaller, but no less corrosive transactions happening dozens of times a day, throughout childhood, right. And so if you think about it, that way, you can see how these experiences can be corrosive, because they they’re ongoing, right throughout childhood throughout throughout many years, where when we think about some of the big T trauma, certainly there can be big T trauma that is ongoing. And obviously the impact of that is devastating. But many of the big T trauma events can be it could be one incident, right. And that is not to minimize those events at all. As a trauma specialist. This is I’ve spent my career working with folks with these struggles. But when we think about some examples, maybe of the little T trauma, right, so it’s that the smaller but no less corrosive transactions happening dozens of times a day, throughout childhood. It can be the experience of not being seen, being blamed for parents troubles being seen as a burden, parents meeting their needs through their child emotional avoidance, emotional reactivity. Maybe there’s a lot of yelling, there’s a lot of fighting, blaming shaming that happens within the family. And so you can see how the insidious impact of those types of behaviors that happen over time Childhood. And of course, in childhood, right, our understanding of ourselves is often through the view of our family members, our primary caretakers. And so if you have this experience of not being seen of being blamed as being perceived as a burden, you can see how that can have a devastating impact on your view of self, that we can carry that legacy with us into adulthood. And it can, it can show up in unanticipated ways in our relationships, and our communication in our interactions with others. And so I want to, you know, help us understand that a little bit more, it’s a big topic we’re going to, we’re going to have a couple of podcasts on this.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:47
Of course, when we talk about difficult childhood experiences or traumatic events, it’s really important that you manage and monitor yourself and do what’s best for you. So if there’s anything that we talked about on the podcast today, that’s upsetting, I would just say, that’s a good sign to maybe stop listening to move to some coping skills to give yourself a break. And so, of course, nothing should be construed as, as a therapy or treatment or intervention with this past podcast, it’s really just about education. But if in listening, you find yourself feeling upset about some memories, or some of your experiences, I would just say, that’s a good time to maybe end the podcast and take some time for self care. So with that in mind, every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. We try to do that by helping you lead with clarity. So you have connection to purpose, leading with curiosity, which is all about building self awareness. That’s really what we’re prioritizing today. And then leading and building a community. And so we want to be more effective in our interactions with others. And so what we’ll talk about today, also really applies to that third category. So I have several points that I want to lay out to kind of help you rethink trauma.
Dr. Melissa Smith 7:15
So let’s jump right in with our first point, which is that our history shows up in the present moment. Relational trauma can be a factor for many of us. It’s one of the factors that impacts whether we get emotionally hooked in interactions, or in other words, whether we react emotionally in an outsized manner to relationship challenges, conflict, life stressors, right that, that that this can really point to some of this relational trauma, this feeling emotionally hooked again, and again. And a few weeks ago, I talked more about this topic in terms of the relationship storm cycle. So if you want to revisit that podcast that might be helpful. And from Terence Rael, who we’ve also recently reviewed one of his books, he said, trauma pulls you into survival mode, in which you are clenching your fists for the fight or clamping your jaws shut like a fortress. And the more trauma you sustained as a child, the more compelling the fight becomes. And so you know, many of us, we just know that we get emotionally hooked, or we just know that we get in an argument or a fight. And we don’t really understand the dynamics of that. And so the goal today and with the upcoming podcasts is to really help you develop more awareness about what might be happening for you in these moments, what some of the factors may be that could be contributing to that, so that you can, you can help yourself in those moments so that you don’t become emotionally hooked. And so when, you know, what Terence real says is that when he talks about trauma as being a factor in relationship difficulties, he says it’s so common for people to immediately say, but I didn’t experience any trauma.
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:10
So this doesn’t apply to me. But I really love his response to this. And I think it’s a really helpful guide as we work to understand our own experience. So this is why he says before you make up your mind as to whether you experienced much trauma growing up, why not settle into the discussion of childhood trauma, because sometimes it doesn’t take much, depending on your constitution and a host of other variables. It may take only a slight tap on the egg to produce fissures that can last a lifetime. And I think that’s a good response. Because I think when we say well, like I didn’t, I didn’t have what I would consider trauma in my background. Right. We dismiss our experience. And here’s the other thing we dismiss the opportunity to learn from our experience. Now I want to be really clear today that my intent is not to have anyone listening, start labeling themselves as traumatized or anything like that. This is for the purposes of expanding your understanding of your internal experience. Right. And also it to to recognize, like if there have been challenges that you can write that you can add those to, to your experience and understanding not to wear it as a label or a badge or anything like that, but to help you in your functioning now, so that your functioning can be adaptive, so that you’re not walking into relationships, storms all the time, so that you’re not getting emotionally hooked.
Dr. Melissa Smith 10:41
So there’s very intentional focus around helping you better understand your own internal experience. Because what I can tell you is that, you know, I think many of us can relate is it really feels miserable, to feel out of control, and an interaction where you feel blindsided, you feel emotionally hooked, you don’t know how you got there, and you don’t know how to help yourself. That is, that’s so discouraging. And ultimately, it’s very frightening. And so if we can help add some context and just some nuance to this understanding, maybe maybe it can help you to really move towards skills that can be helpful for you. So it’s not about blaming anyone. It’s really about understanding your experience so that you can engage adaptive skills. And ultimately, that’s about understanding your story and as an adult, being able to, to be accountable for your actions. And so let’s head to the second point. And it is a question. So what happens when you become emotionally hooked? Right, so I’ve already talked a little bit about what it means to be emotionally hooked. So think about a fight and interaction where you feel blindsided, emotionally. And so what is happening. So first of all, our fear network is set off and we experience we can experience a really big stress response. So we move from thriving to survival threat mode. So think about the fight or flight response. That’s exactly what’s happening. And so this can show up in a couple of ways. There can be overreaction. So we think about the dramatic response, the yelling, the anger, the blaming, the shaming, the lashing out, we can also think about so that’s the fight, right. And then we can also think about flight. This can be silence, stonewalling, shutting down, no response at all, leaving the room. And so these are common reactions when we become emotionally hooked. And I think it’s also important to recognize that these reactions can be happening internally, and you might be smooth on the surface. So it might look like no response, it might look like just shutting down, it might look like non reaction. But there’s all there’s a lot going on internally, and it can be very frightening. And so in those moments, the line between the past and the present blurs and we move into a trauma response mode, in which we may be relive relive a traumatic experiences. And if if not that, right, we might be really living our coping strategy in response to traumatic experiences. And so, you know, it’s important to keep in mind when it comes to trauma and memory. It’s a pesky little character, right? Trauma memory isn’t something you remember is actually something you relive, this is something that we see with PTSD. Right?
Dr. Melissa Smith 13:46
So post traumatic stress disorder, we talk a little bit more about post traumatic stress, trying to keep away from this idea of disorder, but there are significant features. And one of the features is we can have some fractured memories, we can have intrusive memories, and the memories aren’t like regular memories, right? If you have pleasant, enjoyable memories of childhood, you can recall that you’re perfectly you have a perfect separation still from the past or present. But trauma memory is unique because it’s the lines between past and present really blur. And it is as though we are reliving that traumatic experience. And so in our in our body, we are experiencing the exact same flood of hormones and emotions and fear and panic, even though we’re safe even though you know maybe what happened was decades ago. traumatic memory, right? It is our emotional memory, right doesn’t have a clean line between the past and the present. And so, in the moment that you become emotionally hooked, your brain and body have difficulty separating the past From the present. And so in a very real way, the past super imposes itself on the present moment. And that’s how that’s one of the ways that you can feel really blindsided. It’s like I was just I was fine a minute ago what on earth happened. So this can be really confusing for both you and whomever you are interacting with in the moment, because it’s like, boy, what happened, you can be reliving a traumatic experience from the past in the present moment, or have a very outsized reaction, because you’re not, you’re not so much reacting to what’s happening in the present, as you are reacting to a traumatic memory or a traumatic reliving of the experience.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:42
So of course, you can understand how overtime this can lead to maladaptive responses, right, we move right to fight or flight, we have angry reactions we have shutting down. And you know, we’re not able to problem solve, we’re not able to resolve concerns. And so what so that is one of the ways that this can present. But it’s not the way that trauma history typically presents for most of us. So what happens for most of us, and this is something that Terri real talks about other researchers, and clinicians have also talked about this is that what happens for most of us is that we don’t reenact the experience of the trauma itself. But instead, we act out the coping strategy that we evolved to deal with the trauma. So let me unpack that a little bit. And hopefully, it will make sense. So if you are neglected as a child, you’ve maybe learned to be independent and to ignore your needs, right, because for the neglected child, they learned very quickly that they were on their own, that they couldn’t really count on other people to help them. And so maybe you became hyper independent, maybe you learned to dismiss your needs, because they weren’t gonna get met. You didn’t know how to meet them. Another example, is, if your parents had high unrelenting expectations of you, you maybe learn to say what you needed to say, in order to avoid disappointment, you learn to become a social chameleon, maybe you became a people pleaser, a high achiever, because of those very high expectations. And another example, so if your loved ones or your family had poor boundaries, maybe you learn to protect yourself behind rigid walls to prevent that intrusion. And so in the present moment, when you’re having an interaction where you get emotionally hooked, you may not be reliving a traumatic experience from the past. But what’s more common is you are you act out the typical coping strategy that you use in those moments. So right if you feel threatened, because you get emotionally hooked in the moment, you might throw up a big wall to protect yourself, right? Because maybe you feel like your boundaries are being intruded upon. And so the solution for that it’s inconsistent with the coping skill you used as a child with that last example, is that you hide behind rigid walls to prevent intrusion. So what does that look like getting defensive, shutting down, not interacting as part of the conversation, because your threat assessment system is saying this is danger, you need to protect yourself. And so you go to that same coping strategy that you employed as a child to protect yourself.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:33
So let’s head to our next point, our point three, where we look at this dynamic over time, and I want to introduce you to the adaptive trial, and thinking about the adaptive child as a coping strategy. And so the adaptive child and the wise adult come to us from the work of p&l it and then also Terry real talks about this a lot in his newest book us. And so Pia melody describes the adaptive child is the kid in grown ups, clothing. Okay, so it’s the you that you cobbled together in the absence of healthy parenting, right? So if we think about some of this relational trauma, you developed a pattern of coping strategies to help you with those emotional hurts those behavioral interactions in the family. And so some of the traits of the adaptive trial now this is an adult who is showing up when they get emotionally hooked as an adoptive child. And so the thinking is really black and white, all or nothing. There’s, the adaptive child can be very perfectionistic can be very relentless, rigid, harsh, hard, certain right there. They’ve got a lot of certainty and tight in the body. So there’s a lot of tension throughout the body. And this is this, this is kind of that maladaptive coping strategy that we carry into adulthood with us when we feel emotionally hooked, as opposed to the wise adult, which includes coping strategies consistent with emotional maturity, right. So if you think about a history of relational trauma, it can stunt, your emotional maturity, right, the development of emotional maturity. And so then when you can do very well in life, but then when you get emotionally hooked, you kind of regress, it feels emotionally to that adoptive child. And so, you know, without the wise adult, is really we employ coping strategies consistent with emotional maturity. So it doesn’t mean that we haven’t had some of this relational trauma. But we have found a way to engage coping strategies that are more effective. And so some of the traits of the wise adult include a nuanced approach to situations, being realistic, being forgiving, being flexible, warm, yielding, humble, and relaxed in the body. And so if we just think about, maybe a conflict situation between you and your partner, if you show up as the adaptive child, that conversation is not going to go well, right, because you’re relentless, you’re rigid, You’re harsh or hard. It’s like, it’s really hard to get any traction. But if you can show up as the wise adult, right, you’re nuanced, you’re realistic, you’re forgiving, right? To say, I’m, you know, I accept your apology, or I’m sorry, you can be flexible, warm. So you can say like, even though, right, I’m upset about the situation, like, I still love you, and I can be warm with you. And you can be humbled, right? Like, you can own your part. And you can, you can kind of release the tension in your body. And so when you think about being tight in the body, or versus being relaxed in the body, that’s really a sign of the stress response. Because the stress response, great, you know, includes tightening for action, right? Like everything tightens up. Because we’re ready to fight, we need to protect ourselves. And there’s some really incredible physiology that happens in service to protecting us. But of course, if we’re not under under threat, right, we just feel like we are, then that body tightness doesn’t serve us and it actually can become a factor that undermines our health, and well being over times. And so one point around this, that Terence Real says, and I think it’s such a helpful guide, when we think about how we manage ourselves and how we interact with people, is that there is no redeeming value whatsoever in harshness, there’s just no place for that. He says that harshness does nothing, that loving firmness doesn’t do better. And so what do we think about that adaptive child, some of the ways that this shows up maybe in interactions right in adulthood, is you can be overly aggressive, you might be overly accommodating, right? Because you’re just you want to avoid a fight. There could be people pleasing, you’re kind of asking the question, Who do I have to be to please you? How do I secure your love? How do I protect against rejection? Now you’re not asking those questions necessarily.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:25
But that’s the quest. That’s the desire. Who might show up with superiority, you might show up with inferiority, you could be dominating or you could be withdrawn. And so this adaptive child reaction, it’s really a set point reaction, or a pattern reaction over time, right, and it’s based on those coping strategies developed in childhood. And so this is also known as your relational stance. So it’s, it’s how you, it’s how you show up dynamically in the relationship when things get challenging, okay? So it’s the thing you will do over and over again, when you are stressed. So when we think about conflict, and how we approach conflict, this is your relational stance. So if it’s like, oh, you’re a fighter, and you’re jumping in and you’re attacking, that’s your relational stance, that’s that adaptive child. Maybe you become overly accommodating, you shut down, you apologize. First, you say whatever you have to say, to make sure that you secure the love of the person you’re interacting with. That’s also the adaptive child. Those are two different relational stances, but it’s all consistent with that adaptive child. And so there’s a there’s a hard thing in this right, like it’s all it’s all hard, right? Being the adoptive child showing up that way in your relationships just doesn’t feel good. But here’s the really hard thing. The adoptive child is the relational stance valued in In our society, okay, that’s a big problem. So it can lead the adaptive child can lead to great success in the world. While devastating your personal life. It’s really an individualistic approach. It’s the me versus you the comparison competition who’s right, who’s wrong. And so Terence real says our culture feeds off of adaptive children, and is often threatened by mature adults. And so you’re working upstream here on this, and that there are ways that our society really mirrors the adaptive child, black and white, rigid, perfectionistic, unrealistic, unforgiving, and a culture of individualism. And so as we learn about this, this relational stance, right, we need to respect that the adaptive child was adaptive in childhood, but is no longer adaptive, if you want mature adult relationships, which hopefully, hopefully you do. So it’s important to keep in mind that it was adaptive, then, but it’s maladaptive now. And so of course, we want to have compassion, empathy and understanding for you know, that the experience of the adoptive child, but you do not accept or condone that behavior continuing into adulthood. And so you take responsibility for the ways that adoptive child shows up for you, and you make a commitment to doing things differently. Okay. So instead, we really want you to be the wise adult. And this is the last point that I have for you. Today, as we’ve already talked about the characteristics of the wise adult, being the wise adult requires you to move beyond the automatic, emotionally hooked responses of the adaptive child, you must separate the past from the present, you must use the three R’s of cocaine, which we’ve talked about I talked about in a podcast not too long ago, first regulate, you need to calm the stress response. So you can respond as the wise adult and not the adaptive child, you need to relate, maintain connection, while expressing your concerns appropriately.
Dr. Melissa Smith 27:19
So this is maintaining relation to or maintaining connection with the other person, this as a task of emotional maturity, and empathy for the other person. And then third is reason. So you have a chance to look at how you want to handle these situations moving forward, you can bring in your perspective, while respecting the other person’s perspective might be different. So you might really disagree on something but you can still hold on to the value of love and respect and care for one another. You can understand that your history that may have been loading the situation right that you had an outsized response, and again, separate the past from the present. And so in these moments, right, Belinda Berman, who is a family therapist, she calls these moments, relational heroism. And it’s the moment when every muscle and nerve in your body is screaming to do the same old thing, right, the adaptive child. But to raise consciousness incite discipline and grace, you’re able to lift yourself off of that accustomed track and deliberately place yourself on another track of the wise adult. So you can shift from automatic thoughtless reaction, and you can shift from you and me to us, you can shift to that relational stance of us and towards more presence. And from Jiddu Krishnamurti, sorry, I know, I did not get that right. true liberation is freedom from our own automatic responses. And that’s, that’s really powerful when you develop that skill, where we can be mindful in the relationship. And we can bring in a pause where we can slow ourselves down, settle into the wise mind or the wise adult. And using the deep, long, slow breaths, to help us do that, to bring in the pause to move through the stress cycle. And so today, we talked about helping you to rethink trauma, we talked about the experience of relational trauma and how that’s much more common than most of us realize. We talked about getting emotionally hooked. And those are moments when our adaptive child our our maladaptive coping strategies from childhood show up in the present day, and you know, it doesn’t it doesn’t serve us well in our relationships. And we talked about the importance of being the Wiser adult, and to move beyond those automatic emotionally hooked responses of the adaptive child and that that takes effort and practice, but it’s something that absolutely possible so you don’t feel like you’re a victim of, of these moments when you get emotionally hooked, but you can actually keep yourself grounded and and stay out of being emotionally hooked.
Dr. Melissa Smith 30:13
So, head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode. You can do that at www.drmelissasmith.com/200-rethinkingtrauma. And so I will link to the US podcast that I did recently. So you can learn a little bit more about Terrance Real and some of his teachings and in the meantime, I’d love to connect with you on Instagram @dr.melissasmith I always have lots more content for each of these discussions, and I would love to interact with you there. I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care
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