Pursue What Matters
Episode 202: The Trauma Grid
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
Are you tired of your unhelpful patterns? The ways you get emotionally hooked? Maybe you lash out? Maybe you shut down? Well join me today as I share an excellent tool to help you overcome your miserable patterns. We all have them.
Dr. Melissa Smith 0:20
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 over the past several weeks, we’ve been talking about our most important relationships, what helps and what gets in the way. Last week, we talked about relational trauma, those death by 1000 cuts, experiences in our families of origin that can lead to unhelpful reactions in our adult lives, we don’t want that happening to you. Today, I want to share with you the trauma grid to help you better understand how these giant dynamics can potentially be showing up for you in your most important relationships. We don’t want to be flying blind when it comes to our most important relationships. So it’s really worth our time to understand these dynamics, it doesn’t mean that it’s actually absolutely happening for you. But awareness is very powerful. So today, and every week, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead. I do that by helping you lead with clarity, curiosity, and leading a community. And our primary focus today is helping you lead with curiosity, which is all about developing and strengthening self awareness and self leadership. So let’s jump right in with the trauma grid.
Dr. Melissa Smith 1:53
So the trauma grid can be thought of as a cross, right. So think about a grid, with health in the middle of that cross. So of course, health is the center of that grid, it’s where we all want to be, which means that behavior that moves out to the extremes on both the horizontal and the vertical axes are where we run into trouble, right? This is where we can have dysfunctional or maladaptive behavior that doesn’t serve us right. It’s where we can get stuck in our miserable patterns. So I discovered this trauma grid from Dr. Terrence reel, who is a master couples therapist. I don’t know if he’s the originator of this, but he covers it extensively in his book us, which I reviewed a few weeks ago. So if you want to learn more about that, you can definitely check out the podcast or his book. And so back to the trauma grid, when you get too far out on any one of the four on any any one of the axes, that’s where we see predictable trauma coping strategies that are less effective, right. And so of course, with any good grid, we have the vertical line and the horizontal line. So the vertical line is an assessment of self esteem. So our self esteem can be either too low at the at the low end of the vertical line or too high, right? And too high self esteem can be an issue, right? So we’ll kind of unpack that a little bit. And then our horizontal line is all about boundaries. So we can have rigid or too strong of boundaries on the left side. And that moves to non existent boundaries on the right side. So can you have too rigid of boundaries? Absolutely. Should you have non existent boundaries? Absolutely not. Right. So either extreme is a problem. And so now let’s learn a little bit more about the horizontal line. And again, this is where we think about boundaries. So the horizontal line is all about how boundaries are used. So on the left hand side is abandonment. This is where our about the boundaries are too strong. And we’re talking about relational trauma, right? So we’re talking about our families of origin, so the child is left alone, maybe physically, maybe emotionally, spiritually, potentially, we also this is where we see neglect and emotional disconnection, right? So it’s like every man for themselves in the family emotionally, right? We don’t have a lot of warmth or affection, or resources to help kiddos cope and make sense of what’s happening either in the world or even within the family system. So that’s abandonment on the left and then on the other extreme, we have intrusion on the right and so this is where we see that boundaries are non existent. So we see codependence in relationships we see in measurement, where we’re just like, we don’t have healthy separation from one another. This we can also see punishing family members that try to disrupt the system who or don’t go along with some of the codependence or the enmeshment. And so I’ve got some examples of at each end of the spectrum, right.
Dr. Melissa Smith 5:18
So the first example at one extreme, I want you to consider the boundary violating intrusive behavior. Right. So that is intrusion on the right, such as physical or sexual abuse of a child, right. I think we all agree this is absolutely abusive, and a problem, but of course, it doesn’t have to look like that to be intrusive. So sometimes it’s the codependence right a parent sharing and appropriate information with a child, that would be considered intrusive. And then another example, is at the other end, right? So but wounding can also happen. By the opposite of intrusion by being left alone, that sometimes we think about this as passive trauma, it is the abandonment. It’s being unseen, its parents not having emotional bandwidth to parent is this benign neglect. Sometimes it looks like parents just being gone all the time, whether that’s work, whether that’s travel, there’s no emotional support framework, for a kiddo there can be a lack of love, a lack of warmth, a lack of affection. And so this is where we see like, very rigid boundaries between one another in the family. And so these boundary violations undermine the three factors of good parenting. So when it comes to good parenting, we think about three core factors that really make a big difference. First is nurture is their love, affection and care. And of course, we see that these are violated on both ends of the spectrum, right? So with nurturing and abandonment, there’s not enough love, affection and care, and on the intrusion, and it’s, it’s co opting children inappropriately into relationships, it’s relying on them too much. It’s saying you’re my best friend. And of course, that’s not a good boundary with a kiddo. That’s a lack of boundaries, actually, with a kiddo. And so nurture is the first factor. The second factor is guidance, right? Kids need direction, they need encouragement, we, we don’t just leave kids tabula rasa to figure things out. That’s bad parenting. And the third factor of good parenting are limits. We set rules, we have boundaries, we have structure. A family is not a democracy, right there. But it also doesn’t mean that it has to be a nasty authoritarian regime. Right. But kids need structure, they need to know what the limits are. That is one of the most important functions of parents to do that in a responsible, loving, caring way. And so boundary violations, right? If we think about this, this horizontal axis, it really violates all three factors of good parenting. And so as you consider this horizontal axis, right, I want you I’m just going to ask some abandonment questions just to kind of help you get a feel for it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 8:23
So thinking about your family of origin, were you intellectually nourished? Were there family discussions at the dinner table? Did you have dinner together as a family? Did you read with anyone? Did you have a parent that read with you? You know, before bedtime? Were you physically nourished? Did you receive hugs and cuddles? Did you have someone in the family that would make your favorite dish? Maybe if you were sick or for your birthday? Were you sexually nurtured? Meaning? Did you receive guidance? Did you receive limits? Right? Did your parents talk to you about sex? Did they talk to you about your development? Right? Inappropriate boundaries? But did they talk to you about it? Was your budding adulthood enjoyed and even celebrated? And so if we think about the emotional domain of abandonment, did your family nurture your emotional life Right? Or were you told to stop crying? Were you told I’ll give you something to cry about?
Dr. Melissa Smith 9:20
Maybe you came from a family where we just we don’t talk about things. We ignore the elephant in the room. We don’t attend to upsetness. So we might pretend that the fight never happened. And that if you are upset about what you saw, or what happened, you are the problem. So you’ve just become the target if you bring attention to you know, the fight or the conflict. Did your parents have an emotional life themselves? Or were they pushed to the brain? Are they emotionally numb? So sometimes we think with in families where there’s alcoholism, or other addictive behaviors, right, you can see that the emotional life of the parent is stunted. and numbed out. And that makes it really hard to parent in a way where you could be emotionally responsive to your child. And so could you turn to someone when you were upset? Or were you kind of on your own? To figure that out? Did you have to kind of hide when you were upset? So you didn’t upset? Anyone else? So did a parent teach you about feelings about how to express them how not to, or were you on your own. So for many of us, we were taught that crying was weak, that vulnerability was weakness. And, and right, like I think culturally, culturally, some of that changed. And in some ways, we’ve swung very far to the other extreme, where we’re treating our children as though they’re fragile, and definitely not advocating that. But when we think about the emotional development of a child, we need nurturing in that. And so these are some of the questions. So just kind of help you just consider your own experience. So when it comes to the emotional abandonment, right, this is feels more passive, right? Sometimes we think about this as passive trauma, it can feel like that benign neglect, but here’s the thing, it’s not benign, there’s absolutely nothing benign about it. But it’s one of the most prominent ways of coping with this type of abandonment is to say, everything was fine, my childhood was fine, there are no problems here. And so the response is to minimize your own experience, and that perpetuates this cycle of not have not getting your emotional needs met, not being able to acknowledge those. But right, these folks tend to have great difficulty expressing their feelings. So feelings were not attended to, unless they were outside scary feelings.
Dr. Melissa Smith 11:45
So you know, you see maybe the dramatic parent, the anger, yelling, blaming. And so with that emotional abandonment, one of the legacies of that is that you become emotionally disconnected, you minimize your experience. And it makes it difficult for you to, to emotionally connect and to have, you know, secure attachment in adult relationships, depending on the significance of it, right. So that’s all about the horizontal, the horizontal line, right where we consider the boundaries.
Dr. Melissa Smith 12:17
And so now let’s talk about the vertical line. The vertical line is all about self esteem. And so Terry real talks about the vertical line, including the spectrum of power, right, so what’s happening along this vertical line, and so in the center, again, is health. Healthy transactions leave the child feeling neither superior nor inferior to anyone else, right, you’re no better or worse than anyone else, that’s actually pretty good place to be when it comes to healthy self esteem. So you’re good enough, you’re not better or less than anyone else. And so if we look at the bottom of that vertical line on that grid, that’s where we see disempowerment so disempowerment by a parent, or you know in the family system, leads to a ton of shame issues and shame is something many of us struggle with. So trauma in childhood most often involves shaming transactions. So these can be words or behaviors that leave the child feeling less than leave the child feeling impotent. Leave the child feeling helpless. And so disempowering, abuse leaves the individual in a shame based position. For really, it can be their entire lives unless they proactively focus on transforming their shame. And so often the message when we look at this disempowerment is it’s your fault. You’re the problem. And of course, that’s that’s so corrosive to a child. And then on the opposite end of that line, at the top of the vertical line, we have false empowerment, which is just as dangerous. So you elevate your child into a state of superiority. This leads to grandiosity issues, this is something that I think we’re seeing a lot of in parenting these days, we think about entitled kids, we think about fragile. Kids think about the the university system, we have a university system of fragile adults who think that words harm and this is this is such a disservice. And this can often right like one of the factors that can really contribute to this is false disempowerment. You’re the most important person in the world. So let’s never have anything that’s upsetting to you or challenges, your worldview. come at you, which, you know, especially if it was just think about the university setting like that’s what the university setting is about to challenge our views to push against and understand views that might be different from ours. It’s not to abandon your values. But we should, we should be confronted by ideas at every turn in the university system. And I’ve got a lot of worries about where we’re at in terms of education. But I’m going to be getting on a tangent if I go further on, so I’m not going to. But false empowerment is something that we see a lot of.
Dr. Melissa Smith 15:21
So what does false empowerment look like? Or what can it look like? So sometimes it looks like the child as the family hero, like, oh, my gosh, all of our hopes and dreams are pinned on this kid. So they can often be high achievers, because they’re trying to please everyone. They’re the star performer, they never give anyone any grief. Sometimes this false empowerment looks like confiding your complaints to your child. So this is where we triangulate the child, one parent complaining about the other parent is triangulation is false empowerment. You can see this a lot, you know, not only in contentious marriages, but you also see this in children of divorce, right, where mom and dad are bad mouthing one another to the child do not do this to your child, this crushes self worth, and it that it puts that child in a false empowerment position. And it’s just so incredibly dangerous. And so another way that this shows up is enmeshment. So when a parent elevates a child, and at the same time uses them. And so you know, we move a child into a caretaking role for the parent, and us use them to get our emotional needs met, right so that the child becomes the good enough listener, the one that mom hangs out with, or the one that dad hangs out with, because parents are not addressing the issues in the marriage. And measurement is also really toxic. So the energy goes from the child to the parent and not the other way around as it should be. So the child can sometimes become the parental caretaker, the child is special, but at the same time the child is drained and overwhelmed, right, a child is not designed to solve the parents problems. And this dynamic inevitably puts a child at cross purposes to one or other of the parents. And it’s just like, it’s a unwinnable position for a child. So the extreme of this false empowerment is incest, right? We don’t really like to think about that is something that happens, unfortunately, but this message of you’re so special, I couldn’t resist you. And so we see that their sexual intrusions or lack of boundaries, plus false empowerment. Right, you’re special. And so of course, this is one of the extreme examples that we see on this axis. So we can also see false empowerment through neglect. So these can be the emotionally absent parents like, Oh, you’re so good, we can, you know, you’re fine. We can leave you alone. Parents projecting their needs on kids.
Dr. Melissa Smith 18:07
So parents really trying to compensate for their self worth through the accomplishments of their children, right. So a child’s accomplishments are not their own, but they’re co opted, and it’s it becomes a reflection of what a great parent, what a great parent, the parent is, instead of it being about the kiddos accomplishments. So in this scenario, right, a kid’s success is used to prop up parents. And so when we think about this false empowerment, right, kids need limits. The children can naturally tend towards grandiosity and selfish tendencies. Right? Like we it’s part of that egocentric developmental process, right? There’s an age in childhood where like, we just have a very egocentric view of ourselves in the world, and this needs to be counterbalanced by parents not elevated. So you know, we’re putting limits on our children, we’re giving them feedback. Otherwise, we create a monster. And, and so it’s not being mean to your kids, but it’s also helping them to be realistic.
Dr. Melissa Smith 19:25
So in his book, US Terence Real talks about when his child was younger, he invited a friend over for a playdate and everything that came out of his mouth was like, Do you want to play hockey? Do you want to play hockey? Let’s play hockey. And when his when, when his playmate went home, the son asked his dad, do you think he had fun? And he said, No, I don’t think he had fun. Because you right, like it was all about what you wanted to do, and you didn’t invite him into the conversation. And that was that was helpful information for that kiddo to have a And so it’s, it’s about not falsely empowering to say, oh my gosh, of course, you had the best time you’re so awesome, I wouldn’t even had a great time. It’s like, well, you know, maybe maybe you need to shift how you’re approaching your friends when they come over. And so recognizing that kids need limits. And I do think that’s something we’re really missing right now in our world with parenting, it worries me. But it’s important to keep in mind that most relational trauma empowers and disempowers at the same time. Okay, so it’s, yeah, we need to be really careful about that. Because even false empowerment is like we’re left on our own. So you might be falsely empowered, you’re put on a pedestal, but you’re alone. on that pedestal, you don’t have support, you don’t have feedback, you don’t have encouragement that you need. And so it’s in that way, it’s both. It’s both empowering and disempowering. And so let’s move to the next point, which is that as adaptive children, we both resist trauma and model it right? And so when we think about these experiences in childhood, right, how do we respond to it while we resist or react to these behaviors? So every action causes an equal and opposite reaction. So let’s give you some examples of this.
Dr. Melissa Smith 21:22
So if we have an intrusive mother, it’s it’s not uncommon to, as an adult have an avoidant adaptive child, right? Because the intrusive mother, it’s like, well, I’ll show you I’m never going to tell you anything. And so you kind of see that counter reaction to the behaviors from childhood. Another example would be the abandoning parent, right, like some a child that was left alone emotionally, could be a very clingy adaptive child as an adult, where it’s like, no, like, I need reassurance I need love, I need to know that everything’s okay. And so on the grid, each form of trauma tends to evoke an opposite reaction from the adoptive child. Now remember, the adoptive child, is how we show up when we’re emotionally hooked. So we lose, we don’t have any emotional maturity happening in those moments, we’re really reacting as a child. And so in reaction mode, our adoptive children tend to do the opposite of what we ourselves experienced. So again, I just shared those examples. Intrusion leads to walls. Abandonment leads to intrusion. So it is the child’s resistance, right? It’s the aspect of the adaptive child that is defiant and will not take that behavior, okay. But it shows up in unhelpful ways in adulthood. And so there are two things that happen, right, we both resist trauma, but we also model it. So we’ve just talked about resisting or reacting against the trauma, but we also model it right, we internalize the ways that we were treated. And everyone does both. So we all react and model. So we react to trauma, and we repeat it.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:06
So in modeling, we reenact the dysfunctional aspects of our family. So this is why awareness of these dynamics is so important. Because as you understand these dynamics more, you can make shifts from an adaptive child to a wise adult and leave the legacy of relational trauma behind.
Dr. Melissa Smith 23:27
Okay, and so that brings us to our fifth point, which is that self awareness plus self care equals greater self accountability. And this is where we really break those patterns of relational trauma. And so, when we think about self awareness, right, my hope is as a result of these conversations, that you have more self awareness of your dynamics. This is not to shame you or blame your parents, that’s the last thing I would want to do. But it’s really to help you have more awareness of what may be helping you and what might be hurting you. I think the other thing that’s so important to say is that no family is perfect, right? We’re all doing the best we can. And we all Phil our children in some ways. And that’s not an indictment of parents. It’s just a statement of fact. And so when we can, right, like, we can toughen our skin a little bit to understand well, okay, well, what helped me and what may be was not helpful for me, that really can be empowering, because with that awareness, we can move to greater accountability to say, Yeah, that wasn’t helpful. I’m going to do that different, right? I’m not going to repeat that pattern in my own family. So that’s really the power of self awareness.
Dr. Melissa Smith 24:45
And then the second component is, in addition to self awareness, we need self care, because here’s what’s true. unpacking your relational history can be really painful and very draining. So you need to prioritize self care and proactive coping as the wise adult, you need to be here to care for your adaptive child. And so, you know, most of us are both right, we’re the wise adult. And we have the adaptive child within us. And so we need to make sure that the wise adult is, is at the wheel. And a big part of this is showing up with self compassion, and really proactive good coping skills to comfort and also hold ourselves accountable. So this ensures that your adaptive child isn’t taking the steering wheel, in your most important relationships. Because we don’t we don’t want the we don’t want the child driving, driving the car or the relationship, that’s not helpful. And so when we can pair self awareness with self care, it leads to greater accountability. So when we focus on both these components, we’re empowered to take greater accountability for ourselves. And it’s, it’s, it’s good empowerment, it’s not false empowerment. So we learn to pause before reacting, we learn to apologize, instead of blaming, we learn to connect instead of criticizing, we learn to love instead of leaving, these are real. These are real decisions that we make in the heart of being emotionally hooked, that are painful, right that that adaptive child just wants to run wants to lash out. But our ability to be aware, to take good care of ourselves and hold ourselves accountable, so that we can show up differently in our relationships. This is game changing, like it’s such important work. And it not only benefits us but it can benefit the generations before us and after us. It can benefit those that we work with the way that we lead. It’s it’s powerfully healing.
Dr. Melissa Smith 26:58
And so head on over to my website to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode at www.drmelissasmith.com/202-traumagrid. And of course on Instagram, please join me because I have some visual representations of this trauma grid to help you really make sense of it. And again, that’s a www.drmelissasmith.com/202-traumagrid. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work in love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai