Trauma-related stress reveals itself in many ways. Flashbacks. Nightmares. Emotional overwhelm. Shame. Obsessive thoughts. Decreased concentration. Apathy. Loss of a sense of self. When trauma-related stress is chronic, which is a common outcome of early life abuse and neglect, these symptoms become a way to live without actively recalling the past. As one researcher remarked, “Trauma survivors have symptoms instead of memories.”
While trying to avoid reminders of the past, there is also difficulty setting in motion actions that would contribute to a meaningful present and future. In part, this is due to feelings of hopelessness, fear, and overwhelm that challenge trusting the situation could turn out well this time. But there is also difficulty efficiently and adaptively harnessing mental energy such that it contributes to meeting goals and completing desired actions. All the efforts spent avoiding internal reminders of the past — whether thoughts, emotions, body sensations, fantasies, or memories — interfere with getting on with the business of living fully in the present.
Typically when people think about overcoming a history of chronic traumatization they imagine confronting the memories they have avoided. Although this is often an important aspect of post-traumatic growth, it’s usually not the best place to start. Rather, beginning with learning how to live productively in the present is a rewarding first step, which often involves creating safety and stability not only in the external environment, but also within the ‘internal environment’ of the mind and body. And many of us feel safe and stable when we regularly meet goals and follow through on meaningful projects. Indeed, this is often a sign that the grip of past traumas is beginning to subside.
In their book, The Haunted Self, Onno van der Hart, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele rely on the work of Pierre Janet to support their emphasis on feeling effective in the present as an antidote to chronic traumatic stress. Janet once wrote, “One must live in the present, and it is not always useful to begin the past all over in order to live in the present.”
Van der Hart and colleagues focus on both mental energy and mental efficiency as central aspects of healing the effects of chronic traumatization and living with greater awareness of present needs. They write:
“Adaptive actions are based on an adequate mental level (i.e., sufficient mental energy and efficiency and an optimal balance between the two). However, survivors have an insufficient mental level to integrate their traumatic history, and often also a level that makes it difficult to function well in daily life.”
Problems with mental energy (neither too high nor too low for the task at hand) and mental efficiency can be seen in:
- Difficulties starting as well as completing goals and actions
- Difficulties sorting through information to make a decision or chose a direction/focus
- Impulsive actions
- Lack of satisfaction with efforts
- Difficulty taking breaks when involved in ongoing projects
Although efforts may seem chaotic or haphazard, they are often symptomatic of the family conditions that contributed to chronic traumatization and reveal how as children people learned to cope and get their needs met.
The Role of Character Strategies
Ron Kurtz, the founder of the Hakomi Method, identified several common character strategies people develop in their efforts to meet developmental milestones. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a somatic-based approach to the treatment of trauma, elaborated on Kurtz’s strategies to show how these character strategies function as both protective defenses and relational styles that allow a child greatest access to potentially limited resources (both physical and emotional) within maladaptive or traumatic family conditions.
We all have character strategies. We all come into the world as unique beings capable of adapting who we are to fit our environments and our inborn need for nourishment and love. If we’re lucky, our caretakers largely adapt to our needs. And perhaps a key indicator of adverse childhood environments is the extent to which infants and children must alter their needs to fit the needs or limitations of their caregivers.
Character strategies impact how goals are reached and actions completed. They also contribute to how mental energy and mental efficiency get gummed up. When there is a history of chronic traumatization, character strategies can unconsciously activate early life beliefs and defenses that may have been necessary for living in maladaptive circumstances in the past, yet potentially interfere with effectively and efficiently responding to conditions in the present.
Kurtz identified four stages he believed contributed to competing actions and reaching goals (what he called the action cycle). These stages are internal experiences that relay our sense of the worthiness of a project, what our actions mean to us, including if our actions are nourishing and give a sense of completion once the goal is reached. These stages are:
Using Kurtz’s action cycle, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy looks at how character strategies that were once adaptive to maladaptive or traumatizing conditions can later interfere with completing actions and reaching goals.
For example, if there are problems with insight, there is often difficulty identifying the intention, or meaning, behind one’s actions. Without sufficient insight, it’s easy to lose interest in one’s goals.
If there is difficulty witnessing internal responses to efforts towards a goal, one might be cut-off from authentic emotional expression and thus have difficulty taking non-ambivalent action towards goals.
If there is difficulty with nourishment, then there may be a lack of a genuine sense of which actions contribute to a sense of fulfillment or accomplishment.
Finally, if there are problems with completion, there may be no sense that stopping to reward or replenish oneself is a deserved aspect of meeting a goal, or there may be an inability to identify what signifies that an action has reached its endpoint.
Here are some scenarios (by no means an exhaustive list) for how early life character strategies can interfere with later life goals. These scenarios are adapted from material presented in the Level II Sensorimotor Psychotherapy training offered by the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute:
• If to feel loved or safe in the family one had to constantly seek attention and approval, then listening to internal cues about one’s own desires and needs may not be a well-developed skill. This could lead to problems with insight and the capacity to be mindfully aware of one’s own needs as well as maintaining the belief that one has an inherent right to have one’s needs met.
• If being blamed and punished was a common occurrence in childhood, it can be challenging to identify one’s natural responses to situations and gauge how one authentically feels about goals and actions. This barrier to response occurs because obedience was prioritized over self-expression, resulting in difficulties connecting to authentic reasons for wanting to achieve a goal, instead of acting on learned shoulds and shouldn’ts.
• If there was violence in the household, or a continual sense of threat (e.g., chronic substance abuse or domestic violence in the home), there can be an underlying sense that life is inherently dangerous, or even the belief that one doesn’t have the right to exist. The child learns it’s not safe to be known or be witnessed (or know what’s really happening in the home), which can permeate attempts to gain clarity about goals and general direction in life. The sense that nourishment is both deserved and a possibility may not even be recognized.
• If the message taken in as a child was that one had to perform to feel loved, or the child hid abuse in the home by presenting a ‘perfect’ self to the world — what family systems therapy identifies as the star child who draws attention from the family problems — there can be a tendency towards compulsive achieving and a fear of relaxing. When this is a central coping strategy, there can be a barrier to completing actions or savoring a job well done. There can also be a tendency to seek perfection, which can interfere with actually completing projects.
Sensorimotor Psychotherapy helps people identify the “missing experiences” that supports adaptive actions in the present. Missing experiences include feelings that couldn’t be expressed (including positive emotions such as joy), body sensations that couldn’t be acknowledged, boundaries that couldn’t be asserted, and beliefs that should be true for every child, such as:
- It’s okay to be vulnerable.
- It’s okay to take care of my needs.
- It’s okay to have fun.
- It’s safe to feel.
- It’s safe to rely on others.
- It’s safe to be loved.
- It’s safe to be witnessed.
- I can get my needs met and be loved.
Small, incremental steps are often needed to gain footing in the present after a history of chronic childhood traumatization. This is a good thing. Childhood trauma causes people to grow up too fast, and to learn to prioritize external demands over internal needs and desires. Learning to proceed at one’s own pace and to relish what is being experienced — or reject it — according to one’s own internal barometer for what counts as success may be one of the most rewarding ways to experience life without traumatic stress, if not a life lived well and centered on authentic self-expression.
The following quote is from Martha Graham. I think she takes the point of learning to value one’s inner life — cultivating natural inclinations in the present moment — to its most beautiful extreme:
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is or how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.”
This is a worthy goal to strive for after a history of chronic traumatization.
The post How Chronic Traumatization Interferes With Meeting Goals and Completing Actions was written by Laura K Kerr, PhD. Visit her website at Laura K Kerr, PhD.
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Excellent article…I found this very helpful!