As a survivor of childhood trauma, I have spent my life surrounded by “all or nothing” people. And unfortunately, it made me an “all or nothing” person.
I have spent years undoing the belief systems that come from a childhood like mine, but sometimes it feels endless (or maybe that’s my “all or nothing thinking again). I have had to unravel beliefs like:
“Everything that can go wrong will go wrong.”
“Nobody will ever love me.”
“Everybody who is nice to me just wants something.”
And believe me, I am far from finished with the rewiring process. These beliefs still come up, but I am much more aware of them now. I know where they come from. I have seen the evidence. And I know how to question them now. I know they aren’t as true as I once thought.
As I deal with my latest inner part, the rebel runner, I am facing another aspect of the damage done by the people in my life. And this wasn’t the occasional experience by a random person. This was a consistent message from countless people which permeated my entire childhood. And that message was:
“If I make one mistake, I will be rejected, ridiculed, bullied and abandoned (in that order).”
These mistakes did not follow the traditional definition of mistakes (which would still make these situations problematic). These mistakes were about failing to be the person they wanted me to be, failing to keep my trauma hidden and failing to be the image of perfection I thought I had to be. The message I received was that being myself (in that traumatized and dissociated state) would ALWAYS lead to rejection. And what did I learn from these experiences? I learned a few key defenses.
- Don’t let them in. The guard needs to be up. The controller needs to be in charge. The mask needs to be worn at all times. Don’t let anyone get to know me too well. When they figure out who I am, what I am about and what drives me, they won’t like it. And when they don’t like something about me, they will get ruthless. So it is my job to avoid that experience at all costs.
- Don’t spend too much time with them. The more time I spend with people, the more likely they will figure out something about the real me. And they will never like it. They will always hate the real me. Everyone always has. So I should keep my distance with others. I should see them in little bits. I shouldn’t go on long trips with anyone. I have to try to space out interactions as much as possible. I need to come up with as many excuses as possible to avoid them if they start to get too clingy.
- Don’t stick around. When the inevitable happens and they figure me out, it is time to run. I don’t want them to have the opportunity to attack, to bully, to ridicule and eventually, to abandon me. It is best for me to get out before all that happens. I don’t care what I have to do. Quit a job or a volunteer position, change my number, or move to another country: all of that will work. But the best solution is to cut and run.
As I work with my inner rebel runner to consider life from a different perspective, I have received evidence from her about life. And it breaks my heart to see the number of family members and “friends” who were brutal over dissociative moments which were only natural based on my trauma. I want to tell her it won’t always be like that. I want her to hear me when I say I will help her and we will find people who will be more unconditional in their love. I have become good at spotting conditional love as my awareness grows. And I won’t allow any of my inner parts to be subjected to cruelty any longer.
But I can hear her hesitation. There are so many bad experiences. And as a child, it was impossible to escape these people in most circumstances. And honestly, these beliefs (and actions) have served her well. They have kept her safe from additional traumatic experiences. They came at a cost of isolation, but in her mind, that has been worth it. And I can understand where she’s coming from.
Unfortunately, that will only lead to a tortured existence. Human beings were not put on this planet to be isolated. We are here to connect. And while it is very clear that all people are not safe to connect with, it is also clear that I don’t want to spend life alone. So I must give it a try. I must work to build awareness of my susceptibility to dangerous relationships, so I can stop them in their tracks. And I must build awareness of my tendency to build walls and run, so I can stop myself in my tracks. And after I practice this for a while, I will find a different truth because I will find different people. And I will leave the “all or nothing” world behind me.
Written By Elisabeth Corey, MSW
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