Tag Archives: #trauma

Take the time to feel the feelings

I’m English and we are commonly associated with the phrase “to keep a stiff upper lip”. This describes an implacable resolve, a refusal to show emotion and a stoic perseverance in times of trouble. We almost have a fondness for the phrase because it seems something so quintessentially English, especially with shows like Downton Abbey (because, you know, Maggie Smith = life goals).

The approach was drawn from Greek philosophy (Stoicism not surprisingly) and the phrase itself was first used in the early 1800s. It was the overriding philosophy in Victorian private schools and came to exemplify what was considered right and proper in a persons character.

In the west generally, there is an approach to emotions that is very private. We grieve privately. Our funerals are about individual closure. We read self-help books at home and see counsellors on sick days or in our spare time. And we soldier on with our stiff upper lip – whether we are English or not. A few years ago, another English classic from World War II was imported around the world:

That’s right. Keep Calm and Carry On was an inspirational poster from 1939 at the outset of the war. These days you see it on mugs and T-shirts and phone cases. The fact that this got such amazing up-take shows how this stoicism still infiltrates our culture, telling us how we should (or think we should) behave.

Our approach to emotions is also about efficiency. We seek to speedily move from feeling bad to feeling good again. Our goal is to process bad events as quickly as possible so we can return to normal functionality.

Partially this is a natural reaction. When we are hurting we want to take the pain away as fast as we can. When we are physically hurt, we put band aids on and we take pain killers. But we need to remember that those things only ease the situation – healing still has to happen.

The trouble is, we are emotional beings. It takes a lot of work to have a stiff upper lip. It takes an awful lot of effort to keep calm and carry on. In fact it does a lot of damage. We move too quickly from the pain before it has healed or, even worse, we suppress them for the sake of moving on quickly which means there was no healing at all. What would happen if we had a deep physical wound that we allowed only to partially heal, or not to heal at all?

In other cultures and in other times, processing negative emotions has been more communal. Mourning was public. Roman funerals could be quite elaborate and include up to five elements (a procession, a cremation and burial, the eulogy, a feast and commemoration).

Similarly in ancient Jewish culture. One of the best gifts we have for helping us to process emotional pain is the Psalms. This is God’s gift to us to have words to express how we feel, even when in anguish and despair – even when we want to shout and scream and protest and question God. Given our cultural discomfort with negative emotions, we tend to mainly focus on the happy Psalms. They’re good for inspirational posters and giving comfort to those in pain when we don’t know what to say. But that’s the beauty of Psalms. God did give us words to say when we’re in pain so we don’t need to jump straight to the happy Psalms to make things better. God taught us a different way.

Nearly half of the Psalms are lament psalms. These Psalms acknowledge the deepest pain and despair, confusion, grief and loss. They give us a journey to process our emotional pain. They allow us to acknowledge the pain and what fears we have. They name fears specifically for us – fear of attack, fear of loss, fear that God will not answer and so on. They acknowledge the feelings – confusion, emotional exhaustion, despair, longing and deep yearning.

Then, and only then, when the psalmist has brought our pain into the light and we have stayed in it a little while, does then the poetry move us to a more hopeful conclusion. This conclusion can only happen after the pain has been processed.

Have a look at Psalm 13 to see some of the things I note above:

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

    my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise,

    for he has been good to me.

What we can also remember is that many of these Psalms are good for individual lament and healing. But many are also communal Psalms of lament.

Our pain doesn’t need to be private and it doesn’t need to be processed quickly. Now obviously there is a line. If we swing the pendulum too far we’ll be parading our pain and could end up celebrating it. In addition, if we allow ourselves to stay in the feelings too long, we can end up wallowing and living there.

The Psalms give us a shape and a tempo to processing though. It acknowledges us and gives validation to our feelings. It allows us to stay in them for the purposes of healing. But then the words move us very definitely on to the next stage. And there are over 60 of these types of Psalms! Which means there are Psalms for a whole range of painful emotions, and for repeated use of them – because it’s not as though we just read one psalm and then we’re good to go. We would always have repeated counselling sessions, or GP visits. So we should stay in these Psalms for as long as we need to, allowing God to give us the words to speak and urging us to seek him when we are at our darkest points.

The Psalms give us so much more than just celebration and praise. The next time you are seeking to comfort someone, read lament Psalms with them. Sit with them in their pain. Help them to access the tempo of processing our hurt provided to us by God himself.

And the next time you are seeking comfort for yourself, go to these Psalms. Know that God sees your pain and knows your most negative emotions. He wants you to acknowledge him in the darkness and speak your pain into the light, but he doesn’t want you to stay there. He wants you to trust and move forward, even an inch at a time and for as long as it takes.

You are his and he will never leave you in the dark. Give yourself permission to feel the feelings and let God lead your healing.

I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.

Dissecting emotional abuse and why it’s so easy to let it happen

Some things sound like a cop-out or an excuse. Emotional abuse is one of those. Physical abuse we can see. Psychological abuse we can understand. But emotional abuse seems a bit wish-washy. Doesn’t everyone say mean things from time to time? Does that make everyone an abuser? It feels like a blanket “men are mean” accusation, a large net that scoops up everyone and devalues real abuse,

This is why I feel moved to dissect this. Because it is real abuse. And there are people around us suffering from this right now, or suffering with post-trauma. If we can understand it, we can help them. So let’s get into it.

It’s hard for people to understand emotional abuse. First, much of the abuse is unseen so when abuse is declared, people can only judge by the behaviours they have seen and what they are hearing doesn’t seem to match what they’ve witnessed.

Second, people judge the behaviour by how they would feel, and if they wouldn’t feel abused by it, the behaviour is not judged to be inappropriate. The feelings of the victim are judged in comparison to the feelings of someone who is not in that situation.

Third, it’s hard to explain. A popular perception is that emotional abuse is just saying mean things or calling names. It can be those things, but it is so much more. It is the gradual compression of the spirit (more on this below).

Fourth, the victim is subject to the behaviour for years and so it is their “normal”. I’ve written before about the surprising number of women who don’t realise they are in an abusive situation (you can read it here). Think the mythical frog in a pot of boiling water. If you drop a frog into boiling water, it will jump straight out. If you put the frog in cold water, it will keep swimming while it gradually heats up. It grows accustomed to the increasing temperature – until it’s too late.

It is a subtle but tectonic shift over many years. But there is a process. Which means there are red flags you can look out for – flags by which you can protect yourself, or, flags to help you can recognise if someone you know is in a situation like this. I’ve summarised it in the diagram below and then talked through what those steps mean.

“Abuse” is a strong word. Not many people think they are “an abuser”. That’s because people tend to judge themselves by their intentions and other people by their actual behaviour. The majority of abusers intentions are not to abuse. But their behaviour is abusive. Let’s look at the process.

At the beginning of an abusive relationship, there may be some bullish behaviour and subtle control and manipulation. But two things blind the victim to their presence:

  1. The victim’s own confidence, self-esteem, coping mechanisms and support network are sufficient to override any disquiet or cope confidently with any shortcomings in the spirit of compromise within a new relationship; and
  2. Lovebombing” is a real technical team that describes an abusers modus operandi. Here are the main red flags – they will hook up quickly after the last relationship; they will isolate their new partner, shut out friends and so on and place all attention and affection on the partner (and themselves) so they are deeply and exclusively connected. Even if the victim has a large social network, there is an emotional interdependence created, an exclusive bubble; they will likely engage in repeated romantic gestures, extravagant attention and usually will co-habit and/or propose quickly. The reason this is so effective is that the victim is the subject of a Hollywood style level of affection. This behaviour covers over a multitude of subtle manipulation, coercion and power playing.

The next step occurs after some time of diminishing. The victim’s confidence gradually diminishes, their support networks might diminish as they are isolated, or their feeling of being able to talk to those networks diminishes. At the same time, the grand romance diminishes.

Over time, the victim has become more and more vulnerable to bullying, manipulation, control and coercion. But, in the style of the frog in the water, the victim might not know they are in boiling water. They might not know that their partner’s behaviour is not acceptable. It has become their normal.

The victim at this point may be soldiering on in their public life but inside feeling gradually crushed. At some point, as the capacity to cope dips below the level of adverse behaviour experienced, the wheels will fall off. If you’re interested, I’ve written before about the relationship between coping and trauma here.

This can be where the point of recognition occurs – the recognition of being in boiling water.

When the point of recognition occurs, the victim’s responses to the abuser will change as they realise what is happening to them. This is a critical juncture. Because as the victim’s behaviour changes, so does the abuser’s. The bullying and control and manipulation will begin to escalate. Volatility will become greater and more frequent, as will mood swings and the unpredictability as the abuser senses loss of control. Usually this is where gaslighting also escalates – an abusers process of making the victim believe it is their fault, or not happening, or even that they themselves are the abuser (read more here).

Then comes another downward spiral. Self-doubt in the victim leads to hopelessness and despair. This is on top of the emotionally abusive tactics (which are varied, diverse and insidious) which can generate real and deep fear and high levels of anxiety. The volatility of the abuser means that anger explosions don’t even need to happen for the abuse to occur – the fear is enough. Think of it this way: I have a new dog. At first when I was training her, I’d use words and tone of voice and even actions. Now, a mere 3 months later, my dog only has to see the look on my face to feel sure she is about to be shut outside and she’ll dart under the couch to hide from me. Victims have been trained and conditioned to know when to feel fear.

At this point, several possible outcomes are possible. The victim may reach breaking point and leave. Or, the abuse may escalate to physical violence as well.

This is not an outcome that can be tolerated by our community. But it need not reach this point for it to become not tolerable. Emotional abuse ought not to be tolerated by our community either. It is emotional violence. It is damaging and scarring.

When we understand emotional abuse (and this short blog by no means explains all the nuances!) we can become more aware to behaviour that is not ok. It may not be behaviour that is abusive yet – but yet is the key word. If we can see where behaviour is heading in that direction, if we can see some red flags, we can help and support the people around us who may be experiencing this emotional violence and damage.

Why you can be fine on the outside while you’re crumbling on the inside

There’s a popular meme that says “Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” This is true. But what is also true is that many people are fighting a battle that even they know nothing about.

This is because we, as individuals and as a society, have a conditioned response to difficulty and trauma that is to downplay or to deny. This can be the response to people dealing with everything from anxiety and depression to burn out to the loss of a loved one, a car accident, sexual assault or even group trauma in response to terror attacks, war and natural disasters. Visual cues are less easy to downplay (and have resulted from something obvious) but the internal scarring and struggle can be invisible, even to the people bearing them.

How can this be? Prior to my marriage ending, I didn’t realise I was in a traumatic situation. I knew I was hurting. I knew I was miserable. I knew I was losing hope. But I didn’t know I was living in a situation that has a name in text books. When it was pointed out to me by a professional, I found it hard to believe. When my marriage ended then, in many ways it’s understandable if other people found it hard to believe too.

Many people are burdened with internal unrecognised and unnamed struggle and trauma. A friend of mine who works in the industry, told me that up to 90% of the women she meets in a professional capacity do not recognise that they have, or are in, something that has a name. Each are struggling with unnamed trauma. As a result of the event/struggle/trauma itself, there are also the responses to that trauma – there are flashbacks, nightmares, unexplained anxiety, over-worry, overwork, burn out, loss of self-esteem, lack of hope, depression – and all downplayed by the sufferer as “just those things we have to deal with”.

Because we just “deal with it”, people see our day-to-day faces. This can go on for years. In her book, Trauma-Sensitive Theology by Jennifer Baldwin, she notes that “When the intensity of the crisis remains below the threshold of resources and coping, crisis events are generally processed by our innate resources.” This means, we can go years dealing with internal battles because our innate coping mechanisms are high enough, and the level of crisis just low enough, to allow us to function on a daily basis. This is where our meme comes in.

BUT when our coping resources lessen, and/or the crisis increases in frequency or intensity, we lose the ability to function properly. That’s when people start to see it and can be surprised by its suddenness. What they don’t realise is, it’s the tip of the iceberg and 90% of the issue has been below the water line all this time.

What they also don’t realise is that this loss of functionality can be a shock to us too. When the walls come crashing in, the trauma needs to begin to be processed by the sufferer. What that means is that responses to the sufferer after the walls fell in can add to the trauma. The sufferer bears the burden of processing the trauma, as well as the burden of people’s response to the trauma.

We must not add a burden to our sisters and brothers. We must see the nuance behind the meme. The Bible itself gives us its wisdom: “Even in laughter the heart may ache.” (Proverbs 14:13). There is no denial of struggle here. There is recognition that people may be in the deepest pain but not show it on the outside. If we treat each other with patience, kindness and goodness though, we provide a solid foundation for re-building or strengthening a persons coping mechanisms. At worst we help people to function every day. At best, we support them in building their new resiliency in Christ.

As Jennifer Baldwin says, resiliency isn’t “going back” and living as though the struggle never happened or doesn’t exist. Resiliency is finding the courage to process the wounds and find new ways of living authentically. We can help people to do this.

The important key is the ratio of coping mechanism, to the threat of overwhelm. In other words, we need to keep the situation of struggle in check, and/or, we need to build a persons coping mechanisms. Many people cannot change their situation – parents with high needs kids, single parents, people carrying anxiety and depression to name but a few. These situations may not change, but can at best be managed. We can help them. This might be acts of kindness and material help, but more often than not it might be acceptance of the person, acknowledgement of the trauma or struggle, treating the person with compassion, and always prayer.

We can also build someone’s coping mechanisms. The Bible’s wisdom and the early church is built for just such a purpose. In general, our faith is a corporate affair. It is meant to be lived together. We meet at church, we join together at small groups, we do life together. This is fertile ground for interpersonal support and growth.

There is much more to be said about growing in resilience. But the foundation of it is to recognise that we have the power to add to someone’s burden, or add to someone’s journey of recovery. Be patient. Be gentle. Be kind. Against such things there is no law.

And if you are reading this and you are struggling with trauma or trauma response, please know that you are loved and believed and accepted. If you can feel your situation getting the better of you, please seek help to review it and manage it and change it where possible and appropriate. As a single parent working full time, I’ve done things as a simple as getting my groceries delivered because dragging 2 kids around Coles was adding to my stress and sense of overwhelm.

If you can feel your coping mechanisms crumbling, please seek the help and support of Christian sisters or brothers, and if need be, a professional.

Above all, please please be in God’s word. He is Lord and he is alive and he lives in you. Know it, and know that you were known and loved and accepted before you were even born.

Notes:

If you’re a reader, I can recommend Change Your Thinking by Sarah Edelman. She also has a new book coming out in June 2019 on managing anxiety.

If you are in ministry (and if you’re interested), Jennifer Baldwin’s book Trauma-Sensitive Theology is a must in seeking to equip ministers to understand trauma.