How chronic traumatization interferes with meeting goals and completing actions

Photo: Door painted torquoise.

Trauma-related stress reveals itself in many ways: flashbacks, nightmares, emotional overwhelm, shame, obsessive thoughts, decreased concentration, apathy, and even 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.” Thus, the memories of past traumas may fade, but their impact continues.

The longer these symptoms occur, the more likely they start to feel like the norm — as if they were the ‘real’ you (but they’re not). And over time, they are more likely to interfere with harnessing the mental energy needed to meet goals and complete desired actions.

Typically when people think about overcoming a history of chronic traumatization they imagine confronting the memories they have avoided. Although this is an important aspect of post-trauma growth, it’s usually not the best place to start. Rather, 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 focus on both mental energy and mental efficiency as central aspects of healing 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) as well as 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 or focus
  • Impulsive actions
  • Lack of satisfaction with efforts
  • Difficulty taking breaks when involved in ongoing projects

Work habits that seem chaotic or haphazard often can be traced to how we learned as children to cope and get needs met. What begins as strategies for surviving early chronic traumatization, later interferes with harnessing mental energy and directing that energy efficiently.

The role of character strategies for meeting goals and completing actions

Ron Kurtz, the founder of the Hakomi Method, identified several 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 they function as both protective defenses and relational styles that allow a developing 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 as well as serve 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 adapt themselves 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. 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.

The action cycle

Kurtz identified four stages that contribute to completing actions and reaching goals — what he called the action cycle. These stages are internal states that relay the worthiness of a project and the meaningfulness of our actions, including if they feel nourishing and give a sense of completion once the action is done or the goal reached. These stages are:

  1. Insight
  2. Response
  3. Nourishment
  4. Completion

If there are problems with insight, there is often difficulty identifying the intention, or meaning, behind actions. Without sufficient insight, it’s easy to lose interest in goals. Some call insight “knowing your why.”

If there is difficulty witnessing internal responses to efforts towards a goal, you might be cut-off from authentic emotional expression and thus have difficulty taking non-ambivalent action towards goals.

If there is difficulty with nourishment, 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 yourself 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.

Using Kurtz’s action cycle, Pat Ogden‘s Sensorimotor Psychotherapy looks at how character strategies that were once useful in maladaptive or traumatizing conditions can later interfere with completing actions and reaching goals. Here are some scenarios (by no means an exhaustive list) of how early life character strategies can interfere with later life goals:

• If to feel loved or safe in the family you had to constantly seek attention and approval, then listening to internal cues about your authentic 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 your own needs as well as maintaining the belief that you have an inherent right to have your needs met.

• If being blamed and punished was a common occurrence in childhood, it can be challenging to identify your natural responses to situations and gauge how you feel 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 you don’t have the right to exist. The child learns it’s not safe to be known or 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 you 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 away from 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 or being satisfied with your efforts.

Sensorimotor Psychotherapy identifies some of the “missing experiences” often absent from maladaptive and traumatizing households that support meeting goals and completing actions. These missing experiences include:

  • feelings that couldn’t be expressed (including positive feelings such as joy)
  • body sensations that couldn’t be acknowledged (for example, a tightness in your chest that if listened to says, No, I don’t want to do that!)
  • boundaries that couldn’t be asserted (for example, saying no to tasks that keep you from committing to what really matters to you)
  • beliefs that should be true for every child (see below)

These universal, feel-good beliefs include:

  • 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.

For some, it helps to treat these beliefs like mantras, and as reminders of the universal rights of all children and the adults they grow up to become.

Small, incremental steps are often needed to gain footing in the present after a history of chronic childhood traumatization. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and actually is probably good. Childhood trauma causes people to grow up too fast. They learn to prioritize external demands over internal needs and desires. Learning to proceed at your own pace and to relish what is being experienced according to your own internal barometer— or reject it — may be one of the most rewarding ways to experience life without traumatic stress.

The following quote is from Martha Graham. I think she takes the point of honoring the inner drive to create 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 for all of us, and vital for ending the effects of chronic traumatization.

References

Hart, Onno van der, Ellert R. S. Nijenhuis, and Kathy Steele. 2006. The Haunted Self: Structural dissociation and the treatment of chronic traumatization. New York: WW Norton & Company.

Ogden, Pat, Kekuni Minton, and Clare Pain. 2006. Trauma and the Body: A sensorimotor approach to psychotherapy. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).

19 comments

  1. mizpittypat says:

    Thank you very much for this post (and I thank Monica for tweeting the link to it). As a person who grew up with parents who were both traumatizing and traumatized, I developed childhood coping skills, and the key ones are outlined here, that *so* do not serve me as an adult. So finding this post–especially at a time when I’m examining these issues–is quite perfect.
    I find it interesting that so many of the mental energy and efficiency challenges you’ve listed are similar to the symptoms of people diagnosed as attention-deficit, particularly “inattentive” type, as I was. (Of course, Mate has explored the connection between our traumatized culture, the medicalization/pathologizing of adaptations, especially as it relates to ADD and addictions). I *so* wish more of our mind health-care originated from a trauma perspective, because that is so surely needed.
    Thanks again for your work.
    Angela (on Twitter as @HerHealthySelf)

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Angela, Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Like you, I am hoping for more trauma-informed services, and thankfully, more agencies are also seeing the importance, if not centrality, of addressing trauma as a first priority. I also think the field needs to be more collaborative between providers and service users, as well as investing more in peer-led support. Often the people who have taken the journey to heal are the foremost experts.

      In case you are interested, I did a post on ADHD/ADD and trauma:

      “ADHD: When Meds (and Genes) Become a Failure to Act”

      https://www.laurakkerr.com/2013/02/23/adhd-trauma/

      And I agree with your insight that many of the difficulties associated with ADHD can be correlated with a history of trauma. Most of the work I have read about this topic has come from Bessel van der Kolk. On his website, “The Trauma Center” (http://www.traumacenter.org/index.php), he shares research papers. I’m not sure if he has anything on ADD/ADHD there, but you might find other things of interest.

      • mizpittypat says:

        Thank you for these links (funny, I just run across van der Kolk’s “The Body Keeps Score” 2 days ago…). I look forward to checking them out. You may find Mate’s “The Hungry Ghosts” of interest, as well.
        And I certainly agree w/you re the benefit of increased collaboration between service providers and service users. Peer-led (and framed/crafted) services are important, of course, and it is good to see their inclusion and valuation by health providers. I am concerned, however, that too many providers are content w/using peer advocates/support staff as kind of the nurses’ aides of mental health care–seldom listened to, poorly-paid, yet providing so much vital emotional/therapeutic/social labor.

        • Laura K Kerr says:

          Thank you for the Mate reference – the title’s great.

          Your point about using peer advocates like support staff is such an important one. Throughout human history, those dedicated to healing psychological wounds — the shamans — were the ones who had overcome their own psychological challenges, including experiences of deep terror. I learned about these so-called “wounded healers” in my counseling psychology program at Pacifica Graduate Institute (and continue to study them). Pacifica wisely assumes people are likely drawn to psychotherapy because of our own wounds, and the program consistently interwove learning how to help others with learning about our own wounds. It was a lovely way to keep us honest!

          I think the medical model of care, with its strong hierarchy and emphasis on rewarding people according to their perceived expertise, is highly problematic when applied to issues of mental health and healing. So many psychological issues, especially those that arise from childhood abuse, are drenched with abuses of power. If ever there is a field that needs to be egalitarian, collaborative, and non-hierarchical, it’s the mental health field.

          Thank you for your insights!

  2. Svava says:

    Thank you for a great article and important points. I have left this article open on my computer for a few days and keep reading it over and over. I am allowing it to register and am feeling grief over the lack of support and help as a child to learn important skills. I was a victim of incest and your writing hit me hard. I can relate to a number of points you make here. I am bringing this article to a friend (that is also a counselor) to process. Thank you also for outlining the steps that can help heal this cycle. I much appreciate it. I will come back to this blog. Thank you!

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thank you for your feedback, Svava. I agree; it is difficult material.

      I remember when I first learned this material in sensorimotor psychotherapy training. Like you, many of us in the training felt a deeper understanding of some of our obstacles towards meeting our goals, but unfortunately, with a pained sense of why life, at times, was more difficult than it needs to be.

      And yet — on a positive note! — I have found that once the grief can be processed, there is often more room for growth beyond previous limitations.

      I wish you all the best.

  3. Poppy says:

    Thank you so much for posting this. It all sounds so much like my experience. It’s helpful to distinguish the coping strategies that I developed for early childhood trauma and neglect, to distinguish that from my real self. Trauma memories don’t haunt me, but I have all these “character strategies” and often feel bad about myself for not being able to follow through on my projects etc…From reading your article here, I am reminded that the coping patterns are not my real self.

    My vision is about creating the support for myself to put better strategies into action. I can see what I need to do but I have a hard time putting things into action on a consistent basis in order to get deeper change and growth. When I have been in therapy it seems like good insights and understandings come from it but the sessions are so short and far apart. I feel like I almost need a coach every day. I sometimes imagine having a peer – buddy system with one or two people who are also trying to engage deeper change that only comes from putting things into practice on a daily basis.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Thank you for taking the time to share from your experiences.

      With regards to increasing mental energy and efficiency, it helps so much to stop blaming ourselves when our efforts don’t go as planned, and instead get curious. Self-judgment causes anxiety, which just activates our defense responses.

      I like to try to switch mindfulness for worry or self-blame, bringing my attention to the body and breath. At least this really helps me. Along with giving myself permission for as many attempts, and mistakes, as necessary to reach my goal. It also really helps if I don’t compare myself to others.

      I think your idea of getting a peer or buddy system together sounds great. It reminds me of the idea of a mastermind group. We all do better when we have support towards our goals.

  4. Connie Cox says:

    Laura, thank you for sharing in this article all the difficulties associated with Trauma:
    Difficulties starting as well as completing goals and actions
    Difficulties sorting through information to make a decision or chose a direction or focus
    Impulsive actions
    Lack of satisfaction with efforts
    Difficulty taking breaks when involved in ongoing projects
    As wounded healer I have experienced all of these, but they are especially disturbing as it relates to creativity and that entire process. I am currently “growing into” my Shamanic path.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      I understand how this material is disturbing. I had to sit with it for a while before I could start applying it to my life.

      I imagine your Shamanic path will have you growing in many unexpected ways!

  5. Marcian says:

    This post describes me perfectly. Although I don’t remember any specific traumatic events, I carry these traits with me.
    The general information here is spot on and points out the why and what I need to deal with, Can you recommend any resources for an individual to work toward dealing with these traits in order to live more fully?

  6. Tessa says:

    Thank you so much for everything you’ve written on the subject of healing abuse and trauma… <3 I am at a time in my life where the traumas have been happening so often that I basically have the choice to either face them, or die. I seem to be having a hard time knowing who to trust. It is hard for me to feel safe being myself around anyone. It seems like I am myself around the wrong people and as a result find myself getting re-traumatized. If you have any tips on how to navigate the adult world to get my inner child's needs met in a safe way, I would greatly appreciate it… have a nice day.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      The inability to trust — or not knowing who to trust — is at the core of trauma. It’s quite common that we keep trusting the wrong people because they are familiar to us, and perhaps we even hope things will turn out differently this time. But we just get hurt again. Don’t judge yourself for this, or feel shame. But do seek support, especially given that you feel so awful that death seems the better option. In my sidebar on the right, you’ll find a suicide hotline number, or just search the web for a crisis line that seems to fit you best — AND THEN USE IT! It’s so important to be having support at these low moments, someone who can give you hope and help you to start finding the path to recovery. I would also recommend working with a therapist specialized in trauma, if you aren’t already. I usually recommend people visit the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute webpage, because I’ve gone through the training and it is very good, but there are other approaches that are good too. Don’t be surprised if you have a hard time finding a therapist you trust. That is natural , and nothing to worry about. But do get support. You deserve it. Take good care, Laura

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