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:
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.
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).