Trauma. It can be a two-edged sword. When it pops up where it doesn’t belong, it feels like a crisis but offers tremendous opportunity for healing.
The original trauma caused pain, then it can hurt over and over again . . . every time something we see or hear or feel reminds us of the original pain brought on by the original trauma.
The brain is a magnificent record keeper; recording the most subtle aspects of any event that involves a threat. It is also the most meticulous protector . . . activating subtle and subconscious self-protective actions below the radar of our awareness.
Whenever your brain goes into self-protective mode, it doesn’t matter how evolved or self-aware you are, history replays as the worst case scenario and your automatic response will have you using he same survival strategies you used to get you through the original trauma. The problem is that those survival strategies worked then, but they are unlikely to be a good fit for your current situation.
There is no place where these automatic, undercover scenarios play out more consistently than in your intimate relationship.
Regardless of whether or not your survival-focused brain senses a threat that is a distant memory or something very real in the present moment, your brain will always respond as if the threat is currently real.
This is the double-edge sword of trauma.
Let me give you an example.
Susan (not an actual client) is a young professional who loves to cook. She frequently enjoys having her friend group come to her home to enjoy conversation, laughter and her culinary creations. All of Susan’s friends enjoy her creations and eagerly look forward to their monthly get togethers.
One month, a friend brings Craig (also a fictional character) to Susan’s Friend Food Fest and Susan and Craig develop instant chemistry.
They begin dating and both agree that they’ve found their person. Everything is going well between them and Susan decides to surprise Craig with a special dinner to show her appreciation for the kindness, safety and love they’ve built together.
The special nigh arrives and Susan presents a beautiful offering of lasagna with all of the fixings: salad with fresh herb dressing, fresh bread, garlic butter and the perfect wine. For dessert: cheesecake – Susan’s special occasion recipe that requires 8 hours of prep time.
Dinner goes beautifully and Craig’s hums of pleasure while he eats are punctuated with grateful expressions for Susan’s efforts. He enthusiastically praises her skill at delighting the palate with every bite he takes.
Susan is pleased, but she also begins to notice an increasing sense of discomfort within herself. While she relishes his praise, she also notices that Craig picks the olives out of his salad and he only takes two bites of his slice of cheesecake before sliding the plate away.
With her gnawing sense that something isn’t right, Craig’s words of appreciation seem to matter less. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but Susan is uneasy and uncomfortable.
Like it or not, Susan’s brain has made a perfectly safe situation feel dangerous and out of control.
What Susan does next will either promote intimacy, connection, healing and deeper understanding in her relationship or create distance and further reinforce the primal perception that she isn’t safe.
Craig’s choices surrounding olives and cheesecake may have had nothing at all to do with his love for Susan or his adoration for her culinary prowess, but Susan’s brain has registered a match connected with pain and rejection having everything to do with subconscious observations and subtle confirmations of beliefs developed within the trauma of Susan’s past.
To her self-protective brain, olives and cheesecake have everything to do with love or rejection, safety or danger. Susan’s father had always been highly critical of her, often rejecting her with angry words followed by days of silence. When Susan began showing interest in the culinary arts, her father sometimes ate her food with appreciation and sometimes refused to eat it, depending completely on his unpredictable mood.
Thanks to her father, Susan’s brain associates the olives and cheesecake in this example with potential personal rejection; it doesn’t matter if the face belongs to Craig or to Susan’s father. This is Susan’s self-protective brain.
The dynamic of the self-protective brain in relationship is subtle and challenging, but the good news is that a safe, loving relationship is the perfect environment for profound healing.
To fully access the process of permanently healing trauma within the context of safe relationship, a person must have a proper understanding of:
- The way the brain deals with trauma (why old stuff feels real now)
- How to reduce reactivity (in the body as well as in the brain)
- The purpose of feelings and how to use them as a navigating tool
- How to differentiate among 3 types of feelings
- How to respond appropriately to each of the types of feelings
- How stress interacts with the trauma brain
- How to prevent the stress response from making a trauma response worse
- The messages created by trauma that interfere with how you manage your essential human needs
- The 6 Steps to Healing a Trigger (Proprietary process developed by Tamara Ridge, LMFT at The Center for Healthy Relationships)
- How to personalize the 6 Steps to Healing a Trigger and apply it to any situation
Whether you are safe or unsafe in your intimate relationship, your self-protective brain will default to “unsafe” until you have successfully developed the skills for healing your relationship trauma. Tamara is available for online individual, couples and group therapy for California residents to help you heal. For good.