Sunday, September 27, 2015

Are you really living your life? Or are you just surviving it?

We all have our routines.

When I put my shoes on, the right one always goes on first. When I drink coffee, I always put cream in before the coffee so I don't have to stir it. When I get in my car, I always put my seatbelt on before I start the car. These things are so ingrained in my life they barely register consciously.

Then there are those parts of our lives that we engage in.

We are present and consciously aware of our actions and reactions. When I'm listening to someone explain something I'm trying to understand, I will actively create mnemonic devices to commit facts to memory. When I am trying to cheer someone up, I will always look them in the eye and smile a lot (we are mimic creatures and we can effect one another's emotions with assertive social cues - how neat!).

Unfortunately there are aspects of all of our lives we aren't really sure how to deal with.

When we experience an upsetting event, do we allow our emotions to respond naturally and ride it out? Do we stop, step back, attempt to control what we're feeling and stub it out or swallow it down? When it comes to things like mental health, trauma, abuse, etc., it can be very difficult for many of us to feel confident that we know how to handle things.

My trauma

Recovering from childhood trauma is not easy. It is not quick. It is not neat or clean or painless. And it is anything but predictable or even measurable. It can sometimes also be very difficult to do alone or without professional help.

Childhood abuse causes severe, long-term trauma. Some of it you find yourself tripping over well into adulthood; many years after the initial incidents. I have been doing recovery work for going on ten years now. And even this many years after entering counseling and exploring behavioral cognitive therapy to change how I think and process information, I am still stunned sometimes at how much I unearth and how much work I have to do.

Self doubt. Imposter Syndrome. Anxiety. Worthlessness. I have a lot of markers of an abuse victim.

Impatience. Hostility. Stubbornness. Tenacity. I also have the markers of a fighter and a survivor.

Emotional sensitivity. Heightened empathy. Candid communication. Transparency. I have discovered ways to use the survival skills of being around abusive people for positive internal growth and have even found a career that enables me to utilize these traits effectively.

How I live

While I bear these scars from my childhood trauma, some traits have become helpful, but many are not. The anger and hostility, for example, have done irreparable damage on many relationships. And while the defense mechanism of protecting myself with an intimidating exterior is effective at keeping people who may harm me at bay... it also prevents those who may help me from ever reaching me. I work on this particular negative trait continuously.

I am triggered constantly. It took me many years to recognize many of my triggers, but having realized what they were also enabled me to acknowledge them and handle them in a safe, healthy way for me. Instead of ignoring their effects, I would allow myself to explore if my immediate inclined response was appropriate or if I was reacting to the trigger. In many cases I was able to identify an overreaction because of a trigger, and control my reaction. This work remains ongoing.


When I first started seeing a counselor several years ago, I started to learn how to change how I process information and how I react and why that has to be a conscious effort. Every single time. Every time I am going to react, I have stop, breathe, and think about how my brain is processing that information. In doing this, you quickly realize how illogical your abused mind is. How defensive and paranoid it can be. You have to stop the way you process and consider only the facts presented to you instead of your assumptions or your fears. You must continue doing this until your immediate inclination is not harmful or contributing to toxic thought processes.

I am happy to say that by and large my hostility has receded into a reaction that isn't common or expected any more. It was my first big challenge in my recovery. And while I still retain the ability to react in a hostile way during moments of stress, I am almost always able to manage it in a healthy way.


The two traits that cause me the most ongoing distress are my nagging self doubt and the feeling of being an imposter.

"The imposter syndrome is the inability to accept and claim accomplishments no matter what level of success, even with hard-won achievements because there is an irrational fear that you don't deserve the success or maybe you are just a fraud. Outward signs of accomplishment are seen as just good luck or good timing. An "imposter" feels as if she or he has been deceptive and has made others think he or she is more intelligent or skilled than they really are. While this is true for narcissists who don't necessarily have the resume to back up the grandiosity, it is not true for hard-won success."

To begin to understand why I experience these two traits (often in conjunction with one another), I have had to dive deep into the interactions I had growing up in the environment I had as a kid.

Once I begin to unravel the roots of where my self doubt came from (constant criticism), I have had to then explore why I have such difficulty owning my achievements and attributing my successes to my own accomplishments and not feats of 'luck' or 'fortuitous timing' or (worst of all) 'by the grace of others'.

That's all well and good to lay out like that in black and white... but that doesn't mean it's easy. It doesn't mean that in those moments I'm able to objectively and critically analyze what is going on and respond with grace and poise.

This is constant work. It is every day, all day.

How I keep getting up every day

It is you. You who made it this far. You who read all of this because you care. Because you want to understand. Because you ask. It is with the support of others around me that I'm able to keep fighting for myself. To keep plowing forward every day when I'm feeling like giving up and giving in.

I am thankful to those who support me more than I feel like I've ever been able to articulate. I am thankful for the people in my life who challenge me. Who support me completely. Who believe in me. Who know I can push through my dark times and who celebrate for me when I'm unable to. I am appreciative of the patience and understanding and genuine care and concern the people in my life have for me.

Find those people who won't walk away, and cherish them. Tell them you love them and keep them close to you. Your support network really does make the difference between actually living your life and just surviving it.