Before we look at the feeling of powerlessness of trauma victims,
let’s look at where trauma originates. Many of us have heard it that
one in three to four women and one in four to five men have been
sexually abused/assaulted by the time they reach 18-years-old. What we
may not know is that sexual abuse and assault account for only 38% of
trauma. The implication being, there is more trauma being experienced
in other ways.
The traumatic nature of an event is usually the element of surprise.
We are jolted from feeling safe, secure and comfortable to feeling
shame, vulnerability, and pain. Traumatic events can include a sudden
death, a car accident, witnessing a traumatic event (secondary
trauma), a natural disaster, diagnosis of an illness, or abandonment.
Certainly, there are sometimes when we can prepare for the actual
crisis itself, such is the case with some natural disasters, but there
was a moment when you went from being at rest, to having to cope with
the reality of a trauma event or crisis in your immediate future.
So, we have been surprised and are thus beginning the trauma reaction.
The person realizes they are unable to remove themselves from the
traumatic or abusive situation, which begins the feelings of feeling
hopelessness, helplessness, and powerlessness. These feelings will
intensify if the trauma is repeated and consistent. The victim will
feel the rush of cortisol running through their brain and body as they
attempt to determine what the next course of action will be. The
flight-or-fight response system has been activated, but proves
unhelpful as the trauma continues. Now the victim begins to dissociate
to cope with their feelings of powerlessness. The more powerless they
feel, the less hope they will have, only leading to feeling more
Trauma victims need to see how they are not powerless and learn to
lean into healthy relationships for healing and hope. While they were
unable to stop the traumatic event from happening, they are not unable
to stop all negative things from happening to them.
“Often the very desires that lead to our ruin start as healthy longings.” We begin our young lives wanting love, affirmation, attention, nurturing, care, and the like. Then we are raised by less-than-perfect people who are unable, or sometimes unwilling, to meet our needs for these things. At this point, we are faced with a choice: where will we turn to have our needs met? And while we’re deciding where to turn, we are believing that these desires are good, just misguided and need to be met in healthy ways. So, we are determined find a different healthy way. And while there are “…certainly natural desires, there are no neutral ones…”
We are given plenty of options to fulfill our needs. For instance, we can find other people to give us what we crave. These people can be healthy (caring, loving, selfless) or unhealthy (preoccupied, selfish or needy themselves). Or perhaps we think no I don’t need people to meet our needs because they will fail us so we don’t depend on them. I know I have said it is better to not ask and not receive than to ask and not receive. Unfortunately, this attitude will inevitably lead us to express our needs in ways like manipulation, addiction, control, or isolation.
Or maybe it’s not people we have a problem with; instead we look to substances like food, alcohol legal or illegal drugs to make us feel fulfilled. Or we might try doing things like engaging in exercise/sports (sometimes excessively), sex (sometimes excessively), masturbation, pornography, playing video/computer games, playing musical instruments, or simply working a lot. Some of these activities in-and-of themselves can be good, but when performed to fill a need that should be met elsewhere, then they become not so good. So the issue is motivation. Our desires can become excessive turning it into lust, which is an insatiable desire.
So we turned to people or things and then we were left probably worse off than when we started. Now the grumbling begins. Paul Tripp says, “Grumbling is the background drone of a discontented heart.” Wilkerson says, “A grumbling heart under deprivation becomes a greedy heart under abundance.” So, consider these three questions that Wilkerson also asks.
“Anger makes a judgment that something is wrong, unfair, unjust” or just stupid. We feel entitled to have the people closest to us meet our needs so we complain when we don’t get it. For instance a husband might feel entitled to sex from his wife and the wife might feel entitled to affection from her husband. Anxiety can appear in many forms from preoccupation, hypersensitivity, perfectionism or at the extreme paralyzing anxiety and phobia. Anxiety makes us second-guess ourselves, worries there’s never enough of whatever brings us comfort (food, “money, attention, time, affection, leisure or success.”) We sit on the edge wondering what we will lose next. Escape is interesting because when it’s healthy, it should bring us back to reality – not keep us from it. “If you find yourself regularly escaping, what are you running from? What is difficult, uncomfortable, or painful that you want to avoid?” Some of us have had very difficult pasts and we can feel entitled to some relief from the suffering we’ve endured.
When God sent the Israelites into the wilderness, “It was not just a test to see if they could follow instructions but a test to see if their hearts were inclined to be in covenant people.” They had to trust him each day for food and water. If they tried to keep uneaten manna overnight it would be rotten in the morning. We can empathize with them thinking, it’s not bad if they wanted to try to provide for their family or to ensure there was some in savings. But God asked them to trust him for their food, so it should a lack of faith and trust instead of good stewardship because their motivation was based in fear (on their terms), not faith (on God’s terms).
Unfortunately, “… we cannot simply will ourselves to be satisfied in Jesus.” We can’t have an appetite for him when we are be sated with other people or things. Sometimes even our cries for help are actually just “more selfish demands for temporal satisfaction…” So know that “A sinful desire is never satisfied.” That “we must cultivate an appetite for Christ, who alone is meant to satisfy our souls.” And not to entertain any temptations. We sometimes sit back as temptation comes our way and look at it “… as if it was no big deal”, but it allows a conversation to occur that gives an opportunity to be drawn in. We say we want freedom, yet we toy with what starves our freedom.
(All unmarked quotes are from Redemption: Freed by Jesus from the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry” by Mike Wilkerson.)
We’ve all heard how important forgiveness is… for ME. Forgiving others is good for my mental and physical health, my emotional well-being and overall mood. Like you, I don’t want to carry around anger, bitterness, and resentment against others for the rest of my life; I make the choice to forgive so I can be a better me. However we don’t often hear about the difficulties in receiving forgiveness. The message is: forgiving others is really all about me. Or is it?
While I can’t deny the personal benefits received from forgiving someone else, I believe that forgiveness has far deeper implications to our minds and souls than simply feeling better. So, why should I forgive? The Biblical example of forgiveness is a gift of mercy from God to us. God does not forgive our sins simply for his benefit. He wants to enjoy us and to be with us forever. However, in order for this to be possible he needed to reconcile our sins. Clearly, God’s motives weren’t selfish in offering us forgiveness.
Also, when we forgive we reflect God’s glory. We are showing our hope in things yet-to-come and that our present actions impact our future. Now, even when we chose to forgive, it can be difficult to know how to proceed.
Mike Wilkerson in his book entitled, “Redemption: Freed by Jesus From the Idols We Worship and the Wounds We Carry” outlines five implications of choosing for forgive.
When was the last time you really felt heard? What was that like? How did you feel? What were you thinking? Did you notice that it was different from talking to other people? When we have been cherished and heard we walk away feeling more connected and our feelings of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and despair can decrease. Now, how about the last time you took time to really listen to someone else? Listening is an art form that can be developed through practice, patience, and learning a few techniques.
Knowing your friend’s personality type can help you be a better listener. For instance, when you ask your friend how they are doing and you hear a vague answer, remember if they are an extravert or an introvert. Extraverts tend to be fairly open with their thoughts and emotions, unless they don’t want to talk about them. So if an extravert gives you a vague answer, they want space. Asking your extraverted friend more questions will only annoy them and possibly make them more guarded. However, if your introverted friend gives you a vague response they are giving you a hint that there’s more there, and they are inviting you to ask more questions. Introverts typically like to be pursued because it requires more energy for them to invest in others. Asking them follow-up questions to their vague response shows that you care about them.
Nodding can be confusing as well. Women like to nod to show they are listening, understanding, and following what their friend is saying. Men, on the other hand, nod when they agree with what their friend is saying. So be sure to only nod where appropriate.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
Post-Traumatic Stress can seem only negative as someone starts to pick up the shattered pieces of their heart and rebuild their life. But, in fact, trauma survivors have been found to have many positives on their side. Post-traumatic growth is the idea that after someone has been through a traumatic event they are likely to see positives from their experience that leads to personal growth and change. They are able to have greater empathy and compassion for others because they have survived traumatic events and are in need of compassion and empathy themselves. Because the trauma victim has survived an event, or possibly repeated traumatic events they can feel more capable of conquering other difficult tasks. Their capacity to experience intimacy in relationship with God and others can increase as their walls of personal defense were destroyed. They can become more comfortable with intimacy as safe and healthy people surround them and build trust with them.
Post-traumatic growth is a helpful concept when caring for someone with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As a caregiver, you can instill hope in the survivor by helping them draw on their tremendous strength that helped them survive their trauma and use it again to walk along the path of healing. Tap into their compassion and empathy they have for others and turn it onto themselves. This can be difficult as it is often easier to have more compassion for others than themselves as false guilt and shame enters in. They can begin to see themselves with God’s eyes and allow themselves room for healing.
At some point you will be called to stand beside your friend as they encounter a season of grieving. I see more tears from inappropriate comments made during this season than any other. We all mean well, but sometimes we’re simply hurtful. How can we improve?
Let’s begin by looking at what grief is and how are friends get there. Grieving is a state of distress and sorrow. Biblical characters were said to be “clothed in sackcloth and ashes” when they were grieving. This was an outward sign of the emotional upheaval they were feeling on the inside; they would literally rub ashes on their head and wear a coarse garment made from goat or camel’s hair or hemp. Our friends may encounter something unexpected or ongoing like grieving the loss of a parent (by death, or losing them slowly as they deteriorate, such as the case with dementia or Alzheimers), the death of a sibling or child (miscarriage, newborn, toddler, teen, etc), the loss of a job, inability to have children (infertility), a child that’s runaway (physically or emotionally), desiring to be married when they are still single and the list goes on. Sometimes are friends grieve as their state of life changes, empty-nesters (children leave home), become parents (losing their unstructured free time), getting married (losing their independence), a planned job/career change, move to a new city, school or country, etc.
It’s important for all of us to keep in mind that some wounds will not be completely healed this side of Heaven. Our desire for a “quick-fix” comment often only leaves us feeling less uncomfortable watching our friend mourn – it will not make them feel “all better.”
Now let’s see what people say, and what they could say instead.
We are probably most family with the Kübler-Ross model, commonly known as “The Five Stages of Grief” (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance). I find “The 7 States of Grief” to be more comprehensive. (The following is taken from the website: http://www.recover-from-grief.com/7-stages-of-grief.html). This is what your friend will go through as they grieve. Remember these are cyclical and not linear, so your friend will flow through each stage several times for weeks, months, or years.
Have you ever thought about what you learn about yourself when you gaze into someone’s eyes: do you feel loved, accepted and cherished? do you feel scared, judged and dehumanized?
Think about the messages you received when you looked into your parents’ eyes. What do your friends think about you? What do the eyes of God reveal about who you really are?
Our view of how God sees us is often determined by how people treat us and affirm us. As we examine the various mental images and messages we gather about ourselves from the eyes of others, it can be easy to feel insecure and uncertain of our place and purpose in this world – especially if those messages have been quite varied. Yet, God says we are his beloved, his cherished son/daughter. His eyes are gentle, full of mercy and grace and he desires to be reconciled to his people.
The way to restore our view of ourselves from the broken messages received from others into the Truth of how God sees us is through community. Being in relationships with others who model God’s grace, promotes healing of the wounds from our past. God lovingly created us in his image and placed us in a fallen world to bear that image.
How are you displaying God’s image in your community?
You might be wondering if therapy will be of any help to you because you know it won't change your present circumstances. So, what is psychotherapy and what can it do for you? Psychotherapy is an opportunity to discuss life's most difficult circumstances and feelings in a safe, confidential environment where you can receive tools to help you learn to cope with these difficulties more effectively. It can also help you work through the pains of your past that will lead you on the path of healing. Your therapist can help you see your circumstances differently and offer you a space to practice your new-found skills. So let's get practical. You've decided therapy might be in your future, but are anxious about what will go on. First, you will come to our office and fill out just a few, simple forms that ask for your basic information, symptoms and what your goals are for meeting with a therapist. Then, you have a seat on our couch and we'll continue to collect some family history and your present circumstances that brought you were you are today. It's important to note that you don't have to answer any questions you are uncomfortable answering. Payment will be taken and you will be on your way feeling relieved that you've taken the first step in a more healthy you. After your first session is complete, your therapist will create some treatment goals for you to help guide you on the path to healing. So while your therapist can't change your circumstances, they can guide you on how to change your thoughts, attitudes and false beliefs to help you receive the healing you need to be healthier.