This post is an excerpt from the study guide which accompanies the “Post-Traumatic Stress” seminar. This portion is one element from “STEP 7: IDENTIFY GOALS that allow me to combat the impact of my suffering.”
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Decreasing constrictive symptoms is primarily about regaining a sense of freedom. Without a sense of freedom, our emotions either inflate (hyper-arousal) or deflate (constriction), and our willingness to trust is understandably undermined. In the early steps of this material, you worked hard to re-establish a sense of safety. Hopefully you have experienced a significant amount of relief from the efforts. In this step, you will be building on that relief to re-establish a freedom of emotion and trust that the pending sense of danger inhibited.
Beginning to Feel Again
What do you do when you turn your television on and it starts way too loud? Chances are you hit mute before you start turning down the volume. This is the equivalent of what happens to emotions after a traumatic experience. Our emotions spike. They’re overwhelming. We mute them to survive. But we’re not sure how to turn them back on once we’ve adjusted the volume.
One of the problems is how much we begin to rely on control after trauma. We try to eliminate, or at least limit, the number of experiences that are not controllable-predictable. Emotions fit in that category. In order to feel again, we would have to surrender control. Our resistance to losing control becomes the lever that restricts our emotions.
The problem with talking about emotions and control is that we put them together and hear, “He’s saying I should be emotionally out of control. No thanks.” That is not what is being said. But you will have to surrender some control in order to experience healthy emotions again. Since we can’t willfully change-choose our emotions, what might this look like?
- Listen to your favorite song and allow yourself to become unaware of your surroundings as your listen.
- Say “yes” to the invitation of a trusted friend and engage the activity without trying to predict the outcome.
- Listen to something you find funny and laugh out loud without concern for who hears you.
- Share something that is meaningful to you with a trusted friend without worrying whether they agree.
- Engage a new interest you’ve never tried without being concerned about how well you do.
These actions represent the opposite of the kind of choices we make in order to maintain a sense of control, and, thereby, restrict our emotions. You’ll notice that freedom is about what you’re not focused on rather than what you are. This is because emotional freedom is about giving yourself to a moment more than a technique you can master.
With that in mind, what are the best opportunities you can think of to express emotional freedom?
Your examples will be better than any of the ones listed above. They fit your life better. What is important is that you see that you don’t “do the free expression of emotion,” but you “do the things that are important to you without a preoccupation for how you perform or what people think.” As you do this with greater freedom and ease, emotions happen. Don’t focus on feeling particular emotions. Focus on freeing yourself from the patterns of thought that stifle emotions.
Don’t label emotions as “good” or “bad” but try to gauge how well they fit the situation. Unless we do this, “pleasant” begins to mean “good” and “unpleasant” means “bad.” Mistaking unpleasant for bad is a great way to constrict your emotions. After a trauma you will feel many unpleasant emotions that are situationally-appropriate.
You will also experience many that are historically-valid but not situationally appropriate; that is, they make sense in light of the past, but not the present. These are the emotions you need to cleanse of the destructive suffering story elements (step 4) and grieve the losses associated with them (step 5); which allows you to process these emotions without having to shut down in order to avoid unpleasant emotions.
Read Psalm 77. Notice how the psalmist navigates unpleasant emotions. Instead of being ashamed that “my soul refuses to be comforted” (v. 2), he voices this as a prayer to God. He is even honest to God that, at first, this prayer is ineffective – “when I remember God, I moan; when I meditate, my spirit fails” (v. 3). Not being caught up in what he “should feel” allowed the psalmist to be honest about what he “did feel” which allowed God to begin to restore his affections to health. Trust that God is strong and faithful enough to walk with you through a similar emotional journey.
Shame is a word with many definitions. This speaks to how multi-faceted the experience can be. In this section we will define shame as “feeling worthy of rejection because of one’s experience of suffering.” If we were talking about sin, this would be an accurate statement. Sin does merit separation and requires Jesus’ blood to wash away its stain. Shame treats the distress of suffering like the stain of sin and cannot find a remedy.
Nothing about suffering causes God to judge or condemn you. God’s response to your suffering is to offer comfort, not forgiveness. When we place our experience of suffering in the wrong moral category, we try to apply remedies (i.e., asking forgiveness, having more faith, increasing our spiritual disciplines, etc…) which leave us arguing with God (i.e., “How much more do You want from me?”) instead of resting in God’s compassion (i.e., “I am glad You are safe enough for me to hurt with.”).
In his book Mending the Soul, Steven Tracy offers five strategies for overcoming shame (p. 87-91; bold text only). While these strategies are worded to address suffering in the form of abuse, the principles are transferable to other forms of suffering.
- Clarify Ownership: There is guilt associated with suffering. You do not own it. You may own some guilt for how you responded. That is very different from owning the guilt for the suffering. Imagine the guilt for your suffering as a pile of dirty-stinky laundry. Whose is it? Refuse to do their laundry. Also, refuse to become bitter; that is another way of losing control. Emotionally set the laundry in the room of the person responsible and entrust what happens to that laundry to be handled between them and God.
- Accept the Judge’s Verdict: In the experience of suffering, God declares you innocent. Hear God say both, “Not guilty,” and “Much loved.” His resulting command is not, “Repent and believe,” but “Come near and be comforted.” His call is not “Believe more,” but “Trust.” These are not words too-good-to-be-true. They are not if-only dreams. These are the pronouncements of the sovereign God who has the final say in all matters.Read Hebrews 2:14-18. See the Judge come down from behind the bench. See “a man of sorrow, acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3) who put on flesh – allowing himself to experience pain – so that he could compassionately speak to your suffering as an insider, not merely make judicial pronouncements as a detached bystander. Hear the words of your loving Judge spoken by someone who understands the weight and significance of every syllable. Allow these realities to make his words more believable than your own doubts, fears, and shame.
- Prayerfully Hand Shame Back to the Abuser: It is not vindictive to refuse to accept responsibility for pain you did not cause. Apart from owning and repenting of their sin, someone who inflicts suffering on another bears the weight of their sin. Handing shame back to them (refusing to accept the blame and live as if it’s your fault) can be an act of love clarifying their need to repent. Even if the source of your suffering is a non-person, leaving the shame in the hands of Satan – the author of evil in our world – leaves your hands open to receive God’s comfort and mercy.
“One of the most empowering things an abuse survivor can do is to prayerfully hand shame back to his or her abuser. Theologians rarely discuss this concept, but it’s a frequent biblical theme. Biblical writers often asked God to shame their abusive enemies. Most likely, this meant asking God to do two things: (1) cause the abuser to be overwhelmed with shame for his or her sin so that they would repent, and (2) bring utter destruction on the abuser if he or she didn’t repent (p. 89)… For survivors of abuse, the most damaging definitions of forgiveness are those that conflate forgiveness, trust, and reconciliation and eliminate the possibility of negative consequences for the offender (p. 181-182).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul
- Choose to Reject: You cannot stop someone from blame-shifting. Even in cultures where “freedom of speech” is not a guiding principle of government, we cannot control how others interpret events. You can reject their interpretation. Oddly, the best way to do this is not necessarily rejecting them as a person; which usually leads to a verbal altercation. You can simply reject their message. Whether you view them as naïve, misinformed, blinded by sin, or intentionally manipulative, you do not have to counter someone who communicates shame in order to be free from their message. Not believing-embracing a destructive message is a way to disempower it even when you cannot (or is it wise not to try to) dissuade the messenger.
- Experience Authentic Community: The more ungodly messages or messengers you have in your life the more godly messages and messengers you need in your life. Make sure this ratio is in your favor. The kind of community you’ve been developing over the course of this study should help. If you still feel imbalanced-to-the-negative talk with the person(s) with whom you’ve been going through this study about how to expand the number of people who know you well enough that they become part of your healthy, authentic community.
“Dealing with the trauma in the context of a safe connection allows the survivor, often for the first time in her life, to be herself in relationship to another (p. 128).” Diane Langberg in Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse
Read Psalm 31:14-22. If messages of shame are frequent for you, memorize this passage as something you can pray as often as you need. Realize this is a psalm, because God knew we would face the experience of shame frequently in a broken world and he wanted us to have words to bring to him when our experience of shame was thick. Notice how the psalmist goes back and forth between trusting God and refuting the voices of shame. Allow your prayers to follow this pattern so that, in refuting the voices of shame, you do not get locked down in those messages trying to argue with them.
Forgiveness and Trust
When trauma was inflicted by a person forgiveness becomes part of the process of learning to trust again; not necessarily trusting the perpetrator of the trauma, but trusting anyone. This is a delicate subject and one that should not be rushed. Sometimes when this subject is discussed it can begin to feel like God cares more about whether you forgive than that you were hurt. That is not the case. If you are not ready for this material, feel free to wait until its benefits become clear to you.
The subject of forgiveness begs the question of confronting the person who inflicted trauma upon you. When should this done? How should this be done? How do I know if I’m “ready”? In her book Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse Diane Langberg lays our four principles that should govern a confrontation (p. 168-177; bold text only).
1. Every Confrontation Should Be Governed by a Purpose:
Confrontation is not a necessary step for recovery from trauma. Forgiveness does not require a personal interaction. There are two common purposes for a confrontation that are unhealthy. First, some people think confrontation will bring neat closure. If your purpose requires a cooperative response to the confrontation it is likely too idealistic to have a positive outcome. Second, some people think confrontation will be punitive and bring a sense of justice. Even if the other person does “face their sin,” a revenge motif is rarely as satisfying in reality as it is in our imagination. Here are several types of purposes that would be healthy:
- “I want to regain my voice and I believe having this conversation is an important step in that process.”
- “I am going to make changes in my life that would only make sense in light of what happened. I don’t want these changes to come across as controlling or weird on my part, so enough of what you did will be disclosed to the relevant people so that these actions make sense. I am not asking permission, but making you aware. I want to make this decision in openness and not secrecy, because I refuse to live with any more forced secrets.”
- “I want to give you the opportunity to repent as an indication your actions no longer overpower me. In the past, your non-repentance would have been a threat to my emotional well-being. I am stronger now. I want you to know I am entrusting you to God for either forgiveness based on repentance or punishment.”It is important that your goals for the confrontation not be dependent upon a positive response from the person who inflicted the trauma. Otherwise, you are setting yourself up to feel powerless in their presence again, and this can cause a significant setback. Notice how each of the sample purposes above can be accomplished even if the individual is still denying or shifting blame for what they did.
2. Every Confrontation Should Be Done with Care:
Confrontation is better done a month too late than a month too soon. Confrontation should not be done until the progress made in the latter stages of recovery (reconnecting with life and relationships) has had time to solidify. In addition to assessing your personal readiness, attention should be given to whether others who may be affected by the confrontation (i.e., family members, co-workers, etc…) are in a position to respond well. Not accounting for the possibility of isolation based upon the factors can create a likelihood of a negative social response; which is another reason confrontations can become experiences that result in more regress than progress in the recovery process.
3. Every Confrontation Requires Maturity:
Abusive people and abusive contexts are not known for mature responses when their abuse is exposed. The factors that would prevent the confrontation from spiraling into immaturity (i.e., anger, theatrics, self-pity remorse, etc…) will need to be established by you – the one doing the confronting. Consider these guidelines to help you in this process.
- Script what you want to say; whether you choose to read it or not.
- Decide in advance what next interactions you are or are not willing to accept.
- Decide who you want to be present for the confrontation.
- Have a set response for both a denial and a counter-attack response.
- Have a set response for the possibility you are frequently interrupted.
- Decide on a time with a clear end and script your statement to fit the duration of time you are willing to give.
- Decide on a place with a clear exit. In a context you’re used to feeling powerless, don’t allow yourself to feel trapped.
- Plan what you intend to do afterwards to process the experience and calm yourself, if needed.
4. Every Confrontation Must Be Governed by Truth:
You are not opening a debate in which “both sides will be heard.” Your primary goal is not even to condemn (i.e., say “What you did was wrong”) but to expose (i.e., “I am no longer willing to live as if this didn’t happen”). Exposing trauma is sufficient to reveal its wrongness. You are offering the other person an opportunity to live in the light of truth and declaring your unwillingness to live in the darkness of lies any longer. If that much is accomplished, then the confrontation will have accomplished what can be reasonably expected from it for you and have the opportunity to be redemptive for the other person.
Whether it is wise or there is the opportunity to confront, forgiveness is an important step in regaining emotional freedom from the experience of trauma. In Mending the Soul, Steven Tracy offers five steps in the wise practice of forgiveness after abuse (p. 190-194; bold text only).
- Clarify the Offense and the Resultant Negative Emotions: Forgiveness is an emotionally honest practice. There is no “pretending everything is okay” in forgiveness. The first step in forgiveness is to name the offense immoral (not just a mistake or lapse in judgment) and, thereby, declare that it requires forgiving (not just excusing). It is important that forgiving not become an exercise in silencing your own voice. Put in to words what you are forgiving and the impact it had on you before taking the next step.
- Determine Appropriate Boundaries to Check Evil and Stimulate Repentance: Forgiveness is a socially wise practice. Forgiveness after someone has inflicted a trauma upon you does not require giving them a “full security clearance” back to your heart and life. Determine what is wise for the future of the relationship; if a relationship still exists. Willingness to accept these parameters without resistance or self-pity is an indicator whether this individual has changed enough to be considered safe.
“A second element of boundary setting will in many cases be the first aspect of actual forgiving. Here the boundaries are set not only to protect the victim but also to check the offender’s evil and, in so doing, to stimulate repentance… The erecting boundaries to prevent abuse also serves to thwart, or check, their evil, giving them the ‘gift of defeat’ that can be used by God to stimulate their repentance (p. 192).” Steven R. Tracy in Mending the Soul
- Deliberately Let Go of the Right to Hurt an Abuser for the Hurt He or She Has Inflicted: Forgiveness is an emotionally liberating experience. This is what you have been wanting, a way to let go of the hurt and anger. In this step you are entrusting this individual to God for justice. Picture yourself handing over the case file to God and saying, “I have tried to prosecute this case. It was eating me alive. I trust you to handle it with a redemptive justice. I am returning jurisdiction for this situation to you.”
- Reevaluate the Abuser and Discover His or Her Humanity: Forgiveness is a soberly humanizing experience. Most abusers have been abused or traumatized in some manner. This doesn’t reduce their responsibility for what they did at all. It does mean they’re a more three dimensional person than we tend to see them as through the lens of our pain. We want them to be a monster, so we do not have to share humanity with them. We want them to be completely “other.” You do not have to experience sympathy, but forgiveness (with time) should allow you to begin to view this individual with a history that shaped them in ways that made it more understandable why they traumatized another.
- Extend Appropriate Grace: Forgiveness is a personally costly experience. You are giving up something. It would be nice if all forgiveness cost us was our bitterness. This grace should not take you outside the parameters you set in step two in this process of forgiveness. With time, it should mean that you would want for this person to be made whole by God’s grace; that they would no longer embrace the lies of Satan that made their actions seem plausible to them. You don’t need to think this often, only as often as they come to mind, so that the memory of them loses the “stickiness of bitterness.”
If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on PTSD” post which address other facets of this subject.