This post is a merger of two sources: my good friend Mark Wilson, counselor extraordinaire, and Brené Brown’s research on shame.
We have all had hard experiences. Trauma is not always the same level of difficulty or complexity for every person, but it is a reality for all people. We were betrayed, wounded, let down, taken advantage of, manipulated, abused, hurt, and/or confused.
We often know what happened, but are left with trying to figure out why it happened. The human brain is a fascinating organ. We are physiologically wired to complete and resolve these difficult moments internally so that we can move forward. How we resolve these times in our lives, however, is truly dangerous.
A healthy way to resolve trauma is to be able to sit down with the one who wounded you and work it through with both perspectives on the table so that the truth of the situation can be revealed. And both sides should work hard to understand the other side before they fight to be heard. That is what healthy would look like. However, the reality that we live in is not typically all that healthy. We are living in various degrees of dysfunction. Some situations merit the label extreme dysfunction.
When we can’t sit down and hear and be heard in a traumatic situation, our brain still needs to resolve the issue. If we can’t resolve it, we will literally go insane. The other interesting twist here is that the brain has absolutely no need for the story that we create to resolve trauma to be accurate. It simply needs to fill in the gaps. And this is where we can start to have real problems.
In this memory bubble we have a mixture of truth (what we know and what actually happened) and fantasy (the story we tell in our head). There is no need for the fantasy part of our story to be true. It just needs to close the gaps on the questions we have about what happened to us.
Out of this mixture of truth and fantasy, we develop a belief about ourselves that we use to make decisions about who we are and how we are supposed to feel about ourselves. That leads to a whole new potential set of decisions that can be damaging to us secondarily because we are making self-destructive decisions based on the lies we decided to believe, based on the fantasy we created because of trauma that we didn’t understand.
Let me help begin to unravel this in a practical way. We get wounded in some way and create a belief that we are less than what God says we are. We then make other hurtful decisions, like who we let take advantage of us and how. And now we have more reinforced false beliefs about ourselves because of those secondary bad decisions. This becomes a painful cycle of emotional pain — all rooted in a fantasy that we told ourselves to make sense out of why someone would hurt us to begin with.
Without sounding trite, I want to offer some thoughts about this and close with an invitation to healing.
It is not true that when you got hurt it was because you weren’t worth loving. It is not true that you are not important or that you don’t matter. It is not true that the world would be better without you. It is not true that you are a mistake. It is not true — none of it.
The truth is you are amazing, full of potential, and worthy of love. Why, then, did that person or those people hurt you? Because hurt people, hurt people. And unfortunately, passing pain from one person to another doesn’t require much effort.
If people “passing pain on” to others is ever going to stop, or at least lessen, it is going to have to do so because someone got real about the lies they were believing and learned to stop believing the lies. That way, pain gets absorbed, processed, and let go in a healthy way. That takes a community of healthy people who can journey with us in our pain so we can learn to stop letting it control us.
So maybe where we begin is to become determined not to pass the pain from our past onto other people. Maybe we should come to terms with the reality that we told ourselves some lies because of what someone else did, and we don’t have to be owned by those lies. We can be free. That freedom will be a better way to live than anything those lies can give us.
May you have the courage not to live in the fantasy.