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Confront What You Learned to Avoid

It’s not past experience that keeps people stuck but the habits
developed to cope with it.
 By Noam Shpancer, Ph.D.

“The past is never gone. It is not even past” wrote William Faulkner. The statement may be truest with regard to past adversity. Negative events echo loudly inside our psychic architecture.

The reason is evolutionary. If a tiger attacked you in the forest, you’d do better, survival-wise, not to forget about it, lest you venture again into the forest unprepared. In addition, our brain has evolved to seek order in the environment—to make sense of things—because we’re less vulnerable if we understand what’s going on. Adverse events disrupt the existing order, introducing an element of chaos and senselessness. Our brain is compelled to return to the site of the trauma to try to “solve the case,” piece together the narrative, and restore order to the world.

Little wonder, then, that people find moving on from past adversity difficult. Or that therapists often seek to help clients deal with current troubles by relating them back to early distress. Attributing current difficulties to past trauma restores order to the narrative, providing a reassuring clarity.

Yet organizing a self-story around past trauma carries risks. For one, such a story may be factually inaccurate. The path from early experience to adult outcome is neither direct nor clear. (If early adversity led you to a habit of drinking, are your current problems caused by early adversity or by drinking?) Specific early experiences cannot readily explain specific current behaviors, and those who experience similar early circumstances are unlikely to share similar symptom profiles in adulthood. Additionally, traumatic experiences happen in context, and the contexts in which they occur are bound to include other risk factors, making it difficult to ascertain the traumatic event’s unique contribution to later outcome.

Moreover, the notion that current troubles are caused by past trauma creates a market for finding trauma in one’s past. We thus risk assigning the trauma label to any upsetting, angering, challenging, or disappointing experience. Stretching the trauma label to cover generic life challenges or trivial negative events amounts to a form of emotional grade inflation, diluting the meaning of the term. If everyone has been traumatized, then the construct of trauma loses its utility in describing meaningful variations in lived experience.

In addition, focusing on trauma in appraising our (or others’) life amounts to framing existence in terms of its brokenness. There’s brokenness to every life. Yet making trauma someone’s defining feature reduces them to their injury. That’s spiritually deflating, psychologically unhelpful, and factually inaccurate. Human beings are more than the sum of their hurts.

Ironically, a trauma-centered narrative itself may make moving on from trauma difficult. Attaching one’s identity to past trauma provides relief by anchoring our sense of self in a coherent narrative amidst the storm of existence. Yet, once the story of “my trauma” becomes the story of “me,” moving on from it may feel like self-negation.

Therefore, moving on from past adversity often requires a shift in how we perceive ourselves. Specifically, we may benefit from shifting our self-focus to our strengths and assets. This is not an act of denial or an excursion into “positive thinking” but a useful and fair correction.

First, the default position for human beings is resilience, not fragility. Our odds of overcoming adversity are generally greater than our odds of succumbing. Second, framing identity in terms of our strengths is psychologically empowering. At the job interview, you talk about your strengths first because anchoring your narrative in your strengths improves the odds that you will be perceived, and
treated, as strong by others. The same is true for self-perception. Finally, as research has demonstrated, acknowledging and building our strengths improves our ability to deal with our areas of weakness; focusing on mental health assets tends to improve mental health outcomes.

In addition, moving on from past adversity often requires us to change how we perceive the adversity itself. The experience of trauma is subjective. What overwhelms one person may not bother another, and what society may commonly construe as an adverse event may not be inherently or uniformly so.

Research shows that our subjective perceptions of events, rather than the events themselves, tend to account for the experience of trauma. As Seth Pollak and Karen Smith note in Perspectives on Psychological Science: “Variability in individuals’ perceptions of events is most likely to account for how adversity ‘gets under the skin,’ affecting long-term neural and behavioral outcomes.”

How you perceive what happened influences how what happened affects you. This is good news because while you can’t change what happened, you can change how you perceive it.

A useful first move is to let go of the misperception—a common feature of trauma-centered narratives—that what caused a problem to emerge in the past is what keeps it going in the present. You may have learned to distrust people because of your troubled childhood
relationship with your unstable parents. Yet your mistrust of people in the present is not maintained by your relationship with your parents.

In general, current difficulties that may have had their origin in past adversity are most commonly maintained in the present by the habit of avoidance, research finds. What’s holding you back now is not your past adversity but the avoidance habits enacted to cope with its aftermath. Such habits, unlike the past experience itself, can be changed. The way forward from trauma is by confronting in the present what your past had taught you to avoid.

Finally, dealing with traumatic memories often means tangling with negative emotions. The blizzard of negative emotions, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, can overwhelm the order of the soul. Managing emotions, however, is a skill that can be mastered. Generally, it involves a three-step process.

First, we must recognize that emotions are always part of our experience, never the whole of it. Your emotions are yours, but they are not you, in the same way that waves are not the ocean.

Second, we need to learn to accept our emotions. Acceptance does not denote agreement or liking. Rather, it is a stance of attentive curiosity. To wit: Listening attentively to someone does not require us to judge them or agree with what they’re saying. Emotional acceptance is listening attentively to oneself.

Third, we need to realize that the information conveyed by our emotions is often distorted or incomplete. The fact that you feel bad does not mean that you are bad or that your situation is bad. Thus, we should not blindly obey our emotions. Rather, we may learn to consult other available sources of data—our capacity for reason, worldly experience, meaningful goals, personal values—and arrive at a considered decision, rather than an emotionally driven one, about the course of action to take.

Moving forward from past adversity does not happen on its own. It requires intentional and persistent effort. It takes a balanced approach that acknowledges difficult past events and circumstances without sanctifying them as the pillars of identity and directs us to acquire the mental health skills needed to appraise accurately, deal successfully with—and ultimately transcend—the legacy of a troubled past.

Noam Shpancer, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Otterbein University.

To Heal Is to Feel

Use pain as a guide to what matters and to what can move you forward. By Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D.

Negative events are a fact of life. Because they register powerfully, they have an uncanny ability to overtake our mental machinery. My career as a psychologist has been devoted to understanding the ways that facing pain without knowing how to feel leads people to logical, reasonable—and pathological—practices that our judgmental minds readily recommend but that keep us stuck in the past. I learned some things the way everyone else does.

My Dad was an exploder who used alcohol to keep the lid on, which only made the inevitable explosions more violent and frightening. In early elementary school, I vividly remember watching my Dad ripping the screeching pink-and-cream two-tone Plymouth station wagon out of our driveway in an angry rage and seeing my brother tumble out of the opened tailgate onto the street. I was scared, horrified. But that wasn’t said—I would not have known how. Dominant as they were in our house, emotions were barely mentioned at all.

My Mom was an emotional suppressor whose very pores oozed a sense of dark dread. Even at age 8, I knew it was not rational to talk constantly of germs and to wash your hands until they bled. That made sense only recently when I learned from a relative that my grandmother had committed suicide and my Mom unfairly took the blame. She could not help me then with frightening feelings—she was desperately staying away from her own. I knew that my parents loved me, but in a home wet with anger and dark secrets, I also learned that emotions were … dangerous.

No wonder I had my first panic attack two decades later as a young academic watching a group of professors fight in a way only wild animals and full professors are capable of. Years of emotional rage and neglect had taught my nervous system that emotions were dangerous. But what does one then do with pain?


In my long career as a psychologist studying human nature and the causes of human suffering, I have been struck by the ways people inadvertently impede their own healing. Here are 10 suggestions for alleviating the pain of trauma past.

Don’t Deny Your Pain
When you cut yourself, your body will try to heal—whether you acknowledge your body or not. Psychological wounds are different. You cannot begin psychological healing until you acknowledge and describe your pain—because self-invalidation cuts even deeper. Life will not give you a pass just because you were taught and internalized “Boys don’t cry” or “Wear your big-girl pants.” You can heal only if you feel, and learning how starts with acknowledgement.


Show Up
When you are hurting, you may want to curl up in a blanket on your couch. Although that’s great for a Sunday afternoon, it’s not a way to live your life. While you close yourself off from the world, life continues without you. When you excessively avoid what is painful, you also avoid what is rich and meaningful.


Observe Your Emotions
Eyes closed, jaws clenched, “powering through” can itself be further traumatizing. Even if you do what is important, you still reinforce that it’s unsafe (or you wouldn’t resist it). Instead, slow down and breathe. Carefully notice your body. Observe and describe—more like watching a sunset or listening to a crying child than doing a math problem. Give your emotions a name. Let your mind and body know that it’s safe for you to see what hasn’t been seen, to feel what hasn’t been felt, and to voice what hasn’t been said.


Move Toward Yourself, Not Away from Pain
Distraction is a two-edged sword. The problem is not the traction, it’s the dis that states, “It’s not OK to be me!” Stop dissing yourself! Find the traction to move toward. Take that hot bath or listen to that cool music because you love it and deserve self-care. Don’t do it as a diss.


Let Pain Be a Guide
Your mind may suggest that you wallow in pain forever—for specialness or to prove how unfair it all is. Don’t take the bait. Pain is not a badge of honor—it’s how we learn what’s important and what needs care and attention. Use pain as a goad and guide. Let it help you get unstuck, then work to correct what is unfair.


Don’t Cling to Feeling “Good”
When we feel good, we may want it to last forever. The instant we cling to these feelings, they begin to fade. Like a bird sitting on your shoulder, the moment you try to grab it, it flies away. Enjoy good feelings while they last but let them go in their own time. Fixed emotions cannot teach.


Show Yourself Some Kindness and Compassion
Minds can be unkind. Seeing the struggle, you start asking, What is wrong with me? and Why is this so hard? You invite yourself into a spiral of judgment and self-blame. When you’re feeling down, don’t add more weight—extend yourself a helping hand. Show yourself kindness when you feel as though you least deserve it.


Take the Time It Takes to Heal
You did what all the articles have told you, but you are still hooked. Don’t rush along! The goal is to gradually learn to let emotions play the proper role in your life. “Healing” means “whole” and learning to be whole cannot be rushed. It needs time and patience. Dare to give that to yourself.


Find Purpose
We are willing to take on pain if it’s safe and has a real purpose. In the gym you exercise safely but vigorously, knowing muscle aches are part of creating strength and flexibility. Same here. Follow the steps above and your body and unconscious programming will get the safety message. But the purpose? That’s up to you. To help yourself heal, it is crucial that you see, choose, and embrace your purpose. Without purpose, pain is a meaningless struggle.


Reach Out
Children of emotional neglect believe they need to heal on their own. The nonsense of “don’t burden others” deprives us of the comfort of friends and the exchange of wise guidance. We are the social primates, meant to travel together. Whether it be your family, friends, a therapist, or even an online group, dare to reach out for support and use what you learn to help and support others.


Pain often comes from outside, unbidden. Neglectful mistakes are learned things we do, but that means they can be changed! The work comes from within. Acknowledge your pain, recognize your mind’s needless defenses, and learn how to use feelings to foster a free life full of purpose, love, and meaning. Done in the right way, feeling is healing. n


Steven C. Hayes, Ph.D., is the originator of acceptance and commitment therapy and the author of A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.

Creating a New You

A vision of something better underlies the transformation from victim to survivor. By George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D.

Bad things sometimes happen to people through no fault of their own. Then what? As Yogi Berra famously said, “When you get to the fork in the road, take it.” There tend to be three types of reaction to adversity. Some people get stuck, paralyzed psychologically. Others act in desperation, seizing on any opportunity to feel safe, although their desperate acts can lead to further problems and victimization. And some people manage to grow in the wake of adversity and trauma, building new lives.


Which path a person winds up on is not a matter of luck. Whatever hand you’ve been dealt, you have a responsibility to make a choice: Move on or wait to be rescued. Believing that your past predicts your future can keep you stuck in it, not even trying for better things ahead. But research reveals that the past is actually a very poor predictor of the future.


There are four concrete steps for creating a new you and a new future.

It starts with a belief. As one survivor of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse told me, “Finding a way to imagine a better life for oneself is the first step in making it happen. Believe you are destined for something better.” Without a vision for the future, there can be no desire for it. Admittedly, having a vision takes courage; we try to protect ourselves against the disappointment of failure. Start with a belief and don’t be shy about expressing it: “I’m destined for something better.”


Next, harness the power of belief by converting it into action. Self-fulfilling prophecy bridges the gap between belief and action. A prediction, whether in thoughts or words, directly or indirectly, causes itself to become true. If you can’t realize your vision, you wind up talking yourself out of the desire.


How does expectation become action? If you think you will fail at something, you are likely to attempt the task with minimal effort, enthusiasm, and tenacity. You are more willing to accept initial rejection or failure. Or worse, you are likely to not attempt to be successful at all.

But if you think you will succeed at something, you are likely to attempt the task with effort, enthusiasm, and tenacity. You are less willing to accept initial rejection or failure, more likely to see setbacks as precursors to the inevitable success! Tenacity helps you reframe setbacks as opportunities to get stronger.


Believing is not enough. You must also act on your belief. Once you choose to act, act tenaciously. “Language is the formative organ of thought,” Wilhelm von Humboldt declared. Thought usually precedes action. Change your language from that of loss to that of growth. Eliminate “I can’t” and “Yes, but” from your vocabulary.


The language of equivocation leads to hesitancy and insecurity, the language of assertiveness to extraordinary effort. When you find yourself using the words or thoughts of negativity, stop and find more constructive words. You may stumble. You may fall. But keep moving.

Taking the first step—even a small one, overcomes inertia. That essentially eliminates the most difficult of hurdles.


Finally, remember that the single best predictor of resilience and growth is a connection to others. Recruit help moving forward. Relentlessly seek someone who has your back and will pick you up whenever you fall. Mentors and coaches help people believe in themselves and supply information that can support your transformation from victim to survivor.


Observe those who possess the qualities you wish to possess. Learn from them. Seek their guidance. See successful others not through the lens of jealousy but as models: “If they can do it, so can I.”

If you want to change your life, you must begin with a belief and harness the power of prophecy. But never forget, the purpose of prophecy is not to predict the future—it’s to create the future.


George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., serves on the faculty of Johns Hopkins University.


This article was written by Psychology Today Contributors and was published on May 3rd, 2022, last reviewed on May 4th, 2022