We’re born fresh, open and innocent.
As we grow and learn, our view of reality rapidly evolves. Trying to make sense of the world, we imitate others and take on the perceptions of those who surround us. We experience encouragement and care but also separation and pain. Both are part of growing up.
Some of us are luckier than others. Some are surrounded with positive role models to emulate and from whom we receive steady doses of love and validation. This teaches us to attach securely and grow in safety. Others suffer at the hands of those who are supposed to love them, resulting in anxious and/or avoidant attachment styles.
These early experiences and feelings make a significant impression on the architecture of our minds. Events, emotions and piling memories begin to color how we see things. Lacking cognitive faculties to discern or even notice our perception filters when we are young, we believe that how we experience reality is a direct reflection of what’s real. This happens automatically and is rarely questioned.
The result is that we begin to over-identify with the voice in our heads and grow attachments. Believing that the voice is who we are, we experience cognitive instability and shifty emotional weather. If the attachment style we formed in early childhood is predominantly anxious, the more things change, the more insecure and susceptible to abuse we can become. If your style is more avoidant, it can be harder for you to trust other people and form safe emotional connections.
Un-Arresting Our Maturation
According to Pete Walker, author of “C-PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” those two tenants of early childhood development, self-compassion (mother pillar) and self-protection (father pillar), are critical to maintaining a stable inner environment. They become essential coping skills especially when recovering from trauma.
Because for the most part our childhood was far from ideal, we tend to enter adulthood with wounded bodies and minds. They become the lens through which we interpret reality, which influences how we perceive ourselves and the world and the choices we make.
Our perception will determine the type of relationships we enter into, the kinds of experiences we are drawn to and how we choose to interpret them. The outcome of those will influence whether, in the words of Albert Einstein, we primarily view the universe as friendly or unfriendly and further color our perception.
The relationship we have with ourselves throughout our life, and how we recover from setbacks, depends on the degree of self-compassion and self-protection we’ve been able to cultivate within. Self-soothing requires healthy doses of self-pitying, which in turn nurtures our empathy centers. Having the ability to feel and actively extend empathy towards yourself, makes you become more compassionate and discerning.
Discernment is directly related to your ability to set boundaries. It’s a critical skill to develop to form healthy bonds with others. Life continually dishes out opportunities that allow you to hone the fluid art of boundary setting. Even mustering the courage to say “no, thank you” while being offered a product at a store can become an opportunity to practice boundaries and taste self-empowerment. The more you do it, the easier it becomes.
Boundaries create an inner sense of self-protection that help you cultivate inner safety and a solid sense of self-esteem while relating to others. They are an essential component of healthy relationships. As are trust and having an open heart.
If you are recovering from a string of abusive relationships, it can be difficult to shift from hurt, betrayal and distrust into living with an open heart and being able to once more trust and surrender. This is why developing boundaries is so important. They will protect you while giving your heart a safe space to blossom again.
Recovering from Trauma
Human psyche is moldable and resilient. It is important to remember this if you are currently going through the dark night of the soul as a result of betrayal, rejection or abandonment. You can heal from this and emerge wiser, stronger, deeper and more connected than ever.
The recovery process, however, can be highly disorienting and scary for a substantial portion of the journey, especially in the beginning. Your psyche will surface up a blend of actual and imagined memories, awaken current and past pain and flood your body with intense emotions. Your mind will be caught up in cognitive dissonance. It’s like fighting a war with yourself, unsure which side you’re on. While at times agonizing, the experience is also an opportunity to make tremendous leaps in your growth.
All of us have perceptive filters. We need them, otherwise the amount of information entering our brain would be too much to process, interpret and absorb. However, this process of filtering information is often hijacked in abusive relationships. Instead of cultivating safety, trust and openness, through repeated exposure to shame, guilt and fear, we develop a core belief that there is something deeply wrong with us.
This kind of thinking can slow down and even sabotage your recovery.
What is usually most damaging and arresting are self-criticisms, taking all the blame for what happened, believing that losing this relationship means you’ll never be happy again, believing that you can’t go on, feeling disconnected from others, and feeling flawed and unworthy of love. Such thinking stems from internalized abuse, the seeds of which were planted early and/or during the abusive relationship.
It is not easy to see which of our perceptive filters are helpful and which are damaging, until we have a direct experience that brings them up to the surface. A traumatic event will do that. It will give you a chance to take a close look at how your mind operates. Only when you see it, you can change it.
One way to recognize which filters are ripe for disposal is by tuning in to the feelings they generate. The more shameful, fearful or guilt inducing a filter, the more toxic it is.
What Triggers the Dark Night?
Any traumatic event that shakes us deeply has the power to cut the legs from under us and plunge us into the abyss of the mind. The pain boils over, we lose balance and our inner structures collapse. Life becomes severely unstable. Loss of a loved one is a common trigger, with its engulfing sadness and grief. Awakening to having been abused without having realized it is another one.
According to the DSM, “trauma is a direct personal experience of an event that involves actual or threatened death or serious injury; threat to one’s physical integrity, witnessing an event that involves the above experience, learning about unexpected or violent death, serious harm, or threat of death, or injury experienced by a family member or close associate. Memories associated with trauma are typically explicit, coherent, and difficult to forget. The person’s response to aversive details of the traumatic event involves intense fear, helplessness or horror.”
Experiencing trauma is the entrance to the dark night of the soul. It resembles a dark, claustrophobic, solitary passage every soul needs to walk through in order to find truth, liberation and love. During your subterranean passage, it is normal to come face-to-face with fear and feel disoriented. It’s like walking through Hades with no guarantee of ever exiting. For the most part, you operate on faith.
Facing Disorientation & Fear
In my work as a coach helping people recover from abusive relationships, I see a strong link between betrayal and trauma. For example, when a person comes to realize that the relationship they’ve been in is based on lies and manipulation, they not only suffer from the loss of a person they thought was their partner, but also from a severe loss of self.
It can be very hard for a person to stand their ground when everything beneath them is rapidly shifting. Often, the only thing that links them to reality is a thin string of lucidity. They are literally holding on by a thread.
If this is an experience you identify with, you know how scary and disorienting it is. The pain is paralyzing. It becomes hard to do anything practical. Your cognitive abilities are diminished. Your system shuts down. You are frozen in shock and become numb. You feel hollow and dissociated. Nothing seems to have value or hold meaning. You experience a spiritual crisis.
The Silver Lining
The dark night at once narrows and expands your perception. As old structures collapse, new space is simultaneously opening. There is grace in this process, though it can be hard to see for some time, because the emotional suffering clouds our vision and most of us lack the skills to navigate this deep ocean of pain. In other words, we can focus only on the next step before us. We can’t see the big picture. Not yet.
Once your nervous system has had a chance to calm down from the constant stimulation of neurochemicals such as the addictive combo of oxytocin (bonding chemical) and cortisol (stress chemical), your vision will begin to clear. In order for tranquility to descend, you’ll need to build for yourself a safe sanctuary away from abusive and triggering influences. The brain won’t start healing until it feels safe. If you keep exposing yourself to stressful stimuli, your amygdala will keep ringing the alarm bells and the anxiety will persist.
Once you are safe, you can start to gently investigate the roots of your pain. This is where the help of books, friends, therapists, teachers and coaches comes very handy. Use any help you can get to excavate your story, expose it and integrate it. You may need to tell tour story a thousand times before you experience deep relief and integration. Know that that’s okay.
One of the common realizations my clients reach is that what led to then to staying in abusive relationships was their inability to see the mistreatment as abuse. In other words, we’ve been conditioned to accept abuse as something “normal.” Our perception filters formed in our developmental years had allowed the poison to seep in and infect our core.
If you find yourself in or at the end of an abusive relationship, it was likely not the first time that you tolerated abuse. It is usually a cumulative process, through which your tolerance for pain gradually increases. We think we are being tough when in fact, we’ve been disrespecting and abandoning ourselves and didn’t even know it.
The more you tolerate mistreatment, the weaker your personal boundaries become, which in turn makes you more susceptible to abuse. When the last straw breaks you, you have an opportunity to finally see it, understand it and change it.
As old structures collapse, your perception filters become more moldable than ever. What usually follows is a stage of intense grieving. It is like swimming through the deepest and coldest passage in the ocean of pain. Don’t fear it. It will strengthen and cleanse you like the holy water.
Use this opportunity of deeply connecting with your feelings to open up to a new way of being with yourself. This is not about becoming tougher and less empathic. It’s not about pretending it’s all good when it clearly isn’t. It is definitely not about beating yourself up for the choices you’ve made.
Instead, it is about gathering your greatest gifts, such as your innate sensitivity, goodness, compassion and love and daring the unthinkable. . . turning them towards the one who needs it the most — you.
Early Stage of Recovery
Consciously working on shifting your perception filters requires energy. This poses a challenge because by the time we’ve come undone enough to see our innermost architecture, most of us are severely depleted. In addition, a sense of hopelessness can make the whole thing seem pointless. Especially because there seems to be no guarantee of ever emerging from this dark passage.
This discouraging, hopeless voice is the trauma mind speaking. It is narrow, dark, pessimistic and fearful. It takes on the flavor of the original experience and saturates your perception with its gray hues. Trauma mind operates on fear. It is the result of your system becoming overwhelmed with too much stimulation of danger to function properly. Your system shuts down and only operates on a basic level. Your functionality is greatly reduced.
This is why it is best to put off making big life decisions until a little later. From my experience, the exceptions to this rule are leaving the abuser and changing your environment. At this stage, relief will come slowly and in bursts. Keep reminding yourself that your perception has been severely narrowed by the trauma. You are surviving. Everything becomes relevant. Everyone is a suspect. This experience is normal and to be expected.
Upon awakening to the truth of having been abused and forced to tolerate mistreatment, there will be a massive emotional release, sometimes setting off a chain reaction that can trigger primal panic. This is not to be feared. Those emotions need to leave the body; they need to be felt. Healing is feeling.
This emotional purging may last a few months or even a couple of years. It will depend on your coping skills, inner stability, discernment and access to guidance and support. Thankfully, the internet is teeming with resources. It is helpful to read a wide variety of books and articles on the topic, watch videos and enlist psychologist’s and/or coach’s help. Use your discernment when choosing whom to follow.
Because in the early stages of recovery results tend to come slowly, it is best to shift your focus from expecting big changes and turn your attention to what’s essential to your survival. What will give you the most mileage is creating safety, engaging in self-care and practicing mindfulness.
Safety means creating a space for yourself that minimizes your triggers. Go low- or no-contact with the abuser, and set boundaries with family members and friends whose behavior makes you feel unsafe. Take a break from social media and refrain from eating foods, listening to music or visiting places that elicit flashbacks.
While in your safe space, focus on getting rest, hydrating your body, upgrading your nutrition and engaging gentle movement. Each of those will help you metabolize the heavy emotions and bring you closer to clarity. I go deeply into this process in the Physical Recovery module of my breaking the trauma bond program, Unchained.
The early stage of self-healing is largely about awareness, the act of switching on lights in the basement of your psyche. You begin to see how you were made. Once you see it, you begin to transform. Let the realizations arrive holistically and organically. Don’t rush this process. In fact, paradoxically the slower you move, the faster you will progress. Your primary task in the early stage is to create an environment that’s conducive to healing and try not to put too much pressure on yourself.
The goal of this stage is to allow yourself to cool off and for your nervous system to calm down. When the mind is teetering on the edge of falling into the trauma vortex, you will need softness and stability. It is something that you can create on the outside for the most part. In time, it will seep inside you and soothe you.
A common effect of awakening to history of abuse is deep mistrust in others and self and the need to retreat and isolate yourself. For many, this is a necessary part of the early stages of recovery for full individuation to take root. Your inner self is very vulnerable now and your body-mind is trying to protect you.
Also, this is a great opportunity to set some essential things right. When young and fully dependent on others, we were taught to put our trust in others. While it’s a natural order of things, a time comes when parents must teach their children to learn from direct experience and follow their own intuitive hints. Learning from mistakes is a valuable component of growing up. Being overly protected and always told what to do can hinder this.
As a result of this, many people never learned to trust themselves. As adults, they still struggle with decision making, feeling worthy, etc. This time around, we can reverse this. We first learn to trust ourselves and then open our hearts to others.
The middle stage is largely focused on cultivating authenticity. So many of us got into abusive relationships because we were cut off from our truth. For some, it happened while in the relationship. For others, we never got the chance to know who we really were.
Having devoted yourself wholly to the partnership, it’s natural to feel hollow when everything crashes and burns. It’s as if you left your identity in the relationship, which is dead now. You feel like a zombie — a hollowed out versions of yourself, empty, exhausted and hopeless.
It may sound counter-intuitive what I will say now but. . . this is actually not a bad thing. Why? Because your earlier identity was built on shaky foundations. If you were solid and strong to begin with, you wouldn’t have sacrificed yourself to the point where you no longer cared about yourself and kept putting the other before you.
So many people do this. So many people come completely undone because they want to make a relationship work. We don’t realize how unhealthy this is. The idea of being completely enmeshed with another is a beautiful idea in movies and fairytales. It gets readers to be emotionally invested in wanting the couple to come back together after overcoming a series of struggles and obstacles.
But it doesn’t work that way in real life. In real life, to make a relationship work and last, we need to be able to first stand on our two feet and be emotionally independent. We need to stop being afraid of being alone, have high standards and not be afraid to walk away when our partner is crossing the line. We need boundaries. To have them, we need to know who we are and what we need. We also need to believe that we are worthy of that kind of love. The fastest way to get there is to feel that within yourself first.
After about four to eight months on the journey, your body will start to relax and open. You will start to feel a spring in your stride. But you are not out of the woods yet.
At this stage, you are still vulnerable to hoovering and reengaging with your abusers, which could set you back. The mind will start to surface positive memories and minimize what had happened. It will have a tendency to want to pull you back towards the familiar. A feeling of longing may enter the picture, clouding your discernment. You may wonder whether you did the right thing. You may feel lonely and scared, questioning your earlier choices.
Having been groundless for some time, you are at a danger for falling back into old patterns. Lingering worthlessness, loneliness and fear of not finding another partner may make you want to enter the lion’s den again or start a new relationship prematurely out of desperation. Don’t do this.
However, if you do crave connection, it is perfectly fine to go out and meet new people. In fact, it is a healthy thing because you get to practice authenticity and boundaries in real time.
While out in the world, don’t try to look, be, or act perfectly. Banish that tendency, as it only brought you unhappiness and people who took advantage of you trying too hard in the past. Instead, go out with bad hair and no makeup. Wear your baggy pants. Let the world see you for who you are. And the moment your intuition tells you it is time to go home, leave. There is no need to apologize for your absence. You are free to do as you please.
I know, for many of you this will feel odd and unfamiliar. It’s a new behavior, very different from constantly tending to and pleasing others, meeting their expectations. It may feel a bit uncomfortable and that’s okay. This is how you know that you are changing your patterns, while still remaining safe. You are using your logic and discernment to mature yourself emotionally.
It is crucial that you keep your boundaries up and refrain from or minimize engagement with people and things that could potentially plunge you back into disorientation. With your energy returning and clarity descending, you are closer to liberation than ever. The trauma mind is beginning to wane.
From my own experience, trauma mind and healthy mind operate quite differently. Bridging from one to the other is a fascinating and lengthy process. The path is often circular with much turbulence in particularly sensitive areas. Since I’ve been through it and made a lot of detours, I want to save you as much time as possible by cautioning you against a few things.
One thing you may want to avoid is over engaging with the trauma mind. It will want to speak incessantly. Don’t dive too deep believing that this way you will get to the meaning of it all. That will come automatically and organically. It is more effective to focus on cultivating self-care and entraining your nervous system into calm and pleasure, slowly weaning off living in doubt and pain.
When thinking, stay closer to surface and focus on practicalities. Trauma mind is solitary and suspicious. It operates under the heavy weight of the past (depression) and fears the future (anxiety). If you go too deep, expect the vortices of the trauma mind to pull you into the type of thinking that will generate suffering. Instead, practice being in the now, which is free of static.
Healthy mind is connected and trusting. It operates in the present and is not too concerned with the past or the future. Healthy mind is allowing not controlling. It is empty, not full of static and dissonance. When you feel relief, as in taking a long exhale, you know you are heading in the right direction.
Having done a lot of work in the early and middle stages, eventually brings you to a place, where you naturally lose interest in the constant processing of the trauma, as your story has been already told 1001 times. You’ve looked at it all. You know it intimately. You’ve integrated it. Now, it is time for new discoveries and for you to fully live. Don’t worry too much about your identity. It will form spontaneously and will be more authentic than when you try to hold onto something that no longer applies to your new life.
For the most part, while it requires awareness and skill, this transition happens naturally. However, if you find yourself feeling stuck in the early stages for many years, you may want to seek help and turn to other resources to mindfully bridge to the healthier territory. Sometimes, our preoccupation with the abuse, while necessary in the early stages in order to digest and release it, can keep us stuck in a trauma paradigm for longer than necessary.
The end goal is to be so completely re-connected with yourself that it automatically connects you with the benevolent Spirit of the Universe. This happens when you attain peace and harmony within after realizing that through all the trials and struggles, grace brought you to this amazing place where you are completely anchored in your truth and nothing can shake you off your path. You see the big picture at last and your heart opens. You can trust the Universe again, much deeper this time. You come home and are no longer afraid. You’ve faced your darkest fears and transcended them all.
If you persevere on the recovery path and stay tuned to your body while observing your thoughts from a bit of a distance, you will naturally find freedom and wholeness. It is inevitable, the way spring follows winter. And instead of living as the prisoner of your mind, you’ll become its master.
Also, at this stage many of your relationships from the past face the opportunity for being redefined. With your boundaries set and heart open, you can once more enjoy relating with people who once were in the “gray zone.” You just do it with a bit of caution and a lot of discernment. You leave when you feel you’ve had enough. But you no longer need to persist in your aloneness or hide behind a wall of fear. You can step into the gray area and play. Having said that, there will be the people you won’t want to re-engage with and for a good reason. You’ll know who they are. You’ll also know what information to stay away from. This too will happen automatically.
To transcend your trauma mind takes a keen understanding of your internal landscape and patterns. It takes learning to feel your pain, accepting and respecting your limits (early and middle stage) and finally detaching from it all together, so that you can free yourself from the mind’s grasp and be fully present and open to love (final stage).
The last step happens through neutral observation of your mind’s desire to keep you bound to your story. Once your wounds have healed, there is no more need to hold on to the pain they generate. Your understanding will have transcended it. Once the static clears, all that’s left is pure joy.
This detachment is not so much about stopping the flow of thoughts or shedding your identity. Instead, it is more about knowing that you are so much greater than the things that happened to you or the perceptive filters through which you experience reality. If you can watch them and shift them, you are not them. You are something much, much deeper and steadier than that.
You are the unbound awareness, the space that contains it all. Once you can rest in that space with an open heart, you have attained true freedom and the trauma mind no longer has any power over you. At that point, you are ready to love and be loved more fully, deeply and authentically than ever. The dark night is over and a new day is dawning.
By Sarah Ellen Jacobsen
When you came, you brought change.
I watched the molecules rearrange.
Brilliant sun transformed to rain.
Blue sky- a shifting stained glass pane.
It’s possible you were a hallucination.
Even then, in the torrents of our beginnings
With those secret burning sulphur eyes —
A universe of new design…
And you did make the cold world vanish.
The twilight beach, you said we planned this…
A thousand times I saw you there,
Ten thousand stars, your diamond hair…
An aura in the scattered air.
Mystic, such a rare affair.
What came first?
Was this memory or grand delusion?
Our story transcending time.
And I clutched it to my splayed chest.
More like an omen, looking back…
Prodromals of a heart attack.
Pounding like the drums of war.
My vision shrunk down more and more.
Smaller, smaller, spilling sea.
And all I saw was you and me,
An obscured lover, a wolf uncovered.
Chaos pulse, this stolen heart.
Denial tore my mind apart.
A constant seething forced this seeing.
Vacancy, a new believing.
Domination. My fixation.
Euphoria slipped into annihilation.
You became an alternate reality,
While I became a pendulous insanity.
Too heavy love.
Too excruciating to be love…
Loneliness rising in this only-ness.
What is this?
The mark I’ve missed.
Dusted in the ash of desire.
Tears like rivers.
Mind like fire.
But still, I’m climbing-higher.
The gig is up.
The only exit is up.
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If you find yourself stuck in trauma bond to a person who had betrayed you, check out my UNCHAINED online course.
If you are suffering from the shock of being subjected to narcissistic abuse, have a look into my FREE three-step SOS program available on my website.
I will be teaching two workshops in the US this June: one in New York City and one in San Francisco. I hope you can join us. To learn more, click on the video below.