Trauma recovery can be a painstaking process. But it’s well worth the effort. Truama leaves marks. It affects our brain networks and functioning. It impairs our ability to rest peacefully in the present moment. And sadly, it often negatively impacts our behavior. Trauma can significantly arrest our growth. So, to really live and thrive truama survivors must wrest free of the past. But just how to do that has long been a matter of considerable debate.
Last week I began discussing the methods of covert self-monitoring and reinforcement. These are powerful therapeutic tools of recovery. They’re based soundly in the principles of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). (See also the series: A Primer on Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy.) And this week I want to begin sharing some trauma recovery stories. They’re based on actual events. But the details have been deliberately altered to preserve anonymity. I hope the stories will give readers a better idea of how some powerful CBT tools can help change a life.
Lisa’s self-image was still pretty poor. For years she only heard how fat, weak, inept and stupid whe was. She didn’t feel that way before she met Jim. In fact, at first he made her feel quite special. But over time things changed. And she came to learn: he was always right; she was always wrong. Sure, she tried to assert herself. But somehow he could always make her feel like a fool. She didn’t know anything about gaslighting back then. (See: Introduction & pp. 133-135 In Sheep’s Clothing.) (See also: Manipulation and the Gaslighting Effect.) But she learned about it the hard way: after the fact, and after leaving.
Just being free of Jim and his antics didn’t bring back any confidence. When Lisa looked in the mirror, an inner voice told her she was indeed fat. And when she tried to make decisions, she would ruminate for hours, certain she would likely make the wrong call. Maybe Jim was right. Maybe she was simply a loser who was lucky to have had him in the first place.
A Change of Mind and Heart
Lisa didn’t like it when I first suggested she work on changing her thoughts. For one thing, she was still very mad at Jim and she wanted the focus on him. For another, she was tired of carrying burdens. And it seemed like I was asking her to carry even more.
As difficult as it almost always is, I made my case. To find our strength, we have to focus and invest energy only where we have power. And where we have the most power is over our thoughts and behavior (both mental and overt). The thoughts running through our head are either secure or insecure, I explained. They’re either positive or negative. And when a negative thought arises, we have the power to change it. Similarly, when an insecure thought enters our mind, we can adopt a secure one.
At first, Lisa didn’t know what to make of this empowerment strategy. She once snapped: You make is sound so easy!” But I assured her I knew it was not easy. Simple, and straightfoward for sure. But that doesn’t mean easy. We develop patterns. We get conditioned. No sooner we change a negative thought, we might find it coming back again. That’s why it’s imperative to self-reinforce every effort. No new learning takes place in the absence of reinforcement. Each of us has the power to do that, too. And most of the time we must reinforce over and over again.
Reclaiming the Power of the Present Moment
Lisa eventually did more than just get back on her feet. She truly soared, both personally and professionally. Not uncommonly, her trauma recovery was more like two steps forward and one backward. Old patterns are hard to break. And operating well autonomously and independently can mimick loneliness. Such things can dampen motivation. But Lisa kept her commitment to think and do differently. And in so doing her feelings, attitudes, beliefs, and entire mindset also changed. The day eventually came when she could rest peacefully and confidently in the present moment. She’d found her strength. And she knew the truth: she had power, and she was using it wisely.
Next time I’ll be sharing another trauma recovery story.