9/11, the FDNY and My “Inside Shift”

A couple weeks ago, Emma Bell, host of the Inside Shift podcast, reached out to talk with me on air… not about the ways I work to shift patients’ and readers’ perspectives, but about a time of “inside shift” in my own life. Of course I chose 9/11. How could I not? In the aftermath, I started work with the FDNY counseling unit, which has profoundly shaped the way I work with trauma, especially with men who aren’t quick to admit their own suffering. I hope this meaningful discussion helps shed light on your own experience of trauma: https://theinsideshift.podbean.com/e/dr-suzanne-lachmann-podcast-9/

 

When Trauma Affects Your Trust in Your Relationship

Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. It can be a huge event or a more subtle pain that you try hard to overlook, though it still haunts you. Collective traumas are suffered by many. They include war, terrorism, an accident, or a catastrophic weather episode that results in death or other forms of mass loss and upheaval. Individual traumas are those that happen uniquely and specifically to you, such as threats, assaults, abuse, family strife, and physical or mental boundary violations. Individual traumas are often experienced silently and can feel like your own personal prison.

When you’re traumatized, there’s a driving internal force to feel safe and cared for, especially by your partner. Whether you’re conscious of it or not, this can become your central focus as you try to heal. You delve into if/then scenarios in an effort to soothe yourself and look for a way out of that uncomfortable place you are in.  If your partner can just reassure you, support you and help you deal with your pain, then you will feel protected, validated and able to heal. However, it’s essential to be aware that what you’re hoping to receive from the relationship may be unrealistic or disproportionate to what your partner can give.

Trauma is so overwhelming and creates such internal chaos that it distorts your ability to gauge what your partner can realistically offer. This may be in part because they have been traumatized too, whether or not either of you realize it. Not only does your trauma affect how you perceive the comfort you receive, but your partner’s trauma affects their ability to provide what you’re looking for as you seek out safety and security.

When you’ve endured collective or individual trauma, your trust in how things are supposed to be is drastically altered. In turn, your sense of safety and connection to yourself and others is negatively impacted.  You are bracing for the next impact, whether or not one will follow. Understandably, there’s a need within you to secure your foundation, and establish or reestablish a sense of stability in the world. Whether you’re in a new relationship or one that’s established, you may be looking to your partner to do the impossible: fill the void created by trauma.

Be aware that being traumatized is akin to being betrayed, and that you might carry feelings of vulnerability, exposure and pain. The last thing you want is for your relationship to create further feelings of betrayal and disappointment because you don’t feel understood or validated. Therefore, it’s crucial to remember that your partner comes from a different background, life experience, and has different communication patterns from you. They exist in a different body and have a different brain. The onus is on you to communicate with your partner and to describe as best you can what you’re feeling and why. Try to resist slipping into a thought process of expecting them to “just know” what you are feeling and experiencing.  While your pain may be all-consuming, and those thoughts in your head may be very loud, understand that these feelings belong to you. You might have to power through your own trauma just long enough to help your partner help you to feel better.

For example, patients often describe the things they wished their partner had said or done in certain situations. The disappointment and experience of being let down by them can be a huge disappointment in its own right; it is as if they feel the relationship history and connection should leave little room for error or misunderstanding. Feeling betrayed, misunderstood, and diminished all culminate in what you view as your partner’s insensitivity because your partner did not or could not handle your needs in a way that would better meet your longings. When patients talk about their disappointment, it’s often clear that the extent to which they feel disappointed is not about the partner’s failure to soothe, but about the trauma that preceded it. You don’t want them to feel your outward anger about what they did wrong – this just perpetuates a cycle of distrust.  Your partner is working hard in their own way to forge and maintain the connection.  It’s so profoundly important to recognize that your hope for what your partner can give likely far exceeds what they’re capable of giving. This is no one’s fault.

In approaching your partner to talk about your painful experiences, rather than continue to build a case for disappointment, frustration, and distrust, start a conversation by showing gratitude for what they have done, and acknowledging that it must be so hard for them at times to figure out what you need. Communicate your needs very clearly to them.

Knowledge is power and self-knowledge is the ultimate power.  Creating healthy dialogue around expectations will help you discern whether or not there is enough of an investment by both partners to work on and progress in the relationship. Keep in mind that it is more important to acknowledge your partner’s efforts.  Even when they don’t succeed, knowing they are trying to help you through your pain is the most validating contribution they can make to your recovery.

You Are Not Alone in Being Retraumatized by Trump

Recently, in session, a patient was sharing her fears about the direction the world seems to be heading. What are we going to do? We are stuck in this situation. No one is going to do anything to help us! She was fatalistic, felt alone and isolated. And while on the surface she was reflecting on her terror about the current political climate, on a deeper level she was also re-experiencing trauma from her early life.

When you find that in the last few months you’re shakier, more irritable, more anxious, you feel less safe and you can’t figure out why, it may be that old traumatic experiences and memories are bubbling back up to the surface, triggered by how things have unfolded in the U.S. and in the world. The unapologetically authoritarian manner in which the man who occupies the Oval Office conducts himself is painfully similar to abusers, predators, sexual harassers, and seething misanthropes that so many people, females especially, have been forced to endure, or have likely been exposed to in one way or another in their lives. It is especially jarring because for many, the “President of the United States” is a symbol of bravery, intelligence, care and compassion. Instead, this President triggers memories of hurt, shame, fear, divisiveness, and distrust.

Politics aside, in this election the male won in large part by beating the woman down. She was brutalized yet always maintained her exterior decorum while he was and continues to be brazenly abusive. For many it is surreal and creates associations to being captive to their abuser(s) with nowhere to turn all over again.

When you’ve experienced trauma – physical, sexual, emotional or any other kind — or when you’ve had your self-experience negatively impacted by someone who overpowered, bullied or shamed you, it’s very hard to live through and live down. It takes a lot of effort and dedication to take your life and self esteem back from someone who subjected you to their sadism. It is like putting back together the pieces of your shattered sense of self, or trying to develop a sense of self in the first place. And now here you are, going along in your life, keeping the emotional and physiological experiences that come with trauma at bay… until that scary man began to infiltrate every pore in your body and neural pathways in your brain.

His style, his irrational inconsistency and inability to experience compassion or empathy are painfully familiar. He  reminds you of the painful past you have worked hard to escape.  When you’re retriggered, it’s like enduring the abuse all over again. In a traumatized state, you feel isolated – only you know how imprisoned, scared, alone, and shaken you feel.

Here is the good news: This time, you’re not alone. Rather, what  feels so eerily familiar is now not an individual trauma, but a collective one.

With that in mind, one of the most important ways to address the symptoms of trauma reemerging is to first and foremost recognize that many, many people are suffering in the same way you are. The best thing you can do is reach out to others and share that you feel triggered. What you will receive in return – unlike the isolation of your original trauma – is validation and comfort in finding that so many other people feel as you do.

At the same time, understand that your trauma is debilitating and immobilizing. You feel like you should be doing something but you feel helpless, in large part because you haven’t yet succeeded in removing yourself from the situation. There’s so much going on and so many ways people are attempting to regroup and fight back and find civility in their lives again, but you may be so traumatized that you can’t engage.

Though in the past you’ve turned to social media for connection, now it’s nothing but bad, scary news that most certainly triggers even people who haven’t been traumatized, putting you in a position of being re-traumatized over and over again. Finding out from one minute to the next how chaotic and inflammatory the world is does you no service whatsoever.

Your best bet is to try the same strategy you would use to get over a relationship: Stay away from provocative social media. Instead, work to extend yourself in a real, personal, physical way. When an opportunity presents to attend a vigil or go to a meeting or write a congressperson, try to take that step. Be helpful to others and have them be helpful to you.

First and foremost, find connection with other people. When you’re ready, do what you can to contribute in small steps. But try to stay away from the kinds of things that further intensify or over-stimulate your brain in way that can send you reeling back into the fear, pain, despair and helplessness you experienced in the first place.

Other people feel as you do and humans are safe-havens. Physical connection, emotional connection, and sharing your struggle with others will help you find strength and unity. It will help you calm down and remember that the only way anyone can get through any traumatic experience is to be a safe haven for each other. Take it one step at a time.

The Gut-Wrenching Aftermath of Breakup


When an epic relationship ends, one of the most tormenting aspects of the loss is that you can think you’re ok, that you’ve weathered the storm. Then, seemingly out of the blue, you plunge right back into confusion, disgust, and fear, all over again. Chances are, the more tumultuous the relationship was while you were in it, the more tumultuous your response in the aftermath of breakup will be.

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Why Trauma Resurfaces Just as You’re Feeling Better

After a period of devastation, loss, despair–a traumatic experience–as time passes, you may begin to feel better, safer in your own skin. You may even sense that you have grown stronger as the distance between where you are now and the painful experiences you have lived through continues to widen. During times when you feel okay, you may actually be able to allow yourself to relax into certain situations. You might even start to feel that your self-confidence is growing.

Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, your brain carries you back to a time in your history that evokes great shame and feels painfully unresolved. The images that flash through your mind cause a visceral reaction. Inside, you now feel destabilized, which pollutes the positive experience you were just having.

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Resilience Will Help Free You From Your Past

When you reflect on your history and how it has impacted you, you may appreciate the building blocks that contribute to your resilience. You may see the opportunities to engage in the fortunate and challenging experiences that helped to shape you in a way that helps you to feel solid in who you are, now. Then again, you may look back with such dismay and despair that your past feels like a boulder you’re forced to drag up a never-ending hill. You long to free yourself from your past because it doesn’t represent who you are now or who you want to be in the future.

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Everyone Has a ‘Look Closer’

In the movie “American Beauty” we are compelled to look closer. As the movie progresses, we learn that what appears on the outside to be a normal, happy, well functioning family is crumbling on the inside. What is so remarkable about this movie is how exquisitely it communicates the complexities that lie beneath the surface of one’s inner world. Shame, pain, confusion, hope, fear are just some of the hidden, visceral feelings we experience and react to. The movie reflects an extreme contrast between outside and inside.

In real life, the distinction between yours and others’ inner and outer worlds can be far more subtle and less extreme. However, reminding yourself that everyone has their own “look closer”, just like you do, can help you feel less alone with what you perceive as your painfully flawed self.

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10 Sources of Low Self-Esteem

Last week I wrote about the ways that low self-esteem manifests in women’s relationships. This week I will do a very brief overview of the infinite places from which low self-esteem can originate  – how your history and primary caregiver relationships shaped your opinion of yourself, how other important external variables contribute. Here is a brief inventory of sources of low self-esteem and how these feelings manifest:

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10 Ways Low Self-Esteem Affects Women in Relationships

Nothing interferes with the ability to have an authentic, reciprocal relationship like low self-esteem. If you can’t believe you’re good enough, how can you believe a loving partner could choose you? Low self-esteem can make you test or sabotage relationships that have potential, or settle for relationships in which you’re treated in a way that matches your beliefs about yourself. That said, low self-esteem doesn’t always look the same way in relationships. The following are 10 of the many ways that low self-esteem can manifest in your romantic relationship.

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Does Fear of the Unknown Keep You Trapped in Your Relationship?

If you’ve been miserable in your relationship for far too long, the logical thing to do is leave. But if there’s been trauma, betrayal, chaos in your life, you fear the unknown. Of course you do. Therefore, how can you leave an unhappy relationship when your distrust in the world compels you to stay put, regardless of of how unhappy you are in the relationship. And it seems like any alternative would be even worse.

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