I started to think today that what goes on in terms of the feelings inside—the trauma ones—is actually a cycle. It seems to be. At times, I am in only one bit of it. Or I flip through different parts of the cycle so quickly it doesn’t seem to be a cycle, but something more like a pinball banging around up there. But I think it may actually be about a sequence of events.
Fear – shame — deep, self-directed anger
There are other emotions that are related to trauma (despair, for example, loneliness).
But this one seems to be about a particular pattern of events, and it seems to be prompted by reaching out or by actual rejection following reaching out. It makes me suddenly think those emotions are about conscience. I was born with the capacity for the emotions which give rise to conscience: shame, regret, the desire for forgiveness and reconciliation.
I wasn’t born with a conscience though. We develop a conscience through interactions which teach us directly or indirectly what is acceptable behaviour within human relationships, and that is most often communicated to us via punishment and anger—whether that is a naughty chair or a disapproving look or a sigh of frustration or a wallop across the face. They tell us: mommy (or daddy) isn’t happy with what you did. And the motivation to conform to that set of behaviours comes from the rewards of a relationship.
Human beings search for patterns. Our brains do this automatically and instinctively. The formation of conscience is about finding patterns in what behaviours people get angry about. Anger is their emotional indication that a boundary has been crossed.
But what if the pattern is too complicated for a small child to find? What if there seems to be no pattern, or the pattern is untenable—things like it’s wrong to cry when you are hungry and haven’t been fed? A very well-known book about Borderline Personality Disorder is called Walking on Eggshells: it’s because there seems to be no pattern. Looking inside my mind, I can find the pattern. I know more and more often what is triggering me, but I wouldn’t have been able to find a pattern when I was 2.
The thing about childhood abuse is that it isn’t just about physical danger. It’s about the formation of conscience and learning to form relationships. But what if there is reliable way to form and maintain relationships?
There is all of this deep shame involved in memories of being abused. Mommy was mad at me. I did something wrong. What was it? What did I do wrong? What if there is no answer to that because my parents’ responses to their own trauma memories were beyond me to understand.
It goes back to this idea that I don’t need to change the past or my memories of it that surface now: I felt ashamed a lot. It isn’t that I was wrong to feel ashamed. I felt ashamed, because I was a healthy child developing a conscience, but I couldn’t understand what my parents were trying to teach me. They weren’t trying to teach me anything: they were just reacting to things they didn’t understand. It goes back to this idea that the past doesn’t need to be changed. It needs to be placed in context.
I was reading an article yesterday—it relates somewhat tangentially. It was about mice and sleep and the role of sleep in helping us remember. Mice were placed in a room and shocked one day and the next day released into a different room. The mice who were able to perform normal sleep functions, which presumably help us remember, did not respond fearfully to a new room, but mice whose normal brain functions during sleep were interrupted were afraid. The mice who could not remember the old room clearly did not know that the new room was safe.