Many, if not most of us, have been through some traumatic event in our lives. When you think back to your childhood you may see flashes of violence, abuse, neglect, or addiction. This might have been your “normal.” This might still be your “normal.” When we live through trauma something happens to us, without our knowledge. Lies are quietly spoken to our psyches. So what are these lies and who whispers them to those of us who have suffered trauma?
First, let’s define trauma. Merriam-Webster defines trauma as:
a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.
But why does “a very difficult or unpleasant experience cause someone to have mental or emotional problems”? Sounds like a silly question, right? One could answer; because it was scary, anxiety provoking, hurtful, debilitating, horrific, physically painful, and the list goes on. But this still does not answer the why of my question. Let’s break it down even further. What is the connection between experiencing trauma and internalizing it, resulting in, what Merriam-Webster calls, “mental or emotional problems”?
When a person experiences a traumatic event such as rape, abuse, neglect, or domestic violence, there is a strong chance, especially if these things are experienced as a child, that negative messages will worm their way into our subconscious. What are these messages and who is sending them? Sometimes it is people around us, sometimes, believe or not, we ourselves are generating these thoughts. If you have ever experienced trauma, I invite you to answer this question. Have you caught yourself thinking things like; “I’m not lovable”, “I’m stupid”, “it was my fault this happened to me”, “I must deserve this”, “I don’t matter”, “there must be something wrong with me”? If you have, I assure you, you are not alone. And there is good news, these negative thoughts you were programmed to believe are LIES.
“How could we possibly be responsible for telling ourselves these horrible lies?” you might ask. Or, you might be thinking, “But these things are true, my relationships prove it.” I would challenge you by exploring the definition of confirmation bias. In my own words, confirmation bias is defined as, subconsciously seeking out situations, people/relationships and interactions that confirm what we believe to be true. For example, if we believe we are worthless, we might subconsciously surround ourselves with people who, due to their own issues, are not trustworthy. Therefore, if this person breaks our trust, it is confirmed in our mind that the lie is indeed true-we indeed are worthless. Can you imagine the toll this takes on us after years of practice?
It may be very difficult to uncover these hidden messages you have been telling yourself. Sometimes they become so ingrained in us, even neurobiologically (which is beyond the scope of this article), that we actually believe we were born this way. Or worse yet, we are not aware there is a problem and don’t question these messages at all. When the latter happens, it is our behaviors and/or emotions that send signals of distress. This might be manifested in the inability to have healthy relationships, or we might always seem to find ourselves in unsafe situations, or maybe we are highly anxious or sad, the list goes on and on. The lies whispered to us during past traumatic events could very well be the culprit.
The good news is, there is hope for healing. Through a strong therapeutic alliance these lies can be dispelled and the cycle of negative self-talk can be broken. Many therapeutic techniques and coping mechanisms exist, that are effective in dealing with the wake trauma leaves behind. If you suspect you are struggling with negative self-talk, I would suggest seeking out a therapist who subscribes to some form of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as well one who utilizes a mindfulness based approach. It has been my experience, that combining the two, is an exceptionally effective way to break the cycle of negative thinking.
Utilizing CBT techniques such as Socratic questioning, constructing realistic self-affirmations, counterstatements and/or reframing, are efficacious in disputing the lies we’ve believed about ourselves. Mindfulness is a wonderful way to train the mind to be psychologically flexible and roll with the punches of life. Among many other benefits, practicing mindfulness also creates the space needed to slow down the automatic cycle of self-defeating thoughts, thus exposing these cognitive distortions. Learning mindfulness and CBT techniques will empower you to untangle your intermeshed thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and create new, healthy habits. It takes time and practice but it is well worth the effort!