From Psychology Today:
Self-sabotage. In terms of survival, it’s one of the biggest issues we face as individuals. Self-sabotage is so insidious, we are often unaware we’re even doing it until it’s too late. That’s part of the unspoken consequences of any trauma, particularly abuse. Something like addiction is not always about self-sabotage, but it can still be related to trauma and abuse. And while there’s a genetic component to addiction, that’s not the case with self-sabotaging behaviors, like avoiding health check-ups or not paying the bills. Regardless of the impetus for self-destructive tendencies, the resulting behavior is for the same reason: control.
There’s nothing worse than feeling like your life is out of your hands. But the best way to reclaim agency after any trauma is to give yourself the acknowledgement and validation you need by expressing your experience. That’s where talk therapy comes into play. Yet, there is still a sense of social stigma attached to “seeing a therapist” (something I suspect was started by the abusers of this world).
Trauma happens when an unexpected occurrence interferes with the trajectory of an individual’s life—an unwelcome, unwanted, and unsolicited interruption, if you will. Circumstances beyond the individual’s control result in negative consequences that irreparably change or hurt the life of the person being victimized. What makes an event traumatic, however, is that the negative consequences are pushed back onto the victim. Essentially, social betrayal is at the root of trauma.
When the people around us fail to acknowledge (or respond appropriately) to any difficulty we may experience, we naturally feel betrayed. Not only was something terrible allowed to occur, but the person(s) responsible for creating the difficulty are never fully held accountable. Even when human justice intervenes, it rarely balances out the initial injustice. And when the people we love and respect fail to properly recognize a trauma, it manifests for the survivor as silent agreement with the offense.
How does one even begin to address family who could have intervened, but didn’t? The simple answer is, you can't. Because, when you do finally choose to speak out as a survivor, those same “loving” relatives may look at you with suspicion rather than acceptance. Why? Frankly, it’s easier. Acknowledging a pattern of abuse would require admitting to either being too apathetic to notice or care, or in some cases, too concerned about keeping the peace to “rock the boat.” This only further isolates a survivor of abuse.
Trauma doesn't always derive from abuse—perhaps it was a single event that was ignored, like a major car accident or a cancer diagnosis. Or losing a job. Perhaps it was getting separated or divorced. Any event that creates a scenario where an individual is suddenly responsible for consequences derived from the words, actions, and/or behavior of others is always going to register as traumatic. Families that include patterns of abuse are unlikely sources for healthy responses. That's why maintaining social connections outside of family, as well as seeking talk therapy, are the best ways to build-in guaranteed support, regardless of what family does or doesn't recognize.
Providing emotional support to people experiencing trauma is proven to bolster resilience (Charney, 2004). Kindness and compassion cost nothing; both are free and easy to give and can make all the difference to a person in need. If your leg is injured in a car accident, people are able to more easily recognize a need and send cards, flowers, make a call, or check in with a text—some small gesture to acknowledge the trauma. Acknowledgement of trauma helps an individual to feel supported and loved, allowing for healing in more ways than one. While trauma to our physical bodies is harder to ignore, psychological trauma is largely invisible—which means the support you need can be, too.
Trauma from abuse is a broad spectrum that is as varied as the seven-billion or so humans on the planet. People who may be unfamiliar with abuse often associate it with physical violations, like violence. While violence is absolutely part of abusive behavior, there are emotional and psychological components as well. For example, forcing a child to walk on a broken limb, delaying medical care by denying the limb is broken, shaming the child for expressing acute physical pain through name-calling, bullying a child in pain by threatening physical violence and acting on the threat, dismissing the child's pleas for help by devaluing the child's injury, calling the child "dramatic" instead of responding to the injury appropriately—all are abusive behaviors. Eventually, the child will receive treatment for the broken limb, but the broken limb is no longer the real trauma.
Now, imagine similar repeat offenses to that same child over time. Unlike the broken limb, no one can see the damage being done. Well-meaning people make it worse by quoting things like Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line about no one being able to make you feel badly unless you allow it. That’s simply not true. People can and do make an individual feel worthless. It’s not always in childhood, either. It can be a spouse or a boss or anyone a person is vulnerable to or dependent on in some way.
If every psychological trauma was recognized as equivalent to a person being hit in the head by a baseball, we could better visualize the severity of pain that repeat injury (or trauma) may result in. And given that level of pain, it's easy to understand how a traumatized individual may turn to self-medication through things like alcohol and drugs. Attempting to neutralize what is constant pain is reasonable behavior within such a context. Having a genetic predisposition to addiction only makes the impulse to dull the pain even more compelling (Makhija & Sher, 2007).
Compassion over judgment is desperately needed in our society if we hope to get a handle on the global mental health crisis apparent in 21st-century advents like mass shootings. Trauma and abuse are becoming more widespread than ever before. That’s why it’s more important than ever before to learn how to survive anything, yet still have the courage to live a life of joy rather than to indulge in the comfort and familiarity of pain.
Talk therapy can help you regain control after trauma and abuse, redirecting current neural pathways to healthier outlets. If you were openly bleeding, it would be clear to anyone that you needed help. But when our spirit is “bleeding,” well-meaning folks are less inclined to “interfere.” People suffering psychological injury from trauma and abuse often learn to be “high-functioning” as a result. You may not be fully in control, but you are self-aware enough to “hide” what’s really going on in your head. The problem is that hiding your trauma or injury is part of self-sabotage. You keep the abuse a secret to live a “normal” life, but if you are self-sabotaging, you are not living the life you think you are. Instead, you're living a lie. That hurts on every level. And, it’s meant to. Lying to gain social acceptance means keeping a secret, thereby denying yourself acknowledgement, validation, and, ultimately, closure. Keeping the secret is a continuation of the abuse, even if the abuser is no longer in your life. It’s the same with any trauma. We are destined to relive it, to replay familial patterns, until one day, you wake up and realize your life is not where you want it to be. Don’t wait for that moment. Get help now, and get your life back.There are consequences to surviving "anything.” But the whole point of survival is to not just survive your life, but to thrive while living it. If you or someone you know is dealing with self-sabotage, it’s time to own your story. If you’ve been abused or lived through any kind of trauma, you deserve a win. But when you let self-sabotage take over, your abusers win instead. It’s not your fault when other people hurt you. But it is still your responsibility to live longer and stronger, despite the pain.
You can’t live your best life if you’re not your best self. Talk therapy is just one coping strategy to help deal with the stress that comes with the survival of any trauma, including abuse. Moving your body more often, maintaining social connections, getting out in nature, and eating well will help support your progress, while also allowing you to live longer, stronger, healthier, and wealthier.
Now, doesn't that sound better than always wondering why you feel so stuck and sad?
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Think of the toxicity from trauma and abuse as a springboard that can (and will!) catapult you forward instead of holding you back. You can survive and thrive, despite any obstacle—even the ones you create for yourself. It may not always feel like it, but you are built for victory. And you will beat the odds. You have authority over your own life, no matter what (or who) tries to interrupt it.
How can I be so sure?
I was that child with the broken limb. Yet, I am not broken. Neither are you.