When Triggering Happens: Psychological Defenses

The difficulties many anomalous trauma survivors have is the ability to respond calmly, rationally, or appropriately when we are triggered in a post-traumatic-stress, hyper-vigilant state. It is like being a deer caught in the headlights, frozen with fear, feeling endangered and powerless in that moment. Or any number of other reactions that may be over sensitive, hostile, passive or even programmed responses of denial. How many times have we replayed some incident over and over in our heads of all the “could have, should have, said or done this or that”, but didn’t, because we were so triggered! Then the self-doubt, shame or blaming projections we make after the fact, and yet when these incidents happen again, we seem to fall into the same patterns over and over again!

Recognizing this when it’s occurring is the first step. This may require we take a “time out” before reacting in a certain situation. Finding time to calm down, center, process this with a mentor, until learning how to respond differently the next time it happens. Because it will.

Much of the time however, we may react unconsciously with certain psychological defenses that may not be as intense as the PTSD triggered reactions, but are maladaptive in our adult years. And these things tend to work together, where our deeply engrained modes of behaving and “defenses” actually can re-create patterns and situations where the extreme triggering keeps happening.

We need to find time and permission to be still, reflect and assess the reality of the situation. Then set time aside to safely process and share experiences with a safe person or group. We rarely can do this alone successfully, because our conditioning and traumas themselves can create blind spots. Sometimes this self-reflection doesn’t happen until a crisis forces us to look at it. But if we wait or put off our own recovery process, we are likely to bring on more pain, problems and suffering not only for ourselves but for others who are close to us.

The most challenging part is rebuilding the foundation of new beliefs and healthy behaviors. Things like like assertiveness and compassionate communication skills, and practicing this in a safe circle of people over time.

Many of us want to feel safe and “good”, but do this to the point of avoidance behaviors (or addictions) so that we neglect practicing new skills which we really need. I’ve often heard victims who are stuck in learned helplessness mode, whose defense mechanism is yet another form of blaming projection. They may make statements like, “You’re not validating me!” or the incessant, “Yes, but…” whenever reflection of their own situation and how to start changing it, is brought up. At some point it must be realized that in recovery and healing mode, there will be some discomfort. Part of the personal growth, healing to wholeness process requires that we feel what is present inside, what and how this gets triggered– like shame, humiliation, sadness, rage, etc. in a structured, process-oriented environment.

Below I have gathered some excerpts from useful articles by therapists on relevant topics encountered on the healing and recovery path.

For example, when we have the complication of recovery from trauma and addictions, it’s important to address the both issues.

Demanding Comfort:

“Demanding Comfort in your recovery is not realistic. This is a common trap – “change should be easy and comfortable, or there is something terribly wrong.” First of all, it is important for you to remember that the patterns you want to change are probably not that comfortable either. Life while using and drinking was often very painful. Second, the truth is that change requires thought and practice to become a new habit. Third, change cannot come through automatic pilot, it comes by living consciously, manually, intentionally accepting yourself and others as becoming. Fourth, the more you allow yourself to feel good about small steps towards your goals, the deeper your changes become. New Program allows you to enjoy healthy steps forward and feel good about learning from steps backward.”

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholdemanding.htm
Character Changes Caused by Addiction:

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholcharacter.htm

This is an insightful article on how addiction caused the “two-year-old injured child” to run the show in addictions. It stresses the importance of doing the inner child work which is part of sobriety, so that a healthy response to ill feelings of shame are not repressed, and instead worked through with adult coping skills.

Perceptual Filters:

Our perceptions are filtered through our beliefs and assumptions, our internal dialogue (thoughts) and images, our physiological and behavioral responses, and our emotions. All of these interact to form a filter through which we experience the world. In the process of growing up in an unsafe environment, we make many decisions about ourselves, and the world outside of us.”

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholfilters.htm
Assuming Feelings are Fact:

This article is an eye opener showing how our own perceptual filters can create distorted emotional reactions to “reality”. This is often amplified when in an active addiction causes amplified or repressed emotional responses.

“Imagine what impact your alcohol and drug use has had on your perceptual filters. Alcohol is a depressant which impacts depending on dose. At mild levels, alcohol filters your experience as more relaxed and confident. At a higher level, alcohol can trigger a variety of strong emotional reactions: anger, resentment, maudlin, “best friends” sloppy drunk reactions, etc. The feelings that come up while you are drinking and using drugs are not an accurate reflection of your feelings, but rather perceptual filters created by chemicals. The old saying: “What you say when you are drunk is what you really feel” is an absolute lie!”

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholfeelings.htm

Powerful Words:

“Notice the kinds of words you are using to describe yourself and others. Listen to the words used in describing the situation. Do you notice flashlight judgmental statements or grace-filled lantern statements that shine with respect and valuing at the entire scene, including you. Keep coming back to this filter as you grow, to deepen your appreciation of the power of words.
There is a profound (subtle) difference between saying “I should quit drinking and using drugs” and “I choose to make my life more manageable by embracing a sober lifestyle.” Over the years of coaching recovering clients, those who allowed themselves to see their identity as “becoming” in their sobriety were the ones who gained quality sobriety and recovery. Those who held to the belief that “I have to quit drinking” usually had to battle a lifetime of resentment and feeling deprived.”

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholwords.htm
Developing Self-Esteem:

“When we grow up with distorted mirrors we learn to survive at any cost. We learn rules to help survive. These rules may includes such things as “be nice at all times”, “don’t cause problems”, “don’t get close”, “don’t get mad”, “the invisible”, “don’t outshine dad”, “always put others first”, etc. These rules are usually not stated directly, but we know better than to break them. It is not take tragic war stories to create deep wounds in our self-esteem and character. It is in additional burden on we feel that we have no right to be wounded because we cannot point to dramatic scenes in our families.”

http://www.cairforyou.com/alchoholdrugs/alcoholdevelopselfesteem.htm

Emotional Repression and Memory Loss

Oftentimes with those who have amnesia or poor memories of their childhood, they don’t really understand the full spectrum of their history. They may feel like they really haven’t had “that bad of a childhood”. It’s not about whether it’s good or bad , it’s the reality of repression, habitual defenses and taking on beliefs (or deliberate programming) which has affected self-esteem and healthy coping, affecting interpersonal relationships and many other parameters in their lives.

The aspect of learning to be present, self-connection in the heart and developing an integrated, rational mind requires a safety first. Building self-esteem also involves re-learning skills that many of us never learned as children or even adults. We must start first in a place of non judgement, and corrective supportive interaction.

Sometimes this process of “recovery” requires individual therapy, especially during trauma resolution, emotional processing and deep inner child work. At some point, it is necessary to interact in a group so that one can learn interpersonal interaction, communication skills and appropriate self expression. When in a group we can do this while operating within a structured reflective environment that is safe, and yet can provide “reality checks” of constructive criticism and confrontation, if necessary.

Defense Mechanisms that Affect Relationships

http://www.byregion.net/articles-healers/Defense_Mechanisms.html

“Repression is a defense mechanism first described by Sigmund Freud, as a way that people keep unpleasant memories out of their conscious mind. Repression is a compensatory style that deals with threat and stress by blocking unpleasant emotional experiences that might bring up anxiety, distress and vulnerability. Being split off from feelings is called alexithymia. Repressors have a chronic inaccessible filter that keeps them from experiencing the world through their emotions. They feel attacked and then distance and isolate from others when they are stressed. They avoid talking about and rehashing unpleasant experiences as this adds to their stress. They become inaccessible to others when they feel the problem has been solved by their solution of dismissing it. They are conflict avoidant and cannot tolerate working things out to the satisfaction of their partner. They often deny that there is a problem and have a lack of insight about how their distancing bothers others.”

Narcissism and grandiosity:

“People with severe narcissistic traits long for ideal love that will take care of their fragile sense of self and give them unconditional love. The yearning for getting unconditional love is a unresolved need left over from childhood. Most adults realize unconditional love would be nice. It rarely happens as people we love usually hold us accountable for our actions in some way. People with narcissistic traits distort their self image (again in fantasy to believe that they are superior to others). They think too well of themselves as a defense to cover up their sense of shame deep within. Grandiosity is a distortion which prevents them from blaming themselves and becoming depressed or disintegrated.”

Fantasy thinking:

“Fantasy is an attempt to process information, emotions and unresolved pain to make up for what they did not have in childhood. They place unrealistic demands on others to make them feel better. J. S. Bernstein defined this defense as a person’s “Learning to feel no way but good and to demand success when he did not feel good.” They cannot tolerate negative emotional distress and turn it on others (project) by saying they are bad. They insist on having things their own way which is an unreal attitude that sets others off against them. When they don’t get what they want, they feel devalued. Since they cannot tolerate the feelings of fear, hurt, anxiety, helplessness and despair, they defend against them. They deny and rationalize their own contribution to the problems to preserve their own internal fantasy of being all good and right.They also suffer from the Repressor and Projection defenses described above. Narcissistic people always are Repressors, but not all Repressors are Narcissistic.”

Antidote:
The antidote to narcissistic behavior is to understand how the defenses work, identify and correct the errors in thinking and learn to tolerate frustration, anxiety, sadness and shame. By learning to be straight first with the self, and then with others, these unhealthy defense can be lessened. Then the person can learn to live in the world of reality even though it hurts at times instead of turning to a fantasy which can never be gained.”
Assertiveness and Compassionate Communication Links:

http://stress.about.com/od/relationships/ht/howtoassert.htm

http://www.listeningway.com/cctutorial-1.html

http://www.listeningway.com/cctutorial-1.html#Steps

EL: Living consciously with positive intentions for wholeness, truth, and essential goodness requires mindfulness and practice. Learning how to communicate clearly, with compassion, assertiveness and finesse requires diligent practice, courage, and building a circle of safe relationships. It starts now, one person at a time.

 

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