Did you know? Trauma survivors have a superpower: being able to read your surroundings and read people really well. When you're living with unresolved trauma, you're living in a constant state of perceived danger, which means your instincts are sharp. A mentor of mine once said that trauma survivors can sniff out the inauthenticity of their healthcare providers faster than any other client or patient, because of this superpower. But, there is a flip side.
Because you're living in a constant state of perceived threat, your system is overloaded all the time. This means, not only can you feel others' feelings more, your threshold for how much you can tolerate of those feelings is also lower.
This is not a weakness or a character flaw.
Think of how many bags and boxes you could hold in your hands when you're holding nothing. Now think of how much you could hold if you were already carrying a plant in one of your arms.
The thing with trauma is our capacity to be able to hold things - emotions, words, decisions, etc. - becomes diminished. It makes perfect sense. When our brain is perceiving a threat, doing anything other than finding safety is deprioritized. Actual reserves (and blood flow!) are taken away from the parts of our body that do not need to function when we feel like our life is endangered.
Holding, monitoring and guiding our loved ones' emotions falls into that category of deprioritized functions, which is why it's easy to hit our limit so much faster with them when we're living with unresolved trauma.
This can show up as skipping your only chance to eat to rush and soothe a crying baby who is fussing because she's bored, even though she's perfectly safe. You need her to stop crying because the sound is overwhelming or you feel horribly guilty for not doing something to console her immediately when she squeaks with displeasure. It can show up like bursting into tears when your toddler throws a tantrum for the 34th time in the afternoon because you just can't take anymore. You are overwhelmed already and you have no idea how to help him feel better. This can also lead to feeling guilty, telling yourself you're an awful mother. Sometimes it can look like downplaying good news because excitement feels too exhausting. You may have received the news you'd been waiting for and though you feel relief, excitement, joy, happiness feel too much.
For others it looks like tiptoeing around your friends or relatives because you don't want them to feel anything big (positive or negative). You just want some peace.
You might be wondering, "Well isn't it my job to be aware of my children's cries and respond? That's how I keep them alive?"
Yes absolutely. But there's a difference in how you experience both in your body. If you hear your baby cry and you don't have a trauma response, your first reaction will be to perk up your hears and see if you hear it again, discern what type of cry it is and act accordingly. If the baby truly is in danger, say he lets out a yelp of pain, you will drop your lunch and go save him from harm.
But your body will recover quickly - within minutes - after you do this and assess that your baby is in fact safe and healthy. In the cases that I'm talking about, the cries feel so uncomfortable and triggering, you're not able to discern what type of cry it is. Every cry is interpreted as danger. That's because your body is in fight or flight mode, meaning your brain is functioning in threat mode.
You can tell this is happening because because of how tight your body feels if you pay attention. The need to neutralize any emotion - positive or negative - is your body's way of keeping you safe, by bringing a rocking boat back to stability.
The problem is, other people's emotions are not the cause of you feeling unsafe, but you think it is, causing you to learn how to manage everything just so. It's an unsustainable effort, unfortunately, because we can never control how others' feel or how they express their feelings.
If this resonates with you, here's what I want you to know:
You're not an overprotective, helicopter mother. You're not weak or incapable as a parent. You're not depressed or ungrateful for your life.
This is trauma.
By recreating safety in your body, you'll no longer feel the need to control your surroundings to mimic that sense of safety you're craving right now.
This is what we address in Healing Hearts. How to feel safe in your body even when your surroundings are crazy is the crux of the work and is tremendously powerful.
Join us in Healing Hearts to learn how.