Category Archives: Trauma

How to Overcome Trauma and Make Peace with Your Past

One of single biggest issues that stops people from living the life they want is their inability to let go of negative memories from their past.

Most often when people experience hurtful events in their life they tend to prefer to suppress their memories, or to simply silence their emotional pain by trying their best to ignore what happened.

When you ask them about why they want to avoid revisiting their past, they often say that there is no reason to dwell on their memories, since there is nothing they can do about their past anyway.

They will say things like: What is the point of remembering your childhood sexual abuse? It doesn’t change anything about what happened. And why should I remember that I grew up with an alcoholic father? or a mother who abandoned me? Crying about what happened or didn’t happen would simply be wasted tears.

At first glance this way of thinking seems reasonable. And it would be a great solution indeed, if it were really possible to simply let go of the past like this. The problem, however, is that our body remembers, even though we don’t. What this means is that whatever unfinished business we have not addressed will keep getting activated and wreak havoc on our lives, until the day we really confront it and lay it to rest.

What to Do about Negative Memories from the Past:

The positive news is that there is a lot that can be done about unpleasant memories and experiences from the past. Although it is true that we cannot change the past, we can in fact change how feel about it and what meaning we attribute to it.

The best way to do so is to go back into the experience rather than to avoid it.

Les Greenberg, a psychologist and researcher at York University in Canada, has studied how people work through unfinished business in talk therapy, and has proposed that change happens through a process he refers to as changing an emotion with an emotion

How to Change an Emotion with an Emotion:

When you don’t shut down a negative or unpleasant emotional memory, but are helped to fully enter into it, you will be able to learn something from it. Emotions tell us something about ourselves and about our needs, and this information helps us transform our emotions by giving us access to other emotions.

How to Overcome Negative Memories of Childhood Sexual Abuse:

If you were sexually abused, for example, this memory is oftentimes initially experienced as unbearable, repulsive, or shameful. But if you enter into the emotion and get some help from your therapist, you will soon see that the initial experience of disgust, or pain, or shame, can give rise to a whole set of other emotions, which in turn change the overall meaning of the experience.

The emotion of shame, which causes you to want to hide, or the emotion of disgust, which causes you to want to push away, are often turned against oneself in people who were abused. They often think of themselves as “broken”, “damaged”, “vile”, “unlovable”. They sometimes want to hurt themselves as a form of punishment, or hide who they are from others because they don’t feel worthy of acceptance.

However, by fully going into these emotions, rather than shutting them down, the person may be able to access other facets of their emotional experience.

Sadness:

They may begin to access sadness at what was lost or what was taken away from them and to enter into the grief that was previously blocked by shame.

Anger:

The sadness may in turn give rise to anger at the perpetrator for violating a helpless child, or at caregivers for not picking up on small signs that things were not okay.

As the person gets more in touch with their anger, this changes their sadness, by making them feel more empowered. In this way the person can go through a change process from initial shame or disgust, to sadness about their loss, to anger about what should have happened, but didn’t happen.

Self-Compassion:

As they begin to feel more indignant at the other person, rather than blaming themselves, they may also better be able to soothe themselves or care for themselves. It is only a short step from “I was so helpless and alone” (sadness) and “it wasn’t right and shouldn’t have happened” (anger), to feeling compassion for one-self “I didn’t deserve it; it wasn’t my fault and I shouldn’t blame myself”.

By entering into the initial emotion, which was very unpleasant, it became possible to change the original emotion with another emotion, and thus to change the experience of the memory itself.

Acceptance:

According to Les Greenberg this emotional change process will eventually lead to acceptance and agency. Once we accept who we are and what happened to us, and work through our feelings about it, we come out on the other side as feeling empowered and having a choice about how we want to move forward.

Instead of being stuck in a past that keeps wreaking havoc on our lives, we can now take control of our lives, give ourselves a pass, and orient ourselves toward the future with a renewed confidence and a more positive sense of self.

 

Psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist at Better Therapy PLLC. I help people experience change at an emotional level and overcome traumatic memories and experiences that are holding them back.

The Truth about Pathological Lying

The line between telling the truth and telling a lie has always been the central theme of psychotherapy.

The real self (an acceptance of one’s real feelings and motivations) and the reality principle (a sober assessment of the world as it really is) has always been considered the hallmark of health or good adjustment. 

Various forms of lying, on the other hand, have been the hallmark of what we consider to be pathology or maladjustment.

When we tell a lie, we make reality conform to our ideas rather than adjust our ideas to fit reality. 

In neurosis, for example, the truth gets distorted (minimized or magnified) in the service of maintaining a certain level of psychological safety. We need reality to BE a certain way in order to feel okay with ourselves and comfortable in the world.

In psychosis, on the other hand, our lies become fully-fledged fantasies without any basis in external facts.

Pathological Lying:

Although we all need some modicum of fantasy and untruth in order to make our lives and our view of ourselves more tolerable, for a certain group of people, lying becomes the central mechanism by which they interact with others.

We can call these people pathological or compulsive liars, although in many cases, pathological lying is really more of a symptom than a definition of who I am. 

The compulsivity of pathological liars means that these are not people who choose to lie. Lying here becomes automatic. It is a mechanism for maintaining psychological safety and reducing interpersonal anxiety.

Pathological Lying as Reaction to Trauma:

In my own work with compulsive liars I have generally found that the lying is a reaction to trauma.

One person, for example, was in a physically abusive relationship where he learned that he needed to say or do things more out of a concern for maintaining the other person’s happiness, than out of a need to express his true thoughts and feelings. The truth became associated with danger and became hijacked by the more primordial need for safety. Who I am, in this scenario, becomes who I need to be in order to be liked or accepted by others. Being myself becomes a dangerous proposition, a luxury which I cannot afford. Instead my truth becomes a self-presentation I can adapt to what I think others want from me.

Another person was helped to discover that at the root of her lies was a profound fear of being abandoned if she were to be herself. Vivid examples stood out about not having been picked up after soccer practice, and otherwise being forgotten about or neglected by caregivers in many situations. Now, she had come to think of herself as mostly a burden and as someone who could only count on others to be there for her as long as she provided a benefit to them. Most of this woman’s life thus became a frantic effort to be who others needed her to be so she would not be rejected and plunged into a deep dark hole of feeling worthless and dispensable.

Truth is Only Possible When We Feel Safe:

In both of these examples, the compulsion to lie was driven by a compulsion to stay safe, and a perceived risk involved in being and expressing one’s more genuine self.

Both examples reveal to us that telling the truth is always only possible on the basis of a fundamental sense of safety in one’s relationships with others. The ability to be real with oneself and with others requires validation that one is good enough as is, and certainty that others will be able to tolerate and care for one’s unembellished unadulterated self.

In this sense, pathological lying is really just like any other neurotic defense mechanism. It serves to ward off shame, lack of self worth, and a fear of abandonment and rejection.  

image of psychodynamic therapist, Dr. Rune MoelbakAbout Me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., a psychologist who helps people get in touch with their personal truths. If you have been hurt or shaken up by the lies of someone you love, or find it difficult to relate to others without lying to them, psychotherapy can help.

The Past Never Lasts: Changing the Past from the Future

The Past Never Lasts: Changing the Past from the Future

“The past never lasts”. Such was the slogan posted on a colleagues’ bulletin board, when I worked in a treatment center for traumatized adolescents. My colleague used it to remind her young clients that things might seem bad for now, but that any memory that brings pain is but a fleeting experience. Here today, gone tomorrow. The past, in other words, is always a viewpoint from the present.

However, there is another reason why the past never lasts, and that is that the past has not been written yet.

One of the hallmarks of being human is that events in time are not just something that happens to us. Their meaning has always yet to be determined, and that means that they are malleable.

If I look back at events in my life with regrets, wishing that they would never have happened, I do so from the perspective of today. However, something might happen tomorrow, or a year from now that will change the significance of those events or how I look at them.

Working with the Past in Therapy:

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, noticed this phenomenon in his work with therapy clients and referred to it as “nachtraeglichkeit”: Something that happens now changes what happened in the past. In English this is often referred to as “retroactive determination”.

To Freud this temporal phenomenon by which something that will happen changes what has happened is one of the key curative factors in therapy.

Therapy is not about rehashing old events. It is about encountering something new that you have not yet thought about or felt before. As your present awareness is enlarged or changed, new futures become possible. And with these different futures, the meaning of our past will change.

Changing the Past from the Future:

Existential philosopher, Martin Heidegger, believed that our future is defined by a “for the sake of which”, or a why:

Why do I get up in the morning? Why do I go to this particular job? To do what? To accomplish what?

When pursued to its end, this line of questioning will lead us through a series of “in order to’s” to an ultimate “for the sake of which” which gives us the final meaning to our existence: the reason why we do things..

Hence, I go to work to make a paycheck. I make a paycheck so I can pay my bills. I want to pay my bills so I can eat and have a roof over my head.

But wait…

Actually I make more money than what I really need to pay my bills. My work is also a status symbol, a testimony to my worth as a person. It is important to me to be a good provider, not just for me but for my wife or for my children. It matters to me that they respect me, that they are proud of me. Without that admiration I might not have anything to give them and I would feel terribly vulnerable. Perhaps my wife might leave me, or my children would think of me as a terrible father. I might not really have the personal qualities that suffice to keep my family happy, so I must provide a different kind of material value. At my core, am I really lovable? Am I really worth staying for? Do I really merit attention and respect?

Now we are getting somewhere!

Beneath all the practical reasons for why I have to do stuff, there is a hidden for-the-sake-of-which to which I am enthralled.

This for-the-sake-of-which colors my entire past. It keeps memories present in my mind of not fitting in and not being good enough during my high school years. It makes recollections relevant of harsh criticism of my personality received in childhood. It provides me with a common denominator to tie together past examples of being left or rejected. “I am not good enough, or interesting enough” is the past which I am living out of from the perspective of this particular future which guides my actions in the present.

If we can change this future, if you can arrive at a new for the-sake-of-which, these elements of the past might no longer be relevant. A different perspective on yourself and on your future, will make new aspects of your past present, and will let others fall into oblivion.

This is the work that gradually unfolds in therapy. Therapy helps you change the past by changing your future, or giving you a new for-the-sake-of-which. This is just yet another meaning to the words, “the past never lasts”.

image of bookTIP: For more information about an existential view of time, have a look at my article: “Meaning and Memory. A Heideggerian Analysis of Children’s First Memories”. In this article I use  the philosophy of Martin Heidegger to make sense of our relationship to time.

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Dr. Rune Moelbak

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, Ph.D., psychologist in Houston. Visit my website for more articles or to schedule a therapy appointment.