For most of my life, at least until the age of 50 or so, I would not have said I experienced trauma. It wasn’t until I re-entered therapy after a 7 year absence that I began to wonder if I may have been wrong in that beleif.
It started with the idea that I may have been neglected as a child, causing me to develop an anxious attachment style and a belief that I could not rely on anyone else. I discovered I have a low level belief that people can not be relied on, they will let me down at crucial times. My therapist suggested that ACES (adverse childhood experiences) might have been the seed of a lifelong anxiety disorder that peaked in my late thirties and continued on a diminishing vector until doing schema therapy in 2013. After that my anxiety dropped to levels that were completely manageable.
With the pandemic and other stressors in my life, the anxiety ballooned again to near-debilitating levels. I’ve written previously about how I understand the process that created and reinforced my beliefs, but I will re-tell it now as my understanding continues to evolve.
Don’t Blame Your Parents
I was born to anxious parents. I didn’t know this until my brother told me a year or so ago. Our aunt had told him and it was almost as if it was a dark family secret. She confessed that she and my father both struggled with anxiety. The presence of this shame about the anxiety, suggests that trauma played a part in their anxiety, as trauma/shame/shutdown tend to occur together.
My mother was also anxious. I think she was conflicted between her own intuition to care and nurture her children and her cultural heritage of British stiff-upper-lip, buttoned-down-emotions, hard-working, self-sacrificing Anglicanism. She told me how much she agreed with Dr. Spock, but he was not her only influence. My mother did not really know how to offer warm relaxed affection and neither she nor my father knew how to discuss feelings in a way that could support a sensitive child like me.
On top of this there were no other adults in my life who really knew how to engage with a sensitive child either. At least not in a way that cultivated a sense of safety or that gave me the sense that I was ok just as I was.
My therapist gave me a list of Good Mother and Good Father messages. As I looked down the list I could only see a few I could be sure I received growing up. I just re-read the list now and checked mother messages 1, 4, 5, and 7. The rest, I’m not sure. From dad, I received 1, 2, 3, 5 and maybe 7. Of 22 messages, I received a solid 8. I remember the first time I read the list, especially the Good Mother messages. It was this strange feeling of, “are we really supposed to get these messages?” followed by a slightly distant feeling of uncertainty and sadness that maybe I didn’t receive them since I wasn’t at all confident I did.
I was loved, for sure. I knew without a doubt that both my parents were deeply fond of me and on my side. They liked me. I was safe from harm both from them and from the world. But I also saw their uncertainty about this. They would do their best, I knew, but they lacked confidence. The message was, “It’s a dangerous world out there, nothing is 100% safe, we all could die.”
Emotions were confusing scary things for me and they were not talked about in our family. I knew that my parents were good caring dependable people. They had no rough edges, no embarrassing traits, no risk of outbursts, and they were thoughtful and considerate. They tried hard to be kind, worked at expanding their perspectives, developing themselves as artists or artisans. This is the reason I did not look at their shadows for such a long time. I looked at their light, their shinning, their inner Jesus, their Buddha nature.
A Few More Things
I was bottle fed and it is also likely that I was left to cry myself to sleep. I remember being left with strangers on an occasion or two. I know my father felt particularly bad for leaving me one time with teenage girls I didn’t know while the rest of the family went across a large stretch of ocean.
I remember my mother dragging me to grade 1, quite literally, and several embarrassing experiences in early school life such as wetting myself at my desk. When my mother brought me dry clothes she was clearly and painfully embarrassed. I remember feeling ashamed and alone.
My grade three teacher, Miss Brock, did not like me and other teachers found me difficult to tolerate. Mrs. Murry said I sounded like an old lady when I became anxious and my voice when up in tone.
Miss Brock sorted me to sit with the “stupid” kids. I thought of myself as rejected and sentenced to a place of few options. “The stupid kids” was a title bestowed by “The Smart Kids” who lived on the opposite side of the classroom.
Because I was often the youngest in my class I was picked last for team sports, and received poor grades in almost every subject. I suffered from the Matthew Effect as described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers. By the end of primary school, going into junior high, I had a firm belief that I was not as good as others, not as smart, not as athletic, not as strong, and not as capable. I saw many cruel and hurtful things among my peers and feared being bullied and shamed.
A few short years later at age 15, I embraced evangelical Christianity which told me that Jesus loved me just as I was and that humility and self sacrifice were virtues. This felt right to me and this world-view guided my journey into adulthood. In University, suffering from severe anxiety, I did not receive any counselling, nor did I think I needed it. I was in denial and shame. I believed I was just below average in a number of key areas. I worked to hide my struggles and find work I could do that didn’t exacerbate my condition.
The above description may sound like a pity party, a kind of sob-story about how it isn’t my fault I’m so anxious, life is just unfair.
But the truth is that adults in my life were kind for the most part, and I enjoyed many of the benefits of living in Canada with universal health care, good public schools, and a good social safety net. But in my whole life growing up adults repeated the same admonitions to develop a thicker skin, stand up for myself more, work out, be more like other boys, learn to fight, hold my head up, study harder, work harder, show up more, be more assertive, be more aggressive, and be less sensitive, or at least hide my sensitivity. This was often behind-the-hand advice to spare me suffering. “Psst, hey kid, you need to stand up for yourself or people will walk all over you.”
So when therapists and others today tell me I need to stop believing I’m less than other people, need to change my beliefs, develop stronger boundaries, un-learn my story, or better yet, drop it all together, well, sure, I have some resistance. It is just more voices in a long series of voices telling me I have to change.
Are they right? In part maybe. It is good to have strong boundaries, know your worth, and protect yourself. It is good to be strong, develop skills, and be all you can be.
But it is also good to be sensitive and tender, to have deep emotional experiences, and know how to relax, restore, have fun, and play. It is good to develop safe relationships, practice vulnerability with people you can trust, and rely on others.
My anxiety has deep roots in my childhood neglect and adult ineptness for empowering sensitive boys. Mine was the simple unvarnished neglect of a world not designed for sensitive people. The unconscious neglect children get when they are not as remarkable as other children. The truth is, humans are very judgmental towards each other and sensitive children know when they are being judged. I knew I was not as strong as my classmates. I knew I was not ready for much of what I was given to do. School was my childhood ACE.
I like Jonathan Haidt. Loved the Happiness Hypothesis. His book with Greg Lukianoff about the Coddling of the American mind, not so much. This is because of their focus on the dangers of safetyism.
I very much appreciated John Warner’s article A Million Thoughts on... the subject. Warner said in that article,
This is the right question. Like my parents, many of the iGen parents see the world as inherently dangerous, and have communicated this to their children. As it did with me, this world view creates anxious children.
The solution is not advice to toughen up and fight harder. The solution is empowerment.
I believe that the evidence from Trauma work shows that we need more ventral vagal time, more time spent in positive social interaction, free from the need to fight and defend. We need actual safety, so that we can develop a sense that while the world might be dangerous, it is not only dangerous.
Hence my belief in developing calm aliveness, or the state of being still in the stream.