Why Transitions are So Hard for Current and Former Foster Kids

I am a former foster child. I am also a licensed therapist. And I have lived many lives and labels in between those two facts. Mom. Student. Homeless. Survivor. Here is something that has been on my mind lately and I hope it might help someone to hear this.

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I have often struggled with transitions, both small ones and big ones. Sometimes they feel the same size. It’s hard to say goodbye. In therapy when I start work with a therapist, I immediately begin to think about what goodbye looks like. What will it take for the therapist to kick me out? I am assessing the therapist to see if they can really handle the big tangled mess of strong emotions and vulnerability that is me. Can they really be there for me in the long run? And if the therapist happens to be Christian I am even more suspicious and have a harder time trusting. Will they expect me to be a certain way or try to erase my feelings and thoughts with a whitewashed version of me that fits more in line with an immature understanding of Christianity? Will they really live out their beliefs that God loves everyone, including someone like me that does not fit the stereotype of what a Christian looks like? Will they get fed up with my very real anxiety over potential loss or will they be able to address it until it naturally goes away on its own? Will they be okay with how my trauma manifests or will they give up on me or worse yet, label me in some negative way, to try to fit me into a box that works for them, but not for me? Will someone else tell them something about me that will make them want to not work with me? Will I say something that will make them go away?

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I remember once going to an introductory meeting about becoming a therapeutic foster home. When I realized that as soon as the foster child was able to overcome their behavioral or mental challenge they had to go to a different foster home, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t want to be a part of that system. You see, for a foster child there are many ways that success means loss. You do well in therapy, so therapy ends and you never see your therapist again, just when you found someone who finally understands you. You graduate from school, and you never see your friends again. You figure out the rules of your group home and you get down-graded to a different home for less behaviorally-challenged kids. You do well in wrap-around services and your team is gone. You get vulnerable and share your story with someone who seems kind and then that person disappears or rejects you. The more people help, the more temporary they seem. Social workers come and go. You come and go at the command of a judge, a social worker, a foster parent who didn’t like you. Nothing belongs to you and sometimes you are just left with the shirt on your back and shoes that don’t fit because your last “family” chose to spend the stipend on alcohol instead of your basic needs. You learn to not get too close and too attached. By the time you are a teenager your dream of a permanent and loving home is just that, a fantasy. You have learned that people will get rid of you and disappear rather than try to understand you and where you are coming from.

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Now as an adult, I can understand and step back and not blame the people who were there for me. They did the best they could and each of them made some difference in my life and I am grateful for all the pieces of the puzzle that they put together to help me keep going during difficult times. I am also glad for the people who accepted me and the effects of my trauma that I couldn’t help. None of us back in the 80s really understood trauma the way we understand it now. Those helpers didn’t have the language, the knowledge, the understanding and the experience that I now have. They just accepted me and were there for me when I was brave enough to ask for help. And I no longer search for a parent or a permanent home. I have created that for my own child with a loving husband at my side. I get to give and enjoy what I never had. And I have learned to be okay with that. Also, I enjoy so much supporting families and helping them work through traumatic life experiences in the way that I never had a chance. It feels good to change the narrative and be a part of the difference.

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Nevertheless, I still have a hard time saying goodbye and probably always will. I will still struggle at the beginning of therapy to trust the therapist, but I know that once I have worked through those issues and established a place of safety, the process will be really good for me and I will learn a lot about myself along the way. And I won’t know what life looks like after that and there may be a possibility of loss. I know that I will be able to handle that when the time comes, even if it won’t be easy. I have become an expert on loss and many other things. And that’s why I do what I do. I want to create a safe, trauma-friendly space where people can explore and ask the difficult questions without negative repercussions. I trust that the client will know when they are ready to move on and it will be a topic that will come up from time to time. Because in the end, we know that all good things must end. But what lies ahead after that, can be just as beautiful, if not better.

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What I Wish People Could Know About Trauma

I am a survivor of many different types of abuse and neglect. I entered the foster care system right before my 14th birthday. I have throughout my career had to attend many trainings on trauma, foster care, attachment, and adoption. Sometimes it is hard to hear what is being said not because it isn’t true, but because it is missing something. It is missing the human element of trauma. Often, I leave the training with this negative image of people with trauma, namely me, and that there is no hope. I know this isn’t true, but this is the story that writers and researchers of trauma present and I would like to change this narrative. I would like to share the real story about trauma, from someone who has lived through it and knows a thing or two about it.

The reality of surviving trauma

  • Just because we went through something horrible doesn’t mean we will all become abusers.
  • Don’t have sympathy for abusers just because they had a traumatic background. No excuses for abuse, just accountability.
  • Most of the time we can enjoy life and have positive relationships with others.
  • Sometimes we make bad choices because of our trauma. But we can grow from it and learn to make better choices. We want you to believe in us, even and especially when we are at our worst.
  • Sometimes things that remind us of our trauma will cause some pretty strong reactions in us. It’s okay, we know we will get through this. We always do. And the best thing you can do is to say it’s okay and you will be there for us, no matter what we happen to be thinking and feeling.
  • Speaking of thinking and feeling, sometimes we have some really heavy, inaccurate thoughts and stories floating around in our minds. That’s why we talk to other people. It’s not oversharing, it’s sharing things that are “overmuch” for us and we need your help to remove it from our nervous system. When you can be strong for us when we can’t be strong for ourselves, we feel better and stronger. It takes a village.
  • We want to fit in and be treated like everyone else, even though we don’t feel like we belong and have not had a “normal” life.
  • Please hold us accountable for our actions. It means you care about us enough to say something when we make mistakes just like everyone else, just sometimes in a bigger way .
  • We often have a strong need to be accepted as part of the group. We may not understand everything about how to survive in a group situation, but know that we are trying our hardest to belong and be good to everyone.
  • Labels can really hurt us. We don’t need you to figure out who we are, just to accept who and how we are.
  • Kindness and thoughtfulness make a huge impression on us. It’s the little things that are big for us, because we might not have received those normal caring behaviors growing up.
  • Kindness, authenticity, and honesty mean a lot to us. That’s how we learn to trust you.
  • We might not trust you at first. If we tell you that we are struggling with trusting you, take that as a compliment. It means that we are opening up and trying to trust you. We are testing you out to make sure you can handle us being vulnerable to you.
  • Some of the things we do might not make sense to you or us right away. With enough therapy and healing, all of it makes sense.
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  • Sometimes we have a hard time putting things into words. What might come out could be a mixture of us trying to play it cool, being extra vulnerable, and putting up a wall all at once. We don’t expect you to interpret all of this. We will talk about it later, when we are ready to do the work of translating our real feelings to the situation at hand. We are nervous about sharing what we really thought because lots of people haven’t reacted well to vulnerability in our life. Take it as a complement when we come to you about something difficult, even it if it involves you.

Finding the Feminine after Narcissistic Abuse

Many female victims of narcissistic abuse share stories of how the abuse left them feeling shame around their gender. Some women blame their femininity for the abuse, believing that if they were stronger, tougher, somehow they would be more accepted by the abuser or the abuse wouldn’t hurt so much. Often, narcissists will see very feminine traits in their victims and attack them for what comes so naturally to their victims, that the victims will end up hating their bodies and anything associated with being a woman.

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Here is the truth. Women are by nature, very powerful. However, female power is diffferent from masculine power, and that is totally acceptable. Narcisstic abuse is a lie meant to confuse women and distract female victims from seeing their true power and using it. A woman’s power lies in being who she specifically is and in her friendships with others who are good and willing to allow her to be who she is without trying to destroy her soul. When a woman is able to be truly herself and in positive relationship with others, she changes the world for the better and nothing can stand against her.

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Femininity can come in a variety of different shades. For the recovering victim of narcissism, exploring the feminine side can be an act of rebellion and a way to recover your personal freedom. Some victims were not allowed to clean their homes, wear makeup, or even cry without enduring shame, mental abuse, or emotional outbursts from their partners or family members. Others were not allowed to handle financial matters, plan events, or give directions. The narcissist craves chaos, misdirection, and submission.

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There is no one way to be feminine, but it can be a lot of fun for the recovering victim of narcissism to try out new ways of exploring their feminine side, whether it be riding horses for the first time, wearing an outfit that the partner never would have approved of, investing their money, posting on social media, enjoying an organized home or life, or trying out a new hobby or starting a business. If you have had to hold back for a narcissist that never allowed you to be yourself, don’t wait to explore your feminine side and don’t be surprised at the mixed emotions you might feel as you break free from your chains and discover joy in your life again.

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Why Are We So Critical Of Ourselves?

One thing I have noticed over the years as a counselor is the large amount of self-criticism coming from a younger generation (millenial and below) that is constant. These same people are incredibly kind, generous, and unjudgemental of others, but when it comes to themselves not only are they the harshest critics but their own worst friend.

What I see is that we have grown up in a world where are constantly exposed to how we are probably doing something wrong, even if we don’t know it. We might be eating the wrong foods (orthorexia anyone?), doing too much isolating, hanging out with the wrong people, not working hard enough, working too hard, not speaking up for ourselves, saying the wrong thing, obsessing, etc. The list goes on and on.

Advertisers have been using pop psychology for a long time to sell their products. I see a lot of image-based or fear-based advertising appealing to our inner critic that wants to be perfect, to be seen, to be acceptable. If we only do this one thing, then we will be alright, we will be alright, we will be just FINE.

However, in the real world, it never works that way. We are beautiful, sloppy, crazy, wonderful, imperfect, tearful, hormonal, aggressive, sensitive, insert-any-other-adjective human beings full of change, wonder, and unpredictability. We are VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity). So what should we do with our VUCA selves amidst our own desire for perfection, stability, certainty, and simplicity?

Stop the pathologizing

What is it that you find yourself worrying or criticizing yourself for the most? Think about that quality or behavior from all angles. Is there something truly wrong with it, or is what you are doing pretty normal, understandable, and loveable? Most likely yes. We all break our diets sometimes, we all sometimes need to stepback, sometimes we say the wrong thing, sometimes we don’t say enough, etc. Find a way to look at your problem as a strength, rather than a possible diagnosis.

Practice self-compassion

Sometimes this is easier said than done (speaking from experience), but when you find yourself being anxious or harsh or judgmental about yourself, think about you and that place you are coming from. Is it a place of hurt, of feeling small, of wanting to be pleasing to others? This part of you deserves love, not shame and blame. Be kind to this part of you and do something nice for yourself. Remind yourself that it’s okay to mess up, to not be perfect, and to want things that everyone else wants.

Get creative with your thinking

We all have an inner critic. The inner critic is one of the most boring, predictable, and negative part of ourselves. When the inner critic starts speaking, it’s time to change the message. Find a way to be creative, beautiful, and positive about that thing that seems so negative. Here is an example. Let’s say that you beat yourself up for being too sensitive. Instead, how about you think about all the great things about being sensitive – like how attractive it can make you to others, how it makes others feel understood, how it helps you to be in tune with others and want to connect with them, etc. Paint a different picture and enjoy admiring the results.

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How to Spot a “Helpless Babe” and Not Lose Yourself in the Process

I have worked with a lot of highly competent, good, sweet, intelligent, and generous women who are all very unhappy because of one thing – they currently or in the past have had their efforts and good qualities wasted on a “helpless babe.”

“What Is a Helpless Babe?”

I coined the term “helpless babe” when I saw some very similar patterns among the men in the lives of these women. These men were often emotionally immature, would act helpless when it was convenient, and would otherwise appear sophisticated when it worked well in their favor, namely wooing the woman or avoiding responsibility or blame.

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These men wreak a lot of havoc in the lives of the people around them while often appearing to be doe-eyed bastions of innocence and goodness to others. They are all too content to let the women do all the work, and they have plenty of excuses why they can’t help out. They often have very few male friends, tend to prefer the company of women because it feels more safe and they can control the women. They will often take on characteristics of little boys, such as being more effeminate, acting helpless and scared, putting on a pouty face when confronted, and having a softer voice. They will avoid being around other male friends out of fear of being confronted, challenged, and called out for their true motivation – to life a life of passive mediocrity that revolves around getting only their needs met.

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Men who are emotionally mature will easily spot the helpless babes and try to warn the women away from them, often too late. By that time, women’s strong natural desire to heal and soothe others takes over and they are on a high of both charm and being needed that blinds them to the reality that these helpless babes don’t care about them at all, but are content to sit back and take on the role of a wounded, impotent child for as long as they can get away with it, until someone stands up to them.

When their victim finally stands up to the helpless babe, it can be truly tragic. The helpless babe then becomes a snake that charms everyone who could possibly help the victim and bites with venomous poison anyone who might reveal his true identity.

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If you struggle with having a helpless babe in your life, I encourage you to find a trusted person to tell your story to. Find a counselor with expertise in narcisstic abuse to help you unravel the twisted narrative so that you can break free of the lies, manipulation, and destruction left in the path of a helpless babe.

Why It’s Essential for Medical Providers to Provide Trauma-Informed Care

I think most medical providers enter their profession because they have a desire to help people through providing the best in medical care. However, there is a largely ignored problem that is at the basis of a large number of medical issues, but also the way that medical care is utilized and approached by patients. To ignore this mammoth issue is to address the symptoms, but not the cause.

Trauma has been strongly correlated with a number of chronic conditions, including diabetes, obesity, chronic fatigue, asthma, heart disease, sleep apnea, etc. Trauma affects not just the mind, but also the body. To address trauma is also to address physical problems.

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Not only is it important to address trauma as one of the major root causes of physical issues, it’s also important to understand how trauma affects medical care. A patient’s trauma can affect their ability to feel comfortable seeking out and talking to a medical provider. Trauma can also affect a patient’s outlook on their treatment and prognosis.

Here are a few ways that trauma can interfere with patient care:

  • A patient might feel uncomfortable talking about certain symptoms or parts of the body due to trauma.
  • You might not get enough information from a patient due to body posture, words used, or inherent qualities about you as a medical provider that remind the patient of their trauma.
  • Certain medical procedures, even seemingly routine ones such as taking blood pressure or weighing a patient, might be triggering to the patient, resulting in a shutdown of communication.
  • How your office, waiting room, or examination area is set up can affect a patient on a visceral level and remind them of traumatic experiences. If they have experienced medical trauma, even just being in a medical setting can be extremely stressful. Even changing furniture can feel alarming to patients who have experienced severe trauma related to transitions.

Addressing trauma in a medical setting is not as difficult as it might seem. If you have a chance to take a course in trauma-informed care, that can be a great start to learn more about how to address a history of trauma in your patients. If you are unable to find training in trauma-informed care related to medical providers, you can seek out a consultant to help you develop ways to make your practice more trauma-informed. Seek out colleagues who have had success in making their practice more trauma-informed and consult with them about best practices.

Some of the benefits of making your medical practice more trauma-informed:

  • Better rapport with your patients.
  • Increased communication from your patients.
  • Decreased stress in your interaction with patients.
  • Better outcomes
  • More positive patient interactions with your patients
  • Growth in your practice as patients tell others about the positive benefits of working with a trauma-informed provider

What are the Effects of Childhood Physical Abuse on Adults?

The effects of childhood physical abuse are often overlooked by both therapists and medical providers. I think this is partly due to lack of knowledge and also that society as a whole can easily minimize physical abuse as an issue. Most people agree that really severe physical abuse of a child is wrong. We have all seen and heard tragic stories of children who suffered horrific physical abuse at the hands of biological parents, foster parents, etc. However, many other people’s stories of childhood physical abuse are buried below excuses and rationalizations that society or the victims or their perpetrators may make about why physical abuse is justified, how it’s normal, and it isn’t really worth complaining about. These kinds of messages keep victims of physical abuse from talking about it, and prevent providers from being able to address the problem. This post is written to share support for all those who have suffered childhood physical abuse in silence. You are not alone and your story is worth sharing.

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As a young child, I was often hit by my older brothers. When I sought help and protection from my biological mother, she took my brothers’ side, blamed me and encouraged my brothers to continue hitting me. I learned from an early age that I could not count on anyone to keep me safe and violence was the norm, rather than the exception. When I was adopted out of foster care, I lived in constant fear and vigilance of an adoptive sibling who would threaten to beat me and my siblings if we did not comply with his demands. My adoptive mom would also threaten that she would have this same boy beat us up if we did not do what she wanted. In other words, I had a pattern of two moms who used their sons as a henchman to abuse others. Much of the abuse happened in a group setting, with other bystanders around. It was a way to control the others and sent a clear message that if they dared to do anything, they too would have to endure physical assault as well. I was hit repeatedly by one mom in a fit of rage and had another mom dig her nails into my face, leaving scars. This was the story of my life until I ran away from home into the safety of college and true independence.

Only now, decades later, have I come to realize the effects of physical abuse in my adult life. I share my story in the hopes that others might also benefit from hearing it and find healing in their own lives. The following are a few of the symptoms of childhood physical abuse in adults.

Symptoms of Childhood Physical Abuse in Adults:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating Disorders
  • Sleep problems, including sleep apnea, excessive drowsiness, and insomnia
  • Weight issues
  • Difficulty forming and maintaining friendships
  • Social withdrawal
  • Poor impulse control
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Substance abuse
  • Delinquency
  • Post-traumatic stress
  • Aggression
  • Possibility of revictimization
  • Chronic pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Higher likelihood of being in special ed classes or having to repeat a grade.
  • Hypervigilance
  • High incidence of divorce
  • Greater likelihood of becoming homeless or incarcerated
  • Over-compliance with authority figures
  • Heart disease
  • Headaches

I realize in looking at the symptoms of childhood physical abuse in adulthood, that I am fortunate in so many ways. I don’t have all of the symptoms, especially the more extreme ones, which I attribute to a lot of grace, the presence of other caring mentors in my life, and my Christian faith. While I was in foster care, I saw so many abused kids that suffered with many difficult symptoms of abuse, ranging from risky sexual behavior at a young age, aggression, school delinquency, and withdrawal. I will never know what happened to them, but I know the statistics for foster children are not good for a reason. Most of us don’t make it out of the system without becoming homeless, victims of human trafficking, or dying at a young age. I did become a victim of human trafficking, but that is another story for another time. I have definitely beat the odds in so many ways and feel very blessed to be able to help others with their own challenges, however big or small they may be.

What I have noticed in myself lately is that childhood physical abuse left me feeling disconnected from my body. At a young age, I took pride in being tough and not caring about being hurt. I would feel smug around other kids my age who came from much healthier families and would cry when hurt. I knew I couldn’t rely on anyone except myself, so that’s exactly how I lived my life. It also meant that I didn’t talk to people when I did need help. I avoided connecting with others. I didn’t ask questions or go out of my way to talk with others. I avoided vulnerability at all costs, because vulnerability would result in being hurt again, and that was a price I couldn’t afford to pay.

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Research has shown that victims of physical abuse tend to have a lower social status among their peers. This is due to a variety of factors, including social withdrawal, victims constantly scanning social situations for threats (perceived or real), victims not being able to form healthy social skills at home due to violent relationships, victims shutting down during social interactions and not able to name emotions or access the language and thinking part of the brain, victims acting out in a hostile manner to replay what they have learned to be normal social interactions at home, poor academic performance, teachers labeling victims as troublemakers or uncooperative, and peers seeing victims as weird or aggressive.

As an adult, the place where I have really begun to see the effects of childhood physical abuse has been at the gym. I noticed myself having a hard time paying attention to the class instructions, in spite of my best efforts. I would say that overall I have a pretty good attention span, so I was a bit baffled at how hard it was for me to follow even very simple instructions. I also noticed my heart rate going up and feeling a lot more fear and anxiety around following the instructions. My mind would sometimes blank out in the middle of an instruction, and I would have to watch others to figure out what to do. When I couldn’t remember what to do, I would feel embarrassed and hesitant to ask what to do. I noticed a lot of unusually negative thoughts that would flood my mind during exercise. I have also noticed that as I do my exercises, negative memories would resurface. I paid attention to the fact that I had a hard time with visceral memory, the ability to remember in the body a specific sequence of events without having to think about it. Doing the exercises felt kind of clunky and unnatural as I had to think over each step.

Being the therapist that I am, I took some time to ponder why all of this was happening. I realized that being told instructions in the past was a source of terror for me, because it would result in physical violence for me. The group setting in the gym was also a visceral reminder of how physical abuse had occurred in the past. This explained why my mind was shutting down, even though I logically knew that I was safe, in the present, and this would never happen to me now as an adult. That’s just the way the brain works when it is triggered.

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After one particularly difficult workout session, where I went into a fight-or-flight mode, I decided to talk to my coach I explained what was really going on behind the scenes for me, and I think that helped her understand where I was coming from. We came up with a plan for words that I could use that would help explain what was going on so she could better help me in the moment.

Because physical violence by its very nature is interpersonal, healing comes from developing positive connections with others. This can be tricky, as we survivors make a lot of mistakes in learning to form friendships. It’s important to practice self-compassion and also be open with others about your difficulties, as they might not understand what is going on in the inside.

It is also important to find ways to connect with your body in healthy ways. Find ways to nurture your body through food, rest, exercise, prayer, and meditation. As you try new and healthier ways of connecting with others and your body, don’t be surprised if difficult memories and emotions come up. This is part of the healing process and a sign of progress, as alarming as it might seem.

I am confident that as I keep moving siempre adelante, that things will improve and I will feel more comfortable with following instructions and have a better ability to pay attention and increase visceral memory capacity. As a narrative therapist, I teach my clients that there is a power in telling your story. I notice that as I begin to talk to others such as my coach, that I am better able to process and acknowledge what happened in the past, I feel more connected to others, which in turn will help me to better able to be connected to my body, my mind and my emotions. I am learning to be able to be more proactive in talking about difficult things, rather than resorting to my old negative coping skills that were unhealthy but helped me to survive a much more difficult time.

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There is a lot of research out there on the effects of abuse, but very few stories of people who were able to overcome the effects. I hope that by sharing my own story you too might be able to find inspiration and hope that change is possible.

How Trauma Can Get in the Way of Success

One of the assessment forms I always have my clients fill out in the beginning is a questionnaire to assess their level of Adverse Childhood Experiences. These questions will give me an insight into difficult, perhaps even traumatic events, they have experienced. Of course, the questionnaire does not cover everything and I think there are a lot of other questions that could be included, such as did you ever experience racism or discrimination as a child, did a household member including yourself end up in the foster care system, did you experience bullying outside of the home on a regular basis, etc. ? But it’s at least a good start for trying to understand how much trauma someone has gone through as a child and how much stress has built up into their system since then.

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Childhood trauma sets the stage for how we interact with the world, our beliefs about ourselves and others, and what is possible. The effects of trauma are not always visibly evident, they are invisible wounds that we carry around. Trauma does not come out until we are challenged or challenge ourselves in some way.

Success can be very triggering. One of the effects of trauma is anxiety. Anxiety tells us to avoid certain situations and play it safe. It’s a protective mechanism to help us avoid further damage. The problem with that is that anxiety keeps us from doing the things that will actually help us feel better in the long run, and reduce our sensitivity to threat.

Progress means change, and change can feel very scary to our autonomic nervous system. Many traumas are a result of some kind of transition – parents leaving a child, a robber entering a home, losing a beloved friend or family figure, being sent away, etc. It’s no wonder that even little transitions can seem huge in our minds and our bodies, even if we logically know that a transition now is normal and safe – like a change in furniture, change in plans, or a new person in our life. “Neurons that fire together, wire together” is a popular saying among somatic-based therapists. Transition, even positive ones, can feel dangerous to our minds because it has become linked with trauma.

So if you start to work on a goal, and you suddenly encounter that dreaded brick wall, take some time to assess the situation. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Does this situation remind you of a situation you may have faced in the past?
  • Is there some immediate change or transition that may have affected your ability to see progress or feel safe?
  • Have there been any other stressors lately that may have compounded your ability to reach your goals and feel good about yourself?
  • Does your reaction to a challenge, or even positive signs of progress, seem out of proportion, or uncharacteristic of your normal way of reacting?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be seeing the effects of hidden trauma. It is good to acknowledge what is really going on in order to be able to move past it. Even though symptoms of trauma can seem permanent, they don’t have to be. As we identify the problem and connect with others who understand, we are able to come up with our own solutions. In doing so, we strengthen our ability to feel safe, to pass through any challenges that come our way, and feel more connected to others and ourselves. And success seems a lot more possible after all.

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Why Is Progress So Difficult?

I think that most people want to improve their lives in some form. We would all like to feel better, look better, improve our financial situation, be better parents, be happier, have more fun, or some variant thereof. The desire for self-improvement is pretty universal to all peoples and all cultures.

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Come January 1st, we take a fresh look at our goals, old and new. What have we achieved, what would we like to achieve, what new strategies should we strive for given what we know about ourselves and the world we live in? Coming through (not yet out) of the pandemic, I think the desire for something new, something different, perhaps something untried will be stronger than ever.

When you first try something, progress can feel really great. You see the numbers dropping on the scale, you are going out and having new and exhilarating experiences, you feel pride in learning something new, etc.

Then at some point, you hit a roadblock. Someone tells you something that takes the wind out of your sails. Maybe you run across a financial hurdle that tells you, “You have bigger priorities now, whether you like it or not.” You get tired, exhausted, and you feel lonely, miserable, and discouraged. You wonder why you even started your goal in the first place. Is it really worth it – all this pain and disappointment? Life seems so much easier on the other side – the side of not trying and going with the flow.

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It’s at this brick wall that most people give up. We go with what’s easy, what takes little effort, what is simpler, what produces the least amount of pain. At my local gym, there is a saying on the wall that reads like this “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” I never thought I would be a gym person. I like being outdoors walking or running on trails, streets, anywhere outside. I experienced bullying on the playground and at physical education classes as a child. No way was I going to be around “those types of people” again! But when I hit a plateau in my weight loss goals, my integrative medicine specialist said I needed to work on resistance training. I thought I was the expert on resistance, I had been resisting going to the gym and exercising my whole life! So I stubbornly did the video training exercises at home in my condo. That would happen maybe once or twice a week when I could make the space for it in our small condo, modifying workouts that were done in a professional gym with professional gym equipment, using whatever I happened to have on hand. These exercise sessions were happening in between vying for space in our lovely open floor plan with two other wonderful beings that I share my condo with, along with having to balance the noise level with the upstairs neighbor. Needless to say, this didn’t last for long, and the effects of it were minimal.

I also had a lot of very good excuses for not going to the gym. I didn’t know who would be there, who the trainers were, what the trainers were like, how to use the equipment, how to act in a gym, or even what to do or say. Plus I had my traumatic memories trying their best to keep me “safe” in a way that was really impeding my progress. In my mind, I imagined worst-case scenarios, a typical anxiety response. I imagined what I had grown up with happening again. I would be made fun of for not knowing what to do, for being overweight, for not having the right clothes, etc. People would get mad at me for “not getting it, ” not being tough enough, for not being able to do or complete the exercises, for letting them know when I was in pain.

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I put off going to the gym for several weeks. On a whim, I suddenly had the inspiration to go. All of my anxiety thoughts were saying not to, but I knew in my heart I had to go now, ASAP, if it was to happen at all. My body was shaking, my heart was racing, and I felt like crying. These are all typical trauma responses and normal when you face a situation that reminds you of previous trauma.

The timing couldn’t have been better. It just happened that my integrative medicine specialist happened to be finishing a workout there, something I wasn’t expecting. Because he was someone who I knew and trusted, I felt a lot safer about going inside and “just taking a look.” He introduced me to the owner, who I chatted with for a bit and got a tour around the place. I was invited to a session that afternoon, but I wasn’t ready to take that big of a leap just yet! Just getting in the door was hard enough for me as is. But at least I was able to go home, process my emotions, and make a plan with the new information I had.

I decided I would try different classes and get a feel for each one. Some classes were harder than others, but I finally settled on a time that worked best for my busy schedule and caseload. Some days I come into the exercise classes with tears in my eyes as I work through the emotions of the day. I made and still continue to make a lot of mistakes. I battle with a lot of doubt about myself, my ability to progress, and fears about how I will be treated by others. It’s natural, given what I have previously experienced to have these doubts and negative thoughts. To this day, I am grateful for the training, education, and experience that helps me to see these obstacles for what they are – just my brain’s way of trying to protect me. But I can also acknowledge those thoughts, thank them for their efforts, but understand that in order to heal, grow, and make progress, I have to keep moving siempre adelante.

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As I have moved forward, I have discovered that by facing my own fears, I have gained so much in the process. My old negative beliefs about people who exercise have been replaced with more positive beliefs about people who exercise. I now see myself in a more positive light in regards to my ability to exercise. I am learning slowly to connect with my physical body, which has provided a lot of healing for the trauma related to exercise, and other various traumas. I have learned so much about myself, especially in relation to others. I have learned that even when I feel like I have failed, other people will not have the same beliefs about me, fortunately, and I can keep going, no matter what I happen to be feeling at the time. I have learned that I don’t have to hide my imperfections, but can just show up as I am and I will still be accepted. Some days will be harder and easier than others. Emotions and other old negative beliefs will show up as we keep challenging ourselves. I am also slowly, carefully, cautiously taking the next steps to connect with others – like so many other people coming out of the pandemic mindset. However, unlike so many other people, I know that my difficulties with connecting go much further and much deeper. And that’s okay because everyone is different and everyone has their own story to tell.

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When progress seems difficult, here are a few reasons you might be hitting that brick wall:

Why Progress Might Seem Impossible

  • You might be facing a previous trauma, and not be aware that you are experiencing a trauma response.
  • If you have experienced trauma or attachment issues as a child, transition can be really hard. Progress can seem dangerous when previous transitions have resulted in major loss or disruption of attachment figures.
  • You may have some emotions that are starting to rise to the surface, emotions you would rather not face. All emotions can be helpful, and can actually help you achieve your goals. Find a safe person you can talk to who can help you process your emotions, learn to get comfortable with feeling those emotions, and make good choices when those emotions arise.
  • You might be exhausted from stress or physical depletion. Remember that when you are challenging yourself, you are going to feel more tired than usual and emotions will be high before they go low. Be sure to balance your challenges with lots of self-care. And don’t be afraid to take a break.
  • You might have some false, negative beliefs about yourself that are not helping, but rather holding you back from achieving your full potential.

Why Being Tough is Not Enough

Being tough is great for survival, but it’s not great to just survive. It’s better to thrive. We live in a culture that celebrates stoicism. From a temporary standpoint, stoicism can help us to batter “the slings and arrows of misfortune”, but it does not help us to live the “abundant life” that we are all meant to live.

It’s hard to be vulnerable and there is a reason for that. Vulnerability means there is a possibility of being hurt. Even the thought of being hurt can be painful. Sometimes it can seem easier to just tough it out, not feel anything, not let other people know what is really going on inside of you. This is especially true if you have experienced previous trauma, shame, emotional abuse, etc that seems to legitimize avoiding and toughing it up.

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I get it, because I am just as guilty as the rest in being stoic. There are times when I’ve had to be tough in order to get through a difficult ordeal. I’ve also come to realize that being stoic can only take you so far in life and keep you from happiness. Stoics might win battles on a temporary basis, but they lose out on potential or current friendships, in other words, the bigger battles of life.

You see, vulnerability is also a superpower. Yes, sometimes people abuse it, but that doesn’t take away from the power of authentic vulnerability in a human relationship. When, instead of hiding and avoiding, you take up the bullfighter’s cloak and say “toro” to your fears of abandonment, rejection, being unaccepted, etc. you give yourself and other people a chance to get to know you and them for who you and they really are. You give people a chance to strengthen you, to affirm you in all of your weak points and point out your strengths.

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When you take these risks and expose yourself to all sorts of dangerous possibilities, you will naturally feel anxiety, fear, and think all sorts of negative thoughts. That’s okay, because that’s our body’s way of trying to prepare us to be brave. There are several possibilities that could happen when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

It could be that all of our worst fears could come true. Maybe we won’t be liked, we will be made fun of, no one will want to be around us, etc. However, it’s better to know the situation than pretend that everything is okay. Then we can move on, process our feelings, find better people to be around in our lives, and optimize our lives for better results in the future.

Or the results might not be great, but they might not also be so bad either. Maybe we will learn something from the outcome and make choices based on that new information we receive. Maybe we might find out that there is something we can improve on, or a new skill to learn. Maybe the great friendship we thought we had isn’t that great, but it isn’t so bad either. We can learn to adjust.

Or sometimes (as is often the case) we are surprised by how great things can really turn out when we let ourselves be vulnerable. We may form deep, lasting friendships. We could learn that we are worth loving after all, and that many people do care about us, but we didn’t know it because we were hiding in our turtle shell of avoidance and blaming others. We could find out that all of our fears are unfounded and we have been wrong all along. We could discover that we are much safer than we thought and little by little, we can slowly let our guard down and enjoy a life of not just surviving, but also living life to its fullest in the way that only you can.

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