What to do when you can't speak your truth - Part 2
When we can’t speak up for ourselves, we can’t say something or we get trapped in our heads, unable to move our bodies, it signals a divide between your conscious awareness and the mental processes needed to comprehend and then take physical action.
You are reading Part 2: The Why
We have different parts of the brain that do different things to protect us and sometimes they conflict with what is best in reality. We often have emotions that don’t correlate to our perception of the situation. In basic terms, we’re either trapped in analysis, unconsciously ambivalent, or disconnected from our bodies as a soothing mechanism. A metaphor used to describe our emotional brain vs. our logical brain is a wild horse and a rider. When you have really strong emotional reactions, the rider is occupied, struggling just to manage the horse. If you were unable to be honest or you acted in ways that don’t make sense to even you, there’s likely a tie to a strong emotional reaction. Your particular why is something I want you to reflect upon as you read through the following examples.
1. Coping Style.
However we learn to deal with intense feelings growing up, we will revert to as adults. It might be something as simple as going silent when you were upset because you could never win in fights with your mom. Or maybe you were invisible to caregivers, so you coped by forcing others to give you any kind of attention. If you acted against your own truth, check to see if there is any overlap with how you coped growing up. Our set-in coping style will be our auto-pilot setting for a similar feeling of threat, as an adult.
2. You’re Controlling.
Let’s say you got trapped in thought when you tried to voice something: you told yourself to act but then not to act, almost starting then stopping– going in mental circles. It’s the kind of ambivalence that paralyzes and drives you insane. Below the surface, this is usually a resistance to feeling pain, one tied to extreme vulnerability and low self-worth. It’s a way to feel in control of what is out of your control – the brain is attempting to strengthen personal ego. Uncertainty feels intolerable when you’re used to feeling in control of your life. When you can’t stop trying to solve things or find the “correct” solution, it’s because you are resistant to knowing something that is already true. An attempt to control pain or to create some grounding for yourself. However, this habit gets in the way of your ability to sense what you feel and act on that.
Modern-day humans are prone to overthinking because the balance between thought and rest is out of whack. We have a habit of making everything into life or death – when it’s all really just life. Our ego’s job is to protect us from threat, including being wrong– so the rationalizations are like an over-used muscle. Most often, the bad feeling we’re resisting is the one we have burned into us from childhood –commonly– being a bad person, being unseen or not being loved enough. When you can’t control things and you are set on preventing all pain, what happens is you get into a state of even more painful ambivalence. This is when you find yourself unable to say the thing you want to say, instead replaying the reasons you should or shouldn’t.
If you’re an over thinker you are likely type-A, and there’s a good chance you are low on serotonin. It can also be influenced by low blood sugar. When your glucose is drained by a day of tedium or traffic – you can get extremely indecisive.
3. Learned Helplessness.
Many experts believe that learned helplessness is a primary cause of depression, anxiety and loneliness – because they are self-perpetuated states of being. We learn that we are “sufferers” because we try to help ourselves and fail too many times in a row. The pain of powerlessness is what creates acceptance: we grow tolerant to the pain and stop believing anything can help.
It’s common for kids and adults to learn helplessness in moments of emotional suffering. If you could never manage to save your sibling and stand up to a bully, you likely learned “I am a coward.” Which is not true, but becomes true with rehearsals of the belief.
Quite literally, the most damaging experiences are those of pain we are helpless to stop. Pavlov called it “inescapable shock” – it’s when we are powerless in a situation yet fully aware of our need to change it. Inescapable doesn’t mean we have to be bound and gagged– it can mean conceptually stuck between two bad outcomes. Often we allow ourselves to be hurt or we become immobilized because there is no safe option. Children will endure a lot of pain in order to stay safe in something they know. It takes an exceptionally brave kid to run away – it is rare. Partners who endure abuse cannot leave because the pain of the loss they face is too great (love, home, familiarity). Therefore, the physical pain of abuse is preferred.
The saddest part is that when we learn helplessness, we learn a new identity – one very difficult to see your way around. Our decisions are often confusing to us and so we judge ourselves harshly. Universally, we humans will believe something is our fault and that is because we will always choose the version of a story in which we are in control. It’s by far the most painful to feel powerless in a situation – powerlessness is what creates trauma. For example, let’s say you had an alcoholic parent – you might encourage them to drink as a way to control the source of danger and with that, the anxiety you feel around whether they’re going to get drunk. Somewhere inside there’s the real you who is afraid and helpless. But then there’s the new identity of the person doing the crazy things, that you can’t reconcile. So that other voice gets so quiet that you stop believing it exists. In order to survive, you’ve got to “own it” and this is where the false set of values becomes your own. If you were never able to do something, it doesn’t mean you can’t – it means you didn’t have success in the past. Now is a new and different time.
4. Loss of Purpose.
Studies say that all creatures on this planet need purpose, above all else, to survive. Purpose is essential to meaning, value and the motivation to function. For animals maybe it’s making babies and foraging for food before winter. For us, maybe it’s getting our kids into a good school or saving the world via a blog. When we lose our experience of any kind of value, we also lose our purpose. Everything turns into a zero-point game. This is what happens when we are humiliated or traumatized. Humiliation degrades the self and with that, our relationship to worth: in ourselves or what we do. When we are traumatized, our brain chemistry changes so that we are trapped in a threatened state. This is when we lose the ability to feel our feelings, read the motivations of others, have social connections, experience self-worth and joy – and all value is gone. Hence, a reason you might have done nothing even when you were aware of what you should have done. In order to act like a human, we have to feel human – and when you get stuck in worthlessness, the hole gets deeper with new acts. It’s not an excuse for inhumane acts, it’s just a truth that must be acknowledged and mourned.
This is for anyone who talked themselves out of speaking up when they knew better. Culturally, we gain more by maintaining normalcy than by speaking up. The prospect of upsetting someone is worse than staying quiet. This is the bias behind many victims of attacks by strangers: we talk ourselves out of feelings that are extreme or socially uncomfortable - whether it’s anger, fear, mistrust, or just “something’s not right!” Because what if we’re wrong? That’s the ego again - defending you from possible failure. However, your intuition is the most intelligent sense you have. If you show a person a fake piece of art, they will know – but they won’t know why. Experts are the ones who get duped. It’s also much easier not to act than it is to act – because when you’re passive, then you feel less responsible. So if you talked yourself out of saying something you felt, it might be because you don’t make a habit of speaking up, at all. As a culture, we are taught to say things nicely and not to think badly of others. And, if you’re in a rich country, you probably don’t often use the volume of your voice.
If something happened to you in part because of this, first, you must become conscious and aware of what your gut is telling you – and second, you must obey it at all times. Third, begin to practice being confrontational and voicing what you feel. If you don’t like speaking up it doesn’t mean you can’t – it just means you’ve got to start practicing it, consciously – beginning with smaller, less-threatening situations. I also highly recommend taking self-defense classes that teach you to acknowledge danger in the right ways. If this one rings true for you, check out the book “The Gift of Fear.”
What I mean by trauma is an unprecedented, negative experience, intense fear, helplessness in the face of imminent danger, powerlessness to help yourself out of emotional or physical pain, shock, or experiencing triggers an old experience like this. When you’re triggered or really intensely upset, the part of your brain that allows you to make decisions despite your emotions is shut off. If you were to see a brain scan, you would see that it’s blank. When that part of your brain is shut off, you lose a sense of time and space and you become trapped in the moment. That’s why old traumas are like emotional movies: there might be sounds with short clips or snapshots of objects. There isn’t a holistic experience because we don’t connect to the rest of our brain. When you are stuck in this state, you cannot relate to the shared reality in really important ways: you can’t identify how others see you or how they feel, and you cannot make sense of things using the knowledge of past experiences. Not to mention, you cannot enjoy things like intimacy because you cannot be vulnerable: you’re stuck on the defense.
Long story short, if you get triggered – you will be incapable of saying the thing that the rational you might say, because not only are you unable to perceive the reality that is occurring, you are unable to access the correlated emotional response. Hence the reason you are unable to understand what to do – or think about what to do, when you are emotionally triggered. A lot of people either get really angry and over-reactive, super anxious and panic-y, or they shut off and drift away.
I find that most people who have PTSD or past trauma, don’t believe in their own suffering. They think, “Nah, I am smarter than that.” Or, “I didn’t go to war – so I have no excuse.” You might be hard on yourself thinking you knew better than to be triggered and to grant yourself that description would be like giving yourself a fake excuse. Well that’s what most people think and yes, you do know better – in retrospect. When you’re in a balanced headspace you can think and decide what you want to do and then do it. When you’re triggered into a threatened state, you cannot. The marbles inside are flying everywhere! Which brings me to the next why…
Some people cope with stress by leaving their bodies. It feels kinda like zoning out, you go into an empty-headed state and your body gets almost numb. This could be something that happened to you for the first time in this intense situation – it could also be something set up by a trauma from a long time ago that you don’t even remember.
When people are really freaked out, sometimes they freeze, shut down– like a possum. It’s not a decision– it’s an unconscious reaction, and your propensity is largely dictated by your coping as a young child and your personality type. So if you’re very introverted and passive, your body might shut down as a means to cope with the overwhelm. Your body chemistry follows the emotional trigger. During this zoning, you might be watching yourself from far away – like a movie is being played, but feel nothing. It might be horrific and conceptually upsetting and yet you have absolutely no emotional reaction to it. It’s a defense mechanism that is very confusing because you might WANT to feel something, but your body has chosen to protect you by cutting everything off. This feels similar to having your brain draw a blank. You might report things that are very upsetting, very matter-of-factly – or have no idea how you feel about something despite really wanting to, which can evoke guilt. If this is a coping mechanism that sounds familiar, then you likely have watched someone else get upset at you or believed you didn’t care about something because of how little you could feel. Well, it doesn’t mean the feeling doesn’t exist – but it takes work to get to it. It’s kind of like reconnecting wires that were disconnected a long time ago: therapy is like a retuning process. The current treatments involve reconnecting to your senses via movement, touch, rhythm and physical activity like drumming. If you want to look more into this check out “The Body Keeps the Score.”
There are a lot of situations when there are really good reasons to do something and also really good reasons NOT to do something. How we interpret these reasons is where the shame comes in. When we have opposing strong feelings, often we’re unaware of a lot of them. They stay way below the surface of logic – especially when we’re young. So when we don’t do something, it’s usually because there’s a threat to our survival that motivates us in an opposite direction. For example, standing up for a friend who is bullied. You have to be completely bulletproof in your self-knowledge: practiced in enduring mental and physical injury and confident in who you are, something most often filled by parental love. When your tank is full, you can do pretty much anything and let go of what it means. Everything gets simple because you are loved no matter what. That sense of relief is why I do this podcast: I want everyone to have that feeling of wholeness that comes from a full tank.
If there’s something you didn’t say, and it hurt you not to say it, I want you to reflect upon the idea that maybe you had a real and valuable reason that you didn’t say it. It hurt a part of you not to say it – but it protected another part of you to hold it back. There’s a point in our lives that we are able to do what we idealize as “the right thing” and that comes when we are internally aligned in our sense of self. If you didn’t act on something at a certain time in your life – there’s likely a reason. You might not be aware of it now, or you might feel differently now, but there’s a time and a place for everything. If you weren’t there then, you simply weren’t – it doesn’t make it wrong. It just is. It’s here for you now to learn from it and the most important thing is for you to do that and not use it as a lash to martyr yourself. THAT would be wasteful and self-indulgent.
Part 3: The TOOLS coming up next!