This is a long, complicated, and potentially triggering post. Please read with care
In August, I hear many voices in my head. My alters also hear voices – female/male, old/young, always condescending, always mean, always tearing down something – in our head. Sometimes we hear the same voices; sometimes we hear different ones. I guess it depends on the triggers each of us experience and how we react to them.
The most difficult and prevalent triggers feel like pain in the middle of our chest – like our heart and lungs hurt. These triggers bring out feelings of shame, incompetence, guilt, and embarrassment. The accompanying voices try to make us question our beliefs, choices, opinions, processes, and sense of self. They remind us of past experiences where one or more alters or host personalities spoke or behaved in such a way that the criticism from a friend or an acquaintance or family member spirals into flashbacks, backlash, and extreme reactions.
What Kind of Reactions?
Reactions like Rebellion, Anger, Lashing Out, Withdrawal, Lecturing, Over-Apologizing, and Falling Back into Old Patterns.
Reflection, Perspective, Self-Compassion, Compassion for Others
When one or all of us do get perspective back, we reflect and feel shame that all of this spiraled out of control and got to us. And we try to have compassion for ourselves as we learn from these reactions and experiences.
Part one of working through the voices is a combination of processing and reflection. Processing happens in two ways for us:
- Working with a therapist or counselor to understand an experience
- Working amongst ourselves to understand an experience.
With our regular person away, we’ve been using option two with help from the crisis hotline on sticky situations. This time around, we shared our perspectives of recent conversations and experiences that bring out feelings of shame, rebellion, anger, and hurt. All of us wanted to understand WHY we reacted a certain way every time – and not just to people, but music, movies, tv episodes, etc.
Then we decided to get thoughts from close friends and learn more about how and why we react the way we do – highly sensitive persons, extroversion/introversion, empathy & empaths, life philosophy – Eleanor Roosevelt. Some of this processing and reflection was shared on the blog along with coping strategies for working with overwhelming feelings/energy levels.
Which brings us to Perspective.
Perspective = Knowledge + Understanding + Accepting/Sharing/Rejecting Responsibility
My cousin and his new wife actually provided this insight during our dinner together. Seeing people interact as an adult or learning background information about an experience fills in blanks and can add perspective – teaching us something new and helping understand people/past/motivations with compassion and insight.
The biggest piece of information I learned is that I tend to take on and reflect (i.e. act like, verbalize, express) feelings, thoughts, opinions & behaviors of the people I spend time around when I feel anxious or triggered. This happens without conscious knowledge.
- Part of me says it’s a survival instinct because burying my true self and conforming on the outside kept me safe.
- Part of me says it’s an automatic defense mechanism and maybe rebellious behavior because I can’t verbalize my true opinions to the individual or group.
- Part of me says it’s because I am empathic and do not have proper defensive shields to protect and separate myself from other people.
- Part of me says I will deliberately seek out people who draw these kinds of reactions from me to punish myself when I give in to the self-harm obsessions and compulsions
All of me agrees that the opinions above are true.
All of me agrees that these opinions and beliefs are NOT excuses or rationalizations for negative or bad reactions. They are NOT about abdicating self-responsibility or blaming others. They are truths about myself and my alters and can be used for positive, neutral, or negative purposes.
But these personal characteristics make it easy for me to believe when other people tell me I am being selfish, self-centered, arrogant, etc. Or that I talk too much about myself or am not being very tactful in respecting my elders or other people’s opinions or being rude in my speech or a bad listener or making excuses or not taking responsibility for myself and my actions.
Because, somewhere in my murky past when I didn’t have any choice except to conform and behave a certain way, I was all of those things. I didn’t choose to be that way. But I spoke and acted that way to protect myself. And while I did get punished and reviled by outsiders, I stayed safe where it mattered.
These days, behaviors like that only come out for three reasons:
- Conscious defense mechanism against negativity – I act like the people around me to fit in and shield myself. It means that I get criticized and shamed for acting a certain way, but that’s okay since acting like myself brings out even more negative reactions in those situations and withdrawal is not an option
- Unconscious defense mechanism against triggers – like in the experience staying with my friend while on vacation, part of me realized she was not safe anymore and acted to protect us from her by mirroring her words and behaviors. She admits to being a bad listener with her own traumatic past. So when I didn’t react the way she wanted and expected me to react to her conversational tidbits, she lashed out. And then tried to “correct” my behavior by shaming me. Only with perspective from my old therapist did I realize what I was doing, why her barbs hit so strong, and why I felt shame doing what I did.
- Self-harm – It’s not often that I feel backlash strong enough to make me seek out toxic people on purpose or put myself in situations where I will encounter known toxic people. But when I do this on purpose, it’s because I or some part of me has given in to the compulsion to self-harm. Emotional self-harm was an effective distraction that caused all of us to FEEL something and provided an excuse to punish ourselves.
As you can see, this automatic defense is not something any of us in the system want to stay automatic. In almost every situation outlined above, the inner and outer reactions to it are mostly neutral or negative. And how we cope with the aftermath can be shaky.
Which brings us to Compassion – self & other
The best coping strategy we’ve found for working through this kind of trigger situation is Compassion.
Self-Compassion = being kind to ourselves + forgiving ourselves for making a mistake + separating responsibility from blame + learning from the experience
The shame is an automatic response for taking care of and defending ourselves. It is not something inherent, but taught over many years by many adults, educators, and peers. If this automatic defense mechanism was negative and harmful, none of us would feel shame after using it. Nor would we question whether or not what the other person said of us is true or false.
The guilt come from standing up for our beliefs in spite of hurting the other person. Instead of being flexible and giving in like we were taught, we did the opposite in a quiet, assertive, but obvious way. If we had given in, no one would feel guilt.
The blame vs responsibility is trickier to explain. Therapy taught us how to give back responsibility that did not belong to us and only accept responsibility or our part in an experience. Therapy also taught us the difference between blame and responsibility. If we accepted the blame for everything and held ourselves responsible, we wouldn’t feel any backlash. That is in line with what the abusers taught us. But this trigger does the opposite. Perspective helps us realize NO ONE IS TO BLAME and that WE ARE ONLY RESPONSIBLE FOR OURSELVES in any experience.
As long as we accepted responsibility for our actions and reactions, learned from our mistakes, and understood why this situation was trigging/brought out defense mechanisms, we did our best and are okay. Nothing to be ashamed of or feel guilty about.
Compassion for Others
Since we have no control over others, the environment, etc., we can let go of that sense of responsibility and accept that other people are who they are without blame. We can understand that they will act and react based on their internal values, beliefs, and triggers. It has nothing to do with us.
Here we can feel compassion for the other people by understanding that they have their own personal struggles to work through and cope with. That those struggles may cause them to lash out and exert control by hurting us and others around us – either on purpose or without conscious knowledge of their motivations. By remembering and applying this knowledge, we can choose to react with sensitivity, respect, and assertiveness as we share our opinions instead of lashing out and making things worse.
Or we can choose to not share opinions and still respond with sensitivity, respect, and assertiveness of boundaries. Then decide for ourselves how much contact we want to have with this person who is potentially unsafe or toxic or wants to change us in some way.
Acceptance of Truths
In August, I remember how my family treated me just before I walked away. I remember thinking and believing on some level that I deserved to be treated this way for not conforming to my mother’s wishes and my fathers expectations. That my brother should hate me because I was successful and independent with friends and a community outside of where we grew up.
The flashbacks and voices in my head only show one perspective; the one that reinforces negative beliefs about myself.
But then I think about the present time. I think about the wonderful people in my life. I think about how this website and blog helps me help other people. I think about the blessings and opportunities that come from my job and my support network. And those negative beliefs start to lose substance.
- While I may feel shame or confusion about what I did to make my mother, father, brother, or relatives/acquaintances hate/dislike/feel ashamed of me, I realize too that I might not have said or done anything specific.
- Either way, it’s out of my control and not my responsibility to make them feel good or happy.
- I can let go of feeling ashamed or guilty for choosing myself instead of them.
- I can let go of the anger and hurt that these people can’t love, accept, respect, or care about me as I am.
- I can accept that I will always love, accept, and care about these people as they are even if I personally dislike and cannot trust who they are as individuals.
- I can finally start to believe I deserve having a nest egg and can save money without having to spend it once I reach a certain level of savings
- I can accept that my family and I will never have much in common or be able to spend time together without conflict, but that we can support and love each other from a distance
Thanks for reading