How You Handle Trauma Affects How You Make Decisions

Danielle Dahl, MSML

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Originally published in Fearless She Wrote

Her office is the epitome of hippy-dippy, mindfulness therapy. I love it in there. The wall decals that cling to dear life say things like "tranquility." She has one of those "water running over rocks," serenity sound things. I found myself in her office because I was searching for tranquility and peace. Books upon books on trauma, anxiety, depression, and, of course, a copy of The Body Keeps the Score. (Seriously, if you have lived through any type of trauma, you should read this book.) I find comfort and knowledge in her office, but we also have many conversations about decision making and the impact those decisions have on the future.

When I first came to see her, I thought it was because I needed help to deal with the pain that parenting my teenage daughter was causing me. I assumed my child hated me, and I couldn't understand why. I mean, I had been the complete opposite of the mother figures in my life.

On the one hand, we had the abandoning mother addicted to drugs, forfeiting a relationship with her children, absent, and incapable of keeping promises. On the other hand, we had an overbearing, verbally, physically, and emotionally abusive grandmother. I had made a concentrated effort to be different on purpose.

She told me the problem was not that my child hated me, but rather that I had unresolved trauma that was clouding the parenting decisions I made. It altered the perception of love between my child and me as we had different frames of reference. In the beginning, I kept assuring her she was wrong and I had my trauma under control.

I had my trauma under control.

It wasn't long until I realized my therapist was right; my claim of "having all my trauma under control" meant I hadn't dealt with much of it precisely as my therapist had pointed out in our first session. Back when I couldn't understand how my daughter and I had ended up here. I was resistant when she tried to tell me that "control" was not the same as processed.

I balked when she would say this because it felt like she was implying that I had never truly been the captain of my own ship. I assumed she didn't know me well enough to understand what I meant. I always held the map and had a detailed plan. My trauma did not dictate who I would become. I had made that vow to myself at the age of 12 while watching a PBS special about children of drug addicts.

The more times she said that trauma impacted every decision I made, the more defensive I would become.

I would argue that I had attended college and graduated. That I had wanted children and that I had done my best to be a good mom. I had worked part-time, I had stayed home with them. I had cooked dinner nearly every night, made handmade costumes, done arts and crafts, chaperoned field trips. I enrolled them in extra circular activities.

I had been different on purpose.

"Exactly, trauma has impacted every decision you have ever made," she stated for what felt like the hundredth time.

Wait? What? Suddenly, this didn't sound accusatory. It didn't make me feel warm and fuzzy, though, either. I had assumed each time she said this that she was implying I had made bad choices. I certainly thought I had done the exact opposite! I think she was trying to explain the way complex trauma works. According to John McAloon:

People react to threat or danger with a system comprised of biological, cognitive, and behavioral responses. The physical reactions involve a cascade of interdependent neurochemical changes in different parts of the brain and body. These, in turn, influence thinking and behavior.

Typically, following the perception of threat or danger, the body's neurochemistry returns to normal. In post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the neurochemical responses outlive the original threat and inhibit the system's ability to return to normal.

The fact that I had been different on purpose had been my reaction to trauma.

She asked me what I had been like before the traumatic events of my childhood. I told her that I had been "this way" for as long as I could remember. I can recall my grandma's disappointment in me when she took my mom and me to Disney for my fifth birthday. I needed the map to the park. I had to know what we were doing next, where we would all be going, where we would all be sitting even.

My grandma had admonished me with:

Why can't you just enjoy what we are doing now?

Why are you so worried about what comes next?

Can't you appreciate what you have?

As if I was doing something wrong. As if my poor five-year-old self, who had seen drug abuse, a bitter divorce, and a noncustodial "kidnapping" (which led to said grandma calling the FBI), had any choice.

Trauma was already impacting every decision I made.

She looked at me when I was finished speaking and said:

Gosh, you don't even know who you would have been.

And she is right. I don't know who I would be because while I may be a statistical anomaly, my trauma has impacted every decision I have ever made.

My need to be a successful person led me down a career path I didn't have passion for, which led to jobs that I didn't love and degrees that I didn't want. Young children learn by watching their parents, and while I never said things to my daughter about having to be perfect, she had been watching me. When I threw out the gingerbread house we made when she was four because it didn't look like the box's picture, I was reinforcing this belief. Trauma dictated that decision, too, because shoddy work was not acceptable. This Christmas, we made a perfectly imperfect gingerbread house as a family.

My therapist was right, and I can recognize that trauma does impact every decision you make. Even when you don't think it does.

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Words matter. Sharing the pain and evolution found in our life stories compels others to investigate, “How they came to be who they are?” Delving into the events that shaped us as children creates a level of self-awareness each of us can use to establish enduring and essential change. I use my personal history, education as a Management professional, and training as a Life Coach to write insightful articles about leadership and teams, personal development, and everything else that pertains to growth, both professionally and personally.

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