My Threshold for Emotional Pain was Dangerously High / How I learned to adapt to abuse

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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here are complex trauma survivors who have an uncanny ability to plow through the most heinous mistreatment without batting an eye.They appear impervious to abuse, numb to the violations heaped upon them. Primitive psychological defenses such as denial, minimization, and rationalization buffer them from the reality of harm, to the extent that they cease even knowing they are being harmed.

I know, because I was one of them.

Chronic betrayals, attachment violations, hunger, poverty, ostracism, sexual objectification, violence, and exploitation caused wounds to my psyche and soul. Over time these injuries calcified like an intractable scab.

Coupled with the absence of basic life skills, I morphed into a traumatized young woman barely able to identify a feeling. I was frozen, fragmented and devoid of a sense of self. Vacillating between intrusive, repetitive emotional flooding and deadening dissociative numbness led to reckless acting out.

My destructive acting out was egosyntonic, meaning it was acceptable to my ego and consistent with my feeble understanding of myself and of life.

I became oblivious to my emotional pain. This is not to say I was immune. On the contrary, my symptoms were fierce. Denial, repression and minimization do not curtail the consequences of suffering. These psychological defenses only mask what requires conscious acceptance.Hence, unmetabolized pain, rage and grief went underground, causing greater distress.

This distress was normalized and as I continued to deny the magnitude of what was happening to me, it became natural. At some point I even found a way to romanticize my psychological paralysis as existential nihilism.

Since all things are qualified by their opposite, teetering on this tightrope of deflecting pain carried with it the absence of pleasure. Likewise, denying the reality of systemic abuse perpetuated subsequent victimization.Unfortunately these were unavoidable choices. I was simply not equipped to process emotional information, nor was I able to heed cues to protect myself.

Overexposure to traumatic events and developmental disasters made me desensitized. I was in a state of shock in which organic spontaneous response to painful stimuli were extinguished.

A prolonged process of recovery eventually led me towards experiencing my self-destructive conduct as egodystonic. This triumph meant I finally had access to my instinctual awareness of threat and harm. This awakened me to what was in conflict and dissonant with the goals and needs of my ego.

Getting to this point was not easy to achieve.

It wasn’t until many years later that I was able to emotionally approach the damage caused by a rape that occurred when I was fifteen. Similarly, I couldn’t recognize mistreatment and neglect until way past a friendship ended. Being worked to death with no complaints was routine. Dating people who came and went as they pleased was also a common pattern.Getting hit, raged at, or having objects thrown my way was minimized and trivialized. The list of infractions was endless. Almost as endless as my capacity to endure abuse.

When the fear of winding up like my schizophrenic mother hit its apex I pursued therapy. It was that step that awakened me to the harsh reality that I was a whipping post, so beset by complex trauma that I didn’t know which end was up.

Through the process of recovery I came to understand that I was both blessed and cursed by adaptation.

Theoretically, the adaptive strategies employed to endure relentless trauma and abuse become pathological and maladaptive once the danger ceases. In situations of acute trauma, this is a clear directive, but when danger doesn’t cease and abuse persists, the reliance on primitive defenses and self-medicating continues to be necessary to survival. This is particularly germane to trauma bonding.

My primary familial attachments were reinforced by repetitive cycles of abuse that were interspersed with intermittent reinforcement. These trauma bonds caused unpredictability and confusion. It also imbued my abusers with tremendous power. The ones who inflicted pain had the power to stop it. As a result, my tormenters were simultaneously viewed as redeemers.

We see this phenomenon illustrated in the cycle of abuse with a batterer who in the aftermath of an assault, will cajole his victim with feigned contrition, lavish gifts, and false promises of repentance. Over time the victim’s mind scrambles to discover what one has to do to avoid injury and acquire a positive response from the abuser. Eventually, a distressing state of mental conflict and disharmony known as cognitive dissonance sets in.

The desperate urgency to make sense out of what was happening and to have some sort of locus of control became a driving force. I came to view any iota of kindness or even the absence of abuse as proof of my abuser’s humanity. I had to somehow convince myself that I mattered to those who I depended on to survive. I had to convince myself that my abusers were capable of basic decency and empathy. So I did what all victims do when confronted with an impossible situation in which true agency is lacking. I blamed myself. I also fawned.

Like fight, flight and freeze, fawning is an instinctive response to trauma.Fawning is designed to establish safety and agency by being obsequious and obedient.

Trauma therapist and author Pete Walker explains, “For the nascent codependent, all hints of danger immediately trigger servile behaviors and abdication of rights and needs.”

Numb and compliant, I managed unbearable confusion, danger, helplessness, and deliberate cruelty.

Decades of intensive trauma therapy, workshops, academic pursuits, gainful employment, and global travel led towards my reclaiming an authentic embodied self.

Having reclaimed sensorial and emotional awareness I can now appreciate the full range of feelings that guide me through life and healthier choices. I appreciate how I need my pain to alert me to harm.

This gift, however, did not come without sacrifice.

A fundamental premise of psychology is rooted in the first law of thermodynamics, which purports that energy can be changed from one form to another, but it cannot be created or destroyed. Ergo, we cannot amputate those energetic parts of ourselves we despise or fear. We have to engage with and assimilate those aspects of ourselves for healing to occur.

Hence, healing required me to access debilitating memories, harrowing grief and agonizing rage and hatred so that transformation could ensue.Assimilating and integrating the landscape of repressed emotions involved a dark descent into profound wounds and toxic illusions.

Immersion in this process culminated in a mature sense of acceptance and self realization. It crystallized the somber reality that not all things in life are reparable.

Accordingly, I came to understand that in order to lead a stable, truthful, and dignified life I had to leave my family of origin along with many other attachments. I came to accept that there are losses and injuries I simply have to learn to live with. Yet with that difficult truth, I also came to realize the possibility of choosing more wisely, to reap the harvest, and to seize what life could offer.

With great pride, I recognize that I managed to transcend mere survival so as to restore my birthright and finally experience what it is like to fully feel and fully live. This will forever be my greatest achievement.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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