We Are Survivors 

This blog is dedicated to the tens of millions of adult survivors of child abuse and neglect who get up every day and try to work and function in a world that seems to not care about us.

Reversing Destructive Patterns

Many survivors have an ongoing problem with regulating their feelings and the self-harm that follows. This includes everything from eating disorders, substance abuse, self-mutilation, and, at times, thoughts of suicide. It might be helpful to understand the cycle that occurs that works to perpetuate these destructive patterns so that changes can be made.

Usually something is triggered in our environment which makes us feel terrified either on a conscious or unconscious level. Based on methods we have used a lot in the past to comfort ourselves, we now act compulsively as a defense against feeling anxious or fearful. Food or other substances become our transitional object to get us through rough times. This object we have chosen provides comfort and works to numb the pain. The problem is it is a self-destructive way to reach some measure of inner peace.

Part of what plays into this cycle is that we learned as a child to isolate ourselves to escape pain. We also came to believe in what is called learned helplessness because no matter what we tried when we were a child to escape our abuse, nothing worked. After years of trying to escape the abuse and despair and not being successful, we resigned ourselves to the fact that it would always be that way. Therefore, we were conditioned by our abusers to believe it was useless to escape our condition. This conditioning of learned helplessness is alive and well in our adult lives and kicks in when we experience feelings of fear, anger, or despair.

In overcoming this pattern, our goal is to try and link those uncomfortable feelings to our past environment, understand that overeating or other means of stuffing/masking those feelings is a response to feeling out of control, and to view this state, not as something bad in and of itself, but as a protective mechanism chosen early in life that doesn’t work too well and isn’t appropriate today.

We must learn to accept this behavior in ourselves as something that meets a strong need instead of chastising ourselves for “doing something wrong.” We can then begin to explore other ways to meet this need of comforting ourselves when feeling distressed.

Self-acceptance is the key. It is important to know that we did whatever we could to survive. Now we need to do whatever we can to love and take care of ourselves. We do that by creating a sense of safety for ourselves. This can be anything from creating a safe place in our mind to developing effective boundaries with others. Journaling can be helpful as well when we ask that frightened part of ourselves what is causing our anxiety, and what can we do to calm ourselves in a healthy way.

By taking control internally, it helps to foster a sense that control rests inside of us regardless of what is happening on the outside, but in a way that is not self-harming and is more adaptive in our present life. In other words, we are reprogramming our stress-response cycle we developed as a child when confronting overwhelming trauma.

The overwhelming trauma no longer exists. It just feels that way.

This whole process involves acknowledging the learned helplessness conditioning as a child, the stress-response cycle we developed to cope with our abuse, and our attempts to function with no support from our caretakers when growing up.

By learning to take charge and love our traumatized child within, we empower ourselves to deal with those fearful stress-filled states in a more loving way. We are building a new, loving way to deal with the stress-response cycle. This is how we become more functional and healthy as adults.

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