A 37-year-old woman was in therapy because of job stress and related life-dissatisfaction. Or so she thought. Her true story was that she was a survivor of significant childhood complex trauma but assured me that she was “over it.” She was convinced that her job, boss, and co-workers were the problem and that she needed to quit her job to be happy. She had quit 3 jobs in the past 4 years without so much as a two weeks notice and without having another job lined up. She had a vision of opening her own flower shop and was clearly talented as a floral designer. She believed that now was the time to just quit and start her business. She had no plan beyond quitting her job and any challenge to this plan by her friends and even myself were met with anger, as clearly we just didn’t understand her. As she came in week after week it became apparent that her thoughts and beliefs about herself and the people she was in contact with were steeped in her history of trauma. She was in denial regarding the affect that her trauma had on her and the very thinking patterns that had kept her alive in childhood were now killing her slowly.
Human beings have an innate drive to pursue familiarity and comfort. In many ways, survival is based on familiarity. Familiar people, places, and things bring us comfort. This can work in our favor when we use our comfort as a secure base for creative thinking, taking healthy calculated risks, and pushing ourselves to try new things and adapt. However, this mechanism can backfire when we have been psychologically wounded on a deep level such as the case in people who suffer PTSD. For survivors of trauma, the avoidance of reliving pain is the central pursuit of their subconscious and limbic systems. Any comfort they can find becomes something to obsessively hold onto. This experience can be seen in many survivors’ relationships, substance abuse issues, underachieving in dead-end jobs, and unhealthy lifestyle patterns that just seem too difficult to kick to the curb.
If finding a comfortable niche in life was all there was to it, then we wouldn’t be talking about issues such as thriving, success, and motivation, which seem to be just out of reach for those who have experienced trauma. Buried deep inside along with our need for familiarity exists an equally strong drive for personal growth and character development. This drive, much like familiarity, wont shut off on its own and is constantly battling to be heard and acted on. The problem is that it will challenge our comfort levels and adaptability forcing us to explore less familiar areas of life educationally, relationally, and experientially which in turn forces us to face our wounded selves. Herein lies the problem for survivors of trauma. How do I quench this need for growth, while sufficiently maintaining a level of comfort that will keep me feeling moderately sane?
Many people are forced into less than satisfying life course because they are rationalizing their happiness and suffer the effects of not realizing their true self. Trauma has this effect on people as it buries the true self under a dark cloud of self protective personality traits and behaviors that only concern themselves for the physical well being of the individual while neglecting the emotional, spiritual and mental health of the individual essentially creating rigid black and white thinking. This all or nothing type of thinking will not allow for the change and adaptation necessary for growth. Many people have goals and visions for their life, but most people fail to recognize that becoming self-aware and plugging their identity into an actual process is essential for reaching their goals of prosperity. Self-awareness requires us to be aware of the good, bad, and ugly that makes up who we are. Most people, traumatized or not, would like to have prescribed steps that guarantee success as an outcome. What most people fail to realize is that our wounds and subsequent issues are actually trying to tell us something.
If we begin to utilize our issues as areas of focus and address them head on, we will begin to see ourselves on a path where the outcome is success. We will find ourselves engaging with our environment in a fulfilling way that opens the door for success. By being honest with ourselves and opening ourselves up to feedback from friends, family, and possibly a therapist we will see that real success is the fruit of growing our selves. We need a shift in perspective. We need a shift in value. Motivation must be driven by a belief that my soul will die if my needs are not met. I will die if I don’t engage my true self in the world. I will die a long slow death of my character and waste my gifts if my “self” isn’t given a chance to shine. If I convince myself of this soul death then I will do what it takes to live. By moving personal growth and character development to the forefront of our “needs” and make it more than something we need to get around to some day we will find the success that seems to be so allusive.
Life is full of paradox, and discomfort is the sign of life. Inside all of us is a seed of anxiety that is triggered whenever we are facing in the right direction. However, that discomfort resembles actual life threatening fear to our stress response and because we are taught to seek comfort we turn away from the pain in fear. This is the mistake. Success is found in the pursuit of the discomfort we find when we face our wounds and character defects head on. Satisfaction in life is in following that path which challenges the thing that tells us no. The idea that I deserve or should find comfort is a lie that traps most people. If we are to thrive in this life then we must avoid the comfort trap and step out into the unknown, a scary, but necessary thought.