Part of the beauty in my work is that I’m in a position of almost always being pleasantly surprised and intrigued by the ability of people to learn and heal.
This week a client asked a great question - a surprising, informed, wonderful question.
I was told a story of an abuse survivor that just seemed to have recovered completely and have everything in perspective. Then I was asked, “What makes someone do that? How come so many people are trapped and ruined by horrible things that happen to them and others seem to own it and grow?”
It was a great opening for introducing a concept and it gave me the juice for this blog.
Why is it that some of us seem to suffer great tragedy and easily move on or even thrive from the recovery or experience and others of us get stuck in the event until it seems to become us?
The answer is our belief system. From the time we’re born we are taught things. We begin learning and refining what we learn the moment we arrive. One of the things that we learn through our parents and institutions like school and day care is a “just world belief”. That belief is reinforced by the rules around us from the time we’re toddlers that say if we do well then we’ll be rewarded or have no punishment, and if we do bad we’ll suffer some consequence.
Through no real intention of the powers that be, they teach us in short that good things happen to those who are good and bad things happen to those who are bad. That kind of rule set up is meant to protect us from harm, keep us in line, and teach us some morality.
The truth of it is much more complicated. When we ingrain that idea in ourselves so early on, we bury it deep inside our basic belief frameworks, and then it’s really in there. Whenever anything good or bad happens most of us look at ourselves and try to determine what brought on whatever blessing or punishment we’re experiencing so that we can recreate more or less of the same depending on what it was.
Having an internal locus of control and accepting our role in life, our ability to make choices and decisions, is definitely a positive thing. It’s not like someone set out to teach us bad lessons! We need to embrace and understand how our behavior and decisions affect life and that’s part of what we learn through the “system” that parents, caregivers, schools, and other places teach us.
It’s just that it neglects to also mention that sometimes things really are out of our control. We aren’t ever able to control another person’s behavior. If someone hurts our physical body in some way, we have no control. If someone we love is hurt, we have no control. The aftermath is all that we can control in that regard - except there’s a problem.
We’ve spent a lifetime learning that if you’re good bad things won’t happen to you. So the aftermath of these events is approached in our cognitive set up as a bad thing that happened to us or someone we love - which means the responsible party is us somehow. We had to have done something bad.
We’ve built this just world belief from concrete and steel.
Now, we have two choices. We can try to change the event to fit into that belief system (make the event or abuse our own fault, find the flaw in every decision and in every detail of our recall of whatever happened in order to do so) or we can change our belief to fit the event. Which one of those sounds easier?
The truth is that neither is easy or painless. It’s just that only one of them really works to create recovery, hope, or healing. It isn’t easy to dismantle a belief ingrained in us since the beginning of our beginning, but it is impossible to change an event that has already happened into something it wasn’t and when we try, we often end up in guilt and blame.
The guilt and blame are where we get “stuck”. Symptoms of trauma set in. We feed the flames with our thoughts, and develop coping habits that aren’t spectacular (drugs or alcohol sometimes, running from relationships, avoiding connection with others, etc.). We set up shop there and stay because it is so difficult to change the belief about what has happened to us.
The truth is that not everything that happens in your life is caused by you. Not every single thing is your fault, but we just haven’t been super at communicating that within the lessons and systems we commonly use. That isn’t a get out of jail free card by saying, nothing is your fault - it’s just that not every single thing is your choice. You don’t get to decide what other people do.
It may feel foreign or even like lying to yourself when you attempt to change a belief as deeply set as this one, but it is a false belief. It isn’t based on actual fact. You signed up for this belief under duress and without the ability to even read the fine print, much less understand that at some point someone could cause trauma to you in some way.
The fact is that sometimes you don’t have control, but we don’t get taught that right off the bat. Parents and others who care about us don’t immediately think that something bad can happen to us. As parents we believe we can protect these tiny people, keep them safe, keep them perfect. We can’t always, though, no matter how hard we try or how positive our intentions. These lessons we learn in the aftermath as parents and trauma survivors must also learn in the aftermath, that there was fine print on the just world belief we were all taught.
If you’re struggling to cope with a traumatic experience, please reach out to a licensed professional counselor. Get the support and help you need to explore, examine, and rewire some of the beliefs that keep you chained to experiences that harm you.
Whitney White is a counselor working in Texas in multiple settings with diverse populations. Some of her areas of passion are anxiety, non-suicidal self-injury, and compassion fatigue. With an integrated approach utilizing client strengths, she supports others in achieving their best self. For more information please visit counselingbywhitney.wordpress.com. The thoughts expressed in Whitney’s blogs do not represent her employers.