By Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
Emotional response patterns are the automatic, unconscious ways that we respond to uncomfortable feelings, usually hurt or loss. In my work with trauma survivors I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: the first hurdle or guard which blocks conscious feelings of hurt and loss is often anger.
Like the lion who roars from the splinter in his paw, the anger is trying to release the pain, but unfortunately the roaring only gets rid of the help. People stuck in anger come across to others as frightening and cruel, but inside they are usually hurting and bewildered. Their anger is a solid-looking steel plate of armor to hide a stricken heart.
Get beyond the anger and you’ll find the second guard, exhaustion: this pain will go on forever, the exhaustion says. It’s too much work to change and you’ll never succeed anyhow. Why not give up now? People stuck in exhaustion often have medical diagnosis of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and/or Fibromyalgia. Like the sirens who seduced Odysseus on his journey home, the exhaustion wants you to just lay down and stay a while… a very long while.
Some people spend their whole lives swinging between anger and exhaustion because they might dip their toes into the therapy pool, but they won’t stick with it long enough to change.
Get beyond the anger and the exhaustion and then you are finally reaching gold. Heavy, valuable, and just as malleable as the 24 carat variety, direct feeling of loss and pain is the source of empathy and compassion for ourselves and others.
Unfortunately a lot of these painful feelings originated at a young age and so our defense mechanisms, like Rapunzel’s well-meaning but overly protective mother, sticks them in a tower for their own safety, and stations those two workaholic guards Anger and Exhaustion at the door. But then Rapunzel grows up, and the very tower which started out a refuge becomes a prison.
If you are confronting your own anger or exhaustion and you feel like giving up, make an appointment with a qualified therapist in your area. (Note: Growing extremely long hair and dangling it out the window for a bonny prince to climb is unlikely to work.)
I believe this journey from reactivity/avoidance to acceptance and awareness is the best trip you’ll ever take.
I am teaching a course for attorneys on trauma in July. Visit my website www.therapistseattle.net for more information