Emotional Trauma: Processing Vulnerability and Shame

I haven’t written in a while. It’s not that I don’t have things to say because believe me, I do, but I tend to think that other people’s voices are more animated, more amplified, more worthy than my own.

My head is swimming with thoughts, drowning in its own self preservation and sadness at the world we are currently living in. I almost feel wrong sitting down to write right now with the intention of talking about myself and not what’s going on with COVID, the upcoming election, the BLM Civil Rights Movement, systemic racism and police brutality. There will never be enough conversation about these topics but that’s not what my blog is for. Forgive me if you disagree with this but I need one place to call my own that isn’t flooded with the outside world. So consider this that place as you continue to read and believe me when I say I have done everything I can to protest, petition, donate and educate friends, family and strangers on all of these topics. But today, I need a place to unload.

I’ve been struggling a lot lately. Silently. And not because I don’t have people to confide in. More because I struggle with vulnerability, shame (I have two TedTalks to recommend at the end of this that I will link below if you’re someone who struggles with what I am going to write about), a bit of anger towards myself and resentment I’ve subconsciously held on to. These are all things we, as individuals, are too proud to discuss.

I wrote in January about starting therapy again. It was one of my many new years resolutions and honestly, long over due. I’m sure we are all like this one way or another but I am the type of person that thinks time heals everything. If enough time passes, surely the problems will just go away on their own. If I push things aside and bury them, they’ll dissolve. If I spend enough time pretending this didn’t happen to me, maybe I’ll forget it ever did. Wrong. 

I’ve spent 10 years trying to pretend.

I can’t do it anymore.

And this whole thing is so overplayed in my mind that I can barely even verbally acknowledge it to those I’m closest to. All because I’m so incredibly desperate to just forget, let it go and move on, but it’s been so glaringly obvious that I can’t do that. And it’s deafening. Even now, I’m struggling to write even though the words and the feelings are there.

I guess to start, I need to recap. I’m not going to go into detail, mainly because I’m writing this for myself as a sort of processing/release exercise, so if you want a refresher, read my post from February. 

Reading it back and refreshing myself, I’m realizing now that I am a total hypocrite. Who am I to encourage people to face their trauma and not let it define them when that’s what I’ve been doing the last 10 years? But I guess I should give myself a break because when that post was written, I really meant those words and I really had forgiven myself and those involved. It’s funny how resentment creeps back up on you.

The further I’ve delved into my sessions, the more I’ve realized I’ve been lying to myself and to my therapist (unintentionally). I have found that I am very good at putting on a brave face, convincing everyone (and myself) that I’m OK and moving on as if I’ve laid it to rest. We call that a defense mechanism. Pretend you’re OK and you’ll be OK. Act like you’re fine and deal with your emotions in private. This is what we call shame (I’ll get into this more later).

If I’ve learned anything through therapy thus far, it’s that, despite how badly I want to move forward and how hard I’ve tried to convince myself that I can move forward, I have to go backwards first and unravel everything. I haven’t done this yet. This is something I plan to work on in the coming months/years. I say years because it’s been 10 already and I feel like I haven’t even started.

I’ve gone over what happened but I haven’t gone over how it made me feel or the long term effects that I think I might be dealing with for the rest of my life. I wasn’t able to process my feelings when I was younger. Instead, survival mode took over and I did what I had to do to survive. I shut down. And the worst part about this entire fucking thing is that I am still entirely closed off, no matter how hard I fight or how badly I want to be able to open up to people. I have shut down emotionally and in turn, physically.

Opening up to people and feeling vulnerable is nearly impossible for me and for so long, I was made to feel like it was my fault. That this was just the way that I am when really, I was made to be this way. We mistake vulnerability as weakness and use our moments alone to give in to our emotions and the way we feel instead of letting people see us angry, in love, sad or overwhelmed. This is something that normal people do. 

For someone like me, for someone that was bullied and emotionally traumatized, the feelings that come with vulnerability are debilitating. I am met with fear, anger, anxiety, embarrassment and shame. All surrounding an emotion and a feeling that should be embraced because being vulnerable is beautiful.

I pride myself on being authentic, especially when I write and converse with others about my opinions and experiences, but how can I be authentic without being vulnerable?

I think part of this recovery process for me will have to be about embracing my discomfort and not running from the feelings that come with vulnerability. Unfortunately, we are inherently taught that being vulnerable is being weak and if you’re someone who thinks this, whether towards other people or towards yourself, I’m here to tell you that you are wrong. Reworking this and understanding this, even for someone who doesn’t suffer from emotional trauma, is extremely difficult.

So I encourage you, especially if you are someone who has not suffered from emotional trauma (this can go hand in hand with bullying, emotional abuse, mental illness, physical abuse, suicidal thoughts/tendencies and self harm), to think about your perceptions of vulnerability and how being vulnerable makes you feel. Are you uncomfortable? Now take that uncomfortably and amplify it to its most extreme.

I think the easiest way to help someone understand the way I feel would be to picture yourself naked on a stage with big, glaring lights in a room where every single person who has ever disliked you is holding a magnifying glass and looking at you through it, inspecting you, invading your space and your privacy, looking at every part of you that you’re insecure about and relishing in your discomfort. You know they’re going to tear you apart. Except the ones tearing me apart aren’t real people, they’re in my head. And they’re me.

My discomfort with vulnerability goes hand in hand with shame. This is probably the biggest and brightest emotion that comes through when I feel like I’m getting too angry or too sad or too passionate about something. I’m met with a wall of embarrassment and I shut down, even when I am doing nothing wrong. But the simplest laugh or the simplest glance in my direction will send me into a tailspin. Shame is one of those things that makes me feel like I’m too much but not enough at the same time. But shame with emotion is the hardest thing to process because although my head is telling me that I need to recede, it’s also telling me that I need to do more, feel more, be more. Yet, there’s a disconnect between these two parts that can’t seem to work it out.

Men and women process shame differently yet we are both taught from the same sources; our family/close friends and the media (social media, movies, TV shows, books, etc). I’m using binary terms here because this is where the difference is most profound. Of course, the feelings that come with shame and vulnerability can be processed interchangeably between all genders but almost all of the psychological studies surround men and women.

That said, women are inherently taught that a man should never see them cry. The public should never see them upset. They should always be cool, calm, collected and presentable at all times. If a woman lets her man see her cry, he won’t take her seriously. He’ll degrade her, take advantage of her emotions and deem her “too emotional” or “unstable.” If the public sees a woman cry, they’ll deem her “reckless” or “unhinged” or “not fit for a position of power because she is too emotional.” You can see how this will inherently effect young women. This is why having emotional women in our life is monumental for how we process and express emotion.

Take me for example; my mom has never expressed emotion in front of me. Anger, sure, but I have never seen her embarrassed and I have never seen her cry. In turn, I was brought up to think that emotion is processed in private. Did she ever verbalize this to me? Of course not, because she doesn’t feel that way towards other people, she only feels that way towards herself and this is what I saw. I don’t blame her, or any other women in my life, for this is how they were brought up, too. Except the difference between my mom and me is that her mother didn’t condone emotions where as my mother encouraged them. Still, she grieved in private and I learned to, too.

For men, and I don’t understand this even remotely as much as I understand women so please correct me if I’m wrong and feel free to share your own experiences, they are taught that they can never show emotion. Period. Vulnerability in men is immediately viewed as weakness by other men. It makes you less manly if you show emotion. They are expected to be the head of the household, the money maker, the bread winner, the stability and backbone for their women and their family.

But, as someone who has dated both men and women, women love when men are emotional and vulnerable in private but they get uncomfortable when men cry. It’s almost unheard of. If a man is crying, someone must have died. It can’t possibly be because he’s upset over an exam or a fight with his mom. If a man shows affection to his girlfriend/wife in front of other men, he’s a “whipped” or “soft.” Men are expected to be strong, stable and emotionless. And in turn, young men view their fathers, brothers, grandfathers and role models and see this type of behavior.

Regardless of gender, fear of vulnerability breeds fear of vulnerability. And we are all extreme examples of this. So how do we break it down? How do we debunk the myth that vulnerability equals weakness? The same way we teach our kids how to tie their shoes and brush their teeth. When they’re young. But what does that do for us who are already well into our lives and are struggling with this now? I guess that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

And the only thing I can do is look inward. Look at what has caused this shame and fear of being vulnerable and rework it. I was talking to my therapist yesterday and coming from an emotional trauma standpoint, this is how they (they’re non-binary) explained what I’ve endured. When you fire a shotgun, it breaks into hundreds of little pieces that are scattered throughout the area. When you experience repeated emotional traumas, your brain takes these pieces of information and stores them all over. Little triggers and reminders and memories stored in the most imperative and important part of your anatomy, your intellect and your life. In my case, they’re all negative.

As I move through this process with myself, I have to collect these pieces and dispose of them. This could take years. Seriously, imagine shooting a shot gun in your backyard, leaving for 10 years and coming back after it’s been overgrown and covered. But you can’t leave until all of the bullet fragments have been picked up and thrown away. How long do you think you’d stay there? I bet you’d wonder if you’d ever leave. If you’d ever find them all.

And all of this, it doesn’t even begin to touch on the genuine resentment and hatred I feel towards the people involved. But that’s on me. I have held on to that for years, to the point where I have avoided my home town since the day I graduated high school. I still go back, of course, to visit my parents but the lasting effects are still there. I tried really hard to forgive, I genuinely did. I gave myself the space I thought I needed, I removed these people from my life and from my social media so they could never know what I was doing, I spent time engulfed in another life entirely and only came back when I absolutely had to. I thought I was ready last year, when I went to my class reunion. And I think part of me was. I really enjoyed talking to people I unfortunately didn’t keep in touch with. But the second I heard their voices or felt their presence, I reverted back to my 16-year-old self and shut down.

Unfortunately, this feeling creeps up every time I go back to town. Even the other day, my parents and I went out to lunch after the beach at a local hangout that I know these people frequent and I was beyond relieved to have a hat, sunglasses and a mask on because I was so genuinely fearful that I would run into them. Quick glances over my shoulder, an unfortunate awareness of my surroundings, my ears ringing for their voices, my face buried in my phone if I thought I recognized someone, an inherent self consciousness that if I did see them, they’d judge me for wearing my beach clothes to a restaurant or not having my hair and make up done. And I hate them for that and for what they did to me. I thought I had forgiven them but I just can’t and I’m not sure I ever will, even though I really want to for my own peace of mind. I hate even admitting the power they still hold over me. It’s humiliating on a very large scale and that in itself is something I struggle to admit.

But despite their apologies and their outward recognition towards me (which has happened a handful of times), I have been conditioned to believe their words and their actions are to make themselves feel better. Because that’s just how they are and I didn’t see through it. I gave them the benefit of the doubt, thinking we had grown up and matured but people don’t change and I’m the fool who accepted their apologies and told them it was fine. But it’s not fine. And I wish I had the courage to tell them that when I saw them and tell them that I will never be able to forgive them and tell them that they will have to live their whole lives knowing that they’ve hurt someone so deeply for just existing.

Still, they kept their friends while I lost mine. They kept their reputations as fun and outgoing while mine turned to dramatic and sensitive. They made new friends in college while I turned inward and graduated with a few. They kept their memories of high school and their emotions in tact while I still flinch if I even drive through town or passed a car that looks like one of theirs. And I can’t help but wonder if they sit around drinking their coffees and their cocktails, talking about how terribly they treated me and how damaging it’s been on me since. I wonder if they know. I’m sure they do.

But the worst part of it all is that they went on with their lives, made new friends, and told their stories where I undoubtedly played the villain because they’ll always be too ignorant and self absorbed to admit their wrongdoings while their friends and families have no idea what absolute, monstrous, abusive people they truly were. All without consequence. That in itself is enraging to me.

And I am sure there are going to be some people who read this and think “just get over it” and I wish I could – believe me, I would do anything to get over this – but I was made to feel things about myself and my life that will take an entire lifetime to undo. I’ve spent years staying silent, trying to move on, protecting their names and identities to avoid backlash and repercussions when I use the truth to slander their names but I’m done. I’m still not going to give names to these people, mainly because they don’t deserve my recognition, but I will hold them accountable and I will continue to talk about bullying and the emotional impact it has on people. Their names are pointless to me, just like their existence, but I am still left picking up the pieces of my old self and hoping that I will one day even remotely resemble the person I was before I met them. And unfortunately, I am reminded of the way they made me feel, the words they used to purposely hurt me and the experiences and memories they took from me every single day because of that.

I guess I just want people to know that these are real, lived experiences for some people and the effects are monumental and long term. Words are extremely impactful on young adults and can stick with you into adulthood. Be mindful of how you treat people and if you have children, be mindful of how they treat people and how they’re treated. Young kids and young adults don’t like to ask for help but the signs are more obvious than you  might realize. Speak up for them. They might beg you not to intervene because it will most likely make things more difficult for them but find ways protect them, even if that means educating them on their self worth when they’re at home. If you see someone being bullied or being harassed, please speak up. You could save someones life.

And lastly, if you are someone who has been bullied or harassed and are suffering the long term effects of it, we’ll get through this. It’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to resent the people involved no matter how much time has passed and it’s OK to be vulnerable. The shame that comes with your vulnerability is normal, especially after enduring something as severe as what we’ve gone through, but listening to our shame without letting it consume us or change us is monumental to our growth as individuals and our recovery just like understanding the power that being vulnerable has. Check out these TedTalks linked down below by Psychologist Brene Brown. It helped me to better understand what I am feeling and maybe it’ll help you, too.

The Power of Vulnerability
Listening to Shame

As always, thank you for reading and I am always here to listen to your stories and your experiences.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starting Therapy Again & Vulnerability

Part of my resolutions this year have included bettering myself; digging deep, uprooting those problems and fears that have taken home in the pits of my stomach and starving them of their fuel. Along with the more standard resolutions (reading more books, spending less time on my phone, working out consistently and trying to eat healthier), I made it a point at the turn of the decade to find a therapist that actually worked for me.

I was always turned off by the idea of therapy. Ashamed by it in a way like I think many of us are. It’s human nature to want to be perfect, to compare ourselves to those around us. With the influence of social media, it’s almost impossible not to see other people’s lives, seemingly so happy, and wonder, what’s the trick? There isn’t a trick. It’s staged because we want people to think we are perfect.

Maybe if they think we’re perfect, we’ll start to think we’re perfect, too. 

It’s true what they say about getting help. It doesn’t happen unless you want it to happen. People can vouch for you, push you, do all of the background work to set you up for success but if you’re not ready, it’s a waste of everyone’s time. I refused it for years.

When my parents were getting divorced, my mom found a few therapists for me to talk to. I remember refusing to even look at them, surrounding myself with toys and crayons on the floor until the hour was up. Jump ahead to high school, I apparently had sessions with a few different therapists and none of them were helpful. I had severe anxiety at the time and don’t remember much of these appointments, just their different colored doors, scented waiting rooms and prescriptions from psychiatrists. College came and went and I filtered through the system of provided care because it was “free” and maybe this would be the right time for me. It never was.

But this year, and whether it’s the turn of the decade or finally feeling like I’m ready to heal, I decided it was my time. The first, and really only thing, we have talked about is vulnerability. More specifically, my problems with being vulnerable. When I reached out to the therapist I see now, I told her I needed help with relationships. It is very hard for me to open up to people and maintain relationships, both familial, romantic and platonic. It’s always been hard for me to keep people around because I get to this point where I throw my walls up and it’s damn near impossible to break them down. If you’re someone who knows me personally, think about it; I’m sure there’s very little that you truly know about me.

It’s instinctive by nature that I am the way that I am. We dove in head first during the first session and I want to use this post to reflect and share what I have learned throughout this process so far in terms of my own fear of being vulnerable.

Before I get into this discussion, I want to preface that I have forgiven my past and those involved in my trauma. I have forgiven myself for those I hurt while I was hurting and in no way do I write this with a vengeful heart. My trauma is my trauma. It can be downplayed and denied by those involved, but it will never change the way I was made to feel about myself and the severity of what I endured. I have forgiven but I have not forgotten and part of this process for me, unfortunately, involves digging up everything I have buried in my heart that my mind refused to remember and accept it as the trauma it genuinely was.

When I told my therapist about what I went through in high school, she explained it as a trauma. She told me, the body holds on to trauma in a way your mind doesn’t. Basically, the defense I put up is a product of how I was treated and the way I reacted in those moments that has been forever ingrained in me. Undoing that is one of the harder things I have done in my life.

I asked her, how can it be a trauma when I wasn’t physically hurt? And she validated what I went through by telling me that I wasn’t sensitive, I didn’t overreact and it was real. My emotions were real. My sadness was real. My suicidal thoughts were real. My pain was real. My experience was real.

I won’t bore you with the details. Simply put, I was badly bullied by a group of guys and girls that I considered my friends. When you think of the popular kids in high school, you think of the jocks and the cheerleaders who are nice to everyone and super inclusive. When I think of the popular kids at my high school, we were partiers and we were mean. I say “we” because collectively, this was the group I fell into by circumstance and the group that I couldn’t escape. And trust me, I had my mean streaks as well, I can’t excuse that, but it undoubtedly was a product of the way I was treated. I became conditioned to think I was inherently mean. There were a lot of people in our friend group that didn’t have a mean bone in their body but they got clumped into this awful perception in my head because although they didn’t do anything to harm me, they didn’t do anything to help me either.

Despite this being a group of maybe 20 people, there are really only three or four names in my head that stand out the most and I link them to a few specific situations that I remember more vividly than my first kiss or even graduation. These are the memories that come rushing towards me at full speed when I think of high school or even when I am walking through the stop & shop in my home town. These are the people I will never forgive and the people I have made myself forget because they don’t deserve the space in my head.

For years, I was made to question myself. I was called sensitive if I overreacted to something someone said to me. I was brought into situations just to be made fun of. I was targeted and tricked and used as a pawn, thrown back and forth across a chess board in an attempt to win the affections of the queen until I became a shell of myself.

My breaking point came one February during my senior year of high school. My ex and I had just broken up and I was devastated beyond comprehension. To think I felt like a shell of myself when we were together, I felt even more unfamiliar in my own skin after we had broken up. My friends knew how I felt and I had isolated myself so much in an attempt to heal. Their words ricocheted off of me like bullets against armor yet their lack of compassion never wavered. I was invited out one night to a party down the street and although against my better judgement, I decided to go.

You need this, they told me. You need to be surrounded by friends and get him off your mind.

I told myself I’d try but they had to promise they wouldn’t invite him or any of his friends. They agreed and I reluctantly trudged down my driveway into the awaiting car. We made our way through the silent streets, listening to music and passing drinks back and forth until we pulled up to my friends house.

It started out as a decent night. Music, dancing, drinking games. I was planning on sleeping over but by 10 p.m., right as more people started to arrive, I hit a wall. I wanted to go home but my ride was drunk. The girl whose house it was told me I could sleep in her bed. I thanked her and apologized for the turn in my mood. She gave me a hug and told me I tried my best, next time would be easier.

I climbed into her bed and cried myself to sleep only to wake up to the sound of shouting. A couple in my friend group had found me asleep in her bed and they weren’t happy. Clearly drunk, they told me they were sleeping there, they had already asked and how dare I be in the bed that they were going to share. I had no idea. The last thing on my mind were everyone’s sleeping arrangements. I was just happy to be asleep and away from my thoughts.

I told them I had permission to sleep in here and they would have to find somewhere else. To my absolute shock, they started spitting on me until I left the room. I have never felt so disrespected by another person in my entire life, I couldn’t even process what was happening. Had I not been half asleep, I probably would have done some serious damage to the girls’ face but lucky for them both, I broke down and locked myself in the bathroom, hysterical. It was midnight by now, I couldn’t call my mom without worrying her and one by one, each drunken person I mistakenly had called a friend knocked on the door, trying to coax me out or at least, begging me to let them in.

I had bottled up so much anger and sadness at this point, it poured out of me like the liquor they dumped down their throats. I was enraged. Word after word tumbled out of my mouth, a swear here, an insult there. You’re not my friends, I shouted at them. You only want to know what happened. You don’t care about me.

I don’t remember who got through to me but the only memory I have after my breakdown was sitting in the passengers seat of someone’s car. I don’t know who drove me home. I don’t know what time it was. But I swore to myself in that moment that no matter how alone I would feel, I would never go back to them.

I held steady on this promise, reminding myself that I graduated in a few months. If I could hold out for a few more months, this would all be over. I would never have to see them again.

Weeks turned into months. People reached out here and there saying they missed me, asking me to join them at parties and sit with them at lunch, apologizing for “whatever we did to hurt you,” as if they had no idea what they had done.

I was lucky enough to befriend a teacher who took me under her wing. She created an independent study for me my senior year that was really just yearbook. I designed the entire yearbook myself, collected photos from my peers, put together articles. She gave me my own office and a key. Whenever I was feeling overwhelmed, she’d let me work through lunch and other periods, as long as I kept the door open and unlocked. It became my safe haven. A few friends knew I was there, they’d join me for lunch occasionally but I had found my place and my creativity and I threw my emotions into creating a masterpiece for my class and myself. I made no effort to reconnect but I also made no effort to make new friends.

I was still in the group message but back then, you couldn’t take yourself out of groups like you can now. I’m sure they had other groups without me but they still kept up in this one occasionally. I barely engaged and one night, when I wasn’t responding despite their direct messages to me, it started to get bad again. Taunting and low blows, personal insecurities and jokes about my feelings. Anything to draw a response out of me.

I remember sitting in my moms bed watching a new episode of Grey’s Anatomy, my dog curled at my feet and all I could think was that this was never going to stop. I have never wanted to die like I did in that moment. And it’s unfortunate that the only way I was able to get them to stop harassing me was by threatening suicide. Not reminding them that I was a human being, not asking them politely to leave me alone, not begging them with whatever energy I had left to stop.

It was with the words, “If you message me one more time, I will kill myself,” that finally produced the response I had been looking for. They pondered back and forth, wondering if I was serious and in that moment, I was. But I looked at my mom half asleep next to me, laughing at a joke on the television and my dog snoring by my feet and told myself that I had to live for them.

When I shared these experiences with my therapist, she asked me how I survived. I don’t normally cry in front of strangers, or anyone for that matter, but this simple sentence produced such an emotional response in me that I broke down. I couldn’t muster a single word for at least five minutes of internal agony. And when I finally looked up at her, I told her that without the encouragement of my mom and the way my dog seemed to know when I was sad, I wouldn’t be here.

When I finally went to college, I had trouble making friends at all. In fact, there are only a handful of people from my time at Roger Williams that I truly consider friends and I don’t think I ever shared this part of myself with them. I didn’t really speak much to anyone from high school after that. I made it a point to block everyone from my social media because any insight into my new life felt like a threat or something they could use against me.

I was made to believe I wasn’t a victim. Years have passed and still, I am conditioned to think I am a bad person, that I deserved what happened to me. I was said to be victimizing myself which is when someone basically thinks they’re a victim of a situation because they can’t take responsibility for their actions.

My therapist asked me, well why do you think they treated you like that? To which I responded, I don’t know, I must have done something and she said, do you think there could be no reason at all?

Validation is a drug in itself. Reliving and trying to understand this trauma, I have learned that I was a victim and I was a target. I learned that I wasn’t any more sensitive than the next person. I learned that my reactions – my extreme upset, resistance and attempt at standing up for myself – were what drove their meanness. I learned that I am not inherently mean and that my sharp tongue and short temper were my only protection.

Those short four years have affected me more than I care to admit. To admit that this had an impact on me at all, let alone a lingering one, would be admitting they won. It’s hard for me to think that people have good intentions and it’s even harder to open up to those that I consider the closest to me. I have walls up that I am so desperately trying to scale from the other side in an attempt to let go of all of this tension and distrust but it has been hard and painful.

Part of my recovery process is recognizing what happened to me and recognizing that it was as severe as I remember it. Vulnerability is something that I have continued to struggle with but it’s something I want to feel. I know it’ll take time but I am finally in a place where I feel like I can dedicate these sessions to breaking down those mental barriers and relearning that people can be good.

If you can take anything away from this, I hope it’s the knowledge that despite the obstacles in your past, time will wait for your recovery. You are not defined by your trauma. But your trauma will not subside if you don’t face it.

Thank you for reading, I know it was a long one.