This is part five of my series on relationship skills for people who have experienced abuse and/or trauma. You can find the rest of this series on my blog.
Flashbacks, misunderstandings, and your history
There was an Ann Lander’s newspaper column I used to hand out in my classes on this subject. Ann printed a dream someone sent her, then she asked her readers to respond with their explanations. Wow, what happened sure was fascinating!
Some people wrote her with painfully judgmental comments. Mean-spirited. I guess there was trolling even before the Internet. Other replies reeked of sexual innuendo. Some responses that were just off the wall!
None of them had any relationship to reality. Instead of interpreting a dream, people were telling the readers of that column about themselves. In their letters, thinking they were describing someone else, they told us how they thought and what their motives were. They unknowingly expressed their personal and deeply held emotional issues.
It’s a defense mechanism discussed by Anna Freud and is known as projection.
This happens all the time in relationships. It doesn’t matter if it’s a close and intimate encounter or a brief nothing brush of two people simply in the same physical or Internet space for a moment.
In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks with what is in their very own personal histories. I think this makes a lot of sense. We interpret our lives based upon what we know. In my thinking, this is a minor and subtle form of a flashback.
As a flashback, it seems easier to see and understand than the more vivid ones that are shown in television movies.
Flashbacks can take a variety of forms.
People who have experienced painful life events have both subtle and severe flashbacks. Those of us with histories of child abuse and horrid traumas re-live our traumas all the time. This is not a deliberate or willful action. It happens out of our conscious awareness. We don’t know that we are doing this.
I believe that this is your mind’s attempt to heal itself. Your being is attempting to expel an experience that is hurtful to you.
We think about what happened. We dream (nightmares) of what happened. We live our lives as if these terrible experiences are happening right now. Again, this can be subtle or very dramatic. Some people react to conversations in ways that are just a little bit off responding to meanings that were not intended. You might see your memories as a photograph in your mind. Then there are the physical reactions where you feel as though your trauma is currently happening this very moment.
Anything that even vaguely resembles your original painful life event(s) can trigger a flashback episode. A time of year, song on the radio, driving down a certain street, or someone’s tone of voice are all examples of the sort of thing that can trigger a flashback.
Flashbacks and Loving Relationships
Understanding flashbacks is vital to being able to see how they affect your loving relationships. The very acts of loving and being loved can and do trigger flashbacks. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. After all, if you were abused by your parents, guardians or family members, love is a trigger for you. If you were sexually assaulted, battered in relationship or betrayed by someone you love, again-love itself becomes a trigger for you.
Now you are out of the harmful situation. You are grown. It’s a year or more after the assault. Or you left the person who hurt you deeply.
You have met someone delightful and fallen in love. Wonderfully, they love you in return. This situation is enough to trigger both subtle and not so subtle flashback episodes.
It seems out of the blue, but now you feel abused and unsafe. You become absolutely convinced that your partner is abusive. They resemble your parents. Or your other family members. Or your out of family perpetrator. You are on edge and wait to be betrayed or assaulted. You react to a lot of what they say and are often angry or frightened.
At that moment, you really do not know if your partner is dangerous to you or not. You cannot tell whether or not they are abusive. You wonder if they hurt you on purpose. And you are utterly convinced they did. And pretty sure they enjoyed it!
Some people run away from all relationships because of this. Other people strike back, becoming too well defended. Then others just withdraw from all intimacy. No matter what you do you are in danger of ruining the vital nurturing intimacy you are building with the one you love.
No matter how you take care of yourself, you can ruin your relationship. That’s healthy if the relationship is dangerous or abusive. But it harms you if it’s not.
What do you do? How do you prevent your history from depriving you of a loving relationship? How do you find out the difference? Sort the dangerous from the safe?
What to Do?
I am going to give you a place to start here. Learning how to get relatively unstuck from your past is much more involved than I can write in one article. At this point, I just want you to know that your flashbacks can color how you look at and interpret the actions of your partner. That’s the beginning. To realize that you might be reacting from your past.
Thus, the first step is to take ownership of your feelings and reactions. You start the long process of learning when your reactions are from your past, and when they are from your present. This doesn’t mean blame. You are not at fault for this. Flashbacks stem from a natural process that happens to all people who have been traumatized.
This often seems too simple. And from one perspective, it is. From another perspective, taking ownership requires a great deal of effort.
Then there is the emotional pain. Learning to live in your own skin, feeling your own feelings and personal history is painful. This requires determination and a desire to live within loving relationships.
The second step is to get acquainted with what it feels like to be you in a flashback. For me, it feels as though I am slightly like a robot. Physically, my body feels heavy and my muscles are tight. Emotionally, I feel compulsive and like I absolutely must take action this very moment. I often feel very young because I’m living my past in my present.
To gain this knowledge I had to practice what is now called mindfulness. First I imagined I placed a little piece of myself on my shoulder and began to observe my behavior. For this purpose behavior included my thoughts, feelings and my actions.
I journaled. A lot. All the time. I kept pen and paper [this was before computers] near me at all times. And I wrote what I saw myself think, what I imagined my feelings were, and what I did. When examining my actions, I tried to be objective like a scientist or “Joe Friday” in Dragnet, an old television show: “Just the facts, Ma’am!”
The moment you recognize you are reacting from your past, you come back to the present. You are able to react to the present event. Over time, you become acquainted with yourself and your flashbacks. You can recognize potentially triggering conversations and interactions. You will be able to plan solutions to them. Knowing more about yourself in this way will allow you to talk about them with your partner(s). This is the beginning of taking charge of them.
Then, if you wish, you can process the painful feelings from your traumas. I journaled more because I had the idea that I wanted to clean the entire events out of my being. I allowed myself to cry. Often and much. Then, I would do a history of every time I felt similar feelings. I saw these series of events as if they were beads on a chain. What those beads did is show me my patterns of reacting to people and events.
Slowly I became in charge of my behavior. I wasn’t as controlled by the events and people of my past.
I count that as a win. I hope you win too.
For more information or if you’d like to make an appointment.
Telephone: (615) 464-3791
©2016 by Laura Coleman, Ph.D. All rights reserved.
Painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons