Some people can't remember the original trauma that started their psychological crises, other people can't forget the major trauma in their life. This section is about the people who's bad memories or thoughts are the dominant theme of their minds. In some instances, bad memories seem to feed on themselves...our remembering old hurts/fears arouses emotions which call up more bad memories in an unending circle. It is an unhappy condition to be in. Most people would say, if your thoughts center on old wounds that make you unhappy, scared, angry, or physically sick, then you need to find a way to change those thoughts or reduce those memories.
Warning: The following paragraphs contain ideas that may seem critical and blaming or, at least, unsympathetic to a long-suffering person with deep wounds. If you are such a person, you may not want to read this section now. However, if you feel ready to read it, keep in mind that the author cited below is describing an unconscious process, not an intentional manipulation of others.
There is an old concept in psychiatry that certain symptoms may yield some "secondary gain"--some more or less unconscious payoff--for the patient. But, how could having depressing, upsetting thoughts or seeing oneself as weak, sick, abused, or dependent yield some psychological gain to the distressed person? Possible answers are offered by writers in a currently popular area of study called woundology--the study of emotional wounds. Wounds are frequently an aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, depression, dependency, long-term anger, forms of anxiety, and many other conditions.
A recent writer, Caroline Myss (1997), who gives herself the revealing label of "energy medicine intuitive," has described at length how some suffering people can become almost completely immersed in the trauma and define themselves in terms of their wounds. When this happens to us, she says it is very difficult to heal ourselves and escape our own personal hole of misery. Myss offers many workshops to persons with long-term disorders. In this setting, she has been taken aback by the degree to which the many people seem to define themselves--their whole being--in terms of the assumed source of their troubles. Examples of the self-descriptions: "I am an incest victim," "I am a cancer victim," "I am an alcoholic," "I am a Borderline," and so on. Their minds seem to be filled with ruminations about their stressful history, their resulting current symptoms, and their interpersonal contacts (mostly therapists, caretakers, support groups, and sympathetic friends with similar pasts or problems). See the discussion of Woundology in the next section.
When Myss has tried to suggest to these people that they may be unduly preoccupied with their trauma and in this way avoiding or resisting mending their problems by changing or getting out of their current situations, they would usually get pissed-off at her. They felt offended...that she unfairly blamed them for their own problems. That reaction is certainly understandable. They are deeply hurt and trying to get better. But what if Dr. Myss's theory is sometimes true? Some suffering people see themselves as innocent victims having nothing to do with causing the upsetting situation. (Of course, some others assume too much blame and guilt, rather than too little. See Guilt and Shame).
Yet, as Myss explains, if a person has had terrible experiences, suffers deeply troubling, intrusive memories, and is burdened with the symptoms of some psychiatric disorder, these consequences can become powerfully effective forces for influencing--even manipulating--others. Example: if your history and psychological troubles get the attention of others and lead to positive relationships with caring helpers, new friendships, nurturing support groups, then your "symptoms" are yielding important, valued payoffs. Understandably, under these conditions, one might unconsciously resist changing one's situation, including getting better. Getting better often involves becoming self-reliant, leaving support groups, stopping therapy, changing friends, and moving on. Big, sometimes scary changes are required. No wonder we sometimes cling to the familiar, even if it involves being emotional and having unpleasant memories. This clinging to what we know is not something to be ashamed of; it is done unconsciously and it is very understandable.
When we get pre-occupied with our histories of wounds and bad times...and obsessed with the troubles we are suffering now, our energy is sapped--we have little time or motivation to learn new coping skills for changing our thoughts, emotions, behaviors. Just sharing our troubles and history with someone, especially someone who listens empathetically, is a wonderfully gratifying experience. Many psychotherapy patients know the discomfort and sense of loss when they leave a therapist or a treatment group that has seen us through hard times. Yet, just sharing our history is often not enough to heal us. Often we have to become mindful of alternative ways of being. We have to make hard choices. We need to learn new ways to change ourselves and our situation. We have to see the advantages of changing, even if we have to give up some behaviors and symptoms that have "served us well." Our energy needs to be used in different ways.
Besides possible secondary gain, some bad memories help us make sense of what has happened to us. Oh, I'm feeling and acting this way because of these awful things that happened to me. Understanding why bad things have happened to us is important. If our explanations "ring true" and aren't challenged by others, then they serve our need to understand and we tend to keep them and repeat the how-I-got-upset theme over and over, often in the form of bad, disturbing memories. Of course, if our explanations are uncomplicated and tend to place the blame on someone else (or the responsibility on some external event), then our conscience might especially like them. Some examples: "I distrust women because I have been badly hurt and dumped three times." This man's attitude toward women appears to be entirely blamed on his three former lovers, as though he had nothing to do with the breakups. Likewise, many of our explanations of our problems are overly simple and absolve us of responsibility--"I'm an insecure person because my dad died when I was in the third grade and mom married a self-centered creep" or "I'm totally messed up because my brother abused me from the time I was 6 or 7 to when I was in high school." The causes of our troubles are almost always more complex than implied by these quotes.
Note: In no way should you think that repeated bad memories or thoughts are entirely the result of secondary gain. One doesn't ordinarily have disturbing thoughts, high stress, bad dreams, and other symptoms just to get attention and support. Life is much more complicated than that. Nevertheless, it would be foolish to believe that there are never any payoffs derived from others discovering that someone's life has been difficult and traumatic.
As we become more aware of the possible pay offs for having our bad memories and for believing our own explanations so firmly, we may become able to consider more complex and realistic explanations and to appreciate the intricate development of our problems over time. With a more open-minded approach, you may find new factors that could contribute to your understanding. As an illustration, see Becoming Open-minded in chapter 15 and read about the fallacy of the single cause in chapter 14. Reality is complex. If you believe someone else is entirely responsible for your problems, you may not want to think differently but a better understanding of determinism and forgiveness might add to your perspective.
This increase in awareness, however, may become personally threatening. You might want to avoid thinking so much about the causes. You may feel very mixed about the idea of your personal traits and needs contributing to the bad situation. It is tempting to give up trying to understand but you may suspect it is important to realistically understand the traumatic situation and your reaction to it. Hope and optimism are important parts of changing your thinking and yourself.
It isn't just the occurrence of bad happenings that obsess us, it can also be the loss of highly desired situations. Examples: "I hate getting old and wrinkled," "I'm very unhappy being single and alone," "I hate becoming so fat," etc. The Rational-Emotive approach can help you identify your "awfulizing" or unreasonable expectations that are making you frustrated and unhappy.
Myss (1997), who is not a psychologist, suggests there are five major false beliefs, misconceptions, or myths that cause people to be unable or unmotivated to heal their wounds:
First myth: My life has to be organized around my wound experiences. Consequences--My bad experiences have completely changed my life. My wounds define my life. Every one of my life problems is interpreted and explained in light of my wounds. Therefore, I need to be with people who understand me and my bad experiences. As a result, most of my human contacts are with people who are especially understanding of my wounds.
Since dwelling on the history of wounds can be disabling and seriously hamper one's hopes of recovery, one should ask him/herself: Does this first myth dominate my life? Do people show a lot more understanding and become nicer to me when I share my problems or story? Am I aware that I sometimes actually use my history of wounds to influence someone? Could I commit myself to changing?
Second myth: Without my wound, I'd be all alone. Consequences--If I recovered from this trauma, I would have to be more independent, more on my own, and less in need of help. In short, I'd be overwhelmed and lonely. Changing is scary--adopting a different personality, thinking about different things, finding a new group of friends. Maybe things are pretty good the way they are, at least I'm not isolated and helpless. Oh, besides, I'm sure my new therapist...support group...meds...self-help book... is going to get me through this.
Do some reality checking by asking yourself: Are my emotional wounds the basis for most of my relationships? Could I be depending on other people's caring nature or even on their codependency? Why am I so afraid of changing? Could I find greater satisfaction and security by developing solutions to my problems and unhappiness?
Third myth: My awful and painful life means that I am sick. Consequences--My constant awareness of my wound is never going to go away. I'm doomed to stay this way. This pain serves no purpose. It is just making things miserable for me.
Ask yourself: Am I really sick--and permanently sick? Where does this pessimism come from? Can I see how I unconsciously used my trauma to control people? to change a conversation? as an excuse? to indentify with others? to get sympathy? Was that "sick" or just trying to meet my needs as best I could? Have my wounds become an addiction? Am I afraid of becoming healthy? Could I now change and get to a better place, like others have done? Can my pain and unhappiness become a motivation to change and find a better life? Can I use some self-change methods?
Fourth myth: All emotional problems are the result of traumatic experiences. To get better, the primary wound--what started it all--has to be uncovered, brought into full consciousness. Some awful, horribly damaging experience must be buried deep in my unconscious. If I don't know the cause for certain, I can't get better.
Ask yourself: Why must you know the one original wound? How do you know there was one? Isn't it likely that many other life experiences besides trauma, including your own thoughts and emotions, have contributed to your wounds? Even if you were terribly abused as a child, is that likely to be the only cause of some problem as an adult, such as low self-esteem? Didn't someone else model low self-esteem? Didn't you have skills and assets that have gone unrecognized? Weren't there other failures and disappointments throughout life that may have contributed to the low self-esteem? Can you now find and use some of your good traits and values, and, in this way, become more self-accepting?
Also ask: Did some good come from your wounds and the healing process thus far? Have you gained any deeper understanding of yourself or of the person(s) or events that caused your wounds? Do these deeper understandings help you think of forgiving some of the wrongs and wrong-doers? Can you see how "putting it behind you" or forgiving someone could help you escape constant victimhood?
Fifth myth: At this point in life I am held prisoner by my wounds. I can't change. My situation is hopeless. Why try if changing is impossible?
Ask yourself: Could it be that believing you can't change makes it easier for you to escape the pressure to change and the hard work of changing? If you realized that thousands of studies show that people can change, would you be more optimistic? Would it be helpful if you knew more about how people with problems and backgrounds like yours have changed? Can you find ways to be more understanding, more loving, and more positive about the future, even if it involves scary changes?
Bad memories and thoughts can't be entirely erased but you can reduce their frequency and stop them from dominating your life. Also, if a mental image (memory of some event) has been connected with a strong emotion--fear, sadness, anger, guilt or whatever--there are methods of reducing the emotional reactions so that one can have the thought without the intense emotion. These methods would include desensitization, autobiography, and TIR. Also, see Stopping bad memories.
A variety of other specific techniques have already been mentioned, but more importantly you should carefully consider all five of the major aspects of any problem--the behavior involved (the repetition of disturbing thoughts), the emotions aroused (unhappiness, anger or rage, stress, dependency), the skills you need to learn to use (interpersonal relations), the thoughts that are involved (pessimism, self-esteem, irrational ideas, straight thinking), and ways to gain insight (open-mindedness, self-analysis, autobiography). I hope you will be motivated enough to learn a lot about yourself and about the many methods for coping with the treacherous and catastrophic phases of life.
Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that support groups and psychotherapy are wonderful sources of help. Please make full use of them. The point of this section is that these therapies are not permanent solutions to be used for the rest of your life. Within a matter of several months, these sources of valuable help should have delivered their benefits. My aim would be to help you get on with life.