When we grow up with complex trauma, we learn survival skills. These survival skills are incredibly useful when we are children. They may not be as helpful as we think they are, but they definitely help. They help avoid painful abusive experiences. But when we grow up, these skills hold us back. They stop us from reaching our full potential. They may even stop us from getting started. We get angry and impatient with ourselves because of this sabotage. We drown in futility because nothing seems possible. But if we can build some compassion for our sabotaging ways and accept ourselves for developing these survival skills, we will already be on our way to changing them. The best way we can accept them is to understand them. Here are some of the most common survival skills we learn from childhood trauma.
- Invisibility. When we experience prolonged trauma in childhood, we learn that all attention is bad attention. We learn that our best chance to survive is to not be seen. We learn that being seen is detrimental to our health. This may come from abusers in our home but it is often reinforced by bullies in the outside world. The less we are able to set boundaries with others, the more important it is to be invisible. It becomes our only way to fight the abuse we experience. In adulthood, our invisibility causes us to be passed over for raises and promotions. It makes us struggle to create healthy connections with others. And if you have a need to market yourself as an entrepreneur, it will be constantly sabotaged.
- Perfectionism. In traumatic environments, we are often given far more responsibility than a child should be given. We might be asked to take on tasks that are not age-appropriate. This is known as “parentification”. The problem is that we are expected to accomplish these things as adults would. We are expected to tackle these tasks without error. Errors are costly. Every mistake brings berating, punishment and shame. So we learn to do it perfectly or not at all. In adulthood, this can causes paralysis whenever we try to do something that might require us to learn through mistakes. And most worthwhile things do.
- People-pleasing. We are usually not allowed to say “no” in a traumatic household. We may not have been allowed to imply we didn’t want to do something at all. Expressing our needs was not acceptable. To survive, we did what we were told. We didn’t ask for what we needed. We didn’t express how we felt. We hunkered down to the tasks before us and just got through it. Boundaries were not available to us. We thought it would get better in adulthood, but without boundary-setting skills, the patterns continued. We often find ourselves in relationship with people who don’t respect our needs.
- Hyper-vigilance. When we grow up in unpredictable environments with unreliable people, we will do whatever it takes to find some control over our surroundings. We are often desperate for some semblance of safety through predictability. We will use hyper-vigilance as a way of bringing that feeling of safety back to our lives. If we know everything that is going to happen and can predict the next steps of our abusers, we might be able to thwart our abuse or stop the other shoe from dropping. But when we grow up and start our adult lives, we can exhaust ourselves with hyper-vigilance. We no longer need to track every move of every person or predict everything that will go wrong. We now have the power to set boundaries and deal effectively with life’s mishaps. But we don’t know it. Our survival skills rely on predicting the future and it is difficult to turn that off.
- Noncommitment. In traumatic childhoods, we are often met with sabotage and thwarting from others. If we fall in love with something and we express our joy about it, it became a target for others to destroy. We may have learned at an early age not to let ourselves commit to what we wanted. And if something we wanted did happen, we may have learned not to express any joy about it or attachment to it. We did this because we wanted to keep it, but in adulthood this backfires. If we don’t fully commit to what we want, we are unlikely to get it or keep it. If we don’t put our whole heart into something, it won’t manifest. But our terror of experiencing further heartbreak keeps what we love at bay.
If you are seeing these sabotaging behaviors in your own life, stop yourself before you pour on the self-hate. Take a few minutes to re-frame your self-sabotage as survival skills. They kept you alive. They kept you from crumbling under the immense pressure of prolonged trauma. Yes, they need to change. But they won’t budge without your recognition of all they did for you. Give them the compassionate response they need.