Complex trauma teaches us how to survive in the most difficult circumstances. It teaches us how to stay alive when the odds are against us for extended periods of time. We learn to make survival our most important priority. We learn that nothing else in life really matters at all. We learn which parts of self are most likely to keep us alive and we give them priority. And we learn which parts of self are dangerous and we shut them down. We lock them away for good (or at least that is the plan). Complex trauma turns us into machines with no consideration for our humanness. Our humanity is not acceptable because it is “weak” and certainly doesn’t help us survive. We come out of childhood ready to fight each day for our own survival. And truthfully, we are amazing at it for a while.
There is one inner part who leads the battle for survival each day. This is the inner part I refer to as the controller. Some spiritual texts call this part the ego-self. Some texts refer to the false self (which is the mask the controller creates). But in those of us with complex trauma, the controller is strong. Their beliefs become the priority. They are detail-oriented. They push hard for what they want. They are unemotional. They rely heavily on the logical thinking mind. They are extremely unyielding in their opinions leading to defensiveness. And they will look down upon anyone who has other ideas about how to exist in the world.
But controllers can be hard to see. They can take on many different masks. Sometimes we can have multiple masks in one system. They can be extremely success-oriented, clawing their way to the top of organizations. They can focus on spiritual bypass with a heavy emphasis on replacing all traumatic emotions with positivity. They can refuse to make any decisions or take any actions to avoid ridicule. In this case, they might focus their efforts on finding a savior who will take care of them (and make the love seeker happy). These controller masks are going to depend on factors like personal characteristics, beliefs we grew up with and culture. So we have to put on our detective hats to find our controller masks.
Another reason our controllers are hard to see is the enmeshment. When our controllers speak, we think they are self. Don’t get me wrong, they are self. But they are a part of self. They aren’t all of self. They aren’t core self or true self. They aren’t grounded adult self. They are an inner part who is not fully an adult and they are full of terror about this life. But when we hear them, they make sense to us. They seem logical. Why? We have experienced the life that developed the controller. So of course, we agree with them. Our entire lives have proven them right. Stepping out of enmeshment with the controller is one of the most involved, complex and difficult parts of recovery. It is also one of the most rewarding. Living from the controller is exhausting and overwhelming. So stepping out of the controller and their survival mode is incredibly relieving.
So how do we see the controller? How do we build awareness about them? It can help to know what we are looking for. Here are some key concepts that controllers use in their attempts to survive.
There is nothing good that comes from recovery. Recovery represents everything the controller fears. They have learned to live in denial of their true story. They hide their truth because they have been threatened constantly. They see recovery as a choice that can lead to death.
Risks will always fail. You may not remember taking risks as a child, but you did. And it didn’t turn out well. A complex trauma environment is set up to squelch a child and all their dreams. The controller knows better than to venture toward something in adulthood. They have learned it isn’t worth their time.
Emotion is crazy. The controller tries to be as robotic as possible. They learned that emotions were dangerous. They learned that emotions come with horrible consequences and awful labels. They believe it is best to shove all emotion down into the body and try to ignore it. But the consequences of that are far worse.
There isn’t enough. The controller learned that everything in life is scarce. There was never enough of anything. That might mean money, food, clothes, shelter or love. They learned that anything they wanted would only come through competition. They had to power through without any care for others so they could stay alive.
There is no place in this life for fun. The controller is trying to stay alive and they are using all their energy for that one priority. If there is energy to be spent on something that isn’t useful for survival, they are not likely to prioritize it. They aren’t interested in enjoying life. They even believe that to be dangerous.
Finding these beliefs in our unconscious can lead to huge changes in our quality of life. Making decisions that are not centered on terror will give us so much more to live for. And believe it or not, we can even find moments of inner peace when we detach from the controller and allow ourselves to connect with our other inner parts. But stepping out of the controller is a difficult process. It is a long-term investment in effort and time. In February, we will be exploring how to leave survival-mode behind and find a better way of living. Come join us in Survivor’s Guide for Life.