Repeating the Same Mistakes
The Food For Thought Friday people always make me think! I guess that is what it is all about, eh? It is about reflecting, being honest with yourself and sharing some things that might almost cross the line of being a little too personal. Yes yes, I am a sexblogger and I am also not afraid to post some sexy or sinful pictures, but that is only one part of me. And the personal things, that really are about who I am, the things I don’t even necessarily talk with friends about: those are the hardest to tackle. I think it is has a lot to do with shame, and definitely with vulnerability. I like helping others reflect about their lives, their feelings, their thoughts and actions. But I often shy away from myself. Because, yes, I am embarrassed and ashamed. And apparently, I keep on repeating the same mistakes.
I know that I am different, and that most people can’t even relate to my experiences and life. And that is generally okay for me because I just don’t talk about myself. That has changed a little ever since I started this blog. For some reason it doesn’t feel as public as any other spaces I have written in before. I think it might have to do with that no one I know in real life has access to the blog. I mean, if they had, whatever. But I don’t have to look anyone in the eyes and see their reaction, when they get to read my reflections. I think that is quite freeing!
I brought this up because this week’s topic is Mistakes. And you know, I am like everyone else there. Of course I have made mistakes in my life. I have made decisions that were incredibly stupid. I have made bold choices that led to chaos. But I think the biggest mistake, one that I have repeated over and over again in my life is that I didn’t stand up for myself and that I didn’t speak up.
My silence and helplessness is a thread that has been woven through all parts of my life. No matter age, situation or even severity of threat. I didn’t speak up and I never stood up for myself. As you can imagine, I ended up hurt and humiliated, alone and degraded, more than once because of that inability of mine.
I am quite aware of why I don’t say anything when I get hurt, or why I don’t fight for my rights when the other person is clearly in the wrong. Yet again, this is related to my trauma and the illnesses that I struggle with because of it. I know why I make the same mistake over and over and over. I have a huge issue with learned helplessness, one of the major symptoms of C-PTSD.
Learned helplessness is, in simple terms, the belief that you do not have control over a situation, even when you do have that control. It is a feeling of powerlessness over the adversities and problems that you have to deal with. It is basically being frozen because you do not think that anything you’d do would make any difference to the situation that you are facing. One important point to add is that this helplessness is a result of a conditioning in a traumatic situation. The victim had no way out. So that once experienced lack of control translates to other situations later in life.. It is about feeling so powerless to control the circumstances, that you stop making an effort to fight them.
I am like a dog?
In the late 1960s, scientist Martin Seligman did an experiment that today would be seen as unethical, but that is very telling of how learned helplessness works. He wanted to examine the effect of trauma on depression. For the experiment, he observed the behaviour of three groups of dogs.
The dogs were placed in a harness. Two of the groups received electric shocks, one did not and was released after a while. One of the groups receiving the electric shocks had a lever that would make them stop, the other one did not. But when the one with the lever made the shocks stop, they also stopped for the other group. So basically: one of the groups had no experience of pain, one of the groups had to experience pain but was able to stop it, and one group received pain with no control over the circumstances or escape, and experienced the shocks as random.
The groups of dogs were placed in a cage again, and all groups had to experience electric shocks. They could escape the cage with the shocks by jumping over a low partition. The dogs in the groups that had never experienced electric shocks and that had access to a lever in the earlier part of the experiment, instinctively looked for a way out and eventually found it. But the third group of dogs, the group that had experienced electric shocks and had no control over them and no way out. acted totally differently. The group reacted helpless and frozen. Instead of looking for a way out, they instead laid down and started whining in a passive fashion. Not even trying to motivate them with treats or threats helped in any way. They remained frozen and gave up. First, only with actual physical help that led them to the partition, were they able to escape the torture.
Again, terrible experiment. I am really against experiments involving animals. But there is still something to learn from this. The first experience taught different things to the different groups of dogs, and with that, different behaviour and a different understanding of their power and the world. It is almost as if the survival instinct got turned off in group three. Those dogs that had been through pain and trauma were conditioned into believing that they had no control over the pain. And the moment they were in a similar situation again, instead of trying to get away from the pain, they became passive and gave up on fighting. They were displaying learned helplessness. A concept that, as we know, is not only observed in animals, but also in humans.
I struggle with learned helplessness. Basically, I am like that frozen dog that gives up. I often experience it when I am struggling with physical health issues. What happens is that I just hide and wait for death, instead of even considering going to a doctor or asking for help.
Then there is the fawning. I am sure most of you have heard of the fight, flight or freeze responses to threat. Those are normal human reactions to when something threatening happens and we need to protect ourselves. Fawning is a fourth such strategy and it is employed when the threat is coming from another human being. It means that you soothe and serve, instead of speaking up or fighting for yourself. And this can be a totally healthy strategy, like when you are in a conflict that just isn’t worth it, or when you are fighting with someone who has been drinking, who is your boss, or who actually is right. But for those with trauma issues, fawning is quite unhealthy.
The typical trauma victim that gets stuck with the fawn reponse, was often trapped in a situation with a narcissistic abuser that wants be to pleased and prioritized, and when they are not, they punish. The flight, fight and freeze responses have all been tried out and they all lead to further abuse and punishment for that behaviour, so all they could do, was to submit and serve, to be of use and to lose their boundaries and needs. As Pete Walker says, “the child is parentified and instead becomes as multidimensionally useful to the parent as she can: housekeeper, confidante, lover, sounding board, surrogate parent of other siblings”. This is very similar to the Stockholm Syndrome. Again, all this is rooted in a fear of punishment, hurt and rejection, and this behaviour later on in their life is based on that they fear those things from all human beings.
I fawn in all conflicts. and I am scared of conflict. I don’t know how to deal with conflict. Instead, I take all the blame, I try to soothe the other person, I try to give them what they want. I don’t know how to make myself heard without being incredibly scared of punishment or hurt.
Conditioned Victim Mode and Self-Blame
Last but not least, I have quite low self-esteem and I blame myself for basically everything. Someone calls me an abuser? Well, I must be, I am a bad person after all! Something goes wrong in my life? It must be my fault! Someone hurts me? I must have done something that made them behave that way!
And not only that, I apologize all the time, for things that objectively, I had no control over and I didn’t cause. All this kind of behaviour is yet again a symptom of C-PTSD. Self-shaming and self-blaming thoughts are the automatic reactions to conflict, to rejection, to things going wrong. For those who have been through complex trauma, powerlessness and helplessness are beliefs about ourselves that we carry with us all the way into adulthood, and we apply these beliefs to all parts of life.
I have called this behaviour and way of thinking “conditioned victim mode” before. We are conditioned in a way that we easily slip into the mode of a helpless victim. With that I do not mean that anyone is playing a victim, or am putting any blame on anyone for their behaviour or beliefs about themselves. Instead I mean, that we have learnt that all we are is a victim, a helpless victim with no power or control over our circumstances. So we easily slip into that mode of thinking and behaviour again, when triggered.
So, together with the fawning, and the learned helplessness, I also blame myself for everything and act like a victim. I think thoughts like: I can’t fix this, I am stupid., or I can’t do anything about it. I freeze and lose.
So what were my mistakes?
Long prelude, eh? I wanted to show that I am so very much aware of why I make the same mistakes over and over. My self-awareness has not stopped me from doing that mistake, though. It is like a switch is pulled in my mind, and I just automatically get silent and take all the blame. I still don’t know how to stand up for myself or how to speak up. Let me give you a few examples.
When I was a child, I went through severe abuse I made some half-assed attempts to say stop and to even tell an adult so I could get help. But not once did I actually scream it out loud and used the needed words to get the attention that I deserved.
My first french kiss. I was 9. A lot of kids older than me were standing around me in a circle. The dude, maybe 15 or so, put his tongue in my mouth and everyone cheered him on. I let it happen, although I didn’t want to.
I got abused when I was at the Scouts. Not only didn’t I make a sound (or a move) while it happened. When someone asked me about that specific incident, I said that I was fine.
When I was bullied at school, I didn’t even once tell anyone off for it. I either stayed silent, or I laughed together with my bullies. In my mind, I deserved to be treated that way, and I also worried that no one would believe me if I told them anyway.
When I am in the presence of someone who has authority, I fawn and don’t dare to speak up. This especially happens in the presence of doctors and social workers. I swallow whatever they tell me. This has led to a lot of mistakes in my life: psychiatry messing up my physical health and being misdiagnosed for years upon years. Being ignored by general practitioners and not being taken seriously. But I didn’t speak up. It was my fault in those moments. It was my mistake.
I didn’t speak up or stand up for myself when the recent drama in my former volunteer position happened. I started to believe that I actually had caused all of it and whatever I had contributed with through the years, was unimportant. First in retrospect I realized that gaslightning had been at play.
In my relationship with my ex-husband there was one particular incident where speaking up and standing up for myself would have been the correct choice. We had broken up but we still shared an apartment together because neither of us could afford living on our own. He has mental health issues as well, and hadn’t slept in three days and was borderline psychotic. I don’t even know why he got mad at me, but I think it was because I called for help for him. I worried about him. But the mental health team couldn’t convince him to go to the hospital and he wasn’t in crisis, so they left. And of course he flipped and kicked me out. I spent a whole night outside, nowhere to go. Eventually he came downstairs and told me to get upstairs and “talk it out”. I knew that it meant him yelling at me for an hour, threatening me, making wrong accusations. But did I stand up for myself? No. I dissociated and then I fawned, took all the blame and ended up in a severe flashback.
No more mistakes made!?!
In my current relationship, things are a little easier and I am often not even in a position where I need to make the decision to speak up. It is just how our connection is. I have to communicate and he knows about my different trauma-based behaviours. He doesn’t accept fawning. He tells me when I am beating myself up about something. And as a matter of fact, he doesn’t even believe in the concept of blame. Our conflict situations are pretty much resolved by talking it out, in a calm and adult manner. I don’t feel threatened, so I don’t engage that unhealthy behaviour I still automatically choose in certain situations.
I am self-aware about my behaviour and that I have made the same mistake so many times. You might think that I would have learned from that by now. But no I am certain, that I will make that mistake again. I will freeze, hide, play dead, fawn and take all the blame. Because I am conditioned to do so. Like a dog. Maybe this gives me the unique opportunity to predict my future mistakes. Maybe there is a way to turn that into a positive?