“Not everything is about my trauma!”
I shouted this at my therapist in frustration one day, after he suggested that my feelings of worthlessness at work were connected to the violent armed robbery I survived. I was sick of the idea that my whole life had been affected by this trauma. I had problems before I was robbed, after all.
To be honest, my outburst was more a statement of hope than anything else. I didn’t want to spend any more time dealing with my trauma. It was incredibly painful to keep going back to those hours of helplessness. Maybe I could just put the trauma aside and focus on the other parts of my life.
But even if I was trying to avoid dealing with it, didn’t I have a point? How did my feelings of worthlessness at work have anything to do with my trauma?
When we speak about defense mechanisms in a psychological context, we’re not referring to security gates and alarms. We are instead talking about the guards we put up to avoid getting emotionally hurt. We don’t want to feel the shame of failure, so we avoid trying new things. We don’t want to be rejected, so we avoid speaking to new people.
The word “defense” doesn’t seem to have anything to do with actual physical survival in this context. However, when you get down to a defense mechanism’s roots, you find your own survivalism.
What we tend to forget when all is well is that, as small children, we sometimes really did feel like our lives were at stake. That’s not to say that you were thinking about death so early on, but the feeling of safety you got from your parents’ love presupposed the possibility of danger. When a baby cries for the first few months, it does not know for sure that its mother will come. And that sense of insecurity follows us.
This is where our defense mechanisms originate. We continue doing the things that ensure we get fed, sheltered, and loved. We avoid doing things which threaten our continued care.
So, where does trauma come in?
Trauma and Regression
Trauma occurs when you or the world you know is put in literal danger. You fear for your life or the life of a loved one. In defending yourself, you’re not avoiding emotional pain – you’re literally fighting for life.
After a trauma, an individual remains far more aware of the mortal danger everyone is technically in all of the time. Even people who don’t suffer from PTSD are impacted by this awareness.
Suddenly, your defense mechanisms are no longer protecting you from emotional pain. They are protecting you from real danger, because you no longer feel safe. This is why all your run-of-the-mill problems feel so much more intense.
In this context, my increasing sense of worthlessness at work made sense. My defense mechanisms were telling me I needed validation in order to stay alive. It was almost like I was regressing to the child who wasn’t sure his parents would protect him otherwise.
The Impact Of Trauma
Not everything is about your trauma, and it can be dangerous to fixate on your trauma for too long. However, without dealing with the trauma, all the other defense mechanisms paint a much more dire picture than is warranted. Criticism at work feels like the end of the world. A fight with a friend feels unbearable.
This is why dealing with trauma is so crucial. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to put it aside and go on with the other parts of your life. Finding that safety again will take time and work, but once you start getting the sense of security you need, everything else will become much easier.