How Trauma Works

A while after my divorce it became clear to me that my old demons were back. I went to see my GP. I was suffering from broken sleep, difficulties coping with work, and felt that I was slipping into a pattern of depression.

The doctor offered me anti-depressant pills which I refused. I have always felt that, for me, this was not a good road. (I know that for some people they can be helpful.) I felt that I did not want to be anaesthetised – if I was suffering pain, it must have a cause, and I wanted to try to find out what it was. If the pain was chemically dampened, I would not be able to do that. Also, I was scared that if I took pills for a long period, it might build up and explode at some point. I did use sleeping pills for a while.

The doctor then suggested “talking therapy”, and so I made an appointment with a psychotherapist. On our first session, I described my childhood to her, and I remember her response.

“When someone has this kind of start in life, it’s like a tree that was uprooted and moved. It can still survive and grow, but it is damaged and it may never be as strong as one that was not disturbed.”

Over the next months we talked about my situation, my relationships, my career, my hopes and dreams, you name it. And I think that it helped. But – what I didn’t get from this (or the next therapist I saw) was a real understanding of what had happened to me, or why my “tree” had been irreparably weakened. In fact, I was (and still am) intent on finding ways to make it as strong as possible.

Over the next few years I had a number of short-lived love affairs, and, at times, sank quite deeply into the drama of abandonment. There were moments when it felt like I was even grieving for women with whom I had ended things myself – and yet I couldn’t stop grieving! At times it was very difficult, and I was not easy to be around.

I read books, and tried many things. Meditation helped a bit, but affirmations and so on did not. But nothing really seemed to get to the root of things. I was still to drawn, inexorably, into old patterns of behaviour, a diet of sadness and grief. And I wanted to know why, but no one seemed to have an answer. I was stuck with the story of being an “uprooted tree”.

Eventually, I found a book which did offer a usable explanation. The book is called “The Chimp Paradox” by Dr Steve Peters. (You can find it at all the usual places.) Dr Peters is a successful sports psychologist, and his approach is pragmatic. Amongst other things, it offers a simple model of the way that our minds work. My experience is that the model is practical and helpful. Here are the basics of Dr Peters’ ideas:

Our mind has three basic parts:

  1. Our Self – our conscious being. This is the part of me that is writing this page.
  2. The Computer. Just like a real computer, this is simply a store of our memories.
  3. The Chimp. This is our sub-conscious, primal self.

Our conscious Self and our Chimp both use the Computer. They store and retrieve information to and from it. This happens pretty much continually. Information which has been stored in the past is used to help make decisions in the present.

As we go through life, responding to our experiences, both the Chimp and our conscious selves get a say in what to do. But the Chimp always gets first call. This is for our self-protection – the Chimp will step in if we are under threat and action must be taken quickly, for instance.

But the key point is this : the Chimp is ten times stronger than we are. This means that if he believes that some kind of situation is dangerous for us – look out. He will respond to it in the way that he thinks will protect us, regardless of what we want. It is utterly pointless to try to overrule the Chimp by force. He will win – every time. He is faster and stronger. So – the key to a successful life is to keep your Chimp happy. You better make friends with him!

What does Dr Peters recommend, then, if the Chimp is causing us problems? (Meaning : we find ourselves compelled to act in a way that we do not actually want, or which prevents us from achieving things.) He describes this kind of situation as a “bug”, and recommends several strategies for dealing with a “disturbed Chimp”. One of them is taking time out, and allowing the Chimp to vent. (There are others, but you’ll have to read the book. It is well worth it.)

However, if the Chimp got stuck on the wrong idea about something before the age of 5 Dr Peters does not call it a “bug” anymore. Now it is a “gremlin”, and it is a lot more difficult to shift (not “impossible” – but “difficult”). In this case, he recommends figuring out “workarounds” to limit the damage that the Chimp can do.

“The Chimp Paradox” was a turning point in my search for emotional stability. It did not immediately cure my problems, but it offered me, for the first time, a model that made sense. Going back to that old “car” analogy – I finally found the Haynes manual.

Finally, I saw that my emotional problems were not a personal shortcoming of mine. If my Chimp was sabotaging relationships and causing emotional turmoil, this was the result of abuse (abandonment is definitely a form of abuse), and I didn’t have to feel bad about it. I was trying my best. And if there were people in my life who didn’t accept me as I was – well, too bad for them. I would replace them with people that did.

This is so important. I finally realised that, even though I had been abandoned – I didn’t have to abandon me. It may sound strange, but that was, somehow what I had been doing. If your parent (or parents) neglected you in some way – you must step in and take care of the hurt child inside yourself, in the way that they did not. This was something that I had read before – but now, it had a real and practical meaning.

Following Dr Peters’ suggestions, I began to notice the way that my “Chimp” responded to different people and events, and I began to actively protect him from situations that made him (me) agitated or upset. And if things did go wrong, I learned to get out of the way of trouble, and to calm him (myself) down so that things did not get any worse.

I started to watch out for people who might see me as a “soft touch” and abuse the fact that I so much wanted to love and be loved. People that do this kind of thing usually do not do it deliberately. It is an unconscious dynamic that two people enter into, and each of them is responding to drives caused by their own past. These dramas occur all the time. If I felt that things might go that way, I learned to duck or block, before things got emotional. Over a period of time, I found myself becoming more and more aware of these moments. Often, these were not romantic or sexual situations, but all kinds of things. Many times, these moments led me to question deeply held beliefs that I had not noticed I held.

Sometimes the Chimp was giving me fair warning and saving me from difficulties; sometimes his fears were unfounded. But the point is – was making the decisions, not him. I learned to live more consciously, and I became more confident in myself, and enjoyed life more. Things seemed to be looking up for me.

Then, something remarkable happened.

(There is much more to “The Chimp Paradox” than I have outlined above. I highly recommend that you buy it and read it – whether you have suffered abandonment or not!)