Trauma Stories

Stages of Change & Domestic Abuse Survivors

In this post, I’m reviewing literature that discusses the stages of change as it applies to providing care to victims of intimate partner violence. As an intern working at a homeless shelter for women, I find the work highly relevant to what I see from day to day.  This post includes segments of old assignments…

“Why does’t she just leave him?!?!?!?”

“Queries like, “Why does she put up with that?” and “Why does she stay?” continue to haunt battered women…The implication is that the battered women’s behavior is problematic…This ego-deflating and incriminating element can serve to keep a woman trapped in a situation she may view as incapable of ending herself” (Burman, 2003, p. 83).

During my internship class last quarter, a fellow classmate began discussing a client she was seeing who was just left an abusive relationship.  At one point my professor made an interesting statement that made me stop and think:

“The key is to understand the unresolved issues they have yet to work through”

This statement made me stop and think a bit about my own history, and the “it years”.  Mind you, the abusive behavior was psychological and emotional.  However, there is certainly a parallel.   Throughout the relationship, I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone say: “Why don’t you just leave him?”  I recall thinking silently, “it’s just so complicated, you don’t understand.”  My response was, often to remain silent, and simply ignore the question.  There was no point in explaining to those who ask, what they are blind to and unable to conceive…

It is for this reason, that my professor’s comments really struck me.  In response to questions such as these I might say iterate what my own professor said, “what unresolved issues lay in their life history that I hadn’t worked out yet as an explanation for why they would be in a relationship like this?”

To put it another way, let’s look at this issue from a behavioral perspective.  Mind you, this theory isn’t necessarily my favorite since I feel we are much more than pavlovian dogs.  However, what’s clear about human behavior is that we do what works.  Even, if at first, behaviors appear self-destructive, we must ask ourselves what they “payoff” is.  In my own case, there was an emotional “hot potato” was the unresolved trauma of bullying and ostracism in my childhood.    I was so incredibly desperate to avoid the rejection and loneliness of my childhood, this relationship was the “lesser of two evils” as an alternative to re-experiencing the traumas of my childhood.

Admittedly, this personal perspective in my own life history, might not apply to many other cases of domestic violence.  However, the point is, rather than asking “why don’t they leave?”  We must ask ourselves, how this relationship reflects the the summative emotional impact of life experiences?  I love John Malkovich’s assertion that to a create character successfully we must see them without judgment.  Maybe this is also true with clients:  to see their life experiences without judgment.

“Attempting to understand the nature of the battering and how women cope, we can glean some insights into…the strengths that are utilized to make the decision to leave, act upon and sustain this goal” (Burman, 2003, p. 84).

Two articles are useful in providing information in understanding a domestic violence situation as a guide throughout the counseling process.  These articles describe a woman’s adaptations to spousal abuse in terms of the following stages: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and termination (Burman, 2003; Fraser, et al, 2001).  According to this theory, change is not a singular event but a process that occurs in an observable sequence of stages.   For example, during pre-contemplation, a woman tends to minimize and deny the issues and their consequences. Traumatic bonds are quite pronounced at this point and a sense of isolation and dependence grows along with a growing feeling of responsibility and self-blame (Burman, 2003, p85). The contemplation phase marks a period of ambivalence during which an increasing level of cognitive dissonance develops and a woman vacillates on whether to leave (Burman, 2003, p85). Determination and Action involve the process of preparing to leave and enacting one’s plan. Finally, brief descriptions are provided of the maintenance and termination stages.  What follows is an overview of the stages of change as it applies to victims of intimate partner violence.

Overview of The Stages of Change


The pre-contemplation stage is characterized by either denial and minimization of the problem.  For example, during this stage a client may resist any attempts to discuss and acknowledge that abuse is occurring. This might can present as a defensiveness towards anyone who suggests and/or suspects that there is a problem (Burman, 2003).  Alternatively, the client might also present with a desire to accommodate “herself to the situation, constantly hoping that by pleasing her partner he will change his ways” (Burman, 2003, p. 84).  Sometimes expressions of hopelessness regarding the possibility of change can also be seen (Frasier, et al, 2001).  Alternatively, the client may describe the hopelessness of the situation while blaming herself and/or others:

“There is no need to talk about it; it won’t change a thing,”

“If the supper had been ready on time…”

“But, he is a good provider…”

“If the children weren’t so noisy…”

During this early stage, the traumatic bond begins to develop.  I prefer to call it a “boot camp” period, where you’re slowly broken in like a pair of new boots.  Momentary expressions of love and/or positive reinforcement are intermingled with various forms of abusive behavior.  You’re slowly isolated from others and dependency upon your partner grows slowly over time.  An extremely low self-esteem exists that one cannot see beyond, as an all-encompassing perspective of oneself.  This is the hardest to explain, for those who don’t understand.  However, I would simply like to note that people can’t see what they haven’t experienced, like explaining the color purple to a blind man.


This stage is characterized by feelings of ambivalence as the client vacillates between “concern and..unconcern, motivation to change and to continue unchanged” (Burman, 2003, p. 85).  The therapist’s primary goal is to addrress feelings of ambivalence.  As the situation continues in an unremitting manner, the client’s coping mechanisms wear down. Consequently, denial is no longer possible and they begin to recognize that a problem exists.  The client struggles to make sense of their partner’s behavior and process their feelings of ambivalence by weighing various options as “what if’s”.

“I wish that I could figure out what to do differently so he won’t get so angry with me,.”

“What would happen if I did leave, can I ‘go it alone’?”


“Patients in this stage are consciously aware of their problems. They are `committed’ to taking action usually within the next month” (Frasier, et al, 2001, p. 214).  During this stage the primary goal is to “determine the best course of action and prepare to carry it out” (Burman, 2003, p. 86).  Planning is underway as the client seeks counseling, legal assistance, saving money, and a safe place to stay.  Both resources for this post mention that change is sometimes a fluctuating process and clients can occasionally be seen moving back and forth between preparation and contemplation (Burman, 2003; Fraser, et al, 2001).


During this stage, the client begins putting her plans into action and makes efforts to change.  “The prospect of leaving, is often dangerous and scary, provoking feelings of fear and anxiety (Burman, 20030.  Therefore, great energy is now directed toward ensuring your personal safety and rebuilding your life.   Victims of abuse may seek counseling, participate in a local support group for victims of domestic violence, and/or request that their partner seek treatment as part of a court-ordered protective or restraining order. Some victims may also train for or seek work outside the home in order to establish economic independence.” (Fraser, et al, 2001 p. 214).


During the maintenance stage, clients are struggling to avoid problematic behaviors.  The goal during this stage is to prevent relapses into old destructive habits.  Burman, (2003) states that 5-7 attempts are commonly made to leave an abusive relationship before success is achieved. “Various reasons have been given for this action, including ‘fear, continuing emotional involvement, desire to keep the family together, and lack of viable alternatives'” (Burman, 2003, p.86).   “Maintenance depends not only on the thoroughness of the action plan but also on a continuing support system” (Fraser, 2001, p. 2014).

Assessment Client Needs

Nature of Abuse

It is also important to obtain more detail on the nature and severity of the past abuse history in order to begin working through the effects of these experiences (Burman, 2003).   This should also entail an assessment for symptoms of PTSD and dissociation.

Self-Esteem & Coping Style

Issues for women recovering from a history of spousal abuse include a diminished self esteem, as well as dysfunctional cognitive and affective adaptations (Holiman & Schlilit, 1991). This diminished self-esteem can be thought of as a sense of powerlessness and low self-worth. It causes individual’s develop maladaptive belief systems about themselves in relation to others (Holiman & Schlilit, 1991). Emotionally, long-term spousal abuse also causes a paradoxical attachment, in which victims come to rely on a hope for something they never receive (Holiman & Schlilit, 1991).

Readiness for Change

Interventions should be geared towards a client’s level of readiness for change and aimed addressing resistance. For example, for women who have not yet left relationships, you would note they are either one of two things. They may be in the pre-contemplative change and unwilling to acknowledge the problem. Or they may be in the contemplative change and considering leaving, but unsure of how they may do so.

Depression & self-care (Kakurt, 2014)

Participants in this article described feeling depressive symptoms and difficulty engaging in adequate self-care (Karkurt, et al, 2014). Additionally they felt a mixture of emotions including being overwhelmed and stressed about the big life decision they just made. These overwhelmed feelings would arise when they began discussing the tasks before them as they attempted to rebuild their lives. Others were angry for themselves for not having left sooner.

Shame & Self-Blame (Karakurt, 2014)

A subgroup of participants in this research suffered with several more severe co-morbid diagnoses that required additional interventions. Issues common in this group include bipolar disorder, depression, suicide, dissociative PTSD, borderline personality disorder (Karakurt, et al, 2014). Finally, individuals who had suffered longer-term severe abuse, were most likely to deal with feelings of excessive guilt and self-blame (Karakurt, et al, 2014).   These feelings of guilt and self-blame made their decision to leave particularly difficult to cope with. For example, this article describes one participant stating they felt they had betrayed the trust of their partner (Karakurt, et al, 2014). This insight points at the importance of understanding an abusive situation from the perspective of someone who has lived it.   From an outsider’s point of view, these feelings make little sense. On the other hand, from the perspective of someone living the experience, the feelings are altogether different. It is our job to work at appreciating things in this vantage point, and helping from within this perspective.

Emotional Response to Violence

Holiman, (1991) “describes a paradox for women in violent situations: the woman is trapped because she feels even more afraid when she contemplates separation than when she imagines being intimate in a battering relationship…the fear of being without a partner was overriding, more important than whether or not the violence stopped” (p. 346).

When I read the above quote, I was again reminded of that relationship in college.  I would like to reiterate it wasn’t physically violent,  however emotionally, psychologically and sexually abusive.  I can recall a similar feeling of fear upon separation.  I recall breaking up with him during a family vacation to London.  My mother had arranged it with his parents.  He was going to visit them for a week, while I went to London.  It was my first time away from him.  I recall breaking up with him from this safe distance, and feeling a nagging fear & anxiety throughout the remainder of the trip.  This paradoxical feeling is admittedly difficult to explain however quite overwhelming.  Holiman (1991) suggests this is due to a process of traumatic bonding takes place between the woman and her partner, similar to the relationship between hostage and captor.” (p. 346).


“Effective Interventions Matched with Stages of Change” for victims of abuse. (Fraser, et al, 2001, p. 215).

“Roberts’ Seven-Stage Crisis Intervention Model & Battering Severity Continuum” (Holiman, 2003, p. 88).

Burman, (2003) includes a description of a Crisis Intervention Model based on research that focuses on domestic violence.  This Crisis Intervention Model is based on the idea that abuse can be observed to occur along a continuum of severity.  “Divided into seven stages, the model details hierarchical assessment and intervention activities that aim to subdue a crisis so that strength-oriented empowering cognitive, and independent function can be achieved” (Burman, 2003, p. 88).

Crisis Defined:

“An acute disruption of psychological homeostasis in which one’s usual coping mechanisms fail and there exists evidence of distress and functional impairment. The subjective reaction to a stressful life experience that compromises the individual’s stability and ability to cope or function. The main cause of a crisis is an intensely stressful, traumatic, or hazardous event, but two other conditions are also necessary: (1) the individual’s perception of the event as the cause of considerable upset and/or disruption; and (2) the individual’s inability to resolve the disruption by previously used coping mechanisms. Crisis also refers to “an upset in the steady state.” It often has five components: a hazardous or traumatic event, a vulnerable or unbalanced state, a precipitating factor, an active crisis state based on the person’s perception, and the resolution of the crisis.” (Roberts, 2005, p. 778)

Seven Stages of Intervention (Roberts, 2005).

Continuum of Abuse (Burman, 2003).

A treatment plan

The following is a hypothetical treatment plan I created for my practicum course some time ago.  I utilized the resources below to create it…


Burman, S. (2003). Battered women: Stages of change and other treatment models that instigate and sustain leaving. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 3(1), 83.
Fraser, P. Y., Slatt, L, Kowlowitz, V., & Glowa, P. T. (2001). Using the stages of change model to counsel victims of intimate partner violence. Patient Education and Counseling. 44, 211-217.
Holiman, M. & Schlilit R. (1991). Aftercare for battered women: How to encourage maintenance of change. Psychotherapy. 28(2), 345-353.
Karakurt, G., Smith, D., & Whiting, J. (2014). Impact of Intimate Partner Violence on Women’s Mental Health. Journal of family violence29(7), 693-702.
Roberts, A. R., & Ottens, A. J. (2005). The seven-stage crisis intervention model: A road map to goal attainment, problem solving, and crisis resolution. Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention, 5(4), 329-339

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Bullying as a Group Process

What is bullying?

A review of scholarly resources produces several definitions of bullying.  Idsoe, et al, (2012) define bullying as “a subtype of aggressive behavior in which an individual or a group repeatedly and over time direct negative actions against individuals who are not able to defend themselves, meaning there is an imbalance of power between perpetrators and victims, (p. 901).”   Carney, (2009) defines bullying as encompassing three key characteristics:  “harm is done, an unfair match exists, and the actions are repeated over time, (p. 179).”  Cassidy, (2008) defines bullying as “negative actions—physical or verbal— that have hostile intent, are repeated over time, and involve a power differential between the bully and the victim, (p. 63).” As a social interaction that involves harm and a power imbalance, I feel it is important  to begin discussing bullying as a social process that reflects group dynamics and social norms.  From this perspective “bullying may be regarded a group phenomenon in which most children…have a defined Participant Role, (Salmivalli, etc all, 1996, p. 11).”  This post discusses bullying as a group process.

Bystanders & Participants

Bullying is a complex process defined by peer culture social norms.  It takes place in a social context and involves more than just the bully and victim.  When bullying happens, everyone can be “seen as having different roles in the process, driven by diverse emotions, attitudes, and motivations, (Salmivelli, 2010, p.  113).”Many bystanders are available to participate in the creation of a social context which gives this specific exchange meaning.  Even if these bystanders don’t actively participate, they conduct themselves in ways which promote the continuation of bullying behaviors. “What matters more than their real attitude to bullying…is how they behave in [such] situations (Salmivalli, et al, 1996, p. 2).”  The specific role a child holds in a bullying encounter and their response to this situation depend on their social and calculations of risk.  “…through their behaviour in these situations they take a position towards what is going on. This…has effects on the outcome of the episodes of harassment (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).”  In addition to bullies and victims, several other participatory roles can be observed:

Bully Assistants

Some children can be observed “eagerly join[ing] in the bullying when someone has started it and act as assistants of the bully, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 454).” The ringleader will “initiate the harassment of one or more victims…assisted by students who actively help and support them (e.g., catching the victim), (Huitsing, et al, 2012, p. 494).”

Bully Reinforcer

“Others, even if they do not actively attack the victim, offer positive feedback to the bully. For instance, they come to see what is going on, thus providing an audience for him/her, or they incite him/her by laughing or by encouraging gestures. These students can be called reinforcers, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Furthermore, a remarkable number of students tend to stay away and not to take sides with anyone: they have been named outsiders. Not even these children are, however, non-involved. In their way, they allow bullying to go on by silently approving it (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”


“Finally, there are also students whose behaviour is clearly anti-bullying: they comfort the victim, take sides with him/her, and try to make the others stop bullying. They are defenders (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453-454).”

social roles as self-fulfilling prophecies


“For victimized students it seems especially difficult to attain a different role amongst their peers. Even in a completely new class with no former classmates…Insecurity and fearful expectancies are likely to arise. Unfortunately, these are easily communicated to the new classmates, (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 455).”

Social roles consist of norms, beliefs and behaviors that are associated with expectations of conformity.  They limit our ability to act independently and pressure us to engage in behavior that maintains our social status. Social roles are self-fulfilling prophecies in that we become what others believe us to be (Salmivalli, 1999).  In addition to determining our behavioral responses they heavily influence our self-perception. “When individuals categorize themselves as belonging to a particular social group, they self-stereotype in terms of the norms, values, and beliefs that define the group. In this way the defining features of the group become internalized and shape group members’ own self-definition, (Turner, et al, 2014, p. 4).”

The Popular Kids

6915722162_cbcc5e5857_b“[bullying] defines what is different …[and] creates the group of ‘us’ and ‘them’ and through the definition gains acceptance for the values represented by ‘us’. This definition creates a status within the community and the means of bullying create fear of the social punishment to follow. (Hamarus and Kaikkonen, 2008, p. 342)”

Difference between Cliques vs. Crowds

“Cliques are small groups of friends who hang out together a great deal and are personally close.  Crowds by contrast are larger, ‘Reputation-based collectives of similar of similarly stereotyped individuals'” (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 236).”  Clique members often share similar interests, attitudes, and behavior patterns.  In contrast crowds norms are based on the reputation and stereotyped identity peers have of the typical members.  Cliques engage in selective entry and exit processes while crowd affiliation is more fluid.

What is Popularity?

Popularity Defined by Study Participant:  “When a girl said someone was popular, she meant first that the student was widely known by classmates and second that he or she was sought after by a friend, (Merten, 1997, p. 360).”

Researchers have differentiated between two types of popularity:  “A sociometrically popular student is well-liked by her or his peers. Sociometric popularity is a measure of peer acceptance. Perceived popularity, however, is a measure of social visibility, much like the classic stereotype of adolescent popularity. (Borch, et al 2011).”  In other words, sociometric popularity is associated with prosocial characteristics and are perceived as “seen as kind and trustworthy (Thornberg, 2011 p. 6)” by peers.  In contrast, perceived popularity is not the same as being liked by your peers and is not mere a function of someone’s individual characteristics.  Instead, perceived popularity is a reflects how children make judgments of an individual based on their understanding of relevant social norms (Thornberg, 2011).

Popularity & Norm Reinforcement

Enforcing a Physical Attractiveness Standard:  “This kid in our grade is really weird looking.  he has really big ears and is really tall and awkward looking.  One of the seniors called him ‘dumbo and really hurt his feelings, (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).”

Norms “prescribe appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group, (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  They provide a standard of behaviorr pertaining to an individuals social status. “Popular students are role models and exemplars of cool, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”  Consequently, they  define norms in order to reinforce their authority and differentiate between in group and out group status.

Techniques of Exclusion

Example of Exclusion:  “If a nerd goes over and sits next to a jock or somebody who’s really popular…they would probably tell them to leave, Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

Ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429).” It serves the purpose of relieving the group of deviant members who violate social norms, ensuring group cohesion, and conformity.  Thornberg, (2011) notes that “everyday school life involved both inclusion and exclusion practices, like two sides of the same coin, (p. 7).”  It is an implicit part of the process in which adolescents define in group versus out group status.  Techniques of social exclusion include the following:

“(1)…harassing outsiders and turning others against them; (ii) harassing and being mean towards clique members with a weaker standing, (iii) going along with…other high-status clique members’ mean acts…(iv) stigmatisation [of] a particular clique member for a period; and (v) expulsion… from the clique” (Thornberg,  2011), p.5).”

Boundary Maintenance

Signal of Popularity: “…being allowed to hang out with them [the popular crowd]….If your friends with the popular people you’re considered more popular. (Bishop, 2004, p. 239).”

Preserving one’s status is an ever-present concern in the dynamics of the clique. Ostracism and bullying are a functional byproducts of this.  According the “social misfit hypothesis” (Thornberg, 2011), individuals with behaviors that contradict peer group culture can experience social rejection.  Those who conform with peer group expectations avoid ostracism.  Since the benefits of popularity are clear, membership into high status groups is sought-after position by many and barriers to entry are substantial (Bishop, 2004, p. 237).”

In-Group “Mean-ness”

Bulling does not just occur as an expression in-group vs. out-group behavior.  In an article titled “The Meaning of Mean-ness” (Merten, 1997), notes that high levels of conflict exist in high-status cliques as a means of preserving one’s status in the social hierarchy.  This internally focused mean-ness  also protects the group’s status in the larger social system.   Merten, (1997), describes his observations of a junior high clique below:

“Minor losses in relative popularity were frequently experienced as significant losses in status…One’s position in the clique was important, because it both symbolized one’s popularity and was salient in protecting it…hierarchical position was an essential factor for the successful use of meanness… (Merten, 1997, p. 354)”

This is an especially intriguing insight for me as an “outsider looking in”.  From this perspective Merten,  (1997), notes the following: “because most of the clique’s meanness was directed toward its own members, most outsiders continued to think…it would be nice to have a [friendship like that], p. 365).” The grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Social Norms & Pluralistic Ignorance

“Social norms are produced among students at school…social exclusion and isolation are the consequences of non-conformity to these norms, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 2).”  They are typically defined as “a rule, value or standard shared by the members of a social group that prescribes appropriate, expected, or desirable attitudes and conduct in matters relevant to the group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 113).”  Norms are useful when attempting to understand the behavioral choices of bully behaviors.

In the school setting, and especially the classroom, group membership is mandatory and involuntary.  Bully victims are left with no means of escape (Salmivalli, 2010).
An “emphasis on status and popularity in the school social environment promote[s] a social hierarchy in the peer culture. Bullying is…a result of the negotiation and struggle process of this social hierarchy. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 5).
Individually, a bully is motivated by a desire to establish a “powerful, dominant position in the peer group (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”
Collectively bullying provides the dominant clique a way of defining norms (Salmivalli, 2010)….the popular crowd represent[s] a powerful influences on peer pressure. (Bishop, 2004, p. 238).
Bully reinforcers & assistants turn bullying into a group activity based on a need for acceptance and improve their social position (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 115).”

16201896020_4a09fc4397_b“It is important to note, however, that what is “normative in a classroom does not necessarily match with the private attitudes of individual children, (Salmivalli, 2010).” In other words, children act on the basis of a self-perceived understanding of social norms and not private attitudes.   When nobody challenges the bully, a child misinterprets this as a social norm that “bullying is okay (Salmivalli, 2010, p. 117).”  This is pluralistic ignorance:

PLURALISTIC IGNORANCE – “a socio-psychological phenomenon that involves a systematic discrepancy between people’s private beliefs and public behavior in certain societal contexts” (Bjerring, et al, 2014, p. 2445).

The Importance of Social Competence

“Social competence may be viewed as being prosocial, altruistic, empathic, and cooperative. In this view, social competence is seen as behavior that is socially approved and leads to being liked. Alternatively, social competence may be seen as the ability to achieve one’s goals in social settings (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 645).”  In this respect it is both a prosocial and antisocial activity.  This confusing and dichotomous construct is useful in understanding the mixed reviews students display of popular and unpopular students

Popular Kids

Popular peers have large numbers of peers and play a central role in the social network. Described as interpersonally skilled, they are able to obtain their goals, “even if it means using aggression, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245)).”  They are describe as having high academic and athletic ability while displaying of “dominance, attractiveness, and deviance” (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

Unpopular Kids

Unpopular students are social isolates and frequent victims of bullying.  Described as deviant, unattractive misfits by peers, this study suggests that they are not, however disliked by them.  Instead, they are seen as “not possessing the socal skills to rise from the bottom of the hierarchy…and unaware of how to fit in with peers, (Lafontana & Cilessen, 2002, p. 245).”

The Consequences of Non-conformity

“Being a nerd is like having a communicable disease….students avoid hanging out with the student since it sends a signal that they are a nerd as well.”  Bishop, p. 237).”

As stated earlier, the social misfit hypothesis states that bullying is reaction to a deviation from peer group norms.  When an individual’s behaviors and attitudes are defined as deviant in this context, ostracism and rejection are a result (Thornberg, 2011)….

The situation is self-perpetuating & quickly becomes impossible to turn around.  It is this characteristic of bullying that causes children to feel hopeless & suicidal.

According to “taken-for-granted norms….deviance is in the eye of the beholder. (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” Individual’s not properly acclimated to an unfamiliar social environment struggle to fit in.
The victim [is] seen as a student who did not behave as he or she should have…[deviance disturbs] the existing…status quo…and demands on conformity, (Thornberg, 2011, p. 4).” 
“once classmates categorize you, changing categorization is difficult, (Bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).”
“students who are labeled as outcasts find it difficult to make new friends and often lose old friends which limits their ability to develop social skills that can help them get out of their predicament (bishop, et al, 2004, p. 237).
“social roles…sometimes become self-fulfilling prophecies, the individual starts to resemble more and more, the expectations directed towards him” (Salmivalli, 1999, p. 453).”
“Harassment induces some victims to withdraw from social interaction….[a] climate of intimidation …can induce withdrawal (Bishop, p. 237).
ostracism is “defined as being ignored and excluded, and it often occurs without excessive explanation or explicit negative attention, (Williams, 2011, p. 429)”  Occurring without explanation, no guidance to resolve matters is provided.

Images: 1, 2, 3.


Bjerring, J. C., Hansen, J. U., Pedersen, Nikolaj Jang Lee (2014). On the rationality of pluralistic ignorance. Synthese, 191(11), 2445-2470. doi:10.1007/s11229-014-0434-1
Bishop, J. H., Bishop, M., Bishop, M., Gelbwasser, L., Green, S., Peterson, E., … & Zuckerman, A. (2004). Why we harass nerds and freaks: A formal theory of student culture and norms. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 235-251.
Borch, C., Hyde, A., & Cillessen, A. H. (2011). The role of attractiveness and aggression in high school popularity. Social Psychology of Education, 14(1), 23-39.
Carney, J. (2008). Perceptions of bullying and associated trauma during adolescence. Professional School Counseling, 11(3), 179-188.
Cassidy, T. (2009). Bullying and victimisation in school children: The role of social identity, problem-solving style, and family and school context. Social Psychology of Education, 12(1), 63-76.
Hamarus P, Kaikkonen P. 2008. School bullying as a creator of pupil pressure. Educational Research 50: 333–345.
Idsoe, T., Dyregrov, A., & Idsoe, E. C. (2012). Bullying and PTSD symptoms. Journal of abnormal child psychology, 40(6), 901-911.
LaFontana, K. M., & Cillessen, A. H. (2002). Children’s perceptions of popular and unpopular peers: a multimethod assessment. Developmental psychology, 38(5), 635.
Merten, D. E. (1997). The meaning of meanness: Popularity, competition, and conflict among junior high school girls. Sociology of Education, 175-191.
Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: Participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive behavior, 22(1), 1-15.
Salmivalli, C. (1999). Participant role approach to school bullying: Implications for interventions. Journal of adolescence, 22(4), 453-459.
Salmivalli, C. (2010). Bullying and the peer group: A review. Aggression and violent behavior, 15(2), 112-120.
Thornberg, R. (2011). ‘She’s weird!’—The social construction of bullying in school: A review of qualitative research. Children & society, 25(4), 258-267.
Turner, I., Reynolds, K. J., Lee, E., Subasic, E., & Bromhead, D. (2014, June 16). Well-Being, School Climate, and the Social Identity Process: A Latent Growth Model Study of Bullying Perpetration and Peer Victimization. School Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Psychology, 58(1), 425-252.

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Collective Trauma….

The above video was captured as I decided to take my family out to my favorite sushi restaurant.  On this particular evening riots had organized in the Old Market as well as on 120th and Center street.  After speaking with some of the protesters, I had asked someone who had organized the protest.   Apparently, it was organized by a Native American Organization at UNO. In the last week, I’ve had time to absorb the fact that Trump is our next president.   While I tried to limit my social media interactions this week, avoiding political commentary hasn’t been as easy as I hoped.  There are a diversity of reactions both within and amongst the political parties. Everybody has a strong opinion about the results and whose fault it is…

…Today, during a get-together with friends at my house I learned of all the arguing that’s been going down on Facebook lately.  Everybody began describing how the election has actually caused a rifts in relationships with friends and family members.  I was surprised to hear all this since I’m not a big social media fan.  Out of an implicit respect for one another, we avoided the subject of how everyone voted.  Instead, we all concluded the importance of respecting the diversity that this country was built upon.

“In the liberal community, you hate this idea of creating people as a monolith. ‘Don’t look at Muslims as a monolith. … But everyone who voted for Trump is a monolith, is a racist.’ That hypocrisy is also real in our country…And so this is the fight that we wage against ourselves and each other because America is not natural. Natural is tribal. We’re fighting against thousands of years of human behavior and history to create something. That’s what’s exceptional about America. This ain’t easy. It’s an incredible thing.” – Jon Stewart

So having said this, I feel it is vital to put what has happened lately into a historical and cultural context….

“A splitting also occurs in collective dynamics of trauma, when one part of society suffers the atrocity and another part of society declares that it is time to move on, unwilling or unable to relate the traumatic story as its own. Often the dominant group in society, or the group with the most social power, will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’ of events, (Anderson, 2004, p. 21).”
Many of the protests in response to this election reflect unresolved cultural traumas woven throughout the fabric of our nation.
While, the DSM-5 manual discusses trauma from a medical, diagnostic viewpoint, it provides interesting commentary on the culturally relevant diagnostic considerations…
“The risk of onset and severity of PTSD may differ across cultural groups as a result of variation in the type of traumatic exposure…the impact on disorder severity of the meaning attributed to the traumatic event…the ongoing sociocultural context…and other cultural factors (e.g. acculturative stress in immigrants)…the level of severity and meaning of the distressing experiences should be assessed in relation to the norms of the individual’s cultural references groups, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 278-750)”

Considerations such these point at the obvious fact that individuals can’t be extricated from the societies in which they live.   Sociocultural context is a key consideration in the understanding of traumas, since it tends to occur within a specific historical frame of reference.   This fact is especially critical when diagnosing and treating trauma-related disorders since the DSM-5 manual is “largely derived from a Euro-American epistemology, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 90).”   What follows is a quick and dirty overview of trauma as a collective and culturally-relevant concept.

What is Collective Trauma?

Personal Background….

As I may have mentioned in a previous posts, I am a student therapist who has been diagnosed with PTSD.  For this reason, I’ve have both a personal and professional interest in trauma. Additionally, as a biracial individual with a mother who grew up in the Philippines during WW2 , I’ve observed that trauma develops at a sociocultural level as well.  In a recent interview for a school assignment, she made the following comment about her early memories during the war:

“I don’t remember much of my early years. I was born in 1938 and the war started in 1941 by the time the war started I was three years old…. I don’t remember much about growing up in a normal sense, such as reading books and going to bed at night since we were refugees of the second world war and were living in caves alongside mountains, growing our own food…”

As a young child, I learned to respect the painful nature of these early painful memories.  For this reason, despite a burning interest in learning how these experiences influenced my mom, I know little about them.  The memories she has shared are simple and sweet, told through the eyes of a child.   She recalls her mother growing a vegetable garden for food.  Oftentimes the peanuts grown by my grandmother were their only source of protein.  She remembers “peeing on the peanuts,” since this helped them grow, while trying to avoid the lettuce.   To this day, she absolutely loves spam as a “delicacy” (in her mind).  When she was a kid, it was always the one thing left behind by the G.I’s that she longed for most.  She also remembers asking the American Soldiers for Chicklets and watching the dog fights in the night sky, unaware that the pretty lights and sounds meant someone was dying.

A Definition

It is against this personal backdrop, that I find myself examining the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election.  Underneath all the strife, are unhealed wounds from America’s History. There’s a saying that I think best summarizes this history:

“Hurt People, Hurt People”

Alexander, et al, (2004), state that “cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they had been subjected to a horrendous event that marks their memories forever changing their future identity (p. 1).”  Stamm, et al, (2004) note that “trauma can affect the social fabric of a nation or culture during civil wars or in interactions or conflicts with other cultures or divergent subgroups of the same culture, (p. 90).”

Individual vs. Collective Traumas

“…by individual trauma I mean a blow to the psyche that breaks through one’s defenses so suddenly and with such brutal force that one cannot react to it effectively…by collective trauma…I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality. The collective trauma works its way slowly and insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer from it…a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support and therefore an important part of the self has disappeared, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 4).”
Regardless of whether they we are talking about collective or individual traumas, the following symptoms can be observed:

Exposure to Traumatic Events

“The essential feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the development of characteristic symptoms following exposure to one or more traumatic events, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 274).”

Intrusive Symptoms

Following the occurrence of these traumatic events intrusive symptoms can be observed when events or situations trigger memories of the original trauma.  The American Psychiatric Association, (2013), describes these intrusive symptoms as including distressing memories, dissociative reactions, and emotional flashbacks and “prolonged stress [upon] exposure to…cues that…resemble an aspect of the traumatic event, (p. 271).”

Persistent Avoidance of Stimuli Associated with Trauma

Regarding the diagnosis of PTSD in individuals, the DSM-5 notes that: “the individual commonly makes deliberate efforts to avoid thoughts, memories, feelings, or talking about the traumatic event…and…avoid activities, objects, situations, or people who arouse recollections of it, (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).”  An article titled “Collective Trauma: The nightmare of history” (Audergon, 2004), provides an interesting perspective of this symptom from a sociocultural perspective….

Collective traumas affect all segments of a society in different ways.  “One part suffers the atrocity and another part declares it is time to move on, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
 “Often the dominant group….will not include the traumatic story of an oppressed minority group into its collective ‘narrative’, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21)”
This lack of accountability makes it impossible to heal these social wounds.   We become divided and cut off from valuable lessons and knowledge buried within these experiences, (Auerdgon, 2004, p. 21).
“one part of society ‘goes ahead’ while leaving those who suffered to bear the trauma of their own…bemoan[ing] the fact fact that survivors of a group….cannot seem to leave the story behind, (Auerdgon, 2004, p, 21).

Alterations in arousal, reactivity, mood, & cognition…

According to the DSM-5, alternations in cognition and mood can include “exaggerated negative expectations regarding important aspects of life applied to oneself, others, or the future…., (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p 275).”  While alterations in reactivity can include “heightened sensitivity to potential threats…[and reminders of a] traumatic experience. (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”  How does this insight pertain to collective traumas?  Auerdgon, (2004) notes the following:

“While historical revisionism is often thought of in relation to extremist nationalist groups, we all contribute to it when we only become interested in a version of events that protects our interests or innocence.  The result is widespread misinformation and thinking of things….The nightmares of history don’t spontaneously erupt.  Past injustices & traumas remain in the fabric of our collective interactions and are ignited to create war…..(Auerdgon, 2004, pp. 21-23).”

Trauma as Historical Concept

As someone who has struggled with PTSD, I can tell that regarding the unresolved hurts of my past infected every area of my life until I faced them willingly, with a desire to heal. In a nutshell, you perpetuate what you deny & the only way out is through.  Interestingly, these traumas have a silver lining hidden buried beneath the hurt, that only those who have faced them can attest to.

“The manifestations of historical trauma include (a) communal feelings of familial and social disruption, (b) existential depression based on communal disruption, (c) confusion toward owning the ancestral pain accompanied by the temptation to adopt colonial values, (d) chronic existential grief and angst manifested in destructive behaviors, (e) daily reexperiencing of the colonial trauma through racism and stereotyping, and (f) lack of resolution of the existential, communal pain, (Stamm, 2004, pp. 93-94).”

Trauma as Cultural Concept

Culture consists of a shared system of meanings within society that define modes of expression and communication, (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). It influences how we view the world around us and sets the normative standards for behavior (Chung & Bemak, 2002; Nazir, et al, 2009). As a form of “mental programming” (Chung & Bemak, 2002, p282), it defines our value systems and preferred ways of thinking and feeling.   Trauma is also cultural since it can “involve more than physical destruction of people, property, and landscapes….It attacks what constitutes culture of which there are some essential vulnerable elements: body/space practices, religion, history, language, state organization, and economies, (Stamm, et al, 2004, p. 95).  The widespread Native American Genocide in early U.S. history, is just one excellent example of this.

Trauma as a Sociocultural Process

There’s definitely more than a grain of truth the the notion that we perpetuate what we deny. Regarding my own personal traumas, until I let go of my own desire to avoid and deny these memories to myself, I was unable to fully heal.  This unresolved “crap”, infected every area of my life until I was welling to address it honestly with a goal of healing and moving forward.  As I have since discovered, buried deep within these traumatic memories are life lessons that have brought me clarity and a life worth living.  I firmly believe this is something that only those who have truly healed can understand.

This insight alao pertains to the unresolved collective traumas that underlie many of the protests in the recent 2016 presidential election.

When Do Cultural Traumas Emerge from Social Events?

In his book “Cultural Trauma, Collective Identity”, (Alexander, et al, 2004), notes that not all bad things that happen to us influence us traumatically.  “Trauma is not the result of a group experiencing pain.  it is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity…Collective actors decide to represent social pain as a fundamental threat to [our] sense of who [we] are, where [we] came from and where [we] want to go, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  What follows is a quick and dirty overview of the factors involve in the re-defining of events as collective & cultural traumas:

FACTOR ONE: Making Claims of Cultural Significance


“The gap between event and representation can be conceived as the ‘trauma process, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 10).”  In other words, the social process of trauma begins with a narrative that claims certain social events represent some fundamental injury that resulted in the destruction of for a collectivity of peoples.  An article by Silver & Updegraff, (2013), provides two interesting insights regarding the nature of collective and individual traumas.

FIRST, utilizing the 9/11/01 Terrorist Attacks, Silver & Updegraff (2013), describe distress reactions to traumatic experiences as a bit of a double edge sword:

“It is also clear that searching for meaning tends to be associated with distress. Of course, the causal direction of this relationship is impossible to clarify definitively. Rather than distress driving the search for meaning or the search for meaning driving distress, it is likely that there is a constant interplay between the two, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14)”

NEXT, Silver & Updegraff, (2013) note that man’s search for meaning is what ultimately promotes healing, regardless of the specific meaning we attach to the experience:

“Regardless of the particular form of the explanation, it is thought that making some kind of sense out of a trauma or loss facilitates long-term adaptation. This process appears to take the form of restoring people’s sense of invulnerability and shutting down continued ruminations about the traumatic experience, (Silver & Updegraff, 2013, p. 14).”

FACTOR TWO:  Carrier Groups or “Meaning Makers”

Alexander, et al, (2004) describe carrier groups as the meaning makers in the sociocultural trauma process.  Carrier groups consists of anybody who has a place in the social structure who represents a specific sector or group of individuals.  Examples include religious leaders, politicians, mass media and even celebrities on occasion.  The key factors definitive of a carrier group are (1) an ability to communicate this claim effectively and (2) the power and prestige to be heard, (Alexander, et al, 2004).

FACTOR THREE:  Trauma as a Speech Act

Alexander, et al, (2004) also describes the trauma process as an act of speech and includes the following components:

The Speaker: Carrier Groups, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”
The Audience: The general public who listens to this message (Alexander, et al, 2004).
The Situation: The historical, cultural, and institutional environment within which the speech act occurs, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 11).”  

FACTOR FOUR:  Narrative Development

In order to construct a narrative for the meaning underlying this traumatic event, a storytelling process develops in the speech act between carrier group and society.  This new social narrative encompasses four critical components:

“The nature of the pain…the nature of the victim…the relationship of trauma victims to wider audience…attribution of responsibility, (Alexander, et al, 2004, pp. 14-15).”

FACTOR FIVE: Social Institutions & Stratification Hierarchies

This narrative creates a story that is imbued with meaning.  It defines the nature of social suffering in a particular traumatic event of our culture’s history.  Social institutions including religion, science, government, and science together influence how this meaning-making process unfolds.

FIRSTLY, social institutions influence how the speech act unfolds. Who the carrier groups are and who the audience is and the specific meaning attached to the experience.  For example, religious institutions address the question of “why did God allow this to happen?”
SECONDLY, “The constraints imposed by instution[s] are mediated by an uneven distribution of resources, (Alexander, 2004, p. 15).” Those in power, with dominant social position, are able to create a social narrative that favors their perspective.  This can be seen in the typical U.S. History textbook.
“in 2000, reports surfaced in American media about a massacre of sever hundred of Korean civilians….the U.S. Army declared itself innocent: ‘We do not believe it is appropriate to issue an apology on the matter. [while] some of those civilian casualties, were at the hand of American soldier[s], that conclusion is very different from the allegation that was made that this was a massacre in the classic sense.’ (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 17).”

FACTOR SIX:  Identity Revision

Collective traumas develop as a sociocultural process that defines the nature of an injury, who was the victim, who is the perpetrator, and what are the lasting consequences, (Alexander, et al, 2004).  Our collective identity is continually revised based on the meanings given current events.

“Identities are continually constructed and secured not only by facing the present and future but also by reconstructing the collectivity’s earlier life, (Alexander, et al, 2004, p. 18).”

In this respect, identity is a fluid concept that is experienced as a collective sense of who we are. It continually evolves based on how integrate current events into our “sense of self”.


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed).  Washington, D.C.: Author.
Alexander, J. C., Eyerman, R., Giesen, B., Smelser, N. J., & Sztompka, P. (2004). Cultural trauma and collective identity. Univ of California Press.
Audergon, L. (2004). Collective trauma: The nightmare of history. Psychotherapy and Politics International2(1), 16-31.
Chung, R.C.Y. & Bemak, F. (2002) The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development. (80) pp154-158.
Nazir, A, Enz, S, Lim, M.Y., Aylett, R., & Cawsey A. (2009). Culture-personality based affective model. AI & Society. 24(3) pp 281-293.
Silver, R. C., & Updegraff, J. A. (2013). Searching for and finding meaning following personal and collective traumas.  Retrieved from:
Stamm, B.H., Stamm IV, H.E., Hudnall, A.C., & Higson-Smith, C. (2004).   Considering a theory of cultural trauma and loss.  Journal of Loss and Trauma, 9(89), 111.


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A PTSD Survival Plan….

As I may have mentioned earlier in this blog, I have PTSD.  Coming to terms with this diagnosis has required me to develop a greater understand of the symptoms I’m experiencing.  I’ve also had to accept that I’ve had this disorder for much of my life.   My perception of “normal” is therefore skewed and I’m left wondering what it might feel like….

…The other concern which occupies my mind is the fact that this diagnosis has no cure.  Coming to terms with this fact has required me to fully develop a realistic understanding of healing means.  PTSD is managed and not cured.  This has been a bitter pill to swallow.  I mourn what could have been, and feel like a cumulative byproduct of others’ opinions about me.  I have to accept, regretfully, that I allowed the worst of my bully’s words throughout life, to become my truth.  Overcoming the cumulative byproduct of these early traumas has consumed much of my life.  On the alter of healing, a potential of “what could have been” has been sacrificed.  My own personal sense of self, has been consumed by external factors including a socially-relevant idea of my utilitarian value.  I feel like a man in a monkey suit with a scarlet letter sewn on front.  The fact that this perceived value has no basis in reality of my ultimate worth seems pointless.  I protest against the idea that anybody external to myself defines my ultimate worth.  However, by iterating this fact, I feel like that kid in story “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  At times I speak the truth and yet get crucified for it.  It seems as if the rules of the game in life are set up to drive me mad.  Socially relevant “truths” carry the weight of a collective systems of belief in which the majority of us play by the rules unquestioningly.  Acting otherwise seems like a radical idea to some….

…..And as I read this stream-of-thought, I realize it reflects intrusive memories of recent events that have trigged painful memories, I had naively believed were buried in the past….

A Trigger & Reminder…

“The traumatic event can be re-experienced in various ways.  Commonly, the individual has recurrent, involuntary, and intrusive recollections of the event…depressive rumination…intrusive distressing memories….(American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”

The above video, provides a good sampling of the rhetoric I’ve heard during this election.  I brought it up on the November 8th, as the election results began pouring in.  Its worth noting, that my husband and I have divergent political beliefs.  He is an ardent conservative and Trump supporter.  I am a progressive who voted for Hillary in the hopes of preventing a Trump presidency. As I expressed my concerns regarding this hateful rhetoric, memories of a time long ago rendered my brain.   Feelings of shame fell over me as memories of past abuse flashed through my mind.   I began crying uncontrollably, as my husband immediately dismissed my concern, iterating the what he heard that night on the Fox network.

Before I begin, I must admit I’m not a very politically-minded person and this post has nothing to do with who is president.  It is a personal recollection of an experience that points out vividly the lasting impact of PTSD on my daily life.  

Needless to day, shock & panic took over as this year’s election results began pouring in.   Panic & anxiety set in as I struggled to understand his appeal. The very idea that Donald Trump would be president horrified me.   My mind vacillated between shock and horror, panic, and numbness.   As this painful reality set in, I describe how hurtful Trumps words were for me to hear as a trauma survivor.   Rather than providing comfort and an empathic ear, he became defensive and angry.   Misperceiving my concerns as an attack of his own political beliefs began criticizing and attacking everything I said.   This sent me into an emotional tailspin.   I ran headlong into an interaction that was reminiscent of a child that involved a complete dismissal of my thoughts and feelings.

As I struggle to manage the effects of this election on our marriage, I came to realize my symptoms were evidence of a diagnosis and not an ardent political belief system.  I’m coming to the realization that I need to take this PTSD diagnosis seriously.  What is it that causes these emotional flashbacks and the painful distressing memories?  

A Survival Tool-Kit…

What follows is a quick list of steps I can take to manage trauma triggers and the emotional flashbacks that might ensue.  I need a plan of action, to endure the resulting PTSD symptoms should they flood my mind.  Mind you this is something I create for my own benefit.  I’m not an expert here, I’m a sufferer who is learning to cope.  Here’s what I’m doing now & what appears to be working.  In this respect, it is a quick reminder on how to survive emotional flashbacks, should they recur.

STEP ONE:  Find a Psychiatrist.

Currently I’m only seeing a therapist.  I am not taking any medications and don’t have a psychiatrist following my case, since the one who diagnosed me retired.  This first step is much more frustrating that I might have imagined.  However, I’m happy to admit I’ve finally find somebody.

STEP TWO:  Identifying Trauma Triggers.

“Trauma triggers are reminders of a traumatic experience that provoke continued trauma symptoms. Trauma triggers can be internal or external stimuli, (Trauma triggers, 2012).”  At, site owner Anthony, makes a point of arguing the semantics of what is and/or isn’t a trigger, according to his self-imposed expertise (, 2015).  As a sufferer I don’t feel these semantics are of any value.  Instead, for survival purposes, self-awareness is the ultimate goal.  What is it that has produces these painful reactions to reminders of past traumas?  The DSM-5 manual notes the foll0wing about trauma triggers:

“[they can be] events that resemble or symbolize an aspect of the traumatic event, (e.g. windy days after a hurricane, seeing someone who resembles one’s perpetrator”.  The triggering cue could be a physical sensation (dizziness….rapid heartbeat). (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 275).”

“Even though it may sometimes feel like PTSD symptoms come out-of-the-blue, [they] rarely spontaneously occur….cued by something in our internal (thoughts or feelings) or external environment (…a stressful situation). (Tull, 2016a).”  It is for this reason, that the above description from the DSM-5 manual is useful as a jumping off point.   The following questions are posed in an article I found online titled: “How to Identify & Cope with your PTSD triggers?” (Tull, 2016a).

FIRSTLY, “what types of situations are you in (Tull, 2016a)?”

Utilizing the above example, I was in the middle of a conversation with my husband.   Throughout the election, the rhetoric (see video) has been hard for me to take in.  When I expressed my horror that a man with corrupt value system was in office, he became angry.  He began dismissing my perspective and refused to hear my concerns.  A critical aspect of this exchange reminded me of that bad relationship from long ago where my feelings were continually dismissed and belittled.   While not intended, my mind was thrown into a wellspring of negative emotions.  

SECONDLY, “What is happening around you (Tull, 2016a)?”

We were in the basement watching television together.  The kids were upstairs playing.  I remember feeling exhausted, still recovering after a three-day weekend night shift.   I drifted in and out of consciousness, taking cat naps throughout that evening.  Realizing our divergent political belief systems were problematic this election season, we’ve avoided the subject.  That evening we had agreed to not watch the results together.

With an f-d up sleep schedule, I found myself battling insomnia at 1 a.m.  I took out my iPad and decided to read a few blogs I like to follow.  The post I found announcing Trump’s win was unexpected, since this specific blog doesn’t cover the subject of politics.  As I started crying, my husband rolled over and asked me what I was reading.  This is when the conversation happened and things went downhill.

THIRDLY, “What kind of emotions are you feeling (Tull, 2016a)?”

A mixture of anxiety, fear, and depression overcame me.  They were to remain for the rest of the week as I began feeling I was left to “white knuckle it”.  Desperate for a magic “happy pill” to make the feelings go away, I was angry at myself for not finding a new psychiatrist since my last one retired.  Finally, I can’t help but compare my reaction to others’ I know who voted against Trump.  While my parents and sister were shock and worried about the nation’s future, somehow they remained more in control.  Like the above video, they found some ability to remain positive and keep things in perspective.  My mind, on the other hand, began spinning out of control…..

FOURTH, What thoughts are you experiencing (Tull, 2016a)?”

Intrusive and painful memories entered my mind.  I tried willing them to go away, but somehow found this impossible.  The most exquisitely painful memories that still haunt me, aren’t physical abuses, but simply harsh and abusive words.  Nothing can scar your soul more that emotional abuse and an endless barrage of hate and contempt.  The painful aspect of these experiences that still haunts me is that nobody acknowledged my feelings.  They did these mean things to me and let it known to me that it was my fault and I deserved what I got.  Somehow this fucked-up sentiment hurt the worst.

FIFTH, What does your body feel like (Tull, 2016a)?”

My body drifts back and fourth between a state of hyper-arousal and dissociative numbing. At a moments when the emotional pain is literally excruciating, I curse my family and their undying love for me.  If it wasn’t for this, I could just “off” myself and be done with it.  Enduring somehow has felt like a curse.  However, much I want to live and keep going, the struggle has been difficult.

STEP THREE:  Distract First…

When experiencing flashbacks or dissociative symptoms, first distract then challenge.  Distraction techniques involve “coping tools designed to ‘ground’ you in the present moment…so you can retain your connection with the present moment, (Tull, 2016b).”  The DBT distress tolerance and mindfulness skills described in this blog are useful as a jumping off point.  Distracting ourselves from a situation or trigger that can cause us pain, can ground us as we focus on the five senses (Tull, 2016b).  For example, one client I met recently has an aromatherapy glass roll-on bottle which she carries everywhere.  I, on the other hand, have utilized calming music, exercise or mandalas as a tool for distraction.

STEP FOUR:  Challenge Second….

Anthony at (2015), makes a useful point regarding ptsd triggers:

“Categorize your triggers as realistic or unrealistic. You may want outside opinions on this….Review your cognitive biases based on your immediate thoughts and reactions to the trigger, and have counter-statements prepared to confirm the unrealistic aspect of the trigger, (, 2015).”

This suggestion is useful in developing an awareness of how PTSD symptoms often reflect past events or unresolved cognitive biases, and not present situations.  Marsha Linehan’s emotional regulation skills a re useful in challenging our emotions and thoughts.  The ultimate goal here is thinking through them and not with them.

STEP FIVE:  Seek Support.

Tull (2016b), suggests finally, to utilize any support system we have in place.  “If you know that you may be at risk for a flashback or dissociation by going into a certain situation, bring along some trusted support.  Make sure that the person you bring with you is also aware of your triggers and knows how to tell and what to do when you are entering a flashback or dissociative state, (Tull, 2016b).”  My husband, sister, and parents have been a critical first line of defense here.

Image: 1


American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing (2015, September, 2). PTSD Triggers.  What triggers PTSD symptoms?  Retrieved from:
TRAUMA TRIGGERS. Encyclopedia of Trauma. Jan. 1, 2012.
Tull, M., Phd. (2016a, May, 4)  How to identify and cope with your PTSD triggers.  Retrieved from:
Tull, M., Phd. (2016b, September, 6).  Coping With Flashback and Dissociation in PTSD.  Retrieved from:

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Collateral Damage….

In the aftermath of the “it years”, my family and I have had to work hard to recover from the experience.  I was hurting, they were too.  As years past, we put the experience behind us and moved forward….

….Many years later, as a happily married woman I re-entered therapy. I was considering a return to school to switch careers.  My youngest was in 1st grade and I finally had some time to myself.  As a result of therapy, I’ve struggled with blame, resentment, shame & guilt.  Since I just completed putting together material in this subject matter for a group therapy session, I thought I’d post briefly a pic of an old letter from my father.  It was written to us after I left for NYC.  Refusing to leave this bad relationship I felt a strange & inexplicable compulsion to follow him wherever he went.  I hated what he did, realized this was wrong but this didn’t hit matter…..

if you wish to read the backstory behind this letter, click here.



My emotional reaction to this letter today is mixed.  I regret what happened.  I feel bad I hurt my family.  However, a bit of resentment lingers within.  When I read my fathers words I feel frustrated for how my parents weren’t available emotionally in the years leading up to this relationship.  Had they been aware of how sad, depressed & suicidal I was, maybe they could have done something.  Maybe, I wouldn’t have been so fucked in the head when meeting him years later….

The “what-it’s” are endless and forgiveness is an ongoing effort…

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“The girl with the cooties”

Click here to read my post on bullying…

imageThis weekend, I decided to dig through more idea files for this blog that have been filed away in the hallway closet for the last five years. Research notes on the subject of ostracism caught my eye and produced a flood of memories.  In light of recent events, reading through that file, caused me to reflect upon the impact of early childhood experiences….

As far back as I can remember, I’ve always been an optimal target for bullies.  In fact, as the “girl with the cooties”, bullying has always been a constant issue: from kindergarten at St. Agnes up through high school graduation.  Admittedly, the bullies changed from year to year, but they all saw me the same way.  I was the perfect target: I am highly sensitive and don’t fight back….

imageFor those who have never been bullied, you’d be surprised to learn that the actual bullying isn’t the worst of it.  The collateral damage it sustains upon your social life is devastating.  You see, when you get picked on often enough at school people start to notice and a reputation develops.  Now a “loser”, you’re essentially walking around with a scarlet letter tattooed to your forehead.  Hapless bystanders, silently observe the altercations but do nothing.  Instead they pretend not to notice.  Fearing for their own well-being and hoping to retain their status within the social hierarchy, you’re now a social leper.  A “dork-by-association” rule starts to govern all social interactions with you.  Should someone dare say “hi” or strike up a conversation, they’ll hear about it later: “what the hell are you doing hanging out with that wierdo?!?!”

After my best friend moved away in sixth grade, school became a scary place. No one was in my corner.  Classmates avoided me and adults were oblivious to my problems.  The only attention my existence garnered from this point forward were the bullies at school. As a resulted I started thinking being ignored was better than being made fun of.  I choose to make myself as invisible as possible. During lunch I rarely ate and retreated to my favorite hiding spot, (the girls gym lockers in high school).  In class I sat in back, far away from everyone. Finally, I learned avoided all eye contact and never spoke to anybody.   In time everybody did ignore me.  It worked like a charm…

Precipitating Events

“I’m 40 years old now; it’s been something like 30 years since that sort of thing last happened. Still, the experience has not left me, it sucked so much. I don’t think about it much these days, but I know that having lived through those experiences has shaped me as an adult, and not for the better (Dombeck, 2007).”

I’ve tried my best to overcome the effects of this prolonged isolation, however it hasn’t been easy.  There is a piece missing that can’t be refilled.  Radical acceptance has been essential in coming to terms with what I can’t change.  I will always be an introvert.  I might always struggle with social anxiety.  However, I can also try and reach out.  I am taking chances and opening up to others.  Hopefully in time I can begin to establish a few meaningful friendships…

A nice group of ladies at work meets regularly on their days off for lunch.  They take turns picking a favorite restaurant and get together to chat.  These experiences are rare treats for me.  I cherish opportunities for friendship and inclusion, since I never experienced this as a child.  Over the course of our conversations they’ve been nice enough to provide some useful feedback that mirrors this distant history.   I can be difficult to approach and am often act closed off from others.  I have also been slow to trust and open up.  Not surprisingly, these research notes on ostracism put things into perspective.  Before I discuss the subject of ostracism, it’s important to first consider the long-term effects of bullying.  The bullying explains not only why I was ostracized but how I adapted to it through a self-imposed isolation.  With this in mind I want to mention briefly an online article by psychologist, Mark Dombeck (2007).  It summarizes effectively the long term effects of bullying.   Since his article resonates with my own experiences, here are a few relevant points about the long-term effects of bullying:

Shame & Self-Loathing

imageAs a form of emotional abuse, Dombeck (2007), notes that bullying is an attempt to instill shame and self-loathing within the vicious realm of social politics at your typical American school.  “The primary wound that bullying victims suffer…is damage to their self-concepts; to their identities” (Dombeck, 2007).  The DSM-5 describes identity as an “experience of oneself as unique, with clear boundaries between self and others (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 823)”.  In a recent blog post, I discuss the nature of identity and my own “go-it-alone-mentality”.  Attempting to understand the mindset of the crowd-follower, I learned about identity motives as: “pressures toward certain identity states and away from others” (Vignoles, et al, 2006, p. 309)”.  In other words, our identity is influenced by wanted and unwanted potential identities.  We try to magnify positive characteristics and minimize the negatives.  While research  in this post describes a diversity of identity motives, my own development was centered around a need to belong.

Depressed, angry & bitter…

imageOver time, victims of prolonged bullying internalize the messsages they receive (Dombeck, 2007).  This results in a wounded self-concept where meaning in one’s existence is difficult to find.   A deep depression sets in as you realize your situation is inescapable.  However, another insidious reaction to bullying can also emerge and eat you alive:

“Inevitably, it is the sensitive kids who get singled out for teasing; the kids who cry easily; the easy targets. Targeted as they are, many sensitive kids learn to think of their sensitivity as a bad thing and to avoid it, and/or channel it into revenge fantasy and anger” (Dombeck, 2007).

Learned helplessness…


Dombeck, (2007) states when forced to repeatedly encounter a lack of control in the midst of a traumatic event, a state of learned helplessness can emerge.  It is common as a response to prolonged bullying and ostracism (Dombeck, 2007; Twenge, et al, 2003; Williams, 2007). This was a huge issue for me.  Romantic relationships reflect the relationship we have with ourselves: we attract what we are.  With this in mind, learned helplessness set me up for that traumatic relationship in college.  I also associate these early experiences of bullying and ostracism with the emergence of dissociation as a coping tool.  However I’m probably getting ahead of myself….We’ll get to that later…

Interpersonal difficulties…

Dombeck, (2007) states that bully-victims in adulthood cam display an “Anxious avoidance of settings in which bullying may occur”.  A childhood filled with painful peer-relations left me with an anxious avoidant attachment style.  Currently, these anxieties are limited to situations in which I see potential for new friendships emerging. It is a monkey wrench in my attempts to establish friendships.  Overcoming this has taken quite a bit of effort as I’ve learned to let go of those old traumas and open up to others.

Understanding Ostracism

imageAgainst a backdrop of bullying in elementary school, I grew into a depressed, angry, insecure & bitter teenager filled with self-loathing.  Internalizing the shame-laden messages of my bullies, I honestly felt there was something wrong with me.  I felt completely helpless.  In my small hometown my options were limited to the classmates who loathed me.  My sister continually pointed out my ineptness.  My parents told me to “ignore them and be myself”.  The school counselor verified my worst fears, and told me to just “ride it out”.  After all, high school is only four years.  Yup.  These are the precipitating events which led to the social isolation which followed.  

Social ostracism defined…

imageOstracism is defined as an act ignoring or excluding an individual without any clear explanation for one’s own social benefit and/or self protection (Williams, 2097).  In contrast, rejection is an explicit declaration that you do not wish to keep company of someone.  Finally, isolation involves a self-imposed state of aloneness, where you avoid opportunities to socialize with others.

What is uniquely painful about ostracism, is that it’s not of your choosing and you don’t get to know why it’s happening (Leary, 2001).  This ambiguity begins with subtle cues such avoiding of eye contact or excluding you from conversations. It culminates in bewilderment due to an absence of explanations.  One resource I found describes a unique form of ostracism that pertains to my own experiences:

“role-prescribed ostracism is a socially-sanctioned form of ostracism, occurring when individuals are not expected to acknowledge the presence of others” (Leary, 2001, p. 29).

In this form of ostracism, the act is reflective of implicit social rules that individuals were required to respect.  In my school there was a very clique-defined social order.  The social politics were very nasty and terrifying.  With no one to back me up, the ostracism was painful, simply as an ongoing reinforcement of my role as the “girl with cooties”…

Impact of ostracism…

imageIn a recent blog post I examine my own propensity for social isolation.  At the end of this post I note that:  “Group identification is beneficial because it helps us adapt to the social world (Greenway, et al, 2015). As a result we feel more in control of our lives”.  I continue by commenting that many motivators exist in the construction of our identity.  Finally, I also mention that “belonging [in research] only indirectly influences our future predicted selves (Vignoles, et al, 2008; Vignoles, et al, 2006).”   (((This piqued my interest, since based on my experience the primary identity motivator was a desire to belong.)))

Ostracism significantly threatens our fundamental need to belong (Williams, 2007).  As it pertains to identity development, belonging can be thought of as a drive to feel accepted and validated by others, (Vignoles, et al, 2006).  In the event that belonging is threatened we are “motivated to attend more carefully to social cues” (Williams, 2007, p. 431).  Social anxiety takes over and self-esteem becomes a a “gauge for relational valuation” (Williams, 2007 p. 431).  The mind becomes adept at noting signs of a potential threat. However, over time the anxiety builds.  Your ability to accurately interpret others’ motives becomes impaired:

“Ostracism can cause such a strong desire to belong, to be liked by someone…[an] individual’s ability to discriminate good from bad may be impaired…they become attracted to any[one] that will have them” (Williams, 2007, p. 431).

Coping responses…

Initial physiological responses to ostracism include elevated blood pressure, increased cortisol levels, indicitive of a fight-or-flight response (Williams, 2007).  Additionally, research participants report heightened distress after experiencing social ostracism (Williams, 2007).  I liken this insight to the notion of a deer in headlights, or rabbits sitting motionless in the grass.  As a bullied child, ostracism was a painful reminder of my social leper status.  However, in my case it was the lesser of two evils: a painful price to pay for avoiding the potential attacks on my lousy self-image.  Williams, (2007) notes that ostracized individuals can respond in a variety of ways.  They can adapt and learn to conform, fight back, or give up.  An individual’s level of rejection sensitivity determines how they choose to respond (Williams, 2007):

“Individuals who score high on rejection sensitivity tend to chronically expect rejection…lonely people may take longer to recover from ostracism and may [display] helplessness more” (Williams, 2007, p. 439).

When ostracism becomes chronic…

imageMy bedroom was a private retreat where I could finally remove myself from the constant anxiety-filled bullshit at school.  The emotional aftermath of that day’s events could slowly melt away.   I was able to reflect upon what went down.  The inevitable conclusion I always came to was that I was helpless.  All I could do was “take it like a man”.  In time my own favorite method of coping was the freeze response:

“Another reaction to stress is to freeze, as we commonly think a deer does when facing a headlight… a concussed or affectively numb response” (Williams, 2007, p. 431)

Several resources I’ve found mention a “freeze-response” (Williams, 2007) to prolonged ostracism.  Twenge, et al, (2003), describe this freeze response as a “defensive state of cognitive deconstruction that avoids meaningful thought, emotion, and self-awareness, and is characterized by lethargy and altered time flow” (p. 409). When no solution is available, emotional numbness becomes the only alternative.  Holding one’s feelings out of awareness is the only way to survive prolonged distress of this nature. Leary, (2001) adds that “with repeated long-term exposure to ostracism…a prolonged lack of belonging-ness may lead to a feeling that one does not belong anywhere” (p. 31).  Williams, (2007) describes this state as similar to the flattened affect and detached state preceding a suicide attempt.  Finally, it is worth noting that these descriptions reflect the DSM’s description of dissociative PTSD symptoms succinctly….

“Chronically excluded individuals will be hypersensitive to signals of social threat rather than attempting to fortify thwarted needs, they appear more likely to exhibit learned helplessness and alienation…rather than seeking belonging, they accepted alienation and isolation; rather than seeking self-enhancement, they accepted low self-worth; rather than seeking control, they expressed helplessness; and rather than provoking recognition by others of their existence, they became depressed and avoided further painful rejection….Ostracized individuals report a feeling of invisibility, that their existence is not even recognized” (Twenge, 2004, p. 421).

Now What??? (((A look forward)))

This post reflects an exercise in putting current issues I’m struggling with into a historical context.  By applying insights from research to early childhood experiences, the blame is no longer placed squarely upon my shoulders.  I can stop asking myself “what the hell is wrong with you Kathleen”.  Instead constructive insight is available as a reminder that these social anxieties reflect old issues and not present realities….


American Psychiatric Association, (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. Washington, DC: Author.
Dombeck, M. (2007, July, 24). The long term effects of bullying. Retrieved from:
Leary, M. R. (2001). Interpersonal rejection. New York: Oxford University Press (US).
Sommer, K. L., Williams, K. D., Ciarocco, N. J., & Baumeister, R. F. (2001). When silence speaks louder than words: Explorations into the intrapsychic and interpersonal consequences of social ostracism. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 23(4), 225-243.
Twenge, J. M., Catanese, K. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Social exclusion and the deconstructed state: time perception, meaninglessness, lethargy, lack of emotion, and self-awareness. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 409-423.
Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of personality and social psychology, 90(2), 308-333.
Williams, K. D. (2007). Ostracism. Psychology, 58(1), 425-252.

Point #5:
“In my own defense”, I was really a deer in headlights.
A consistent diet of ostracism & bullying left me with a skewed perception of myself. I left home with this emotional hot potato…

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Stages of Change

That Nike commercial that tells us “Just Do It!”, irks the hell out of me.  While intended as an inspirational message of empowerment, it misses the mark on how to create and sustain lasting change.  As I’ve come to realize (both professionally and personally) change is a process that takes time.  When I reflect on my own steady progression of growth thru life, two resources seem to describe this journey well.  The first is the transtheoretical stages of change model which addresses feelings of ambivalence toward change:

“People who successfully make changes in their lives progress along a continuum of predictable stages: 1) precontemplation – not aware of, or minimizing the problem; 2) contemplation – acknowledging the problem and considering possible changes; 3) preparation – making plans; 4) action – following through with plans and 5) maintenance – keeping the new actions as a part of daily activity” (Frasier, et al, 2001).

The second resource which inspires this post is a book by Carl Rogers (2012) titled “On Becoming A Person”.  While the stages of change model provides a witnesses acount of the change process, Roger’s description is a first-hand perspective.  In one interesting segment of this book, he describes a continuum of openness to change.  In an attempt to describe this continuum he makes the following observation:

“[this] Process involves a loosening of feelings. At lower end remote and unowned…At the upper end process of experiencing a continually changing flow of feelings becomes characteristic of the individual.” (Rogers, 2012, p. 157)

It is worth noting that while Rogers, (2012) description of change is similar in many respects to the Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model, it is comprised of 7 stages. Additionally, Rogers theory describes an abstract growth process as we move from ridgidity toward openness to change.  What I like about Rogers theory is it describes this process of change as a gradual transformation in how we relate to our feelings.

In this post I intend to discuss the process of change from two unique standpoints. One perspective will provide a theoretical overview of the stages of change from those in the helping professions. Another perspective will be a first-hand accounting of my experiences in a past relationship.  In this emotionally abusive situation, I underwent the very stages of change described here.   With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, I am grateful for where I am today.  That experience is a stark contrast to my current marriage to a wonderful and loving man, almost 17 years.  I’ve honestly had to step back and debate whether or not I wish to share this experience in such an open forum. My decision is that openness & honesty will be 2 essential guiding standards in the creation of this blog.  After all, hiding experiences like these implies shame – which is unwarranted.  It just also happens to be the “badass” alternative, 🙂 🙂 🙂 …



22033“Precontemplation is the stage in which there is no intention to change behavior in the foreseeable future” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).

Second Hand Observation

According to Prochaska’s Transtheoretical model of change, individuals here are unaware of their problem and are reluctant to discuss matters in detail.  Rogers, (2012), notes an “unwillingness to communicate [about] oneself…communication is [instead] about externals…feelings are neither recognized or owned.  Personal constructs…are extremely rigid” (p. 133).  Feelings are managed with a goal of repression, in order to maintain a sense of security thru avoidance.  Unwilling to seek help independently, clients often enter counseling at the insistence of someone else.

First Hand Experience: “The ‘IT’ years…”

First Year of College…

“There is no need to talk about it: it won’t change a thing,” (Fraser, et al, 2001, 214).  This was my attitude in the first year of our relationship.  I felt a sense of complete hopelessness and lived in denial of the problem.  It was my first serious relationship and introduction to the dating world.  I was in my second year of college when we met, although not your “typical young adult”.   He was my first serious relationship:  prior to him I hadn’t even so much as even kissed a boy before.   I had just left high school that previous year, with a huge chip on my shoulder.  I was a bullied child with a well of unresolved hurt.  Since my best friend, Ruby Stricker moved in sixth grade, I hadn’t experienced a feeling of acceptance or belonging amongst peers.  I was the girl with the cooties that got picked last in P.E., and sat alone at the lunch table.  By the time I reached high school, I would go weeks without speaking more than a few words to people.  These exchanges included “pass the salt” (at home), or “can I use the bathroom” (at school).  This left me with six full years of stagnation in the area of social development.  While I was eighteen chronologically, an insecure sixth grader still lurked within.  As a result, I had huge expectations for my freshman year.  I hoped to make friends & wanted nothing more than to be accepted.  As you might expect, reality didn’t live up to expectations.

While I did experience some companionship with fellow dorm residents, a cavernous divide separated us.  They were your typical college freshmen, and I was  “different”.   Conversations with fellow dorm mates provide a unique window into this divide and my “burgeoning issues”.  Concerned for my level of naivety, the developmental divide between us made it difficult for me to be regarded as an equal.  I recall being very frustrated by this: their parental concern angered me.  Today, I realize I had misperceived it as a demeaning insult.  I wanted nothing more than to be like them, but had no idea of how to make up for “lost time”.  I finished that first year with very few friends and still had yet to go on my first date.

As I entered my sophomore year, I was still completely ignorant of my “issues”.  The consequences of my own chosen methods of adaptation to bullying continued to play out.  The self-imposed isolation throughout teens, now made it difficult to relate to those my own age.   Desperate to solve the problem, I was eager to to take the first “zero-to-sixty” route to maturity I could find.  Little did I know, I was to meet a guy who would deliver just that “and more”.

Meeting “IT”

(((FYI – in conversations with my family about this time of my life, my mother has requested we not mention “that name” .   In time we’ve adopted the nickname “IT” to refer to him.  I use this in reference to this individual throughout the post))) 

…From the moment we met, we were like moths to a flame, drawn to each other for all the wrong reasons.  We were the other’s “quick fix” solution to unresolved hurt.  His involved a complicated relationship with a “domineering” mother.  Mine involved a chip-on-your-shoulder mentality in the aftermath of prolonged bullying and emotional neglect.    We never did have that “honeymoon period” common in most “unhealthy relationships” (Burman, 2003; Fraser, et al, 2001).  Instead, I would describe our relationship from the start as a “boot camp” in which IT made the development of a traumatic bond, his priority.  I lost my virginity very early.   It happened so fast, I remember it in retrospect as an unreal “out-of-body” experience.  It was only when he crawled on top, that it dawned on me what was happening .  My head spun: it was over almost as suddenly as it began.

He immediately set a plan in motion, to turn my insecurities into a certain self-perceived fact that I was totally worthless and helpless without him.  Reading me like an open book, he berated me for my inability to fit in.  I was ugly and stupid.  He told me there was no way any other guy would want me.  I believed him, (based on past experience, it appeared a logical conclusion at the time).  This resulted in the gradual reinforcement of learned helplessness (Burman, 2003; Fraser et al, 2001).  He would push the boundaries of what I would put up with, by using my naivety to his advantage.  He dangled “girlfriend” status in front of me like a carrot on a stick.  Achieving this status meant doing what he said, no matter how crazy, willingly and without complaint.  If not, I was to receive anger and rejection.  This was an unthinkable horror I intended to avoid at all cost.  I “NEEDED” him.  Before long, I was his personal slave –  the sole reason for my existence was to do his bidding.

Now under his “complete control”, the next phase of his plan was set into motion.  He started to isolate me from others, insisting I move to another dorm and take a single room.  Away from my friends, I was alone again, just like high school.  Old insecurities re-emerged and with it, crippling depression.   I only wanted love and acceptance. He utilized these urgent needs to his favor.  He was very possessive and insisted I never leave his sight without his say.  However, he cheated on me constantly – openly and without apology.  In fact, he would share intimate details of his “trysts”.  He insisted I listen attentively without complaint so he could drive home the idea that I was lucky to have him.  Fearful of rejection, I complied as instructed.  At first, it was difficult to conceal my feelings.  I would sob uncontrollably while he laughed and called me pathetic.  In time I learned to separate myself from my experiences, as if I were floating outside my body and witnessing the events like an observer.  He could do as he pleased – I felt nothing.

In time, he was my “sole source” of acceptance and love.  Desperate to have somebody in my corner, “losing him” was now a source of fear and panic.  I was “lucky” to have him and fell for his plan; hook, line and sinker…


image“Contemplation is the stage in which patients are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action.” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

In the contemplation stage, a growing ambivalence begins to emerge as individuals begin to struggle with their own self-evaluations of dysfunctional behavior, (Norcross, et al, 2010).  Aware that a problem exists, individuals often describe feeling “stuck”.  Concerned about the energy and risk involved in change, resistance prevents further action.  Stages two and three in Roger’s description of growth/change provide additional insight on the nature of this resistance.  In stage two, problems are acknowledged but externalized (Rogers, 2012).  Feelings start to ‘bubble up’ and are unacknowledged.  Emotions are used to assess what is of value to us.  In phase three, an emerging understanding develops of how emotions exist in reaction to events while also defining their nature.  With this realization, we begin to re-examination our perceptions and beliefs of the situation. “Is all as we perceived it to be?” Questions such as these produce a growing awareness of our problems.

First Hand Experience

The move to New York…

The burgeoning depression I felt as a result of his imposed isolation was now intermingled with a constant state anxiety and feelings of hoplessness.  My body was a jumble of nerves, I couldn’t keep food in me, my heart was pounding out of my chest.   This state of “near panic” was due to the unthinkable:  losing what I perceived was my only real chance at love and belonging.    The very idea of this terrified me.  While I didn’t have the courage to “hurt myself”,  the emotions were overwhelming enough, that this option was starting to become quite attractive.

As the semester came to a close, he began planning our next move.  By this time, I had managed to alienate myself from all the friends I made first year.  We were spending every minute together.  He refused to let me out of his sight.  During finals week he made an executive decision that we were to hop the next Greyhound to New York City – his hometown.  Plopping down two duffle bags in my room one day, he told me to fill them up and “leave the rest of your shit here”.  I did as I was told, and only informed my parents of our move after arriving in Staten Island, where his mother dropped us off at an apartment she found.  With only $1000.00 in our pocket, it was my job to figure out how to support both of us.  I got a job at a restaurant, and begged my parents to help and they relented.  However, I received an angry letter from my father shortly thereafter, demanding “how could I do this”.  He told me I made my mom cry in attempt to induce guilt.  In short: I was “disappointing them”.  My sister, then only 12, was incredulous at how stupid I was.  “I would never hurt mom and dad like that”, she exclaimed, and set forth a path toward “being perfect”, that involves always following the rules as the “good girl”.  I was angry, for their failure to be there when I needed.  Couldn’t they see how this was an end result of years of many years of bullying and torment?

It was when we arrived in New York, that a new phase of our relationship began –  10x worse than what I had experienced previously.  Every second of my day was lived in a “pins and needles” like environment.  Trying desperately to “hold my head above water” emotionally, my only concern was to please him.   This meant stressing over every little thing.  The food was too “salty”.  I forgot to “lay out his clothes”.  Every little misstep was intermingled with negative commentary about my ineptness.  He called me “pea-brain” because I was so stupid.

The control was also amped up by this point, since we lived together.  There wasn’t a single move throughout the day that I could make without his say so.  He controlled the money, so I couldn’t do anything without his permission.  I was only allowed to eat small amounts of food, including oatmeal and ramen noodles 1-2 times daily.  My weight plummeted to around 90, (at 5’8″).  I was anorexic looking.  Meanwhile he ate like a king and started gaining lots of weight.  I remember watching him consume food longingly while crying inside because the hunger was beyond bearable.  He did this intentionally because it drove me crazy.

The demeaning and controlling behaviors steadily increased as his demands became more and more insane.  I was to sleep on the floor next to his bed like a dog because this enforced my status in the relationship.  I only entered it when he wanted “to get him some”.  I spoke only when spoken to.  I was to refer to him as “Sir”.  I had to ask permission to take a “piss”.  I was allowed to bathe only once every week or two for minutes at a time or he would pour a bucket of ice water on me.   After months of this, I was dirty and smelly since I rarely bathed.  My hair was greasy and tangled since I rarely had an opportunity to groom.   My clothing was usually disheveled since I only had minutes to dress.  I now looked like a starving, homeless, crazy drug-addict.   People walking down the street would stare at me visibly in horror.

The return home…

After a year of this, he decided a move was in order.  He felt moving to my hometown was a good idea since it was more affordable.  He also discovered he could manipulate my parents into giving me money, due to their concern for my well being.  By this time, I felt stuck and totally helpless.  I was certainly sick and tired of his treatment, but felt there was no other option.   I did recognize by this time that our relationship was a repeat of my childhood.  I knew it wasn’t a coincidence, that old traumas and fears from then were  re-emerging.  He was my “band-aid”: used to conceal issues I hoped to avoid. Like an addict in need of a “fix”, he had me where he wanted.  There was nowhere I could go.   By admitting this to myself, I was able to examine how the past explained the present.   However, I was still not strong enough to process those old memories.   I preferred, instead, to box them up in the attic of my mind with all the other baggage.


22039“Preparation is the stage in which individuals are intending to take action in the next month and are reporting some small behavioral changes” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144)

Second Hand Observation

In the preparation stage, clients begin making “baby steps” towards lasting change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  With a full awareness of one’s problems, clients in this stage are ready to begin taking action in the upcoming months.  In this stage our goal is to begin understanding our situation more fully as we prepare to institute some big life changes.  Emotions are expressed with greater intensity regarding current experiences and past events.  The client begins to understand the importance of accepting and claiming ownership of all emotional experiences (both good and bad).  However, especially hurtful and traumatic experiences are still met with resistance.  Underlying a desire for change “is a realization of concern about contradictions and incongruences between experience and self….Example: I’m not living up to what I am” (Roger, 2012, p. 138). 

First Hand Experience

Fast-forwarding a few years, we now live in my home town and are working on completing a bachelor’s degree.   The relationship – as described above –  is otherwise unchanged.  I learn to acclimatize through a state of (almost perpetual) dissociation and numbing.  I am much like a marathon runner, emotionally conditioned to the situation.  Gradually, I gain awareness of the patterns in our relationship.  I come to understand that the unresolved insecurities from childhood bullying are a core component.  A sense of incongruency develops when I recognize this emerging clarity isn’t reflected in my dysfunctional life choices.   I desperately desire to leave, but feel incapable and stuck.  There is no pond to jump to where acceptance and love lie.  The only other option is aloneness – which frightens me.  A series critical incidences occur during this time which force me to examine our relationship further…

The first incident occurs just before Christmas break….

We had just finished our first semester back at school after a move from New York City.   We were living in the dorms at that time and planned to move in my parent’s apartment house once a vacancy opened up.  As Christmas neared, my mother insisted I come home to spend time with the family.  Her parents had just moved into the house after immigrating from the Philippines and she wanted me to spend time with them.  I was happy to see my grandfather, and desired to see him more.  Our last visit was when I was nine and he spent the summer at our house.  I remember growing close to him and being sad when he left.  When my mom stopped by the dorms to pick me up, IT forbade me to go.  A shouting match occurred between them and before long they are each holding me by an arm, pulling me in opposite directions.  After what seemed like an eternity, my level-headed father tells us to get in the car so we could discuss this.  Once we climbed in the car I noticed IT was crying(!).  I was shocked in that moment to discover IT’s “iron clad” armor was actually just show.  In reality, he was a scared and insecure child inside.   The only compromise we could come to, was for IT to accompany me to their house during the day and sleep at his place at night.  Mind you, the dorms were closed and he had nowhere to stay.  The only spot he could find was a van with and extended cab, in the driveway of a university maintenance worker’s house.  It was cold, dirty, and smelled of gasoline.   I hated him for ruining my Christmas and returning all the presents so he could spend the money.  I hated him for the time he took away from my family.  I hated him for making me sleep in that disgusting van.  Still, I felt completely helpless….

The second series of incidents involves encounters between IT and my former classmates.

On one such occasion, he informs me of two new friends he’s made: former bullies of mine.  IT talks about the time they enjoyed hanging out and describes their conversation.  He makes sure to tell me they thought I was a loser and I should be dumped.  On another occasion, I discover he was cheating on me with the most popular girl in school.  Again his storytelling involved a detailed accounting of their times together.  After years of this same treatment, I began questioning these stories as part of his plan to brainwash me.  However, when this girl started following me around in her car whenever I went out, I thought maybe there was a grain of truth to his story.

With every incident like this, the chinks in his armor start to appear.

I come to realize in time that he is completely full of hot air.  Underlying a thin veneer of confidence and good showmanship, is a well of insecurity and ineptness.   Underlying his assertion that I’m a helpless idiot is the reality that I’m pulling all the weight.  I work hard to support the two of us, (he is unemployed and only receives tuition money from his parents).  I work hard to help him get good grades (while holding down a full schedule myself).  I wait on him hand and foot, (he does nothing).  My hopes for love and belonging are now shattered.  I am now completely numb to any and all emotions – like a robot.  He is an asshole and I despise him but feel stuck.

Inside my mind, an emotional equation functions much like a “scale of justice”.   On one side, are the emotional burdens associated with being in this relationship.  On the other side are insecurities, feelings of worthlessness, and traumas I hope to avoid.   As each day passes, a few pieces fall from one side of the equation to the other.  The options of staying and leaving play out in this manner as I weigh this decision.  It is only a matter of time before the scale finally falls in the opposite direction….


 image“Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behavior to overcome their problems” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The action stage is observed through changes in a client’s behavior with the commitment of time and resources to sustain such a change (Norcross, et al, 2011, p. 144).  Rogers, (2012), provides commentary regarding Stage Five of his own theoretical model in the following statement: “There is an increasing quality of acceptance of self-responsibility for the problems being faced, and a concern as to how he has contributed” (p. 142).  Client’s in this stage display a heightened emotional awareness expressed as a desire to gain clarity.  As a result, feelings are experienced in the present.  This is accompanied with a “desire to be the ‘real me’” (Rogers, 2012, p. 142).  This need for change is goaded by a desire for honesty and self-responsibility (Rogers, 2012).

First Hand Experience

My Grandfather’s Passing….

In my junior year, my grandparents decide to move in with my aunt who lives in Texas.  As Filipinos accustomed to a tropical climate, they disliked the South Dakota winters.  Sad to see them leave, I promised to myself that “someday” I wouldmake time for them.  However, later that summer, my grandfather is hit by a drunk driver while out enjoying a bike ride.  I packed quickly and traveled to Texas with my family for the funeral.  I was numb and quiet throughout the visit.  I got my first taste of “freedom” in four years at this time. I could eat whatever I wanted, I didn’t have to ask permission to piss, and took leisurely showers every morning.  After relaxing into these experiences, nagging thoughts began to enter my brain.  My grandfather would never get to see me “well”.  His last memories of me woud be in this state of “fuckedupness”.  Of all my grandparents, I felt closest to him.  Our only time meeting was during the summer before I turned nine.  I began reminiscing about that time and was saddened by the fact that I lost our final opportunity to spend time together.  The real “kick in the gut”:  I chose instead to focus on appeasing “that bastard” waiting at home.  I knew there was something I had to do.

The London Trip.

On the way home from our trip to Texas, my mother expressed her concern.  I was quieter than usual, and she didn’t understand “what was wrong”.  An overwhelming sense of dread washed over me as I admitted to her that I wasn’t looking forward to getting home.  I didn’t elaborate but she knew implicitly what I had meant.  “Serendipitously”, just weeks after that exchange, my mother arranged a two week family vacation to England.  She then called IT’s family back home in New York and encouraged them to fly him home, since IT would be alone during this period.  They do, and somehow, (despite “his” protestations), I have a two week vacation to look forward to.  While over there, I’m treated to another two weeks of complete freedom.   On our third night there, I confess to my mother I needed to leave and felt now was my only real “safe chance”.  She gave me a hug and promised to be there for “moral support” during this call.   Our conversation was very brief and I’m not sure what I said.  I only know my heart was exploding out of my chest and my hands shook uncontrollably.  After a quick “I can’t do this any more”, he says “okay whatever” and drops the phone.  IT’s father then gets on the line and says he has to retrieve his son, who is outside in the snow without shoes or a shirt on.  I’m bawling at this time, but grateful for the courage I’ve mustered.  My mother gets on the phone and exchanges pleasantries with his dad.   I’m shocked – it’s over as quickly as it started.

The rest of the vacation is a blur.  My mind is muddled and my emotions are up and down like a roller coaster.  No longer numbed and in a state of robotic dissociation, my thoughts and emotions run wild.  While grateful to be out of the relationship, years of emotional brainwashing still remain.  I am still that addict in need of her “drug of choice”.  The emotional withdrawal of going cold turkey is unbearable.  “White-knuckling” it inside, I do my best to give “good face”.  I am strangely fearful and anxious without him nearby, (knowing we will probably never see each other again).  While I was able to contextualize these fears as based on his “emotional conditiong”, they remained unabated.  Unable to enjoy the vacation, I tried my best for my mother’s sake.  From an observer’s perspective, this decision might seem courageous.  From my own, this decision amounted to me “yelling uncle”.   Emotionally, I just had the living crap beat out of me.  I left the relationship that day, an empty shell with nothing left to give, a shadow of my former self…

((In the video below, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess crosses the finish line completely exhausted, after running a marathon during the 1984 Olympics.  It visually depicts my emotional state during this time:))


24816“Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action” (Norcross, et al, 2011, p144).

Second Hand Observation

The maintenance stage can be observed as the sustained maintenance of behaviors incompatible with one’s problems for a sustained period of time (Norcross, et al, 2011).  Rogers, (2012), describes stage six of his model of change by stating: “Once an experience is fully in awareness, fully accepted, then it can be coped with effectively” (p. 145).  Where there was once stuckness there is now allowing.  Where there was once resistance there is now acceptance.  As a result, the client is able to handle the problem effectively.  Problems are not externalized as “somebody else’s fault” so we can play victim.  They are not taken inward with a sense of shame while we “beat ourselves up”.  Instead, “he is simply living some portion of it knowingly & acceptingly [one step at a time]” (Rogers, 2012, p.150).

First Hand Experience

The aftermath…

With IT out of my life, I was able to move forward.   I began to relax into the simplicity of daily life.  I redecorated my apartment, and removed anything that reminded me of him.  I enjoyed  the pleasures of complete freedom.  My grades and overall health improved and I got my emotional “sea-legs” back.  After graduation, I moved to be closer to my sister and found a job.  Still not “over” the effects of all these experiences, I tried my best to manage them.   In those early years, I began to focus upon healing and addressed the most raw wounds of that period.  The support groups I attended were a vital lifeline.

20-20 hindsight…

It is now over 20 years since I broke up with this guy.   I don’t know where to begin discussing this last stage of change.  It just might need to be the subject of another post, since this one is already much longer than I had intended.   I can, however, reassure you that in time even the deepest wounds heal.  It’s taken a long time to work through the effects of this experience and put it into perspective.  In fact the last reminants of baggage from that relationship have finally been put to rest in the last few years as I’ve worked in repairing the relationships in my family.  In case you are wondering, I’m happily married now to a loving man and enjoy a relationship that once seemed impossible.  Today, memories of this experience rarely come up. I can honestly say I hold no ill-will towards IT. Healing began as I examined those reasons for entering and staying in such a relation.  I took a DBT therapy skills group and started procrssing old traumas.

In time, I discovered that in order to move forward, I would need to forgive and begin healing.  Doing so has been essential to make room for the “good stuff” that has since followed.  In fact, this experience provided me a chance to grow.  Strangely, the relationship I enjoy now, stands on the shoulders of lessons learned during this time…

Over the years I’ve learned that guys like this follow their own fucked-up rule book.  Click here for insights on how to spot a guy like this…


Burman, S. (2003). Battered Women: Stages of Change and Other Treatment Models That Instigate and Sustain Leaving. Brief Treatment & Crisis Intervention. 3(1).
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Random House: New York
Frasier, P. Y., Slatt, L., Kowlowitz, V., & Glowa, P. T. (2001). Using the stages of change model to counsel victims of intimate partner violence. Patient education and counseling, 43(2), 211-217.
Norcross, J. C., Krebs, P. M., & Prochaska, J. O. (2011). Stages of change. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 67(2), 143-154. doi:10.1002/jclp.20758
Rogers, C. (2012). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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“It was the most miserable day of my life…”

I have to say, before I get to my husband’s story – he is the most wonderful and loving man I have ever met.  In these days since my sister had been released from the hospital – my mind has been a jumble of mixed emotions.  I love my sister and wish for her to get well.  I want more than anything to be there.  However, these pangs of sadness overwhelm me.  Wishing I had received support she is getting from my parents, brings tears to my eyes.  In fact, as I type this with tears in my eyes,  I get the most awesome hug from my amazing “partner-in-crime”.  I know immediately: “I’m not alone, he’s in this with me and it will be okay.”  Like me, he has had to struggle with similar emotions that come from an unfulfilled childhood wishes.  When you grieve this sort of loss, the pain is difficult to put words to for those who don’t understand.  Let me just say the loss is very real and vivid. It leaves a hole behind which is “unfillable”…

What follows is an excerpt from my old journals.  It is a son’s regrets about a father who was never there…

“My husband stood in the kitchen watching our two young sons snuggling on the sofa in the living room.  They were watching their favorite cartoon before bedtime. My husband’s eyes welled up with tears as he whispered quietly: “look at them, so happy, contented, safe and secure.”  Knowing of my husband’s own painful childhood, I couldn’t help but get caught up in his love and gratitude for what we’ve created together. At moments like this, I like to try and see through his eyes. The beautiful perspective I get is always that of someone with a wealth of life lessons well-earned. I have nothing but respect and gratitude for his strength of perseverance. My husband is the youngest of four children. His mother was married and divorced a total of eight times in her life – twice to his dad. As the youngest of her four kids, he was the product of his parent’s second marriage together. The majority of his childhood memories are pretty cloudy. As the youngest child, he was shuffled around quite a bit in a pass-the-buck fashion. He says he doesn’t have any real memory of his mom though and spent the least amount of time with her. He never really had the opportunity to know who she was outside her addictions. As a drug addict and alcoholic, she was fairly incoherent and unstable by the time he came around. His memories of his father on the other hand are painfully vivid. He was a tyrannical and abusive, alcoholic. When it became apparent that his parents were incapable of providing a stable home life, his grandparents decided to step in and raise him. Between the ages of 9 and 14 he lived with them. They were quite old at that time, but did their best to keep up. He describes them as loving and kind people.

At the age of 14, my husband reached what was to become the end of his childhood. His grandfather suffered a stroke and died shortly thereafter. His grandmother overwhelmed with grief stopped taking care of herself and ended ip in a nursing home. My husband was the forced to live with his father.  He was the only one willing to take him in. As you might guess, this turn of events was very painful time for my husband. He was grieving the loss of his grandfather, (the closest thing he ever had to a real dad). He was worried about his grandmother who he now rarely had the opportunity to visit. To top things off he had to continually endure the pins-and- needles environment in his father’s home. As a rebellious and independent teenager, who had grown a foot in the last year, my husband wasn’t destined to last very long in his father’s home.

One night after coming home late, as he opened the door, my husband was met with his father’s fist. While my husband has spared me all the exact details of that event, he chose on that day to defend himself. His father’s reaction was to throw him out of the house.

I don’t exactly know how, but to make a long story short, my husband managed to survive on his own from that point forward. By the time I had met him at 34, he had already been on his own for about 20 years. He is pretty proud of the fact that in all that time he managed to remain self-sufficient and gainfully employed – with the exception of 3 months in the early 80’s.

When I asked my husband if he had ever seen his father since that day, he relayed to me one the more painful memories of his life. It was on his 25th birthday. He had moved back to his home town after several years of living and traveling throughout the United States. As it so happened, it was his 25th birthday on that otherwise ordinary day. He stopped at a gas station just down the street from where he lived to get some gas. As he stood there, he noticed a familiar car drive up right next to him. As he looked up to see who stepped out, his face turned pale and his heart skipped a couple beats. Lo and behold, it was his father! The last person he wouldíve expected or had been prepared to see on that day. As is typical of his father, my husband received not so much as a hint of recognition from him. Instead his father simply set about filling the car with gas and acted as if there was nothing to say about the fact that they hadn’t so much as laid eyes on each other over the last 11 years. A well of pain and anger start to build in my husband. After an eternity of deadening silence, he eventually piped up and said: “Hi dad! Aren’t you going to wish me happy birthday? I turn 25 today.”  After a minute or so, his father screwed on the gas-cap and walked inside to pay. As he passed by my husband, he said rather nonchalantly: “Yeah, how could I forget, it was the most miserable day of my life.

My husband quietly went into his car and drove back home. He says if nothing else, he knew the hope he held onto for something different, was a useless burden.  Still, the pain of his father’s rejection had stayed with him. While it is not as sharp or biting, this memory still sticks.”

Today, I reap great rewards in the aftermath of these painful experiences.  Through each other we established the sort of loving home – we thought was impossible at one point.  It’s an indescribable experience finding out that “impossible” is not “impossible”.

With time even the most unbearable of wounds heal…..

Traumatic experiences do transform and set off an opportunity for growth…

With growth, comes the development of new psychological tools that leave you with a feeling of resiliency…

By choosing to endure and not be defined by these experiences, we have discovered a hidden gem on the other side…

What we have now, exists as a byproduct of experiences like this one…

…We take little for granted as a result – and life couldn’t be sweeter…

It does get better…

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Shame, invalidation, & a little baggage

“I’ve talked to nearly 30,000 people on this show and they had one thing in common: they all wanted validation” – Oprah 

So what exactly is invalidation, and why is it so important? Marsha Linehan, Phd., founder of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, defines invalidation as trivializing, punishing, judging, or ignoring a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and identity (Linehan, 1997).  In order to understand the importance of this concept it helps to know how its definition in the field of psychology is unique.  A quick review of Merriam Webster’s online dictionary yields the following definition:

Invalid:  “being without foundation or force in fact, truth, or law…logically inconsequent.” (invalid, n.d.)

In laymen terms, when we call something valid, we are pointing out its logical and factually-based nature (invalid, n.d.).    In contrast, when used in the field of psychology, validation means acknowledging and accepting another someone’s thoughts and feelings.   It is a way of communicating to someone else that you understand them, it’s okay to feel the way they do, and you respect their viewpoint. While this may seem fairly straightforward, it is often easily overlooked.  Especially, for those who have never experienced it before.   In fact, attempting to explain this issue as a critical need in past relationships, has been a source of great frustration.  Before discussing this concept further, I’d like to delve into the nature of emotions a bit…

What Are Emotions?

Emotions are mental states, experienced as physical sensations in response to our perceptions.   These perceptions are byproducts of the brain’s ongoing mental efforts to interpret sensory information. It is through this ongoing effort that a mind-body connection is created.  Our body responds to the quality of our thoughts by producing symptoms that provide feedback on the nature of these thoughts.  In this respect, emotions are signals from the body that tell us how it is affected by our thought processes.   Beliefs and past experiences play an interesting role here, by instilling emotional schemas: internal templates for how we regulate and respond to emotional experiences.  For example, a parent’s emotional philosophy determines how they handle their child’s expression of feeling.  This in turn has a tremendous long-term impact on a child’s overall emotional intelligence.

“Some parents view the child’s experience and expression of emotions…as an event that must be avoided…[others see] these ‘unpleasant events’ as an opportunity for intimacy and support” (Gilbert, 2005, p185).

Consequences of Invalidation

Problematic emotional schemas develop as a result of chronic invalidation in childhood. A belief that one’s feelings are incomprehensible and flawed produce an array of negative responses to an initial feeling including shame, avoidance, and rumination. In his book Compassion, Gilbert (2005) describes an emotionally feral child in the following quote:

“Let us imagine the following: a child grows up and never experienced any validation of thoughts or feelings. He is an emotionally feral child, but lives within a community of other people who ignore validation. His parents have a radical behaviorist approach…adhering to the strictly behavioral position that emotions and cognitions are meaningless constructs” (Gilbert, 2005, page 199).

The long-term consequences of emotional invalidation like this are a pervasive distrust of your emotions, thoughts, and belief that you are inherently flawed. From within this preconceived vantage point, it is nearly impossible to develop any sense of personal agency or worth. The predefined lens through which you enter adulthood is shame and self-invalidation.  A quick preventative remedy to this is validation: experienced as an acceptance of one’s feelings that excludes attempts to change them.   This response allows you to openly share what you feel and facilitates emotional regulation.  When you communicate that someone’s emotions make sense in light of their own life situation, you respect the legitimacy of their perspective. On the basis of this shared understanding, emotions can be processed.

According to R.D. Laing, “When we invalidate or deny people’s experiences, or how they see things, we make mental invalids out of them.” (Steiner, 2003, pxxvi)

Self-invalidation – reliving others’ worst opinions of you…

The consequences of receiving very little validation in childhood are a pervasive distrust of your own emotions and belief that you are inherently flawed. From this vantage point, self-worth is an impossibility. Instead, life is viewed through a lens of self-invalidation and feelings of shame: “an intensely painful feeling that we are flawed, and therefore unworthy of accepting and belonging” (Brown, 2006, p45).  It’s taken me a while to overcome this issue.  Until I acknowledged my own shame-based orientation, it ran my life like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m ashamed to admit that this tarnished self-image has haunted me well into adulthood.  It wasn’t until I entered counseling in my late thirties that I began to understand why I felt like a “walking sh*t magnet”. The seeds of my own destruction came as I decided to put too much stock in others opinions. With no sense if inherent value in my being, the only feelings of worth I experienced were based on the scraps of approval I garnered from others.  This measuring stick of self-worth became a conglomeration of any negative messages my childhood bullies beat into me.  I failed to measure up, and I had to pay.

As a bullied child I had few, if any, friends.  I was the girl with cooties that nobody wanted to sit next to. I struggled  to understand why I was unworthy.   Why did my sister have such an easy time making friends?  Was she really better?  Watching her enjoy the acceptance and belonging I desired, made my loneliness unbearable.  I spent middle school and high school alone, depressed, and suicidal.  I walked thru life with a deep well of pain and anger.  At times, it was almost enough to make me go postal…That is, until I came to understand that the only acceptable person to take these feelings out on was myself.  I consider myself very lucky to have survived this.

My family, in the meantime, was blissfully ignorant of my struggles and unknowingly contributed to matters. As an INFP, Myers Briggs type, I was always very sensitive and lived in my own rich and imaginative inner world.  My parents had a hard time understanding me.  As college professors, they lead with their intellect.  The Jungian thinking function defined our home and objective pragmatism was preferred over the chaotic nonsense brought about by emotions.

You see, as fate would have it, my ESTJ mother also grew up in the Philippines.   The cultural, temperamental, and generational gaps produced by this, left an ongoing miscommunication that took a while to resolve itself.   We couldn’t effectively express what needed to be said or hear what the other was telling us.  My father, the INTP, was immersed in his latest intellectual pursuit.   Preferring to let my mother be the “bad guy”, he adopted a laid back and hands-off approach.  Aware of his inability to handle my problems, I kept them to myself.   I hated to cause distress.

looking beyond self-invalidation

When I reflect on these memories as a mother, I have an appreciation for the my parents’  humanity.  You see, children do not come with instruction manuals and we are left to make things up as we go along.  Your imperfections and shortcomings end up spilling into all efforts to raise your kids.  There’s definitely a grain of truth to the notion that we give to others on the basis of who we are.

Through the eyes of 20/20  hindsight I have gained some perspective on these childhood experiences.  When I recall all the significant individuals throughout my life, multiple perspectives from which I am able to view myself, unfold.  Each is a window into others’ interpretations of “me” and  contains a unique set of divergent distortions….liked an “f’d up hall of mirrors…

I’ve since learned to recognize this self-invalidation as a tendency to hold myself up to a measuring stick of preconceived worth.  This self-judgment has been a sadomasochistic form of control. Underlying this judgmentality, is a desire transform myself into what I believe “good enough” means.

Turning things around…

As a self-help junkie, this information has been lurking in my mind for quite some time.  When I decided to start a blog, I ran across a few old journal pages on this subject matter.  My thinking at the time was: what am I doing now to invalidate myself and how can I stop? What follows is a expounded version of these journal pages with insights on how to stop invalidating yourself.

Step one – Pay attention to how often you judge yourself & the quality of your own self-talk

“Validation – finding the truth in what we think and feel – stands as the fulcrum between empathy…and compassion…Finding the ‘truth’ even if the truth is in a distorted thought….allows us to bear ‘witness’ to the fact that the other person’s suffering means something to us.” (Leahy, 2005)

All too often, I find myself running on mental auto-pilot.   I focus on the tasks of the day and all the responsibilities I am left to juggle. The first step to cutting this bad habit of shame-addiction was to pay attention to my own self-talk and the sorts of things I’d say to myself.  I decided to record videos of myself just before a nap like a mini-confessional/brain dump.  I thought it would be best to do so after a long night shift when the kids are at school and I would be alone to record my thoughts.  Any ability to edit my thoughts would also be worn down.

What I discovered was my self-talk is laden with negative messages from an array of sources that are largely untrue based on the current state of affairs in my life.  It appears my mind has chosen to fill itself with negative self-talk, set at auto rewind.

Step two: Seeking the grain of truth & your distortions of them.


After several weeks, when the fog of exhaustion had dissipated, I decided to watch these videos.  I then asked myself the following questions:  (1) What sort of shame-based messages are contained in your self talk? (2) Are these judgments based on a desire to win or gain approval? (3) Where is the grain of truth and how are you distorting it?

After taking time to reflect upon these questions I came upon the realization that I had a real “hot-air [problem]” (Wiley, 2003, p507).  I allowed valuable self-knowledge to fall to the way-side as I made others’ opinions a priority.  In reality, my problem wasn’t what I saw about myself, but how I was choosing to view myself.  This perpetual stuck-ness was a byproduct of a new kind of rose-colored lenses with huge sh*t stains on them.  A parting question to chew over as you consider these thoughts: “who has the right to tell you who you are supposed to feel about yourself?”

Step three:  Create a new truth.

imageAs I stop and reflect upon the insights from this exercise, I find the experience to be reminiscent of the Hans Christian Andersen’s fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.   The truth of who I am, has been foresaken for a lifetime of shame-inducing messages based on complete bullsh*t.   What I love about this fable is it effectively showcases the notion of pluralistic ignorance.  Everybody assumes the group is correct in failing to recognize the king is naked.   Nobody wants to be the first to point this fact out and be the oddball out.  Therefore, everyone pretends not to notice.  As a result,  in the context of the social situation at hand, truth becomes bullsh*t and bullsh*t becomes truth.  As that boy who yells to the king: “put some f*cking clothes on you retard!”, this is a truly crazy-making experience.

A big lesson I learned learned the hard way, pertains to how one might begin wading through all this perceptual baggage:

You can change an opinion with the mind but facts exist independent of  what your thoughts are on the matter.

In other words, truths and facts must be sifted through and put into proper perspective.   Facts require radical acceptance, since to ignore them is willful ignorance.   The serenity prayer is very pertinent here.  In contrast, for an opinion to hold truth it must first be believed in.   They exist in the realm subjectivity and reflect the meanings we imbue our experiences with.  An opinion without basis in fact is bullsh*t.  What’s truly pathetic is I chose baseless opinions over undeniable fact as key reference point in the building of my self-esteem.  It’s like my husband recently noted: “if self-esteem is a ‘self’ issue why do we blame others for it?” My bullies have called me mean names but I believed them.  The same goes for a severely dysfunctional relationship in college.  He did what he did, but I stayed and put up with it.

Parting thoughts…. You can’t change a bad situation with the same mindset you used to get yourself in it.


Brown, B. (2006). Shame resilience theory: A grounded theory study on women and shame. Families in Society, 87(1), 43.48.
Gilbert, P. (2005).  Compassion: Comceptualzations, research, and use in psychotherapy. Routlege.
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