Janet reflected on the events of the past several days and instead of being embarrassed by her behavior, she was proud. She had purchased a new computer from a large retailer based on the specs and appearance. But when she began to use it, she discovered the store had done a bait and switch. They told her one thing about the product and sold her something completely different. After doing several rounds with their customer service and management department, she was told that the computer she wanted was no longer in stock and she would have to settle for a lesser brand or lesser quality. Not liking the only two options they presented, Janet instead went on-line and purchased the exact computer she wanted for less and returned the original back to the store.
In the past, such an incident would have sent Janet through the roof. Her anger would have automatically kicked in as soon as she realized she was being taken advantage of, and then after the manager ignored her other solutions (they increase the specs of the computer she bought – a possibility she had already checked into), her survival instincts would have been activated. Once she found herself backed in a corner of two no win possibilities, her fight mode would have caused her to elevate to embarrassing levels.
But none of that happened. Instead, she was able to come up with a solution that worked for her and avoided causing unnecessary conflict. In this particular moment she could really see the benefit her therapy had on her behavior. All those hours of recalling painful childhood memories, processing them, and healing from them definitely paid off. Here is what else she realized:
- Small things remain small. Janet grew up with an abusive alcoholic father, so early in life she learned how to read him. She knew just by looking at him when he would and would not explode. While this skill was useful in situations that could be threatening, sometimes it misfired over small insignificant things causing damage to her other relationships. But now, after therapy, small triggers such as a sideways glance of disapproval, stayed small. This was very useful in her present life as her kids approached becoming teenagers where glances of disgust, resentment, anger, annoyance, and indifference are common.
- Less activation of survival mode. Every time a survival mode is activated, a person has one of four responses: fight, flight, freeze or faint. The body in anticipation of performing one of these responses is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol while the executive functioning part of the brain goes into autopilot activating one of the responses. Which one, is preprogrammed based on childhood experiences or trauma. It takes a good 36-72 hours for the body to fully recover. For Janet, this explained why she had difficulty thinking clearly for a couple of days after being triggered. The emotional rollercoaster had been exhausting. Now, however, she had much more control over the activation of her survival mode. Her dad’s past abusive and manipulative behavior no longer haunted her present by determining her immediate responses.
- More space. Because her survival mode was not being triggered as frequently, Janet felt like she had more space between an emotion and a response. In the past, she would go from being angry to immediately acting out. This was especially true while driving. Another driver would cut her off and she would feel intense emotion and explode regardless of who was in the car. But now, there was some space between feeling the anger and then doing something. This allowed Janet to acknowledge the emotion, release it, think through solutions, and then respond.
- More control. The chaotic environment Janet grew up in generated a strong desire for complete control over her life. As a child, Janet learned that by keeping her dad’s area in the house clean, she could reduce his explosions. As a result, she obsessively cleaned. She would stay up late at night cleaning everything. She would become instantly angry when her kids messed things up, reacting in a way that was confusing to her kids and caused her angst as a parent. Now realizing that an unclean environment was an anger trigger, Janet was able to release the anger before confronting her kids. Ironically, her old behavior which she thought gave her more control actually gave her less. Now, she felt more in control of herself and the desired outcome of a clean house.
- Greater emotional expression. The trauma from Janet’s childhood caused her to have blinders on. It left her constantly assessing for potential risks. She could only see what was immediately in front of her and was less aware of her surroundings. While she was hyper aware of potential danger, she missed the simple pleasures in life such as a beautiful sky, the fragrance of a flower, the joy on her child’s face, and the warm embrace of a friend. Instead of only being aware of her anger, she could now appreciate and feel other more pleasurable emotions such as surprise, excitement, peace, contentment, and appreciation.
- Clearer vision. Her therapist equated their time together as picking up her memory papers off the floor, sorting them, putting them in order, and placing them neatly in a filing cabinet for safe storage. This freed Janet from her past, allowed her to continue to grow in her present, and inspired her for her future. Her life had more possibilities than before as she began to dream about tomorrow. For the first time in her life, she felt hopeful.
When Janet began the therapy process, she did not want to talk about her childhood, in fact, she told her therapist it was off limits. But eventually she opened up, processed her trauma, and began the healing process. While she felt better after having done it, she didn’t realize the full benefit until she handled the computer incident. Now she gets it and is proud of her growth, fully appreciating how she has improved as a person because of it.