It was Pete Walker, an M.A. in psychoanalysis, who first coined the phrase emotional flashback to describe the gut-wrenching experience of reliving the helplessness and dissociation caused by trauma. In his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, Walker describes many aspects of emotional flashbacks and how the inner critic holds people hostage. I shall be referencing this book throughout this work.
In this piece, we shall examine how the inner critic and toxic shame create the perfect environment for emotional flashbacks to occur.
A Review of the Definition of an Emotional Flashback
Unlike typical flashbacks experienced by people living with post-traumatic stress disorder, emotional flashbacks do not ordinarily have a visual factor. Instead, these types of flashbacks are, as the title suggests, is an emotionally charged response caused by stimuli in the present that causes the sufferer to “flash” to an abusive event of the past.
Walker gives this definition in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (mentioned above), offers this definition of emotional flashbacks:
“Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feelings states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression. They also include unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts.”
Although, since you are reading this article, you already know how it feels to have an emotional flashback, describing it will both help those who do not understand and help you to validate your experiences.
Emotional flashbacks range in strength from mild to horrific and can vary in duration from moments to weeks when they cause regression.
Regression is a defense mechanism first identified by Sigmund Freud; regression means that there are times when people face anxiety-filled events that cause them to retreat to an earlier stage of their emotional development. A good example would be having a job that one hates and crying every night before going. The emotional response is a regression because as adults, we have the power to work elsewhere but are choosing to keep the job we have causing us to feel helpless and small once again.
Like in the response to going to work above, regression during emotional flashbacks are sudden, prolonged regressions of feeling abandoned, abused, and helpless. These emotions are coming from the past, but the overwhelming fear, shame, rage, grief, depression, and shame happen in the now triggering a strong fight/flight/freeze response.
Caused by an individual experiencing repeated, traumatic events usually happening in childhood (although this is not always the case), toxic shame is an irrational feeling of self-loathing and worthlessness. The negative messages from caregivers who belittle, abuse or neglect children often become ingrained into the child’s perception of themselves.
Unconsciously replayed, these unforgotten negative views often carry into adult life. It is as though someone recorded all the negative comments made either verbally or nonverbally by caregivers. These old tapes cause survivors to feel overwhelming contempt for themselves caused by the constant rejection and neglect of their basic human needs for protection and love.
The results that come from toxic shame are many, but perhaps the most recognizable is the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response and the launching of the inner critic.
It is entirely probable that you have already heard of the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response, a melding of a complex nervous response to danger. There is no doubt that when human encounter something dangerous our nervous systems jump into high gear and then remembers the event so when it recognizes it later it can react quickly to get us to safety. This is a wonderful evolutionary adaptation that has helped humanity survive for eons.
However, when repeated and packed with unexpressed emotion, the memories created to remember the danger become trapped awaiting triggering back into action whether the danger is real or not. It is these emotional memories that burst into our awareness when experiencing an emotional memory.
It is important to remember that all four reactions are not responses to current happenings but to something in the environment of the person that has reminded them of a traumatic event in the past.
Let’s break the four responses down.
A fight response causes someone to suddenly respond aggressively to a perceived threat. This may involve yelling, name-calling and many other relationships altering responses.
The flight response causes the person in the emotional flashback to either feel an extreme urge to flee or to act on that impulse. The flight may be only symbolic as well, launching the person into a response of intense activity.
A freeze response happens when the person feels trapped and becomes overwhelmed with past realizations that they cannot resist. This realization leads to the person experiencing numbing out, dissociation, and collapse as if they in the present are experiencing the inevitability of pain from an abusive episode of their past.
To forestall or appease an attacker, a person may exhibit the fawn response. The person, when triggered by something in their environment that reminds them of the past, will suddenly become pleasing, helpful, and appealing.
According to Walker, children who have experienced trauma often over-gravitate to one or the other of these response patterns to survive. However, their chosen response becomes engrained in their automatic responses and presents as narcissism (fight), obsessiveness/compulsivity (flight), dissociation (freeze) and codependency (fawning).
It is clear, the four responses to triggering events in the present from anchored emotions from the past, are no fault of the person who experiences them. However, they set up people for the self-loathing fed by an internal enemy, the inner critic.
The Inner Critic
The aforementioned mental tapes survivors replay in their minds from the negative messages sent by their caregivers aren’t in the voices of those who originally recorded them. Rather, what they hear repeated in loud tones is their own coming via their inner critic.
According to Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker, the inner critic forms when:
“A prevailing climate of danger forces the maturing superego to cultivate the various psychodynamics of perfectionism and endangerment.”
In other words, when the growing child keeps experiencing receiving negative reactions rather than loving ones from a caregiver, they form an inner critic. The inner critic’s job is to attempt to rid the survivor of their perceived imperfections in the belief that doing so will cause others to love them. Unfortunately, when the need to root out imperfections to gain love continues into adulthood, it causes relationship problems with others and within themselves.
The inner critic is a silent partner in the creation of an emotional flashback, and once a person’s fight/flight/freeze/fawn becomes triggered, it, in turn, causes intense internal messages tapes to play; “I’m a loser,” “I am so ugly,” “I’m stupid,” or the worst, “I should not allow myself to live.”
The Devastating Results of Perfectionism
As survivors grow and mature, they try everything possible to trigger their caregivers to love and protect them. However, after failing to succeed the child decides the defect does not reside outside themselves in their caregivers but inside themselves. Perfectionism is a way for the growing child to make sense of their caregiver’s abuse of them by giving them guidelines to push for in gaining the love they can never earn.
Disguised as self-control, adults who attempt perfectionism to make themselves lovable often end up mated with people who repeat the patterns of their caregivers further exacerbating an already bad situation.
To make matters worse, because perfection isn’t possible for any human being, survivors find no matter how hard they try they cannot reach a level where they accept themselves with their flaws because, internally, they believe they can’t. They MUST strive to reach a level of perfection where everyone will love them, and they will feel safe. This constant merry-go-round of self-hate and loathing causing survivors to strive for perfection, only to find they hate themselves more because they fail makes life nearly unbearable.
Silencing the Inner Critic
Emotional flashbacks are the external reactions to their silent partner, the inner critic. It is the messages flowing from inside that create the perfect storm for survivors to re-experience the fear and other emotions set upon them during traumatic events they experienced in childhood.
Children are helpless in the hands of uncaring adults. They cannot run away, they cannot fight back, and they cannot flee. So, as adults, survivors often revert to their childhoods, only now they have the power to strike out almost inevitably at innocent people in their current lives.
Therapists have found that the best way to tame and eventually eliminate the inner critic is to allow the survivor to experience them today in a safe environment to the people they were always meant for, the caregivers.
In expressing the emotions that have pent up inside to silence the inner critic, survivors learn to control the negative messages from the past and replace them with new ones. Survivors can utilize anger, for instance, to stop the inner critical messages that reinforce perfectionism by thinking new thoughts such as; “I am enough,” “I do not owe my caregiver(s) anything,” and “they were wrong.”
Some therapists look for ways to invoke the fight response in their clients, following the lead of Erik Erickson. Erickson was a German American psychoanalyst known for his theory on psychological development, believed that “shame is blame turned against the self,” and that a caregiver’s disrespect and abuse turns into self-disgust and self-hate. To mitigate the effects of the inner critic of a survivor who lashes out in anger when triggered, therapists encourage their clients to get angry and feel the rage but to place it where it belongs, on their caregivers. This isn’t an easy process and involves first using the anger on the inner critic through self-talk.
To accomplish these important stages in healing, Walker states:
“You can externalize the anger of the critic’s self-blaming messages out and away from you onto the installers of the critic, or sideways onto the critic itself.
You can give shame back by allowing yourself to feel disgusted at the image of your parent bullying you and overwhelming you with shame when you were so defenseless”.
Walker encourages survivors to use phrases that counteract those put there by abusive caregivers with those like, “I’m not afraid of you anymore, I’m an adult now and I will never allow you to hurt me again.”
The Power of Using Positive Imagery
Therapists have found some amazing tools to utilize against the power of the internalized messages embodies in the inner critic. One invaluable utensil is the use of positive imagery which includes using successes and accomplishments plus they supportive people in their lives to change the internalized critical messages. Through training by a qualified therapist, survivors can learn to invoke visions of safety and love before a trigger comes thus practicing ahead of time to bring up in their mind’s eye positive images and thoughts.
Emotional flashbacks and the inner critic are major forces that shape the lives of survivors turning their lives upside down in a barrage of overreactions and fear. Two of the most effective ways to harness the inner critic are expressing the emotions meant for abusive caregivers in a safe environment and using positive imagery. Using either one or both enables a survivor to defuse the atomic weapon put in their psyche by parents or other caregivers so that their lives are not utterly destroyed by the past.
Our next article shall encompass the outer critic, self-parenting, and the thirteen steps of healing as written by Pete Walker.”
From the website “Pick Your Brain, Grow Yourself.”
- Stop repeating yourself. A tsunami of repetitive, negative messages can ruminate for ages. Does your voice call you names or put you down? Do you hear your parents dominating your thoughts with criticism? Identify the voice you hear, then crush it to powder, replacing it with the positive thoughts that truly reflect your life’s choices.
- You are a liar. Most of what your inner voice tells you is simply untrue. Take personal inventory by looking at yourself objectively and acknowledging what is and isn’t true. Never sacrifice your opportunity to be happy today by living in the past.
- I do belong. Your inner critic may reflect the voice of childhood friends. As a child, you desperately wanted to fit in. Most of us connect and share memories of hurt or dismiss them because we were different. Now is the time to let go of the childish voices and allow yourself to be known for the greatness you possess as an adult.
- I am not weak. The inner voice likes to pick on your weaknesses. If you examine the messages, you will see the absurdity. Engaging in self-talk about your strengths and celebrating the person that truly exists is liberating and promotes self- confidence.
- I am not afraid. Look at your fears and test them. Most of your fears stem from childhood experiences. This time and space reflect a child without resources to handle issues. You are now an adult with many experiences, so don’t allow your childhood fears to bully or threaten the adult that lives today.
- Stop beating me up. Don’t let your inner voice pummel your spirit. Give yourself the love and approval you want and silence your natural instincts to give in to the nagging and negativity that can dominate your thoughts.
7. I am grounded. Don’t let your inner voice have authority or power over your feelings. You are an adult, with choices, abilities, and tools that weren’t available to you when you were a child. Live by your values, rules, and ideas. Most importantly, stay grounded in who you are and who you want to be.
Walker, P. M.A., (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Azure Coyote