This series of articles has focused on emotional flashbacks. We’ve discussed how they feel, what causes them, and the turmoil they bring into relationships and lives. In this article, we will cover ways to conquer the emotional roller coaster that accompanies complex post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional flashbacks.
Self-Loathing Comes from Adults that Mattered
When you were a child living in an abusive home, you saw first-hand how the words and actions of a parent or other caregiver cause you to feel. Perhaps you felt betrayed, belittled, unwanted, or even afraid. I would also venture to say that as you grew you said to yourself, “I’m never going to treat my kids like that!”
Unfortunately, as you became an adult you carried the lies and hateful words written into your brain by your caregivers and treat your inner child the same as they did. You belittle yourself out loud or silently in your mind for even minor failures. You say hateful things about yourself like, “I’m ugly,” “I’m messed up,” or “I’ll never (you fill in the blank.)
This cognitive self-hatred is especially prevalent during an emotional flashback where you relive the emotions attributed to negative comments made to you about yourself in childhood. Suddenly, you fall into a time warp back to the moment when someone whose words carry weight with you said to you said you are worthless, or worse, you are helpless.
Living a Life as a Forever Victim
There can be no doubt that people who have grown into adulthood after a traumatic and harsh childhood have the right to grieve the childhood they never had and the fact that their caregivers didn’t care for them properly. However, there comes a point where it is time to move on, and if they can’t they remain stuck in a victim mentality.
Victim mentality is a thought process whereby an individual sees themselves as forever the target of trauma, abuse, tragedy, and victimhood. This mental mindset allows the survivor to so identify as a victim it affects everything in life; their relationships, self-esteem, and futures.
By not recognizing their resilience and strength, living in victimhood imprisons a survivor of childhood violence in the mire of some of the following thought patterns:
- I shouldn’t trust anyone they all will hurt me eventually.
- I deserved that.
- I have the right to feel this way!
- I live in regret for what happened to me when I was a kid.
- Nothing good ever happens to me.
- Why should I try? I’ll fail.
When an emotional flashback occurs, a survivor who identifies as a victim is vulnerable to negative self-defeating emotions such as anger, guilt, resentment, and self-loathing. Unfortunately, survivors often act out these negative feelings by taking them out on the ones they love or self-harm.
It is clear, survivors must leave victimhood and move to the survivor stage if they are to pull themselves from the quagmire of emotions leftover from childhood abuse.
The Role of the Outer Critic
We’ve already discussed the definition of the inner critic, now we’ll examine the outer critic and the damage to important relationships with ourselves and others.
According to Pete Walker, the outer critic,
“projects onto others the same processes of perfectionism and endangerment that the inner critic uses against the self. It perseverates about the unworthiness [imperfection] and treacherousness [dangerousness] of others to avoid emotional investment in relationships for fear they will replicate early parental betrayals.”
If that description sounds familiar, then you are not alone. Adult survivors of childhood abuse and others who live with complex post-traumatic stress disorder experience daily the tragedy of a negative outer critic.
The outer critic makes inner walls that separate survivors from the perceived and exaggerated deceitfulness of others around them.
Unfortunately, survivors often subconsciously look for and find partners that match the caregivers who injured them, and this further reinforces the idea that all relationships are untrustworthy and painful. This reinforcement of negative ideas about others often translates into the outer critic’s attempting to protect the survivor from abandonment and harm. Often survivors will act by pushing and abandoning their partners before there is any chance of reconciliation or deep thought.
By abandoning relationships out of fear of pain, the survivor’s thoughts that people are untrustworthy only deepens, and the cycle begins again.
The Importance of Becoming Your Own Parent
None of the techniques, therapists can use will heal the relationship problems you may experience due to childhood trauma. No words, no lists, and no homework can change anything unless you become your own parent. It is completely up to the survivor to take the bull by the nose and lead yourself to health. Yes, a therapist can be a type of seeing-eye dog giving you hints and suggestions, but it is ultimately up to the survivor to listen and look for ways to help themselves.
One might ask, then why see a therapist at all? Why don’t I just save the money and time then heal on my own? For some, that notion may be possible, but for many, we cannot do it on our own. The road is far too long and fraught with danger to go it alone without someone to help watch for real danger. Many survivors struggle to understand what is dangerous and what is not, second-guessing themselves at every turn. Without a seeing-eye dog, like a blind man or woman, you will stumble, fall, and become either seriously hurt or die.
But, the ultimate goal of any therapist is to see you grow and take on the task of being the parent you never had. This means gently chiding you into a better relationship with who you are and slowly helping you silence the critics in your mind by changing the language.
It is like changing tapes, the old for the new. The old tapes tell you that you are worthless need replaced with the new saying instead (and this is the truth) that you are enough just as you are.
Becoming your own parent means loving yourself despite and because of your flaws and imperfections. It also means walking away from hurtful people like any mother would carry away a child that is in danger. Becoming a parent to yourself is vital if you want a life that is not full of abandonment and fear.
The Process of Overcoming Victim Mentality and the Outer Critic; the Only Way Out is Through
Conquering the self-imposed prisons of the outer critic and victim mentality isn’t easy, but if one wants to have any chance of living a life with an intimate partner, doing so is a priority.
According to Pete Walker, identifying the critic’s endless collection of destructive messages must receive adequate attention and gradually deactivated.
It is during emotional flashbacks that our outer critic raises his/her ugly head and sees all around us as potential threats to our mind and body. We may even experience an intense need to be aggressive to overwhelm an imagined attacker. This connection between the past and the present is terrifying to anyone who is on the receiving end of these attacks confusing and overwhelming them. This negative reaction often causes intimate partners to escape to help themselves further perpetuating the notion that we are bad people and can trust no one or worse, that our life is forfeit.
Walker states that what occurs is that the outer and inner critics expand the realities of what happened in our childhoods and blows them up to include the present. The only way to escape the power of these limiting forces is to challenge them with positive affirmations that build us up instead of tearing us down.
Taming the Outer Critic and Controlling Emotional Flashbacks
Because survivors are constantly on the lookout for danger from others, we often fantasize about scenarios and how we would handle situations involving others. In fact, Walker says this about these fantasies:
“Over the years these fantasies can expand from scary still lives into film clips, and even movies, eventually morphing into a veritable video collection of real and imagined betrayals that destroy our capacity to be nurtured by human contact. “Don’t trust anyone”, “Proud to be a loner”, “You can only depend on yourself”, “Lovers always leave you”, “Kids will break your heart”, “Only fools let on what they really think”, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile”, are titles of video themes survivors may develop in their quest for interpersonal safety.”
I encourage you to visit Pete Walker’s website and read his pages on these topics. He has a list of fourteen ways to conquer the inner and outer critics plus victim mentality. For the sake of length, I will only go over the ones that are the most urgent. I am going to list each of the “Endangerment Attacks” from Pete Walker’s website below and how Walker says you can overcome the messages the outer critic brings into your life and your relationships.
Harsh Judgements of Self & Others/Name Calling. As adults, we all have called another adult a name in the heat of the moment. However, when those moments turn into a chronic reaction to the past, it is time to send new messages on purpose to yourself.
- I will not let the bullies and critics of my early life win by joining and agreeing with them.
- I refuse to attack myself or abuse others.
- I will not displace the criticism and blame that rightfully belongs to them onto myself or current people in my life.
Catastrophic Thinking. Living at home as a child was dangerous to your mental and physical health. It is only natural that we might take those overwhelming feelings of helplessness and translate them into our current lives. More self-talk is required to change these thought patterns.
- I feel afraid but I am not in danger.
- I am not “in trouble” with my parents.
- I will not blow things out of proportion.
- I refuse to scare myself with thoughts and pictures of my life deteriorating.
- No more home-made horror movies and disaster flicks.
Having a Negative Focus. Many survivors fall victim to always thinking negative things about their lives. So, when something bad does occur, they feel even more endangered than they really are. Instead of paying so much attention to what is going wrong and the ugliness in the world, try looking around at what is good and beautiful around you.
- I renounce over-noticing & dwelling on what might be wrong with me or life around me.
- I will not minimize or discount my attributes.
- Right now, I notice, visualize and enumerate my accomplishments, talents, and qualities, as well as the many gifts Life offers me, e.g., friends, nature, music, film, food, beauty, color, pets, etc.
Time Urgency. Many survivors feel a restless urgency in their souls like time is running short. The feeling that they will never reach their dreams and need to hurry up and force their way through their world. These emotions are understandable as living in an abusive home can feel like if you don’t force things you will not survive.
However, as a hamster doesn’t live long because its metabolism is too fast, survivors push themselves so hard to reach the goals they forget to enjoy the journey. Pushing down the feeling that if you don’t hurry, you’ll die before reaching a goal can make life a living hell.
Slow down, take time to breathe, and change those old messages that are driving you to an early grave.
- I am not in danger.
- I do not need to rush.
- I will not hurry unless it is a true emergency.
- I am learning to enjoy doing my daily activities at a relaxed pace.
- Disabling Performance Anxiety
- I reduce procrastination by reminding myself that I will not accept unfair criticism or perfectionist expectations from anyone.
- Even when afraid, I will defend myself from unfair criticism.
- I won’t let fear make my decisions.
Focusing on the Idea You are Under Attack. Unfortunately, survivors live with the constant nagging feeling that danger is around every corner. They are hypervigilant, on the defense, and ready to run. The truth that they had taken from during their traumatic early years is that most of the time, they are safe. Yes, there are dangerous people out there, and we are all prone to injury in a car accident or other disaster. However, living in the constant fear and readiness for danger is exhausting and counterproductive.
- Unless there are clear signs of danger, I will stop my thoughts and my projections of past bully/critics onto others.
- A majority of my fellow human beings are peaceful people.
- I have legal authorities to aid in my protection if threatened by the few who aren’t.
- I invoke thoughts and images of my friends’ love and support.
The Bottom Line
Living under the dominance of negative messages from either the inner or outer critics plus enduring the emotional flashbacks that force them to act badly limits us in our ability to live happy and productive lives. They also send messages to us that we aren’t worthy of love, understanding, and that we are constantly in danger.
Truthfully, the only way to overcome these forces from the past is to enter therapy and work towards becoming the parent to yourself you have always needed and deserved.
I encourage you to read Pete Walker’s work, get a trauma-informed therapist, and work on these issues. You have nothing to lose except the critical and negative opinions you have of yourself and everything to gain from inner peace.