After living through abuse, neglect, or violence, it’s normal to promise yourself you will never let that happen again. That promise seems to make sense. You need to feel safe, to find some sense of control. Otherwise, the danger and powerlessness you feel are too hard to live with.
That’s how survivors of trauma – especially those that have suffered complex developmental relational trauma — often believe they have to control any and all situations enough to avoid the danger. It seems like the abuse or trauma that happened to them was somehow their fault. Somehow, they did something to encourage it or failed to prevent it.
When you believe that it’s in your control to prevent trauma from happening again, then you also believe being traumatized was your fault.
Let’s be clear: Abuse of any kind is never the abused person’s fault.
The reality is — trauma survivors were powerless over their abuse. If you are a trauma survivor, the trauma inflicted upon you was not your fault (even if you were told that it was)! It happened in your past. You were powerless over it then and are powerless to change the details or events of the past now. Unfortunately, there is nothing that can undo what happened to you.
However, there is something you can do to heal the impact of that trauma on you today!
Why is powerlessness such an important concept?
The word “powerless” is loaded. Feeling powerless during abuse or trauma likely made you never want to feel that way again. Power was taken from you. You may feel a need to be back in control and never be powerless again.
Many trauma survivors try to feel “in control” by believing they could have done something to prevent trauma. So they carefully control their lives now to prevent another instance of abuse or danger. They think: I’ll never let something like that happen again!
“Control” isn’t how healing works.
Abuse is never something you choose. Abuse is inflicted. ALWAYS.
And the trauma that results is not your choice or your fault either.
Trauma happens to you. Children cannot prevent trauma from happening to them. Sadly, complex developmental relational trauma (CPTSD) occurs, even by those that are supposed to care for you!
It’s never your choice or your fault.
How a trauma survivor seeks to stay “in control”
Trauma survivors live with the imprint of trauma on their nervous systems. They learned early on to stay prepared for danger at all times. They may learn to check out and feel numb or nothing at all to cope with overwhelming emotions.
Even so, their alarm systems (the amygdala part of the brain) constantly go off when something triggers a body memory, even if they don’t have the words to explain why or even what specifically happened in the past.
How do trauma survivors try to control their lives to keep themselves “safe?”
- A trauma survivor may not want to feel feelings, seeing feelings as the f-word.
- Trauma survivors may not like compliments, especially when abusers used words for manipulation or control in the past. Compliments may not feel genuine if you believe they hide sinister motives.
- Trauma survivors may resist change, as change can feel especially risky, scary, and dangerous for them as an unknown.
- A constant state of hypervigilance, or waiting for the other shoe to drop, is a mindset trauma survivors may use to “protect” themselves.
- Trauma survivors may use a coping mechanism like drugs, alcohol, sex, self-harm, or dissociation as a means to “stay safe.”
- The “shoulds” are another method trauma survivors may use to keep a tight grip on their life. This is an attempt at control, and a way to avoid feelings.
All of these mechanisms to “stay safe” can keep a trauma survivor stuck in the past. They may feel unable to move forward, constantly attempting to control for danger, even though they may be currently safe as an adult.
Can you accept that you were powerless? It leads to healing.
There is a way to have genuine power and presence in your life, now. It comes by accepting that you were powerless then, knowing that children do not have the power to change the infliction of trauma upon them.
Ironically, today’s power and healing come from owning the powerlessness of your past. (Similar to owning the truth of being a trauma survivor, owning the powerlessness will help you move past trauma.)
When you accept that you were powerless over the past — that you did not do anything wrong, that trauma happened to you — you can become present in your current life. You can free yourself from living in the body memory of the past. You need not live with the constant stress of uncertainty about the future. Accepting powerlessness will help you move from a state of hypervigilance or hypoarousal to a state of presence, where you can be in your current life, existing within your window of tolerance of emotions, thinking, and feeling at the same time.
If you endured abuse or trauma, you were powerless. No part of what happened was your fault. No matter what you said or did, even if you didn’t say ‘no,’ the abuse was still not your fault.
Why is it essential to admit being powerless to prevent trauma?
The truth is, much of what happens in life is out of our control.
However, you can be in a place in your life now where you know you can handle whatever comes your way. You can manage your feelings in a way that is tolerable today. You can take care of yourself as an adult — setting boundaries and caring for yourself. This is how we are able to stay safe despite our limited control, and let joy in!
Owning powerlessness over past trauma is part of healing!
In 12-step recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous®, admitting powerlessness over alcohol or drugs is one of the first steps. Even though the original Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions was written in 1952, this approach has a few strong trauma-informed principles relevant to healing today.
For a trauma survivor, admitting powerlessness could look something like this:
I’ve realized I’m powerless over the trauma that happened in my past. There was nothing I could do to prevent it then, and there’s nothing I can do to undo it now.
Nobody can change the past! Yet many try to live as if it’s possible to control the impact of your past. Maybe you’re constantly fighting to get it right this time, putting up boundaries and barriers that could be cutting off genuine connections today. You may be in a place where you’re reenacting the trauma, living in hypo- or hypervigilance, feeling alone, and perhaps believing that others are out to hurt you.
Tightening control may feel like you have power over your past trauma – and you’re still living your life in trauma-response mode.
A trauma-informed view of powerlessness
I believe you have the power to live a life today that is not rooted in past trauma!
See how this feels:
Trauma happened to me. It isn’t currently happening to me. It doesn’t have to continue to happen to me. Trauma is in my past. I can be present. I can see relationships for what they are today. I can notice the people who show up for me. I can own my power by realizing that I am safe now and learning to be present.
Being compassionate towards yourself, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable, allows the meaningful connections that make life worth living. Being vulnerable in safe relationships is where healing after trauma occurs.
Therapy can be an emotionally corrective relationship that empowers you. It’s a safe space, where you can learn to own the powerlessness of your past and come to understand that it was not your fault. You can learn to feel the difficult feelings and gain the tools necessary to build healthy, fulfilling relationships in life, and learn to embrace the happiness that is available to you.
Power today comes from being authentic and compassionate, knowing how to caretake yourself in a way that keeps you safe.
Accepting powerlessness of the past is part of the healing power you have in the present. A trauma-informed therapist can help. If you’re a potential new client, please contact/email me for care.
Trauma and The Twelve Steps by Jamie Marich, PhD
Transforming the Living Legacy of Trauma: A Workbook for Survivors and Therapists by Janina Fisher, PhD
Radical Compassion by Tara Brach
Robyn is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with 20+ years of experience providing psychotherapy, as well as the founder and clinical director of a private practice, Brickel and Associates, LLC in Old Town, Alexandria, Virginia. She and her team bring a strengths-based, trauma-informed, systems approach to the treatment of individuals (adolescents and adults), couples and families. She specializes in trauma (including attachment trauma) and the use of dissociative mechanisms; such as: self-harm, eating disorders and addictions. She also approaches treatment of perinatal mental health from a trauma-informed lens.
Robyn also guides clients and clinicians who wish to better understand the impact of trauma on mental health and relationships. She has a wide range of post graduate trauma and addictions education and is trained in numerous relational models of practice, including Emotionally Focused Couple Therapy (EFT), the Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy (PACT), and Imago therapy. She is a trained Sensorimotor Psychotherapist and is a Certified EMDRIA therapist and Approved Consultant. Utilizing all of these tools, along with mindfulness and ego state work to provide the best care to her clients. She prides herself in always learning and expanding her knowledge on a daily basis about the intricacies of treating complex trauma and trauma’s impact on perinatal distress.
She frequently shares insights, resources and links to mental health news on Facebook and Twitter as well as in her blog at BrickelandAssociates.com
To contact Robyn directly: