The Dark Chasm of Disappointment & Learned Helplessness (as published in The Friday Edition of HeartBalm Healing at https://heartbalm.substack.com)
Disappointment to the average person can be upsetting and frustrating. Disappointment to the abuse and neglect survivor and/or those with complex trauma can be devastating. It can generate a deep abyss of sadness, trigger deep feelings of loss and failure, and a painful chasm between our expectations and reality. As a child, the repetitive abuse of being let down, used, abused, neglected, manipulated, set up for failure, and tripped up for another’s benefit sets the stage for adulthood of the same. An innocent child lives to hope and love, and even more, hopes to be loved yet for some suffering years of letdowns and disappointments by their own parents and family members is the reality. This abusive pattern can create a deep chasm of disillusionment and defeatism, and develop further into another condition called learned helplessness. This condition is a way of coping with constant and unrelenting disappointments and manifests as persistent failures, an inability to succeed, a lack of self-esteem, low motivation, cynicism, and feelings of powerlessness. This feeling of helplessness affirms a trauma history where one has little or no control over their own body or life, that nothing will change so why bother trying, and that actions to change outcomes are useless? The ups and downs of hope, expectations, and disappointment is a nauseating ride that has no equal, and the fallout and emotional pain can feel much more acute to the trauma survivor. As an adult, being disappointed can become something that devastates us totally, can bring our world to a crashing halt, and threatens to close in around us with such darkness and ferocity that we are unsure if we will ever recover.
One of the ways we can begin to heal from this destructive pattern is to free it by feeling it, stepping into the moment with it, and being able to love what is. I have met disappointment often in my life, and as an adult has run away from it – suppressed and avoided it because of its overwhelming intensity. Recently, when it arose and I was faced with it again my clarity to stop running was apparent at the moment. I must have been ready because I chose to stop avoiding it and learn from it instead. As I sat with the experience of disappointment I could feel my throat tightening and hot and rising anger that moved up from my stomach, to my chest, and to my closed throat threatening to suffocate me even more. I couldn’t speak – the hard mass in my throat would not soften or let go. I could feel an inner scream within me that wanted to get out – a voice filled with years of fury and frustration yet the chokehold would not relent but began to dissipate over time. I continued to sit with it, learn what it had to say, accept how I was feeling and what was coming up. It was intense but I could feel a loving and intelligent energy in the process. It was valuable for me and showed me that I am not a disappointment. I am not a failure. I am not helpless or unworthy. My feelings are valid and I was able to befriend this part of me and allow it to be exactly as it was. I could see that my voice was very ready to let go, and one day it would be released but for the moment I continued to notice it all happening without judgment or expectation – feeling into all that was arising – proud of myself for facing this repetitive energetic foe, and vowing to face it should it arise again.
I know this space well – even though I know I have a voice and a will that can speak, confront, and say deep truths – some old wounds like disappointment hold me more tightly, and are more difficult to unravel and face because of their complexity and the years of overlapping trauma. It is the first time I really sat with it and felt fully into the feelings and sensations arising. It was not easy and a bit scary but as I sat with it and felt into it with interest it began to lessen and dissipate. There is something about looking at a haunting feeling or emotion square in the eye and seeing it truly – standing in your own power and saying I am strong enough to face this monster and see it for what it is, and allowing yourself to feel into it fully with detached, affectionate energy of curiosity.
The devastation and destruction that comes from repeatedly being disappointed, betrayed, and let down as a child by those that are “supposed to” love us, care for us, and create and foster safe environments in total. We are groomed in these environments to be defeated in a sense, and sometimes we take up the mantle of abuse, and learned helplessness, and betray, disappoint, and defeat ourselves as we get older because that is what we have been taught. As we become adults, we often find these patterns recurring as broken trust, betrayal, and dysfunction by self-serving people because that is what we have become accustomed to. Take a fish out of a shark-infested ocean and put it in a de-sharked environment and the fish will still be hypervigilant for sharks. The preyed upon will always be on the lookout for predators even in the safest environments.
When you’re born in a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire. But it’s not.
Disappointment is a formidable adversary and worthy of your notice. Worthy of your rebel yell that says “I’ve had enough.” Enough of living with this constant gut punch of disappointment and failure, and going on the merry-go-round back to past traumas, and feeling powerless and helpless. Enough of feeling the old wounds of your inner child decimated by another abusive encounter, manipulation, or let down by a parent or guardian, or family member who should have only ever loved you. Enough of the aching heart, surging anger, and closing airway in the present moment that holds the intensity of a lifetime of betrayals and letdowns. When disappointments continue in our adult world they can become a nuisance and upset daily life – throwing us into the stark darkness of survival mode, and away from living fully and feeling that we are merely existing instead of truly living and thriving. These repetitive events with the pain of our pasts in tow are the invitations to look again – to see them from a new perspective – to stay with them and face them for healing and transmutation. Sometimes it is just time to stop running; to turn and face what is arising within us, and has held us, hostage, for far too long.
These emotions can be powerful and should not be taken lightly but we should also see them for what they are. Emotions are simply “energy in motion” or broken down in a different way “e” [energy] + motion. As you have noticed in your life emotions like feelings and thoughts come and go. They arise in our conscious awareness and then drop away but it is important to note that they are always moving and never stay forever. Some are more intense than others, may linger longer, and leave a mark or trigger past events that create a ripple effect in our world. Some can be intrusive markers in our world that seem repetitive, cyclical, and patterned. This is part of complex trauma. A trauma born of repetitive, and pervasive abuse and neglect, in which a child is unable to get away from the abuser, and where there is no empathetic witness or safe person in the environment to go to for protection. A pattern of trauma that continues to manifest and recur into adulthood.
To read more about complex trauma or CPTSD please check out “Courage, Self-Love, and Complex Trauma” from a previous Friday Edition of HeartBalm.
Facing intense emotions and feelings arising as an adult should be handled with care and delicacy, and with a qualified and compassionate trauma therapist, if possible. If you think you can face these feelings on your own then do so carefully. Have someone in place that you can call if you need to or journal through what is arising. I have done this many times, alongside parts work and other modalities, having education in this arena and a trusted therapist on standby so am accustomed to the process but would not advise it for a first-time exploration unless you have guidance from a professional.
What I want to make clear is that none of it was or is your fault. None of it! You are not broken. You did not deserve to be treated as less than, used, abused, or preyed upon. Your hypervigilance was developed so you could protect yourself, be on high alert for danger and be wary of others. Yet, this is not your truth. Your truth is to live free, see and know the love that you are, and live from this place. To allow yourself to live fully despite what you have endured, been witness to, and how others betrayed you. This is no small task, however, and I do not say this flippantly. I am inviting you to see through the trauma to your true nature, and to another way. I am inviting you to notice the things that still crumple you to the ground and begin to build your ability to stop and be with the feelings and emotions when they arise, feel into them fully, learn from them, and see how you react to the situation and accompanying sensations. Then you can begin to create ways to set more self-loving boundaries, work on building your self-worth and self-esteem by changing negative self-talk, and honor the love and grace that has been with you, is with you now, and will always be at your side. This is an ongoing process but one that with a commitment to self-love and a heart-centered way of living can bring about real transformation and release for anyone on the healing path.
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Sunny Lynn, OMC is a spiritual counselor, writer, poet, photographer, meditator, and nature lover on a mission of transmuting complex trauma through self-love, healing, and bringing balm to hearts everywhere. She has a blog and podcast – HeartBalm at heartbalm.substack.com that speaks on the topic of self-care and self-love, mindfulness and healing while living with CPTSD.