How we get trapped in toxic circumstances

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to dive deep into how trauma transforms our brains, and why it’s important for us to understand it in order to heal. This is the first in a four-part series on trauma and the brain.

The human brain is very much like a computer. It does what we tell it to do. Once we’ve given it instructions, it follows them, even if those instructions aren’t in our best interest. The brain seeks connection, meaning, and cause/effect. What this means is, once we’ve singled out something as good or bad, the brain records that and moves us towards or away from things based on its programming.

We are designed for connection.

Human beings are pack animals. We are designed for connection with other human beings. As such, our brains will seek out connections with those we identify as worthy. Our measure of what is “worthy” is based on a combination of our inborn and inherited temperament combined with our experiences. Therefore, each person’s measure of what is “worthy” of connection is a little bit different.

Defining “worthy” in our subconscious brain.

The word “worthy” is defined differently by our conscious and subconscious brain. Our conscious brain – the knowing brain that we are aware of inside our head (also known as the ego) – defines worthy as all things good or having value (worth). However, our subconscious brain places value (worth) on wherever we focus conscious attention.

For example, an infant focuses attention on their primary caregiver – usually a mother and/or father – and thus, their brain identifies that individual as worthy of connection. This is the case regardless of how that caregiver treats the child. Similarly, when we commit our lives to someone in marriage or a long-term partnership, we are communicating to our subconscious brain that this person is worthy of connection.

And so, since we have communicated to our brains that these people are worthy of a connection, our subconscious brain continually leads us back to this person, or if that person isn’t available, to other people with similar characteristics (physically, emotionally, and energetically).

Who is “worthy?”

Our families (or lack-of) have an enormous impact on what we deem “worthy.” If you grow up in a home that values wealth, you will subconsciously be attracted to wealth and wealthy people as an adult. The same applies to those who grow up in poverty.

If you grow up in a home with physical abuse, your subconscious will connect with abusers in adulthood. Same goes for everything you are exposed to as a child: education, religion, substance use, kindness, rage, poverty, etc. What you live as a child is what your brain is programmed to connect with as an adult.

This can also show up as attachment disorder in people who did not have the opportunity to form healthy connections in childhood. Children in abusive homes and foster care are at high risk of forming an attachment disorder later in life. This manifests in adulthood in anything from excessive neediness to extreme self-isolation, among other symptoms.

Growing up, I had a teacher who used the phrase, “Garbage in, garbage out.” She was talking about comic books, which she deemed “garbage.” (Incidentally, reading comic books actually gives me a headache now, so her programming worked! – my brain has rejected comic books, even though I don’t consciously have anything against them.)

Although I don’t agree with her assessment on comic books specifically, my teacher was onto something in a more general sense. We seek what we are taught to look for, and we repel what we are taught to fear.

Why don’t they just leave?

The need for connection explains why, once we have identified someone as worthy of connection, we keep going back to them over and over, even if they are toxic: children return to abusive parents, spouses to an abusive partner, etc. Once we give our brain an instruction to connect, that connection remains in our subconscious, even in the face of danger and abuse.

When someone jokes that they “married their mother,” they don’t realize how accurate that statement really is. Although their spouse isn’t actually their mother, it’s not uncommon for people to choose a life partner whose personality closely resembles a caregiver since their subconscious brain responds to familiar connections.

Similarly, someone might say, “I’m a loser magnet! How do these guys always find me?” In reality, it isn’t those guys that are finding her, but her subconscious brain connecting with toxic men. She’s attracted to what she’s instructed her brain to connect with in an earlier relationship.

So, the next time you are tempted to ask, “Why don’t people just leave abusive relationships?” or “Why don’t poor people just work harder?” or “How can someone believe that’s okay?” or “Why can’t they be more like me?” or any other question that relates to people’s life decisions, consider the possibility that their brains are connecting with people and circumstances that were programmed in before they had a choice one way or another.

In the Redefining Love framework, we call this grace, which can also be applied to ourselves and our own poor decisions. It isn’t that we aren’t responsible for our actions (that’s the accountability component of Redefining Love). But understanding the brain can help you understand the why behind people’s actions, and help us realize why changing lifelong patterns is so challenging.

A note on personal autonomy and inborn proclivities…

The only thing that is absolute – the only thing that is always – is that there is always an exception. Most of us can think of people who defied the odds or who were just different, despite being raised in a certain environment. This is where our inborn temperament comes in. Our brains are hardwired with a unique personality, skillset, and identity imprint from birth that cannot be changed.

This explains why siblings can grow up in the exact same house and yet have entirely different approaches to life, or how someone can grow up amidst horrible abuse to be a purveyor of peace. It also explains how someone born and raised in a houseful of engineers can be an artist (or vice versa), or someone raised in a community of heterosexuals can be LGTBQ.

(Interestingly, there is a large body of research that indicates children raised by LGTBQ parents show no difference in sexual orientation compared to children raise by cisgender parents. For me, this is yet another indicator that sexual orientation and gender identity are inborn rather than learned, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Our core temperament cannot be erased, but it can be suppressed by trauma and prolonged stress. Oftentimes, people who are “different” than others in their families and social groups experience isolation around whatever makes them unique, which programs their brain to believe that this part of themselves is dangerous, which creates shame. The good news is, shame can be reversed. But before we get to that, let’s learn more about how our brains work.

Decisions are instructions for your brain.

When you make a decision to take action, you are giving your brain instructions on how to navigate life. I liken training your brain to raising a baby:

A baby is born without the basic life skills we take for granted. They don’t know how to feed themselves with a spoon and fork, or how to use a toilet. But once those things are learned, it becomes habit. Why? Because we’ve given their brains instructions, and the brain does what it’s told.

That’s why the smell of food cooking makes your tummy rumble, and you have to do the potty dance the closer you get to the restroom. Your brain has associated these things with meeting a need. If you’d spent your whole life consuming only fruit smoothies, the smell of pizza probably wouldn’t be so tantalizing. If you’d never used a public restroom before, that sign with the stick figures on the door would be meaningless.

To be continued…

The human brain is a very complex thing! In my next post, I’ll talk about the role that emotions play in our brains, and how we can be the boss of our feelings. Once we’ve covered the basics of how our brains make connections, we will begin exploring ways to process trauma through and out of our nervous system, so we can live a more balanced, happy life. There are so many ways that we can provide new instructions to our brains, so stay tuned!

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