When I searched online for a definition of discernment, I found two definitions; a secular – meaning “the ability to judge well,” and a spiritual – meaning “perception of judgement with a view of obtaining spiritual guidance and understanding.”
Discernment might be called “intuition” or “trusting your gut.” It relates to the idea that we have an innate, inner knowing that guides our decisions.
A primary fallout of trauma is a loss of discernment. When our brain gets stuck inside a traumatic experience, our inner compass gets stuck right along with it. There are multiple reasons for this:
If our trauma is caused by any type of family or relationship dysfunction, it’s very likely that gaslighting was a part of it. Gaslighting is a form of manipulation in which the target is made to question their observations, perceptions, and intuition by being fed constant contradictions to obvious reality.
In its most extreme form, gaslighting is a dangerous form of emotional abuse. But not everyone who gaslights is an abuser. Gaslighting sometimes occurs within complex relationships when one or both individuals within a relationships is unwilling or unable to dig into their own trauma experience.
Because their subconscious is deeply rooted in denial, they may be unaware that their trauma is interfering with their perception of reality. I’ve often said that we are all toxic to someone. Typically, this occurs when we are not holding ourselves accountable for our own healing from trauma.
Another way our discernment shows up is in how we allow other people to treat us. When we get stuck within a traumatic experience, the triggered state becomes our normal. Individuals who grew up in highly dysfunctional households may not even know what it feels like to not be dysregulated. Feeling dysregulated feels so familiar to a trauma survivor that healthy interactions are actually uncomfortable.
Someone may feel like a “loser magnet,” as though toxic people are just drawn to them. But in reality, it is our own mind that is drawn to familiar personalities. If all you’ve ever known is abuse, manipulation, dishonesty, and emotional instability, that is what your subconscious mind is going to seek out in relationships.
This is why it is so important for trauma survivors to build a support system of healthy individuals who will hold them accountable and speak truthfully when they see them stepping into an unhealthy relationship. Building a healthy community provides the survivor with discernment until they have achieved enough healing to trust themselves again (or possibly, for the first time!).
Lack of self-trust
When trauma becomes stuck in our brains and bodies, our brain’s internal warning system gets confused or shut down entirely. Our brain uses our emotions and physical sensations such as pain and other senses to warn us about external stimuli. Two components are required for this system to work properly: acknowledgement and action. We must acknowledge the danger, and then we must act to move ourselves to safety.
Our subconscious brains have not evolved much since prehistoric times. If our brain perceives danger, it wants us identify the danger (acknowledgement) and then react with fight, flight, or freeze (action). But our modern world rarely offers the opportunity to take these necessary processing steps.
For example, if you were to get into a car accident, your brain sends a message to your body that danger is present in the form of fear. But rarely in the aftermath of a car accident do we have the opportunity acknowledge and act on that fear.
It isn’t often that we get in an accident, and say to ourselves, “I got into an accident!” and then start running away from the scene. In fact, if we did that, depending on the circumstances, we may face serious legal ramifications if we did that.
If the accident is serious, you will probably go into shock. Even if you are able to extract yourself from the wreckage, you will likely sit in stunned silence nearby until help arrives. There is no acknowledgement, and no action.
If the accident is minor, most of us don’t take a quiet moment to take some deep breaths and regulate our bodies with acknowledgement and action. Instead, we immediately start digging for our registration and insurance, perhaps call the police to report the accident, or call our insurance company. We basically go right back to taking care of the details of life, without acknowledging the trauma occurred at all.
It’s no wonder our brain gets confused! When we don’t heed its warnings, we are communicating to our subconscious that what it perceives as danger is not worthy of our attention. Our brain responds in one of three ways:
It gets stuck on
Everyone’s brain reacts to unprocessed trauma differently. Some brains will get stuck in a state of warning. Suddenly, everything feels scary and threatening. This manifests as anxiety and depression.
It gets stuck off
The way we react to its warnings communicates to our subconscious brain. If we consistently ignore it’s warnings of danger – such as an abuse situation in which we are unable to escape – we are communicating to our brain that the situation is safe, even if it’s actually not. So the brain turns off the warning. This shows up in people’s lives with a sense of numbness or general disinterest in life.
Wires get crossed
After repeated instances of unprocessed trauma, our subconscious brain gets confused. It doesn’t know what is actually a threat, or how it should react. We’ve all known someone who’s emotional responses don’t match the circumstance. They laugh at funerals, and cry at birthday parties. Perhaps this has happened to you!
Our response to trauma is inherently flawed
It isn’t uncommon for trauma survivors to have one or a combination of all three of these responses. The very nature of the modern response to trauma makes these experiences almost universal.
Unfortunately, the way humans respond to trauma makes it almost impossible for us to respond to trauma in a healthy way. When faced with trauma, we are expected to get through it as quickly and quietly as possible, or pretend it didn’t happen at all.
Although things are slowly changing, for hundreds – even thousands! – of years, humans have done everything we can to “overcome” hardship, instead of allowing ourselves to go through hardship. Here are some examples:
- Abuse and assault are taboo subjects.
- Physical injuries from accidents are treated and released, with little or no discussion about the accident itself.
- Nobody back home wants to hear the gory details of a veteran’s experience in combat.
- Dysfunctional family systems (and culture at large) has a tendency to shun survivors of emotional abuse who have the audacity to speak out publicly against their experiences, compounding their trauma with more unprocessed mistreatment.
So what can we do?
The good news is, just as trauma can get stuck, so too can it be unstuck. It is never too late to acknowledge and act to move held trauma through and out. Here are some ways each of us can help heal our individual trauma, as well as our collective trauma:
- Do the work! Instead of following the cultural norm of pretending the bad thing never happened, face it head on. Approach healing with intentional effort. Accept the reality that you cannot ignore your problems until they go away. In therapy circles, this is called naming your experiences, which is just another word for acknowledging
- Another term we often hear is “tell your truth.” Sadly, the cultural norm is to deny bad things ever happened, which is a form of lying by omission. Sharing our trauma stories is another powerful way to name or acknowledge our experiences, which is giving our brain one of the two responses it needs to release trauma.
- Once you’ve named your trauma (which is acknowledging it), there are endless ways to move your trauma safely out of your system. The sciences call physical response to trauma processing somatics, which refers to using movement to release held trauma or discomfort.
Neuroscience and psychology are only now starting to recognize what many spiritual and religious practices have known for thousands of years. Practices such as yoga, breathwork, acupuncture, massage, and martial arts have long used movement for wellness. Some modern practices such as EMDR and EFT tapping have similar results.
In truth, any movement, combined with intentional focus on the problem you seek to address, can have a healing effect. Anything from kickboxing to hiking to writing, when done while holding space for the traumatic experience, can be deeply healing.
- Listen to your body. Once you’ve learned how to acknowledge and act when trauma occurs, make it a part of your daily practice. Spend time each day going inward to name your experiences. What emotions are you feeling today? Do you have discomfort in your body? What messages is your brain sending in the form of emotions and body sensations?t
Holding space for others
In order to change cultural norms, we must create an atmosphere that is safe to acknowledge and act when trauma occurs. Here are some ways we can work together to remove the shame surrounding trauma.
- Create safe spaces for others to share their stories and experiences. This does not require that we all become therapists. We can begin integrating safe spaces into our daily lives simply by being a safe person for others to share their truth and heal their trauma.
- Remove barriers to mental health Again, you don’t have to become a lobbyist in Washington D.C. to create change. Employers can allow mental health days as part of their benefits packages. Parents can seek mental health care for their children when they are struggling. We can suggest to a friend they take a day off to process their experiences.
- Normalize mental health It’s shocking to me how many people still refuse to go to therapy. In my household, counseling is as normal as dentist appointments. My husband and I both go to therapy, as have both of my boys at different times.
- Avoid shaming the healing process. When someone says, “I don’t need counseling. I’m not crazy,” they are speaking from a place of shame. Somewhere along the way, they came to believe that getting help for trauma healing was a sign of weakness. This needs to change. We need to support, celebrate, and encourage each other to step bravely and boldly into our healing journey.
Our bodies are so wise
So often in life, we get hurt emotionally or physically because we aren’t paying attention to the cues our bodies are giving us. Our bodies are so wise! They give us all the information we need about the world and our relationships, but we have learned to ignore those warnings and signals.
Typically, men ignore their emotions and physical sensations because they do not want to appear “weak,” and women ignore their emotions and physical sensations because they want to be “nice.” The result is a lack of healthy boundaries, which leads to toxic abuse and gender roles that create generational trauma and abuse cycles.
Our culture will shift when we learn to embrace and integrate the incredible wisdom in our minds and bodies. Every time an individual steps into their trauma journey with courage and grace, they are not only taking an important step towards healing, but they are helping to heal our cultural as a whole.
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