In their book, What Happened to You?, Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey discuss sources of trauma and their impact on people’s lives. Bruce draws on extensive research as a neuroscientist and years of clinical practice as a child psychologist. Oprah explains that her insights are drawn from more than 50,000 interviews conducted over a lifetime of discussing trauma with people of all ages.
I’ve been listening to the CD-Audio version of the book and it is quite fascinating to hear the interaction between the authors – Oprah and a world-famous brain and trauma expert – as they share personal stories and understanding about patterns in human behaviour catalysed by trauma. The focus is not on “what’s wrong with you” but “what happened” for you. After listening to the first few chapters focused on the biological, psychological and behavioural impacts of trauma, I thought it appropriate to share reflections on my own life stimulated by hearing the conversations between Bruce and Oprah.
The conversations are very rich with personal stories, case studies and scientific insights (illustrated through very clear and cogently explained diagrams provided in PDF format). They spontaneously stimulate personal recall and reflections and I have attempted to capture some of my insights about my personal experience in the following:
Striving for balance
Bruce and Oprah highlight the impact of trauma in creating a “distorted worldview” and throwing our overall stress response system “out of balance”. This loss of balance results in “emotional dysregulation” and dysfunctional behaviour. The stress response of a previously traumatised individual is “sensitive” to cues that are perceived as threatening and can lead to maladaptive behaviour because of distorted perception of the cue, e.g., a sound, sight, smell.
I spent 18 months in an orphanage owing to my mother’s serious illness and my father’s posting overseas. I was about four years old at the time and I recall that when I first left the orphanage I used to be terrified of the moon and adopted evasive behaviour – having not seen the moon before as a toddler. My younger sister ran away from school in Year One because she was traumatised by the period that we spent in the orphanage separated from each other (boys and girls were kept apart).
Oprah and Bruce make the point that we are continuously trying to seek balance in our life – we attempt to offset the pain of loneliness or the pain of fear by seeking “rewards”. These rewards can take many forms but often lead to addiction – to drugs, alcohol, food, or aberrant behaviour. The need-to-please is but one example of this ineffectual “seeking rewards” and I can identify that set of behaviours in my early twenties.
Bruce points out that the real rewards lie in realising our personal “rhythm” and achieving connectedness (and associated sense of belonging). He maintains that each of us has a personal rhythm that is different for different individuals. He mentions the response of a young child to behaviour designed to achieve a relaxing rhythm – we can relate to the child that needs to be hugged to “settle”, another that needs to be pushed in a pram, while a third child has to go for a drive in a car before they will settle (or alternatively, as I found with one of my young daughters, avoiding car trips and walking instead).
Bruce suggests that each of us can increase our sense of calm and reduce agitation if we engage in activities that align with our personal rhythm – for me, that means engaging in the reflective activity of writing or walking, the smooth motion of Tai Chi or adopting a mindful approach to playing social tennis (through conscious breathing, visualisation, recall of personal competence in other settings and adopting an intentional mindset informed by reflection on my mistakes and behaviour during a game of tennis).
Both Bruce and Oprah assert that we need a “healthy combination of rewards”, and that “personal connectedness” is the real reward that can offset the “pull of addictive behaviour”. For both, connectedness in the form of “positive interaction with people” is not only rewarding but also assists with the development of emotional regulation (offsetting dysregulation). I’ve found connectedness on a personal and professional level that has helped me to achieve a sense of balance and self-worth. My current marriage (of 37 years) is especially affirming, and my professional relationships developed through my work in the action learning arena have countered any sense of isolation or negative thoughts of not contributing.
Experience of being loved
Both Oprah and Bruce argue that the way we were loved as children influences our capacity for love and the way we go about giving and receiving love. A critical parent will beget a child who is sensitive to being criticised and yet be highly critical as a parent. In their view, “safe and stable nurturing” is an essential environment for developing the capacity to love – the absence of such an environment can negatively impact our “regulatory network”, our neural development and biology, and lead to dysfunctional behaviour. Oprah maintains that “dysfunction shows up in direct proportion to how you were or were not loved”. Bruce argues that a pattern of love that is attentive, responsive and attuned creates predictability and develops resilience.
My experience of being loved as I was growing up is very mixed. I experienced unconditional love from my mother, while from my father my experience was one of disconnection and for the most part, disinterest. While Oprah and Bruce discuss situations where an individual experiences genuine carer’s love in their early years and discuss, in-depth, the impacts of a lack of love, I have not yet encountered in their conversations a situation where the childhood experience of love is very mixed.
My mother worked most of her life to keep the five of us fed and educated – at a time when the stay-at-home wife was the dominant role of women. Her efforts were supported by food packages dropped off by volunteers of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. She desired the best for each of us and was warm and loving, always putting our needs before her own. Oprah and Bruce highlight the positive impact of attentiveness to the needs of a child as a key to balanced personal development.
In contrast, my father was absent for five years in my early childhood and when he returned (after fighting in World War 11 and being a member of the Occupation Forces in Japan), he became a violent alcoholic who frequently hurt my mother and made our life hell. We often lived in fear as he was not only very strong but had been a very successful professional boxer. He created a fearful and unpredictable environment that left us all in a high state of arousal and anxiety. His love was uncertain, punctuated as it was by periods of disinterest and angry outbursts. I only understood years later that his “emotional dysregulation” was a result of his own traumas and PTSD (having been injured in the war by a bomb, captured and confined for three years in Changi prison in Singapore). It is difficult to conceive of the horrors that he must have experienced and the flashbacks that tortured him.
Bruce maintains that where a young child experiences unpredictable behaviour on the part of the caregiver, they can live in fear. Besides the freeze/fight/flight pattern this can lead to dissociation – where we disengage from the external environment to focus on our inner world. Bruce states that we each engage in dissociation when we allow our mind to wander or daydream. It becomes a problem when this is a frequent behaviour or leads to an ever-deeper withdrawal. My teachers used to write on my report card that I daydreamed excessively. I can also recall times when I dissociated because the events that I was encountering were too fearful and/or conflicting for me to bear.
I have experienced multiple traumas in my life and continuously seek to understand their impacts on my behaviour. For instance, I find that I talk to women more easily than men (a residual effect of my ambiguous and unpredictable relationship with my father). I also dislike elevators, preferring to walk up stairs – a result of being confined in an orphanage in my early years and being boarded in a convent in Grade 2, 100 kilometers from home and my parents. Oprah and Bruce provide a very digestible way for each of us to explore the impact of trauma in our lives – and gain an understanding that can lead to behavioural change and genuine self-acceptance.
I have found that as I grow in mindfulness through my research of trauma and practice of meditation and reflection, I have gained increasing self-awareness and emotional regulation. It has helped me to experience calmness and develop resilience in my life.
By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)
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