The February edition of Psychology Today has a piece by Toni Bernhard that speaks to me titled “It’s Not About You”. It’s worth reading. Last week I travelled to Michigan to see my friends and partner, as I do pretty much every month. I have a Nexus card for exactly that purpose, and have been using it with no issue for the past 9 years. This time, I was interrogated for over an hour, threatened, and my car searched. It was ugly and traumatizing.
Let’s talk about trauma for a second. Trauma is a brain thing, not a mental thing. That is, it directly impacts the brain nerves, and as such, when experienced, there is no way to prepare mentally or emotionally for it. That’s why the best treatment for trauma is lots of support to help the person get through the physical assault to the brain, and get back to a sense of normal balance (for a video presentation you might want to watch Dr. John Rigg explain it.
I experienced trauma, and as such wasn’t functioning well. Within 2 days, I was late for something important, completely missed another thing that was equally important – letting many others down – found myself incredibly tired, and finally had a melt down 24 hours later that lasted another 24 hours.
In that time, I blamed myself for everything and tried to work out what I could have done differently – until I had a talk with my supervisor and friend, who described what I was going through and emphasized that it wasn’t my fault. There was and is nothing I can do to prepare for a traumatizing event, and the physical outcome of that event is also not something I can change. The only thing that is in my power to do something about is to seek support once I understand what’s happening. AND, to avoid ruminating and blaming myself.
I did apologize to my friend for missing her event, and I sent a note of explanation to the person whose event I was late for. Then I rested and let my body heal. Once my head was clear, I took the kind of action available to me that could best realistically address the issue.
I’d like to say that I avoided ruminating and self-flagellation. Alas, that was too much to ask. However, I did manage to limit it. I am a person who routinely takes on the responsibility of a situation that really isn’t my responsibility. Are you like me?
Who knows what was going on with the border guard, or why they did what they did. I will probably never know. It wasn’t for anything I actually did – my record is clean. So it had to be something in their lives that did it. In other words, it wasn’t about me!
It’s hard not to take such an event personally, but that’s the point: it really isn’t personal. So don’t take it personally. It was unfortunate, and there was and will likely be fallout. But it isn’t personal.
In Toni Bernhard’s research, she discovered that when we take things personally, we undermine our ability to feel good about ourselves, which in turn, brings on depression and anxiety. It’s associated with greater rumination – that downward spiraling into darkness.
Here’s another example from my life – in this case my young life. I was testing for a swimming level and was kept back and asked to repeat certain strokes. I immediately assumed it was because I’d done something wrong and was being given another chance. This thinking made me hyper aware and I nearly drowned. Even so, what really happened was that I got an extra commendation for excellent form.
The best kind of support for those of us who ruminate is this:
- Develop and use your own “doubt shout”: Once you recognize that you’re ruminating (and this might take a while), find a way to stop it. I use a “doubt shout”, because it really is about me doubting myself. My particular doubt shout that works for me is “Don’t go there! It doesn’t really matter if there’s some truth in it. It’s simply a waste of time.”
- Treat yourself to kindness and compassion. Realistic positive reinforcement is a far stronger and more effective approach than negative punishing reinforcement. I think we all know that, deep down.
- Be clear about what you are actually responsible for. I’m reminded of the Serenity prayer here: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” What I can change is me, my approach and my circumstances. That’s all!
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .