I’ve been trying to come up with a good analogy for working through complex PTSD and I think I’ve found a pretty good one. I’m not at all a fan of horror movies and not a big fan of most crime dramas, but I’ve seen enough to know a few standard plot points.
You know that darkened room with the closed door in a horror movie/murder mystery? The one the audience knows the murderous ghost/poltergeist/human is hiding in? The doomed character hears a noise, heads to that room, and stands in front of the closed door with their hand on the door knob, hesitating. We, the audience, sit watching, waiting, and willing the character not to open that door; and yet, it’s also the door we know the frightened character has to open and walk through. They have to investigate and face whatever is on the other side. It’s inevitable. So they open the door and either flip the light switch or shine a flashlight into the room and meet their enemy. Maybe they’ll be the victor, or maybe they’ll be the victim. We wait, perhaps holding our breath, to see who will survive the encounter.
In my head, I have a darkened room full of repressed trauma memories, and the door to that room has been shut tight for a long time. The corridor leading to it had a few complete and some fragmented memories, and behind that door is everything else. Periodically, the noise coming from that room would catch my attention, but I’d do what I could to drown it out and ignore it, hoping it would magically go away. (Sidenote: ignoring it makes it worse in the long run, not better.)
Facing repressed memories feels a lot like being the doomed character on the safe side of the door, hesitating with my hand on the door knob. I know it’s inevitable I ended up here, and I also know that I do not want to go in there. My mind and body are screaming at me not to open that door. I know whatever’s waiting on the other side is awful and I’m terrified of it. I know facing it will hurt and could destroy me. I wish I could walk away and continue ignoring it. And yet, I know I can’t. Ignorance isn’t always bliss. Whatever is waiting behind that door, it’s time to throw the door open, flip on the lights, and face it.
And that’s what I’ve done: I’ve thrown the door wide open and flipped on the lights.
I was bombarded by memories. It was overwhelming at first, but I’ve worked my way through many of them and gotten to the center of the room. As I made my way there, I realized a terrible, but super important truth. At the center, was something that was feeding on the trauma memories: toxic shame. As I sat in my counselor’s office and spoke that truth out loud for the first time, I felt relieved. Even though it’s a terrible truth, I felt like I had finally discovered and named my biggest enemy and could now formulate a far better battle plan.
Toxic shame is a tyrant. In my case, it’s parents are emotional abuse and sexual assault. It took that abuse and continued whispering the lies until they became my core beliefs about myself:
“I am unlovable.”
“I am worthless.”
“I am stupid.”
“I am a failure.”
“I don’t matter.”
“I shouldn’t have been born.”
“I am not enough.”
“I am unwanted.”
“I am invisible.”
“I am a mistake.”
I can tell you what I know I should believe about myself, but deep down I struggle to believe it. That’s another terrible truth: if we hear something often enough, even if it’s a lie and at first we know it’s a lie, we eventually begin to believe it. This is especially true when we’re children and the one speaking is a trusted adult.
Every one of us has felt shame at some point in our lives. Mostly, we feel it, we process it, and we move on. If, however, we don’t process it, then it continues to fester and haunt us and negatively influences our core beliefs about ourselves.
Think back to a time in your life when you felt shame. Did it change how you see yourself? How did it change your beliefs about yourself? Was that change temporary or did it permanently alter how you view yourself? Did it negatively affect your core beliefs? Do you have other negative core beliefs?
This is my current, main project: identifying my core beliefs and their source(s) as specifically as possible (i.e. a specific incident, conversation, etc), working to hear and believe the truth rather than the lies, and turn my negative core beliefs into positives. I encourage you to do the same. Do you have core beliefs that are holding you back? Identify them, confront the sources, find the truth, and turn them into positives. It’s time to overthrow the tyrant. Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it’s worth the effort. You are worth the effort. ❤️