A proud, successful man says,
“My father was tough on me
and I’m glad,
because I wouldn’t be
the man I am
A humble, wise man says,
“My father was tough on me.
I realize now how
emotionally absent he was
and that’s why I am
a ‘success’ today.”
You begin walking the healing path because you are tired of living, being a certain way; tired of feeling sad, empty, angry, lost, confused, isolated, afraid. You just want things to be different. You want to feel happier, more productive, more at peace in your heart.
A counselling client of mine once said to me, “I just want to get past being so accommodating all the time.” She spoke with a tone of judgment—self-judgement. She had become increasingly hard on herself for this old disempowered way of being in the world, for carrying the burden of the heavy responsibility-laden role of Accommodator. Decades had been spent putting other people’s needs ahead of her own, her eyes defaulted towards looking for what she can fix outside herself instead of tuning into and prioritizing her patient needs and desires. And so, naturally, she just wanted to “get past” this pattern, to “move beyond it”.
Healing, however, occurs more fully when we first pay tribute to that which we want to run from internally; when we take time to “get”, on a visceral level, that maybe that which we are rejecting inside—the pattern of accommodating, in the above case—has served us, saved us, somehow. Indeed, healing finds its place in our body when we allow ourselves to feel that there may just be good reason we have been the way we are these many years.
The survival mask
“The false self is for surviving. The real self is for living.” ~ Andrew Feldmar
Like many roles entrenched in our psyche, Accommodator is so often an adaptation to not having our needs met as children. Perhaps there was abuse, neglect or general dysfunction in the household, school or elsewhere. You didn’t feel seen, heard, encouraged, safe and loved. And so you adapted. You became what you needed to become to feel some level of connection or safety. If you accommodated you’d be less likely to cause trouble and thus receive trouble. If you just laid low and didn’t add to the existing storms of the environment with your petty needs and feelings, doing what your primary caregivers expected of you, you’d be fine. Everyone would be better off with your deference.
Being an Accommodator, in this very common case, is an act of survival. It is a mask we put on in order to cope. Like the tree that bends in order to get sunlight, we, courtesy of our immense psychophysiological survival intelligence, “bend” our identity in order to get whatever glimmer of hope, safety and sanity we can obtain.
Other common roles include: Pleaser, Go-to-Person, Rock, Stabilizer, Poor Me, Caretaker, Peacemaker, Bully, Achiever, Controller, Task Master, Savior, Church Mouse, Good Girl/Boy, Realist, Cynic, Joker, Dreamer, Mr./Ms. Right.
Roles are easily confused for who we and others are. We confuse the wounded adult “acting out” through adaptive or compensatory behaviours for a sincere personality. We don’t see or feel the subtext—the younger part still acting out from fear and pain.
“Well, he’s just a really nice person.”
“I’m just quiet. It’s the way I have always been.”
“He’s a real go-getter.”
“He’s such a good boy, isn’t he?”
“I’ve just always been a bit of a control freak.”
“He is so funny! Such a charmer that man!”
But why? Why are we these things? When you consider—really get—the extent to which people in our society did not get their emotional needs met growing up, then you may think twice before assuming that is who that person is.
The “nice” or “good” man may have learned to deal with his early life adversity by pleasing mommy or daddy. That “quiet” one who diligently bags your groceries, well he may have learned to withdraw in order to cope. The “go-getter” who seems so utterly “successful”, well she may have decided that she’ll prove her way through life in order to get the attention (connection) not received when young; and now she’s a high level athlete still trying to “prove the doubters wrong”. The “control freak” who is such a fantastic executive director, well perhaps she needed to control her environment as a child in order to feel safe; and now she’s doing it spectacularly for a living. The “funny charmer” who lures everyone in with his big smile might still be putting on brave face of “I’m strong, laugh it off, everything is okay” after years of things not being okay when young; and now he is a leading salesman, his big, seductive personality taking centre stage.
Years of consistent, unconscious adaptations in response to early life adversity wired or “bent” the brain and nervous system. New “grooves of identity” were worn into the psyche and “I/Me” was developed, what we call our personality. That personality found a job that fits its personality type. The Caretaker became a nurse, the Go-to-Person a police officer. Society reinforces trauma and trauma reinforces society, the perpetual, self-feeding loop, the dreamscape of maladaptive identifies “fitting in”.
(And then we educate children to “fit in” and “succeed”.)
As is often the case, we can turn to etymology to find deeper truths in historical roots: “Personality” comes from the Greek, “persona”, which means “mask”.
Author and leading trauma expert Gabor Mate summarizes my point succinctly: “During our dependent and vulnerable childhoods we develop the psychological, behavioral, and emotional composite that later we mistake for ourselves. This composite, which we call the personality, often masks a real person with real needs and desires. The personality is not a fault—in stressed environments it evolves primarily as a defense, a defense that can turn saboteur.”
Considering all this, there may be no more important question to ask than, “Who am I?”
Profiting off “disorders”
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) created by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and referred to by various mental health practitioners, including doctors, categorizes those masks suffering most. It turns trauma-informed identities—masks—into such labels as “Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder” and “Binge Eating Disorder”. As of the latest edition of the DSM (DSM-5; 2013), it lists 297 disorders.
While psychopharmacological interventions are necessary and helpful in certain acute situations, the APA has given license to countless knee-jerk-diagnosing clinicians to dispense harmful medication carte blanche to sufferers deemed as having a “mental health disorder” or “mental illness”. For the doctor who has only 8 minutes to assess their client and who gets paid by Big Pharma to dispense psychostimulants, it’s a convenient and profitable way to diagnose and “treat” a client. But it’s no way to support that person to heal. Just look at the numbers.
Consider that “As of November 2013, it is estimated that 11 percent of children from ages 4 to 17 have been told they have ADHD at some point. This is up from an estimated 7.8 percent in 2003.” According to the CDC, these findings continue to be on the rise.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that “7.5 percent of U.S. children between ages 6 and 17 were taking medication for ’emotional or behavioral difficulties’ in 2011-2012. The CDC reports a five-fold increase in the number of children under 18 on psychostimulants from 1988-1994 to 2007–2010, with the most recent rate of 4.2 percent. The same report estimates that 1.3 percent of children are on antidepressants. The rate of antipsychotic prescriptions for children has increased six-fold over this same period, according to a study of office visits within the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey.”
What has been drastically missing (although things are slowly changing) is the understanding that there is very good reason one is angry, depressed, anxious, overwhelmed, unfocused, overfocused, withdrawn, emotional, isolated—that one has “emotional or behavioural difficulties”. And it’s not what most think. As the research in this article articulates so well, there is an “overlap between (ADHD) symptoms and the effects of chronic stress or experiencing trauma like maltreatment, abuse and violence.”
In other words, we are slowly coming to realize that we are impacted by our environment—home, school, etc—, particularly during our younger years, far more than we know; and that inner struggles are not simply an epiphenomenon of the brain.
As someone diagnosed in my early teens as having “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” (OCD) and having traveled the healing journey for 20+ years, I understand first hand how trauma informs identity and experience. OCD was my adaptation to not feeling safe as a child. The abuse I experienced forced me to be hyper vigilant to my surroundings. When would he come next? Those footsteps I hear coming towards my room… My eyes and ears had to orient with vigilance to brace for what could be or was coming. Sounds became more acute. I narrowed in on him intensely when he entered and approached. My young, developing brain and nervous system began to re-wire for survival.
“Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder”, and its expressions of hyper-focus and perfectionism (which later in life made me an excellent worker), was a survival adaptation, not a personality flaw or brain defect. But doctors and psychologists didn’t know it, and so many still don’t. And so the health professional my mother took me to at age twelve could not meet me with the heart-felt empathy and understanding I needed.
Today we make sense of adaptations by calling them “mental illness”. And, if diagnosed with a DSM disorder, we simply accept that, “There is something wrong with my brain. It’s probably genetic or a freak accident in my chemistry.” And instead of healing, we visit the doctor and imbibe the psychostimulants. “Let’s patch this up so I can get back to ‘normal’!”.
Again, sometimes we need those psychostimulants. But, in most cases, clinicians and survivors are not giving enough credence to why the emotional, mental and physical turbulence exists. It’s also just easier if you blame the “faulty” brain and take a pill. You don’t have to do the hard labour of facing your fears and feeling what’s uncomfortable. You don’t have to take responsibility for your life in a way the healing journey demands.
The blind assumptions underlying the “mental health” movement and the West’s systemic aversion to feeling and healing, of course, benefit those at the top. Given how many DSM’s the APA sells each year and the billions of dollars Big Pharma earns through people being diagnosed with a disorder, it makes sense why the APA would want the public reliant on medical diagnoses of disorders and addicted to toxic medication.
It’s not a healthcare system we have, but one of sickcare, and a costly one at that!
You are not broken
“You know, maybe there’s very good reason you are accommodating”, I said to my client. With an abrupt, edgy tone, she replied, “Yeah, it’s because I’m broken.”
It’s usually in the first session that I tell my clients they are not broken. They don’t have a “personality defect”. This often is received with some level of relief. “Well, then what’s wrong with me?”
My clients are traumatized, and for good reason given what they experienced when young.
That “normal” household where your father was emotionally absent, like so many other fathers, unable or unwilling to connect to his child. That “normal” household where your mom drank a lot, sometimes passed out on the kitchen table. That “normal” household where your dad and mom fought regularly, keeping you up late at night, afraid. That “normal” household where you were chased with a wooden spoon, or worse. That “normal” household where your mother used to say, “Wait till dad gets home”, leaving you terrified, even if you pretended not to be. That “normal” household where your dad’s intense eyes scared you so, even if he didn’t physically act on his fury. That “normal” household where your mom was so often anxious and your dad unavailable because he was busy… and you left alone, again.
That “normal” school where you were forced to learn things that were developmentally inappropriate and against your will. That “normal” school where you were made to sit hours upon hours on a hard seat, scolded by your teacher for fidgeting or daydreaming. That “normal” school where you were systematically ranked, graded, compared, taught to feel that you were less than. That “normal” school where your creativity could not shine because the left brain institution prioritized academic pursuits (and was afraid of its own right brain imagination). That “normal” school where you were picked on, bullied, and had no one to protect you… and you had no one to talk about it with at home.
And what about how stressed your mother was when you were in utero; what she drank, smoke, ate; what her relationships were like; how much emotional support she had; how safe she felt in her body? And what about your birth? How traumatic was it? How quickly did they cut the umbilical cord? Were you put in an incubator without physical contact? Were you circumcised and without an anesthetic?
Did you know that it wasn’t until the late 80’s that doctors believed children felt pain? And did you know that, with the help of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning, we’ve learned that “babies are actually four times more sensitive to pain than adults”?
And what about the heavy weight of ancestral trauma, the extent to which trauma is passed down epigenetically from one generation to the next? Did you know that research now reveals that memories are passed down as far back as 14 generations? Take this into consideration, while also considering what your ancestors endured. Life was more about survival back then, enduring intense hardship, not thriving.
And what about the influence of the media, video games, peer pressure, shock trauma in the form of accidents and losses, and the collective consciousness of the planet?
No, you are not “broken”, nor do you have a “personality defect.” It is not just random happenstance that you have come to experience yourself as having tightness in your heart, irritable bowel syndrome, poor sleep, grinding teeth, aching hips, a proclivity to prove, please, withdraw, be a joker. It’s not simply genetics. No, you are carrying a heavier load than you can imagine. You are part of story of human unfolding filled with tragedy, with human suffering. You are but one expression, a painful expression. But you can heal.
There is good reason…
There is good reason you are the way you are. Start with this assumption. Start with empathy for yourself.
Hold your aches and pains, anger and shame, fears and doubts, need to prove, defend or accommodate with a kind heart, if you can. Your body will open more to healing if you can release yourself, even just a bit, from the shackles of self-judgment, from believing that you are the product of “faulty wiring” distinct from the influences of your surroundings; that there is something “inherently wrong” with you, ideas born in the notion of “sin”.
You are, by your very deepest nature, whole and complete. More so, the body naturally orients to healing and homeostasis. Cut yourself and watch. Your body/mind wants to heal. It does so organically through its unfathomable intelligence.
Yet to heal, you must feel. You must give yourself courageously to the feeling body. This takes times. But know you can do it. And then watch.
Heal the dysregulations, blockages and imbalances in your system and watch the personality transform, its roots increasingly in the soul as an expression of the soul. The mask, the persona, falls away.
Who I am today is far from who I once thought I was and who others deemed me to be. Years of intense healing work will do that. Heal the trauma and you heal the split between the personality and your eternal nature.
And then you wake from the dream.
* * *
Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults