Fundamentals of Trauma Recovery, Part 4

November 12, 2018 - 4 minutes read

Facilitating Self-Forgiveness

Many trauma survivors suffer from shame and guilt for not having foreseen, protected, or responded more effectively during the trauma.  It is true that in some cases the responsibility for the events is shared, and in other cases the trauma survivor carries no responsibility whatsoever.  Establishing clarity on this issue can bring a lot of sanity to the crazy-making feelings of misappropriated guilt.

The vast majority of trauma survivors are far too hard on themselves.  The purpose of this article is to make self-forgiveness possible. In the wake of self-forgiveness, there is more opportunity to protect oneself, and others, from future similar circumstances.

The Freeze Response

Many express horror at themselves in guilt-ridden questions like, “why’d I freeze?  Why didn’t I fight? Run? Why did I go limp, or go blank, or couldn’t move?”

The answer to these is neurology: the amygdala, a small structure deep in your brain, is fully responsible for nano-second deliberation as to what to do when under threat.  It makes a flash assessment, based on physical ability, past experiences, the nature of the threat, as to whether you attempt escape, battle, or freeze. That’s known as Fight, Flight, or Freeze.  All responses are adaptive. 

In freezing (playing dead, going limp, feeling numb, going stiff or frozen), your amygdala ensured that less harm will come to your body.  The attacker may lose interest, or use less force, sparing you from more hurt or injury. Freezing also dissociates you from the pain and fear, which could otherwise have been more overwhelming and even compromised your survival.  

These key phrases must be highlighted:  The freeze response is automatic. Adaptive.  Beyond Awareness. Wired biologically. Wired to bypass reason, contemplation, or self-reflection.  It is not your fault. Your brain and body did precisely their job at the time.

To facilitate self-forgiveness, consider the following exercises.  Use your mindful gauge (Part 1) to determine when and where to begin this process.  When choosing to connect with others, use your mindful gauge to choose who, and how, to reach out.

  1. Remind yourself of the biological wiring of the freeze response as often as appeals to you.  For many, it is a new concept, and one that can be both difficult, and relieving, to understand.  Review it until it makes sense, and you have a gist of how it fits for your circumstances.
  2. Connect with others to understand how they forgave themselves.
  3. Use a journal to mark what part of forgiving yourself feel within reach, and what else, if anything, is fueling the guilt.
  4. What would you tell a friend who was in your situation?  If there is a piece of shared responsibility, what would fair reparation look like?  

As a side note, the fight/flight response can be supported with practiced self-defense and assertiveness training.  These can also bolster awareness of danger and red flags. Nonetheless, this will not guarantee the fight/flight response you wish for. Even masters of self-defense can freeze under attack. The amygdala’s assessment will always rule.

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