Trauma survivors often feel too responsible for things over which they have had no control. This is one of two extremes that PTSD often inflicts upon us. One extreme is that we feel too responsible for outcomes which we have no control over. The other extreme is that we feel no responsibility for anything, including our own actions. This latter extreme is often associated with spouses and partners who become promiscuous and uncaring after surviving trauma. This essay will focus on the first extreme.
PTSD attempts to change our identity in such a way that we tend towards one extreme or another. We either feel responsible for everything or we don’t feel responsible for anything. Developments which we have no control over can make us feel guilty, even though we have had no input into their workings. It is as if someone else cooked a bad meal and we believe we have to take the blame for it.
Conversely, at the other extreme, we might cheat on our partner through porn or adultery and feel that no one has a right to complain or hold us to our previous standards and commitments. The sense of irresponsibility, uncaring about how our actions impact others, may also manifest in other forms of self-harm such as alcohol or drug abuse.
Gravitating towards either of these two extremes is not unusual for those who have suffered abuse. It applies to survivors of child abuse, incest, molestation by people they thought they could trust like a priest, coaches, teachers, or parents. It can also apply to survivors of military trauma.
We may end up feeling as if we are trying to appease or to deny an imaginary authority which judges us.
If we are trying to appease this imaginary authority, this ephemeral judge, then if something goes wrong or unexpected we end up feeling responsible. Outcomes which are out of our control can feel as if we are their direct cause. And, since the outcome, and process which created it, are out of our control, we end up feeling like we are irresponsible failures. This can lead to despair and negative behaviors. The negative behaviors may be alcohol or drug abuse, self-cutting, self-burning, or taking undue physical or financial risks.
These negative behaviors are designed to try and help us cope with our sense of failure. And of course they do no good. In fact, they ultimately make us feel even worse and this reinforces our sense of guilt and failure. PTSD loves this. PTSD loves creating despair. If our despair becomes too deep we will self-harm and may end up dead.
PTSD tries to create an imaginary authority over us which will always find us lacking and irresponsible. We need to free ourselves from this. This imaginary authority can never be appeased, it will only consume us.
Ideally, having someone else to talk to, someone who you can tell that you feel guilty about something you have no control over is optimal. Being able to communicate with someone else, someone who is trustworthy and will not make the situation even worse is healing.
If we don’t have someone like that we can still benefit from the healing of communication by choosing to write about it in our own journal. The very act of writing about what we feel responsible for when we actually cannot control it can help us regain control, regain authority, over our own lives and viewpoints.
Depending on one’s spiritual development, prayer, a conversation with God about the things that we feel responsible for, yet for which we have no control, can help us understand and heal. This can allow us to disengage from false, imaginary authority created by PTSD.
What should these conversations contain? Whether talking to a trusted person, writing in our journal, or talking to God and the angels, we can explore not only how we feel, that is, a sense of hyper-responsibility, but why we may feel this way.
Exploring “How” and “Why” we feel so responsible for things which we cannot control are two different things, but are certainly related. They can be handled in the same conversation or as separate topics. This exploration may be painful, yet it can be very therapeutic and healing.
We can recognize that PTSD has attempted to create a false, imaginary authority to control us and make us despair. This can be painful, but it can also be very liberating. It will reduce our susceptibility to despair and negative coping behaviors.
Through these conversations we can discover what PTSD is trying to do to us. We discover the sometimes unrealized ripples that flow from the original traumatic experiences. We begin to be able to make an inventory of not only what has harmed us back then, but how it continues to harm us now by creating despair.
Over time, as we learn more about how we are affected by our PTSD, we reduce its control over us. We discover that we don’t second and third guess everything, especially the things over which we have no control. By making the inventory, by having the conversations (notice conversations is in the plural) we reduce the anxiety and the despair that PTSD endeavors to inflict upon us.
When next we feel guilty about something over which we have no control, and we recognize it, we can actually turn it into a learning experience. While still uncomfortable and potentially painful, we can turn it into an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, dismiss imaginary false authorities, and to reduce the impact that PTSD has upon us. In other words, we can regain more control of our lives.
As always: You Have Value!
Semper Pax, Dr. Z
[I continue to try and mend from my hard fall and the shoulder injury. It is a slow journey, but I am slowly mending. Now able to sleep two hours in a row w/o waking up … Hooray for Our Side!]