There are two major ways that change occurs: technical and adaptive. Technical is the change that occurs when you gain knowledge through learning and practice and you can master it. Such as when you read a book or watch a YouTube video on how to knit. The other change, adaptive, occurs when you continually gain knowledge through learning and practice, such as reading the book or watching the video or attending the workshop. And you don't get it. So you read more books and watch more videos and attend more workshops. But still you can't seem to master whatever it is you're looking to. This is because this type of change isn't about gaining a new skill, it's about rewiring. You can't just try to learn a new skill; you have to rewire what you already know in order to get to the level of accomplishment you want.
So there's the change you just have to add to yourself or to your environment -- either to improve what is already in existence or to create it completely. Such as when I wanted to learn more about PTSD, I just read books on it and watched videos and even learned some information on it from counselors and professors. And then there is change where something has to be transformed, where there's a sort of reprogramming of the brain.
Creating Change for Victims and Survivors
There are three things all victims and survivors of sexual trauma feel at some point: alone, denial, and guilt. And rape culture is a culture of isolation, denial, and guilt. No wonder victims/survivors have a difficult time navigating their trauma. It is in this premise of sexual trauma in which we say these horrible things about ourselves and about others. I mean it is incredible the kind of things we say to each other and to ourselves when we're in pain! It's intensely cruel and wrong. It perpetuates a cycle of a pain that traps the victim and the survivor.
The most uttered phrase I have heard in working with victims and survivors is “I just wish this season would be over.”
I just wish this season would be over.
Wow, can you feel it? Whether you’re a survivor of trauma or not, at some point I bet you have felt this way. I just wish this season would be over is uttered in a state with wanting the pain to pass, the situation to change, the transition to not being broken or angry or sad or destroyed.
It is this desire for change.
So we read the books and watch the YouTube videos. And nothing changes. We’re stuck and we certainly feel it.
Victims and survivors want their healing to be linear and simple. Who wouldn’t! So we think of healing in terms of technical change. We say things like “well if I ____ then I’ll be fine and healed.” If I… read books, watch videos, practice breathing, ignore it, exercise more… We search for tasks that we can master and be done with our trauma. But it’s important to understand that the fear our trauma wired our brains with doesn’t just go away with an intellectual understanding of our trauma.
Our trauma has wired our brains to think or act a certain way. It is not so simple to tell a victim or survivor to stop having anxiety and fear and anger. Our brain is like a power grid, with billions of pathways lighting up every time we think, feel or take action. Some of those pathways aren’t used as much as others, while others are consistently used. Those well-used pathways are our habits. Every time we think a certain way or feel an emotion or practice a task, we strengthen that pathway, allowing our brain to more easily use that pathway.
Many survivors have been wired for fear. And we can’t just ‘get over it.’ So when people approach our trauma with the ‘get over that’ and ‘just ___’ mentalities (stop feeling sad, just get out of the house, stop being angry, just trust people again), it is inappropriate and even harmful. Because it’s not that simple.
But it is possible.
Every time we learn something new and think or feel differently, we are creating new pathways in our brains. Every time we continue on those pathways, we allow our brains easier access and ability to use that pathway. As we keep strengthening the path, a new way of thinking or habit actually develops and the old pathway weakens as it becomes used less and less. This is a concept called neuroplasticity working.
The real barrier in victims’ and survivors’ lives is that the kind of change that is needed to overcome requires a rewiring of self. It is disguised as the unreachable, impossible, most painful option. It requires facing our trauma holistically, ripping out the roots of ourselves in trauma, snipping the edges, and finding new soil to plant ourselves in. It is then that we can grow again. It is painful. Yet it comes with a pain that frees instead of traps.
Victims and survivors become trapped in wrong beliefs. The one that is most debilitating to the kind of change we need, but may not always want, is the belief that a different state, a different way to be in the world isn’t possible. And until we actually shift that belief, by rewiring our brains, we can read all the books in the world, go to all the events, attend all of the courses and trainings, watch all of the videos…but until we shift that belief, nothing will work.
As annoying as it may be to realize, one shift can change our reality.
It applies to everyone – survivors and non-victims alike.