Consider this story, a female client I worked with who experienced trauma, impoverishment and chaos in her childhood, came in to see me because she was experiencing panic attacks. This turned out to be one of many stories I have heard where people inform me about how difficult their upbringing was and how things in their lives were now much better – except themselves.
The desire to improve our circumstances is inherent in all of us, especially circumstances that are terrible at best. However we risk running into a case of double jeopardy if what inspires us to improve our circumstances is anything other than love. Like this case of the female client mentioned, it turned out that her inspiration for her economic improvement was a combination of fear and resentment. Fear of a chaotic lifestyle that placed the safety of her and her siblings in jeopardy and resentment towards her mother for being incompetent and irresponsible and her father for being absent. Fast forward almost a decade later as a married mother of two children, living in a safe neighborhood with a stable source of income, a good relationship with her husband, my former client could not understand why she was experiencing reoccurring panic attacks.
As it turns out, she was waiting for the other shoe to drop, when she wasn’t recreating the conflicts in her life she had experienced as a child and teen, through conflicts with others, she was a experiencing internal strife which played out as panic attacks. The trigger for her tendency to instigate conflicts with others or her panic attacks? Fear and resentment had always been her sources of motivation. The therapy was successful, as she was able to learn and practice drawing from peace and love in her life as sources of motivation.
This is one of many stories of people who found themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of becoming emotionally stuck in the very situation they made their life’s commitment to escape. Now why is this? Common sense would dictate that after an ordeal has been experienced, the person who experienced that ordeal becomes relived about the conclusion of the ordeal and never looks back right? Actually in most cases this is the case. People who have experienced bad things happen to them, become motivated to overcome the ordeal and after the conclusion of the ordeal they go on to live healthy lives. The reason that these people go on to live healthier lives is that their motivation for success comes from love. Self love, love for others, recognition of worthiness, whatever label you ascribe to the phenomenon of humanity, people who successfully leave their ordeals in the past learned to rely on their goodwill and the goodwill of others to succeed.
What happens to those who remain stuck in the past? By coincidence of role models or culture, they learned mistrust, to be overly suspicious and developed a mental world view that portrays the world as a dangerous and untrusting place. This creates the irony that even when they have succeeded in physically removing themselves from a chaotic situation, they find it difficult to recognize and trust peace for what it is.
Our beliefs influence our perceptions, our perceptions influence our thoughts, our thoughts influence our feelings and our feelings provide us with the motivation we need to initiate actions or behaviors.
If your source of motivation is negative, you will find yourself engaging in reoccurring behaviors that recreate your trauma in small or significant ways, which keeps you stuck in a cycle of negative feelings and being reactivate to your negative feelings.
The most effective strategy for getting out of such a cycle is adopting an important rule of thumb, which is to never see yourself as a victim, regardless of your trauma, but as a survivor.
Seeing yourself as a victim automatically triggers the fight or flight response, inherent in all living animals. This means that you are either going to be motivated by passive or overt desires for retaliation which amounts to a pessimistic attitude or hostile world view, or passive or overt desires to flee, which amounts to lethargy or chronic social anxiety.
By seeing yourself as a survivor, you trigger the inherent trait in you to seek the support and companionship of others, through a combination of being of service to others and being a recipient of help and assistance. This is easier said than done, but seeing yourself as a survivor helps rewire your brain’s source for motivation.
Ugo is a psychotherapist and life coach.