When someone you love acts in a way that activates trauma in you, it’s not just having your feelings hurt. Trauma is more like being electrocuted. Chemicals flood your body, fight, duck, flight, run, scream, crawl, what the fucking fuck?!! Help! Help!!! But, just like when you were helpless earlier in your life, there is no help. You are back in the exact terrifying moment, facing the implacable violence that seared the trauma into you when you were too little to protect yourself. Flung in a disorienting instant back to a time when you were helpless against a brutal force much more powerful than you. The essence of trauma is that it is terrifying and you must somehow face it alone. You can’t save yourself from it, and nobody else will either. Trauma is in a class by itself in terms of psychic pain.
If I accidentally traumatize you by losing control of myself, and find you shaken in your soul, my apology is a first step, at best. The apology is the beginning of the healing story, not the end. To reassure you I will have to demonstrate better self-control going forward or you will be perfectly right to find my apology worse than meaningless, my threat ongoing.
You won’t believe my apology, you’ll recall similar angry things I’ve done to you before, particularly if I continue to tell you that any pain you claim I cause you is your own fault, every time, that I only react that way because you make me do it. The old wife beater’s/bully’s defense, “I wish you hadn’t made me do that to you, why do you keep making me hurt you?”
We are all weak, flawed, imperfect, limited, even disabled in various ways. Those of us who are not narcissists (who see themselves as either perfect gods or unbearably worthless pieces of shit) or are otherwise crazy, do our best to be kind, to not do things to others that we hate done to us. We don’t always succeed, but our goal is to be kind, to listen and reassure people we care about when they are suffering.
If we’re damaged enough as children we face a mountain of hard work to climb out of the traumas of our past, to avoid replicating them, inflicting them on others, but many spend their lives climbing.
Some traumatized people sincerely believe that change is impossible. In the cases I’m familiar with it is the immenseness of their pain that convinced them of the impossibility of change.
None of us are good at sitting with painful feelings. Without sitting with pain, looking at it carefully, we have no hope of learning how to proceed, outside of keeping busy all the time, running, hopping, jumping, doing anything to avoid being alone with our feelings. Many people in pain, who have the money, seek a good therapist to help them through the difficult challenge of developing the insight to change harmful behaviors. A good therapist is a great comfort.
Others just want peace, and calm, and people to accept them exactly as they are, unfixable flaws and all. And it is also true, if you can’t accept somebody’s weakness, you really can’t be friends with them. Those same people who need unconditional acceptance of their flaws are often very judgmental, have unshakable, harsh opinions of others and are experts at denying or justifying even the most cruel things they may do. When confronted they will say whatever they need to say in the moment to defend themselves, telling lies they may contradict a moment later in their desperation to avoid feeling blame for acts they may be ashamed of. They may tell you they were mistaken, that they can’t help it, both understandable human frailties, and that you are being cruel to them, that they simply need to be loved without conditions.
Anger is probably a human’s hardest emotion, up there with grief and fear. It leads to insensitivity, nastiness, beatings, lynching, mass murder. Anger is also inevitable when, however patient you try to remain, there is no mercy shown, no understanding given, no acknowledgement of your right to feel hurt by thoughtless treatment. “You hurt me, too, asshole, what makes that OK?,” is not a recipe for reconciliation. That kind of response may cause you to raise your voice, say something mean, get ready to fight, no matter how much you may cling to trying to remain mild. When we are hurt, we need reassurance. If we get stern insistence that we are wrong to be hurt, to need to talk about it, it is the opposite of reassuring.
But some people can’t help themselves. They may feel bad, on some level, but they are truly unable to resist redoubling the old beating when somebody appeals for their mercy by making themselves vulnerable. Vulnerability is their worst nightmare. No mercy for weak, vulnerable, fragile bitches! Nothing scares someone who is terrified of being vulnerable more than somebody laying their heart bare to them.
Here is therapist Bessel van der Kolk, with a succinct, insightful description of trauma.