I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins. ― Hermann Hesse
Whenever discussing the influence of trauma with clients who have internalized negative beliefs about themselves, they often agree with the invalid premise of the beliefs but continue subsidizing them anyway. Unable to alter patterns of self-flagellation, years are consumed as they desperately seek relief from what seems apparently masochistic to any objective witness.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE) is a long-term research analysis that began in 1995 demonstrating a correlation between adverse childhood experiences and bio-psychosocial problems in adulthood.* By following over 17,000 research participants, it was determined that a higher frequency of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increased the probability for self-destructive behavior in adulthood (e.g., smoking and substance abuse, promiscuity, impulsiveness) while leading to subsequent health problems (e.g., obesity, heart disease, cancer, lung disease, shortened lifespan). These adverse experiences could include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse with additional considerations for neglect and general family dysfunction. When calibrating a spectrum of these experiences on an ordinal scale, it has been shown that having four out of ten ACEs is associated with a seven-fold risk for developing alcoholism; whereas having six out of ten ACEs is associated with a thirty-fold increase in attempted suicide. Simply put, childhood victims of trauma will adapt in maladaptive ways during adulthood. By the time an adult makes it into therapy, if they’re lucky, these behaviors and deleterious belief systems have to be retrospectively deconstructed with painstaking investigation tactics.
What I’ve counter-intuitively discovered is how much the negative beliefs have in common with an early impetus for survival. If a defective identity is forged during a person’s developmental period, maintaining that identity guarantees a vital role in the dynamic of a relationship―albeit a toxic and unsustainable relationship. For example, if a child endures traumatic levels of neglect, criticism, or abuse as allocated by their “caregiver,” the learned response for winning approval within that developmental connection is dependent on assuming a role of abject submission. In other words, our need for mammalian attachment and interpersonal identity is so biologically inexorable that we will often prefer a dysfunctional relationship to no relationship at all. Furthermore, dependence is solidified by the abuser if they attend to the child’s other biological needs for shelter, food, and clothing. Similarly, if a child’s earliest experiences with intimacy were conflated with violence, that template of dysfunction is probably going to remain pervasive in adulthood. It should go without saying that adverse childhood experiences are force multipliers for the emergence of anxiety, depression, and other manifestations of mental illness.
As mentioned in an earlier post, the endogenous cycles of abuse gain traction if our capacity for self-respect has been hijacked by the memories of succumbing to abuse. Remember, autonomy is not valued by the abuser who needs a captive audience to appease their relentless separation anxiety, desire for control, misplaced aggression, and capacity for sadism. Unfortunately, children of familial victimizers are often lifetime captives to the virus of self-doubt.
Nosferatu is mythologized as a shape-shifter; indeed, when the villain eventually transforms into ourselves, the legacy of abuse shifts inward.