Why don’t traumatized people take good care of themselves?

(written on May 1, 2013, Zagreb, Croatia, finally published almost 8 months later!)

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Why don’t traumatized people take good care of themselves?

Although this may seem like a huge and complicated topic, the crux of the answer to this question is simple.  I will break it down into a few parts.

But before jumping in, there are two preliminary things to know:

1) No one is created traumatized.  We begin life perfectly unscathed.  Immature, yes.  Underdeveloped, yes.  Innocent and naïve, yes.  At risk, yes.  Uncoordinated and at times confused, yes.  I say this because all of these things can also lead someone, especially a child, to take imperfect care of himself or herself.  But this has nothing to do with trauma, because:

2) Untraumatized people have a natural instinct to make healthy decisions in the best interest of their true selves.  They are only limited by their immaturity and the brokenness of their external world.

So, with that said, why don’t traumatized people take good care of themselves?

The first part of this answer is that when people get traumatized, they get split off from their true selves at a level equal to the degree of their trauma.  This disrupts their whole inner system.  Their intuition gets damaged and their sense of themselves gets damaged.  In a sense they get stunted in their developmental process, but to put it better, they get warped.

Then, because of that, when they make decisions to try to take perfect care of themselves, they are lost, because their inner compass is damaged.  Their decisions, to the degree that they are traumatized, become faulty.  And what’s worse, they may FEEL like they are taking care of themselves, and may defend their actions to the hilt, but their decisions are bad and end up only hurting themselves worse.  This happens in a myriad of ways, including through sex, food, drugs, personal hygiene, relationships, romance, money, and even through seeking help in the helping profession.  They trust people who are not to be trusted, because at a deep level they cannot trust themselves.
And the longer they go without healing their traumas, the more their problems in self-care compound.  Their lives become more and more damaged and more and more off-course.  Their bodies, their relationships, and their very connections with themselves get more and more broken.  Their very decisions only end up traumatizing themselves worse.  This is the tragedy that pays out a dividend of more tragedy.

And none of this is a great mystery.  We all hear stories of people who have been severely wounded in childhood who end up living the most hurt, suffering-filled adult lives.

Meanwhile, the repetition compulsion fits right into this model.  The repetition compulsion – the inner drive we have to reenact our traumas in an unconscious urge to somehow solve them – is part of this.  The repetition compulsion is an urge that so often dooms us, because it, like all bad decisions, just sends up careening back into more pain, suffering, and trauma.

But, like all bad decisions we make, even our reenactments offer us a chance to learn.  And here is the hope, the simple hope for all of us:  self-reflection.  We can learn from our bad decisions.  We just have to study ourselves.  We have to study our motivations.  We have to study our histories.  We have to study our feelings.  We have to become honest with ourselves.  This is at times invariably painful too, but if we can tolerate it long enough to be able to sit with it and trace it to its origin, then we can grieve it and we can ultimately reconnect with our true selves.  This is how we heal trauma.  And once we do that we find that our true selves have the greatest allies imaginable:  our conscious minds, our natural intuition, and our passion.

And with those allies how can our future decisions, and therefore our self-care, be anything but excellent?

24 thoughts on “Why don’t traumatized people take good care of themselves?

  1. I was one of those children. I don’t know how I managed to survive really. I’m a successful business owner with a family and quite content.

    I find happiness in a beautiful sunset, walking a trail in the forest and spending time with my family and friends. I enjoy a good meal and meaningful conversation as well as many hobbies. I’ve noticed people that are very depressed have no hobbies. That may not be the norm but I think the key to saving yourself is being in service to others. That is probably what saved me when I look back on my life.

    Find a place to volunteer and put your thoughts and projections out into the world rather than back into yourself or you will become nothing but neurotic, nitpicking every single thing about yourself and your life.

    It’s hard to get up and get moving when you are depressed. You don’t feel motivated but take those first steps. Walk around the block, get those endorphins moving. And at least once a week get out and volunteer. Find something you love to do something meaningful as a volunteer. Find like-minded people who are motivated. Try to avoid dangerous behaviors.

    There’s also places you can go if you don’t have a lot of money to travel. You can join the Peace Corps. You can travel to other countries and teach your native tongue and they will pay you a salary plus give you a nice place to live and transportation in the form of a bicycle.

    You are not bound to live an unhappy life because some evil human being(s) tried to break your spirit! You do have something to offer! Believe it! Life is definitely worth living and it makes me sad to think too many people waste theirs! Peace.

  2. Thank you for your post. I am researching on how to start my own own blog on self healing from my own traumas since childhood. I’ve tried everything to get passed it, move on, grow etc but nothing seems to stick. I revert back to the unhappy person I hate. I remembered I used to journal as a younger person. I loved it. Feelings and thoughts on paper – in private. I thought that maybe if I blogged my story, my thoughts, my experiences, maybe others can relate and help me to move forward and find the Me that I like the most. Any ideas/pointers would be greatly appreciated. AR

    • Hi, friend. Sounds like you’ve had a hard time like me. Just don’t give up on yourself or the struggle for peace, and you’ll be fine!:)

      • Thanks for your reply!! Any tips on where to start? My mind is a big mash up of sh*t and I don’t even know where to begin!

        • I related to you bcs I also struggled a long time by myself. I looked into lotsa esoteric self-realization philosophies but really couldn’t even approach true healing without the practical help of a true spiritual healer. I’m awfully lucky to have found a Dr of psychology (a soul Dr, as I like to call her) with whom I.feel somehow (bcs I’m a sort of agnostic) a spiritual, honest connection. That doesn’t mean she’s my mind reader: Therapy is the art/ discipline of putting ones thoughts/feelings into.Words. I’m a word or language- lover. So I most often delight in the challenge, but not always!
          She challenged my self-confidence, gently, from session One. aAlso, I was ready to Break myself down into indecipherable bits!,I never expected to live this long (41) but I refuse to kill.my unique self! Hope I’ve helped just a bit:) I love you, bro

          • Hi! Yes, I feel I need to put myself out the whole heartedly piece by piece to start self healing with the help of no one who “knows me” and can maybe relate or share their story. I put on a huge facade of who I really am but deep down I feel unloveable, I accepted, imperfect, etc etc because of what I’ve been through since childhood. But now that I’m older (45) and not getting any younger, I need to sort myself out before its too late and I’ve wasted too much time in self loathing.

            I’ve NEVER contemplated taking my life – I value my life I just don’t love myself so allowing others to love me is impossible – at least the way I deserve/want to be loved.

            BTW I am female 🙂 but Bro works! . Thanks again!

            • Hey sister!:)
              I have survived almost 25 yrs of suicidal tendencies or fantasies if u will.
              My therapist sees me as a very brave strong survivor of depression. I am extremely glad you haven’t contemplated taking your life! It might be helpful to you to try & try again to find a therapist who you feel “gets” you. I tried 7 different therapist before finding the great one I’m with for over yr now. It’s true that self-healing is a slow, painful process. But we have some laughs sometimes too. I’m grateful for my sense of humor, above all else. As I l like to say, suicide takes a great sense of commitment and determination than I could ever have!
              Best regards, dee

        • My therapist specializes in personality disorders, among other things. She works w youth & families a lot. She’s diagnosed me w borderline personality disorder, as others have. But no one’s given me such a deep understanding of it or myself before. I think what we have is very special. I’ve been w her for just over 1 yr now. Hope this posting is helpful to you at least a bit! She practices psychodynamic psychotherapy, btw. Best wishes, here to help if I can,

  3. hi daniel,

    i am a 22 year old recent college graduate. although i’ve dealt with bouts of depression since i left home for school in 2011, it’s only in the past year or so that i’ve begun to hypothesize about its true origins (and hopefully effective remedies). i read drama of the gifted child by alice miller and identified with much of what she had to say about how parents can traumatize their children. although my parents were very concerned about being ‘good’ parents and i don’t think they were consciously abusive, i definitely introjected many of their ideals and standards for what it means to live a ‘correct’ life. and i’ve long hidden many parts of myself from them that even today i feel unable to express.

    my father, particularly, was prone to anger (never physically violent, but loud and fiery nevertheless) and that has made me personally afraid of expressing any kind of upsetness (anger, frustration, sadness) with my parents, and by extension anyone else i am close to in life. i cannot remember the last time i expressed anger. as the youngest of four children, my role in the family was often peace-maker and do-gooder. i was ‘OK’ with everything and rarely complained. obviously i was hiding my true feelings that whole time, but back then i just thought i was ‘nice’ and that i ‘liked everyone.’

    in addition, there was a strong current of pretentious intellectualism that came from my father and a dislike of anything sexual, bodily or that wasn’t of the rational intellectual quality that he demanded (i.e. pop music, dancing, emotions, unexplainable feelings).

    i identify with much of what you write on this blog, even though i was by no means physically abused, and i really would like to finally escape the false self that i created for the sake of my parents oh so many years ago. at the moment, i’m in a kind of purposeless miasma of directionless living. i’m living at my parents house and feel no inclination to do much of anything (let alone commit myself to some kind of further schooling, year-long program, job). i have the sense that this directionlessness is also a result of my parents influence on me. the main thing in my life that i’ve committed myself to up to this point, music, was something that my father pushed on me (and all my siblings) from an early age. i have memories of him forcing me to practice the cello, and me crying, but him continuing to make me play the same passage again and again. (funny, now that i’m thinking about it, that all the art i’ve made in the past few years has been about him and his influence on me). i think that his forced direction on my life, which i definitely self-identified (and identify) with is a part of this false self that confuses my true desires. i do believe desire is learned, so part of me really does get satisfaction out of music at this point, but i also want to eschew my parents’ influence, and to do that while remaining within the realm of music (something i always did -for them-) seems contradictory and unhelpful.

    my relationships have also doomed all romantic possibility for me (at this point) because:

    1. i am never quite sure what i want
    2. i am unable to express my feelings once i do realize what i want

    these two things have caused me to hurt all the women i’ve ever been involved with. currently i don’t think i am able to have a sincere and honest romantic relationship (although it’s the thing i want most in life)

    being around my parents i generally feel unexcited, scared, unsure, boring, bored and unexpressive. i know i still crave their approval of my life even though on an intellectual level i don’t and know it only holds me back. i never speak to them honestly. i’m still scared of their judgment. i’ve never yelled at them, never even critiqued the things i find fucked-up about them. i’m planning on leaving in 1.5 weeks (hopefully for good) because it does me no good to be around them, but i also find that anywhere i go and anyone i’m with, i’m still generally unhappy, unsure of who i am, and unable to express what i need/want (if i think i know what those things are).

    do you have any advice/thoughts?

    i appreciate it.


    • Hey Seth:)
      I’m not a mental health professional but a mental health patient. I’ve been doing psychotherapy for about a yr now, with a former colleague & friend of Mackler. So, for whatever it might be worth to you, I’d like to comment on your post.
      You sound like a very thoughtful, courageous truth-seeker. I firmly believe you will find your True self and all the blessings in life that will follow. Please let me say: I think Music will be your key to opening your soul’s doors. Reclaim it completely from your Dad’s hands. He had no idea: He handed you a pair of wings to become free of him one day! Take your music/wings and fly in new, unknown directions. I know you can do it, Seth. As for me, I suffer from borderline personality disorder, mostly the emotional dysregulation disorder. I’m a bit paranoid and antisocial at times. I’m prone to angry verbal explosions. With my good therapist, I’m learning that anger is a secondary emotion– masking the primary emotion. In my case the primary emotion is a blend of intense fear and vulnerability. Growing up in my family in Brooklyn in 80s, we were taught to never express fear or vulnerability, but to immediately mask all that”weak” stuff with anger. It’s become an outdated defense mechanism for the traumatized girl within who is still ruling my 40yo life. Listen, Seth, it’s really hard finding a goid therapist & expensive too If you don’t have health insurance. But, God, I wish I had started psychotherapy in my 20s! But I was too afraid of it & still had the energy to run away all the time. Now, at 40, Life has worn down my resistance & frankly, I’m just too tired now but to face & deal with it: My character pathology. Kudos for having courage to try to find & face yourself Now. Music can be your therapy and may even introduce you to others with healing power to share with you:)
      Best wishes, Seth. Use those wings!;) –Dee

  4. Thank you for this post. I beleive that not taking good care of one’s self is directly linked to the toxic shame, to the feeling of ‘I don’t worth it.’ which is the major output of trauma, of course. Best regards

  5. Thank you for posing this question and for your powerful, empathy-filled response to it. Your preliminary statement that “No one is created traumatized” leaves me feeling unsettled, however.. Regarding Nature vs Nurture, you seem to represent the latter side in this timeless debate. Interesting how it stands unresolved through time, as we continue to learn more about DNA and genetics: Nature — we’re still learning more about how it works! But yet, we are still learning to fully appreciate impacts of environmental or social factors on the individual’s psychological development, too. Probably, a debate remains unresolved, infinitely debatable, when the validity of both sides of the argument are relatively very strong.
    On a personal note, I would like to say that I Was, in fact, born traumatized. This was due mostly to the fact that my mother really didn’t want to conceive me in the first place. I believe I might have felt this primal rejection.. Mine was a very difficult, breach-position birth. I was literally born w warped facial features as a result of their using utensils to forcefully change my position in the womb in order to pull me through the birth canal. They say my face went “back to normal” in a few days, but as a result of this violent birth experience, I believe I must have needed therapy after the first day I was born! Fast forward 40 years. I’ve recently come to appreciate that I suffer from Emotional Dysregulation Syndrome (more commonly known as BPD). After having tried all the self-therapy I could for over twenty years now, and having suffered alone a great deal in that time, I recently conceded that I need professional help. I’m extremely fortunate to be in therapy with Dr Ayme Turnbull. It’s only been a few months now but I feel I finally found the right person to do the grieving and healing work with.
    Many Heartfelt Thanks for sharing your writing and films with us for free! I You are an extraordinary, important thinker and writer. Looking forward to reading more..TYVM!

    • hi Dee — thank you for your comments, and cool that you know Ayme. I haven’t seen her for years but like her very much. I think few people if any are born untraumatized. created traumatized….yes…..i can believe this….but not born traumatized…. too much horror passed on from mother to child inside the womb…..and too many other factors that can be so harmful…..you gave great examples of that. wishing you the best — and thank you — daniel

  6. I was able to be free for couple of moments from some parts of my childhood trauma this Summer by practicing (meditating) what I have heard from Buddha. The trauma was completely gone.

    Let me tell you just one thing: as long as I was working with the old traumatized self, as long as I was trying to change or improve the old self, I was getting nowhere. I had to drop it. And when I did, I was actually free. Of course, it picked it up again because I am so accustomed to live with my suffering. It was very strange to experience such freedom. I didn’t know what to do with it. It was something new (or something very old but forgotten). My system got confused and frightened…

    In short, emotional traumas are connected with our old self. By dropping the old self, traumas disappear automatically (you don’t have to deal with all the details from the past). The traumas are a part of the package called self. If you drop the old self, the traumas are gone automatically.

    • Now that I have read your comment I believe I recognize what you’re saying. I am, at the moment, dealing with my trauma’s by taking care of them one by one. It takes a lot of time and so far it didn’t really made things better for me.
      Dropping the old self by meditating sounds so easy. Is that all you did? Can you give me soms advice?

    • Marino…the dropping of the “old self” that you are calling freedom is the re-enactment of the neglect and abandonment experienced as a child. It is through the slow and steady transformation out of our wounds – by coming back and completely identifying and reconnecting with the child who was left behind – that an authentic freedom exists.
      The “many” will never choose this road…it’ll always be the few.
      Because it takes a complete devotion to the abandoned one and a giving up of every other method the world can offer us to secure salvation.

      • I will agree that you need to commit 100% to who you truly are.

        There is a parable by Jesus:

        Jesus said, “The kingdom is like a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them, the largest, went astray. He left the ninety-nine sheep and looked for that one until he found it. When he had gone to such trouble, he said to the sheep, ‘I care for you more than the ninety-nine.'”

        This is grossly misrepresented in the canonical bible.

        Also from the Gospel of Thomas:

        And he said, “The man is like a wise fisherman who cast his net into the sea and drew it up from the sea full of small fish. Among them the wise fisherman found a fine large fish. He threw all the small fish back into the sea and chose the large fish without difficulty. Whoever has ears to hear, let him hear.”

        What it means is that you give up whatever the world can offer you, and instead go for the one thing that has real value.

        This is meant what is said by the statement “Seek thy first the Kingdom of Heaven, and all else will be added unto you.”

        The Kingdom is liberation of ego; kabbalah calls this the move from will to receive, to will to bestow. Ego always tries to get something from the external world and is therefore externally oriented and eternally seeking salvation. But there is no salvation outside of time, since ego and time are synonymous. Therefore what the ego wants can never be accomplished, and it can only be an illusion that you are even in need of salvation.

        In the context of trauma… the ego is seeking healing from trauma, by fixing itself (you). But this can never be accomplished, as Marino writes.

        You cannot fix the “old self” because there is not even any old self. There is just a disagreement between you (ego) and life (god). This disagreement consists of judging your own instinctive behaviour (natural impulses, wants, desires, needs, intentions) as sinful and guilty.

        By judging your behaviour you make it possible to do ungodly things. Ungodly things always create pain and are always inconsequential in the grand scheme of things.

        That is to say, the trauma and pain cannot change your real self.

        By making choices that are natural and self-respectful, you disallow the illusion to keep creating new experiences for you. That is to say, the choices will be loving, whereas you will still be experiencing fear and worry about the outcomes, because you have not yet experienced what you really are.

        The key ingredient of healing is not to want to do things that are outside the realm of possibility. The whole concept of ego is wanting to do things that (a) won’t work and (b) will not be consequential in establishing truth. So if you give up doing the stuff that is pointless anyway, you will automatically start healing.

        Then, it is important to learn and remember what things are effective and what things are not. This is the study of the dynamics of life.

        In this study you will learn to distinguish between love and fear. You will learn about judgement and eventually you will learn about the pain that always results from judgement, and you will begin to see how much people hurt each other, every day, all day, all over the world, in every town, in every house, in every building, in every street, in every corner, in every aeroplane, in every train, in every bus, in every car, in every moment and in every place.

        And once you begin to see and feel all the pain, you will naturally turn away from it, you will naturally decide you don’t want to have any part in that any more, no matter what it takes.

        And there comes a day that it becomes impossible for you to do any thing that you do not want to do.

        Because what people call “will power” is the ability to do things that you do not agree with. So as you become enlightened you lose all willpower and you acquire a will that is flawless, consistent, effective, decisive, indiscriminate, clear and very very dependable.

        So in the context of trauma I will say this:

        It is not even real, your natural skills and abilities have always been sufficient. People have told you that you need to achieve things within certain time frames, that you need to be able to achieve certain results whenever required.

        And the error lies in:
        – wanting to achieve things that are worthless
        – wanting to achieve things that cannot be achieved in that way and with those steps and in that circumstance because the self does not function in that way: the self would never try to achieve those unachievable things.

        I will give just a very short example:

        You may, as a guy, feel that you need to be able to pick up girls or seduce girls or whatever. You may feel that you have failed in that area.

        And people may tell you “just do this, or do that. Just walk up to her and start a chat.” And you will say “But I don’t know what to say!” And they will say “It’s easy, just say what comes on your mind first.”

        But the self may not even want to do that thing, because if it did, you would probably already be doing it. The self is very, very, very very patient.

        The self may be not be interested in getting or maintaining a “love relationship”. It may not want to sacrifice itself in order to get that.

        The self may not be interested in holding a “job” that requires some sacrifice in order to get those benefits from the world.

        The self may not be interested in “taking good care of yourself” when taking good care of yourself is something you really don’t feel like doing because in the present circumstances it is a waste of time and energy. And there are more fun things to do.

        The self may very well behave just like an animal would: do whatever it wants at whatever time it wants to do that thing. Not to worry about anything, in the clear understanding that it will be able to handle everything. And that if it can’t handle it now, it will be able to handle it when the moment comes.

        So first of all: realize that you have always been doing an amazing job.

        • As I see it we have our feelings, thoughts, passions, responses, etc., and what we need is to be able to express all that in a healthy way. We need to be in contact with our feelings, develop a friendly-mind and live the life we really want.

          We need to overcome our emotional blocks and our wrong ideas about ourselves and our life that are preventing us to do so.

          I am not sure where “dropping the self” fits in all that. I am not even sure what a no-self state could mean. I understand a state free from wrong ideas and emotional blocks or traumas (that would be my idea of what enlightenment is) but I don’t see why that would be a no-self state. I simply would called “no trauma state” 🙂

  7. Having spent the last three yrs,
    Facing myself/ owning my deep trauma/ reflecting on pain caused to others, to self… I have got to a point where Art seems to be my only real joy.
    My children and grandchild give me love. I give them love. But overall, I’ve lost the desire for people ..
    Have I given up then? Taking easiest way ? Maybe… But the confusion of needs/ desires/ etc that people bring.. Maybe at 62, having reared children. Stayed in a distorted marriage for 30 yrs.. I need more time.
    More reflection.. I Just enjoy the quiet.

  8. I think you’ll agree that all trauma is a form of death. I believe you are saying the same thing. Modern spirituality divides life into two energies: the yes and the no; love and fear, god and ego. Ego always seeks death. God always seeks life. The part of you that is traumatized will always seek death. It seeks to decrease the amount of joy you have in life. It will always inspire behaviour that is self-destructive in one way or another. Pain begets pain. Trauma begets trauma. A person who is traumatized by definition does not live life to the fullest. And a person who lives life to the fullest by definition cannot be traumatized. Because trauma is defined as “no-life”. It is the opposite of life. This cosmology is really simple. Love promotes life, fear promotes death. Ego is the energy called fear. Eckhart Tolle directly linked the ego to the pain body, or what you would call trauma. Death is defined as “the cessation of the flow of the energies of life”. We are actually more “dead” while alive on this earth, than we are after life on this earth. Death accompanies us in the form of trauma. We carry it with us. It represents a choice we make. With every thought and every action we choose either life or death. As the human race, we are deciding which one we want. Choosing life implies healing our trauma. Continuing to choose death will result in the demise of our civilisation.

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