November 2020: Subliminal Messages
Being a trauma therapist and a trauma survivor lends itself to some interesting self-revelations. Recently it came to my attention that a by-product or collateral damage of my trauma experience is the ingrained survival skill of “reading between the lines.” This is completely second-nature to me. I don’t even realize my brain is scanning for hidden messages: such as seeking out the personal application of general comments.
This type of scanning is an example of how hypervigilance “works.” Our amygdala, the danger detector in the brain, is continually on high alert. We “sense” things before we are consciously aware of them. Part of trauma recovery is retraining the amygdala as to what is truly dangerous and what is a memory related to danger. This retraining is, unfortunately, a process and not a “hard” reset like turning a computer off and on when it crashes.
Evidently, as much effort as I have already put into retraining my amygdala, there remain antennae that need reprogramming. Hard to do when you don’t recognize it happening in the moment. So we start after the event—when it surfaces to awareness. I have my doubts I can completely reprogram these antennae; but I can at least review the data, which will hopefully help progressively turn down the dial in the future.
How do I explain what I mean? Let’s say we’re having a conversation about music. We talk about all kinds of things like genres, concerts, volume preferences, etc. As we chat, my brain involuntarily scans for indicators of what is required for optimal interactions: assessing if you are upset, disappointed, frustrated, angry, happy, in sync with me, etc. In essence, anticipating what you need before trouble occurs. If my amygdala senses that something could be amiss, internalized messages are activated to ensure I keep everyone safe and contented (aka happy) and to explain the tension I sense.
This became part of my brain development from constantly having to monitor the mood in my earliest environment(s): Am I in trouble? What is expected of me? Do I need to smooth things over? Most of the time, the amygdala is trying to prevent bad things from happening—like being struck or berated or yelled at—determining what is necessary for survival and/or avoid danger. If unsuccessful, it then tries to make things better by apologizing, offering help, or escaping (either shutting down/dissociating or physically leaving).
Even if there was a tool to inform my brain it doesn’t need to do that anymore, I doubt it would believe me. So instead of trying to convince my brain not to scan for subliminal messages (what are people indirectly communicating they need from me), I need to ascertain what is my responsibility and what is beyond my purview. Such is the nature of my compulsion to “fix things.” Somehow I need to increase my comfort levels with ambiguity and generalities.
Reminds me of the criticisms I received not to take things personally or to quit being so sensitive. And there’s those internalized shame messages activated again (“not being enough”). I cannot be “un-sensitive;” but I can turn down the volume. As for taking things personally, it’s a survival skill not easily unlearned. For if I don’t look for the personal in the general, I may put myself in harm’s way. This is what happens when we grow up with covert and/or passive aggression. We become very good at reading subtext: What are they really saying?
Paradoxically, the same ones who use covert aggression are also the ones who label others as over sensitive or too personal. In reality, they are playing a “get out of jail free” card: always someone else’s fault or problem. So… given the environment I grew up in, it makes sense why my brain scans for the hidden messages. However, it creates awkward situations when it misreads situations or expectations in other contexts, and I seek to restore equilibrium that hasn’t been disrupted.
As I have processed this survival skill and its repercussions, it became apparent I need to give myself permission to be awkward. I’d rather over correct then miss a legitimate cue! Per chance I need to celebrate the relief so that my brain registers the misfire. I have been thinking I need to correct something when instead it simply needs to be acknowledged: “Oh, I misread that. Whew. Glad that is sorted.”
I physically have a low tolerance for emotional discomfort. I will do whatever it takes to restore homeostasis (that compulsion to “fix things”). Even make a fool of myself or an over correction. Checking in, clarifying is all part of good communication. I would rather over communicate than under. Mainly because if I am at all uncertain, my brain will ceaselessly gnaw on that bone—which is exhausting mentally, emotionally, and physically.
The hazard to subconscious “reading between the lines” is drawing flawed conclusions with knee-jerk reactions. Many friendships are ruined this way. The classic move is making accusations based upon interpretations of sensory input without seeking clarification. By conversing, we can be reassured that what we sensed was inaccurate. We, in fact, did not have to keep anyone happy to prevent disaster or disconnection.
Strange how my musings meandered from seeking a solution (correct one aspect of hypervigilance) to accepting awkwardness. This also means circumventing the internalized shame messages that are activated by discomfort. I am not stupid or foolish or flawed by my attempts to read between the lines or to overcorrect. It’s a survival skill.
Misreading a situation, taking things “too personally” are not bad or shameful. Simply moments in time that require a “double take.” Risking awkwardness requires courage and humility which just may help to rewire the amygdala’s hypervigilance in the long run. I may make things worse in order to make them better. Better that than resentment or conflict. My brain will continue to scan; I will continue to maintain equilibrium as best I can; I will sometimes get it right and sometimes over correct.
My distress tolerance needs to increase so that I can process incoming data and, most importantly, deal with awkwardness/discomfort and accompanying shame messages. I must hold in tension the simultaneous goals of accepting the fallout of being a trauma survivor and rerouting the shame messages that inevitably surface. That compulsion to “fix things” will only decrease by boldly stepping into awkwardness and allowing myself to spend time there without judgment.
What situations are you facing that may require risking awkwardness? Does your knee-jerk reactor or your subliminal scanner need a reset? Or do you need to be gentle with yourself and celebrate the awkward moments?