NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Thursday, April 4, 2013

Overcoming Feelings of Helplessness Related to Early Trauma

Many people who were helpless as children due to childhood trauma continue to feel helpless when they're adults.  As adults, they often continue to feel pessimistic and that they don't have control over their lives.  Frequently, their initial response to suggestions of how they can overcome their problems is "I can't."  

Overcoming Feelings of Helplessness Related to Early Trauma

Part of the work in therapy is helping them overcome their trauma-related sense of helplessness by doing trauma therapy work.  Another important part of the work is helping them to develop an increased awareness that, as adults (as opposed to when they were children), they now actually do have control over their lives and more choices than they're seeing.

A History of Early Childhood Trauma Can Trigger Feelings of Helplessness in Adults
Many people who experienced emotional trauma at an early age, where they really didn't have control over a traumatic situation, grow up with a sense of helplessness in many, if not all, situations in their lives.  Often, this occurs without a person even realizing it because feeling helpless has become a habitual response, and they will often approach problems as if they can only submit passively to what is going on.

Compare the two fictionalized vignettes below of two people in the same situation where one feels helpless and a lack of control and the other feels confident and that he can take steps to overcome his problems:


John has a supervisor, Ted, who is a bully.  Ted bullies everyone in the office, including John.  John dreads going to work every morning because he anticipates having to deal with Ted's bullying and demeaning behavior.  

Whenever John's friends suggest that he look for another job, his response is "I can't."  Then, he gives many reasons why he doesn't feel ready to look for another job.  When friends make suggestions about how he can prepare himself  to look for another job, he shrugs his shoulders and says, "I can't."

The worse part is that when Ted treats John in a demeaning manner, John takes this criticism to heart.  Even though John gets a lot of praise for his work from senior managers who are above Ted at the company, one critical remark from Ted will ruin John's day.

John grew up in a household where his father was verbally and physically abusive with John, John's mother and his siblings.  John's father would constantly tell John, "You're nothing and you'll never amount to anything."  When John was a young child, he really had no control over his father's abusive behavior.  And, now, without John realizing it, his early childhood trauma is getting emotionally triggered in his current situation at work.  John is responding to Ted as if Ted is his father and he's a helpless child again.

Larry also works for Ted.   Ted is also demeaning and bullying with Larry.  But the big difference between John and Larry is that Larry feels he has some control over the situation and that he has choices he can make.

Larry feels confident in himself.  Regardless of what Ted says to him, Larry has a strong sense of self and whatever Ted says to him doesn't change his sense of self confidence.      He knows that Ted's tactics are meant to put him down, but Ted's remarks don't affect the way Larry feels about himself.  Larry's sense of self confidence allows him to remain resilient in this stressful work situation.

Larry knows he has options.  He knows that bullying is against the corporate code of conduct at work, and he can file a complaint with the human resources department.  He also knows that, even though he doesn't have the skills yet to apply for the senior position he would like  to have eventually, he's taking positive steps to improve his skills by taking in-house courses that are offered to all employees on company time.  

While he's in these classes, he's networking and developing important relationships with senior staff to find out about other jobs in the company.  He knows that his current situation with Ted is temporary and, as soon as he is able, Larry plans to leave this department for a better job.

Larry grew up in a nurturing environment where his parents encouraged him to be curious and open to new experiences.  They also instilled a sense of self confidence and encouraged him to pursue his interests.  As he was growing up, they presented him with age-appropriate challenges that gave Larry an opportunity to learn problem solving skills and develop a sense of determination.

How I Would Work With John in Therapy
If John came to therapy because he was feeling anxious and helpless at work and, possibly other areas of his life, I would work with him to develop a greater sense of awareness of how he is responding to his situation and help him, over time, to become more resilient.

No one can change John's history of early childhood trauma. But I could help him work through the trauma using mind-body oriented therapy, like EMDR, clinical hypnosis or Somatic Experiencing, so that he is no longer emotionally triggered in his current situation by his history.  There is no quick fix to John's issues, but I have helped many clients with problems similar to work through their trauma.

Overcoming Feelings of Helplessness Related to Early Trauma

Along the way, I would help John to develop an increased awareness that he is responding to the current situation with the fear that he had when he was a child.  We might do some inner child work to help this younger aspect of himself to feel nurtured in a way that he never felt nurtured when he was growing up.

I would also help John to differentiate between what happened "then" (when he was a child) and what's happening "now" and to see that, if he chooses, he has many more options now than he did then.

Setting manageable goals would also be part of the work in therapy.  And, whenever John felt "stuck"  by a sense of "I can't," we would look at what's really going on for him at that point:  Is there a distortion in the way he's thinking?  Has he slipped back into feeling that he's helpless again, like he was when he was a child?  What else might be going on?

Developing an Awareness of How Early Childhood Trauma Might Be Affecting You Now 
It can be challenging to see when you're responding to situations with a sense of helplessness because   you're being triggered by childhood trauma. It's important to understand and work on the underlying emotional issues.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have a tendency to feel helpless and unable to get "unstuck" in your current situation, you could benefit from working with a licensed mental health professional who is trained in either EMDR, clinical hypnosis or Somatic Experiencing to help you work through this issue.

You owe it to yourself to get help to overcome this problem so you can begin to lead a more fulfilling life, unburdened by your childhood history.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist.

I work with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.