All or Nothing Thinking and Trauma

Most of us have fallen into the trap of all or nothing thinking at some point in our lives. Studies show it’s really common in people with depression and anxiety. I know I’ve experienced it many times, and I’ve tried to be more aware of it so it doesn’t hurt me so much.

I think trauma is the root of it for me as well as for many others. When I think about my parents, I think they’re monsters. I can’t even comprehend how they could treat another human the way they treated me, their own child. I’ve given up trying to understand how some people can be so evil. Perhaps many people with antisocial personality disorder (sociopaths) are missing key elements in empathy, but still, what drives them to abuse or kill? Generally we, as a society, decide they’re monsters. But what does a little kid do with this- when they’re too young to fully understand or critically think? One minute they’re parents who teach their kids new things, and the next they’re sadistic monsters.

Children have rigid thinking because their brains are not fully developed. I think that developmental trauma makes someone get stuck in this way of thinking. It’s theorized that all or nothing thinking is related to the fight or flight response, which probably explains why trauma survivors experience it so much. If you grew up with chronic trauma, your central nervous system was often getting triggered into the fight or flight response. When a human is in this state, there is no time for what ifs. It’s either bad or good: run, fight, freeze, faint, etc. Hesitation and overthinking in dangerous situations could lead to injury or death. The problem is that children who have been traumatized get locked into this way of thinking, just as parts of them get locked in the past. This applies to everyone, not just people with DID. A lot of people get abused by caretakers and don’t develop DID, but they still have to compartmentalize the idea of their parents, uncles, grandparents etc as both caretakers and monsters. They can’t possibly understand the grey areas. The monster dad is somehow different from the dad that taught them how to catch a ball or ride a bike. How else could they develop any type of attachment (as disorganized as it may be) to survive? As trauma survivors grow, they hold onto these habits of viewing their world and the people in it. This becomes maladaptive and harmful to them and their relationships.

People are complex and messy. Of course, most people are not monsters. Most people are not predators. Most people have good and bad qualities, hopefully more good than bad. But trauma survivors walk around seeing threat where there isn’t any. To survive they feel like they must label and put people in boxes of good or bad. It’s often done unconsciously. This is not needed as adults, because as survivors grow they obviously have access to critical thinking and are able to reflect more on the complexities of human nature.

I was just talking to my therapist about art therapy and sand therapy, because she pointed out that maybe some parts are just not verbal enough to do the healing work in a traditional way. Trauma gets stuck in emotional parts of the brain without access to language. In order to heal, these parts have to tell their stories in different ways. This discussion caused parts to start talking to me about my dad. He was an excellent artist. It’s hard to admit that he was good at something, to give him credit for something positive, but I have to face the reality that he taught me a lot. He taught me how to use oil paint, and I loved it. I’m not exactly pleased that he let a child get paint with extremely dangerous chemicals all over themselves, but whatever. The point is, he instilled in me a love for art. He was good at drawing, and I became interested in it too. He bought me art supplies and encouraged me. Now I use art for my healing, which is ironic and difficult for me at times. He also taught me how to play soccer, climb trees, swim, scuba dive, sail, and many other things that bring me joy today. It’s not easy to hold all that in my head at once. If I allow myself to think about all the pain and fear he put me through, all the ways he degraded me and shattered my soul, and then I think about all that he taught me… well it’s difficult to hold all that at once. In my case, some parts hold good memories and many others hold bad memories.

The anger we feel usually overshadows any good he did. My mom told me once that he missed me, and he saw a homeless woman who looked like me. He gave her money and paid for her and her boyfriend to have a hotel room. I thought, so what, maybe he does experience some guilt… good. It didn’t make me feel anything positive towards him. He was still a monster in my mind, and it’s true- the bad things both of my parents have done overshadow the good they have done… but that doesn’t mean I can ignore the good all the time. He treated me horribly most of my childhood, but at least other people can benefit from the small amounts of good things he’s done. Even I benefited from the skills he taught me, as hard as that is to admit.

However, the anger still consumes me sometimes when I think about the charitable things he did to look like a good person in our community. My therapist told me about another woman with DID who’s father was a dentist, and everybody loved him. She had to reconcile the pain and anger this caused. It makes a victim feel crazy when they’re finally able to face the painful memories, only to watch others still love this person they know did such evil things. It makes you feel like you live in a hypocritical world, a world full of lies. I’ve always hated the hypocrisy, and it’s hurt many parts to the depths of our soul since we were kids. We wrote a lot of poems about it. How could others not see his evil? It tore me up inside. I remember my friend telling me how much pain she felt for not seeing that her uncle was a pedophile, and he molested her daughter. I told her that nobody can just look at someone and know they’re a pedophile. If we could somehow know, there would be a lot less victims in the world. Most of them go to extreme lengths to look like good people. He was a well respected child psychologist. A lot of them pick jobs where they can be close to kids, but not all of them do. Obviously the majority of teachers, coaches, psychologists etc are safe. There’s no way for us to know, all we can do is teach our kids how to be safe. I told her that she was there for her daughter when she had the courage to speak up about it, and that’s very important.

Anyway, the point is, people are not all bad. This is so hard for me to admit. It’s difficult to integrate the good memories into my consciousness when the bad memories are so very bad. I know that I need to though; it will help me in the long run. It’ll help me have a better life and better relationships. It doesn’t mean I can forgive them. There are people who were extremely abusive towards me- my parents, other pedophiles, and an ex, who I really don’t think I’d ever forgive. Forgiveness is not required for healing. I do forgive myself though. That is definitely key, and it took me a very long time.

However, when it comes to most people, even those who have hurt me, I refuse to see them as all bad. I may walk away from them forever, but I will always care. What is the point of holding onto anger? All it does is poison my soul. Anger is a way to feel no pain. Anger is a way to disconnect and feel power when you otherwise feel powerless. It’s also a sign that something is wrong. This is where I have learned to shed my all or nothing thinking. It’s what helped me be a decent therapist, because I can look into someone’s face who is extremely angry and see their pain. There is always pain behind their anger. The more anger someone has, the more pain they’re probably trying to suppress. I think to myself, it never felt good when I was that angry. When angry parts take over, it physically hurts. It’s hard to describe, but it’s not a feeling I want to sit with for long periods of time. When angry parts get activated, they want to fight (sometimes physically, sometimes verbally), but we hold them back from fighting or saying what we really want to say. There has to be a way to release this anger, if we hold it back it will consume us. We’ve found that voicing our pain to our therapist or writing about it is our release. There is no other way. Yes, anger scares a lot of us, but it’s there for a reason. We were severely abused, and rage is the byproduct of that.

Unfortunately a lot of people ignore the pain beneath because it’s where they’re most vulnerable. They remain trapped in anger for a very long time, sometimes for life. Living like that must hurt, and it eventually takes a toll on their health. The key for me to combat my all or nothing thinking and the anger it causes is to allow all sides be present and validated. Yes, my father was evil, and yes he was also capable of good things sometimes. When I see the humanity in people, I can let things go more easily. As I said before, there are a few exceptions (those who put me through extreme abuse), but I wish most people well even if they did hurt me. I don’t necessarily wish my parents and other abusers well, but I don’t wish them harm either. And if I cared about someone, I will probably always care. This doesn’t mean I want someone in my life if they hurt me a lot, but I will definitely always care about them. In doing so, I can let them go and also know I did all I could. I love myself enough to let people go. Although someone is not usually all bad, I can still make the decision that they’re not good for me. There is freedom in that. The antithesis to anger is love. I may not be at the point where I can feel love for my parents or other abusers, but I can feel love for others who have hurt me. I can walk away knowing that I’m not seeing them as only bad, and therefore I let my anger go. If I allow myself to be cemented in all or nothing thinking, it keeps me shackled in my pain. This is how I free myself from their abuse.

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