Trauma Responses Are Conditioned, Not “Chosen”

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From Dr. Glenn Doyle: “You’re gonna get people telling you that other people can’t ‘make’ us feel anything.

We’ve all heard the quote ‘nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.’

The idea is that no matter what somebody else says to us or how they say it, we’re ‘choosing’ how we feel about it and how we react to it.

How I wish this was true— that we ‘choose’ everything we feel.

But we don’t.

Often our feelings arise reflexively. When we’ve been through trauma, we can get triggered by someone’s tone of voice or the cadence of their speech, and go into a trauma response— and there won’t be any ‘choice’ involved.

Most often our thoughts don’t arise out of what we’re thinking or how we’re interpreting a situation— as much as some people want to believe that it’s entirely our thoughts that determine our emotional life.

Rather, our feelings very often raise out of our conditioning.

When we grow up in abusive or neglectful families, we get conditioned to feel— or not feel— certain things.

Sometimes we get conditioned to dissociate in response to certain things— and, again, there’s no ‘choice’ involved. Our sympathetic nervous system makes that ‘choice’ for us.

From our nervous system’s point of view, if it had to wait around for us to think about everything that happens to us or ‘choose’ a response, we’d have been eaten by sabre tooth tigers eons ago.”

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Dear author,

    You say…

    “Often our feelings arise reflexively. When we’ve been through trauma, we can get triggered by someone’s tone of voice or the cadence of their speech, and go into a trauma response— and there won’t be any ‘choice’ involved.”

    To my way of understanding this idea here it could excuse some aggressive tyrannt who says they are choicelessly traumatically triggered by seeing people of “difference”.

    If a person is in a family that conditions them to feel only a certain way then the family are telling the person that they cannot be FREE to feel ALL of their feelings. Swap the word conditioning for bullying because it makes it easier to spot the dynamics. When a person is conditioned/bullied to not feel some disapproved of feelings, that person may fear feeling any feeling at all. This is because one feeling leads to another and another all quite thoughtlessly, as a heathy mind-less natural flow is meant to be. So because bullying, when imposed upon the person, causes a fear of damned feelings emerging in that person, that person squashes down all their feelings under a veneer or lid of tight analytical self control. This goes from a bully disapproving of some feelings, to the person having to nervously suppress all their feelings, incase even a pleasant feeling trips over the damned feeling and wakes it up. The person so conditioned by bullies becomes numbly analytical and feelingless.

    Trauma is complicated but some of what causes the pain is in trying not to feel. A person may be in rigid numb dissociated agony in trying to keep that lid bearing down on who they really are and how they really feel, but they have been conditioned/bullied into not feeling or they fear they risk abandonment or punishment. This keeping it all out of conscious acceptance within the person’s psyche is what causes some of that tension and pain. Other pain comes from intellectually catastrophizing about having an imminent breakdown. That intellectual berating of weakness is the bullying after it has become so absorbed that the person themselves criticizes their own emotional vitality.
    You may be right or wrong to say people do not choose their feelings but I would say that people can choose to allow those feelings to surface and choose not to numb them away, and I would like to think that since feelings are not the same thing as outward acts of behaviour people can choose how they behave in response to having feelings and even in response to being numb. Although with numbness there is less ability to choose how you feel since by its definition numbness is the lack of feelings. Dissociation is not a feeling. It is a numb nothingy absence of feelings and then the critical mind tells the person they are monster for feeling nothing, and yet that critical mind also reminds the person to never feel the damned feelings/any feelings at all.

    You say there is often no choice in “feeling” dissociated. I say dissociation is devoid of feelings. What there is maybe no choice about is the mandate, given initially by bullies, and absorbed by the nitpicking critical mind, to not feel at all. You may be sort of implying that the sympathetic nervous system makes the choice for us in our responding by being dissociated, in other words being numb and feelingless. Fear does at times make our overwhelmed psyche ask our lordly imperious meddling nitpicky thinking mind to take over in a last ditch attempt to impose again restrictions on feeling and make us more numbly flawlessly rationally controlled. This turning to the lordly mind to make decisive choices for us imposes more and more claustrophobic rules and restrictions to our emotions, until years later that gives rise to outward cold feelingless composure, numbly capable of violence, or the logjamb spills out as explosive pent up erruption of feelings from beneath that lid. Neither of these kinds of “loss of control” are desireable “choices” caused “by” the “feelings themselves” but by what is “done to” the feelings in suppressing them, because of bullying them to tidy them away.
    In trauma it is often the fear of feeling that causes pain. Before someone cries in say a therapy room they fight to maintain wooden numb composure. It is uncomfortable. Painful. The moment they release feelings by crying they feel relaxed and less trauma. Trauma is the iron fist of self conrol around feelings. Trauma is the metal lid because they are deemed unwelcome. Feeling feelings is not the same thing as outward explosive behaviour. And in fact the less a person allows their feelings to be inwardly felt the the greater is the chance that they will possibly become an outwardly numbly thrashing explosive person or coldly controlling person themselves. Possibly they will say that trauma caused them to outwardly behave that way, as though feelings are the same thing as external outward behaviour, or as if emotions on their own cause outward behaviour. Feelings and emotions do not on their own cause any outward harm. Decisive planning is required and that involves thinking at some point. Trauma is often the agony of not having interior access to ordinary understandable feelings. Trauma may not be the feelings themselves. Recovery involves feeling the feelings as if they are not dangerous at all.

    You say trauma responses aren’t choices. I want to say that in order to make a deeply satisfying “choice” we need to be in touch with our inner feelings that guide our choices. If you are numb and you want to buy slippers you may choose the green fluffy ones or the felt and foam grey ones or the velvet ones but for a choice to be made you need to know how you feel about green, or grey or velvet. Our feelings embolden our free choices, and our free choices embolden our freedom to celebrate our feelings. This is why trauma is such a death of joy in life, because it shuts down our ability to carefreely feel and choose. Trauma is like a straight jacket to feelings. A fear is that you unbuckle that straight jacket and what is inside will explode out as outward behaviour in one disastrous fell swoop but in reality never feeling causes feelings to be so pent up that they may explode from becoming a numb backlog. Feelings need to be a moderate natural ever moving flow. A few strong feelings a day but not too much. A sweet spot of accepting a gentle flow. Trauma acts as a block to that flow.

    I agree with you for sure on some views you mention. Bullying must stop, I always say this.

    Conditioning can often be bullying, though not always. A father who tells his four year old kid not to play on a busy street is conditioning the kid to help that little one to survive. Conditioning occurs in nature. Animals do condition their young. A wolf can seem like a bully to its offspring.

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  2. That quotation about (not) feeling inferior came from Eleanor Roosevelt, she was one of the richest women in America and came from one of the oldest and most prestigious families in the country. Expecting someone without that kind of background to be able to “choose” to feel invulnerable is often unrealistic.

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  3. Thank you for this! Being told that I was choosing to feel a certain way after someone said or did something that was objectively pathologizing/demeaning/dehumanizing to me felt like more salt in the wound. I used to get that a lot from people after I was disabled by ECT, diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and sent to IOP DBT, where I was subjected to polypharmacy, numerous short-term psych ward stays (transportation there courtesy of the local police and emt) and where the trauma that had led me there was said to be irrelevant.
    I also used to be advised that I should stop taking things personally. That was right up there on the list of ” things I was doing wrong”, right below, choosing to feel the way I was feeling.
    After a while I had a little joke that I would tell myself (only myself since I knew no one else would appreciate it): “You have borderline personality disorder. Don’t take it personally.” Lol

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  4. To my previous comment I want to share an experience I had. I was out walking on a hill and en route I kept my sights to the ground because I was aware the area had intersting archaeological history. I wondered if I might stumble upon a find. I discovered a gnarly ancient long forgotten bit of treasure there near a path. My instant thought was that it was precious. After that thought, in a nanosecond, I felt a feeling of euphoria. I felt joy and happiness spread throughout my body. I bent down to carefully lift the valuable into my hand. I then realized it was an old nugget of spat out dried chewing gum. I thought it was vile. I then felt revulsion.
    But I stopped and had a moment of realization. I understood that my thinking in one way had brought me feelings of instant bliss and my thinking in another way brought me feelings of instant disgust.

    The notion that we have no choice about our feelings does not always ring true to me. I believe that there is a difference between thinking and feeling but at the micro level they both entwine in such close proximity that they seem all of a piece. The rapidity with a thought adjusts a feeling and feeling adjusts a thought means that our thinking really can influence the way we feel. And since we can often choose how our thoughts progress this means that in a knock on effect we can choose how we feel. But because such rates of thinking and feeling can occur at lightening speeds both seem to come from mysterious impulse. And because the rate is so fast it becomes very tricky to try to make thoughts different from what they instantly were.
    I did ponder over the chewing gum treasure and reflected on my euphoria that had come from my thinking that the find was magnificent. My thinking mind had given a meaning to the exciting object in the grass and that meaning set off a flutter of feelings. I realised I had the power to effect my feelings by using my thoughts to give new meanings. I realised I could think about a boring friend as if they were valuable exciting treasure.
    I do have hope that we can rescue suppressed feelings that other people’s bad behaviour has taught us to choose to attach negative meanings towards. By spotting our habitual thinking that arrives at habitual indoctrinated meanings, we can alter, via our own choice of meanings, how we feel about even things we think are discarded rubbish.

    I had the momentary superpower to see a piece of rubbish as priceless and subsequently “feel” euphoric, all via the “choice” to think differently.

    I am against anyone telling others that they “have to” feel a certain feeling, like joy or wellness, when they simply do not feel that way. And I am against anyone telling others how they “ought to” choose to think. Both kinds of imposition can stray into mind control. We see alot of that these days. I am for the acceptance of authentic feelings because through acceptance comes real healing. But that is not the same thing as saying I believe that our feelings cannot be swayed by the choices we have in how we think. We know this intuitively. Spend all day in bed and we will probably get depressed, our feeling selves need lots of different stimulating choices of thinking, perhaps by going for a nature walk or hiking up a hill. These moments of thinking then find meanings that impact our feelings, bringing euphoria for instance. However, thinking on its own is a disaster when devoid of feelings, as in when too much over thinking suppresses feelings. As is often the case in trauma. This is not to suggest that trauma is not an experience of pain and anguish and fear, it is that these states can be caused by the painful tension that comes from unloved or unaccepted feelings within.

    If a person believes that they have no choice in how they feel it could give them an excuse to remain a bigot.

    That said, in state of shock or ptsd a nervous leap to catastrophic thinking happens instantly and feelings lumber along after that. That leap can be so rapid that there is no time to intervene in that choice of catastrophic thinking and so the resultant feeling of fear cannot easily be calmed by having a new thought or a new meaning to put to a loud sound or memory of a building. The mayhem leaves the person disintegrated. And in that state it is easy to believe one has no control or choice at all about feeling that way.

    I do not think the study of trauma is aware of how complicated trauma is. I feel there is not this “one thing” that is trauma and what it is is feeling awful and that is it. Why it is so staggeringly difficult to mend from trauma is because many adaptive things go on it.

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  5. This is a great post. Trauma responses/adaptations/conditioning/etc are driven by the unconscious – there is no “choice” involved in any individual case.

    What we can choose to do, however, is get to know these patterns: be aware of them, understand them, get in relationship with them. This is the beginning of true healing. (Note how this fundamentally differs from what we usually do: attempting to control, resist, or distract.)

    We all have response-ability – the ability to respond to what isn’t working for us. But this has nothing to do with the type of blaming/shaming that comes along with the illusion that people have conscious control over their trauma responses.

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    • “We all have response-ability – the ability to respond to what isn’t working for us. But this has nothing to do with the type of blaming/shaming that comes along with the illusion that people have conscious control over their trauma responses.”

      Yes. Feelings are stored in the subconscious, and stuffing them down can make things worse.

      But you wanna know what’s worse than that? Being coerced into talking or writing about feelings before you’re ready. And guess what? You may never be ready, which is a feeling that needs to respected more than any other.

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      • Correction: Feelings/memories from trauma arise in unexpected ways at unexpected times and shaming people into shutting them down is counterproductive — but so is pressuring people to talk about them, which can be even more traumatizing.

        People’s feelings and memories are their private property and should be treated as such.

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          • Thank you, Terry. Having someone in your position agree with me on this almost never happens. And unfortunately, pressure from therapists to engage in “talk therapy” traumatized me further.

            The fact is I never found talking or writing in depth about bad experiences or my feelings around them very helpful, even to people I felt comfortable with, i.e., close family and friends; I process things differently, I suppose. I think the subconscious for the most part works out things in its own time. However, by far the worst outcome from being compelled/cajoled/coerced into talking about trauma can re-traumatize, a word I never heard from any therapist or doctor, which I think says volumes about the quality of their training, to say nothing of their motivations. And it’s the reason I don’t bare my soul here on MIA, even when it’s occasionally suggested/pressured/harassed I do so.

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  6. This is fine as a starting place for most people.
    But a deeper look has found that, in the end, a being has to agree to be “conditioned” before attempts to condition him (it) will have any effect.
    You see this in the fact that some people are more suggestible (easier to hypnotize) than others.
    It does no good to tell someone suffering that the way out is for them to take total responsibility for their suffering, It doesn’t matter that this IS the way out. It is not helpful for someone who is suffering.
    Professionals in this field should know this, but most don’t. But if you tell someone that is suffering that they have to believe something that is only going to make them suffer more, that’s not very professional.

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    • This is incorrect. This is literally an extremely unprofessional opinion. People are not consciously agreeing to be conditioned, that is ridiculous. Just take a look at children. This is where most of the trauma starts. You don’t have much understanding of how the subconscious mind works.

      Lots of people are willing to take responsibility for their suffering. They wouldn’t be asking for help otherwise. They’re not taking on the responsibilty of what caused their suffering, just the healing aspect. It’s nobody else’s responsibility to heal our trauma for us. It is ours alone. Realizing this is the only way it can start healing.

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  7. Correction: “…by far the worst outcome from being compelled/cajoled/coerced into talking about trauma is “re-traumatization”, a word I NEVER heard from ANY doctor OR therapist, which says volumes about their training and motivations.”

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