If you’ve never heard the term “traumatic reenactment” before, it is a really hard concept to understand but invaluable to learn. This is not just an issue for people who’ve suffered trauma. I believe every human being deals with this from time to time and it really affects how we respond to situations we are put in to.
It took me a long time to understand this concept but once I learned it, my reactions have slowly become more situation appropriate. That said? I just dealt with an issue that threw me right back about 30 or 40 years and I reacted as though we were “back then” so I decided to write a post about it. I’ve been waiting to find the perfect example and now I’ve given myself one. OOPS!
Traumatic Reenactment is explained best by an example in my opinion.
Let’s pretend for a moment that we are back in your childhood or your teen years and you have a friend that just loves to scare you with spiders. This friend almost always puts them in to boxes of any sort and then you get shocked and scared when you open them up. Perhaps this is a jewellery box, a gift box, a cereal box… anything this little bugger can think of. In the end you end up freaking out and getting incredibly angry at this friend because you are just fed up with being shocked and scared. Your reaction at the time is totally normal. Who on earth would like that being done to them?
Now lets fast forward to your life today. This memory is nothing but a memory now and you don’t even think about it very often any longer.
One day you are given a gift and you open it up to find a sweet and thoughtful gift but there alongside the gift is a spider! You FREAK out at the gift giver. You accuse them of trying to terrify you. You are so upset that someone else is now doing the exact same thing to you that scared you all those years before and you are furious.
That would be understandable but this time, that spider wasn’t put there intentionally. This friend would never do that to you but you have reacted as though they would. You’ve gotten yourself all upset and you’ve offended your friend.
This is what traumatic reenactment is.
Reacting to a situation as though it is attached to another trauma even though it is not.
We do it all the time really in small ways. We won’t eat a certain food because we were forced to eat it as a youngster, we can’t stand hornets because we got stung by one 30 years ago, we fear a certain type of dog because we once met a mean one of that breed. That sort of thing. We are not reacting to today. We are reacting to days gone by.
Does that make sense?
The other day, I got a nasty email from a real estate agent. I won’t even go in to all the details but basically my Monster (mother) got this woman involved in her nasty games and told her all sorts of horrible things about me. Sadly my Monster does this all the time. You would think I would get used to it right? I never do. It hurts each and every time. That said? I have always stayed silent and not given anyone the pleasure of seeing me react.
Well… this totally inappropriate email arrives from this real-estate agent (I have NO CLUE why she felt compelled to do this) and she accused me of having imaginary friends and of lying about a certain situation. This was HER issue, not mine yet I responded as though I was back 30 or 40 years ago and some other professional (teachers, social workers, doctors etc.) were listening to my Monster and once again blaming ME for any abuse issues.
On one hand, this email was totally inappropriate and I did make a formal complaint to her company which I felt was well deserved.
On the other hand? I FREAKED OUT! I went right back to a professional listening to my Monster and not to me. AGAIN! I reacted as though I was a little girl again. Trapped, unheard, unsupported, abused, in pain, and every other feeling that lived in me back then.
I did not respond to this situation as though it was only happening now.
That is traumatic reenactment at its finest.
I had no clue that I was in traumatic reenactment until speaking with my therapist and she gently led me to see that I was reacting to my past and not solely this situation in the present. I could not see it for myself so it was good that she could.
This agent is obviously in over her head. She got trapped in my Monsters web along with many others before her and she reacted out of emotion without really thinking it through. That is obvious to me now but it wasn’t at the time.
While I still feel that I was right to report her email to her bosses and I still fully believe that I deserve an apology, I did overreact BIG TIME. I was reacting to my past and not only my present. That is traumatic reenactment.
So how do you know if you are doing that as well?
First of all, we all do it. We are products of our pasts.
That said? When you find yourself reacting to a situation in a way that is WAY out of line for what is happening today yet your emotional buttons are all pressed and your feelings are given a nice dose of jet fuel? That is likely traumatic reenactment and you need to try to remind yourself that this is 2015 and not 19__. You are an adult now and you can take care of yourself in a way that you could not care for yourself all those years ago. It isn’t easy to get yourself off that proverbial cliff but the sooner you realize that your reaction is out of proportion with TODAY, you can start to pull yourself back.
I do want to add one personal note in here as well.
While it is all well and good to realize that you are reacting to your past, bring yourself to the present and remind yourself that you are not in that bad situation any longer, it is also okay to accept that you are not “over-reacting”. Your reaction is not silly, stupid or crazy. You should not feel even one tiny little bit badly for having the reaction that you do. You were dealt a rough hand at times and it is only natural to carry those feelings with you. We are human. Not robots. Making yourself feel badly for being tossed in to your past by emotional triggers will only make healing from the situation and moving past it far harder.
Be nice to yourself. Accept that you were in traumatic reenactment and then move on. Next time the same situation happens, you may catch it sooner. Be proud of yourself if you do and kind to yourself if you don’t.
My Monster is likely to cause me pain until the day she dies and I feel sad about that. All I ever wanted was to be loved and she just couldn’t do that for me. The fact that she needs to make it even worse now by lying, manipulating and skewing the facts to suit her own personal vendetta is painful and hard to understand. I could never do that to my own children. I can’t even imagine it. That said? I am an adult now and I can care for myself. I have good people in my life that are wonderful to me and my focus needs to be on them. I will try to watch out for these traumatic reenactments in the future but I know I will fall in to a few. How can’t I? Being human often wins.
I hope this blog helps some of you see where you may fall in to old situations rather than just dealing with today alone. It takes time, effort and the willingness to admit that your reaction is out of proportion but it is very worth it in the end.