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Dr. Laura Russell’s Column

by Laura Russell, PhD

There is an old Ann Lander’s column I hand out in my classes on this subject. She printed a dream someone sent her, asking her readers to respond with their explanations. Boy oh boy was that interesting!

Some people who wrote in were very judgmental. Other replies reeked of sexual innuendo. Then there were the responses that were just off the wall!

None of them had any relationship to reality. People actually wrote about themselves describing their thinking, motives and emotional issues. This is officially known as projection.

In the absence of information, people fill in the blanks with what is in their own personal histories. This makes sense. We interpret our lives based upon what we know. In my thinking, this is a minor and subtle form of a flashback.

Flashbacks can take a variety of forms.
Traumatized people have both subtle and severe flashbacks. Those of us with histories of child abuse and horrid traumas relive our traumas all the time.

We think about what happened, we dream (nightmares) of what happened, and we live our lives as if these terrible experiences are happening right now. Again, this can be subtle or very dramatic. You might see your memories as a photograph in your mind. Then there are the physical reactions where you feel as though your trauma is currently happening this very moment.

Anything that even vaguely resembles our original trauma can trigger a flashback episode. A time of year, song on the radio, driving down a certain street, or someone’s tone of voice are all examples of the sort of thing that can trigger a flashback.

Flashbacks and Loving Relationships
Understanding flashbacks is vital to being able to see how they affect your loving relationships. The very acts of loving and being loved can and do trigger flashbacks. When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. After all, you were abused by your parents, guardians or family members. You depended upon them. And loved them.

Now you are an adult. You met someone delightful and you fell in love. Wonderfully, they love you in return. This situation is enough to trigger both subtle and not so subtle flashback episodes.

Suddenly you feel abused and unsafe. You become absolutely convinced that your partner is abusive. They resemble your parents. Or your other family members. Or your out of family perpetrator.

At that moment, you really do not know if your partner is dangerous to you or not. You cannot tell whether or not they are abusive. You wonder if they hurt you on purpose. And you are utterly convinced they did. And pretty sure they enjoyed it!

Some people run away from all relationships because of this. Other people strike back, becoming too well defended. Then others just withdraw from all intimacy. No matter what you do you are in danger of ruining the vital nurturing intimacy you are building with the one you love.

No matter how you take care of yourself, you can ruin your relationship. What do you do? How do you prevent your child abuse history from depriving you of a loving relationship?

What to Do?
I am only going to briefly mention the solution here. Learning how to get unstuck from your past is much more involved than I can write in one article. At this point, I just want you to know that your flashbacks can color how you look at and interpret the actions of your partner.

The first step is to take ownership of your feelings and reactions. You start the long process of learning when your reactions are from your past, and when they are from your present. This doesn’t mean blame. You are not at fault for this. Flashbacks stem from a natural process that happens to all people who have been traumatized.

This often seems too simple. And from one perspective, it is. From another perspective, taking ownership requires a great deal of effort. Then there is the emotional pain. Learning to live in your own skin, feeling your own feelings and personal history is very painful.

The second step is to get acquainted with what it feels like to be you in a flashback. For me, it feels as though I am slightly like a robot. Physically, my body feels heavy and my muscles are tight. Emotionally, I feel compulsive and like I absolutely must take action this very moment.

By listening to yourself you get acquainted with your flashbacks. This is the beginning of taking charge of them. Taking charge of your flashbacks allows you to separate your past from your present. Then, if you wish, you can process the painful feelings from your traumas. A good trauma therapist can help you with the processing.

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