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No matter how many men Sonya dates, she doesn’t feel satisfied. Rather than be faithful to her current boyfriend who treats her very well, Sonya flirts with every guy she meets and tries to get physical with them. Sonya’s flirtatious behavior suggests that she really wants a man. But she has a man, so why isn’t she happy?
Tony is an extremely driven workaholic who has a long resume of impressive accomplishments. He graduated top of his class at one of the best colleges in the world. He’s a brilliant neurosurgeon who has revolutionized his field with some very innovative surgical techniques. Thanks to Tony’s genius, the number of brain tumors that can be safely removed has skyrocketed. The man is a hero in the medical field, he is adored by his community, and he is married to an exceptionally kind and compassionate woman. But despite all of this, Tony feels depressed and inadequate. He’s locked in a pattern of driving himself to exhaustion trying to accomplish some lofty goal, only to feel depressed and unsatisfied when he reaches his target. Tony’s been the guest of honor at many awards ceremonies, but every time he returns home with his wife, he’s so upset that he locks himself into the bathroom to cry. Why isn’t Tony feeling satisfied with his accomplishments?
Ben is obsessed with doing wilderness search and rescue. He’s very good at it, and he has risked his life many times to save people from perilous situations. Yet no matter how many lives Ben saves, he just can’t shake the feeling that he’s a miserable failure. Whenever his teammates are celebrating the successful outcome of a rescue attempt, all Ben can do is think about all of the little mistakes they made. He’s a nitpicking perfectionist who is impossible to please and his teammates can’t understand what his problem is.
Wendy is a self-taught painter who does some lovely landscapes. At least her husband John thinks her work is lovely, and he likes to show off her work in their home. Wendy isn’t very good at painting fine details—she’s much better with the blurred, impressionistic style. Given this, John doesn’t understand why Wendy keeps trying to master detailed drawings of flowers. It’s Wendy’s sister who is good with the details, and her sister has built a whole business selling her own floral designs. A single rose drawn on a blank canvas is all fine and well, but John much prefers his wife’s full color landscapes and has told her so countless times. When Wendy does her landscapes, she seems happy. But then she makes another stab at detailed floral designs, which only causes her to be very upset. It’s not that her designs are terrible—they’re okay. Wendy’s sister even sold a few as a way of showing support. But there is one particular rose that Wendy keeps trying to draw and she doesn’t let anyone but John see her finished efforts before she rips them up in frustration. John can only assume that the obsession with the rose is driven by typical sibling competition, and he tries to encourage Wendy to be her own person and stick with landscapes. Wendy politely listens to his lectures, only to then sneak off and make herself miserable trying to draw that rose again when she could be enjoying her landscapes. John is frustrated and bewildered by his wife’s behavior.
So what about you? Are you plagued with the feeling that you keep missing the mark in life? Do you feel like you’re always searching for something that you can never find? Do you see yourself pouring a bunch of personal resources into something only to keep feeling dissatisfied with the results? Is there some area in your life where everyone except you is seeing success? Do you have a track record of destroying the good things that come your way without being able to explain why they weren’t good enough? Do you hear yourself saying things like, “It’s just not working. I’m just not happy. It just doesn’t feel right. I just don’t feel satisfied and I can’t explain it”? If so, the information in this post might help you finally figure out exactly what it is that is keeping you so dissatisfied in life.
Humans are complex creatures, and there are many reasons why we end up stuck in life. It’s quite impossible to unravel the entire mystery of humanity in a single article, and that is not at all what we’re attempting to do. The purpose of this post is to make you aware of just one of many psychological pitfalls that humans get stuck in which can then result in a lot of self-destructive behaviors. If it turns out that the information in this post applies to you personally, then hopefully you will end up with a better understanding of how you can finally get unstuck from the miserable cycle you’re in. Perhaps instead of applying to you, this information will help you better understand what’s going on with someone you care about who is driving you crazy with their restless searching or refusal to be satisfied. At the very least, better understanding our own kind helps us develop more compassion for those who are struggling, so even if you don’t personally relate to any of the scenarios we mentioned earlier, you may eventually meet someone who does.
UNDERSTANDING THE MINDSET OF TRAUMA REVERSAL
So what is going on with Sonya, Tony, Ben and Wendy? Why are they so unhappy in life when they have so much? Well, it turns out that our four friends are caught in a very common pattern of what we call trauma reversal. Each one of them has had experiences in the past which they found deeply upsetting. At the time, they were unable to process the very negative experiences that they had, so they became psychologically stuck at that point in time. As more and more time passed and they remained in a crippled state, they became more and more owned by what happened to them. Deep in their minds, they recognize that the traumatic experience they went through has had a profoundly negative impact on the way that they perceive themselves and the world. This situation makes them feel very oppressed, and no human likes to be oppressed. So what’s the solution?
Suppose you were bound up in chains—what would seem like the best way to get free? Clearly you want to get the chains off of you, but how? Well, one logical approach is to think about how the chains were put on you in the first place and try to reverse that process. For example, perhaps there is a big padlock that is linking the two ends of the chain together. If that padlock wasn’t there, you’d be able to get free. So now all you need is a key to unlock the padlock. Well, who has the key? Only the person who originally tied you up in the first place, so that’s the person who you need to unlock you. In the mentality of trauma reversal, this is the kind of logic being used: the person who is stuck is clinging to a belief that they need external assistance from humans to become unstuck. It might be one person or multiple people. But once this belief is locked in place, no other human’s help is viewed as sufficient. Let’s now go through our four scenarios again and glean some background information.
When she was growing up, Sonya’s father was a drug addict who was constantly in and out of jail. When he was around, he was emotionally distant and physically aloof. As a girl, Sonya felt desperate for her father to show sincere interest in her, but he just wouldn’t. While her father was simply too self-absorbed to pay Sonya or anyone else much mind, Sony interpreted his behavior as a very personal rejection of her. Sonya now feels bound up in chains which her father put on her. She feels controlled by his indifference towards her and longs to be free. On an unconscious level she believes that he is the only one who can unlock that padlock which is keeping her in a bound state. The problem is that Sonya’s father is now dead—he overdosed four years ago, and he took his key with him. Why is Sonya constantly fishing for new men in her life? Because she is desperately searching for some man who feels like a clone of her father in hopes that that man will be able to unlock that padlock and set her free. Sonya needs her father to want her—she believes this is the only way she can ever recover. Why is Sonya so unsatisfied with her current loving boyfriend? Because he’s not like her father. He’s loving and interested and engaged—all things which Sonya’s father never was. So Sonya pushes away the man who treats her right and keeps looking for a man who will treat her like her father did, even though her father’s treatment of her is what devastated her in the first place. On a conscious level, Sonya doesn’t understand her own logic process—she just knows that none of the men she meets are “the one.” But on a subconscious level, Sonya has a very logical plan which is driving her destructive behavior: she needs to find her father and make her father like her, because that’s the only way she’ll be able to get free.
Now let’s talk about Tony, our brilliant neurosurgeon. Tony grew up with an extremely demanding father who would never say that Tony was good enough. No matter what Tony did, his father would find some flaw to harp on. As a boy, Tony felt a desperate need for his father’s approval, and it always felt so close when his father would promise rewards if Tony would just meet his next demand. But no matter how many demands Tony met, his father would find excuses for why Tony wasn’t good enough yet. It was entirely to please his father that Tony pushed himself so hard in school and choose such a challenging career. As an adult, Tony is still locked in a pattern of desperately trying to please his father, because he feels convinced that his father holds the only key to unlock the chains Tony is bound in. Tony needs to hear his father say, “I’m very proud of you.” Tony believes that one phrase would free him, but it has to be spoken by his father. It’s not good enough when Tony’s wife or colleagues say it. So why does Tony crash into depression every time he achieves some new personal goal or receives some award? Because he realizes that all of his striving was in vain when he doesn’t hear his father say those magic words. Tony’s father lives miles away, and whenever Tony tries to share some new accomplishment, his father finds fault just as he always has. On rare occasions when Tony’s father has shown up at awards ceremonies, his stone expression and critical gaze drain all of the joy out of the event for Tony. Tony feels totally oppressed by his father’s refusal to approve of him, and because he believes that only his father can free him, he is completely owned by his father’s will.
And then there is Ben—our search and rescue worker. When Ben was a teenager, his family was on a wilderness adventure. Ben’s sister became separated from the group and after a frantic search, Ben was the first to find her. She’d fallen off a cliff, and being stuck to a scraggly bush was the only thing keeping her from plummeting to her death. Not trained in rescue techniques, teen Ben did the best he could, but his sister suddenly broke free of her bush and fell to her death. It was only then that his parents arrived on the scene, and when he told them what happened, his parents instantly blamed him for causing his sister’s death. According to his father, it was Ben’s poor choices and wrong techniques that killed his sister. Ben’s mother sided with her husband and from then on, Ben became the dumping ground for every family member’s grief, anger, and pain over the death of his sister. As an adult, Ben is desperately trying to go back in time and undo his past mistakes. In his subconscious, Ben believes that it was his own mistakes which caused him to be oppressed, and now he has to find a way to undo them. Why did Ben choose to work in search and rescue? Because in his mind, this gives him the best chance of coming across a scenario that is exactly like what happened to his sister. In his work, Ben saves a lot of people from cliff falls, and he restlessly waits for a case in which a teenage girl is the victim, for only then does it feel like the past has a chance of being revised. But of course what Ben is trying to do is impossible—none of the people he rescues are his sister, which is why he always feels disappointed after a rescue goes well. Meanwhile, he is always looking for flaws in his rescue techniques and he harshly criticizes himself whenever he thinks he did something wrong. Why is Ben so hard on himself? Because in his mind, it was his own stupid mistakes which wrecked his life the first time, and he is terrified of what will happen to him if he messes up once again. Ben feels like being perfect all the time is the only way to protect himself from further injury until he can manage to reverse his past trauma.
And finally, there’s Wendy, our landscape artist who keeps persecuting herself by trying to draw the perfect rose. Growing up, Wendy always felt like her parents loved her sister more than her, and she was right: her sister was the favorite. After years of desperately trying to compete, Wendy was suddenly faced with a shocking offer. Her parents produced a picture of a rose, and they said that whichever girl replicated it best would have her artwork put on display in their home. Of course Wendy’s sister did much better, because her talents were better suited to the contest. And of course Wendy’s parents intentionally set up a test which benefited the sister because she was already their favorite. In young Wendy’s mind, that moment was the moment when her parents officially and permanently rejected her. From then on, the sister was praised in front of every guest who came into the house and that one rose drawing was admired by all. The drawing was placed over the fireplace in the family room and was constantly looming over Wendy as a symbol of the acceptance that she couldn’t attain. During the time of the initial contest, when Wendy turned in her attempt, her mother looked at her drawing with disdain and said, “What is this garbage? I thought I had two talented daughters. Clearly I was wrong.” Now, as an adult, Wendy feels like her worth as a person is intimately connected with how well she can duplicate that infamous rose. So she keeps returning to a photograph that she has of her sister’s drawing, and she spends countless hours trying to duplicate it, only she’s never satisfied with her work. Every time she finishes, she sees her mother’s disapproving scowl in her mind and feels as humiliated as she did back when she was a child. Yet she’s so miserable in her oppressed state that she can’t stop trying to get free. To Wendy, a perfect duplication of her sister’s work is the key that would unlock the padlock on the chains that are making her feel so restricted.
In all four of these scenarios, a soul who is feeling tormented by the past is trying to go back and reverse the traumatic experience or experiences which they feel messed them up. Humans are very insightful creatures, and subconsciously they understand what specific life events have impacted them the most. Often in an effort to reduce their stress load, our brains try to keep our most painful memories and deepest fears submerged. This doesn’t mean such things are inaccessible or that we all have to troop down to some hypnotist’s office in order to find out what we really feel. Movies like to dramatize mental health issues, and plenty of “healers” in the Church today want you to think you’re in far more of a crisis than you are just so that you’ll feel desperate and start paying them to help you. But the kind of suppression we’re talking about right now is like you taking some ugly picture that you got stuck with and putting it in a closet so that you don’t have to look at it all the time. You know that you own the picture, and you know where it is. But you have intentionally put it out of view in order to lower your every day stress levels. Does this kind of defense system work? Absolutely. Looking at some pretty scenic painting is far more restful than having to see some angry clown face glaring at you all the time.
All humans suppress to some degree. Suppression only becomes problematic when the things we’ve hidden away in the closet of our subconscious memory are things which are so threatening to us that they continue to have a negative impact on our lives. This is what is happening with Sonya, Tony, Ben and Wendy. They’ve each got a subconscious closet stuffed with some very painful memories, but tucking those memories out of view isn’t bringing them relief. They are so disturbed by the presence of those memories that they’re getting hampered in their ability to function. But why is this? Why can’t Ben see that his sister’s death wasn’t his fault, realize how unreasonable his parents were being, and let go of the past? Why can’t Sonya see that her father’s indifference to her was not the personal slam she’s taking it as and decide that she really doesn’t need his validation in life? Why can’t Tony write off his father as a condescending jerk and find satisfaction in his many accomplishments? Why can’t Wendy tear up the photograph of that stupid rose and enjoy being her own unique person? What’s keeping our four friends so stalled and stuck? Well, by now the problem is not just that they’ve each gone through some painful experiences. The problem is that they are each clinging to false beliefs about the healing process. Wendy has decided that she can never be content with who she is until she perfectly duplicates her sister’s rose. Because Wendy simply doesn’t have the skills she needs to do this, she is demanding the impossible of herself. Wendy needs to realize that she’s being unreasonable and change her beliefs.
It’s the same with Ben. He can’t go back and save his sister’s life, but he can decide to change his beliefs and reject his rule that he’ll never be a good man until he goes back and changes the past.
Our beliefs have a powerful impact on our quality of life, our choices, our perspectives, and the way we relate to other people. Because beliefs are so powerful, they can really mess us up when they are wrong. But the fabulous thing about beliefs is that they are not static. They can always be changed. There is no law that says you must always perceive the world a certain way.
No human is born understanding who their Creators are. Some of us were taught about the Christian Gods at a young age, but many of us didn’t get introduced to Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit until much later in life. Consider what an enormous impact it makes on your life to go from not believing in God to believing that God is intimately involved in your life. Consider how different it is to believe you are some biological accident versus believing that you were created on purpose by Beings who want you to exist. Some of us spent years convinced that we were going to Hell when we died. Now we believe we are going to Heaven. Talk about getting a brighter view of the future.
Beliefs are powerful, but they can be changed, and this means there is hope to be had even in the worst pit holes. Because our beliefs have such a great impact on us, scores of non-Christians are trying to say that belief management is all you need to have a satisfying life. Forget about God—just work that age old principle of “mind over matter” and you’ll be all set. Well, no, this isn’t a road we want to go down. If we want real healing in life, we need to invite God to lead our recovery process, not shove Him aside. It is by emphasizing our dependency on God, not minimizing it, that we will move forward.
THE CORRECT APPROACH TO HEALING
So once we realize that the real root of our discontentment in life is the fact that we’re trying to undo some past trauma, how can we get free of our oppressive chains? First, we need to realize that God has the master key that can unlock every padlock in the world. Right now, Tony feels like his father is the only one who can set Tony free, but Tony is wrong. God can also free Tony up, and God can take things a step further by helping Tony mature to the point that he no longer depends on any human affirmation to feel valid in life. But before we start greedily grabbing at God’s ability to make our lives problem free, we need to realize that God has His own agenda for us.
God did not set us down in this world so we could learn how to function like independent ships who smoothly cruise through life not being adversely affected by those around us. The goal of many self-help books is to teach you to chase after this kind of dream, and such books encourage you to make pleasing yourself your top priority in life. When we focus on pleasing ourselves, we always end up trying to please our earthsuits, and that means chasing a life in which we always feel happy, healthy, and safe. Going from depressed to cheery always feels like a victory at first, but is it? If we’re doing a better job of pleasing our earthsuits and being comfortable in our skin, what have we really gained? We were created to revolve around our Makers, and They say that pleasing Them should be our top priority. Living to please our Gods requires an entirely different set of priorities. In your life, God will say that developing a deeper relationship with Him should be your top priority because intimacy with Him is the greatest reward you could ever hope to gain. We were created to need our Gods, and no amount of earthly pleasures can fill Their place in our lives.
Trials are an important part of spiritual growth, and our Gods intentionally create trials in our lives in order to give us opportunities to make soul choices which will bring us closer to Them. It would have been a simple thing for God to have brought someone into Ben’s life to help him process the death of his sister in a healthy way. But instead, God arranged Ben’s circumstances to result in Ben feeling stuck. Now has Ben prolonged his misery by making poor soul choices? Perhaps. We can’t tell from the outside what Ben’s history with God has been. But we can help Ben realize that he is stuck in a negative pattern which needs to change. But wait—if trials are an important part of growth, then why shouldn’t Ben be content to just stay where he’s at? Because right now Ben is living for the wrong things.
The fact that someone has ongoing problems doesn’t mean that they are spiritually stuck. For example, Adam and Hannah are both alcoholics. They’ve both begged for healing and God is refusing to give it to them. But while they’re both stuck with addictions that they can’t beat, Adam is spiritually maturing while Hannah is stagnating. What’s the difference? Well, Adam is receptive to God using his struggle with addiction to teach him many positive spiritual principles. But all Hannah wants to talk about is God miraculously healing her, and until He’s willing to give her that, she’s refusing to see her struggle as a growth opportunity. Both Adam and Hannah keep getting plastered, but Adam is learning from his messes while Hannah is stagnating. It comes down to priorities: Adam is pursuing God, while Hannah is obsessed with having a problem free life on earth.
So what is the appropriate goal for Ben? Should he set his sights on total healing from the past and refuse to be content until the mention of his sister no longer upsets him? No, this kind of goal is too narrow in scope. God isn’t making Ben any promises of complete healing. But God is saying that there are some fantastic spiritual gains Ben can get out of this experience if he’s willing to be receptive to God’s convictions. God wants to teach Ben to stop obsessing over changing the past because that is a useless goal. But God doesn’t want Ben to pretend that the past never happened. God wants to teach Ben to view his past experiences as learning opportunities. He wants to teach Ben many truths that will help Ben stop blaming himself for his sister’s death and stop viewing his situation as hopeless.
Saying “I can never find healing,” is an entirely different thing than saying, “God can heal me, and He will do so if/when He feels it is in my best interest.” The first statement encourages despair and totally minimizes God’s abilities. The second statement recognizes God’s abilities while expressing trust in God’s good Character. God doesn’t hurt us in life because He doesn’t care about us or because He likes to see us suffer. God wants us to succeed with Him, and He views trials as excellent tools for helping us evolve into the creatures that He designed us to be.
Ben is stuck because he is obsessing over changing the past instead of being receptive to God using the past to help him change in positive ways. It’s the same with Tony, Wendy, and Sonya. They’re all trying to break free of their chains simply for the sake of being free. They’re not setting their sights on anything higher than that, and this is why God is currently blocking their recovery. God doesn’t consider it a victory when some problem in our life ends without us being positively changed by it. We humans consider this victorious because we view problems as obstacles in our paths that are only there because of some fluke or because someone made wrong choices or because God dropped the ball. To us, clearing the path so we can continue on our course is a victory. What we’re not grasping is that God placed the obstacle in front of us in order to force us to change course. If we simply go around the obstacle and press on just as we were, we’ve missed the whole point. This is why we’re always telling you to ask God to help you learn whatever it is He wants to teach you through the trials that He brings into your life. Sometimes the lessons will feel big, sometimes they’ll feel small. But when we have a teachable attitude, God will make sure that we are growing.
There are many positive truths that God wants to teach our four struggling souls. There are many positive truths that God wants to teach you as well. The question is: how teachable are you? Are you trying to write God’s lessons for Him or are you submitting to His priorities for you? Wendy might say to God, “Just help me draw this one rose, and then I’ll listen to what else You have to say.” Is this prayer pleasing to God? No, because Wendy is trying to control the way that He is teaching her. It would be far better for Wendy to say something like this:
“God, I feel like this obsession with this picture is wrecking my life. Show me where I’m going wrong and help me to get aligned with Your priorities for me. I understand that pleasing You is more important than proving that I can draw some meaningless flower. I don’t understand why I can’t be content with the talents You’ve given me. Help me to somehow grow closer to You through this mess. I don’t want to keep wasting my life on stuff that doesn’t matter.”
In this prayer, Wendy is embracing the soul attitudes of submission and dependency. She’s submitting to God’s priorities for her and asking Him to lead her. She’s accepting her dependency on Him by recognizing that He understands her better than she understands herself and that she needs His wisdom and help to get into a better place.
So what about Sonya? What’s her positive focus going to look like? Sonya can see that she’s wrecking every good relationship she ever has with a man and chasing after jerks. On a conscious level, she doesn’t understand that she’s trying to find a clone of her indifferent father, but, like Wendy, she can realize that God understands her inside and out. Rather than say, “I’m obviously too messed up to ever have a good relationship with a man,” Sonya needs to recognize how able God is and ask Him to help her align with His priorities by praying something like this:
“God, I don’t know why I run away every time I find a man who treats me well. I don’t know why I keep chasing after these abusive jerks. But I understand that You created me to love You first and that as my Creator, You are the only One who can truly satisfy my soul. I don’t even know where to start, but I know that You can show me. Help me to somehow end up closer to You through this struggle. Teach me how to let You lead my relationships and help me improve the way that I respond to You. Deepen my love for You and make me all that You want me to be.”
Like Wendy, Sonya is submitting to God without trying to control the way that He teaches her. God wants us all to love Him and seek Him first in life, so when Sonya prays for help with these things, she’s expressing submission to God’s priorities. Sonya’s not asking God to bring her the perfect man or to arrange her circumstances in a certain way. Instead, she’s focusing on spiritual priorities.
We get stuck in life by shutting down on God and refusing to be teachable. We get unstuck by embracing submission and asking Him to have His way with us. No matter what our current circumstances are, we can choose to make soul choices that are pleasing to God. If you are identifying with some of the issues we’ve been discussing in this post, ask God to help you grow closer to Him through the trials that He has created in your life.
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The Purpose of Dysfunction: Understanding Why God Messed You Up
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Help for Stressing Christians: Is God punishing you?
The Element of Power in Human Relationships