The capacity to adapt is one my strengths, and it’s a very common one for dissociative multiples. Chameleon like, we often switch to new parts to manage new environments or situations. People who are rigid and inflexible in the way they approach the world usually struggle during times of change or through experiences of trauma. Adaptation has tremendous power to help us navigate complex circumstances and draw upon different personal attributes in different situations.
However, too much adaptation can become destructive. This is something I have really struggled with. The metaphor I use is of having my feet welded to railway tracks. I am not a free agent who can go where they wish, rather I only travel the tracks laid out for me. What this means practically is that I can really struggle to run my own life when I’m stressed. I lose my capacity to initiate anything. I am adept at coping with adapting to what other people around me choose to do, but making choices of my own has been very challenging. I’ve worked very hard to manage these problems and feel more in control of my own life.
For me, I spent a great many years in various stressful situations where I could not escape, and I could not control what was happening. I did not have the power to make major decisions about my life. I could not choose where or with whom I lived, not to go to school, or to influence any of the decisions the adults in my life made. Because many of my experiences were traumatic, this basically trained me that life is something I adapt to, not something I control. I try to carve enough breathing room from the space that is left after everyone else has made their choices. I have been conditioned to be compliant (or passive aggressive) rather than free.
As an adult, this is a useless framework. It severely limits my freedoms, stops me taking charge of my own life, and has tended to play into abusive relationships. I have had to work hard to retrain myself to be the person in charge of my own life. Even now, when I’m very tired or run down, I feel those old train tracks under my feet, and that sense of being trapped by my choices and unable to make changes.
There are many things I’ve done to break this training. The first step for me has been recognising it. There is a particular grief that I feel when I’m trapped in it, a horrible, paralyzing depression that I have learned to recognise means I have lost control of my own choices. Many things can trigger that loss of control. Some common ones for me have been:
- being dependent on someone else for a basic resource like housing
- feeling trapped by difficult circumstances such as caring for someone with severe mental illness
- feeling trapped by choices made by other parts that are not what I would have chosen
- being paralysed by fear or guilt in a relationship
- not standing up for myself in a power struggle
- not saying what I really think or feel
- feeling betrayed by a part in some way eg. sharing my journal entry without permission, talking in a derogatory way about me to someone, giving away my clothes or belongings
Once we’d started to tease out what sets off this experience, we’ve all started to work on each of the issues. Mandating system wide that no one is to be abusive or disrespectful to anyone else, or to throw out anyone’s belongings was a fairly easy process for us. Learning to say what we really think or feel has been much slower and longer. Many parts have excellent skills in that area and are comfortable and confident. However many are crippled by social anxiety, a desire to please, a fear of abuse, and really struggle to clearly define themselves. We’ve taken a two pronged approach to this – firstly to support all parts to be able to learn these skills as they can, and secondly to switch to more confident parts if they are being overwhelmed and crashing. Both have taken time to develop, and a safe place to retreat back to, to process all the complex feelings associated with it. This process brought up a lot of intense feelings, fear that I was being mean, fear of being perceived as selfish, fear of arguments or hostility, struggling to learn how to disagree in a warm and friendly way, struggling to learn how to set boundaries before I’d become furious and resentful. (or switched to someone furious and resentful!) It was amazing the sense of freedom that came from being able to do very little things like say warmly ‘That’s not been my experience’ in a situation where I felt dominated and everyone else in the room agreed with each other. Just a tiny little sentence like that would lift the sense of crushing weight, of being trapped and owned, and suddenly we were Sarah again, and could breathe.
Most of these issues for me/us have taken a lot of work and a long time, but even very small gains have been powerful. I’m not finished yet, some areas are very strong now and some are much more fragile and rocky, but enough work has been done that I am able to exercise a lot of control in my life now, to make big independent decisions about what I do with my time, who I spend time with, what degree to pursue, how to run my house. I am gradually learning the skills to be the leader in my life, practicing through things like training a strong willed dog, forcing myself to make decisions without checking them out with anyone for their approval, learning how to be more adaptive to internal needs and conflicts instead of accidentally trapping a whole system of parts into choices only a few of us want.
This issue of over-adapting and losing initiative is a very common one for those of us who have been traumatised, particularly through abusive relationships. Breaking the training that making independent decisions is profoundly dangerous can be tricky and take lots of time. But it certainly is possible. If this is a difficult area for you, perhaps a similar approach will be useful – notice what makes it worse and work on those issues. Some days you’ll make progress and other’s you’ll crash and burn, but it’s surprising how it does all add up over time. Everytime you look after yourself, speak up for yourself, make a decision in your own best interest, you exercise a little more power over your own life, you reclaim a little more freedom. And that experience is so thrilling, so liberating, so nourishing, that it all snowballs and becomes easier and easier. If you’re at the start of that process, take heart. 😀