Have you ever felt both activated and like you had no choice? Then this episode is for you. Understand the link between lack of agency and trauma.
Today I wanna talk about when you feel like you don’t have a choice i.e. agency and how this plays into trauma. So when you experience something that is activating and you feel like you have no choice, you are ripe for trauma. I don’t like to say like that’s gonna create trauma because everybody is different. Every nervous system is different. How we deal with stressors is different for each of us and different for each of us in different parts of our lives as well. It might even be different from day to day, like me dealing with the same stressor today and tomorrow could be very different. So just keep that in mind.
I just wanna say that this is just another way of thinking about trauma. I’m always thinking about new and different ways to think about trauma because as I do this more, it kind of clicks in my mind and in my body about how to heal from trauma as well. So when I’m talking about situations where you experience some kind of activation, some kind of energy stress coming into your body and you feel like you don’t have a choice, this is when you know it’s the perfect storm to create trauma, but because everybody is different, It doesn’t necessarily create trauma.
Examples of bad news
I’m thinking of things like hearing bad news. Some kind of assault, violence, sexual assault, your parents yelling constantly. Maybe having an abusive spouse and a lack of financial resources. It could be something happening at work and feeling like “I can’t quit. I have to stay.”
So those are all just examples of possible situations that might come up in your life. This activating situation where we feel like we don’t have a choice. So how do we deal with this?
The first thing I wanna say is that I love somatic work, which basically just means work where you’re dealing with your body, you’re moving your body. It’s like much more feeling based. I’ve learned the value of movement. If you’re in a position to be able to do so, we call this a push away, where you just put your hands up in front of your body facing away from you, and then you just push and you kind of go through that motion, really connecting to the push.
Sometimes you can add to it like a “no” or a “mm. I don’t like that.” I used to feel really silly doing these movements like, “this is stupid. I mean, I’m safe right now and I feel like I have agency right now. Why would I do this movement?” but the whole thing with somatic work is that your body doesn’t always know what your brain knows, and we have to give it the proper signals for it to feel a sense of completion or like it has voiced what it needs to say.
So that’s the first thing. I just wanna offer you this somatic exercise, this push away as something really simple that you can do when you’re feeling this way or when you’re remembering feeling this way, you can, in the moment. You can just push away and it doesn’t have to be toward a person or a thing. You can just go off by yourself and push away and say what you feel like you need to say. That’s honestly one of the best things that I can tell you or teach you but of course I have more thoughts.
You always have a choice!
One of my kids is watching the series of Unfortunate Events. It’s a kids’ show, it’s quite dark but it is rated PG. It’s about these kids who are orphans, their parents died and the whole story is about this one evil villain who keeps kind of chasing after them trying to get their fortune that was left to them.
Oftentimes, as I’ve watched over the shoulder of my kid, there are always these people that want to help but feel like they can’t help. And the line is always, “what choice do we have?” And I always wanna scream at the tv, “you always have a choice!” That’s what I thought of when I was thinking about, how do we deal with this active energy and feeling like we don’t have a choice?
I just want to remind you that no matter what, you always have a choice. Always, always, always! I’ve tried to think of situations where this is not true. There’s always a choice because one of the choices is always our response or our inner attitude. So no matter what’s happening, we always have a choice.
We can’t always see our choice, for sure. And we often have fears about what we think might happen if we act out our choices, so we don’t. Our choices aren’t always available to us, so to speak but we always have a choice. And so often in the moment when we’re feeling that activation and we’re feeling like I don’t have a choice, your body is making split second decisions. “Do I run? Do I fight? Do I speak up? Do I stay quiet?” And those decisions are always, whatever your body thinks is the thing that is the best in order to keep you safe. So oftentimes in this situation where we’ve got this active energy, we feel like we don’t have a choice.
We’re coming at it from looking at the past. So I wanna be really careful here. I don’t want to re-traumatize you. You never have to look at the past. Whatever’s happening currently in your body is always telling you the next step and the next direction. But sometimes it is or can be useful, and it kind of depends on your capacity, it depends on your desires, all of that.
It can be useful to think about the past and what happened and what I would have wanted to do differently. Now, this can also apply to the present. I just wanna be careful that you know, in the present moment, we don’t always feel like we have a choice and therefore we don’t act on the choice. Of course.
Earlier this week, a few days ago, I had a very terrible experience with another coach, and I didn’t feel like I had a choice. It was an hour long call and I was on the defensive and I was not feeling really strong and confident in that situation, and so I didn’t show up as strong and confident.
I do not shame myself for that. I just recognize that, “oh, that’s what my body does.” When it feels attacked, it’s going to back away and get defensive. Nothing wrong with that. My body is doing its job keeping me alive in that situation but as I look back, I realize, “oh yeah, I had a lot of choices that I didn’t take advantage of because of the state I was in.” So there’s kind of this paradox here.
I don’t necessarily think we need to look at the past, but sometimes that’s how we learn by looking at the experiences in the past and trying to bring those learnings and knowledge and practices with us into the present or the future. So oftentimes, what I notice in myself and in my clients is what we really want is just to voice our concerns or desires.
Sometimes when we think, “I don’t have a choice,” we think about “I can’t leave. I can’t run away. I can’t just like take all the money and leave or I can’t slap them across the face.” I don’t know what kinds of things we might think of that we’d maybe want to do, but so often I just wanted to say, “um, I’m not sure about this.” Have you thought about fill in the blank? Or, I wanted to say, I’m really angry right now. We can do that for ourselves in the present moment.
Sometimes when I’m working with my clients and I’m asking them to say something out loud, they go to, well, ‘I couldn’t say that to him or to them because, you know, I don’t wanna hurt their feelings. That’s not the kind of person I wanna be.” Then I go, “well, can you say it out loud right now for yourself?” And they’re like, “oh, I never realized that was a thing.”
So this is something that has come up for me, is just recognizing the simplicity in our choices that sometimes we make really complicated in our minds. We anticipate all the possible consequences and we don’t want those consequences, so we just stay small and quiet, but sometimes what we really, really want that we don’t recognize in the moment is just to be able to speak our minds or be genuinely ourselves in some way. And usually it’s much more simple than we make it out to be in our minds.
I mentioned this already, but there’s always an adaptive reason why we don’t do what we end up wanting to do later, but we can. We can use the present, use our voice in the present in this example that I’m talking about, so that we can move forward. So often when we feel like we don’t have a choice, it’s in relationship with someone else.
So often the thing that we really want or need to do is just for ourselves. It’s not for the other person. I guess that’s another way that we complicate it. We think it’s for the other person, but really it’s just for ourselves. And when we lean toward the thing that we want to do or say, it’s very grounding and settling for us.
How we react to now choice
Now my thought and I don’t know if I’m totally a hundred percent right here, but I think that we typically react to having a loss of agency in one of three ways. We either get angry, imagine kind of the feral cat backed into a corner. We get helpless, that learned helplessness where we’re just like, “well, it’s not gonna work anyway, right?”
We just go immediately to that. “It won’t work, I can’t do it,” which is more in line with the sort of the shutdown and freeze response. Maybe we would call it a depression type response. Even though we don’t really want to on the inside, we could be seething or we’re confused. This would be along the lines of the FAW response. Often, but not always.
Again, because every body is different, after we reflect on certain situations, like, so this is in the case of where we ignored our intuition or we ignored the spirit. Sometimes in the moment it’s so subtle that it’s really easy to overlook. This is why we say that we have to be very familiar with how we feel the spirit, so that when it comes up, we notice it easily.
So part of this process, I believe, is learning to honor the signals that come from your body no matter what. Sometimes they’re super subtle, sometimes they’re really easy to overlook. But as we practice, as we notice, as we gain awareness, we start to learn our own body and our own signals and our own patterns of feeling that then we can learn to not overlook.
The other part of this is that sometimes we intellectualize or we logic our way out of those signals. It’s a learning process to notice when you’re in your head and trying to do something based off of logic versus when your body gives you a signal and you just trust your body.
So many of my clients do not trust their bodies because of situations, experiences that they have had in their lives, and rightly so. So this trauma work that I do, this somatic work that I do, so much of it is a coming back into connection with ourselves. Trusting ourselves so that we can listen to the signals that our bodies are giving us.
What choice do we have in these moments?
So I wanted to just give you a few questions to consider as you practice this coming back into connection, gaining awareness, all of that.
The first question is, what choices do I have in this moment? So, If you’re in a situation where you feel the activation and you’re tempted to think, “I don’t have a choice,” and you’re able, maybe you have capacity in that moment to remind yourself of like, “wait, when I think I don’t have a choice, chances are I’m wrong.”
It seems like most of the time, 99.999% of the time, we have a choice. We always have a choice if we include our attitude, our thinking, our feeling in the equation, right? So what choice do I have in this moment? That’s gonna be such a valuable question. If we can get to the point where in the moment we can kind of stop and ask that question and don’t feel bad if you can’t. Like I said, it’s a skillset to build up to this. What is needed? Do I need to do a push away? Do I need to run? Do I need to say something? Do I need some time? Do I need some space? Sometimes I think this is another way how we complicate things so much.
We often need like water or food or to use the bathroom, and once we solve for those needs, we can come back to this place of, “oh yeah, actually I have a choice, and actually I’m not so activated.” So keeping on top of our own body’s needs can help to not put ourselves in the position of, I’m feeling really activated and I’m feeling like I have no choice, which is the perfect storm for trauma.
So what IS needed? Even when you’re in a conversation with someone and maybe you feel yourself getting a little heated or defensive, if you can remember to ask this question, what is needed? I think it’ll put you back into kind of a grounded, calm, accepting place.
The third question I have is, “what urges or impulses do you have in this moment?” If you have the urge to run, run in place, if you can. I always think, many of my clients, they wanna walk, they wanna pace. It just tells me that they generally have a lot of activation in their body and their body wants to move. Do you have an urge to say something that you’re pushing down? You don’t necessarily have to say the thing, but maybe you hum or sing or do a vocal sigh. If that urge is there, meeting it to whatever extent you can be very helpful.
So those are my thoughts today about when you don’t have a choice and how it can lead to trauma. When we believe we don’t have a choice, when we feel in our bodies we don’t have a choice, we respond with anger, learned helplessness or this going along, which are all symptoms of trauma.
We can ask ourselves, what choice do I have? What is needed? What urges or impulses do I have in this moment to meet yourself in that moment, to mitigate the possible effects of of trauma? I hope that is so helpful for you. I have currently one private coaching spot open, so if you want it, come to a free call with me. That’s enough for now, and so are you.