Stop the Train
Sometimes a train of negativity sweeps you down the rails of poor thinking patterns and dysfunctional coping skills. Yet somehow we keep making the mistake of letting the train pick us up and blow us through Trauma Town like a regular in a downtown bar.
It’s one thing to be self-aware and a completely other thing to cultivate the skills to actually change the issue. Change takes action. Change hurts and requires a not-so-gentle lean in to discomfort. As humans we crave comfort--- even familiar comfort that does us no good. Just ask any addict you know how many times they have attempted sobriety or to quit smoking. Some desperately want to change and stop the addiction but their human need to acquire familiar dysfunctional comfort leads them astray time and time again.
We can be addicted to trauma and drama. Sometimes that cycle is all we know. So when the train starts barreling towards you the arrival doesn’t feel so surprising. Watching the train whiz by without you does feel alien and uncomfortable: “What? The train doesn’t want me?” It’s a nightmare we willingly walk into and balk at once there.
Here’s the deal with this train metaphor. Comprehensive science and research reveals anxiety and trauma literally changes the structure of our brain. Imagine building a road and out of nowhere a huge building, a moat, and a dragon block access to the roadway. Homegirl has got to find another road because that one is looking bleak AF.
You build a new road with the materials you have and voila! You have a route you can take. Damn you, genius!
But what if you lack time to actually build with a solid plan? What if you can’t find materials? What if you failed construction classes? Then you keep taking that crappy road with the building, moat and dragon in the way. You try to canoe this time--- it sinks. You attempt sneaking through the dragon’s legs—you become a human ‘smore.
That is how the brain structure fails you after enduring exposure to chronic toxic stress and trauma. When you should build a new road--- you choose to keep taking the least optimal route by canoeing, sneaking or ramming your head into a wall. And often we hate the headache we experience when it’s over.
Many times when I teach this concept the very next question is how do I stop choosing the Game of Thrones way of life when problems arise?
Great question! The solution looks different for most people but I know a couple strategies with proven results. It requires practice though. So if you fail… don’t cry in a corner proclaiming your doom. There’s hope in the repeated opportunity to train your brain to handle the tough stuff. You are a brain baby when it comes to learning new life patterns--- each day you get closer to crawling, walking and running towards a healthier perspective. Be gentle with yourself as you grow.
1. Visualize. Use the art of playing pretend in your mind. When I wanted to throat punch my ex’s mistress I envisioned my mugshot. At 8 months pregnant the very idea of my picture in the paper deterred me. How terrible would it be if one of the few photographs I had as a pregnant sacred vessel involved a booking number? The visualization kept my fist down.
2. Self-Talk. Sometimes we need to tell ourselves what’s up. “This will not kill me.” “I am a survivor.” “This is my pattern. It isn’t real, it’s me feeling rejection.” “Stop the train! Don’t get on!” “I don’t need to haul other people’s garbage.” No one has to know you are quietly telling yourself to calm the heck down. But it works! Find the phrases that work for you and use them. Can’t think of any? Find a therapist or person you trust to help you determine good phrases. Don’t ask your friend that takes the train to Trauma Town with you (on the weekly) to help you choose the right self talk. That friend will steer you straight towards a ravine Thelma and Louise style because she is not in the same place as you.
3. Confront yourself. It’s hard to change patterns you refuse to acknowledge. I recently heard a sermon where the pastor stated “turn towards God and make the complaint” but what I heard was “turn towards yourself and make the complaint.” This felt more inclusive since I don’t take religious angles in the classes I teach. But if you can look closer at YOU and state the complaint you have with an open heart perhaps instead of rejecting growth you can welcome actions of change. Remember growth is like being a seed in the dark earth. To reach the sun you must accept nourishment through tears and the soil. You have to literally split open to reach the sun. And even then you must keep changing and breaking to transform.
Here’s an example: I know I need to budget like a champ to rid myself of debt. My biggest complaint is I can purchase items I can live without. This complaint matters to me—I owe money to a personal loan and attorney. It causes me heightened stress and loss of sleep. Acknowledging I can budget to wait stung. I now use the Konmari method in the store: Does this give me joy? Does this create a storage complication? Does this simplify my life or create a stressor? Doing this helps me spend money with a wise heart. I don’t want to hang my head in shame each month.
4. Know your roots. I always say digging deep into the roots that made you is a process—you can find both nourishment and pain there. It’s not made for the weak, but it carries the potential for strengthening the core of yourself for future growth.
Some of us encountered experiences as children that altered our ability to view conflict and pressure in healthy ways (look up ACES here). We learned to love toxic relationships. We lived brain changing trauma long before we had the ability to advocate for something better. The world of circumstance did not break you. You are not a broken human walking this earth forever doomed. You are a testament to the sacred quest for self. Flip the conversation you tell yourself. Lie to yourself until you believe it. You have tremendous value.
Trust in your resolve to not “be like your sister, your mother, your father” what have you and break the negative cycle. You need to. Your children need you to. The impacts of multi-generational risk factors for repeating the very cycles you disdain will be ultimately inherited by your children without strong actions to assure otherwise.
Taking the action to address the roots, your history, your shame and guilt will save you. No hero swoops in to pay your bills, makes you buy less, stops the kids from fighting or to inspire new partner choices. You are the hero you seek.Acknowledge your TRUTH so you can heal from the TRUTHS you hide from.
5. Channel your pain into heartfelt purpose. Finding a passion that inspires you alters your journey. Instead of waiting for karma to kick in take some time to pursue something that matters to you. Is helping another mom once a week with child care a way you can give back? Do you have a knack for finding great articles or inspiring podcasts? Share them. Volunteer. Do something that captures your heart and feels like a loving act of service instead of an obligation. Train your brain to take delight in something meaningful. Even if this is five minutes of snuggle time or reading a book together. This is the ultimate form of self-care.
The importance of granting yourself permission to cope and heal in new ways truly is a life changing decision. Learning the power of boundaries for self-preservation gives you the chance to settle in when the train leaves you at the station. Suddenly the trip to Trauma Town feels less imperative. You don’t feel as rejected as you sit on the bench Forrest Gump style; suddenly life feels more peaceful. Like that feather floating scene, you know the one (if you don’t here’s the link).
Do not give in to the crisis— do not willingly sink in the ship of a broken heart and horrible finances. You are worthy. Use the method: Does this give me joy? Can creatively thinking help me in this situation? What can I do differently? Will this kill me? Does this hurt? Why?
Can you stop looking for the love of your life on places like Tinder? Yes. Join a gym, a church, a book club, a softball team. Meet someone authentically rather than allowing yourself to face the constant battle of vapid attempts towards love. Joining these activities helps you feel less lonely too. You start to build the healthy village you need. Because friend…. Tinder wasn’t invented to heal you. It’s a trap for some people to take advantage of your vulnerability. This is where I like to say return to some old fashioned values. Allowing someone who’s never met you to judge you by a picture and some simple self-marketing only opens you up for more trips to Rejection City. Start dating when you love you to prevent settling. It's tempting to join the dating world too early-- resist the urge.
To change your unhealthy norms accept some discomfort:
Can you learn a new budget system? Yes. Will it suck? Yes. Do it.
Can you work another job or find online work? Yes. Does it mean you’ll have less time? Yes. Is getting out of debt important? Yes. Then lean in sister. Work two jobs. Even though it stinks. (Caveat you don’t have to apply for Sugar Baby status or start prostituting to garner more money. Don’t let that crap cross your mind Pretty Woman was a movie. Not Real Life).
Missing precious time with your littles does feel terrible at times. But not being able to pay important bills also feels equally awful. I’ve learned to live with the discomfort because “this will not kill me.” Now my kid can play soccer and join teams because I can afford to pay the fees by taking an extra shift. I feel relief knowing these important parts of childhood happen for him regardless of my finances. I might miss a few games but he won’t. That’s what matters.
Change never feels good at first. It stings, burns, and singes you out of behavioral patterns that may have plagued you for a lifetime. Alter the legacy of your life by standing in front of the train and refusing its entry into your life. Believe you can take the hit, the full force of the locomotive: the healing serves as a catalyst for ending the cycle and redefining the architecture of your brain, your life, and your child’s chances to thrive.