The way you react is your choice … or is it? As a spiritual and healing practitioner, I have to confess it jars me when I notice the clichés many ‘new’ New Age practitioners serve up on social media. I trust they are coming from a well-intentioned place, and I believe that they believe in their hearts they are doing good by spreading positivity. It’s just the blanket, one size fits all ‘wisdom’ I find unhelpful.
I’m referring specifically to the social media posts purporting ‘Happiness is a choice’ or ‘You can CHOOSE how you react.’ I’m not saying these aren’t worthy thoughts and sentiments to aspire to but I’m also a believer in creating an environment where people feel safe enough to be authentic (i.e true to themselves)- whatever that may look like.
For those who have suffered ‘trauma’, being told they have obviously made an active choice to be anything other than happy, can exacerbate feelings of ‘failure’ or build on a pressure they already feel ‘to do better.’ You see the survivor of trauma does not often consciously ‘choose’ how they travel through their day, nor do they choose reactions. They just get through it the best way they can.
If we look at the concept of choice, choice suggests a level of awareness, control, safety and freedom in any given situation. The issue at the heart of ‘choose to be happy’ is a tricky one because trauma survivors (a) rarely feel completely safe and (b) are often living in a state of hypervigilance and disassociation. In a nutshell, survivors have already choosing to be something – anything other than their true selves. The extent they ‘choose’ anything comes down to whether they have ‘chosen’ to get up that day – or show up in a way that is beyond their comfort zone. But telling them they can, and should, ‘choose’ to be happy too is probably one of the least helpful things you can do in that scenario. They may want to be happy, but hard as they try, those happy feelings are, for some, out of reach until they can truly and safely unpack their experiences and fears.
Trauma can cause your brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance, suppressing memory and impulse control, while also keeping the ‘survivor’ trapped in a constant state of strong emotional reactivity.
What this really means is those brains are never off duty. Survival brain has already REACTED long before Logical brain has figured out what day of the week it is. Survival brain has already gone on the attack, gone running in the opposite direction, frozen or befriended the ‘threat’. The logical brain is left surveying the damage thinking WTF just happened here? The survival brain doesn’t have time to let the logical brain CHOOSE anything.
One of the many fascinating things about our survival brain is the things it interprets as a ‘threat’. Someone walking out of a room in an argument can be interpreted as ‘abandonment’ so the survival brain ‘reacts’ accordingly – instantaneously. At that moment there is no ‘choosing’ anything. It can be someone telling you that ‘you should be happy’. The survival brain interprets this as a challenge or a directive that you need to behave in a different way to be accepted by society (which could again translate to abandonment). So these generic statements about ‘choice’ can actually add to the survivor’s stress and their response to them.
People who have suffered trauma – especially childhood trauma – grow up being a version of themselves that sacrifices authenticity (i.e they have become separate from their true self and their true feelings and emotions – to keep them SAFE.) In other words – it’s too painful to feel their REAL/authentic feelings. This is what I referred to earlier and it is called disassociation.
The challenge as survivors grow up is to unpick and rewire all those parts that are embedded trauma responses. To put this another way, growing up as a survivor means you have to actively rewire, relearn and overcome these ‘reactions’ or those coping mechanisms your amazing and vigilant survival brain created to keep you safe.
If you are someone who is in a ‘disassociation’ phase, you can see, telling them ‘it’s your choice – you can change if you choose’ is totally misunderstanding, misrepresenting, and undermining the effort (and support) it takes to heal from trauma.
Let’s be honest, a survivor has probably been ‘faking’ happiness most of their life in order to fit in. Society seems to punish people for being anything other than HAPPY. There is a certain amount of discomfort around people being ‘real’ and processing their stuff!
When handled appropriately and with understanding, gratitude is an extremely powerful tool while coping with depression (I used it myself on days I really didn’t want to get out of bed), but there is a difference between allowing an individual space and support to identify a handful of positive things in their life that might make them feel safe and content – compared to ‘it’s your choice if you want to lie in bed all day or ‘you can choose to be happy (or not)’.
There is no doubt when faced with a level playing field, the choices we make about how to respond to life’s adversities influence our psychological well-being. The choices we make about self-improvement direct the trajectory of our lives. That is the power of choice. However, for those who are still in a ‘reactive’ stage – perhaps only recently diagnosed with CPTSD/PTSD, the choices they can make could me more around forgiveness and ‘compassion’. Happiness does not need to be the be all and end all – the final destination. Survivors don’t need another pressure of something that must achieved.
Journal your thoughts on whether you feel happiness is a choice. Have you ever made a choice to be happy when you felt sad or empty? Did you end up feeling happier or more disconnected? What does this tell you about yourself? What do you feel about ‘forgiveness’ and ‘compassion’? Do you think forgiveness or compassion could lead to happiness?