Ep. 173: A Hidden Superpower of Trauma

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There’s a concept I learned from Janina Fisher, a brilliant therapist, who spoke at a trauma conference I attended: that our capacity to dissociate from our traumatic emotions is a superpower. 


This really kind of shocked me. I harbored a lot of guilt about how I powered through things in my life without truly feeling my grief and other big emotions. I felt damaged; that my ability get sh*t done even with devastating things going on in my life meant a part of me was broken. 


Like the time I was at work and my mom called to say my dad had died. And I teared up, told my medical assistant, and said I would finish seeing the next two patients, then leave. 


And she said, “Don’t you want to just… go home now?” And I was like, wait, I can do that?! And I thought something was seriously broken in me to NOT have thought of that to begin with. 


But another thing that I learned from Janina was that my automatic response was normal  – this getting sh*t done part of me acts on instinct. It didn’t present as a decision. 


Another time I was diagnosed with kidney cancer that only had a 5% five-year survival rate and I barely took time off after my surgery. My “get your shiz together” self stepped in without me even thinking about it, and I was back in my graduate program, determined to graduate on time. 


We’ve all likely experienced this to some degree, even as children. Like when we felt a big emotion like rejection or shame, or we experienced some kind of abuse or violence. The way we dealt with might have been to check out. We pretended to fall asleep, or we forgot the memory (or didn’t even allow ourselves to make a memory). 


We might also just drop into our thinking mind and hyper-intellectualize something. Explain it away. 


So how is all this a superpower? Because when we can access this, NOW there’s a part of us as a child that can continue to grow and develop relatively normally. That’s how we can have a traumatic experience and still go to school. And as adults, still go to work to pay the bills. 


The problem later in life is we’ve taken the part of us that was in deep suffering and we “other” them; we make them NOT a part of us.  Janina calls this self-alienation. 


But our capacity to get shit done through this self-alienation helps us adapt to trauma. 


It’s wild. And it’s also amazing what we’re able to do to survive. Right? 


But whenever these big feelings come up now, instead of comforting ourselves and showing self-compassion and love for that younger version of ourselves, we often criticize or shame ourselves. We self-judge and self-hate. 


As a result of this alienation from our true selves, we may also intellectualize, or numb out our feelings.  


Or we might get overwhelmed and hijacked by emotion, not having access to our rational mind at all.  


We might also avoid taking ownership over our harmful, unskillful behavior. Or maybe we don’t see it at all.  


There are a several reasons we self-alienate, even though it can cause us so much suffering: 


For one our brain is set up for it. The two biggest structures in the brain are the left and right hemisphere. The left is very analytical, focusing on things like planning, organizing, and executive function. And the right is emotional and intuitive. It’s more closely associated with the limbic system. As kids, we are more right-brained, and the left brain develops more slowly. 


They’re split with a line down the middle where the corpus callosum is. This structure helps those two sides communicate. BUT that middle structure develops very slowly. 


So here we have our sensing emotional brain on the right, and our thinking, verbalizing, logical brain on the left, and the two don’t actually speak to each other for many years. In fact, the corpus callosum doesn’t mature until around 12 years old. The corpus callosum is also often smaller in traumatized children than in non-traumatized kids. Because of this, one side of the brain can more easily hijack us in moments of trauma or activation when we’re older. 


When we self-alienate from our painful parts (the right side of the brain), the left side carries on as if nothing has happened – going on with normal life. And the right part has no words, just non-verbal experience. So it holds implicit memories and what happened and the survival responses needed to anticipate it in the future. 


Janina calls the left side our “going on with normal life” self, but I call it the “getting shit done self.” We continue to show up because we have an instinct to show up. Like I said earlier, it’s not even a decision for many of us. We don’t want to let our friends, family, clients, or patients down. 


And so we show up. And it’s a freaking miracle, really. 


Like when I said I would work a little bit more after finding out my dad died. That was my “going on with normal life” self. And it was something to be proud of. This capacity also helped me pay bills after my divorce, go to work after being hit by my boyfriend, and take care of my baby despite feeling alone and abandoned. 


When we look at the right side of the brain, there are some coping mechanisms we may see: The first is fight/flight/freeze/fawn. I believe that we all have each of these present within us. In traumatic experiences, they learn to become more extreme, polarized, and action-oriented. 


The beautiful thing is this all happens with the intention of looking out for us. The brain can see that pain and try to free us, even though it’s not a good long-term solution 


Back to self alienation for a moment: this can look like depression, anxiety, insomnia, suicidal ideaion. We can also tell it’s going on when our emotional response is disproportionate to the trigger. 


Healing this – especially in relationship to others – requires us to have a lot of compassion for ourselves so we can tolerate the moments when someone we love lets us down, hurts our feelings, or betrays us. 


When it comes to healing that self-alienation, the first thing we can do is try to overcome the fears we have of accepting that we even have these parts in our heads in the first place. We can do this by not seeing them as who we ARE and not identifying with that voice that says, “I hate this about me.” We can instead say, “there’s a part of me that…” 


We can also look to the Internal Family Systems (IFS) model, which believes that all of us have the capacity for self-leadership and self-healing. It also talks about the 8 qualities of the self, which are never damaged or destroyed, ever. I dive more into this in the full episode, so be sure to check that out, but the reason we don’t often tap into these innate healing abilities is because we’ve been taught it’s not safe to express them.  

It’s not surprising that all this requires mindfulness. When we’re mindful, we aren’t getting hijacked by an emotion. Instead, we have more capacity to relate to it. We can say, “oh shit, that’s a big feeling. It’s scary AF”. But we don’t say,” it’s all hopeless. I’m screwed.”  

So a mindfulness practice can really be powerful here, helping us recognize those big emotions and physical sensations earlier so we can relate to them instead of react to them. Self-compassion is also essential here, because without it, we will too easily fall into judgment of that young, vulnerable part or ourselves. So consider   

Eventually we can recognize that when our present self is flooded with emotions or strong physical sensations, it is a part of us that’s trying to communicate with us and unblend from that part so we can relate to it from our true, whole Self.   

You will learn: 

// Why we learned to dissociate as children, and how it can be a secret superpower 

// Our capacity to get sh*t done when sh*t is hitting the fan is not a cold dysfunction, but a gift  

// What is means to “self-alienate,” even though it can cause us so much suffering 

// The strengths of the left and right sides of our brain, and how they help us in traumatic moments 

// How to heal our self-alienation with compassion and wisdom 



// Episode 51: Self-Compassion 

// Episode 166: No Bad Parts 

// You can continue to donate to the Hawai’i Community Foundation that spreads out the funds to different organizations: https://www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/  

// Check out more of Janina Fisher’s work with trauma and healing at janinafisher.com 

// If you want to dive into this level of healing with a small group of self-identified womyn, having plant medicine retreats in Alaska and Hawaii, adventures in nature and learning more about your mind and your deeper Soul Purpose, visit AdventureMastermind.com to get on the waitlist to be the first to hear about the next dates and locations. (P.S. If you’ve already done the mastermind, stay tuned for a special alumni retreat. We’ll pick up right where we left off and dive even deeper!) 

// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist private group, and tune in every Wednesday as I go live with new inspiration and topics.   

// Want something more self-paced with access to weekly group support and getting coached by yours truly? Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out. Learn more at JoinFreedomSchool.com. I can’t wait to see you there!