Autonomy survival style: “I need more space”

If you have what Laurence Heller calls the “Autonomy Survival Style,” you are in a bind.

You feel pressured from all sides. You feel torn. You often feel victimized by people’s demands. And you don’t feel that she can speak up directly about your needs or feelings without endangering love. But the anger at feeling like you can’t be who you are has to go somewhere, and it often comes out sideways.

If this sounds like you, you came by it honestly. Here’s how it probably went down:

You reached an age when you were little when you could start speaking, and walking, and exploring. You had the natural impulses all little kids do: You needed to explore. You needed to say “No!” You needed to test the boundaries, and find out what your body and your words were capable of. You needed to develop a sense of your own voice, and your own space.

And then you were stopped.

A parent or caregiver, maybe without meaning to, stopped you. So you were not allowed to explore. Or you did not get to say “no”,  did not get to test the boundaries,  did not find out what your body and words were capable of. You did not develop a sense of your own voice,  your own space.

So you did what any child would do in that situation, what you had to do: You stuck close to the parent. You smiled, you cuddled, maybe you said “I love you” more times than you  wanted to. Or you maybe left your toys behind to stay close to Mommy or Daddy, because they needed you.

So it looked like you never developed your own independence, your own individuality, your own preferences. But not really. It was there. You hid it deep inside. On the outside, you were loving, compliant. But on the inside, a part of you stayed separate.  This part is isolated, hidden from the world, and perhaps hidden even from your own conscious awareness. The needs and behaviors driven by this part of you can seem uncontrollable, and like they come out of left field.

Suppose you had this history and this problem. What would you notice after you’re no longer a child, and you’ve grown up now? Probably, some of these:

  • You are good at figuring out what other people want.
  • You are intensely aware of other people’s needs and feelings.
  • You find it hard to say no.
  • You procrastinate.
  • You find yourself feeling inexplicably tired, fatigued, and ill.
  • You experience chronic pain or repeated injuries.
  • You are lonely, even in a relationship.

So why is this? Let’s look at it this way: You have two parts that developed out of your childhood experiences:

  1. The part that learned to live up to expectations. This part probably to learned to read other people. In fact, this part learned to stay one step ahead of others, perceiving what they want, what they feel, and what they need.  This part imagines that its sleuthing and pleasing is the only thing that makes you acceptable to others. Your self-concept may include only this part, and leave out this next part.
  2. The part that protects your independence. This part is fiercely protective of your space. This part is often hidden, and may feel guilty that it even exists because it is working at cross purposes to the “good child” part. Yet this part is essential.    This part is trying to maintain your sense of self, but has never been allowed to do this directly. This part sometimes sabotages the first part’s efforts to help others. This part sets boundaries indirectly, for example, through telling half-truths, through procrastination, through fatigue. If you’re not aware of the job this part has, you and people close to you can feel constantly blindsided.

These parts are both doing their very best to protect you. One wants to protect your relationships, and holds a deep fear that no one will really care about you or like you if you aren’t scrambling to always please other people. This doesn’t leave a lot of space for you!

The other part wants to make a space for you. It is often (quite understandably!) angry at the situation it finds you in, though you may not be aware of this anger.

And then, there’s you. You are more than the sum of these two parts. Much more. While both parts of you have something they contribute, they sometimes obscure how sensitive, caring, and perceptive you truly are.

When I work with someone with this style, I get very interested in helping you find out who you are. How do you do that?

You resolve the conflicts between these two parts, recognizing that they’re ultimately working toward the same goals. This, in turn, will give you your own authentic voice,  neither a pushover nor pushing away. You discover your sensitivity and your creativity. You discover that there’s more room for you within relationships. You discover a new softness and a new strength.

If you developed this Autonomy Survival Style, I know it hasn’t been easy. But along the way, you’ve picked up some tremendously valuable skills that most people don’t have, including an accurate sensitivity to others.

You learned to bury your deepest gifts and your depth and your passions deep inside. Maybe you’ve been pleasing, placating, distracting, “shoulding” yourself, and feeling angry and stuck for years. But who you are has been protected.

Now you can find who you really are. Easy? Nah, not really. Liberating? Very much so! Moving? Definitely. I love when people who’ve been hiding behind these defenses for years start to peek out and show who they are. I value their “no’s” as they flow genuine; I value their “Yes”es as increasingly trustworthy.

They learn to value alone time and relationships, and to stop pleasing and start connecting.

You can do this too.





Transforming Your Trauma [Video]

Even if therapy has failed to help your trauma before, you CAN be helped by a good trauma therapist. The techniques are affirming, gentle, and above all, effective. Check out my video series if you’ve been discouraged with talk therapy — this will explain why that hasn’t worked yet, and why there’s so much hope that it can work differently this time.

In this first video, I talk about how just talking about trauma doesn’t resolve it. It can, in fact, make things worse, or space you out, or give you lots of insight without really resolving anything:

Another reason people with trauma histories can get stuck in their therapy is that most therapists simply don’t have specialized training in trauma. Like I talk about here:

And yet another reason: You can click super well with a therapist, open up very quickly about your memories, and then find that your symptoms get worse if you two haven’t worked on how to put the brakes on those memories, and how to feel safe now:

Would you like to meet with me in person and talk about working together to help you to move past your trauma? Contact me here.

What is trauma?

Trauma is perhaps the most avoided, ignored, belittled, denied, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering….Trauma is a basic rupture—loss of connection to ourselves, our families, and the world…..when [worked through] thoroughly, healing can lead not only to symptom reduction, but long-term transformation.

—Peter Levine Waking the Tiger

Anything that keeps a part of you “stuck in the past”  can be thought of as a trauma of sorts. Transforming trauma means that those reactions get unstuck and all that energy is free to support you in living in the here and now.

(By the way, that “stuck in the past” feeling sometimes shows up in flashbacks to past events. If you’re struggling with flashbacks or abreactions, check out the flashback halting protocol.

You may have experienced childhood trauma, or trauma later in life (physical or emotional) — or both.

Below I explain more about both.

Attachment/childhood trauma

People dealing with this kind of trauma may have been abused in childhood – emotionally, physically, or sexually.  But it’s not only childhood abuse that leads people to have traumatic reactions in the present. You may also be struggling with attachment trauma or attachment wounding (Where your caregivers weren’t dangerous, but they didn’t meet your needs either, which leaves you sometimes feeling alone in a not-very-friendly world. due to other circumstances:

  • Your parents were unable to give you the care and attention that children need to thrive.
  • You were the sensitive child in a tough family, so you didn’t get the validation you needed to move through your feelings.
  • You experienced neglect or emotional abuse.
  • Your parents went through a divorce.
  • You were adopted.
  • A parent was ill, mentally or physically, when you were a child, or was for some other reason unable to connect with you consistently.

Attachment trauma shows up in how you struggle to connect with others now, in your sense of shame, and in emotional flashbacks.  You may avoid people, rage at people, , or feel a need for others to take care of you in the way you weren’t taken care of then.

Childhood trauma can result in feelings of sadness, fear, stress, or numbness.

Many folks with trauma also find some sense of comfort or control in some kind of outlet that becomes a problem in itself: overeating, spacing out, and finding ways to avoid their feelings.

If we can work together to help you feel safer and more in control, it will make it that much easier for you to work with your other problems.

Physical trauma

These are the traumas that make a person fear for their bodily safety and even their life. You may be struggling with the aftereffect of physical trauma if:

  • You were in a car accident.
  • You endured a natural disaster.
  • You were physically or sexually assaulted.
  • You witnessed someone being hurt or killed.
  • You had a near-death experience.
  • You endured domestic violence

Labels don’t matter as much as you think

Different people going through the same traumatic situation will develop wildly different symptoms, yet they’ll respond to the same treatments. This isn’t reflected very well in the current diagnostic labels, which separate “disorders” by symptoms rather than by cause or treatment.

Recovering from trauma

The good news is, you can reclaim your sense of safety and sanity after trauma. Some of the techniques that really work to transform trauma are somewhat new, so you may not have heard of them — and that’s okay! The main thing is that you know that there’s effective help available, and that you don’t have to settle for “just talking about it” or stuffing it.

Knowing the things to look for in a therapist can help you to find someone who will work with you to overcome the effects of trauma.

Babette Rothschild, author of 8 Keys to Effective Trauma Treatment, recommends that you find a therapist who is familiar with at least three trauma techniques. (I know several.) That way, if one of them doesn’t fit well with you, you and your therapist have several options for moving forward.

I can work with you

Like an increasing number of counselors, I help clients from around the world over Skype video, which works remarkably well. I can also see you in person if you’re in the Corvallis, Oregon area. See my Online Counseling and Work With Me pages.