Fighting-the-Urge-to-Run-and-Hide

Healing From Trauma: Fighting the Urge to Run and Hide

One of the lasting effects of trauma on the body is the strong desire to self-protect. In this blog, we are going to discuss the chronic effects of trauma, as well as the constant urge to run and hide from life and relationships in order to survive.  

The earlier and the longer in life that a person spends in an environment that threatens their core survival physically, emotionally, or psychologically the more this desire becomes wired into the chemistry and physiology of their brain and body.

In response to trauma and chronic stress, brain neurotransmitter levels become altered and the nervous system gets rewired for hypervigilance and self-protection.

The urge to self-protect can be seen in the few different forms of the survival responses that our systems naturally know how to do: fight, run, or freeze.

Healing from trauma is the process of opening up and letting the world see you without you attacking others, running away from others, or escaping and numbing yourself from those uncomfortable feelings.  

However, this is a journey that takes intentional work and a lot of patience! Along this journey of healing from the chronic effects of trauma, there will still be moments of feeling terrified when you (or your child) is being seen and exposed; this will be perceived as an overwhelming threat to your survival, and will make you want to go running for the hills.

Attachment Trauma: Why the Fear of Being Seen?

Being unlovable, unwanted, and inherently different from others are the core beliefs and insecurities caused by attachment trauma. Attachment trauma occurs when the infant’s felt experience is that of being inherently defective, “There is something wrong with me that pushes people away.”  

Part of their core beliefs about themselves as a result of attachment trauma can include, “I am too much of a burden” and/or “I am not enough to deserve even basic care and affection.”

Through their early emotional interactions with their primary caregiver, they feel alone, misunderstood, and overwhelmed by their emotional states. As Dr. Allan Schore explains, this occurs through a lack of attunement and regulation by the primary caregiver.

Starting in early childhood, defense mechanisms are developed to create walls and façades so that others cannot hurt them by making them feel unlovable, unwanted, or different. The feeling of judgement, ridicule, and rejection from others is so painful, the individual struggling with trauma will feel that their very survival is threatened.

These core beliefs result in a fear of truly being seen and known by any other person. Intimacy and authenticity feel like overwhelming threats, because of the anticipated judgement, ridicule, and rejection.

Those with secure attachments from early childhood feel safe with others and naturally create authentic relationships in their lives with both healthy boundaries and intimacy.

Those with an insecure attachment or Attachment Disorder feel that if they can pretend and hide parts of themselves, they can avoid truly being seen for the unlovable and unwanted selves that they “know” that they are.

The feeling of being inherently defective, unlovable, and unwanted because it becomes so uncomfortable and so painful for them, they prefer to continue to be alone where at least “I am safe.”  Any situation that makes a person with this core belief feel this way will send them running to hide!

Yet ironically, they give themselves the same experience they fear from others. They beat themselves up, constantly reminding themselves, “There is something wrong with me” (judgement), “I am different, stupid, and weak” (ridicule), and “I hate myself” (rejection). They abandon themselves emotionally by hating different parts of themselves that they view as vulnerable, weak, and stupid.

Physical and Sexual Trauma Compounds the Fear of Being Seen

Also if there was any abuse or overpowering of a child physically or sexually, these experiences will compound the fear of being seen.

In a child’s mind, “If they don’t see me, they won’t hurt me. It’s the attention that is dangerous and leads me to getting hurt.”

Children with histories of physical abuse can become aggressive towards others as a means of self-protection; they can also try to become small and invisible in a room.

It isn’t uncommon for adult women to consciously or subconsciously do things to deflect attention from themselves and their bodies so they do not attract any attention. For example, those with histories of sexual abuse can sometimes feel safer being overweight so that they can wear unattractive loose clothing. Any attention, sexual or not, can feel so threatening!

In all forms of childhood trauma, the core belief that “There was something wrong with me that brought this on” can persist well into adulthood, making one not only want to engage, but also be invisible.  

The core beliefs are wired into the brain and body from an early age, so that talking it out and seeing how illogical these beliefs are doesn’t change the core insecurities and body reactions to run and hide when triggered.

Defense Mechanisms Developed in Childhood to Hide the True Self

Children who have a core insecurity of truly being seen develop defense mechanism to hide and self-protect.  

These defense mechanisms are not conscious processes, but evolve through felt experiences as a means of adapting to the environment in a self-protective way. Defense mechanisms developed from attachment trauma in childhood are unconscious survival mechanisms.  

This is different than what starts to happen in adolescence and adulthood where the process may become conscious. When faced with a situation that causes uncomfortable feelings, whether sad, angry, or afraid, as adolescents and adults, we might think about how to respond and plan ahead for certain situation.  

Children don’t have this level of conscious awareness to understand what they’re doing is adapting to their environment for optimal survival. This is most evident in young children who are preverbal. Even they start to develop survival mechanisms in response to their environment that is based on how they feel rather than on what they think.

Many adults can misunderstand defense mechanisms, and interpret a child’s emotions and behavioral patterns as “Oh, that’s just their personality.” The underlying insecurities and the felt need for these survival mechanisms never get addressed. Thus, the disconnection with others continues, and further wires these insecurities and defense mechanisms into their  brain and body.  

The whole biology of the system adapts and then reflects to hide and survive. Early on in childhood, this wiring shows up in things even like posture, patterns of muscle tension, growth, and GI issues.

As these get further ingrained into the brain and body as default patterns of living daily life, these stick with us into adulthood. There are a few different categories of defense mechanisms that children develop in response to feeling unlovable and unworthy. In most children, they develop a few different types of these defense mechanisms so that depending on the different situations in life they have different ways to respond

Defense mechanism is for a child to develop a tendency to be highly observant, hold back and stay quiet, especially in environments that are new until they feel that they understand the dynamics and how to interact with the others in a way that they won’t be judged as different, inadequate, or thought of as not belonging. This person with this type of defense mechanism tends not to ask questions or draw any attention to themselves.  

It is the classic child who looks down and scuffles their feet when directly addressed or attention is brought to them. Often times an underlying fear of being seen is not recognized and is unfortunately, interpreted as being shy.  

They can also have the fear of being too much for someone else, which causes them to isolate and leave the relationship emotionally before the other person can reject or abandon them.  

Often associated with this defense mechanism is the child being perceived as and told that they are “sensitive and emotional.”  

There are other defense mechanisms developed in childhood to prevent from the true self being seen. These include deflection, like using humor, flashy smile, and fake confidence. Goofy, hyper rather than genuine.

Another defense mechanism, which is more control and containment to manage what feels emotionally overwhelming due to feeling exposed. This can look like children who prefer and constantly seek out or create small confined spaces, like closets, under the table, or rearranging furniture in their bedroom to create a hide-away space.  

Frequently, these children tend to enjoy books and movies more. This is usually a form of dissociation for them to exit their reality and enter another world through these stories. Because these children don’t understanding their own internal struggles and tensions, they look for ways in which they can mentally escape into a different emotional place.

Those who have this type of defense mechanism are more apt to seek out answers and insight through reading and watching stories,  to help them better understand themselves and what to do in certain situations. This is because their core insecurity is that they don’t know what normal is, and are therefore, afraid that they will be judged as being strange and different. Thus they have to assume the normal. They often don’t feel like they’re seen and understood as a real person, so they turn to fictional characters to show them how to function in a relationship and live life. These core insecurities and habits will follow that child into adulthood.

Adulthood: Still Afraid of Being Truly Seen and Known

This fear of being seen persists into adulthood and shows up in all areas of life, because, for them, all of life is filtered through a lens of feeling unwanted and unlovable.

When speaking of adults and being afraid to be seen, we aren’t referring to public speaking, because in fact, many people with a fear of being seen can do well with public speaking. For periods of time, they can “pull themselves together” and do quite well. However, the fear and exhaustion of putting up walls and facades does eventually build up, and isolation from life and others is sought until healing occurs.  

So how does this fear of being seen show up in adulthood? This shows up in areas of one’s career, relationships, family, activities, and leadership roles within their community and social groups.  

In our careers, we can be in positions that require promotion of our abilities and our work. Sometimes adults with these core attachment insecurities have explained that when they do have to talk about their abilities and accomplishments, such as in a job interview, they feel as though they are speaking about someone else and not themselves.

For authors, entrepreneurs, and artists, the potential criticism from others can feel very threatening. In order to do their work, they have to block that out, and this can be a mild form of dissociating or disconnecting from the part of them that is scared to put their work out into the world.  

Creativity is a reflection of ourselves, and we can feel exposed when we create something. It can feel like rather than our piece of work being exposed, it’s  ourselves that we are laying bare, while expecting the judgement, ridicule, and rejection from the world.

Because of this fear of presenting our work, which is like putting ourselves on display, behavior patterns like perfectionism, paralysis, or procrastination can develop.  This can especially come out when self-promotion is needed or expected as part of a job or role.  

Walls and Facades Feel Safer but Hurt our Hearts

Whether it’s in a work setting or in a relationship, it can often feel safer not to share one’s true self or fully invest emotionally into something. Often times, those who struggle with this will only share themselves and their work when they have a certain amount of walls  and facades up to hide the deeper parts of themselves.

They can avoid some of the fear by holding back and staying hidden. Yet holding back also hurts their heart, because they are continuing their felt experience of being disconnected, alone, and different.

Although it can feel safer in the moment to continue to hide and be artificial with others, inauthenticity hurts our hearts.

The Answer

With any form of trauma, the answer is to create different felt experiences so that the brain and body can rewire their default patterns of belief and survival.  

If you are a parent of a child with trauma and attachment issues, addressing the core beliefs and insecurities as early as possible through therapeutic attachment parenting can heal them. If they can earn a secure attachment during childhood, think of how different their life can be, especially when they are adults.  

Healing a child from Attachment Disorder is one of the hardest things you will do, but it’s the best way to set them up for a life of health, happiness, and stability in life.

If you find yourself as an adult being able to relate to this fear of being seen and having the desire to connect, yet also wanting to be invisible, the solution lies within yourself to heal!  

The first step in the healing journey is to create a different felt experience within yourself.  Stop with the self-judgement and criticism. Stop beating yourself up and punishing yourself!

Take an honest look at yourself through compassionate eyes. As you understand your core insecurities, your survival patterns wired into your nervous system, and the lens through which you see the world, you can work with them. By figuratively, turning on the lights and actually looking at your core fears compassionately, you will begin to understand them, work with them, and in the process, take away their power to run and rule your life.  

What are some of the defense mechanisms you developed in childhood?

Do you see them still playing out in your life in some way?

Do you also have that instinct to run and hide sometimes? What are some situations in which you have wanted to run and hide? How have you overcome this?

 

Encouraging you on in your journey of healing from trauma,

 

Dr. Aimie

 

 

 

 

References:

Schore JR, Schore AN. “Modern Attachment Theory: The Central Role of Affect Regulation in Development and Treatment.”  Clin Soc Work J. 2008, 36:9-20

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