I admit it, I was a little miffed when Oprah came on 60 minutes to uncover a “Life changing story”—her discovery of the ACE report and the strong evidence of childhood trauma contributing to many later- in- life health and social problems issues. This is not news to me.
In May of 2009 I began my research into women and trauma and came upon the ACE report. I recall thinking to myself how did I not know about this? And then how does everybody not know about this?! When I found the ACE report, originally published in 1998 it had spawned an additional report called the Origins of Addiction (2003). The findings were mind blowing:
• Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) are surprisingly common, although typically concealed and mostly unrecognized.
• ACEs continue to have a profound effect on individuals—even 50 years later—when they have transformed from an early psychosocial experience into organic disease, social malfunction, and mental illness.
• ACES are the main determinant of the health and social well-being of the nation.
Yes, you read that right. The main determinant of the health and social well-being of the nation.
This is not hyperbole but logic. See, if most everyone has some history of ACES and most people don’t recognize this experience in themselves (even as they continue to feel the impact of ACES for most of their adult lives), then it follows that most people who need help with the impacts of ACES don’t seek it. So, the collective social well-being of our nation is not looking so great.
In addition, it’s important to recognize that human beings are neurologically wired to be social creatures. Healthy social relationships are not only good for our well-being, they are good for our brains. ACES often occur within a relational (re.social) context, which can correlate feelings of betrayal, hurt or neglect with the people we need to trust in order to survive. This relational-ACE experience holds fast in our memory—if not our cognitive memory, then certainly in our somatic/sensory memory.
The long-term impact of these early experiences amplify the erosion of social health. Social health is correlated with other issues like addiction—with recent theories suggesting a direct link between the need for connection and substance abuse.
In Oprah’s 60 Minutes interview she shares her newfound perspective toward difficult people. She said that after discovering the ACE study and reflecting on her own childhood trauma she no longer thinks “What an *sshole”, but instead thinks, “What happened to you?” As I see it, that line of questioning is less compassion and more inquiry.
To feel compassionate or empathetic toward another person, it is not important to know what happened to them. In fact to heal from trauma it is not necessary to know or remember what happened. In this acknowledgment lies the ability to help ourselves and anyone else start the healing process.
You see, the impact of early trauma triggers an adaptive process within the body (neurobiology) which go on to inform the development of the self. These adaptations (defined as a belief system or pattern of behavior) evolve through the developmental years (ages pre-birth to early adult) to ensure our survival. In our earliest years, survival means staying in the good graces of, or connected to our primary care takers, thus avoiding abandonment, which to our primitive nervous systems means death.
These adaptations shape how we see ourselves, how we see others as well and form our overall world view. They inform our personality, behavior, actions and thoughts and they are built on how we make meaning of the experiences in our lives from the moment we are born.
We all know people who are afraid to try new things, or are adrenaline junkies, or over-sharers, or super quiet or Type A’s. We know people who blame others for all their problems, or are chronic care givers, or who are bullies or who just seem scared of everything. These personalities traits can all be understood as adaptations informed in part by life experiences. So even if we do become aware of our adaptive responses, to drop or change them can feel like a life or death decision.
Unfortunately, the adaptations that may have served us in childhood rarely serve us in adulthood, and can in fact perpetuate the social dis-ease in our lives. Over time this can lead to myriad issues from to addiction (highly correlated with high ACE scores) to mental illness, danger courting behavior, eating disorders and other psychosocial and physical health issues.
The universal trigger to these adaptive responses are situations where we perceive:
A lack of control
A lack of information
To give an example, about six years ago I decided to stop weighing myself. To my surprise, I was consumed by an unfathomable tidal wave of anxiety and panic. Why would not stepping on the scale each morning feel like such a life and death situation to me?!? Because at some point in my life, due to some experience or relationship or just general meaning making in my developing brain, I decided that my worth as a human was pinned to a number on the scale. So, to my body, the choice to not step on the scale (give up control, information, certainty) was tantamount to suicide. In other words, if I couldn’t (literally) measure and maintain (control) my worth each day, I would be abandoned and die. Intellectually I knew that it was not true, but my body (biology) understood this behavior as an adaptive survival strategy. To abandon it was registered by my body as life threatening—and it was supremely uncomfortable for a time.
Who knows where this particular survival adaptation of mine came from. It’s not important to understand what happened to me to find compassion for how my brain and body developed this way to ensure connection —thus survival. For each person, there are many inter-working survival strategies at work in our lives every day, all day long—all unrecognized and many causing us discomfort and emotional pain. Is it any wonder that when this mechanism is intensified by early trauma that many people turn to substances to escape the pain of feeling unworthy and disconnected?
My daily step on the scale was just one of many, and while I may never know where that came from, I can tell you that the freedom of not connecting my worth to a number on the scale has been life changing.
To use TIMBo practice to change your perspective on difficult people—instead of thinking “What an *sshole” or “I wonder what happened to them?” remind yourself that they are the sum of all their survival adaptations—adaptations that once kept them feeling in control of their lives, their connections and their feelings of worth, but that now often have the opposite effect (i.e. if someone has adapted to stay silent for safety, connection is very hard to find and maintain).
Follow this simple 5 step process when faced with a difficult person:
Recognize the discomfort or sensations in your own body.
Take 5 to 10 deep abdominal breaths.
Remind yourself that this person has adapted because it helped them feel “safe” but they are likely not conscious of this fact.
Turn your inquiry inward. Ask yourself what adaptations might be present in you in this moment of discomfort.
Hold a compassionate space for yourself and adaptations. The rest will follow.
I could name dozens of my own adaptations, and while they don’t go away or shift all at once, being compassionately aware of them helps me understand myself and have compassion for others. When I heard about Oprah’s big ACES discovery, I felt angry. I recognized this anger as a familiar and long-held adaptation (re. body sensation) that correlates with I am not important. I developed this adaptation as protection, because telling myself I’m not important mitigates the sting of being told that by those around me.
The protective/adaptive voice in me constantly looks for evidence to support this belief and she found it in Oprah. She whispers in my ear, “Hey, I read the ACE study nearly 10 years ago and developed a revolutionary curriculum from the knowledge, but now that Oprah said it everyone’s listening! See you’re not important, no one cares what you have to say. When will you learn. Just give up.”
Maybe some of this sounds familiar?
Recognizing our adaptations is not a means to blame ourselves for our responses, nor is it a reason to not hold others accountable. It is pathway toward being fully present, grounded and clear with another human being. It is the process through which we can hold compassionate space for another without taking action to “fix” or “solve” their problem (which might be an adaptive response).
It is useful in all relationships in our lives, from parenting, with colleagues, friends and that ever-complicated weekend with your family of origin. Recognizing our adaptations (in conjunction with our body sensations) allows us to remain calm and grounded in the foreground, while we observe our adaptive responses in the background, allowing us to be present for the people we love (or just have to work with). I like to picture my adaptations as kids at the back of the bus who are screaming to take the wheel, while I calmly continue driving and doing my best to simultaneously hear them and tune them out. Or I just picture her:
So yes Oprah, knowing that early childhood trauma or adverse experiences is pretty much universal and connected with disease and disorders is step one. Knowing how to understand and have compassion for how we may have developed in our bodies and minds after those events is even more crucial. Because when we can understand the mechanisms at play in how we have become who we are, and have compassion for the self that that this universal process has created, then we can fully and with authentic compassion, understand others.
This is the action of healing. To heal the nation we need to focus on compassionately understanding our own development first, so that we can be spacious in response to another person's (likely) unconscious adaptive response. When we do this, the relational circuitry that is part of being human (otherwise known as the social synapse) can actually help the other person regulate, change and heal—all without needing to change, fix, help or understand what happened to them.
Go HERE for our free 5 Step Trauma Responsive Guide: How to help yourself and help others download