Abuse Survivor's Series:
Using Overreactions To Begin Healing Our Childhood Wounds
By: Stephanie Gagos

As an abused child I frequently detached as a way of coping with what was happening to me and even though most of my memories were devoid of emotion, it did not mean I was not experiencing emotion. My mother’s unpredictable violence forced me to suppress whatever internal turmoil I was feeling, in order to survive. This pattern of suppression and detachment became natural reactions to crisis and anything that caused me any emotional pain throughout my adult life.

After years of habitual suppression, any emotions related to the physical and sexual abuse in my childhood were very difficult to access or control. They were either elusive, hiding when they were appropriate to express or screeching out when I least wanted them to. For example, at my father’s funeral, I stood stoically over his grave and suppressed my emotions over the loss of the only real parent I’d ever had. When faced with betrayal in my marriage, I carried on in life as if nothing happened; suppressing the deep hurt and heartbreak that threatened to consume me. In therapy when I described the abuse in my childhood there was not a tear shed in the telling. It was if an internal separation automatically occurred whenever anything in my life was too painful. I was conditioned to NOT feel.

While I didn’t seem to have access to these feelings, I often reacted quite strongly to what may seem minor or insignificant to others. Feelings of betrayal, distrust, an impending sense of doom, fear, anger and an overwhelming sadness were triggered by often benign situations. It was not uncommon for me to sob while watching a scene in a movie which seemed to have little or no effect on anyone else around me (I did this during a scene in The Other Sister when Diane Keaton’s character watches her heartbroken daughter kick tennis balls in the rain and goes to her) or to become outraged over someone not saying thank you after holding a door open for them. Things like my stepdaughter not giving us her rent check on time; someone cutting me off in line, an ill perceived close call in the car could trigger a reaction that was often disproportionate to the situation. And while I kept my outrage rather private by never really publicly going off the handle, even in my private moments of venting to a loved one or quietly sobbing in a movie theater, I always felt slightly less sane and out of control as if my sanity was somehow slipping.

My husband and daughter endured years of these “venting merry go rounds” and met my rising vehemence with stares that implied I had morphed into an alien right before their very eyes. I, on the other hand, looked at everyone else as if they were the alien beings who just didn’t understand how things should work around here. I figured anyone would get upset in any of these circumstances and yet there was a part of me that said, “Hmmm, just not this upset, Stephanie”. I must admit that no matter how perplexed they were at my intensity, I couldn’t stop. In fact I didn’t want to stop. I was experiencing what I couldn’t experience as a child and in that moment it felt good to feel bad because for once it was my choice. The power in that was at first liberating. I could rant and rave, fume, yell and get myself all worked up in ways I was never allowed to as a child. Even a hint of anger was met with intimidation and violence while growing up. This was my time, my chance to exert some power and control over my life.

The problem was that I often felt crappy, embarrassed and guilty afterward, especially when I would attribute qualities such as maliciousness to the offending party. Something as simple as one of my girls repeatedly not doing the dishes was often perceived by me as an act that was done purposely to me. Each slight or perceived disregard was like a dagger into an already existing wound, stirring up the fear and distrust that were already there. Understanding this connection between my past and present is what inspired me to use these times to heal. I already had access to the emotions I thought were buried and I didn’t know it. They were there in my conflicts with loved ones, in my interactions with acquaintances or friends, even in my difficulties as a teacher. All there to show me what I needed to heal.

Once I became aware of what was going on, I started to pay more attention during these times of strong emotional reactions. I became more aware of myself even in the midst of anger, watching as if I was on the outside looking in. This brief dissociation was useful in giving me the step back I needed to really see myself in a state of heightened emotional intensity and then evaluate how much of it was “justified” and how much of it was coming from a wounded place. I discovered that most of my reactions were coming from this place and I started to dig deeper by taking the time out to ask and record answers to some key questions.

What is really bothering me about this?

How does this make me feel right now? (Disregarded and insignificant were very common)

How does this relate to my past? When did I feel like this as a child? What happened? What did I need as a child and did not receive?

What is different about today? How can I give myself what I needed then and what I still need today?

I did this either in midst of a strong emotional reaction or directly afterward when I was still upset so that I could catch the emotion and not run from it. Once you are no longer upset it is easy to get in your head, intellectualize, minimize or rationalize which moves you away from the emotion. Usually the answers to these questions would pour out on the page in the form of ramblings and eventually led me to a childhood memory in which I was made to feel the same way I was feeling now. I allowed the emotion to surface, to extend from that which I was already feeling. I allowed myself to feel it and grieve for whatever it was I deserved as a child and did not receive. Depending on where you are at in your healing process, this can either be just an extension of what you are already working on in therapy or it can be overwhelming if this is the first time you are dealing with these emotions. Either way you should have a support system in place to help you with whatever comes up.

Asking the last few questions allows me to reclaim my power and bring me into a new reality, one in which I am no longer a victim and can have control over the path of my life. By putting me back in driver’s seat I can focus on giving myself the gifts of love, encouragement, validation and respect I was not given as a child. This I believe is a big part of the journey in this life, learning how to fill ourselves up on our own and letting the love we deserve in and knowing we can. Today I am getting more comfortable with feeling my emotions, knowing that there is wisdom in the heartache and an opportunity to know myself and understand where I’ve been and where I am going. I am grateful that I no longer feel powerless when I am triggered and that I can use those times to heal my life. This allows me to grow beyond what my childhood told me was possible and grow into who I truly am.

Author's Bio: 

Stephanie Gagos has a Bachelors in English Literature and a Masters in Elementary Education. She is a writer and former middle school teacher. Driven by a traumatic childhood in which she suffered multiple forms of abuse at the hands of her mentally ill and abusive mother as well as nine men, Stephanie hopes that her story will inspire others to reclaim their power. She is currently working on her first book, My Voice of Truth: Reconditioning the Abused Mind. Future projects include Letters to My Abusers: What I Couldn’t Say Then, an anthology of letters from survivors to their abusers, the sequel to her first book, entitled “Reconditioning the Abused Body” and screenplays for television and film. Her website www.myvoiceoftruth.com serves as a wonderful resource for survivors looking to heal and reclaim their power.

She lives in New Jersey with her family and five dogs.