[Childhood abuse + trauma]
One of the biggest obstacles to my training is my dad, a man I haven’t seen or spoken to for years. And yet!!! His voice lives inside my head. Still. All these years later. This voice is what trauma expert and therapist Pete Walker calls the inner critic.
My dad was mean. When I was growing up, he was a deeply unhappy person (he might still be, I don’t know), himself the product of trauma before he became the perpetrator of it (so the cliché and cycle go). In addition to unpredictable episodes of physical violence and psychological terrorism, he ridiculed and demeaned me constantly, never missing an opportunity to point out—to me, and to others (and, not infrequently, to me in front of others)—how inept, inadequate, and incapable I was.
Everything I showed interest in was stupid and worthless, just like me. Nothing I did was, or would ever be, good or right enough, because, his logic went, I wasn’t, and never would be, good or right enough. Or was it the other way around? I wasn’t allowed to have or express ideas, opinions, or feelings. Feelings were especially off limits. Mine were, my dad made clear, incorrect, unwarranted, and an overreaction. Always. No matter what.
What’s wrong with you? and Why would you do that? and What were you thinking? and You fucking idiot are things he’d say to me regularly. He called this “tough love” and “just joking” and “character building” and his “opinions.” It was abuse, it was unavoidable (he kept my mom and me isolated) and relentless (I’m an only child), and it traumatized me.
Contrary to the mythology of the popular saying, that trauma didn’t ~make me stronger~. It beat me down, sometimes literally, and broke me. For a very long time, it deeply and negatively impacted every aspect of my life.
In mid-2020, I started therapy specifically to unpack and process my childhood and the trauma it left me with. I’ve put in a lot of work over the past two and a half-ish years, including the (very hard) work of building confidence and learning to recognize and silence my inner critic—my dad’s voice. That voice came out screaming on Monday.
Monday was Test Day. This was technically unplanned, but not entirely unexpected. Orginally, I was supposed to test Tuesday. But I felt good on Monday, and when Coach asked me how I felt I said, “What if I test today?”
I didn’t think twice about it, honestly. I had the best training week of my life last week. I walked in the gym Monday morning excited and, even though it wasn’t supposed to be a test day, I was prepared for it to be. I was rested and nourished. I felt good. Confident, even.
The fact that I was testing with the head barbell coach and not the coach I’ve been working 1:1 with for the past several months didn’t phase me. Neither did the small crowd of fellow gym-goers, including several competitive athletes, watching me and (quietly) cheering me on as they worked out nearby. Just a few months ago, with a little less trauma processing under my belt, these things would’ve stressed me the fuck out. There’s no chance in hell that I would’ve suggested to move my test day up a day, and if it had been suggested to me, I would’ve made every excuse in the book to avoid it. Just a few months ago, I didn’t have the confidence in myself that I have (most days) now.
I ended my session on Monday feeling just as good as when I started it. Maybe better. I was happy with my total, my form and technique felt solid, I failed only one attempt (my final jerk), my body felt good, and my pelvic floor held the entire time. I was proud of myself.
And then I watched the videos of my lifts. Usually I do this between each attempt/set. For whatever reason, on Monday I didn’t. I waited to watch the videos until I was in my car. And when I did, my inner critic—my dad’s voice—immediately began berating me.
I sat there for at least 20 minutes, alone in my car, watching and rewatching the same seconds-long clips, picking apart every single element of each lift, thoroughly embarrassed that I’d lifted LIKE THAT in front of so many people, who—isn’t it obvious?—are all better than me at everything on the planet, especially lifting. I felt like a fool for having believed them when, an hour earlier, they’d high-fived and fist-bumped me and told me Good job! and Looking strong! There was no possible way, my inner critic told me, that they’d meant it. I had not done a good job. I did not look strong. I never would, or would be.
I drove home feeling utterly defeated. When I got home, I sat on my couch and, while watching the videos of my lifts on repeat, I cried. The voice inside my head was critical and unforgiving. Instead of being snappy and solid and sharp, my lifts looked slow and heavy and sloppy—and right out the gate, from the very first pull. Truly, a rookie move/mistake that I hadn’t, before yesterday, made once—literally not a single time—in all the months that I’ve been training at this gym. Instead of being able to see this for what it was—an off day—I took it as proof that I’m a failure as a person. I was, for the first time in a long time, fully inside a C-PTSD emotional flashback: drasticizing and catastrophizing and spiraling; consumed by all-or-nothing, always/never thinking. All of the hard work I’d put in and good training sessions I’d had over the last several months had been a fluke. This one single fuck-up of a lifting session was the real me.
The voice inside my head: You’re never going to get better at this. You should just quit. You aren’t cut out for this. Why do you keep trying? You’re making a fool of yourself. You’re such a fucking loser.
I know that it sounds dramatic now. All of it. It did not feel that way in the moment. Such is the nature of trauma.
As soon as I recognized what was happening—an emotional flashback/shame spiral—I put my phone down, made myself food, watched some TV, finished the book I was reading, and let myself feel however I felt, which was mostly frustrated and disappointed, for the rest of the day. I didn’t try to toxic positivity or affirmation my way out of it.
And you know what? I woke up Tuesday feeling a lot better and brought my ass right back to the gym to start my new block of training. And you know what else? I did really well. I didn’t make any of the rookie moves/mistakes that I made on Monday (which isn’t actually that surprising because they’re mistakes I’d stopped making regularly a long fucking time ago). My overhead positions were crispy. I was tight in the catch. My lifts were solid and snappy and sharp. I had the best front squat session of my life (so far). I left the gym feeling good about the training day, and about myself.
What’s my point? There are several. I have zero spoons remaining to get into all of them right now. The main one—at least for today—is this: It’s okay to feel your way through your feelings. It’s okay to not immediately try to change them or fix them or understand them or find some hidden lesson or silver lining in them.
There’s a lot of emphasis in the fitness world to “good vibes only✌️” your way through, well, everything, and very little room for “bad” or “negative” feelings, WHICH ARE TOTALLY NORMAL AND HEALTHY TO HAVE BY THE WAY. Too often, having “bad” or “negative” feelings is weaponized into a personal characterological or moral failing, which is just so gross and unhelpful. It’s insensitive, invalidating, and dismissive—at best. I’m proud of myself for recognizing what was happening as it was happening, putting my phone down, cutting myself some slack, and allowing myself to feel my way through my feelings, without judging them or myself for having them. That, my good bitch, is a whole different type of—and pretty damn big—PR.
(For the record: No, my lifts didn’t actually look THAT bad. It’s clear from the videos that my body wasn’t as prepared to test that day as I thought it was AND that I’ve gotten stronger and improved my technique in a pretty short amount of time.)
Four books that I’ve found particularly helpful in better understanding attachment wounds and complex trauma (C-PTSD):
- Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson.
- Complex Trauma: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker.
The editing, organization, and formatting of this book are inconsistent, which I found made things difficult to follow at times. The information is solid, though, and I recommend giving it a read.
- Polysecure: Attachment, Trauma and Consensual Nonmonogamy by Jessica Fern.
Please don’t be scared away by the title or subtitle of this book. You don’t have to be nonmongamous, or even interested in nonmonogamy, to gets something from this book. You just have to be a person who has relationships, of any kind, with other people.
Personally, I liked this book a whole lot more than Attached, which is the more mainstream go-to book about attachment theory. I think it feels more inclusive and less stereotyped, especially with its use of language, and I especially appreciate that Polysecure looks at attachment theory and wounds through the lens of non-normative relationship structures. I believe this is important because it (1) reminds us that we have and benefit from all sorts of relationships, not just traditional romantic/sexual ones, and (2) shows how attachment wounds and relational trauma can show up in ALL of our relationships, including those with friends and family members and neighbors and people we work with, etc., and therefore impact all different aspects of our lives.
- Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror by Judith Herman.
To date, I’ve found this the most helpful book on trauma that I’ve read. I talk a little bit about this book at the bottom of this post.