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Why do we still struggle with the affects of trauma even when most of the guilt is gone?
The answer is cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is when our beliefs about ourselves and situation are not in line with how we act. Meaning that if we think we are a good and thoughtful person but then find ourselves trying to harm someone, that would cause cognitive dissonance. This can also occur in abusive relationships when we believe we are good and kind, but someone else keeps telling us the opposite and using gaslighting techniques to make us believe that we don’t remember things clearly and we are actually terrible and hurtful. This can be really detrimental to our development and growth because we don’t know what’s the truth or who we really are. It can lead us to questioning any and everything we think and do. In other words, it’s crazy making. But to get into this specific question about trauma and why our feelings can remain even when most or all of the guilt is gone:
Often the guilt is misplaced because we are told that we are to blame, or that we could have done something to stop it. Fight, flight or freeze. If we freeze (which is often the case when we are children) then we can feel like we should have done more to fight back or stop it. I have even had patients who share that they went back over to their abuser’s house even after the abuse had started, and that that makes them responsible. Or if it’s sexual abuse, we may even have an orgasm. Even though that is a physiological response, that does NOT equal consent.
Whatever the situation, we can feel guilt afterwards and that guilt can lead us to many various feelings and coping skills. Now if time passes and we are able to let go of that guilt or maybe even place it onto the correct person or situation, the feelings and even other experiences we have had as a result have piled up. Letting go of one emotion (guilt) doesn’t negate or get rid of any of the others. Does that make sense? Because until we process the trauma completely so that it doesn’t have any emotional charge… did you hear that? ANY emotional charge. It will still bother us. That’s why working slowly but surely on all that comes up for you and fighting to lean into the uncomfortable feelings will actually make things feel better more quickly. Guilt is simply one feeling associated with trauma, it’s not the only one.
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