Trauma alters the way we perceive danger in our life. For someone who has not experienced life-altering trauma, red flags might be easy to identify and deal with. For someone who has gone through something traumatic, especially when that trauma was prolonged and eventually accepted as reality, the ability to recognize red flags can become hyperactive or significantly reduced.
Our brains are incredible machines that keep us alive in many ways. One part is by recognizing danger and deciding how to avoid it. In a non-traumatized person, red flags might pop up when we perceive something that could be dangerous or threatening to our survival. This includes people who seem aggressive or seem to have a hidden agenda. In a non-traumatized brain, the signs of abuse such as gas-lighting, name calling, or controlling behaviors are noticed and signal something is wrong. A non-traumatized person will likely be able to put a boundary between themselves and the possibly dangerous person, or have a conversation with them to see their perspective, if they choose to engage with the person at all.
In comparison, someone who has undergone trauma might either see red flags everywhere, or have a really hard time seeing them at all. It’s common for abuse survivors to repeat the cycle and enter in another, or several more, abusive relationships. It’s difficult for people who have healthy brain chemistry to understand why someone would go to yet another abusive person after leaving something so horrible. But when you’ve been conditioned to believe that the abusive behavior is never going to end, your brain normalizes it, and stops seeing the warning signs. If you believe you’re never going to escape, your brain might stop directing energy towards noticing all the red flags and prioritize energy towards surviving the current reality. For example, if you’re receiving consistent verbal or emotional abuse, you might stop really hearing what is actually being said and just focus on ways to keep functioning despite the pain, so you’re able to “get through it” and SURVIVE. So when a survivor finally does leave the relationship, they might meet someone else who seems different from their past abuser, but who is still harming them, just in a slightly different way. Their brain learned to ignore the warning signs in favor of survival, and might not realize what is happening until it’s too late. It’s horrible when you realize after weeks, months, or years that you’ve been in another toxic relationship after you were so proud of yourself for leaving the first one. This is where shame pops up. But it is not your fault, and you’re not crazy! Your brain just has a harder time picking up signs of danger, and it can get better.
On the flip side, someone struggling with past trauma might see warning signs of potential danger everywhere they go or in everyone they meet. If you’ve survived something that threatened your safety, especially if that something was prolonged, chronic abuse, your brain might be reeling with the idea that danger is everywhere. Because at one time, it was. If you find yourself constantly scanning the room, trying to determine the intent of people’s behaviors, watching your back literately and figuratively, you might be coping with a brain that is constantly looking for threats. While this feels really disruptive, anxiety-producing, and painful, it’s really a sign that your brain is committed to your survival by seeking out dangers before they can get to you. So if you startle easily, avoid situations that feel scary (even if others find them neutral or even fun), have a hard time trusting people or being vulnerable, you are not crazy, and it’s not your fault! Your brain is just trying to keep you alive by seeing the red flags you may have missed or been unable to act upon during your trauma. It can get better!!
I think shame is produced when our bodies and brains do things that disrupt our lives, we don’t understand why, we think we’re bad because of it, and we’re afraid to tell other people about it. All of this is propelled by the narrative that the trauma we endured is our fault, and we should just get over it. Both struggling to see red flags and seeing them everywhere are frustrating symptoms of a brain that is just trying to keep you alive. Showing yourself compassion and love despite these intrusive symptoms is brave and healing. I’m working on being able to share with others what I experience in a way that is empowered and not fueling the shame story. I’ve been on both sides of this red flag situation, and neither time was anything wrong with me. Me and my brain are just dealing with the cards I’ve been dealt.
“It’s not your fault, you’re not crazy, and everything is going to be okay.” – Daily Mantra Mood.