Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans. ~Allen Saunders
Only when a child’s authenticity is threatened do they develop unhealthy behaviors, distorted reality perceptions, and emotional difficulties. When you force a child to do what they don’t want to do, feel what they don’t feel, and think what they don’t think, their authentic self becomes damaged. ~Darius Cikanavicius, Human Development and Trauma
Those of us who have trauma living within us, and especially childhood/development/relational trauma, like plans. We like to plan. To have a plan. To know what is going to happen when and where it is all happening.
We aren’t so good at surprises.
I used to fall apart if a plan needed to change. By fall apart I mean become non-functioning to the point of crying non-stop, not eating, and at the worst of times going on a suicidal ideation bender. I could not deal with plans changing. Even small ones. If a friend got sick and needed to cancel a date we had it was the end of the freaking world and I would literally spend hours to days flipping out and disparaging said friend to other friends (They are so unreliable. They are always so flaky. You can’t trust them at all.)
My late 20s and 30s were all about learning to adapt to plans needing to change. What this looked like was I had plans A, B, C, D, E all the way to ZZZ. This way if one plan failed I had another to fall back on and if that failed then there was still another.
I still always had a plan this way, and also it created some space for my friends to get sick without my entire universe imploding.
With time, age, and a lot of really great therapy, I can now say that while I still like to have a plan, it’s not always necessary. When a plan does fall apart, I don’t fall apart too. I’ve learned to adapt, really adapt. To allow for change and surprise and create space for my own problem solving outside of the box when it’s needed.
There are even times when I don’t have any plan at all, just go with the flow of whatever is happening.
It’s been a big shift for me in my ways of thinking and being over the last several years. My level of resilience has increased exponentially and I have gotten to the point where the small stuff (like a friend getting sick and needing to cancel our plans) is no big deal.
The big stuff still has its impacts, for certain, and even with that I do seem to be able to come back from a major upset relatively quickly.
A thing about growing resilience though, is that life seems to give you plenty of opportunities to continue to build that muscle.
Life has a way of doing its own thing, regardless of our plans or intentions or actions or even odds and statistics.
My family received a really big shock in the early spring of 2018. The kind of shock that would have lasting reverberations for us no matter what we did in the moment or how we chose to move forward.
The shock was one of those things that we never in a million years expected. In fact, all our previous experience as a family would tell us that it was impossible.
Yet, there we were.
We sat in the space of processing the news, and honestly in a bit of denial for a bit.
The denial was part of the process for certain, and also it’s not a place where we could have sat forever. Decisions needed to be made and plans needed to be figured out.
A thing is though, that sometimes, (and really even in this case), we can sit in that denial place. For a very long time. Life will still go on. Not making a decision is a decision in and of itself. Allowing “fate” to have its way is one thing that happens when we sit in that denial space. And sometimes “fate” can make things a whole lot worse.
A note: Denial isn’t always or only trying to claim that something that is fact is not fact. Denial is also when we simply don’t want to deal with reality or the facts. When the facts feel too big or overwhelming or terrifying. Or when the facts cause too much cognitive dissonance within us.
Sometimes we need to accept facts that don’t make sense. Or seem impossible. Or don’t fit with our own worldview. Because regardless of whether they make sense or seem possible or fit into the ways we see the world, they are still true, reality still is what it is.
When we live with unprocessed trauma, allowing what is to be what it is, is a pretty foreign concept. Most of us who had childhood trauma, have so much cognitive dissonance about the people who were (supposed to be) our caregivers, that we need absolutes. We need definites. We need Sure Things. We need things to fit into our worldview and to not break The Rules (whatever those rules may be at the time).
Childhood trauma creates its own form of gaslighting. We are often told to keep secrets, or not talk about, or worse if we dare talk about what has happened or is happening to us, we are told that couldn’t possibly be true. Our own sense of reality and what is true and what can be true gets skewed.
So when we make plans, and life throws us a curve-ball… well we tend to fall apart. Because our grip on the here and now can be pretty tenuous at times, and every little disturbance to our plans and worldview, can lead us to a very dark place.
We don’t have to continue living like this.
There are many ways to process our trauma. There are multiple avenues to find help.
We don’t need to live in constant overwhelm or denial.
We can learn to adapt. We can learn resilience. We can learn that things don’t have to make sense; that the impossible can actually be possible; and that sometimes our personal worldview isn’t the be all end all truth.
It takes time. It requires learning self-compassion. It depends on having safe-enough relationships where we can explore and experiment and be wrong and shift and grow.
It is necessary for us to move out of living in constant overwhelm, to start experiencing moments of calm, peace, and even joy.
Plans aren’t everything. Sometimes when they fall apart something more amazing happens. Not always. And sometimes. Learning to be open to that possibility has been such a personal shift for me over the last five years.
I wish this shift for you too.
This essay was originally published in my weekly(ish) newsletter on March 18, 2018. It has been edited and revised for publication here. To receive my most recent essays you can subscribe here.