The Conditioned Nervous System (PART 2)Sep 19, 2022
A trauma-sensitive perspective on abuser/abused, victim/narcissist
This is part 2, please first refer to part 1 before reading (click here)
Last week we explored the conditioning of the nervous system from the perspective of driving a car, but also how the nervous system becomes conditioned with a bundle of reactions and reflexes which show up in the way we relate to others.
Let's follow on from that and continue to explore how the victim/abuser cycle perpetuates itself and how both sides of the equation live from and in a trauma response which is perpetuated by the dynamic within the relationship.
The dance becomes one of victim/perpetrator/rescuer. Usually our partner will mirror the opposite response to the one that dominates our patterning, if we are in a fight response and perpetrator role they will move into either a fawn, freeze or collapse (victim and rescuer).
The fawn or freeze causes them to be unable to leave the relationship, to walk on eggshells to keep their partner happy, or to continue to attempt to rescue and help whilst at the same time tolerating boundary breaches and abuse.
This is also a learned response of the nervous system playing out, one of helplessness and victimhood, which is just the opposite patterning and conditioning to that of a narcissist/abuser. In the exact same way their nervous system is responding to external stimuli and reacting based on their own childhood conditioning and patterning.
Their reflex is to move into fawn or freeze, rather than step into their power and create stable boundaries and appropriate actions to prevent it, the response is helplessness which keeps them trapped and perpetuates the trauma cycle.
This can actually be an exact mirror of how the abuser was made to feel as a child, and is the essence of the saying “the abused becomes the abuser”.
The common themes on both sides is the forced disconnection from power and strength due to boundary breaches with stored helplessness and rage, accompanied by feelings of inadequacy. The difference is in how the reflexes show up and not the underlying drivers.
The abuser is conditioned to react in a way that compensates for their feelings of helplessness, and so they move into rage or anger, whilst the victim is conditioned to move into helplessness and resist the rage.
In other words, in both victim and abuser the trauma is the same but the trauma response is different.
When we begin to deconstruct and inquire into these parts we can begin to heal, prior to becoming aware of them they are automatic and unconscious. Just like when we are driving a car and not remaining present throughout the trip we are at the mercy of the body’s conditioned responses, which is actually very helpful in the context of operating a vehicle.
But when it comes to intimate relationships and conditioning from our childhood which was adaptive, but has become maladaptive, it is not helpful to be at the mercy of our reactions.
The way forward is to develop enough presence to be able to meet these reflexes as they arise and enough capacity to contain the energy within them so they do not spill out and affect those that we love.
As we develop a capacity to meet the raw and intense energy of the rage, the helplessness, the terror that is driving these reactions, we begin to drain the battery out of them.
The nervous system is imprinted from past experience, this is how it learns to survive, move and navigate life on the planet, the more we develop an ability to be consciously present to these reactions the more we change the timestamp and transmute these past impressions into present moment awareness.
Prior to this we do not really have a choice about how we live our lives but are simply at the mercy of being identified with pain and reactivity, when we move into consciousness our experience shifts from being one of automatically responding to our environment based on reflexes we learned from our childhood, into consciously and authentically embodying our own unique qualities.
Life is no longer lived as a painful reaction to, but a spontaneous flow of intelligence that can respond to the needs of the situation.
How we live is less and less governed by the conditioning of the nervous system and as we live more in the present moment, with the ability to inquire, to see and to meet our pain the process continues to refine the level to which we can live from a place of freedom.
As practitioners, if we take the approach that all of these behaviors are learned reflexes rather than somebody's conscious choice, and we do not view their behavior as "who they are" but rather just reactions based on how they have learned to survive their childhood as practitioners we can take a much more compassionate and holistic approach to healing.
If true healing is to occur within a relationship it has to occur on both sides as it is both the abuser and the victim that are carrying the wounding, we must learn to look deeper than the behavior into what's driving it.
This is the gift of a trauma informed approach, as practitioners we can remove blame, shame and judgement and approach all of our clients whichever side of the dance they stand on with understanding and compassion, rather than projection and condemnation.
Only by seeing beyond the behavior and moving deeply into the adaptations of the nervous system are we able to treat the cause, so long as we are viewing our clients' issues as who they are or as behavioral we will be stuck attempting to treat the symptoms.
There are 4 parts to this article, please see part 3 and 4.
Peace & Blessing,
Matt Nettleton (Co-Creator of Embodied Processing)