A child growing up in chaos becomes a survivor. The reason for the chaos doesn’t really matter. There are many possibilities: an addicted or alcoholic parent, sexual abuse, unexpected or early death of a parent or sibling, poverty, physical abuse, bullying, distant and emotionally unavailable parenting, adoption, or physical illness. This child learns the world is not safe and becomes an expert at getting by.
Getting by comes with a steep and invisible price. Getting by means we leave without leaving. We avoid anything that feels uncomfortable. We avoid life itself.
Getting By is Survival
As mammals, we are hard-wired to experience the adrenaline response. This is often called “fight or flight.” When our basic safety is threatened, our chemical processes are set in motion. This response is a reflex, not a choice. Cortisol pumps through our body, preparing us to fight for our lives or get the hell out.
Wait – we were talking about children earlier. Childhood pain, or adverse childhood experiences as researchers call it, puts this child in an impossible situation. When we are young and life is terrible, our choices are limited. Under the age of 12, exactly where can a child run? Children depend on their parents for survival, i.e. food, clothing, and shelter. As a child, how successfully can he or she fight the person or situation causing the pain? A child is stuck.
A child from hard places can’t run away or fight. The only choice is to freeze. To leave without leaving. This child growing up exposed to intolerable pain learns how to check out mentally and emotionally. He or she doesn’t consciously choose this approach. The psyche knows the choices are madness or death. Instinct takes over. Leaving without leaving becomes our basic approach to stress or emotional pain.
Getting By Long-Term
Avoidance is the clinical name for this behavior. I see avoidance, leaving without leaving, every day. I see it in my clients, and I experience it in myself. The urge to avoid pain is strong. Even a one-celled amoeba will move away from a pin prick. Our individual cells are wired to avoid pain. Short-term, avoiding pain is a great strategy. Long-term, the price is high.
A good therapist can help you break the pattern. We do this by helping you recognize when you check out. We will help you understand the cost of leaving without leaving. We will hold your hand (metaphorically or for real) while you learn you can tolerate the pain you are avoiding. We can lead you into the full embrace of life you long for.