Trauma is an obliterating experience. It obliterates important parts of our identity; our sense of place and purpose in life; sense of predictability, security and order in the world; numerous brain functions; hormonal health and balance and in many cases it destroys parts of the physical body as well (whether through the trauma itself or through stress related and self-neglect induced diseases and injuries).
A lot of trauma recovery involves rebuilding things that were destroyed. Bringing back to life the sense of being a unique individual and knowing Who that individual actually is. Being able to differentiate and articulate more and more subtle sensory and emotional experiences that make us alive, multifaceted beings rather than cardboard dolls. Realizing we have personal needs beginning with survival and slowly moving up the hierarchy towards things like creativity and contribution. Valuing these personal needs more and more. Building self-esteem. Realizing we have precious human rights and feeling a desire to speak up about those human rights.
In this post I have identified four simple things that can help with this rebuilding process. When we generously give ourselves Space, Time, Silence and Self-Expression, we open up to and encourage the process of finding, repairing and rebuilding our Selves.
I added in the word “fierce” to the title not because I have been fierce; I’ve been quite the opposite since I got PTSD (“fierce” actually has not been part of my vocabulary for quite some time now). I added it because for the first time, I feel a spark inside me that can, if nurtured, one day become fierce.
The Story of the Car Dealership
My Mom visited me over the last couple weeks to help me buy a car (I have not had a car for a few years now). I really needed to own and assert my needs for Space, Time, Silence and Self-Expression during some of our experiences with car dealerships. I created the graphic at the end of this article as a Reminder to Self to never forget to be my own advocate and take all the Space, Time, Silence and Self-Expression I need before making any decision.
Car dealerships are strange environments. They kind of remind me of the “Strange Situation.” The “Strange Situation” is a laboratory environment used to assess children’s attachment styles. When conducting a study using the “Strange Situation”, a researcher leaves a child and their attachment figure (parent or guardian) in a room, then introduces a stranger. The child has to face several increasingly stressful events involving their parent leaving the room and returning, and both adults leaving and returning. The researcher measures the child’s manner of responding to each of these separations and reunions and it indicates whether the child has a secure or insecure attachment style.
Well, car dealerships are the Strange Situation of the adult world (lol) but they don’t measure attachment, they measure how well a person can stand up to psychological manipulation. Car dealerships actually seem to train their employees to behave in psychologically pathological ways with other people.
Car Dealerships Seem To Train Employees to Behave Pathologically
From what I have observed, traditional car salespeople either are trained to use, or just assimilate, a lot of pretty pathological manipulation techniques. These controlling and underhanded behaviors are encouraged, rather than discouraged, by their higher ups and business culture. Traditional car salespeople use every manipulative tool in the book to make a profit and win the game, so to speak. They see customers as prey to be conquered. We encountered the epitome of the Preying Salesmen.
Traditional Preying Salesmen use the following techniques:
- They use fabricated stories to invent more commonality, rapport and emotional connection than really exist in order to manipulate others.
- They make people doubt their own reality, knowledge and experience.
- They outright lie.
- They exaggerate certain things and minimize others.
- They deliberately withhold information.
- They intentionally create cognitive dissonance by telling truths and lies in the same sentence.
- They induce states of dissociation, fear and confusion in their customers.
- They exhaust by spending extended periods of time talking (we were there for over 3 hours)
It’s the opposite of self-improvement classes. Rather than attend classes in which they are taught to evolve into the most honest, upstanding, decent people they can be and to embody the cutting edge of their own best selves, it seems as if car salespeople go to classes where they are trained to self-devolve and use more primitive and pathological behaviors than they might otherwise use just being themselves.
So, when they saw us, an older lady and her daughter who has PTSD, walk into their car dealership, the game was on. We were probably seen as easy targets because of all the vulnerabilities we exhibited. Good thing I’m able to spot shenanigans a mile away due to all the BS I’ve been through in my life lol. Also I’ve read the research studies about how women are treated at car dealerships so was at least a little bit prepared.
Even so, I actually spent my entire therapy session last Thursday processing the experience we had that dealership because it was so stressful.
Give Yourself Whatever Time You Need to Process Information
I expect that this is because, due to trauma, there are a lot of tangled neural pathways and brain impairments. Among other things, likely factors that make processing information so difficult are that my brain has experienced and/or is experiencing:
- states of shock for extended periods of time
- intense, long-term activation of the reptilian brain
- long periods of disuse of the rational, logical areas of the neocortex
- long periods of dissociative states
- strong tendency to go into immobility (paralysis)
- age regression
- memory impairments
- constant heightened levels of certain stress hormones
These things make it hard to process information and come to a decision immediately.
So, at this particular dealership, we went on the test drive and the dealer wanted us to buy the car immediately afterwards. But I hesitated. I was still processing. My system was in a state of processing every impression I had of the car (physical, emotional, aesthetic, practical), all the features, reviews, everything I knew was a lie that the salesman had said, everything I knew was true the salesman had said, everything I noticed the salesman shoved under the rug and avoided talking about for no reason, and everything the salesman had said that I still needed to determine whether it was or was not true. I also had a memory of someone saying in an online forum not to buy this car due to engine problems that I still needed to look up and investigate. My system couldn’t process even a fraction of all that information in the 10 minutes the salesman was asking me to make a decision.
I wasn’t just overwhelmed by processing so much information. I was also triggered. I was in a heightened state of irrational, uncontrollable anxiety around the safety of the car’s visibility. Good visibility was the first priority I listed when my mom asked me what was important to me. And this car had a pillar in the way of my seeing clearly. But I was not able to really understand or articulate what exactly was going on with me.
What happened then is the salesman saw my hesitation as an opportunity to continue to up his game. His question to himself was, “What is the barrier to them purchasing and how can I overcome it?”
He told stories about his family to build rapport.
He pulled out random psychological techniques – for example, he asked at one point, “Have you made decisions you regretted in the past?” (I answered “Yes” and stared at him blankly).
He ran around and found another car on the lot for me to sit in to try to resolve that visibility issue which was the trigger for me. Sitting in the other car didn’t work at all to change the trigger. Triggers don’t go away by any use of the rational thinking mind, so analyzing another car I had no visibility issue with and finding the visibility the same solved it for him, but didn’t make a dent in the problem for me.
I don’t know if this was conscious but he was also exhausting us mentally and physically which was wearing down our defenses and ability to think logically.
Manipulation Techniques Backfire
Most of these manipulation techniques will likely backfire if used on someone with PTSD for several reasons. One reason is that some people with PTSD develop a lack of trust. When the salesman was telling a lot of stories about himself and his family, I suspected they were all made up. Even if they were true, given my lack of trust I would think in the back of my mind that they probably were false. So with every story he told to try to build rapport, I had more fodder to doubt and question.
Also, being hyper aware of danger, hyper sensitive and hyper vigilant, I was watching like a hawk for any sign of lying. At one point my Mom said something to the effect that I was having some overreactions to the vehicle’s visibility because I was being triggered. I said, “So you’re thinking I’m reacting like this because of PTSD?” (This wasn’t an argument, it was true – I was triggered and unable to get un-triggered because I was scared I would not be able to see well and it would endanger my life.)
Well, as soon as I mentioned PTSD the salesman created a story about his wife having PTSD. I could tell this story was completely false because I know it’s extremely difficult to admit that either you or a loved one has a mental illness. There will be some degree of stammering, lowering the voice, or hesitating before admitting this. But the salesman was all over it. The fact that he rushed headlong into talking about mental illness in his family without any change in tone of voice, hesitation, embarrassment or any other shift in demeanor was a huge sign that all the stories were being made up on the spot. Once I identified a clear sign of lying, that was it – I assumed everything coming out of his mouth was a lie.
Another issue is that, for me, the ability to decide degrades under pressure. The pile of stressful experiences I needed to process kept growing while I had less and less ability process the experiences at that time. To put it another way, all the stress he created with each successive manipulation technique became a larger and larger barrier to ever really understanding what I truly felt about the car itself, because now, before I could process all the information about the car, I would first have to to process all the lies and manipulation. Therefore, the salesman was working himself further and further away from his goal.
Unfortunately, I was always polite. I had a lot of trouble just saying that we needed to leave because I was dissociated. And this is another reason manipulation will likely fail on someone with PTSD. If someone is dissociated, immobilized and paralyzed they can’t really make a an honest, realistic, informed decision. I didn’t really care after a certain point. I didn’t relate at all to any of his techniques. He started to seem like a flailing, blabbering alien to me.
IMPORTANT NOTE: I think that at certain times, having PTSD could easily make it more likely a person will succumb to manipulation. It depends on where one is in the healing process. I’m in therapy and have been more stable since December 2014, but I would have been totally and utterly overwhelmed by this experience if it had happened in the first 6 years or so of having PTSD. I may not have actually paid any money for something I wasn’t certain I wanted, but I wouldn’t have had the presence of mind to see through all the trickery either. During the time I have had PTSD I have definitely been tricked by people into buying some stupid things – my boyfriend can list them lol. So it has been a problem. PTSD does reduce one’s ability to think rationally and compromises one’s natural defenses, making one vulnerable to pressure and manipulation. PTSD also can make a person not care about anything, including being ripped off.
NOTE: My mom tells me that in the middle of the dealer frantically trying to find out what we needed in order to buy the car, I said, with some annoyance, “There is no way I am buying a car today!” The dealer, caught off guard, was stunned. Then he gave up and we left.
Calm Alert Allows Processing; Processing Allows Deciding
“Calm Alert” is the state wild animals are in most of the time. A herd of deer, for example, is usually peaceful though still aware of their surroundings. If a predator comes, they enter the state of fight and flight and run away. When the predator is gone, they go back into calm alert and resume grazing. Their system releases the fight and flight energy through the act of running.
If they had gone into immobility (freeze rather than flight), then once they were out of harm’s way they would have released the energy through shaking all over. Animals allow the fight, flight and freeze energies to find physical expression immediately, whereas humans do not. Even in this simple example of going to a car dealership, I did not release any of the fight, flight or freeze energy until days later during therapy.
Animals allow the fight, flight and freeze energies to find physical expression immediately, whereas humans do not. Due to our larger brains, humans can be totally unaware of any instinctive requirements of the body.
During my therapy session last Thursday, my therapist helped me to process everything that happened at that dealership. She had me sink into the body sensations I had while I was at the dealership. I felt angry and wanted to push the salesman away and leave, so the fight (pushing) and flight (leaving) were activated, although at the time I was unable to put them into action.
This is exactly what happens during a traumatic event. Those energies that want to fight the perpetrator or run away can get frozen in time.
This experience at the dealership was not a traumatic event, but just like during trauma, all the energy inside me that wanted to get up and say, “We’re done here, it’s late and we need to get dinner” got bottled up inside in a big simmering mass of anger and irritation and never actually got translated into actions of the muscles, voice, and entire body system. So all that energy was still inside me as I sat there in the therapy session.
The therapist had me slowly express the actions my body wanted to express – in this case it was mostly my arms ripping apart the salesman – and this gently released all that energy.
And then, when the body sensed all actions that needed to be expressed had been expressed, the state of fight and flight diminished and I returned to calm alert. Then I could finally begin to process the actual experience I had with that particular car!
Don’t make a decision when in Fight, Flight or Freeze; find a means to enter Calm Alert first. Calm Alert is what allows Information Processing which is what allows Deciding.
In Therapy We Used The Imagination to Create Space and Silence
My therapist had me put the “hullabaloo” of the salesman and his manager into an imaginary box, close it up, and place it as far away from myself as I wanted. I chose a blue plastic box to match the dealership decor, and placed it 30 feet away. This allowed psychological space. This also created Silence. Quiet. Emptiness.
With the interference and pressure from the salesmen gone, my system could just relax and allow my impressions of the car to come up to the surface. And little by little I understood that I did NOT want that car because my body did not feel right inside it. And so, that was that, I finally felt resolution and felt pleased that at a certain point I finally did put my foot down and leave the dealership without getting that vehicle.
Self-Expression helps Processing
This therapy session illustrates just how useful it is to find someone who will simply listen while you express all the feelings, confusion, overwhelm, doubts and questions that are arising in you in the moment.
In this story there was a car salesman providing the pressure, but the vast majority of time I’m actually the one pressuring myself. I think it’s healthy to value productivity, but I also need to be realistic and take into account that there will be times I have not slept well, have physical illness, am triggered, perhaps depressed or suicidal and need to rest. It’s important to not succumb to pressure from outside, but it’s also important not to let yourself pressure yourself too much. Just say to yourself, “I’m giving myself all the time I need.” It’s both a gentle and a realistic approach.
The Comedy of It All
Actually, that whole experience at the dealership could be turned into a comedy. There was such a huge disconnect between myself, my mother and the salesman at certain points in time that it was totally hilarious. If only I had had a video camera. The salesman’s techniques were working on my mother but I was totally angry and dissociated. So she was saying things like, “Wow look at all the things this car comes with, and honey, he’s giving you this and that extra on top of it….” This was making the salesman hopeful while I was sitting there stewing, so angry but also too dissociated to actually understand or articulate why I was getting so pissed off. The salesman launched into yet another story about his family and how similar they were to us, and his stories got more and more ridiculous and unrealistic, which just made me angrier because I knew he was lying. The whole time my mother was thinking, “Oh what a lovely car, imagine if I had grand kids, that would be the perfect car for them…” The lengths the salesman went to to try to get these two women to buy a terribly overpriced vehicle were just comedic. It was kind of torture at the time, but it’s definitely a comedy when looking back on it.
So, if you are recovering from trauma, be generous with yourself. Put yourself and your needs first for a time!
Give yourself time… Slow everything down and take enough time to find out what is true for you. If you need to leave a situation, say you need to leave because you need time to think about it, and then give yourself all the time YOU need to do so. If you are pressuring yourself, gently say to yourself, “I know you value productivity, but I just need a little more time with this. I’m not as productive as I was and that’s OK.”
Give yourself space… If you’re used to being constantly interfered with, space will feel foreign at first. It might feel empty. But you can fill up space with YOU. Even if it’s just a Journal, give yourself some space where everything reflects you back to yourself. You may not have any safe space at home, but you can create a safe space in your mind, in a place in your imagination, in your journal, with a therapist, with a friend, on a walk, in a cafe. If you can create a safe space in a room your home, or your entire home, that is wonderful. Just do what you can.
Give yourself silence… Carve out a quiet moment to contact your own feelings and needs.
And give yourself opportunities for self-expression… talking, painting, dancing help process the energies of the trauma through your mind and body, so you can transmute them and shift parts of the experience. Tiny bit by tiny bit, things can heal. And as for the parts that cannot heal, I do my best to love myself as I am, with those wounds as part the painting I am painting or the dance I am dancing.
Heidi Hanson is an artist and writer in Asheville, North Carolina currently working on an illustrated book chronicling her journey healing from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.