Lies we tell ourselves

Elsewhere I have mentioned the seemingly outrageous statement from Bessel van der Kolk’s psychiatric mentor, Elvin Semrad : trauma is sustained by the lies we tell ourselves.

What lies?

I have been asked to say some more about this feature as it can create ‘obstacles’ on our scenic route. For a start, I can understand people taking offence at the statement. It’s a rude thing to say, about a sensitive subject.

Also, it’s a philosophical challenge. One person’s lie, is another person’s truth and who is to say ‘that is a lie‘! It’s a judgement call. Even so, the statement offers one way to confront the discounts offered up by all of us, including therapists, from time to time. I do not know anyone who is immune from discounting.

Furthermore, it identifies an obstacle that needs some attention and challenges us to seek out do-able things.

Some of the lies that relate to trauma

… and what can be done about them? The hyperlinked pages offer some specific small, safe experiments to catch your interest. Here is a sample – each in italics:

My feelings are all too much.

This is a tricky on a few counts. Who’s to say ‘too much’. It is not easy to face being overwhelmed, especially when we were once overwhelmed. Maybe the ‘lie’ simply keeps us safer by being cautious. After all, the phrase can be a trigger for fear – an emotion that works to stop us taking unhelpful risks. Therapy is an experience intended to help meet those high emotions in more helpful steps.

Safe experiments: act like a bottle of pop that’s been shaken up. The pressure can be released a bit at a time. Open the top without taking it off and for the briefest amount of time; then close it rapidly. This experiment is called ‘graded exposure’ and it is often used in cognitive therapies.

Another way is to work with our feelings as having something important to tell us, rather than as an enemy. Seeing anything as an ‘enemy’ only adds more fear to the equation. Governments around the world have fostered Project Fears to advance thier own ends. Such projects strengthen our distrust of our feelings. Distrust then adds yet another dimension to the relationship we have with our feelings and our reactions can get out of hand. There is a good example of how to this works when considering the impact on us of loss, separation and death. Look for the fourth illustration on ‘apparent small defeats …’.

I cannot face myself. Where the feeling tothat needs to be faced is likely to be shame. Any feeling or past event can be magnified by shame and we can, indeed, lose ‘face’.

Safe experiment: requires us to work with a range of feelings, including shame – as well as the ‘facts’ of the matter. EMDR is helpful here as it promotes a conversation between a memory of an experience, our beliefs and our feeling about it.

Also, there are a range of shame-based therapies to research and use. I like Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) as it offers a good excuse for arguing with ourselves in a managed fashion. That’s important as shame is a feeling shaped by our own unique experiences (by contrast, anger and anxiety are distinctly hard-wired. It’s easy to see it in others, but shame tends to ‘lurk’).

I will forget the person who died if I resolve my trauma and that must not happen. This is tricky as the processes of grief can help us find a different place in our memory when others are no longer in our life. Even so, the pain can be gone, but the person is not forgotten. We can find choices that help us make a different meaning about the people who have stepped out of our own world. It’s not all-or-nothing.

Safe experiments: examine your own Black-and-White thinking and reacting. Re-evaluate how useful this natural response is for you, now. Consider your alternative responses that may help you stay on your scenic route. On this website I refer to this behaviour as catastrophising from time to time.

Consider the Injunction and Drivers that sustain a fear of total loss, rather than a shift in your memory.

Use the First Person, Present Tense safe experiment to remind you where you are, now, and what is going on around you. Most often your circumstances will then reflect your present, everyday life. True, that can contain heart-ache and distress, but that is can be contained using the Subjective Unit of Discomfort (SUD) to measure changes. Most people, most of the time, will find that the measure varies quite a lot when rumination is confronted. The score is rarely 0 OR 10; it varies from 1 TO 10. More information can be found on such experiments well down this page.

I’m damned if I will forgive or forget: “I’m damned” encourages our resistence to change. At another level we can see ourselves as being a lost cause if we forgive and forget. That’s two obstacles-in-one, with more to come.

Safe experiment: any valuation (such as’ I am damned’) shows I am making meaning in my changed world. Even so my values are not your values, and your view of our world is not my view of the world. There are several pages on ‘meaning making’, and how to experiment with it. For example:

More on the scenic route

Finding compassion: what is it!

Stories we tell


I’d ask you keep in mind each page has a common theme; we can respect more our own meaning about this world of ours – and still be open to changing our view from time to time.

Its another person’s fault that I feel as I do. This is a tricky response to sort out when responsibilities and feelings become mixed up, one with another. I am not responsible for the action of others, judging that is delegated to the legal and medical authorities, and the like. I am the only one who can feel what I feel and outsiders have no business crticising the label I use to describe my feelings. This task cannot be delegated to another person.

Now that is logic, but logic does not always hack it, yes? So what’s an alternative when our feelings eclipse our judgement?

Safe experiments: see if thoughts in the head can be revisited.

See how thoughts in the head impact on actual conversations.

Consider how judgements can be seen as different from our feelings.

See who can be recruited to help you test out what is what.

I’m responsible for what happened to me: it is easy to cast blame when some things are random. Some things are not susceptible to explanation and others have little ‘meaning‘. It is less easy to see what the consequence is when we fit an incident on the line that is the Locus of Control (LOC)]

Also, it pays to know something about our neurology. Often we do not know ways to control our body responses. Othertimes, we think we can, when it’s a big challenge. For instance, there was once a view that our feelings too often over-rule our decisions and it was important to be ‘logical’. Now it is accepted thinking that our ’emotional’ brain (older, yet not so smart) can make a decision very quickly a- before we become aware of the ‘facts’.

Consider the practical impact on our decision-making when humans are gifted with younger, smart but a slower sibling!!

I’m not responsible for what I am now experiencing: this is a tricky one as I am not responsible for other peoples’ behaviour toward me, but I am responsible for myself and the way I understand what happened. That ‘understanding’ shapes how I respond to any incident.

I’ll never be normal again. This may be aimed at practical things, such as our sleep or to loss of ability; anything that was once taken for granted about our way of life. This is tricky because I will never be my Old Normal even though I’ve suffered no trauma. As I say elsewhere, I cannot step into the same river twice. Things change, most often in a slow and imperceptible fashion. Usually we think we are adaptable to change, but consider the evidence around you. We seem to do better with slow, gentle and continuous change. It seems to me, we are less able to multi-task than we think.

Traumatic incidents precipitate large changes in a short period of time. A New Normal arrives with uncomfortable speed. My experience is that most humans do not take kindly to rapid change! When we overrate our skills and over-demand of others, then it is easy to fall into an impasse.

Safe experiment: any controlled breathing exercise usually slows us down and can help us meet change in a measured way. That’s all very well with ‘small’ things, but trauma tends to trigger a crisis. It can re-trigger memories of an incident from years before and such reactions can demonstrate another ‘lies’ when our truth is that something is happening today and not in the yesteryear.

Crises and re-traumatisation do not promote healing for the most part. For the most part, we get better by developing important human qualities as described in the page on the Three P’s. This can happen under our own steam, and.or with the support of other people around us,

What may assist are safe experiments that let us pace change in our lives. Such experiments are involved in grief work. These are many and varied, but anything that helps us accept our reluctance to slow down can help. Anything that helps us argue compassionately with ourselves can contribute to measured changes.

My only solution is to avoid problems. This strategy can work once in a while and for a short time. Our problems rarely go away even if they are kept at arm’s length.

Some safe experiments: there are usually alternatives to consider for a while. Look for ways to broaden our horizon and be more creative have been considered at:

Problem-solving approaches

Other strategies beyond avoidance

What about how we ‘talk’ to ourselves?

I’ll stay watchful so I can see things coming. An element of watchfulness does just that, but it is tiring. After a while, if we are ‘too’ watchful, our ability to attend to what might help us in life starts to falter.

Safe experiments: Some neuro-science helps us see how our bodies can offer up some emergency supplies, but only for a short while. Once we become over-focused on an issue and ways around it, one experiment is ‘stepping back’. I mention psycho-drama as one form of therapy that can help here. You can adapt it to your own needs by developing skills in thought experimenting. Here is a page provided by a former client that comments on how this might be done.

I need to avoid or ignore other people. This commonly expressed sentiment coming from people who have experienced trauma seems connected to a mistrust of self. I cannot trust myself with others and ‘I am no good for others’. Like the Incredible Hulk there is concern that: “you won’t like me when I get angry!”.

The problem, here, is that human beings seem to be a sociable species and they seem to thrive more when working together. Cutting ourselves off from that line of support can have unhappy consequences in the medium to long term.

Safe experiment: one possibility is to find ways to ask for things from others. This can be an antidote to the Driver that keeps us at a distance. Any request will need to be graded – from the reasonably achievable to the more challenging. That’s why I place emphasis on the ‘small’ in small, safe experiment. Another direction to consider is calling on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. It emphasises that acceptance of ourselves is not easy and some ‘tough love’ may be needed to find the compassion that helps us to be different.

There is nothing I can do as my body just reacts to things. There is a ‘bottom line’ truth to this and you still do not need to let it rule your life. It is possible to seek out do-able things that can make a small difference. Over time, in my experience, small differences can add up. I am able to feel more empowered and to make useful things happen in my life.

The key is to know what might be changed and having a go. You can develop the wisdom to know what is best left alone. Does this page on the ‘impostors’ have something to say about the creativity you can find to design your next safe experiment?

Elsewhere I recommend B. Alan Wallace’s book: Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic (2012) as he has a lot to say about the scientific tradition and our vulnerability to the lies of ourselves and others. He recalls his struggle to find meaning in life – through Christianity as well as the sciences. He explains how, through the study and practice of Buddhist ways, he came to know the tension between study and practical experience. Like me, he complains about individuals seemingly less willing to respect the shoulders they seek to stand on. He sees others lose the vitality and purpose of Buddhism, with its long history, by making exaggerated claims that “lie about one’s discoveries” for self-aggrandisement.

You may have a question about my views on the ‘lies we tell ourselves’. Do ask away.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Other leads to consider’lies we tell ourselves’.

The Scenic Route

The inverted tree

A possible first nudge

When it is difficult to find a way to make a difference in your own life.