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“1 Step Forward, 2 Steps Back, it happens again and again!” I hear this refrain from so many of the survivors I work with as they move to heal symptoms of PTSD.
One of the hardest things about PTSD recovery is that it feels like you don’t make constant forward progress. There are so many times that you work really, really hard to move ahead just one lousy inch. Then, as you feel good about that, something happens – a trigger, a new trauma, or someone says something in a tone you don’t like – and the next thing you know, you’re reacting instead of responding, and then the slip/slide begins. Suddenly, poof! you’re now two steps behind where you had been. Or are you?
If only PTSD recovery would progress in one single direction so that you could see results, hold onto them, and not feel like you have to keep making up for lost ground. Recovery is hard enough without the added pressure of thinking you’re succeeding only to find yourself failing. Or, as I like to call it, “experiencing unexpected outcomes.” (Because “failure” is a perspective. It’s what happens when things don’t go the way you believed they would. The problem is, things don’t know your beliefs, they just have outcomes. Your perspective judges the result and based on how much it aligns with your beliefs you call it a success or failure.)
I have a different take on the 1 step forward/2 steps back dance. It goes like this:
You can’t go back – In other areas of recovery you’ve probably already discovered that it’s impossible to go back to who you used to be. This is a fact; it doesn’t change depending on the situation. Technically, you can’t go back to who you were before your trauma and you can’t go back to who you were when you were “two steps behind.”
You can only feel like you’re forward or backward – Your feelings, however, can whip around in and out of the same space all the time. So, you can feel the way you did when you were two steps back, but that’s all it is, a feeling of being more depressed, out of control, anxious, panicky (or whatever applies to you) than you felt when you were feeling like you had moved ahead.
You can’t unlearn what you know – To move one step ahead means you’ve learned something new: a tool, a skill, a fact, etc. Even if your emotions get skitter you still have that new knowledge, which means, again: you can’t go back. The knowledge is yours; you own it, so you will always be at least one step ahead of the old “two steps back.”
You’re always receiving new information – Even when you feel like you’re slipping back, you’re receiving new information for the new moment you’re in. This feeling comes into an individual moment, one that is brand new, which means the outcome can be wholly new too. This is a moment unlike any you’ve ever experienced.
Familiar, old feelings happen in unfamiliar, new territories – Relocation therapy doesn’t work: moving from one city or state to another doesn’t mean you will never feel bad, unhappy, etc. again. It means you’ll feel those things in a new geography that offers a new experience of those old feelings with new outlets and supports for it. The same is true in PTSD recovery. Feelings can remind you of another time you felt this way, but that doesn’t mean you’re back in that time.
You always have new opportunities to make new choices and take new actions – The two steps back feeling is an opportunity for you to reclaim control. It’s a moment that takes you by surprise, and then offers you the option of feeling that feeling – and creating a different outcome this time around. You own your progress by reinforcing it – Any change can be frightening. Feeling better one step ahead can trigger fears you’re not even aware of: Do you deserve to feel better? Will you be safe if you feel better? Is it ok to be ok? The list goes on. When you feel like you slide back is a great chance to reinforce what you did to move forward, and so own it more deeply.
The PTSD recovery dance is tricky and complex. The music swells and contracts, speeds and slows. Learning a new dance is always confusing, frustrating and sometimes downright humiliating. Still, the process comes down to one question to ask yourself: “How badly do I want to feel better?” The more strongly you answer that question the more you will find the energy you need to get back into the rhythm of healing and cha-cha-cha yourself to the end of the song.
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