Reactivity is a Symptom of Childhood Abuse

I have a friend who read my memoir and reacted very strongly, shunning me and telling me to leave her alone. I don’t know enough about her past to speculate, but the off-scale nature of her reactions made me think.

Back when I was in the cauldron of my recovery work, I felt that way, too, as I describe in the memoir. Small incidents set off chain-reactions in me. If a tall, hefty colleague loomed over me at my office, asking for a favor, I became small inside, shaky, and helpless-feeling. The inner child’s reaction was all out of proportion to the magnitude of the incident. It was just a professional interchange, with a moderate amount of pressure on me to give out money from a grant, but the child inside felt it as an emergency in which this man would do whatever he wanted and I’d be helpless.

That’s reactivity. It feels crazy, out-of-control, and painful. It’s not a place we would willingly be. But I needed to be there and to understand my inner child’s reaction, so that I could understand what I had gone through years ago. Because my father violated me, because I was not allowed to set boundaries when I was small, a part of me remained helpless and confused. Now I needed to listen to this inner child, relive her pain, but have her see, too, that I could now set limits. I did say no to the colleague demanding funds; I sent him to a committee to make his case.

So here I am on the other side of it. This friend of mine must be really hurting inside to act so out of character. I feel hurt, rejected, confused, and wondering whether I really did something wrong. I need to remember it’s all about triggers, not so much about what I did as how she is feeling. All I can do right now is back off, understand, and wait and see.


Tender, raw, adrift in relativity
not knowing, feeling sad,
all the images are watery—
washed, wave-surges,
afloat, a pool of tears,
but you know
it’s salt water, it buoys me.
I can’t touch bottom with my feet
but something holds me up
lets me drift, suspended.
Lie back on the interface,
let the ocean of possibility
keep me. Open heart,
let it be washed by pain
and sorrow.

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