Many survivors of interpersonal abuse, in its’ various forms find themselves continually adapting to and evaluating their environment; specifically those in proximity who may cause harm. Anticipating the emotional overlay in an unpredictable setting is clearly proactive and protective in that survivors can identify when risk has elevated and thus plan some sort of intervention. Appeasing the abuser, planning to escape, mitigating arguments or planning for complacency to minimize harm are some strategies utilized by those exposed to chronic threat. Having a nuanced and developed defense strategy is advantageous and can help increase the odds of physical or emotional safety. As we travel into adulthood scanning our environment and reading subtleties in other people’s behavior forces us to detach from our own internal barometer that helps us connect to the basics of who we are as individuals.
Working with adult survivors of childhood abuse or those who lived with parents who may not have been abusive but perhaps neglectful or narcissistic turns our attention to the external. A common thread that exists is a lost sense of self, of likes or dislikes and a struggle to rely on authentic internal motivation for guidance. Additionally, because we are social animals, connection to others that includes the capacity of the other to tune into our wants, needs, or emotions help us to be appropriately attuned to ourselves. Those who love us and know us well can often see what we feel before we do; empathy and connectivity help us turn inward to become increasingly familiar with our values and who we are.
In the context of therapy, when I ask adult survivors about what they care about, like or dislike or want to do professionally (for example), the answer is often “I have no idea.” So, we begin the dance of determining what it feels like to want something or to have a distaste for something or to care about something. It can feel like a task that has no beginning, so, I have designed a scientifically sound method (this phrase is used loosely) for starting the conversation; it is a measurement tool intended to discern “wants” from “shoulds.” The measurement is called “The Broccoli-Chocolate Test.” I ask people to imagine broccoli and to describe the color, smell, and texture to me and then to notice what their body or mind communicates to them (most of the time it goes something like this…”I really should eat more leafy greens and vegetables.” And then, I ask them to describe chocolate (or something comparable) alongside the associated smells, textures, and flavors. The response to the chocolate is often something along the lines of “yum.” Again, I ask for the associated physical feeling and we talk about the difference between the broccoli and the chocolate.
The step that follows is of course giving permission to enjoy the things that are wants (which are different from coping mechanisms or escape strategies like alcohol or too much television, for example). Shoulds are easier to identify because unspoken and spoken social rules are fairly overt; we don’t have to turn inward to figure out that we are supposed to live our lives in a certain way or abide by the current social norms. Being guided by our value set is different from being guided by a should; an authentic value is generated internally whereas a should is generated and reinforced externally. Something we want or like reflects the little things about us make us unique; connecting to ourselves is not a frivolous pursuit.
So…if you want some chocolate (or some broccoli)….enjoy.