This article is an elaboration on this tweet:
Everyone is basically living in a dream mashup of their current external situation and whatever old emotional meanings are getting activated by the current situation. Like dreaming you’re at your high school but it’s also on a boat somehow.
What makes this metaphor really powerful is that, as in dreams, somehow the weirdness of this mashup goes unnoticed until you wake up (and only then if you think about it). And then even though you’ve noticed while awake how weird dreams are, you’re just as fooled by the next dream, until you wake up.
This helps explain the vivid reality of peoples’ experiences. The part of the brain that’s bringing up this old memory is experiencing something totally real—just as your high school is real. The part of you that’s taking in sensory input of the scene in front of you is experiencing something totally real—just as boats are real. But, unless you had a really avant-garde education, there is no real “my high school, except on a boat”.
So people experience these mashups in relationships as well, emotionally experiencing their friends & partners as if they’re a parent, teacher, sibling, or bully from childhood, or an earlier friend or partner. Or someone is an adult but when they talk with their parents, they readily overlay their experience of their parents from childhood, who had absolute authority over them. To be clear, it can be particularly strong & weird with trauma but as far as I can tell this is how meaning-making works in general. It’s just sometimes the mapping is a good fit and other times it’s really weird.
And, as with dreams, no matter how weird it gets—and how obvious that weirdness would be from the outside—we usually don’t notice when it’s happening to us.
“Because most emotional flashbacks do not have a visual or memory component to them, the triggered individual rarely realizes that she is re-experiencing a traumatic time from childhood.”
This quote an the one that follows are from an excellent article by C-PTSD Therapist Pete Walker about what he calls Emotional Flashbacks:
“Eventually the child grows up, but she is so dominated by feelings of danger, shame and abandonment, that she is unaware that adulthood now offers many new resources for achieving internal and external safety. She is stuck seeing the present as rife with danger as the past.”
“Over the course of therapy, I often reframe flashbacks as messages from the wounded inner child about the denied or minimized traumas of childhood. In this vein I paint flashbacks as the inner child righteously clamoring for validation of past parental abuse and neglect.”
Pete outlines over a dozen creative responses to the flashbacks, most of which are transformational and a few are counteractive. In the context of the overall very transformational approach he presents, the counteractive moves likely function to produce experiences of short-term empowerment for people, by consciously thinking different thoughts or avoiding triggering situations. This empowerment then fuels further transformation.
Briefly: what do I mean by counteractive & transformational?
These terms come from the Emotional Coherence Framework developed by Ecker, Ticic & Hulley. Kaj has an excellent summary of their book Unlocking the Emotional Brain here. Counteractive approaches to behavior change are based on trying to train and/or convince oneself to do one thing rather than another. This may work fine for simple mechanical habits but for anything emotion-based they require ongoing maintenance to perform some new consciously-desired behavior rather than some other behavior even though one still has urges for the other behavior in certain circumstances. (I would include thinking or feeling as a behavior here.) They can also reinforce compartmentalization as one develops a habit of rejecting one’s own thoughts & feelings.
Transformational approaches to behavior change are based on understanding what’s generating the behavior in the first place—uncovering exactly how it’s understanding the situation such that it’s doing what it’s doing and it makes total sense to do that thing. Then, by bringing that understanding into conscious awareness, it can take stock of the present situation and new things you’ve learned since it was originally stored, and if it no longer makes sense to do the behavior, that’s now obvious to the part that was previously performing the behavior. This process is called memory reconsolidation, and it results in persistent change that requires no maintenance since you’re not fighting yourself.
As anyone who’s tried to lucid dream can attest, noticing you’re dreaming is at least half the battle in the first place. Emotional flashbacks are in general quite seamless—they usually feel natural, not bizarre. What’s more, traumatic emotional flashbacks (as opposed to pleasurable ones like cracking up remembering a funny moment, or the feeling of “it’s like it was yesterday” when you reconnect with an old friend) tend to produce panic responses that make it harder to go meta to your own thoughts.
Doing a practice like Bio-Emotive regularly, for an extended period of time, can help. I observed in my 2019 review that
the Bio-Emotive retreat created a really powerful experience for people of realizing that when they become emotionally activated it’s usually less about the person or situation or incident that sparked the activation, and more about whatever historical emotional meaning was getting activated. So where in a typical conversation someone might say “I’m irritated by that sound you’re making!” with a kind of pushing away quality… instead at the retreat people would tend to say something more like “huh, I’m finding that sound surprisingly irritating… not sure what that is but I guess that’s something for me to NEDER about!” [NEDER is an acronym for the Bio-Emotive processing technique]
What’s going on here is the development of the basic capacity to notice the mashup phenomenon. In general, as far as I can tell, while how I’m feeling is always a response to what’s happening, the size and shape of that response have more to do with my history than the particulars of the situation. And this goes for other people as well.
So when I’m on my game I can notice that a small incident has induced a disproportionate anger or panic or whatever, and then differentiate “my emotional flashback” from “the present live situation” and respond creatively. Depending on the level of trust in your relationship, one useful move here can be meta-communication: “Oh man I’m projecting right now, something like… that I’m back in school and you’re my teacher about to punish me for not having done my homework”, or if you’re not sure what the actual content of the flashback is, simply, “I’m feeling activated and I don’t know why”.
Not knowing why is the default case, as mentioned above. By the time it’s obvious what the flashback is about, you’re partway to untangling it. Having said that, you are only partway—it’s easy to think that just because you have a conceptual model of “this triggers that memory from 3rd grade” doesn’t mean you aren’t still triggered. Untangling it does actually require standing in the full validity of that perspective, such as re-inhabiting being an infant or bullied or abandoned or whatever).
I used to think that it was the job of the person having the flashback, to recognize that and pull themselves out. That’s great when it works, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s really hard to notice.
Prior to the realizations I had last year about the importance of symmetry in trust-building, I also used to think that if I noticed someone else was in a flashback, the thing for me to do is to point it out to them and try to get them to wake up. Sometimes this works but in my experience it tends to backfire because it’s an attempt at controlling them. If they’re having a flashback in which someone is (on whatever level) attempting to control them, then this is only going to reinforce the very perception I’m telling them is irrelevant!
So I’m now seeing ways in which structurally it works a lot better if I’m able to respect the intelligence of the other person’s emotional cognition. Rather than saying “wake up – get out of that flashback – be present with me”, acknowledging that on some level they genuinely are having trouble telling me apart from someone who has (and would) hurt them. That doesn’t mean I am, but I can respect that they can’t tell, and hold a stance of humility that doesn’t say that they’re simply wrong for not knowing—maybe they know something I don’t. From there, I take on a playful improvisational stance that asks “how can I become an invalid target for whatever they’re projecting on me?” If this person feels like I’m their teacher, can I do something their teacher would never do? I may fail at this, but the important thing is I’m actually trying to give them new data to grok as opposed to demanding they reinterpret what’s already happened.
As I said above, the size and shape of an emotional response has more to do with the person’s history than the particulars of the situation, but all the same, there’s still something in what I was doing that resulted in them having had that response, in that moment, not a different one… and so that’s the leverage point. In general, creating safety for everybody is the aim—and if creating safety for the other person feels threatening or like it would make me unworkably vulnerable, I need to start by creating safety for myself.
Something to be aware of is that someone—particularly a friend or partner—going into a flashback can often trigger one’s own attachment trauma or fear of abandonment, whether some general feeling or a specific memory of a past disconnect that resulted in losing a relationship. It makes total sense to feel disconnected, since the person has in some way disconnected from the mutually-shared meaning frame and is overlaying something else. But if those fears get triggered in me and then I try to wake someone up from that place, I’m projecting an entire layer of meaning on top that says “don’t abandon me like X did”. And then the other person can probably detect that I’m not present with them! Which makes it harder for them to feel safe.
Calling other people out on projection rarely goes well (and often results in the other person defending or denying) but that doesn’t mean you should try to stop perceiving what you’re perceiving. If you have the chance to write something down, that can be a great way to affirm to yourself “I don’t know exactly what’s going on for that person, but definitely some part of it is not about me.” It’s possible to do that in a way that is disempowering and says “so there’s nothing I can do” but it’s also possible to do it in a way that actually gives you more space to explore what there is to learn about yourself and to explore how you might respond creatively.
(This move I’m pointing at here, to respect peoples’ sensemaking process even if it can’t trust you and to proactively make space for both peoples’ realities, is the sort of thing that becomes obvious with the lens of the Non Naive Trust Dance framework I invented/discovered last year.)
The emotional brain is a timeless sensemaking system. It’s supposed to rapidly assess situations and generate corresponding emotional states. This is the same hardware that, when you meet an old friend you haven’t seen in years, creates the beloved “picking up like it was just yesterday” experience. This is the same reason you can crack up when someone references an inside joke from a friend-group or a movie. Your emotional memories & learnings are available immediately whenever your system discerns they’re relevant.
This is the same cognitive process that allows a firefighter to rapidly recognize something suspicious about the temperature of the house he’s in and get his team to safety before the floor collapses—a specific case study from Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions by Gary Klein, which describes recognition-primed decision-making, a rare example of a decision-making model that’s based on how experts actually do it in the field, not on rationalistic models of how undergrads in contrived experiments should make decisions.
The brain is constantly generating a best model of what’s going on based on its past learnings, and this is a vital part of thinking. The fact that this is going on all the time is why in the original tweet exchange between me & my friend Qiaochu, we were talking about it not as just something that happens when someone is strongly acutely triggered, but as the default state. That most people are walking around and living their lives in different worlds depending on their different traumas and life histories.
The only reason that the mashups end up bizarre like dreams is that the generalizations tend to get stuck. And it’s not just big-t Trauma from abuse! Even if you had a pretty good childhood, there’s still lots of learnings that you inevitably picked up that were accurate at the time but aren’t very good generalizations for adult life. Learnings like:
And, unless you were homeschooled by incredibly integrated parents, or enrolled in an excellent Montessori school or something, you probably also picked up some learnings like:
That’s just a sampling, and only the official curriculum of schools—there’s also the unofficial curriculum you learn from socializing with the other kids, about eg what sorts of things might cause your peers to make fun of you. These learnings aren’t made out of words; they’re an embodied sense of the way the world is.
But, we might ask, why don’t people immediately unlearn these generalizations as soon as they’re no longer relevant? I’ve been puzzling about this for years, and I don’t have a full answer, but the picture is becoming clearer.
Shame, mostly—in part stemming from some of these very learnings. Untangling these learnings requires curiously exploring what they are and how they got there, which requires acknowledging that you don’t actually know why you’re doing what you’re doing—which goes against common cultural expectations that you should be able to explain yourself in some justifiable way.
Another thing that keeps it all in place is that whether shame or fear or sadness, most people learn in childhood that there are a lot of feelings it’s not safe to feel. The feelings themselves come to feel threatening, if expressing them means freaking out our parents or getting made fun of by our peers.
In my experience as a therapist, I find that almost all of us have a sense of annihilatory panic associated with our core vulnerabilities. This is an intense sense of threat, impossible to really put into words—“If I have to feel this feeling, I will cease to exist.”— Bruce Tift in Already Free, an excellent book that connects buddhism & psychotherapy
The effect of all of this is that we block ourselves from seeing the remarkable sensibleness of these unconscious perspectives when assessed on their own terms, a seeing which can then enable us to see a new sense we can make of the situation. Instead, we have the impression that we are simply being irrational and should snap out of it. These are deep confusions; waking up from them ongoingly requires a thorough reorganization of our thinking, not just a jolt into presence (which may help for a moment).
We are, collectively, just starting to realize what’s going on, and to thereby wake up from the collective dream of cultural memes from humanity’s adolescence that are becoming an increasingly inappropriate and bizarre mashup when overlaid on our current actual global situation.
We are living in the midst of not only a scientific revolution in our understanding of trauma and a clinical revolution in our ability to treat it but also a cultural revolution in our awareness and acceptance of trauma as a normal part of the human experience.— Tiago Forte in Groundbreakers: My Journey Healing Trauma, Unleashing Anger, and Awakening the Vagus Nerve
For more context on how I came up with this metaphor, read my 2019 yearly review: Divided Brain Reconciled by Meaningful Sobbing
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Intend, a system for improvisationally & creatively staying in touch with what's most important to you, and taking action towards it.