Is self-reflection preventing you from healing trauma?
The path to self-awareness is usually seen as a positive journey. We tend to respect and praise those who are working hard to understand themselves, especially after experiencing trauma and unfortunate events in their lives.
But what happens when our search for answers becomes counterproductive and harmful to our healing?
Is it possible that the pursuit of self-awareness is toxic behavior that digs us deeper into a hole and pushes our loved ones away?
Toxic self-awareness begins as a healthy coping tool, like going for a run. But then it crosses the line into an obsession where you need the daily run in order to feel okay.
After a stressful day, it feels good to find that perfect quote on Instagram that speaks to your soul. You think, “Someone out there gets me,” and suddenly, you don’t feel so alone in this world.
At some point, however, the quotes aren’t enough.
“There must be a legitimate explanation,” you think, as you search for clarity on why you repeatedly blow up with your partner or have debilitating anxiety at work.
Suddenly you realize you went down a research rabbit hole, and it’s 3:00 a.m.–you’ve got work in five hours, and you feel worse than when you began looking for answers.
One on hand, it’s immensely helpful to understand the scientific reasons why our past trauma makes life, work, and relationships so stressful. It helps us feel less crazy when we learn that trauma triggers are real and how our bodies are wired to react to protect us from getting hurt again.
Alternatively, you might feel crazier the more awareness you gain because you can now name every single term that explains your reactions, but you still can’t seem to change them.
The search for self-awareness can become a toxic behavior when cognitive understanding creates more stress in our lives and relationships.
Journaling, visualizations, and researching articles are helpful in moderation. However, it becomes a problem when the mind becomes obsessed with gaining more information and buying the latest courses, all while the body stays paralyzed in the same patterns.
First, let’s discuss how our brains process new information and how our bodies respond to trauma in order to break down how self-awareness becomes toxic.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that gets activated when we talk and think about the past, make decisions about the future, and process the research we do about our unhealthy patterns.
However, scientific studies show that the prefrontal cortex goes offline when we experience trauma. Thus, the trauma gets stored in the body and non-verbal parts of our brain instead. Even when we become more aware of who we are through information and self-reflection, our bodies can still stay trapped with the trauma that’s stored deep inside.
When we become addicted to finding ourselves—peeling layer after layer—we get stuck in our intellectual brains instead of activating the body to release old trauma.
Our bodies are the vehicles for which we behave, act, and interact in the world. If our bodies are frozen, then we cannot change our patterns.
Therefore, repeating intellectual exercises instead of embodying the changes creates the illusion that we’re healing and growing when, in reality, nothing changes.
Here’s an example: You make a plan and even practice a script to use nicer words to your partner the next time you get upset. While your mind knows exactly what you want to say, your body still reacts and yells out harmful words.
The research and planning that you did went completely out the window. The self-awareness you had did not create a change in your situation.
Intellectual self-awareness that keeps us disconnected from our bodies and stuck in old trauma is toxic self-awareness—what was once helpful to understand and normalize our trauma is now an addictive behavior that keeps us stuck in the past.
Toxic self-awareness is most common amongst trauma survivors who have the deepest intentions to heal their past but don’t realize that their bodies are too frozen to follow through with the necessary behaviors to move forward.
Perhaps you’ve done the initial work of becoming aware and identifying your trauma, but then you get stuck by obsessively learning about it.
Do you think you might be suffering from toxic self-awareness? Here are 10 signs:
1. You’re constantly trying to figure yourself out.
Your body is physically present during social gatherings or at work, but you’re not really there. Your mind is constantly working through endless layers of trying to understand why you are the way you are.
Instead of being able to enjoy the moment with your loved ones, you’re often in your head wondering why you feel judged about something silly, or you try to understand the reason why you feel like running away from your present situation.
Even if you tell yourself to just be present, you often feel an overwhelming sensation in your body wanting to shut down and escape.
2. You overanalyze your relationship.
Your partner might surprise you with dessert on their way home, but instead of appreciating how much they want to make you happy, you question why they’re so nice. Maybe they are covering up something hurtful they’ve done?
You’re aware that you reject and question your partner’s acts of love because you have a fear of abandonment. You can even pinpoint the times in your past when something nice was used as a peace offering for something horrific done to you.
Even when you know that your partner has never done anything horrible like the people who betrayed you in the past, you’re still unable to release this fear and enjoy being adored in your relationship today.
3. You repeat affirmations, but you don’t believe them.
It’s one thing to repeat affirmations and remind yourself why you are worthy of love, but it’s a whole different experience to truly feel that love in your body, perhaps through your skin tingling or the sensation of butterflies dancing around your heart.
You may feel numb as you repeat affirmations that you deserve to be heard and then stay quiet in the moment of confrontation with loved ones.
Your mind knows how you want to feel and behave differently, but your body feels too heavy, frozen, or reactive to follow through with the healthy behaviors.
4. You’re addicted to finding quotes on social media.
You find yourself scrolling through your social media feeds for hours. You often don’t realize you just spent the last two hours looking at quotes and getting lost in the comments sections.
It feels good to absorb the information that fuels you with the hope that you can change, but once you come back to your body, you realize that you’ve been holding an enormous amount of tension in your shoulders, and you actually feel physically worse.
If you constantly look for relief through positive and inspirational quotes, but your body remains numb and stuck, then the quotes are not fulfilling their true intention to inspire you to take action.
5. You vent to anyone and everyone who will listen.
You repeatedly tell the same stories about your past and vent about the same exact issues to anyone who will listen. You’re aware that you’re secretly hoping someone else will give you the answer and clarity you need.
Even when you get the answers that you want, the relief is so elusive that you’re on the hunt again for the next person who can give you the next dose of reassurance.
It’s perfectly healthy and normal to vent to your friends, but it’s important to notice when it becomes a compulsive act of desperation.
6. You regularly have mind-blowing realizations.
You’ve been successful at gathering the information you need to reach clarity, and it feels like you’re finally making a breakthrough.
But when it comes down to the pattern you want to break in your relationships, career, and other areas of your life–it hasn’t truly shifted.
For instance, you have a massive realization that you’re unable to speak up to your boss because your father shut you down every time you asked for something. This has made you feel that you’re too much, and you learned that it’s safer to be quiet.
With this new awareness, you decide that you’re going to speak up to your boss the next time, but your body freezes up at the moment, and the pattern of hiding repeats.
It’s true that we need time to process new realizations in order to put them into action, but that is different than consistently reaching cognitive breakthroughs without being able to make a change.
7. Trauma research has become an obsession.
You’ve been down the rabbit hole many times. You’ve spent countless nights glued to your laptop and couch. You’re guilty of having tab shame where you have over 25 tabs open in your browser at the same time.
You know all about “Polyvagal Theory,” attachment trauma, and the nuances of how the brain and nervous system respond to triggers. But as much as you understand intellectually, your body and nervous system still react to old triggers as if the trauma from the past is still happening today.
8. You run through the same scripts in your head.
There’s a broken record inside your mind playing out the same scenarios of what went wrong and what you could’ve said differently. Maybe about a relationship breakup or a disagreement with a family member.
No matter how many times you run through the scene and understand how you could’ve responded better, you still put yourself down for how you handled things.
This awareness does not provide relief–it just makes you feel worse and more regretful.
9. Your journal entries look almost identical from day to day.
You write about the same issues and conclude with the same resolution each time you journal your thoughts. At the end of each entry, you have a sense of motivation and hope as you understand what you need to do differently.
Despite a sense of inspiration and awareness, you repeatedly come back to your journal with the same issues and little or no change in your physical reality.
10. You’re caught up on all the new-age definitions.
You can identify your exact attachment style, love language, and anything else that puts a list of symptoms in a neat metaphorical box.
You’re even aware of how it all connects back to your childhood trauma. But you still look for more information and learn new terms that tell you the same thing, just in a different shiny box.
No matter how many new definitions you find, you tie them back to the same memories of unresolved trauma, attachment issues, and low self-esteem.
Putting a different term on these core issues has not made them go away.
If you identify with any of these signs, then you might be suffering from toxic self-awareness. Instead of staying stuck in your newfound awareness, let’s talk about how you can shift this subtly unhealthy habit.
Here are a few body-centered and movement techniques you can use to practice healthy self-awareness:
1. Stay connected to your body whenever you learn new information.
Notice any sensations that arise in your body as you take in new information. Do you feel a heated energy rising through your body? Do your shoulders become tense?
Maybe you even notice that you haven’t felt anything in your body for the last five minutes—that’s okay. As soon as you notice, bring your attention back to your body and see what else comes up.
The more you shift your attention back to your body, the more likely you are to break the pattern of being consumed by your thoughts. When you train your brain to stay connected to your body through different thought patterns, you gain more power to access your body in situations where you’ve previously lost control.
2. Use intuitive movement to process new realizations.
If a visual quote makes you feel hopeful, how can you put that into a dance?
You might put on an inspirational playlist and move what it feels like to break through anxious thoughts. This allows your body to become involved instead of staying numb while continuing to scroll your feed.
On the flip side, if you notice that your body is tightening up as you go down a rabbit hole of research: stop yourself right there. Put on some gentle music to soften your body and release the tension. You could also shake it out and make big exhalations to let go of stress.
There is no right or wrong way to follow your intuition through movement. Just tune in and see how your body wants to respond.
3. Pick one movement or pose to help you stay safe and present in your body.
What is one movement or pose that makes you feel secure in your body? Maybe it’s a gentle sway or simply putting your hands on your heart.
This will be your safety movement—similar to a security blanket or stuffed animal that a child carries around to feel safe no matter where they go.
To do this, pick one movement or pose that you can use to stay present in your body as you’re reading another article or listening to a podcast.
Then, bring that same exact movement to the specific situation you want to change. This will remind your body and mind that you are safe, which will help you stay present and follow through with the behavior you want to choose instead of disconnecting or dissociating.
For instance, when reading an article on speaking up to your boss, you might choose to subtly squeeze your hands into a fist. Then, when it’s time to ask for a raise, you can do the same movement to stay strong in your body instead of chickening out.
Toxic self-awareness can creep up on us even when we have the best intentions to heal from past traumas and relieve stress in our lives today.
Staying in the cognitive realm of learning, reading, and other intellectual methods of gathering information can serve as a sneaky defense mechanism against connecting to our bodies, which is necessary to heal and grow.
If you want your self-awareness to create change in your life, it’s crucial to identify if you’re falling into an addictive pattern of gathering information that numbs your body from taking action.
Once you integrate this self-awareness with your body’s behaviors, you can break your obsession with finding new information and experience an indescribable sense of freedom as you finally leave the past behind you.
You have all the self-awareness you need–now it’s time to inhabit new patterns through your body and experience the lasting shift that you deserve.