The Challenge of Complex Trauma and Facing Ambiguity

Dr. Paul Dunion

Survivors of early complex, developmental trauma have little or no resiliency to effectively respond to ambiguity or uncertainty. Their resiliency is compromised by an overriding need of the nervous system to attend to safeguarding survival. How do survivors of early trauma become so averse to ambiguity? What happens to their resiliency? We can say that ambiguity or uncertainty suggests a possible threat to survival for a traumatized child. If that child can’t identify where a threat may be coming from, then the nervous system becomes unregulated, leading to an automatic response of fight, flight, or freeze. Being driven by a hijacked amygdala, traumatized children remain vigilantly patrolling in support of their survival.

Complex Trauma & Clear Thinking

What happens to a child’s cognitive processing when facing uncertainty as an adult? How are beliefs and opinions formulated? For many adults who had a chronically traumatized childhood, uncertainty is a condition to avoid at all costs, suggesting that some eminent danger sits waiting-in-hiding. Ambiguity is now defined as simply some cloaked peril.
As tolerance and acceptance for the unknown wanes, so does the need for immediate information increase. Since these adults were likely abused by family authority figures, any lack of clarity expressed by a contemporary authority figure will be immediately called into question. Typically, there is a receptivity to any charismatic leader exuberantly expressing opinions, regardless of how factual they are, ensues. As a result, conspiracy theories become extremely appealing. In a recent article in Psychology Today, Dr. David Ludden points out that in a confused world people seek answers that comfort us and fit into our world view, answers that offer a sense of control and security as well as an opportunity to maintain a positive self-image aligning ourselves with those who passionately claim to possess the truth. A history of complex trauma greatly amplifies the need to feel comforted with a particular world view, have a sense of control and security as well as have a positive self-image. This makes folks who suffered from chronic trauma especially receptive to conspiracy theories.
The consequence of not being able to cope with ambiguity is captured in the following by James Hollis: “Living with ambiguity, not being too attached to the old ‘certainties’, and learning what life needs to tell us whether or not we think we are up to it are, frankly, the only ways to grow, become more capacious, live a larger journey.”
When the ability to hold ambiguity comfortably is compromised, several significant consequences result, leaving us under-sizing the journey we live in:
1) There is a rigid attachment to black and white thinking with little tolerance for the grey in life. The most meaningful aspects of life come in grey: justice, love, freedom, responsibility, compassion, courage, integrity, intimacy, morality, a mature spirituality, and authenticity - just to name a few.
2) Since the above life experiences can be described as ambiguous meaning-makers, any adverse response to ambiguity can seriously mitigate the ability to create meaning in one’s life.
3) It becomes challenging to live life on life’s terms since life tends to unfold ambiguously by way of mystery and unpredictability.
4) Right and wrong thinking tends to seriously weaken a capacity to work with diverse beliefs, values, and needs.
5) The essential ingredients of curiosity, wonder, and imagination that support comfort with the unknown are muted. They are suspended in favor of maintaining reliable surveillance of the environment. In his book, The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel Van Der Kolk addresses the impact chronic trauma has upon imagination. “When people are compulsively and consistently pulled back into the past, to the last time they felt intense involvement and deep emotion, they suffer from a failure of imagination, a loss of mental flexibility. Without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better future, no place to go, no goal to reach.”
6) Having a clear response to the dynamics occurring in an intimate emotional relationship is compromised. In the absence of immediate, concrete answers to ambiguous emotional issues, participants simply feel overwhelmed.

Making Peace with Ambiguity

Making peace with ambiguity for adults who suffered from chronic developmental trauma will call for patience and receiving viable support. Here are several recommendations.
1) Learn to regulate your nervous system by first being able to distinguish a regulated nervous system from an unregulated one. Here are a few indicators of dysregulation: increased heart rate, shallow breathing, agitation, sweaty palms, increased muscle tension, becoming aggressive or withdrawn, and an inability to identify what one needs. extreme thinking – everyone, no one, never, and always.
2) It is critical to interrupt any shaming or ridiculing thoughts about your unregulated nervous system. It can help to recall that an unregulated nervous system once assisted you in your survival of childhood.
3) Physical movement by exercising or taking a walk can help to interrupt a freeze reaction.
4) Focus on both your external sensation especially the visual and touch. Visualize the colors, shapes, and textures in your immediate environment. Focus on internal sensations such as pulsation above the eyes, tight gut, increased heart rate, tense jaw, and flushed cheeks.
5) Upon reaching a measure of calm, acknowledge that you are learning to face ambiguity and the accompanying tension while letting yourself know that you are safe.
6) Give yourself the option of a physical boundary in order to support the feeling of safety.
7) Close your eyes and visualize yourself in a place where you feel comfortably free, courageous, intimate, or some other positive ambiguous situation. Hold the image for a minute or so and then begin to track internal sensation.
8) Speak to trusted others about your apprenticeship with ambiguity. Tell them how it’s going, the challenges, and the accomplishments.
9) Most somatic therapies can be quite helpful, I especially recommend Somatic Experiencing and EMDR.

The key to your deepening comfort with ambiguity is to stay with the above suggestions as they can be significantly restorative to your ability to feel curiosity, wonder, and imagination while being able to feel safe while carrying tension. These practices can morph into an evolving faith that more will be revealed at any moment when you are encountering the unknown. You will likely gradually experience a release of the feeling of urgency when encountering ambiguity. Let yourself feel appreciation for your commitment to bring deeper levels of meaning to your life.

Author's Bio: 

Dr. Paul Dunion has been in Private Practice for forty years. He is the founder of COMEGA, a semi-annual retreat for men in Connecticut, and the founder of Boys To Men, a mentoring community for teenage boys. He is currently a senior faculty member of Mobius Executive Training.