Unprocessed trauma stays frozen inside us in fragments of image, sensation, emotion, and movement. The fragments might pop up as if they are happening now, and we might also experience the freeze itself as immobile depression or as an unending emergency.
One task of healing is to weave the fragments into a narrative. “First this happened, and then that happened.” Another task is to gently thaw and inhabit the moving present rather than the frozen past. “And that was a long time ago.”
From inside a freeze state, it looks like our job is to arrange our life into a better frozen shape. We urgently seek the single right answer to any choice or dilemma. Under that pressure, there is no room for mistakes or for not having enough information (yet) to make the “correct” decision. We treat other people as frozen props to arrange in our perfect diorama, rather than seeing them as flowing, changing fellow humans.
If we had perfect knowledge and perfect control, we could be perfectly efficient and correct. Instead, we are messy uncertain humans in a messy uncertain world. We do not even have clear knowledge about what we can control inside or outside ourselves.
We may have learned a rigid, controlling style from parents or teachers who were also caught in frozen trauma states. At first, people with a more relaxed style might appear shockingly careless. Over time we might envy their lack of stress, as long as they do their share of preparing for the unexpected.
We each have different needs for control over our environment. Even if you know that some of your need for control and perfection comes from past trauma, commanding yourself to relax does not erase those needs. Instead, turn your attention toward your body and your breath. Do you sense tightness trying to hold everything in place?
Quietly keep it company. Listen for its story. Is it a young part trying desperately to protect you? With patient attention, young parts can come out of freeze and begin to relate to the present. You might experience trembling, heat, cold, or tears as frozen energy releases.
Experiment with letting go of control a little at a time. We can cope with a bigger variety of outcomes when we have access to our adult resources and skills. When we can ease our grip and see what happens, we can gradually build more trust in present safety.
When we exert less control, we allow more imperfection. Even if we try to force something to be perfect, we meet restrictions in ourselves and the world that alter what we aimed for. Trying to create perfection is exhausting and does not allow a project to end, or replaces the joy of making something new with unjustified shame at its imperfection.
In the present, each of us can find a moving balance between good enough, and striving for better. When we allow imperfection in ourselves, we can more easily allow it in the people around us, which is a relief for everyone.
In an emergency, we need to work all out to survive. When the emergency is over, we need time to recover, and then we need a rhythm of effort and rest that builds our reserves for the next unexpected or urgent event. Many of us work as hard as we can all the time, wearing out our vulnerable bodies and robbing ourselves of enjoyment in our lives.
When we build slack into our lives, we have reserves available for the unexpected, and we can explore and play. We can do things for no other reason than we enjoy them. We can build connections with others. We can dream and wool-gather and create and let the back of our minds work on problems that we cannot solve directly.
It is an act of profound self-care to add more ease and slack to your schedule. If your schedule is entirely full, add five minutes to your travel times, including travel time to your desk for video meetings. Sometimes an unexpected delay will use up that time, and sometimes you will have a moment to breathe, or drink some water, or look aimlessly out the window. Notice if it feels uncomfortable to have open time.
Are there present-time reasons for control and perfectionism in your life? One of the terrible costs of being marginalized is having to work harder for the same results, leading to more emergencies, less slack, and less overall enjoyment of life. Marginalized people generally receive less forgiveness from others for mistakes, increasing the need to try to control everything and be perfect, rather than relaxing into flow.
Ongoing bullying and abuse can make people shrink and rigidly avoid anything that might set off an abuser. That is a valid survival strategy while waiting for a chance to get away. Even in abusive situations, it is often possible to add more slack around the edges and create room for change and growth.
Enjoy the flow
When we come out of freeze into the moving, changing present, we can find more ease and enjoyment in imperfection. Our lives can flow like water, rippling smoothly over pebbles, swirling in turbulence at a large boulder, leaping dramatically over an edge, or collecting behind a dam until one tiny trickle opens a new way forward.
- “Efficiency is the Enemy” by Farnam Street Media