For as long as I can remember when someone asked me how I was doing my standard response was “I’m fine, thanks”. The phrase was often used as a way to deflect what I was actually experiencing internally. Addiction recovery taught me F.I.N.E is an acronym which stands for Fucked up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional. It has been my personal and professional experience that when someone tells me they are fine, there is more happening under the surface. Words like fine, good, and ok are not emotions words. Sharing emotions is a scary idea especially for someone who has experienced trauma. I learned at a young age showing emotions was not safe.
I learned the language of shielding my trauma at home. Conflict was at the center of life growing up. There was not one corner of my life growing up that was not immune from chaos. I could not trust my own parents to validate my emotions if they could not express or respect each other’s or their own. Shielding myself from further abuse became my sole mission. To do this I learned that I had to keep my emotions to myself. Compartmentalization and dissociation were the keys to my survival. Externally, I would placate people by saying socially accepted things like “I’m good” to not arouse suspicion. Over time, I lost a sense of what I felt. I believed I was fine when I was not.
I’m fucked up is the golden thread belief that weaves into the fabric of my life. I believed no one would understand anything about me. If they tried to understand my inner world, then surely no one would ever want me. Others who experience complex trauma have also shared similar beliefs. Unhealed trauma has a deleterious effect of changing our identity. Today I no longer believe that I am fucked up. What it took to get there was repair work which included Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR), 12-Step work, and other spiritual practices I still use today. EMDR taught me that I had to unstitch the painful memories that weaved the lie that I was a fuck up. Saying “I am FINE” allowed me to live-in deep-rooted shame and hide from the world. The process of therapy also helped me connect that my attachment figures were not able to be present for me in ways that were needed and crucial to my growth and development. The experiences I had were fucked up, but they do not make me a fuck up.
EMDR helped free me from the bondage of a shameful past. I was able to find people like sponsors and a support system who validate what I am feeling while also challenging me to grow. Healthy people do not help you wallow and drown in the pain of feeling like a fuck up.
Trauma therapy and recovery work also helped me shift from believing I am a fuck up to seeing when I fuck up and make poor choices. Seeing that I make bad choices does not make me fucked up. It took years to unwire those connections. Before EMDR I tried everything under the sun to feel a semblance of normalcy. Alcohol, sex, restricting food intake, and other unproductive behaviors could not take away the pain I felt. I credit the adaptive information processing model (AIP) and bilateral stimulation for helping me transform harmful core beliefs into more adaptive ones. As we processed the bits and pieces of past trauma left undigested in my body, I began to feel lighter.
The lightness I felt from each processing session allowed me to accept who I was and the painful experiences I had been through. I also noticed a shift in the language I used to describe myself. I began to see the totality of my humanness. All parts of me needed validation. Until I could see their beauty healing feel far away.
Insecurity for me showed up in needing constant validation from others. Always feeling like a fuck up I never felt like I did anything good enough. I never felt worthy of love or of positive things happening to me. When I first entered recovery the acronym F.I.N.E. spoke to me because I often was insecure. In meetings and in large group settings I came across as a cocky know it all. I was not humble at all. I was planning to outsmart you and show you just how wrong you were. I used that intelligence to distance people away. Allowing people close to us after complex trauma opens the door to get hurt.
I could not afford to experience any more hurt, so I distanced you before you had a chance to hurt me. I walked on eggshells to not make waves for fear that someone could not handle what I had to say. Insecurity sucks. Repairing my relationship with myself was central to healing. I had to learn to date myself. I did not know what love was and how could I? No one growing up modeled what authentic, adaptive, and unconditional love was. I believed if I did not act a specific way for each person than I would be unlovable.
Dissociation exists on a spectrum. With the right environment and conditions people with dissociation develop parts of self as a way of protecting the core self from further pain, hurt and anguish. My brain and body did just that. My internal system developed dissociative parts to tend to different needs in the world and help me survive.
Recovery over the last six plus years has shown me I can embrace the various parts of me. Today I learn from their individual and collective wisdom. When I think about my parts of self, I’m often reminded by John Legend’s hit song All of Me
“’Cause all of meJohn Legend, All of Me
Loves all of you
Love your curves and all your edges
All your perfect imperfections
Give your all to me
I’ll give my all to you
You’re my end and my beginning
Even when I lose I’m winning
‘Cause I give you all of me
And you give me all of you, oh oh”
I must show myself love in order to feel love from someone else. When I am feeling insecure today, I practice self-care. From the simplest form treating myself to breakfast to the more complex side going hiking in the woods for days I embrace my imperfection. I cultivate a relationship with myself and my internal system. I can be a secure base for myself in ways that no one in my history can be for me. I learned to trust the process.
Being a person with a dissociative disorder I described myself as being polyamorous with my parts of self. When I am noticing insecurity, I check in with my internal system. It is important we value the needs and wants of our parts. Communication with others can also be helpful when a relationship is based on respect and trust.
Recovery has taught me to identify insecurity and take action. It is never justifiable to treat someone poorly due to our own insecurities. You and I are also part of someone. It is important to also look at how we sometimes treat ourselves poorly when we are feeling insecure. Instead of saying “I’m fine” and deflect from our insecurity it can be helpful to name them. Love & Kindness meditation helps me to become more compassionate toward myself. My mindfulness practices ground me to my higher self. I am careful about how I talk about myself when I notice judgment and worry.
Becoming a secure person is hard work. I look back on the person I was in my younger life and who I am today and can value the growth that has occurred. When insecurity arises do not forget to take stock of all the things you like about yourself. Gratitude practices were once something I laughed at in early recovery. Today, I spend time noticing what I enjoy about the person I have become. I am not perfection. I am progress.
As you are hopefully noticing the catchall phrase “I’m fine” serves as a keep away statement. Since the beginning of my time on earth I was filled with neuroticism. My core self was anxious to the max. I could not sit still with myself or the world around me. Anxiety and trauma are definitely twins. When people would comment on my anxious presentation and ask what’s wrong, I would answer with “I’m fine”. Telling people about my worries and fears felt like they would come true. The inner dialogue in these moments would be an internal war between how much could people handle, and would they judge me for what I had to say. With help I learned to find people who could accept what I was thinking without insult or injury.
People, like me, who have experienced Complex PTSD often use “I’m fine” to shield others from our internal worlds and past experiences. It is isolating enough to experience wounds and fear judgment. I never wanted to seem like I was too much for people. Safeguarding them from my emotions and experiences felt the only way to keep people in my life. I have since learned that is not the case. The right set of people will hold space for your experiences, anxieties, and needs.
Emotions are like the Charles Dickens novel A Tale of Two Cities which opens with the line “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” Emotions are both complex and simple. Emotions keep us alive. They can help propel us forward or keep us stuck. As I look over the course of my life, I can see a tendency toward numbness. Trauma kept me stuck in a feeling cycle that I did not like. To overcome this my mind and body learned survival strategies that severed the feeling connection. Dissociation became my new normal. “I’m fine” is the hallmark statement of dissociation. What it’s saying is I am feeling things that I do not like and do not want you to know about.
At various stages of my life being emotional took various forms from anorexia and starving myself to “control my emotions” to drinking until I blacked out. I clearly was not fine but could not feel any safety to express this. At some point others begin to notice and make comments about appearances or changes. These exchanges chipped away the fortress which protected my internal emotional life.
Part of coming back into sensing my emotions was also learning to embrace my parts. Sometimes the emotions I felt I could not explain in the moment. Trauma therapy and addiction recovery gave me tools to begin to listen. Being emotional is not good or bad. Emotions exist. What I have learned on the road of recovery is it only matters what we do when we are feeling emotional. We are not justified doing whatever we please from our emotional place because we feel like it.
Recovery requires us to feel the emotion and decide what is most adaptive way to process it. Sometimes we do not need to speak with others to process. For some people art can be a valid expression to give light to pain, darkness, and emotions which do not have words. Physical practices like running or biking can help provided we are not moving away from those emotions.
Identifying emotions helps the healing process. In session with clients who have difficulty with emotions I often give a feeling wheel. Having a vocabulary base combined with mindfulness or somatic practices can help demystify emotions.
Part of the solution is not to ask ad nauseam questions how the person is feeling. There may be times when there are no words to describe what is going on inside us. Accept when someone says, “I don’t know what I’m feeling right now”. Consider asking what someone needs in the moment, if anything, can help someone move from “I’m F.I.N.E.” to expressing what is occurring inside them.
We can no longer live with blinders on that trauma exists. Learn to speak the language of trauma and dissociation. It is crucial that we do not make assumptions and that we know what will make someone else feel better or connected. It is time we begin to create space in relationships and the world around us that allow others to feel heard, wanted, and loved.