Although I’ve used trauma in the title, this post is not about trauma or surviving trauma. It’s about the lessons I took from a concept I discovered whilst researching the effects of trauma on children. What I found led me to consider the ways we can shape and shift perspective when we’re making herculean efforts to achieve our goals but feel like nothing is moving.
Why was I reading about the trauma lake in the first place?
I’m an adoptive parent. By the time I met my children, I was the third person to occupy the role of mother. They have experienced significant early life trauma and I was researching the effects of that trauma. I was looking for ways to more fully understand their needs so I could be a better parent and help them make their way in the world.
In the 2 years and 8 months we’ve been together, my efforts to do this have been hit and miss. There’s certainly an improvement and our bonds are growing stronger every day but sometimes I feel scared and overwhelmed and I fear that nothing I’m doing will make much difference because too much happened to them too early on. When I encountered the concept of the trauma lake, my spirits instantly lifted. It caused me to look at my parenting efforts differently. It gave me hope.
Which led me to think about the other areas of life where this concept might provide the same hope. Cue this post.
What is the trauma lake?
Imagine you’re standing at the shoreline of a flat, still lake. Every time you throw in a rock (in parenting terms, this might mean resolving a difficult situation, getting the child to talk openly, calming a meltdown, etc.), there are ripples on the water. You can see that you’ve made a difference. Then, after a day or two – or maybe just a moment or two – the ripples disappear and you’re fairly certain you’re back where you started.
You’re not. Every single positive action is a solid rock. They are building up under the water and, as long as you keep throwing them, they will eventually pile up and break the surface of the water.
The concept of the trauma lake draws our attention to two things:
- The deeper the lake, the more rocks you need before you break the surface (see lasting results)
- Every rock counts
Mistakes from the trauma lake
Whether it’s therapeutic parenting, starting a new business or changing health habits, most of us tend to do one or both of these things:
- Focus on the water – we only value our efforts if we see tangible results but these often take a long time to materialise and we lose faith that they ever will.
- Expect the ripples to last – we’ve become so accustomed to magic-pill-type ideas and ‘quick fixes’ that we’ve come to believe in their existence even though our experience proves otherwise. We expect single rocks to create lasting ripples and they almost never do. We have to repeat things over and over before we see any lasting change but going back to ‘re-do’ something you thought you’d completed is psychologically far more difficult than doing it for the first time.
Applying the lessons from the trauma lake
Focus on the rocks
Rather than focusing your attention on your results, focus instead on your efforts because that’s where you have control. As long as you’re getting ripples – in other words, something is working – your goal is to keep throwing rocks. Being intentional about frequency and precision will help.
Frequency of throw
Let’s say your goal is to eat more healthily or quit drinking, how often do you think you’ll need to throw a rock (make a healthy choice)? You might think you’d do it once a day or maybe 3-4 times a day such as at mealtimes etc.
You’ll need one rock for every single time your brain sparks the thought of eating something or drinking something you’ve committed to avoiding. Every. Single. Time. Even now, you might be thinking, Ok, so maybe 15 rocks per day?
Nope. Research suggests we make around 200 food/ drink choices per day. When you look at it that way, every time you make it through a single day of healthy choices, you have thrown A LOT of rocks!
But, of course, the ripples will keep disappearing so you might think you haven’t made a difference. You have. It’s just not big enough to break the surface yet.
That’s where precision can help.
Precision of throw
When I abstained from alcohol, I tasked myself with learning about the emotional triggers behind my drinking. That was how my throws gained precision.
Instead of merely throwing a rock every time I felt a craving or had a thought about drinking, I spent time working out where the thought or feeling was coming from and how I could process it in healthier ways (still working on that – it’s a big project!)
That process meant I started throwing my rocks into the lake on top of each other rather than scattered around all over the place. I believe this is why I broke the surface and got lasting results more easily than I have in the past when I relied on willpower alone.
In my business, the precision of throw is something I need to work on. Take this blog as an example. I create content every day (frequency) but my audience engagement remains low. Why? Because I haven’t yet taken the time to learn how to market my content or establish what my audience most wants to hear about. I still write whatever pops into my head. Only when I address these things will I start piling the rocks on top of each other instead of randomly throwing them in the water.
Enjoy the ripples when you see them
Nothing is permanent and if you’ve set yourself a big goal, you’re going to be throwing rocks for a long time and you’re going to get tired.
I’m not suggesting you celebrate every ripple – celebrating too early tends to make it tougher to keep repeating the actions necessary to break the surface. I’m suggesting it’s worth focusing your attention on the fleeting moments where success is evident because these moments offer both motivation and insight.
You gain a better understanding of which efforts energise you and which drain you and you gather useful information about which efforts create the biggest ripples.
Prepare yourself psychologically – the deeper the lake, the more prepared you need to be
Ok. Back to trauma for a second. When I first adopted my kids, I thought it would take about a year to ‘fill in the gaps’ and then it would be plain sailing – if parenting can ever be described that way!
I vastly underestimated the magnitude of the challenge and overestimated the effects I could expect from any positive things I did. For a while, as reality sunk in, I felt overwhelmed and depressed. My not-good-enough-ness hit me in the face on a daily basis.
These days, I’m better informed and that helps me focus my mind in more resilient ways. I see each interaction as a single rock. When it lands well, I know I’ve added something and I trust in that process.
I avoid having expectations about how today’s rocks will affect tomorrow. I try hard not to compare good days and bad days and, when the good days come (there are a lot of them), I have learned to enjoy the ripples.
I find this approach a great psychological booster. It’s like shouting “bank” on The Weakest Link so you don’t lose what you’ve gained when you hit the next trouble spot.
Preparing yourself psychologically involves working out what bolsters you, what helps you maintain your mental and physical health and what keeps you focused on the things in your control.
Have faith in your ability to break the surface
If you keep throwing rocks, you’ll break the surface. The length of time it takes depends on frequency and precision. Your experience of the process depends on where you focus your attention and your ability to keep going depends on the stories you tell yourself along the way.
Believe in yourself. Have faith in your abilities. Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers you cannot be successful or happy.
Norman Vincent Peale