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Bouncing Between Emotional Extremes


If you’re a trauma survivor, you may ping-pong back and forth between a mindset of what my client Hua calls “poor me or screw you,” feeling like a total victim or ready to come out  swinging in response to perceived emotional harm. A Coast Guardsman (“Coastie”) for 20 years, Hua risks her life daily. She admits to “holding it together” all day then coming home feeling raw and taken advantage of by the rigid, high-pressure military system, or furious that it doesn’t have her interest at heart. 

She reported a typical ying-yang experience when she was called into her superior’s office and was told she wouldn’t get the time off she’d put in for. The meeting was held the day after she’d been up all night dealing with a boat fire which involved multiple injuries. The moment her superior said she wasn’t getting the schedule she’d requested, she burst into tears, feeling blind-sided and completely undervalued and victimized.

As the day wore on, Hua sank more deeply into hopelessness and helplessness until anger took over and she had all she could do not to storm into her superior ‘s office and rage at what she saw as the injustice of him “screwing her over.” She kept fantasizing about how to get back at him so he’d feel as humiliated and devalued as she did. 

In therapy the next day, we talked about how feeling sorry for herself and rage at others were her coping skills from childhood when she was expected to do what she was told, though she often received double messages from her parents resulting in her thinking she was following the rules, but then being chastised for not doing so. She admitted spending a great deal of her youth alternately feeling powerless or enraged at someone and wanting revenge. We talked about how those extremes were her sole choices growing up, modeled by her mother being a victim of her father’s fits of temper. 

However, now she wanted to do personally what she already did professionally, what I describe as driving within the lines—staying in the mental lane she wants to be in—rather than get caught up in feeling like a victim (when she isn’t one) or blowing her stack when things don’t go her way. She was skilled in rational thinking professionally and believed she could learn to transfer these skills to her personal life. 

If you bounce back and forth from “poor me to screw you,” take a look at how you might have developed these reactions in an attempt to feel emotionally safe. Then think about the skills you already have which help you make logical decisions for yourself and others. Use them and stay determined to drive within your lane no matter what happens.