Most if not all of us have experienced some kind of trauma in our life, but not everyone will see it as a trauma.
Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.
But it’s not limited to acutely painful and life-threatening experiences such as abuse, bullying, car accident, natural disaster or war. Trauma can also be a result of neglect, unexpected death of someone close, betrayal, and medical procedures.
Anything that comes as a shock or makes you feel helpless is usually traumatic.
But whether an event is traumatic or not doesn’t depend on the event itself. It depends on how someone copes with the event at the point in time. It’s how stressful the event is to the individual. An adult who falls down from a bicycle might not feel that it’s traumatic, while a kid who falls down from a bicycle might not want to ride a bicycle ever again.
In this post, I’ll share my own traumatic experience, how it affects me, and how I deal with it. It’s something minor (commonly known as small ‘t’ trauma, as opposed to large ‘T’ trauma in psychology), so there’s no need to worry. This post would not be triggering.
And it’s easier to start with the small traumas than to tackle the large ones, isn’t it?
So here goes.
INFJ and the Fear of Public Speaking
Three months ago, I was interviewed twice in front of a group of people. Both times, I was nervous and I didn’t sleep well the night before. But I thought it was quite normal for an INFJ (or anyone for that matter) to be afraid of public speaking, so I didn’t think too much of it.
A couple of days after the second interview, I had a realization — I saw that my fear of public speaking is partly attributed to an incident I had experienced as an eight-year-old.
We don’t necessarily recognize the distress we felt as a kid.
When I was eight, my teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and keep the class quiet until the next teacher comes. Being an introvert and didn’t know what to do, I just stood there alone, still like a tree, and counted the number of people who are talking.
When the next teacher came in, she thought that I was punished. So she told the whole class: Don’t be as naughty as this boy or you would be punished like him. Then, she asked me to return to my seat and I did… without even clarifying the situation with her.
I always remember this incident but I often share it as a self-deprecating, humorous account of how unsuitable I am to be a school teacher. When I shared this story with my students, they asked me: Why didn’t you explain to your teacher that you were keeping the class quiet and you were not being punished?
And I thought to myself: Hmm… I don’t know. I just went back to my seat as though nothing had happened.
Trauma and the Freeze Response
I don’t necessarily consider myself as a shy person and seldom do I have stage fright. Plus, I had performed on stages multiple times and in front of an audience that is far larger than my recent interviews. But somehow when it comes to speaking in front of a group of people, I’m at a loss for words and find it difficult say what I wanted to say.
I couldn’t tell my class to lower their volume. I couldn’t tell my teacher that I was wronged. Even when I was answering the questions during my second interview, a part of me just wanted to give slipshod answers to what I had prepared and get off the stage immediately.
Why is this so?
Freezing is a natural response to a traumatic situation.
After reading several books on trauma lately, I realized that I was frozen when I was standing in front of the class. Most of us know about the fight and flight response. When there’s a stressful or life-threatening situation, we either defend ourselves or run away from it. But there’s a third response — freeze. It’s like animals “playing dead” when they face dangers. They make themselves less desirable to the predators.
It’s only now that I can empathize with my inner child, the eight-year-old me. A teacher will have a difficult time controlling a noisy class of 40 boys, let alone a soft-spoken, quiet, eight-year-old. I was tasked with an adult responsibility but I wasn’t even taught the skills to manage a group of people!
At that time, I was probably feeling helpless, misunderstood, and ashamed. But I have no recollection of all these feelings even though this memory has always been vivid in my mind. Freezing had helped me to block out all the overwhelming emotions that were too much for an eight-year-old to handle. So I felt rather numbed about the situation.
How The Trauma Affects My Life
Growing up, I just assume that I’m not good at public speaking and leading people. It didn’t occur to me that an eight-year-old is not supposed to have such skills!
It’s not that I want to be a school teacher or a manager now. But I can definitely see how it has limited my choices and influenced my career decisions. I often found myself avoiding leadership roles, quitting my jobs before I was promoted to the next role that requires me to manage people.
Avoidance becomes a habit.
And it’s not just career, it affects the decisions I made in my daily life.
One day, I went for my usual morning walk and I saw a class of schoolboys and their teacher at the river. My instant reaction was to walk somewhere else. Then, I thought to myself: Why can’t I walk past them? I noticed how uncomfortable I feel to be in front of a bunch of noisy boys. Subconsciously, it must have reminded me of how helpless I was previously.
Now, it all makes sense to me that why I never go to my class first thing in the morning. I would rather hide in the study area or somewhere quiet and go to class only minutes before the school bell rings. This is beyond preferences for serenity, it’s avoidance.
Avoiding crowds don’t really affect my life too much. I can live without public speaking, being a manager, or be in crowded places. But it does create invisible obstacles that limit my potential, my choices, and ultimately, my freedom.
Two Ways to Deal with and Heal Trauma
The human brain can be divided into three major parts:
- Neocortex brain (aka the rational and thinking brain)
- Limbic brain (aka the emotional and feeling brain)
- Reptilian brain (aka the instinctual brain)
The instinctual brain is the part of the brain that gets develop first. It detects threats, keeps us safe, and activates our flight, flight, and freeze response. It’s like a fire alarm. Whenever smoke is detected in the building, it will tell you that there’s danger through your physical sensations.
In general, there are two ways to deal with trauma — the top-down method and the bottom-up method.
The Top-Down Method
The top-down approach of healing trauma is by working from the thinking brain down to the instinctual brain.
It is commonly used in counseling, talk therapies, psychotherapy and etc. The therapist talks to you one-to-one. He or she tries to understand your history, the situation, and how you think and feel, then offer you a different perspective to change your behaviors and habits.
Our thoughts affect how we feel, which in turn, affects how we act.
By understanding the causes of our trauma, our wrong perception and belief system, we can choose to act differently. For example, after understanding my trauma as an eight-year-old, I can now consciously choose to walk past the noisy boys instead of avoiding them.
The Bottom-Up Method
The bottom-up approach of healing trauma is by working from the instinctual brain up to the thinking brain.
This method deals with our physical symptoms first.
It’s often used by trauma therapists to help you reduce, relieve, and regulate your body sensations. The therapists don’t need to know about your history or the cause of your trauma. Their role is to help you cope with the reactions and pain experience in your body.
Some of our reactions are not based on our thoughts and beliefs. They are based on our instincts. We react instantaneously to things, people, and events that we feel threatening or remind us of our trauma.
For example, when I was in university, we had to prepare a 5-minute self-introduction. When it’s my turn and after I said my name, Imy mind just blanked out for five to ten seconds. Looking at the audience made me froze like an eight-year-old. I kept searching for words in my brain but there weren’t any. My thinking brain had stopped working and the instinctual brain had taken over.
The Top-Down Method vs. The Bottom-Up Method
As INFJs, we naturally use the top-down approach because we prefer to self-reflect, find meanings, and generate insights. We want to understand why we behave a certain way and find the connection between our past trauma and our behaviors. It’s what our dominant function, introverted intuition (Ni), does best.
However, the bottom-up approach, as suggested by trauma experts such as Peter Levine, is probably the better approach to deal with trauma, at least for the initial stage.
When there is fire, put out the fire first.
You don’t go around finding the cause of the fire or how we can prevent the fire from happening the next time. When there is fire, we go and find where the fire is, and put out the fire first. It’s an emergency!
Knowing how your trauma affects your life and your emotions might not help you reduce your fear and anxiety at all. When you revisit your traumatic experiences, it might create more overwhelming emotions that you can’t handle at the moment.
Moreover, even though our thinking brain understands the reasons why we are afraid of certain things and events, our instinctual brain will still react automatically to triggers that bear a resemblance to our traumatic experiences. The body always remembers the pain.
When we have a faulty fire alarm, we need to fix the alarm. Our body needs to know that those triggers are not threatening anymore. It’s not just the mind that needs to understand this rationally, the whole body needs to know and embrace this.
So how do we go about fixing this faulty alarm?
We practice using our introverted sensing (Si) function.
How Does Introverted Sensing Play a Role in Healing INFJ Trauma?
What Is Introverted Sensing (Si) to an INFJ?
Introverted Sensing is the 8th function for INFJs. It’s one of our four shadow functions (the 5th to 8th function), meaning we don’t really identify it as part of our personality or who we are. It’s also the one that we repressed and most unconscious of. Sometimes, people called it the “demon” or “devilish” function.
Personality types with dominant Si (i.e. ISTJ and ISFJ) use this function to compare the present moment with what they have experienced in the past. They like to store data, details, and facts from the past.
INFJs often use the introverted sensing (Si) function unconsciously.
INFJs don’t really like to follow traditions and rituals. If we do look at our past, we usually seek patterns and underlying meanings that can be used in the future. Seldom, we will reminisce about the past just for the sake of it.
In fact, we often repressed our introverted sensing (Si) function because we tend to only remember events that have significant emotional impacts which, unfortunately, tend to be the negative, traumatic ones. Our introverted sensing (Si) function usually only surface unconsciously when we are under extreme stress.
However, there is an additional function of introverted sensing that is often overlooked by INFJs.
The Overlooked Function of Introverted Sensing (Si)
When INFJs use extraverted sensing (Se), we pay attention to the details in the external world — the sight, sound, smell, and etc. When Si dominant types use Si, they pay attention to their inner bodily sensations.
I’m surprised by how detailed my student can describe his bodily sensations at four years old when he was angry. Previously, when my other student said her rib-cage feels like broken, I thought she was exaggerating. But now I understand that she’s just more sensitive when it comes to sensing her body.
Be mindful of your body and accept the bodily sensations.
As INFJs, coming home to our body from time to time is important as our mind tend to drift away from presence.
Especially when we experience trauma and distress, we might over-indulge in extraverted sensing (Se) activities such as binge eating, watching TV mindlessly, drinking alcohol excessively to help us numb the unwelcome emotions and bodily sensations. In extreme cases, INFJs might also run away from their bodies by dissociating, disembodying or depersonalization.
We are not used to having such intense bodily sensations, so it might be scary at first. But if we are able to sit with these sensations and learn how to calm them down, we can slowly fix the “faulty fire alarm” and let our instinctual brain know that these perceived threats are no longer dangerous anymore.
Example of How the Introverted Sensing (Si) Works
I also didn’t have a good sense of the sensations in my body until the last three years. It’s only after my episode of depression when all my bodily sensations and emotions were exaggerated that I began to have more awareness of my introverted feeling (Fi) and introverted sensing (Si) functions.
Using introverted sensing (Si) might be awkward for INFJs.
Below I want to show you how introverted sensing is like in details in my recent public speaking experiences, so you can do some exploration of your own.
The First Level – Nervousness
When I was interviewed for the INFJ career workshop, there was this tingling, buzzing sensation in my chest. It was not apparent to the human eye. I wouldn’t have noticed it too if I didn’t develop the habit of observing my body.
I might look relaxed but I was actually a bit nervous.
My nervousness kind of shows towards the later part of the interview. During the interview, I noticed how I interrupted the interviewer all three times when he was repeating the questions from the audience.
That evening, I was also like super thirsty. I experienced this dryness in both my mouth and throat. You can probably see from the video that I licked my lips so many times!
But I just thought that I had three tuition lessons on that day so that’s why I’m thirsty. I didn’t think too much about it until the second interview I did the month after.
The Second Level – Anxiety
I was alright until the night before the second interview, I began to have insomnia again. Unlike the first interview where there were fewer people and held in a more cozy environment, there were more people this time and the venue was much bigger.
Coming in, I knew I was feeling a little nervous. As I was waiting to be interviewed, I sensed that my body was mildly shaking. But I wasn’t sure if that was a result of nervousness or feeling cold because it is quite common for me to shake when I was in an air-conditioned room. Then, I realized I was super thirsty again. But I didn’t have any lesson that day!
Gather more information before jumping to a conclusion.
What’s interesting is I noticed that when I was enjoying a music clip that was played, the shaking in my body was completely gone. It’s only at that time, I knew that I was feeling anxious.
Regulating the Physical Sensations
Luckily for me, during the second interview, there were two interviewees on stage. Not only was I looking down at my notes on my lap to recap what I should say next, I was actually regulating my breathing and keeping my over-reacted alarm system calm.
Focusing inwards on my bodily sensations helped to soothe the anxiety.
Then, when I was speaking, I searched for familiar and encouraging faces in the audience and looking at my interviewer friend to find some sense of security. Since I’m not completely alone on the stage, I felt somewhat safe.
If you look at the video, you might be able to tell the difference between when I was speaking and when I’m not.
When I was using my introverted sensing (Si), I wasn’t looking at the audience and I looked so serious! I didn’t even pay attention to what the other interviewee was saying because I didn’t want the environment to affect my mood further. So I intentionally shut down my extraverted feeling (Fe) and focus inward.
When it was my turn to speak, I was using my extraverted feeling (Fe). There’s where I became more animated and lively. A huge contrast!
After the interview, I noticed there wasn’t any trembling in my body anymore. Just a huge sense of relief. It’s like my body is free once again.
For Healing INFJ Trauma: Use Si first, then Ni and Ti.
INFJs are quick to interpret their experiences. But when it comes to healing trauma, it’s probably better to use the bottom-up approach first as suggested by Peter Levine.
Trauma is the trapped energy in our body.
When we adopt the freeze response, the energy to flight and fight get trapped in our body. Shaking and trembling actually help to discharge and release the trapped energy. Our body will naturally return to its equilibrium when we stay mindful of our body and allow it to do its job.
I could have analyzed why and interpreted my situation during the day of the interview. But it’s not going to help me cope with my anxiety. In fact, it might make things worse. I might come up with negative interpretations of the situation and not turn up for the interview.
But there’s not to say we shouldn’t use our introverted intuition (Ni) and introverted thinking (Ti) at all.
We can use Ni and Ti after we release the physical sensations in your body. Like in my case, my Ni naturally provides the insights and connected my public speaking experiences to the incident I experienced as an eight-year-old a couple of days later. I didn’t make any special effort to think about it.
Just don’t let the Ni and Ti interfere with your energy discharge and run away from the releasing process too early. If you don’t allow your body to discharge the frozen energy and complete the process, your body will forever be under the impression that it’s under threat.
And the “fire alarm” will always remain faulty.
If you want to find out more about how to love yourself as an INFJ, be sure to download my free eBook called Self-Acceptance for INFJs.
Featured Photo Credit: Flower / solarisgirl