I know you survivors know what I’m talking about when I use the term “the flinch.” It’s that thing you do with a new partner or someone you don’t know well. They raise their hand or move their arm suddenly to do something innocuous, and you…well, you flinch. Or maybe it’s the first time you hear a new partner yell loudly-probably not at you, but that raised voice causes an immediate reaction. Because in your past experiences, raised hands, loud voices, and quick arm movements foretold violence. A new partner once raised his hand to act like he was going to slap me after I made a sarcastic comment, and like lightning my hand came up and grabbed his in a kung-fu death grip. It shocked both of us. Him because he didn’t realize what he was doing, and me because I had no idea my reflexes were so quick and that my grip was so strong.
But what about the ‘emotional flinch’? WTF *is* an emotional flinch, anyway? I guess it’s not technically a flinch because there’s no physical action. Let me see if I can describe it from a survivor’s perspective. When someone has gotten into your head and messed around with your psyche and your emotions, manipulating things until you aren’t sure which end is up, you become guarded. Very guarded, and very careful about to whom you show your feelings and innermost thoughts. The emotional flinch happens once you’ve dropped that guard and let someone in, and something triggers an old fear response. Your emotional ‘fight or flight’ kicks in, and the old coping mechanisms rush quickly to the surface to protect you.
One survivor told me that when her ex psychologically manipulated her, she would push him verbally by saying the most hurtful and ugly things she could to goad him into a physical confrontation. Somewhere deep inside she knew she would recover faster from bruises than she would from the mental and emotional damage he could cause. And if he didn’t hit her, she knew she was hurting him before he could hurt her. I felt this so hard, because I used to do the same. I once told my ex to just fucking hit me and get it over with instead of playing this mental cat-and-mouse to break me.
Oh the games we play in the name of survival….
On the surface I know this to be true. I no longer have hand-shaped bruises on my arms or neck, scrapes on my back, or broken bones and sore muscles. But I do have ‘bruises’ on my heart, ‘scrapes’ on my amygdala (the brain’s center of emotions-no need to google lol), and a ‘broken’ emotional processing system. Those are my scars. You cannot see them, but I feel them every day. I no longer worry about getting my ass beat on the regular, but I *do* worry about emotional and psychological manipulation…hence my trepidation surrounding therapy.
So how do we heal the ‘emotional flinch?’ That’s a really, really, REALLY good question.