There is no polite way to describe the feeling of being misunderstood. It sucks. It’s uncomfortable. It’s demoralizing. It triggers our nervous system into a fight, flight, or freeze response even though there is no physical danger. Any type of judgment or evaluation sets off our threat detection circuitry. (That’s true for all human beings, not just those in benzo withdrawal.) When we don’t feel seen, heard, understood, or respected, our body naturally gears up to protect us. That’s an added burden on an already compromised nervous system for those in benzo withdrawal.
Why Don’t They Understand?
There are many reasons why friends, family, and even doctors don’t understand the suffering that benzo withdrawal can cause. For some, the adage that “ignorance is bliss” is their way of navigating a complicated, chaotic world. They don’t WANT to know about difficult, painful and perhaps scary things. For them, it is more comfortable to dismiss these things as either non-existent or not significant. When I was deep in the throes of healing from a cold-turkey off of the benzo I had taken as prescribed, I ran into a few of these types of people. They argued that “doctors know best” and refused to entertain the thought that the medical community could be flawed in any way. That idea shattered their illusion that allowed them to feel somewhat safe in the world. If they got sick, they needed to believe that the medical community would know exactly what to do to help them. Others simply couldn’t entertain the thought that real suffering exists for innocent people. That idea scared the heebie-jeebies out of them because they wanted to believe that if they played by the rules and were good people, nothing bad would ever befall them. I encountered a few of these types of people. I was told that I must have done something bad to deserve what had happened to me. (Like you, the only thing I had done was trust my doctor.)
Others seemed to understand that I was suffering, but they couldn’t grasp the depths of that suffering. These people were prone to offering unasked for advice. “Think happy thoughts.” “Eat purple foods” (yes someone actually told me this would stop my withdrawal symptoms). “Be positive.” “Get out and do more.” “Get a job.” The list of suggestions that people offered me was a long one. None of the suggestions were helpful as none of them would remove the benzo withdrawal symptoms, and some were impossible to do, given my severe disabling symptoms. People offer unasked for advice because they truly do care and they think they are being helpful. They want us to feel better. Oftentimes it is hard to experience someone suffering as it reminds us of the pain and anguish that exists in the world. Being made aware of others’ suffering reminds us that we may one day suffer, and we don’t like to be reminded of that reality. So, we do our best to advise others on how to stop their suffering so that we don’t have to face our own vulnerability int the world. Giving advice makes us feels as if we somehow have control. But giving unasked for advise is a type of judgement. We are, in essence, saying, “You are doing it wrong. Do this and you’ll be better.” And what does judgement do to the nervous system? It puts it into a self-protect state where we are reactive instead of rational—not the best place to be to live our best lives.
Many people don’t understand our suffering because it is so out of the realm of normal. Who can wrap their head around the bizarre symptoms of benzo withdrawal? Who can grasp that a tiny little pill—and here is the kicker—taken as prescribed by a medical authority could cause such a cascade of horror? (I’m sure there are other reasons for people not understanding us and therefore not being there for us.)
What Can We Do?
Whatever the reason someone doesn’t understand what you are going through in benzo withdrawal, their inability to be there for you is about them, not you. Remember too, that the natural hardwiring response to being misunderstood is for the nervous system to go into fight, flight, or freeze. Let’s look at some of the ways we can reduce the stress and strain of that happening. However we respond, fight, flight, or freeze, we will feel the stress hormones flooding our system, which won’t feel good on top of our benzo withdrawal symptoms. Here are some tips on dealing with a “I feel misunderstood” triggered nervous system and coping with others:
- Remind yourself that “state drives story.” The self-protection response of your nervous will most likely drive a negative internal narrative about people, places, things, life, yourself, etc. Just observe the thoughts. Don’t buy into them. You don’t have to believe your negative judgemental thoughts.
- Remind yourself that people who misunderstand you reveal their limitations. Their judgments aren’t about you. They are all about their own biases, beliefs, fears, etc. We can offer those who misunderstand us our compassion instead of our anger. Easier said than done, for sure, but we can do our best to think our way through to a place where we can let go of what others think about us.
- Walk it off. Rock it off. When our threat detection circuitry fires up, it is good to move our body to help move the stress hormones our of us. Walk around the block, or better yet, take a walk in nature. Too benzo sick to walk? Sit on the edge of your bed or couch and rock side to side.
- Use this formula to respond to people: “When you… I feel…” This response is so helpful at reducing other peoples’ defensiveness (so that they can hear us!) that is is *almost* magical. The trick is state what it someone has said or done in black and white instead of using any judgment. For example, say, “When you tell me to think happy thoughts, I feel misunderstood (or whatever the truth is about what you are feeling). Don’t say, “When you act like you know what is best for me…” If you respond with anything that can feel like a judgment or threat you will have put the other into a self-protect state and they won’t be able to be there for you as they will focus on protecting themselves emotionally. In the above example, you leave room for the person to respond with “But I DO know what is best for you, or some other defensive response.
- Learn who you can trust to tell your truth to and rely on them for support. In other words, avoid the naysayers. You don’t have to educate anyone about the benzo withdrawal syndrome. It doesn’t matter if someone believes you or not, You know the truth. You know what you are experiencing. You know it’s real. You know you haven’t made it up. You know you aren’t seeking attention. And, hopefully, you know what a badass warrior you are for getting through benzo withdrawal!
- Avoid debates on social media about benzo withdrawal. Again, you don’t have to educate anyone or give advice. Keep your focus on your healing. Let others find their own way with their healing.
- Become your best advocate. Educate yourself so that you feel confident that you are following the most up-to-date ideas about how to navigate benzo withdrawal. Knowing that we are armed with the best information can help us to more readily and easily let go of others misinformation and/or judgements.
- Become curious. Instead of reacting verbally with a defensive statement to someone who doesn’t understand what we are going through, we can do our best to summon some curiosity. “I’m curious how you came to that conclusion.” “I’m curious what makes you have that belief.” True curiosity, instead of reactionary fear or anger, can diffuse a potential conflict and keep the peace. The trick is to be sincere, not sarcastic!
- Forgive. I know, it’s so hard to offer forgiveness, especially when we are so not ourselves in benzo withdrawal. However, forgiveness is the ultimate form of compassion. Forgiving those who aren’t able to be there for us goes a long way to helping us feel better. Carrying around resentment, fear, anger, etc. doesn’t help us heal.
- Gently offer a suggestion when you think it won’t be met with defense. Say “I know you care about me and want to help. The thing that would be the most helpful would be to ask me “What do you need, and how can I help?” When people ask those two questions, they give us agency over our lives and put us in the drivers seat. And that feels incredibly good in our nervous system!
Safety Is The Answer
No matter how you slice it, being misunderstood is a bitter fruit to have to swallow. Given that the brain and nervous system NEEDS and CRAVES safety, whether that is physical or emotional safety, it stand to reason that people react protectively to not feeling understood—they react to the perception that we are being negatively judged. Safety is the answer to everything. It allows us to grow, heal, and transform for the better. Safety can be an elusive feeling or percpetion in benzo withdrawal, but we do well to foster it to the best of our ability.
Want to learn more about fostering safety and how the nervous system works so that you have more tools at your disposal to recover from benzo withdrawal? Come join us at Mornings With Jenn. We meet live on a secret FB group, Monday’s and Wednesday’s at 9 AM pacific. You’ll also have access to the members only blog posts as well as the written content and video lessons for the Healing With Love and Acceptance Workshops. Come and join us. We’d love to have you. More info on the front page of benzowithdrawalhelp.com or join here:
Jen…I really needed this! I’m in my 4th setback (5 months long so far, constant, horrific symptoms and no reprieve) and this is the only setback that I asked for help from my siblings and adult children. (My 3rd setback my son, Nik and his wife, Kim only knew and helped and I was so less stressed!!!!!) During this 4th setback everyone has their advice, comments and opinions without truly being benzo educated or wanting to learn what upsets our damaged CNS and thus abandonment to me since I’m not doing what “they” say. Arrogant comments like “When you are ready to get well, give me a call” or not going to an “informative seminar” so thus cut off from help and yes, “think happy thoughts”, “sell your house and travel” or “go on vacation”! All of these are the last things we would want to do because we can’t FEEL JOY!!!!!! WE ARE NOT NORMAL but they don’t get it!!!!! I will try and focus on the ones that do and forgive the ones that don’t. Thank you.
Thanks Jenn for this amazing and soothing post, it came into my mailbox at exactly the right time for me, so very very helpful. I will refer to it often.
Good morning Dr. Jennifer! Your timing is always perfect. I really needed this. I was in a wave about 12 weeks ago and it ‘s started to subside a bit. Oct 30th marks 2 years in my withdrawal process. It is good to see this in writing about what people do and say that are so inappropriate and hurtful. I find getting up every day is a challenge and I am never without some sort of symptoms. I am always uncomfortable. I push through pretty much every day. You have given me a lot of tools to use to feel better and prayer really soothes my mind. You and everyone on this site I pray for daily. God bless u and keep u. barb
Jenn, thank you for this great post. I think it will help others to understand better how to handle our waves so we don’t get flooded with more “lack of safety” messages when our damaged brains and CNS are already in fight-flight-freeze overload. This anxiety is not something we can think away (although we can wish it away or pray it away). All we can do is to try to use our coping skills in the best way we can at that point in time.
Good Morning, This has been a Godsend. I am and have been codependent with therapy over the past FOREVER it feel’s. Many year’s of recovery and relapse for myself and my husband trying to navigate through this with sanity, grace, support and knowledge has been difficult to say the least. This blog and Professor Ashton’s 40+ year’s of research has helped me understand the symptom’s my husband has described along with the misinformation most Dr.s have to prescribing benzo’s and then becoming independent of them without destroying a life and family. We have been trained by a very archaic support system that say’s “One day at a time” “Go to a rehab facility” “Listen to your Dr.” “It’s all in your head” “Pray it away” ……… Finally some facts and true knowledge to help gain some strength to overcome this obstacle to truly understand. I understand now the physiological affect’s and that it is not him “drug seeking” In his past recovery it was up to him and this was his decision once again, not knowing that this may be perhaps his hardest addiction to stop thus far. My wish is this information becomes more mainstream and the medical community starts waking up. Thank you, Thank you
Thank you for your comment. It’s important to understand that addiction and chemical dependency are different things. Most people trying to get off of their benzo are not addicted. They are chemically dependent. When we relegate people who take their benzo as prescribed into the 12 Step Recovery model, we do them a great injustice. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the steps aren’t excellent tools. They are. They helped me stop drinking 9 years ago. But they don’t address the horrific suffering of benzo withdrawal.
In setbacks can they be non stop torture for 5 plus months. Can setbacks years later be worse then the begining with more intense depression? I’m 33 months and 4 1/2 months of non stop darkest nightmare.
This to me has been the hardest of all when your trying to tell people from the bottom of your heart and they say the most hurtful things or get mad..probably because they can’t fix it..or it’s been years and there advice is go to another doctor..I actually just did this I went to an eye doctor I have double vision and static vision along with some minor things left and it’s been nine years..my friends and family said this guy would help..I knew he couldn’t but I wanted to make sure my eyes were still ok..when I told him he asked me if I made it up..what a blow even though I expected it…I learned to be an actress and just keep going. It’s always something wrong but they can’t find anything.. That’s why people guestion it all..they want a diagnosis…sometimes it feels like a nightmare but I know I’ve changed a lot through this for the better..and when I’m healed. Watch Out its gunna be amazing!!! Hang in it will be ok like many others it’s just about time…thx jen❤️
Thank you. Have had a 5 month set back so far non stop. Can people really have this at 33 months out?
Sterling…I am in my worst setback EVER!! I was even healed completely 10 months before this setback and healed completely before all of my other setbacks. This is my fourth setback since benzo free June 2015 and I only took 85 pills from start to taper which was prescribed to me for sleep. I have NEVER experienced shakiness or anxiety until withdrawing. This setback is relentless, no reprieve, pure hell with the gut-wrenching mental torture, constant shakiness and all the other horrendous symptoms. I feel this is worst than withdrawal! Describing yours as a nonstop darkest nightmare is exactly how mine is. I’m in my 6th month now of this hell!!! I have been 48+ months out.
Pam, do you have head presssure and dizziness? Can you leave your house much? I don’t even know what’s wrong this is going in 6 months now and I’m 33 months off and never had anything like the past 6 months.
Wow I am so sorry to hear about the setbacks that people are having. I had my 2 year anniversary on Oct 30th. My last setback lasted 12 weeks and I am feeling a lot better. This is truly hell on earth when it cuts loose. The condemnation from people can really affect you. It is the one thing that can really get to me. I continue to pray for all that is on this site.
Sterling…I hope you come back to this site. You and I seem to be going through our worst setback and mental nightmare at the same time years later after stopping. I live alone and am barely making it thru the severe mental torture and the severe physical weakness. I hope you and I can personally get in touch. Here is my personal email: