By Christie Bates
Often clients will say to me that they’re not so sure about this “trauma resolution” stuff. It’s very body-based, and people usually bring a lot of heady intellectual intelligence into therapy. They may be aware that they are carrying shame as a result of trauma but have little understanding of the fact that shame is also the reason that threatening experiences of danger, harm or neglect get “stuck” in the body as trauma.
(People) are not empty vessels. (People) are full of all kinds of knowledge, and they have explanations for everything. From birth, human beings are working hard to figure out the world around us. But we go about it more like the early Greek philosophers than modern scientists: reasoning from our limited experience. And like those early philosophers (who used to think that Earth was at the center of the universe) we’re often dead wrong. It’s very expensive in terms of mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself. It’s a big investment to say, “I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me…. — Philip Sadler, professor of astronomy and director of the Science Education Department at Harvard University
When we are young, we make sense of the world much like the early Greek philosophers. From our point of view, we are at the center of events. Stress in the household? We’re the focus and the cause. Abused, abandoned or neglected? We must have done something to cause it. Parents arguing? Our fault. Scapegoated by peers or teachers? Again, it’s all about us. In extreme cases, people have even blamed catastrophic weather on their own inability to be “positive” or good enough.
We are designed to heal from what we encounter in this world, but as The Grief Recovery Handbook taught us years ago, there are four conditions needed for healing to occur:
- A safe space to tell the truth about how we feel about what’s happened/happening
- Time to feel
- Permission to feel
- A supportive witness to our feelings
When these conditions are met, we become far more resilient to the inevitable humbling we face in life when bumping into our human limits. Without these conditions being met, we are left in isolation, without mirrors for our somatic experience. This very isolation is an experience of shame. For some of us, such isolation is the training ground. Instead of learning that we are basically good but limited beings, we learn we are not good and that we shouldn’t be so limited.
Then comes an experience that hurts. Rather than being able to accept that hurt as a natural part of life’s up and downs, we experience it as condemnation. Shame grows upon shame. We get stuck in our heads, trying to figure out what we’re doing wrong. All too often, we accept the self-centered explanation — that we’re bad, broken, ineligible for life. It’s powerfully reinforcing to the brain to “figure things out,” to have some sort of explanation. But this way of making sense of our experience doesn’t allow us to navigate reality any more than a geocentric view of the universe would allow us to navigate space.
One of shame’s darkest tricks is to have people feel guilty about the pain they’re in, believing that they “should be over it by now.” However, when we’ve not been present to the body – when we haven’t been able to provide the body with space, time, permission and presence – there is no way to be “over” an experience. It’s affecting the body in the present. If we get lost in the story, we can’t be present enough to heal.
So in trauma resolution therapy, we make the “expensive mental effort” to let go of the old self-centered, shame-based strategy for making sense of experience, and show up for the experience itself. When we approach a wound with the intention to heal, we are not interested in stories and interpretations. What we want to know is what happened and how the body feels now.
As we show up for ourselves to see what’s actually happening, we may have times that our presence simply allows pain to deliver whatever gifts it has before it leaves us. But in addition, we may also find that we experience a radical shift in our view of reality, when we see that the shame was in the event, not in us.
Each activity you perform is an opportunity to observe the ways mind and body can work together and how they can sometimes conflict. The mind can spend hours worrying about a simple task that will take the body only minutes to perform. Although the music may be long, the dance itself is short. — Gary Thorp, The Dust Beyond the Cushion
Now, the trauma of a lifetime isn’t going to heal in a few minutes. But all our brainy clients who value efficiency should take heart. In our somatic and experiential means of trauma resolution today, what would take hours in the old way of talking ourselves out of shame now takes minutes. What used to take days now takes hours, what took weeks now takes days. It is not magic, but it is magical.