Blog Post Written by Mimi Cole
Think back to the ideas and connotations of therapy in previous generations. Does Freudian psychoanalysis come to mind? Suppression of emotions and a sense of grit-and-bear it? Maybe you think of broken familial structures and questions about the id and the ego, or how it all comes back to childhood and our desires? Or maybe all of these terms are unfamiliar to you, and that is okay, too.
Therapy has changed very much over the years, but one of the most significant changes, in my opinion, is the relationship between clients and therapists. Back in the day, as the old phrase goes, therapists were often viewed as elusive, unknown individuals. It seemed to be unusual to know very much about one’s therapist’s life. Therapists were discouraged from sharing personal narratives as the focus was not on connection, but rather on resolving the client’s issues. This reflected a society in which therapy was stigmatized as something for “broken people” who needed fixing and solutions.
I believe the rise of research on vulnerability and human connection (think Brené Brown) and the bravery of clinicians with lived experience working in their fields has changed the face of therapy. We have learned that we are wired for connection and belonging through vulnerability, and this is a central aspect of the therapeutic relationship, in my opinion. Shame is that feeling of being exposed and wanting to hide ourselves as a result. This is one of the root issues that perpetuates the stigmatization of therapy.
The therapeutic space is intended to be a safe one, where the client is able to explore parts of themselves that have been wounded or that need more attention. The role of the therapist is to aid the client in understanding and living in alignment with their values. Therapy has become a space that is for everyone: for those who want to delve into their past and how it informs their current relationships, for those who have experienced trauma, for those who simply want to understand themselves more deeply or work through how to set boundaries in their relationships. Therapy is for those who feel broken and for those who feel like they have it together because it is about you and your needs in the moment, and we often see better from an outside perspective what we cannot see for ourselves.
In some ways, therapy does come back to our childhood; the way that we were raised informs how we function in relationships and how we view others and ourselves in the world. This can change with the forming of new relationships, however, and in community as we work through processing old narratives and reframing our stories in a new light. The ability to engage in new, healthy relationships is part of the trauma healing process. In order to unlearn the narratives that were shaped from past harmful relationships, we must experience good and lasting ones that show our bodies and minds that we are worthy, resilient beings and can receive affection, attention, and love (referring to an intimate, non-sexual sense of belonging we are able to share with others and are invited to be a part of ourselves) from others.
Recently, I have been reading the book, Maybe You Should Talk To Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed, and have really resonated with it. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is a therapist herself exploring her clients’ lives, as well as her own relationship with her therapist after an abrupt breakup. She talks about her own clients’ experiences ranging from a terminally ill patient who has cancer and is trying to make the most of her life to a man who works in media and is frustrated that everyone around him is an idiot. She writes about personal insights and discoveries in therapy as a therapist herself.
Gottlieb writes that “we grow in connection with others.” This rings very true; and how can we build relationships with others that we do not know at all? Self-disclosure is, to me, a very valuable tool in the therapeutic relationship, when used appropriately. Knowing that our therapists are not these far off, superhuman individuals reminds us of our shared humanity and helps destigmatize the idea that only “broken” or “really messed up people” need therapy. Even therapists often have their own therapists.
So, what does appropriate self-disclosure look like? It looks like thoughtful, considerate sharing of that which helps the client. This requires reflection and discernment, to navigate when to share an example or experience, and when to focus on the client’s experiences. Therapists must be careful in navigating vulnerability because while authenticity and trust are essential for this work, so too are boundaries and protection of the client from the therapist’s biases and needs. Ultimately, therapy is for the client, and often, the client is seeking deeper connection and help in rewriting new narratives of stories they are grappling with; and this work highlights our humanity and need for relationship.
Therapy sure has changed over the years, and it has a long way to go. Research has confirmed the importance of vulnerability, connection, and belonging, and therapists are making strides in the field to show up as their authentic selves and become more aware of how their own biases and narratives can inform their practices. However, there is still work to do in terms of de-stigmatization of clinicians with lived experience, ensuring therapists have appropriate spaces to be vulnerable themselves, and using our humanity as a tool in the therapeutic space to facilitate connection and further healing.
This blog was originally posted by Rachel Sellers on July 11, 2020. To see the original post visit www.rachelesellers.com.
Mainstream culture has adopted an extremely narrow-minded view and understanding of trauma, and we desperately need a paradigm shift. I’d go so far as to say that the health of our country depends on it.
If you are reading these words, you have experienced trauma and probably a lot of it. 2020 has been covered in global and collective trauma, as have the many years before that. Perhaps, as you reflect on your life, you think of a few ups and downs. But you think, nothing “that bad” has happened. You’ve “gotten over it”, you’ve “forgotten about it.” Maybe you have (or maybe you’ve just successfully repressed it?) Even still, you carry trauma in your body, both yours and what you’ve inherited from your ancestors, because you are a human who is alive right now.
Words like sexual assault, natural disasters and childhood maltreatment would likely fall into your socially constructed category of “trauma.” And these are certainly traumatic experiences. But we must deconstruct the narrative that only these “big things” are traumatic, that only the big things “count” as trauma. This lack of understanding has kept us, personally and collectively, in so much denial and pain.
Experts in the field of neurobiology, psychology, and psychotherapy have widened my understanding of trauma and its impact on the brain and the body. I’d like to share some of their wisdom and words.
Bessel Van Der Kolk defines trauma as “An event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then, it’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.”
Peter Levine says, “A trauma is defined by a shocking or a dangerous event that you see or experience.” He also states that the nervous system (your body) cannot discriminate between trauma and simply being overwhelmed.
Resmaa Menakem states, “When something happens to the body that is too much, too fast, or too soon, it overwhelms the body and can create trauma.” He also says (and I think this is incredibly well-stated), “Trauma is a wordless story our body tells itself about what is safe and what is a threat. Our rational brain can’t stop it from occurring, and it can’t talk our body out of it. Something in the here and now is rekindling old pain or discomfort, and the body tries to address it with the reflexive energy that’s still stuck inside the nervous system.”
Janina Fisher states, “Trauma is defined as an overwhelming experience that exceeds our capacity to make sense of it, no matter how resilient we are.”
Do you see a pattern here? Trauma is not the event itself, but rather what happens in our bodies when we experience something overwhelming. Trauma is a response, not an event, nor is it simply an emotional response. Trauma is what happens in the body. This is why, for example, two people may experience the same event, like hearing fireworks or witnessing a car accident, and have two totally different responses. This is because these two people are perceiving and responding to this event in different ways.
After trauma (which you have experienced), you experience the world with an entirely new nervous system. I wrote a blog post explaining the nervous system and diving deeper into trauma responses, so feel free to go read it! But what I’ll say here is this— one of the most pervasive impacts of trauma is the way that it affects the threat-perception system. This is our bodies “alarm” system, the system that alerts us in the face of danger (those moments where we really do need to fight, flight or freeze in order to survive.) Once trauma gets stuck in the body, and if it is not addressed, the body’s threat-perception system becomes extra sensitive, and we perceive danger when there is no danger at all. When this happens, your “thinking” brain goes totally offline, and your body reacts just like it would if you were really in danger. Stress hormones begin cascading through the body and you may become explosive for seemingly “no reason” and/or numb out and disconnect from yourself.
There are several opinions out there about what can and will change the world. But I really believe that if collectively and individually we all began to heal our trauma, the world may start to heal too.
I don’t believe in pathology, and I don’t think people are mentally “ill.” I think we’re all just incredibly traumatized and hurt. I think we’re also exceptionally creative because we sure have adopted a library of unhelpful coping strategies to deal with it. We’re pretty damn resilient, too. During these past two years of studying psychology and counseling, I have realized that what lives and breathes under the guise of a “disorder” is unhealed trauma. Anxiety and depression are consequences of a dysregulated nervous system, and if we want to achieve better mental health, we have to look at trauma and we have to engage the body. We’re not brains on a stick, people.
Several things get in the way of us admitting and facing our trauma, and what’s ironic, is that what gets in the way of us facing it is a result of the trauma itself. One of the reasons that we don’t face it is because we are still actively living in an activated, trauma-response state (i.e.: fight, flight, freeze, fawn.) We’ve become so conditioned to living this way that we don’t even realize we’re stuck and disconnected. What is actually a traumatized state has become our normal, this-is-how-I-am state. Another reason we don’t face our trauma is because we get stuck in this popular yet entirely unhelpful narrative— “But I don’t have it as bad as them.” Sure, maybe you haven’t been sexually assaulted or maybe you’ve never been a part of or witnessed a mass shooting, but the presence of such abhorrent violence and pain doesn’t discount yours. Your trauma matters. Period.
Look, if trauma is an overwhelming or terrifying experience, then we’re all traumatized. And if we’re all traumatized, then wouldn’t it make sense that the stigma for getting help might start disintegrating? I truly hope so.
Our bodies are resilient. They are as susceptible to healing as they are to trauma. If you want better mental and physical health, perhaps it’s time to look inside yourself. Reach out to a trauma-informed therapist who is well trained. Learn about your nervous system and how to regulate it. Practice deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation. Get curious about why you do what you do, why you think what you think. Start the work of befriending your body again and coming home to yourself. If trauma robs us of the ability to sense and trust our bodies, which it does, then healing must involve repairing the relationship with your Self.
At large, every generation that has gone before us has just been hurling their unmetabolized trauma onto us. This is called intergenerational trauma, and thanks to the field of epigenetics, we now know that trauma can literally be passed down via gene expression. Can we please, for the love, finally be the generation that moves through our pain and heals? Can we please stop blaming all the world’s problems on everybody else and maybe take a look at ourselves? Can we please stop hurling our hurt onto other people (ahem, racism)?? It’s seriously time to wake up. This work is long overdue.
Resmaa Menakem speaks to this in his book My Grandmother’s Hands, and he takes the words right out of my mouth. “As every therapist will tell you, healing involves discomfort— but so does refusing to heal. And over time, refusing to heal is always more painful.