Recently a friend going through hard times shared her experience with several of us. As we were comforting her, she played for us a voice message someone left on her phone in an effort to be helpful. It went something like this: “What you need to do now is focus on gratitude. Look for things that are positive in what has happened to you. When you are afraid, try to be grateful for being alive. This is my strategy – no matter what happens I focus on the fact that I am alive. Now nothing bothers me anymore.”
This message troubled me. I couldn’t say why at first – how can you argue with gratitude? Yet watching my friend listen to it I knew it was not the right response for her so soon after her trauma.
It reminded me of long years in my life when I worked with several therapists on my own trauma. I often felt I was not a good patient, for I was unable to accept what had happened to me or consider it from any perspective other than the deep pain I felt.
Messages seemed to come from one therapist that helped me not at all. Without ever saying it quite this way, she somehow communicated, “It’s all a matter of choice and perspective,” and “If you think positive, good things will happen to you.”
If she was right, it meant I was somehow responsible for the dark hole I was in. With this therapist I felt inadequate and at fault for my suffering.
Trauma weaves a paralyzing web of memory –what we call PTSD. I couldn’t achieve what seemed to be expected. It felt like being asked to grow a third hand or to heal a broken bone with a Band-Aid.
I was only able to make sense of it much later while in graduate studies. Our brain along with our entire body has deep layers of memory. When we experience trauma, everything associated with it is woven into the various layers of these memory systems. This trauma-associated memory includes our body with all its senses (hearing, seeing, smell, etc.) and the instinctual responses of the brain to triggers and alerts.
In addition to the post trauma triggers and alerts an enormous amount of pain is looking to occupy its space. As they struggle with the pain of trauma, people go through periods filled with intense emotions. Fear, anxiety, hopelessness, sadness, fatigue, regret, shame, guilt and despair are common responses following trauma (especially in the withdrawal stage in the ETI six stages framework), and they are embedded deeply in the web of memory.
As I pointed out in my last post, these emotions become triggers and alerts in their own right, in addition to the memories of the original trauma experience. That’s PTSD – a web of internal and external triggers – and it’s a complex web from which to disentangle.
Pain Prevention Transforms into Pain Perpetuation
The pain and sense of loss that follows trauma are so powerful that we go to great lengths to escape them. In addition, as time goes on, many people adopt a secondary set of emotional and behavioral responses that seek to draw on aspects of ongoing life as a resource.
But although the intention is to avoid further pain, many secondary responses actually trap us in it.
We scold ourselves for not being able to shut off the terrible feelings. But now we’re dealing with two problems instead of one. To the pain of the past we’ve added negative thoughts about ourselves in the present.
We catastrophize. This response is really only a form of scolding ourselves. When we constantly review the terrible costs to our career, relationships and peace of mind from not being able to “straighten up and fly right” we add hopelessness to the pain. Rather than giving us an incentive to “get a grip,” dwelling on these costs sabotages energy for growth.
We compare ourselves negatively to others or to ourselves in different times when things were better. Ditto the above.
We develop “pain-diversions” like binge eating, drugs, alcohol, shopping, sex etc. These may anesthetize us for a time to the pain of the past. But eventually the effect wears off and we are back to the same challenges as before. And now it’s harder than ever because most diversionary tactics come at high cost. We’re dealing with pain plus costs of one kind or another, physical, financial, emotional or all three.
We flit from one promising solution to another. Constantly trying all sorts of “this and that” provides diversion. But, in the end, we feel like we are chasing our own tail and we long for simplicity and durable answers.
Sitting in the Fire
Understandable as it is, resisting the pain is exhausting. An alternative that is quite effective may not be as hard as it seems. I call it “sitting in the fire,,” a name inspired by the title of a book on group facilitation by Arnold Mindell.
I discovered this from the hard knocks of my own life and continue to rediscover it in work with clients. When my eldest brother unexpectedly and tragically died, I felt I would never again live free from pain. As the sun rose each day and life continued, the dissonance between sunlight outside and agony within seemed impossible with which to cope.
From reading about grief and its processes, I realized that it would take a long time before I could engage with the pain and slowly gain a strong sense of life again. Quite to my surprise, when I accepted my state and let go of expecting to feel better, things lightened. The pain was still there, but somehow it was bearable.
I learned to say something to myself in worst moments: “So… I am in a really difficult time. Again! It sucks, again! It will take a while, but I am going to give myself the time needed to let it pass.”
Surrender to the current you are swimming against is an act of self-compassion. Lifeguards say that if you get caught in an ocean current you shouldn’t swim against it. You have to swim across or with the current to survive.
Moving against the current consumes a lot of energy. Moving with the current you feel better and you preserve strength for what lies ahead.
Take Mindful Action
Self-Compassion is not about being grateful for everything that is happening to you. Rather, it is about getting attuned to how you feel and honoring that feeling without self-judgment.
Until you are able to let go of the judgment, – let it be. Give yourself time to be present with what is here, whether anger, shame, guilt, sadness, jealousy, whatever. When you are able to name what you feel, you will find the feeling changes a little already, even momentarily.
Rest in this place, even if it lasts only a few seconds. Gradually, you will find you can stay there longer and go there more often. From this place will grow strength for further steps in the journey of trauma integration.
Experiencing Self-Compassion Exercise
- Sit in a comfortable position. Breath in 2-3-4, breathe out 2-3-4-5. Mindfully for 2 breaths.
- Consider: At this moment what weighs you down. Direct your attention to the first thing that comes in mind.
- What is it shaped like? Colors? Size?
- Draw this shape. (10 mins)
- Write down the following answers as if you are this shape:
Who are you?
What is your name? Why did you come here today? For what role or purpose does (your name) need you?
Read your answers out loud. Pay attention to where in your body you are responding at this time and note to yourself.
- Again – Sit in a comfortable position. Breath in 2-3-4, breathe out 2-3-4-5. Mindfully for 2 breaths.
- Consider what elevates you and brings you life at this time. What is its size, shape and colors? Draw it. (10 min)
- Write down the following answers as if you are this shape
Who are you?
What is your name? Why did you come here today? For what role or purpose does (your name) need you? What does (your name) need to hear from you right now?
Is there anything else that (your name) need to hear from you right now?
Read your answers out loud. Pay attention to where in your body you are responding at this time and note to yourself. These notes will help you identify what are your triggers and alerts (sense of inner contraction) and what if life-giving (sense of expansion). Read more about it in this post.
These two inner voices are a part of you. If the can, conclude by honoring your ability to feel both the pain and sense of life at the same time.