One of the biggest shifts when acquiring a trauma-informed lens is to realize that there is no therapist, guru, healer, fantasy rescuer or parental stand-in who can heal you from trauma.
The old paradigm was that someone, an expert, would perhaps hand you a Kleenex, and then offer you wisdom and insight metered out in 50-minute increments. Maybe the expert took the form of a religious figure and you traveled to an ashram to sit at his feet. Or maybe you believed that fast-talking salesman who told you that if you hurried now you could buy your healing, limited time offer, two for the price of one, and we’ll throw in discovering your life-purpose for free!
We are so desperate for the pain to stop, for the confusion to end, for the relationships to heal, that we will try almost anything. No one wants to be told that their migraine will last the next 30 years, so it makes sense that we will look for relief from trauma in pills, doctors, and magic spells.
However, what do you do when that therapist you’ve been seeing for 15 years moves out of town? How do you cope when you are ejected from the inner circle for daring to question the guru? If someone has the power to heal you then they also have the power to take that healing away.
Besides, we’re missing the point here. Trauma means experiencing an overwhelming threat to physical or emotional safety where a lack of control resulted in not being able to protect yourself. Makes sense that in order to recover from this experience you need to regain your power and control. That won’t happen if the person who is supposed to be helping you on your journey holds the expertise and the discretion about how and when to share it with you.
I have seen too many people take on the role of rescuer to meet a deep-seated need inside of them. I also know that many of us like to be rescued because we didn’t have a savior when we got hurt and it sure would feel good to collapse into someone’s arms and have them airlift us to safety. Spoiler alert: We have to become our own rescuer.
Now this is not an attack on therapists or spiritual advisors or any person who provides much needed encouragement and support to those seeking to heal from trauma, but in the trauma-informed paradigm we are looking for ‘enlightened witness.’ ‘Helper’ and ‘fixer’ are off the menu.
The other day I fell into a deep sadness. My analytical brain, doing what it’s supposed to do, tried to find reasons for the sadness. By the time it had supplied all the good reasons I had to hate my life I was downright depressed! “Perhaps I need to see a therapist,” I thought. “Maybe I am going to spiral out of control!” chimed in the more dramatic part of my brain.
The trauma-informed part of my brain took control: “It’s just a feeling. My nervous system is dysregulated. I am ‘stuck on low’ (hypoaroused) and I need to get back into my regulation zone.” Just recognizing that I had control over the situation made the panicky feeling (and the drama queen that lives in my head) go away. I went out for a long walk in the park. By the time I got home, the sadness had abated despite the fact that my life circumstances were exactly the same.
Not to overshare here, but as a trauma survivor, I can also experience the other extreme of the nervous system. The other morning I felt agitated and nervous. It’s the kind of day I blow through the office like a tornado and everyone presses themselves against the walls. Recognizing the hyperaroused state (my colleagues would call it something different but probably not in front of me) I decided to skip getting a coffee on my way in.
Recognizing and being able to regulate our nervous system is just one aspect of healing from trauma. Of course, there is also recognizing the patterns that are conditioned into the body, the stories we tell ourselves based on our trauma history, the barely hidden fight, flight, freeze, appease responses that manifest in our choices… the healing journey is long and like many journeys, there is always something unexpected around the corner.
I would never tell anyone not to make use of therapy and pharmaceuticals or ignore the advice of mental health professionals but I will say this:
Beware the healers who hold you hostage in the same stage of healing they have achieved. Don’t accept their labels if labeling is how they cut and dice their own trauma into manageable distance. Cry if you want to but not because they expect it. Don’t proclaim yourself healed, or practice white-knuckled forgiveness of your abuser until it flows through you with grace and release. And above all, remember that healing is like giving birth… no matter how great your therapist is, she can’t do it for you.
Want to learn more about trauma and how to regulate your nervous system? Come to our basic or advanced trauma training facilitated by Louise Godbold.