When’s it Going to Get Better?

People frequently ask me how long it’s going to take when they begin the therapy process. Sometimes people get the impression from things they have read or heard that Somatic Experiencing is some kind of magic bullet. Or they will sometimes ask about one technique after another, wanting to know if they will be able to progress faster if they switch to something else or try the other thing.

Seth Lyon wrote a recent post about this related to TRE, which was helpful. It’s good to be reminded that the fundamental feature of healing relational trauma is time spent in a relational field that provides an experience different from the one that created it. Because relational trauma is generally a result of repeated experiences, we cannot expect to talk about an event one time or even have one experiential shift and expect to be “over it”. In my own work, I’ve revisited the same core issues multiple times at successively deeper levels, having significant, life altering experiences – each one getting me closer to the health and freedom I wanted but couldn’t even know what it looked like. Then one day, I spontaneously experience a moment of parting in adult relationship without the ache of impulse to cling, and it’s shocking in contrast to practically every prior experience of painful contraction with endings.

RE: the “get over it” mentality…it makes me sad when I see or hear about these sorts of approaches, mantras, and magic techniques, because I totally get the way they prey on people desperate to make change.

The change is slow. It usually has to be. We know ourselves in relationship, no matter how unhealthy. Shifting means a fundamental change in the way we know ourselves. If it happens too fast, it can be incredibly disorienting, and we are fundamentally set up to achieve stasis. So when we shift, everything within has to shift to accommodate the newness, and that’s a big flipping deal. That’s the self-correction, our righting reflex. It also means that sometimes it fools our perception. New change that feels good can be perceived to be “lost” after we assimilate it because after everything inside changes to adjust and align with the change, it no longer FEELS new. And if the transition is REALLY smooth, we might not even be able to pick up on it at all. We just start to eventually notice that something is different, almost as if by magic.

This is the reason I am asking, ad nauseum, “Soooo, what seems a tiny bit different or better since we met last?”. This ability to pick up on small, subtle differences is key to moving the transformation process along, but it also is often necessary for getting a true perspective on the larger amount of change that has actually taking place over time.

The answer to the question “when” or “how long will it take” has two parts: 1) Every single little bit of relational work you do has an impact. I know it because I’ve seen it over and over and over. 2) The work is cumulative, and reaching your goals depends on the severity, frequency and duration of your past experiences, and consistency of effort going forward, as well as what your goals are. It is likely to be months or years.

The thing I’ve experienced my own process is that things just keep getting better as I keep at it. I am excited about reaching experiences in relationship I never even knew I could have, and realizing I’m getting ever closer to what I would call “learned” secure attachment.

The other thing I’ve noticed is that my clients who keep at it, get better. Not something I ever experienced with regular talk therapy, or CBT, or even mindfulness approaches. People learned to manage, or live with, the pain using those tools, but the core wound didn’t seem to heal. Integrated somatic approaches seem to be incredibly effective at making lasting change.

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Time Flies

I’ve learned a lot this year. Things have been changing so quickly that I haven’t been able to keep up with it in writing. It’s all been moving so fast, in fact, that I’ve been reluctant to write anything here for fear of discovering it wouldn’t still be true the next morning. The kind of learning I’m talking about is beyond thought. It’s a full body process that you can only live; you can’t really get there on intellect alone. It’s starting to slow down now where I’m feeling ready to write about some of it, and here’s a summary of my discoveries. I hope to provide more detail in subsequent posts, but feel free to ask me about anything.

There’s such a thing as too much travel
There is such a thing as too much work
The answers are rarely what we think…they’re generally much more simple and elegant than that
There isn’t any way to control what people will think of us if we say no
Living through each decision to risk being ourselves can be exhilarating
Unfulfilled commitments deserve attention and repair but not groveling
I fucking hate when I can’t or don’t follow through on promises to others
Greater self acceptance means accepting ALL of it
People are usually pretty willing to help if asked
Letting go of goals that no longer serve must happen, or consequences will ensue
Feeling greater pain when out of alignment with ourselves is actually a gift
Real relationship is so much bigger than what we’re conditioned to think it is
It’s very difficult to find place in Columbus, Ohio to live without the sound of perpetual traffic
It’s usually possible to slow down, but we go fast on purpose to avoid fully feeling
No, there’s really no such thing as an “other”
All experiences are just experiences
Arrogance has steep consequences
It’s not just OK to drop off the grid regularly, it’s essential
Periods of silence are not optional
All humans are beautifully and wonderfully flawed
Some decisions are painfully difficult…and this is the most important time to remain curious
Ignoring the needs of your body has a price; the longer you do it the higher the price
Play is not optional, but most don’t know this and it kills them in time
When in doubt, it’s ok to delay to avoid making a mess
When in doubt, it’s ok to risk making a mess and repairing it
Some self denial makes life worth living
Being a master of the obvious can be a really good and useful thing
Too much self-denial is self violence
The gift of real grieving is on the other side of fully allowing it without expectation of a gift
There’s no compensation for the pain of loss – accepting this is not nihilism, but freedom
Expect the unexpected
Balance is a verb
There’s no time like the present
Perfectionism in all its forms is a tedious waste of precious resources
There. really. is. nothing. other. than. the. present. moment. Nothing.
There’s always a choice between welcoming your feelings and putting sugar on top of them
There’s no end to realization
Going to bed on time is so good for me and I rarely am able to do it
Egoic consciousness can co-opt ANY experience, no matter how noble
Happiness actually IS the purpose of life

 

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Just Born

Could you be as gentle, and as firm, with yourself as you would a newborn baby?

Could you hold the same certainty of your own innocence, without expectation or demands that you would a small child or a puppy?

Could you behold every day the experiences of the place you are in your path, at every age, with the same wonder and awe as you would the baby’s tiny toes or first utterances?

Could you care for your Self and your right to be curious, creative, and make mistakes with the same ferocity you would a young child?

Could you give yourself the same structure and support and endless chances to make mistakes that you would the grade schooler?

Could you rely on the knowledge that life will offer care and repair for the hurts and tragedies the way you rely on the sunrise?

Can you rest even for a moment in the certainty of your belonging in the world, of your connection and to all others and all things, because…YOU ARE HERE?

Can you contemplate the mystery of both your All-ness and your No-thing-ness at once?

Can you look at the sky or the ocean or the giant redwood and feel the security of your smallness connected to the great-bigness of it All?

Can you take comfort in the knowledge that NO THING will ever last, whether pain or  joy, with the same equanimity in the depths of the ocean during a storm, knowing from your own depths that what you truly are is the only lasting thing?

Can you feel the way life supports you, breathes you, beats your heart, puts solid earth underfoot…without need of your interest or effort or gratitude or guidance?

Can you feel your fragility, your tenderness, your neediness, your dependence, without judgment or pity, just like you would the newborn baby?

 

 

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Love Letter

Darling,
You come to me in distress…exhausted, frustrated, at your wits’ end. You tell me of unspeakable pain, disappointment, and disconnection. As I listen, my heart aches for you…for often, parts of your story mirror my own. As we go along the bumpy path of the healing process, I rejoice in your joys, your discoveries, your triumphs, and make a safe space to explore your disappointments, pain, and tragedies. Sometimes there are periods of tumult and hopelessness, and disgust at the length of the process, and at times, at yourself.
I want you to know I am with you on your journey, and, also, firmly rooted in the truth of both of our existences. I have no desire for you to hurry because the journey is important, though I want for you what you want – to be better now. I won’t let you trample yourself and your experiences just to get to the end. You matter. The journey matters. Every moment matters. And it – the journey and all its details, and you and I, are held in something big enough to contain it all. We don’t even have to agree on what the something is, or that It exists. It holds us anyway.
I want to remind you that no matter how hopeless or stuck everything feels to you, that I am holding the image of perfect health for you, and that I truly believe you have everything you need to make it happen, and that your past experiences and current conditions in no way define you. I can do this partly because I have trod much of this path, and know it is possible because I am living proof. But mostly, it is because I now can see your perfection, not just as a body, or a personality, or a diagnosis. You are big, so big you don’t even know it. I can see your bigness.
I can always see the image of you healthy and strong, not stopped by fear, your gifts unleashed upon the world, the leopard, the spitfire. I want you to know that I will hold this for you until you can grasp, understand, fully remember your original template of perfect health and that every cell in your body is programmed to move in the direction of health, toward that original blueprint.
One day you will feel the love that lives in every cell of your being and in the entirety of life, in the wind and the trees and the stars, all one, all you, all connected, in love with yourself, and in love with love itself. I cannot tell you when that will be. I can only tell you that it is your destiny, and that I am honored to be with you on this part of your journey.
Namaste,
Cynthia
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Want to, Can’t

I think one of the most insidious effects of trauma is the inability to take actions that lead us where we really want to go. It’s referred to as having a sense of “agency” – the ability to freely move toward what we want. The mind knows exactly what we would like to do, but the body, the oomph, the drive, the energy we need to execute the plan, just isn’t there. I mean, not in a really sustainable, consistent way. We can force things for awhile, but it takes so much energy to do that that we can’t keep it up.

I say insidious, because it’s so prevalent, and also that we don’t (yet) identify the underlying cause, which is nervous system dysregulation or traumatic stress. The number of procrastination books out there, alone, is a testament to this. And we have many labels for this inability to act: motivation issues, laziness, anxiety, depression, or incompetence, if not procrastination. Our responses to it include everything from problem solving techniques and self help books, to positive psychology, crystals and essential oils. There are boot camps and coaching, and motivational talks. And when we exhaust the list without success, we can always find a doctor willing to medicate it.

Agency is the power to take control of our lives. Being chronically unable to take charge of our own lives comes from some internalized experience that to do so is unsafe. At some point in our lives, the survival strategy must have included suppression of that impulse. Somewhere our nervous system learned it was better to not act…basically, to freeze, in some particular instance, or maybe a lot of the time…and that learning is still deep within us, and thwarts our best efforts at change and movement toward our most authentic desires. Maybe we tried to act to protect ourselves, but despite our best efforts, something hit us too fast, and we didn’t have time to respond. The message the nervous system internalized is “I can’t protect myself”, or “I failed to protect myself” or “I need to keep trying to protect myself”. No amount of intelligent pontificating can fully compensate for the disabled life energy that is stuck in one of these nervous system patterns. It is not a “thinking problem”. Thought won’t get you out of the pattern. Most people seek help not because they don’t know what to do, but because they feel a conflict about it, usually a conflict between the impulse in the mind (“want to”) and that of the body (“can’t/don’t do it”).

You might ask, how does this happen? The nervous system can learn this response from many experiences in life: repeated invalidation when we’re young, multiple life events in a row with no time to process, a really big event like surgery or auto accident, other big losses, or long term continuous stressor(s). In all of these cases, a person’s nervous system encounters something it perceived as too big or fast or unrelenting to defend against, and likely did not have enough internal or external support to process that, the nervous system holds the message, “I was unable to defend myself, and it’s still dangerous, and I must keep trying to defend myself.” It holds the message in various forms of bound up energy originating from the impulse to act on one’s own behalf for protection that was never able to be completed, such as fight or flight.

This can tie up an enormous amount of energy in the system, impacting the ability to experience joy, connection, and the expression of our life force in all of its forms, including work, play, creativity and ironically, self-protection. Like a computer program open and running, too many of these experiences eventually bog down the whole system and it grinds to a halt. We can be hyper alert, pessimistic, or feel depressed, anxious, panicky, without purpose, missing meaning, or empty. There are so many different ways this blocked protective energy can express in the form of symptoms, it’s difficult to name them all. “Stuck”, “painfully blocked”, “not really living”, “just surviving”, is the way many of my clients describe it.

What can be done? Addressing the trauma component somatically can dramatically shift the autonomic nervous system by completing the incomplete impulses to protect self. Engaging in this process is a huge step that usually comes at the price of exhaustion…we’ve tried everything, and this Somatic Experiencing stuff seems silly and weird, but what have we got to lose at this point? It’s difficult to reach this point…admitting we can’t do it alone. We have a lot of stigma attached to identifying trauma, and also to seeking assistance for it. And there’s a bit of commitment involved – patience, time, and money. The experiences that were of longer duration are going to take longer to unwind than single or shorter duration events. This can seem daunting, but there’s a gradual, but significant and stable ongoing change that happens for the longer term work. I’ve never had quite the same experience with regular talk therapy. It can be incredibly satisfying to experience the getting unstuck and gradually becoming more empowered from a place that feels suprisingly natural and not forced. One discovers that true agency is one’s birthright, and not something got at solely by trying to change our thinking.

What if I’m not ready, or feel an aversion to self-identifying as having trauma? You can think of it as traumatic stress, or nervous system dysregulation, if that helps. A mindfulness practice can also be very supportive for noticing the patterns and separating out the past from present entwined in our responses to life. It can help us contact the truth of our experience. Mindfulness and meditation alone don’t generally fully resolve these learned patterns, but do make them ever so clear and obvious. Being more conscious to them gives us a bit more choice then we may have had before, which alone is still really helpful. In therapy, mindfulness can support the tracking with attention, our experience in the present moment for clues to what is needed for completion, be it movement, emotion, or fully sensing the experience of something inside.

Last but not least, we want to be kind to ourselves in this process, wherever we are in it. Everyone has stuff. If someone is annoying as heck and everybody but them knows it…that’s their stuff getting in the way. If you’re annoyed all the time, and no one else seems to be, then that’s your stuff at work. Self compassion means seeking support and being a support to ourselves when needed. Self compassion is something that also seems to occur naturally as an outcome of Somatic Experiencing, but there can also be great benefit from practices that cultivate self compassion, as well as those that cultivate gratitude. These practices make an excellent complement to somatic therapy because they cultivate friendliness toward self, and build the brain’s ability to notice the positive more organically. I tell people if they want to save some money, they can work on these pieces – mindfulness, self compassion, and gratitude – outside of session, because these activities support the movement toward trauma renegotiation and healthy nervous system regulation. Self compassion means having moments of intentionally putting down the whip or whatever we’re using to force ourself through our days, and being curious about another way to be. There is another way to be.

 

 

 

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Mindfulness Backlash

I’ve seen multiple posts and articles recently bashing mindfulness and meditation as misleading, fads, or even as dangerous. There is some truth in these articles, but I also think some of it amounts to throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Is meditation a good or bad thing? As my policy professor Dr. Mary Marvel was fond of saying when someone would ask her stance on a particular topic, “It depends.”

What I think some take issue with is the way that meditation can be offered as an escape, and is often sold as a panacea to pretty much whatever might ail us.

For trauma therapists trained in psychobiological dynamics, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that while mindfulness can be helpful, practice can sometimes prevent people from getting help because they have the mistaken impression that meditation can get rid of their trauma. Sometimes the practices themselves can even interfere with trauma treatment because of the strongly held desire to avoid feeling difficult emotions, and which meditation and mindfulness practices can assist in doing. Sometimes people just trade a less successful form of control, for a more successful one (meditation practice).

These misunderstandings arise due to multiple issues: teachings with nonwestern cultural assumptions embedded in their core, misinterpretations of intent or meaning by students, egoic motivations of teachers that encourages students’ dependence, and the natural human response to pain – avoidance. There is a part of us which can become addicted to feeling good and prefers practices and interpretations that infer or overtly teach that we can successfully do this (bypass experience/pain) indefinitely, or that anything we think or feel that we don’t like is total BS.

I teach meditation in a style that aligns with teachers I feel are very clear and open about the pitfalls of spiritual practices like mindfulness and meditation. I acknowledge the vast health benefits confirmed by research, and the different kinds of meditation practices, as well as the difficulty and challenges that may arise by taking them out of their contextual underpinnings. I feel a responsibility to make sure people know that they may feel better for a time, and then worse. People can have intense shifts and realizations, but without the internal or external support for the newness, some of them may experience intense and confusing mental health and/or personal consequences (lost jobs, family, friends) afterward. Some people have partial awakenings that make it easier for them to inflict harm to others if they don’t have good impulse control, as in narcissistic individuals (to my great sadness, I once helped someone with such a shift, before realizing they would be trampling others so brutally afterward).

Even if someone can overcome the allure of thinking meditation is a cure all and attempt to address their history with therapy, the work can be difficult if they can’t suspend rigid breath, attention, or witnessing, distancing or other practices in session, preferring these instead of tracking the unfolding of their physical and emotional experience in the moment. On the flip side, mindfulness can also be incredibly helpful and supportive in trauma and therapy work, when it increases the ability to observe and stay with one’s unfolding experience with the right amount of dispassion and friendliness toward self. This was true for me…due to my practice I could hold an awareness that was very helpful to the process and accelerated the trauma work. It made it easier to tolerate the discomfort inherent in the process, and therefore, to continue through the ups and downs. It feels kind of like an awareness of awareness. (I think that being able to sustain complete honesty with myself about my experiences during the process was also pretty helpful.)

I find that trauma resolution and spiritual paths start to converge at a certain point, and that they are both important. There’s no linear path to point to, though. There are parts that a lot of people share experiences of, that I’ve related in previous posts, and may revisit with another post soon.

In general, I’d have to say that with the right guidance and context, mindfulness and/or meditation practices can be immensely helpful, regardless of whether a person ever seeks assistance for trauma resolution. And, if there was one myth I could debunk about mindfulness/meditation/spiritual seeking/enlightenment, it would be that there is ever a one-and-done awakening event that wipes out all of your conditioning in a single fell swoop. Human physiology just doesn’t work that way, and we’re not just infinite spaciousness, but also human BEINGS. I don’t think meditation or mindfulness is a false bill of goods, but I don’t like the way I see it packaged sometimes: “you won’t have to change the way you live your life much, and you can just do it even better!”

Yeah…no. If you persist in the path, it could all change. No way to know. If that feels like a deterrent, then maybe just wait. Or go to therapy. If it doesn’t scare you away, then bon voyage!

I’m happy to answer any questions on this topic. I didn’t have the resource I provide at the time when I needed it, and I enjoy being able to help in that way.

 

 

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Grateful

A friend recently reminded me how valuable the practice of conscious gratitude listing is, and I noticed the little burst in my heart when I read her list, so I wanted to share my list of gratitudes for this moment, on the off chance some of you might have a little burst also:

– The bits of color in the yard that are just about to pop, like the lavender bushes all covered with buds swaying in the wind today atop long skinny stems, the raspberries starting to turn yellow.

-The one, red rose in full bloom that the deer missed.

-My friend Karen who held amazing space for me today to do a bit of energy work that turned out to be a pretty big bit.

-The quiet outside in the backyard, aside from the wind, and the sunny warmth that isn’t too hot, as I try to stay with this feeling of being held and out of thinking, while the newness of the recent work integrates.

-The awesome mixed berry jam from 2013 I found hiding in the bottom of my freezer a couple days ago, and that went on my waffle today.

-My husband who says the sweetest things that turn my knees to rubber, and is so generous, kind, supportive and real, who likes most of what I cook and doesn’t mind doing absolutely nothing with me.

-The friend I had lunch with last week who still am feeling the depth of appreciation for…his authenticity and presence, and his hugs, blow me away.

-Watching the treetops sway against clouds and blue sky.

-My lovely Somatic Experiencing community and other members of my healing tribe, near and afar, who continue to make me feel a belonging I never thought possible.

-Bare feet on the solid concrete ground as I type this, and the bit of time I have to do it.

-The tasty volunteer lettuce from the garden that made up my dinner last night.

-That people are willing to pay me to help them, and watching them heal.

-The realization in my work today that I am not only neither separate nor alone, but that I don’t even have to go seek out the support or solutions…they are chasing me, supporting me, even when I can’t feel it.

-The hummingbird feeder and its occasional visitors.

-That my process keeps unfolding in a gradual way that allows me to keep working and functioning and appreciating each step, rather that some giant all-in-one shift that destabilizes me and requires my entire being and attention to manage the fallout (which is what my ego keeps imagining has to happen – probably because it likes drama, I’m guessing).

-That what I truly am never stops seeking me, and that every opening leads to another that seems just as marvelous and all-encompassing as the last, and the excitement around it all.

 

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