Trauma is typically attributed to events and their subsequent impacts of (early) life experiences — that have the potential to impair individual functioning over the long term. This may arise from parental separation, verbal, physical, psychological, and sexual abuse, or events such as a severe accident, a war, exile, terrorism. It may spring from the accrued impacts of certain forms of upbringing (e.g. showing up as boarding-school syndrome), or part of a wider social phenomenon such as racism, or the legacy of historical events such the atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In such contexts, our body’s immediate survival response is to put us into a state of shock — not being able to feel our pain is a way of staying safe. This is a normal response to traumatising events, where the body protects the mind from experiencing the full impact of the event, allowing for a certain level of functioning in spite of what has happened. Yet if these responses remain unprocessed and unhealed, they can lead to unhelpful patterns which are far more difficult to untangle.
These secondary responses to trauma involve a complex set of survival mechanisms, that show up in varied and sometimes overlapping patterns:
Avoidance of any future trauma: building a highly defended persona that avoids anything that could be a reminder of the original trauma, and as a result the person’s space of functioning becomes increasingly smaller, or more sensitised and easily triggered.
Re-experiencing of trauma: where relationships or situations which invoke the sensations of the original trauma are unconsciously sought after, to enable the individual to replay and relive the experience over again.
Perpetuation of trauma: the same traumatising experiences that were meted out on the individual or group are inflicted onto others in conscious and unconscious ways.
As a coach, when I am working with clients, they will rarely bring experiences of early life original trauma to our sessions, which if they did recognise, would be more appropriate to work through with a therapist in any case. They may however refer to incidents from the past, as a way of flagging up a certain emotional territory that may still be sensitive or to help me understand why certain relationships may be difficult for them.
What is increasingly showing up in sessions, however, are more recent traumatising events, such as workplace bullying, shaming, or other forms of abuse. Often clients do not label these experiences as trauma per se, even though these events may create similar feelings of helplessness, avoidance, lack of control, guilt and shame and can be equally debilitating. So when I invite them to check if the word ‘trauma’ fits their experience, there is often a sigh of relief and recognition, that something within them might be ready to engage in the process of healing.
As a coach, I am aware of the constant need to tread a fine line between what might be seen as a therapeutic intervention, and I believe there is a creative tension to be held here, rather than a fixed boundary. Latterly various hybrid approaches have emerged, such as personal consulting (Popovic and Jinks), which is a combination of coaching and counselling. In my own practice, I decided to develop the skills to work with clients in more embodied ways by undergoing several years of training as a Focusing Practitioner. Focusing originated from research conducted by Eugene Gendlin, who collaborated with Carl Rogers at the University of Chicago to determine what the necessary and sufficient conditions of effective person-centred counselling might be. Whilst Rogers was more interested in the therapeutic relationship itself, Gendlin was beginning to surface what the client was doing for themselves. In numerous studies, they were able to consistently demonstrate that when clients could access a pre-articulate, feeling quality in the body, and use this ‘felt sense’ to allow new meanings to arise from that, they would be found to make progress, yet those who did not, would not benefit from therapy, no matter how many session they had. Seeing this as an ethical challenge, Gendlin’s elegant solution was to observe and describe the process, which he termed ‘Focusing’, i.e. what comes into focus in our awareness when we apply a certain quality of patient, curious acceptance to our embodied experience, and to introduce it as a teachable skill.
Focusing practice is, paradoxically, not about trying to bring about change, but to allow awareness of what is held in the body to emerge. Yet, there may be all sorts of barriers to listening to the body, which may be culturally conditioned, or which arise from previous trauma, or the bi-product of a busy mind. Before we even have a chance to hear something in the body, our minds are busy trying to manage the situation:
· Pre-judging the felt sense as bad, or dangerous: ‘Don’t go there, don’t let those feelings in, they are too dangerous!’
· Interpreting the felt sense without even listening to it: ‘Oh, I know what that feeling is, it’s from when… blah blah blah ‘
· Being ‘mindful’, i.e observing and letting go, getting back to a ‘grounded’ stance etc before ever allowing a feeling quality to take shape, and to communicate its own meaning, sometimes known as process-skipping
· Being politically correct, i.e. pre-judging, pushing back feelings which may not fit their pre-determined views of how the world should function.
Yet the great thing about Focusing practice is that we can learn how to become present with whatever comes up, and the felt sense of that, even if that happens to be the busy, bossy mind! ‘What’s it like for a part of you to not want to have that feeling? And where might you be experiencing that in or around the body? ‘. And counter-intuitively, when I support clients to just be with whatever comes up, especially if they are processing something difficult, there is a deep sense of relief and gratitude, for it just to be acknowledged for being there. And, in some mysterious way, whatever was stuck within the body, by being witnessed, even fleetingly, is able to move on. In Gendlin’s words:
“What is split off, not felt, remains the same. When it is felt, it changes. Most people don’t know this! They think that by not permitting the feeling of their negative ways they make themselves good. On the contrary, that keeps these negatives static, the same from year to year. A few moments of feeling it in your body allows it to change. If there is in you something bad or sick or unsound, let it inwardly be and breathe. That’s the only way it can evolve and change into the form it needs.”
Here is feedback from a client who recognised that they had been the victim of workplace bullying, and it had had a catastrophic impact on their ability for public speaking, something they had previously been very accomplished at. This can be a normal response to trauma. According to Thomas Huebl, the traumatised parts simply shut down, they become frozen, and attempts to re-integrate it, to try and go back to ‘how things were’ can create a panic reaction. But when we create a safe space, even a small amount of contact with the stuck place can bring about incredible shifts.
“I approached Katherine about a challenge I was experiencing in pressure situations, such as delivering important presentations, which would lead to physical changes in my body such as light-headedness, heavy legs and dizziness. We spent time bringing deeper awareness to my body, spending time to feel sensations from head to toe, describing how changes felt in response to my posture and really acknowledging how it felt. It was clear, by the end of the session how ‘in tune’ I felt with my body, trusting its senses, and experiencing a sense of calm. The outcome was incredibly powerful. In delivering a next presentation the waves of physical issues came as they had before, but this time, I was able to acknowledge them, and not panic, allowing them to settle down. This allowed me to be my best, engage my audience, make a real impact and I subsequently received very positive feedback.”
Similarly, a client who had been the victim of a cultural and racially aggravated collective trauma was able to find her voice again, and by doing so to create significant changes within her organisational system — listening inwardly allowed for the beginning of a healing process which is now starting to move mountains beyond that individual and wider into their community. Focusing has been introduced to war-torn regions such as Afghanistan, as a way of helping communities to rebuild themselves, and there is a way in which when we listen to our bodies, we listen also into and behalf of the social body as well. To quote Gendlin again:
‘Your physically felt body is in fact part of a gigantic system of here and other places, now and other times, you and other people — in fact the whole universe. This sense of being bodily alive in a vast system is the body as it is felt from within.’
In a year of tremendous upheaval globally, it is not surprising that some of us might be encountering re-traumatising experiences as we feel separated from one another, perhaps caught in difficult work or family situations, fearful of what is coming next, triggered by what we are seeing in the news, afraid for the future of our planet. There may be no easy answers, but we can know that our bodies individually, and collectively as communities, have encoded within them these powerful self-healing mechanisms, which we can learn to access. Breaking out of our own cycles of trauma is a courageous commitment not to bring it into our futures, but engage instead with our own ‘life-forward’ expression and potential.
On 27th August, I am facilitating a one day in-person retreat The Dance of Trauma and Healing’ at Hawkwood Centre for Future Thinking — a day to explore how you integrate healing practices into life and work: https://www.hawkwoodcollege.co.uk/event/a-changemakers-retreat/ Due to COVID-19 restrictions, places are limited to just 15 maximum.
As well as offering 121 and group Focusing, I also teach ‘Introduction to Focusing for Change Practitioners’. Next groups start in September. You can find details here on the British Focusing Association site: https://www.focusing.org.uk/event/introduction-to-focusing-for-change-practitioners-2 ‘
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.