Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Choice to Take Medications

I recently ran across this article, entitled “I didn’t ask for your opinion on my psych meds”.  It provides a very important glimpse into the world of somebody who takes psychiatric medications for bipolar disorder.  The author is both vulnerable and bluntly honest, and I know several people who have said they relate to how they feel.  It is extremely frustrating to be told how to live one’s life, without respect or regard for what it’s like to actually live it.  The author’s argument is that since nobody else is living inside their body and brain, nobody else has the right to make decisions for them.

I strongly agree with the author’s sentiment.   Unless you are going to a medical professional for the purpose of getting advice on medication, nobody has the right (or qualifications) to give you advice on your medication.  I don’t even give advice on medications.  My profession is counseling, and my professional integrity dictates that I do only counseling, and do it well.  I encourage clients who are considering medications to get an evaluation from their doctor.  If they are experiencing serious side effects or the meds do not seem to be working, I encourage them to call their doctor right away, so they can adjust the prescription and find one that works.

Finding the right meds is often a process of trial and error, and a doctor may not know what works best until they have tried several things.  Everyone’s brain is different, and there is no “one size fits all.”  It is important to be patient with oneself during this process, and have a good support system as one navigates the ups and downs of adjusting to medications.

As you can see, getting on meds is NOT an easy process, or an easy decision.  Nobody wants to admit that they need medications, resigning themselves to a life with possible side effects in addition to the social stigma.  I have never once seen a client jump into taking medications without careful consideration.  Generally, when people consider meds, they have exhausted all other options that may include natural remedies, diet, exercise and therapy with multiple counselors who have tried a number of different methodologies.  Nobody.  Likes.  Meds. People take them because the alternative is unbearable, and most people who demonize meds have no idea what it’s like to live an unbearable life.   It is very important to respect the decision of someone who is taking medication, whether you are their therapist, their family member or their friend.

Can therapy, meditation, diet or exercise cure mental illness?  In some cases, yes.  There are plenty of people who come to therapy and are eventually able to reduce their dose of medication, or eliminate medication altogether.  I’m not someone who makes promises to that effect (again, I’m not a doctor), but I do allow for the possibility that it will happen.  That said, I don’t hold that up as a goal.

When somebody comes to me for counseling, my hope for them is that they will become more comfortable in their own headspace, so that they can become well-resourced enough to create a life filled with love, support and a sense of purpose.  People can have all of the aforementioned things and still take meds.  In fact, sometimes taking meds (at least temporarily) helps people achieve those things, because they are getting more benefit from therapy.  They feel a greater sense of stability and resiliency, so that they can face their personal demons without feeling overwhelmed.   Eventually, the meds may no longer be necessary.  That’s always a nice result. I’m equally happy when I see the person coming to a place of fully accepting themselves, meds and all.

I hope that everyone who has read this will also read the original article.  It’s good stuff.  And please, before you give advice to somebody who is taking medication, take time to consider that they’ve probably already gotten that same advice many a time, and have come to the same (very difficult) conclusion…that the meds are necessary.   Remember too:  this person already has a doctor, and they do not need you to be another one.

What they need you to be is a friend. So put your advice aside, and do what friends do:  Listen.

 

New Workshop on Boundaries

personal-boundaryI’m excited to announce a new workshop on March 12th, 2016 at People House: Honoring Your Boundaries, Honoring Yourself:  An Experiential Workshop on Communication and Consent. This will be a trauma-informed experiential presentation for anyone who feels that they could benefit from establishing better boundaries in their life (so, pretty much everyone).

What do we mean by boundaries?  When most people think of boundaries, they think about developing better assertiveness skills or becoming comfortable saying “no” when they need to. This is, of course, a major part of having boundaries, and something we will discuss in this workshop.  We will also discuss what we need to say “yes” to.  A boundary is not always a barbed wire fence.  Sometimes it is a garden wall, in which we grow the things that we value and treasure.  What is it about yourself that you treasure, and wish to nurture?  How can you protect that, while letting in people who support your healing and growth?

This will be a great workshop for people who are in intimate relationships, who would like to discover ways of being better supports for their loved ones.  So, bring a partner if they want to come!  If you choose to come alone, this is a great way to experiment with setting boundaries in a neutral and supportive environment. Our mission is to help you find insights and skills that you can take home, so that you can create healthier relationships with your partner(s), friends, family, co-workers, housemates…everyone you come into contact with.   I will be co-presenting with an amazing Colleague from the Wings Foundation, Masako Suzuki.  We’ve been working together for two years, and I am excited about continuing our collaborative efforts.

Advanced payment is required to hold a space, so please pay online.  If you would prefer to pay by check, please mail your check to:

Bridget Blasius, 613 Walnut St., Boulder, CO, 80302.

You may also pay by giving me credit card information over the phone:  303-995-8512.

I look forward to seeing you there!

 

Compassionate Resolutions for a Healthy 2016

Japanese PotteryIt’s one week into 2016, which means my practice is back into full-swing.  People often meet the new year with exuberance, ready to let their old selves go as they look forward to the future.

Resolutions often center around making better health choices or stopping bad habits.  Sometimes, people resolve to stop procrastinating, follow their passions and complete the projects they have been wanting to complete for years.  These are all worthy aspirations, which I fully support.  At the same time, I think it is important to be mindful of our original intent for making the resolutions.  Are we making them from a place of “shoulds,” or from a place of wanting to experience a healthier, fuller life?

A “should” is an external motivation.  We “should” be more productive.  We “should” live in the present.  We “should” lose weight, make more money, be more compassionate… Where do these messages come from?  Parents?  Society?  Intimate partners?  It may be a combination of all of the above.  Usually, the people who give us these messages are well-intentioned. They may even be right, a lot of the time.  For some people, setting some of the above goals is exactly what they need.  At the same time, external motivation only takes us so far.  If we are not, to a certain extent, making resolutions for ourselves, then we will start to resent the resolutions, and maybe even the people who we made the resolutions for.

Let’s just say that our doctor has told us that we must get more exercise and eat less sugar.  OK. This is medical advice, which is usually sound.  How do we receive this advice?  Many people hear it with shame.  If we have ever been shamed for having a sugar addiction or a few extra pounds, this may bring up our worst fears about ourselves.  We may force ourselves into a strict diet or exercise routine for a few days, or maybe a few months, but it doesn’t stick.  Before we know it, we’re back to eating entire pints of ice cream, not because our body wants them, but because they give us familiar comfort.  Then, we find ourselves in the shame spiral again, because we “failed.”

It is important to interrupt the shame spiral before it starts.  Often, this can be done with a simple distraction or a small accomplishment.  This might look like a short walk around the block, to get the body moving.  It may not burn off the calories from an entire pint of ice cream, but it will give us some fresh air and much-needed sunlight during the dark winter months.  That helps put us in better spirits, so that the next pint of ice cream seems much less important the next time we see it at the store.

There is another level of healing, beyond these coping strategies.  This has to do with turning resolutions into an act of self-care.  It means that we must love the person who needs to lose weight, rather than withholding love from ourselves until the weight is gone.  If we do not love ourselves, then attaining our health goals will never be enough.  There will always be a voice inside our head that says “I will love myself when _________.”

We cannot love the person who were are without loving the person who we were.  Even if we have struggled with addictions, impulsive behavior or self-destructive tendencies in the past, it is important to keep one important thing in mind:  all of us, at any given time, are doing the best we can with the coping skills that we have available.  In that moment when we made an unhealthy choice, we may not have seen a better option.  That does not mean that we are not responsible for our choices in the future, or that we do not owe an apology to those we may have hurt.  At the same time, it is important to have some compassion as we tell ourselves:  “I choose a better life.”

In the throws of deep depression, that pint of ice cream may have seemed like the only thing between us and despair.  So, of course we chose the ice cream.  There is something to be said for honoring the wisdom of our minds, for finding a way to survive that moment when our world seemed to be crashing down.  That does not mean that we have to choose the ice cream in the future.  We can find better strategies…but can we not love ourselves for surviving, and show some compassion for our past selves, in all the  desperation we felt? Sometimes it is easier to have compassion for others, when we hear about their struggles.  Do we not deserve at least as much understanding as we give to other people?

I chose to post an image of Japanese Kintsugi, cracked pottery which has been repaired with gold.  I find it beautiful and inspirational. Note that the pottery artist does not throw away the pot, and simply make a new one.  They save it and lovingly repair it with precious metal.  Can we not do that for ourselves, rather than trying to throw our old selves away and start from scratch?  Starting from scratch is impossible anyway.  We don’t get a new person when we get a new year.  You have one self, one body and one life to live.  So, rather than denying who we are for some imaginary person who we have not become, let’s start by appreciating our broken pieces as opportunities to create beauty.

Grief and Loss During the Holiday Season

The Holidays are an interesting time, for therapists.  We don’t exactly have a Christmas rush (nobody shops for therapy sessions on Black Friday).  In fact, most of us have a slow December, due to clients traveling and visiting family.

For me, my office is quiet during the week of Christmas, but I always offer to be there at least one day during the week.  Inevitably, there will be a few people who need a session.  For me, this season is about gratitude, hospitality and giving back to the community.  In the spirit of that, it feels appropriate to offer a few office hours for those who need it.

I speak of joy, gratitude and service, noticing the physical feelings of warmth that come with those words as I watch the snow outside.  I do what I do because it feels coherent with my intuitive sense of what is important to me.  Sometimes, those sessions offer an opportunity for something truly beautiful to unfold.  When people take that extra hour for self-care, they can rest in the eye of the storm and take a break from family expectations.

When people have experienced childhood trauma, those December sessions can be particularly important.   Sometimes people find themselves visiting with their abuser, or perhaps visiting with the family member who could have stopped the abuser…and didn’t.  In many cases, people make a decision not to go home to see their family.  This is never an easy choice, but sometimes it is a necessary one.

Holidays are also sometimes a reminder of the people who are no longer in our lives, who we may never see again.  Wounds experienced from deaths that occurred during the year may be opened afresh.

Death is never simple.  While we may love the people who we have lost, there is often unfinished business.  We may miss our loved one, but we may experience an array of complicated emotions, including anger for past injuries inflicted by the person while they were alive.  At the same time, we may also remember the times when that person was warm and caring.  It can be difficult to reconcile the two seemingly contradictory feelings.

The same applies with family members who we have cut off.  We may miss them, even though we cut them off for a good reason.  Even if our relationship with them was profoundly dysfunctional or very distant, we may still grieve the loss of that person in their life.  It is entirely valid and possible to grieve the loss of a relationship that we never had.  We may be grieving the loss of years when we did not experience love or safety in our lives.  These are years that we will never get back.  Despite the profound sadness that can occur with this realization, there is also the newfound revelation that we were, at all times, completely deserving of that love.  It can be the beginning of learning to give that love to ourselves.

In my practice I have found, time and time again, that some of the most beautiful moments of illumination occur on the darkest winter nights.  So, it’s worth it for me to keep the lights on at the office.

With regards to those complex emotions that we all experience , what I want to say is this:  It’s all true.  We have joyful memories of our families, AND we have trauma.  Our loved ones did their best to be good people, AND they harmed us.  We feel anger toward them, AND we feel love.  We miss them, AND we know that we cannot go home.

If grief were only sadness, it would be simple.  Very rarely is sadness the only thing we feel. Sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves in times of grief is to let all of our emotions have a voice.  We can give them a welcoming place around the fire of compassionate awareness.  To turn them away is to reject a part of ourselves, which only leads to more suffering.

The Holidays can be fun and enjoyable, AND it’s OK if we hate them sometimes.  It is OK to refrain from putting up a Christmas tree, or to put up a giant, over-the-top Christmas tree as a celebration of reclaiming the Holiday for yourself.  Follow your impulse.  Trust yourself.  This season can mean what you need it to mean, for you.  The only advice that I have, for those reading this, is to avoid letting the Holidays be a time when your own needs are not honored.  When we are experiencing grief, we need more self-care, not less.

I wish everyone a peaceful season, filled with warmth and support.

-Bridget M. Blasius, MA, SEP

Coherence and the Social Animal

In Somatic Experiencing, we talk a lot about “coherence” as a measure of physiological health.  It means that biological systems cooperate effortlessly with each other.  Muscles gently expand and contract with the inbreath and outbreath.  The heartbeat increases and decreases with the flow of respiration.  On an experiential level, someone with a coherent system feels relaxed yet alert, capable of taking in their environment and responding to the situation in the present moment.  They are not easily overwhelmed.  This is not to say that someone with a coherent system is never stressed out, but they bounce back from stress with resilience. They may even come out with a sense of accomplishment for having weathered the storm.

Chronic stress or trauma can lead to decreased coherence, which can manifest as uneven breath or muscle constriction.   In some cases, this can show up as anxiety attacks or physical pain.  The good news is that SE can help.  An SE practitioner supports clients to notice moments of coherence when they show up in session, and encourages them to stay with the experience. Eventually, the client’s nervous system “learns” to notice those moments on its own, resulting in the person feeling more balanced, whole and alive.  Everyone has the capacity for healing within them.  An SEP’s job is just to pay attention to the healing as it unfolds.

Coherence is a social experience.   Individually, we know that our physiological systems are constantly in communication with each other.  Similarly, our systems are constantly in communication with other beings.  When we receive a hug from someone who cares for us, feelings of relaxation arise as our heart rate and blood pressure decrease.  Our mirror neurons are constantly firing in response to the actions of those around us.   Empathy is biologically wired, and sometimes its power can surprise us.

I recall a time when I was working with someone, and I suddenly felt a tingling sensation running through my body.  It wasn’t a shiver. The temperature was fine. Besides, it didn’t quite feel like a response to cold.  It felt more like the type of tingle that comes from an emotionally stirring poem, or a beautiful piece of music.  Letting go of interpretation, I simply let the experience occur.  My client then told me that they had just experienced a strong wave of emotion. While their gave no obvious signs of what they were feeling, I somehow sensed that something important was happening.

People have these experiences all the time, where we somehow just “know” things, without knowing how or why.  Some may call it biology, and some may call it magic.  I call it “being human.”

There are times when I have walked into a room, and felt coherence in the air.  This has happened to me at clinical trainings, or in groups that I have facilitated.  The rhythm of conversation and silence flows in beautiful harmony, as softly as resting breath.  There is a sense of warmth, as if everyone is sitting around a fire together, sharing their stories.  When this feeling is present, it seems as if any experience can arise, and be honored, because acceptance is unconditional.  The group, in its coherence, is not easily overwhelmed.  Upsets happen, but the group usually recovers, because upsets happen within a container of safety.  There is almost a sense that there is a benevolent presence, quietly hovering in the air.  One could interpret that as coming from some supernatural source…or not.  It may just be our own mirror neurons responding to the emotional state of everyone in the room.  Either way, I cannot help but feel a sense of wonder.

We can shape these loving environments for ourselves.  This is what happens when we notice how our physiology responds to the people around us.  We may notice a lot of constriction or tension when we are around certain people, but not others.  What we are sensing is a lack of coherence in their system.  We have a choice about how to respond to that.  One option is to limit the time we spend with those people.  Now, that may not always be possible, or even desirable.  It may be that these people are important to us, and we know it is not their fault that they are struggling.  The good news is that when we engage in good self-care, their physiology responds to that.  While we cannot “fix” anyone, we can show them that there are healthier ways of being in the world…and that starts by becoming healthier people, ourselves.  Even if our loved ones cannot or will not choose a healthier path, at least WE have healed ourselves.  Then, we will start to attract people who are good for us.  Eventually, we start to feel the gentle hum of coherence when we walk into a room full of loved ones, and we can truly say “this is my family.”

Global trauma, global healing

Atlas 2

It was an interesting week for a graduation.

After three years of studying Somatic Experiencing, learning from some of the finest practitioners in the field, it was my time to take up the mantle of Somatic Experiencing Practitioner.   I expected a joyous occasion. Instead, that SEP certificate was handed to me in a time of grief. It came with a call to action attached.

I had to fly out to the Bay Area for my last training.  My flight took off the morning after the Paris attacks.  As I packed my bags, I watched the developments on the news.   I did not know how to respond, other than with a few brief words on Facebook.  I was unable to speak aloud, but I needed my thoughts to be heard:

Pondering why I am alive, and why all those people in Paris are not. I do not deserve it more than they did…but for some reason, I have been gifted with life, to use as I see fit. This is not something I take for granted anymore.

I’m completing my SE training this week. I hope that I can make at least some small difference, with the skills I have been privileged to learn…the world is in so much pain.

There was a lot I did not say.  It was true, I was hoping that I could make a difference.  I was also praying that I’d survive the flight, and live to be an SEP.   In that moment, after years of being bombarded with news of terrorist attacks, I hit critical mass.   I was terrified to get on that plane.

Vicarious trauma is a real thing, and I suspect none of us are immune to it.   We can only witness so much before our nervous system says “no more”, and I was at that point.

I’m fortunate.  Very, very fortunate.  I have people I can call, to reassure me with kind words.  There were other SEPs at the training who very much wanted me to be there, and friends in Denver who were cheering me on.

So, I got on the plane, and landed in San Francisco.  I was grateful for my life, but struck by what my experience indicated about the state of our collective unconscious.  So many fears are coming out into the light.  A sense of groundless terror had gripped our nation, and I lived within that resonant field.  How many other people had been unable to board their flights that day?  What had become of us?

When I arrived in my room at the Mercy Center, where the training was held, the first thing I did was write this status:

We do not get to know “why” bad things happen to good people.

We only get to know HOW to live our lives in a compassionate manner. This knowing comes from surrendering ourselves to human connection in the moment…and opening our hearts, knowing that they can, and will be broken.

This is the only way to truly be alive.

And oh, I felt alive then…alive, broken and more human than I had felt in a very long time.

This training offered a lot of opportunities to experiment with being more human.  It was not just about learning therapeutic techniques.  Some of the most valuable parts, the ones I will remember most, are the discussions that happened in the hallways.  How is SETI addressing issues of power and privilege?  How can we incorporate these discussions into our training?  The training culminated in one of the most powerful graduations I have ever attended.  Rather than continuing with lectures or demonstrations, we stood up and told our stories.

I will not speak to anything that was said in confidence.  I will only say this:  the events on the news are not happening to distant abstractions of people.  They are happening to human beings who are actively a part of your life.  You see them in the grocery store, on the bus, or at work.  They may not speak, because they may be afraid that they will not be heard.

You have the opportunity to make a change.   I am asking you to do something that takes courage. Please realize that the world cannot afford for you to do otherwise:  Listen.  Listen to the stories of people whose experience is different from yours.  Put your defenses aside.  You are not there to debate…you are there to hear a story. So, let the story affect you.  Share that person’s grief, their rage, and their joy…their pride for their heritage or their grief over a homeland that has been lost.  Offer your unconditional presence.  It is a gift too rarely given, and it is the one we need most.

I will warn you that there is a side effect to this.  You will no longer be able to keep your mouth shut, when you see oppression.  You will be accused of being a Social Justice Warrior and laughed off the internet.  The good news is that you won’t care, because you’ll remember the stories, and the courageous vulnerability of the people who shared them with you.

This is how we will create a more compassionate world, where our society emerges from fight/flight/freeze and starts to live in the present moment.   Violence is a response to a threat. Let us make ourselves less threatening, in our daily interactions.   Let us not inspire more terror.

There is hope, if we all uplift the world in our own small way.  And some day, hopefully in our lifetime, travelers will look to the skies and know that they can fly, unafraid.

 

*This post is dedicated to everyone in my Advanced SE cohort.  You know who you are.  Thank you for honoring me with your presence.

Celebrations…and next steps

Last Thursday’s SCOTUS ruling on marriage equality was a great victory for the same-sex couples across the country.  Millions of allies were celebrating. I’ll admit, my social media pages were covered in rainbows, just like everyone else’s.  Victories like this give us hope, and the strength to carry on for the battles ahead.  So, I invite all allies to join their LGBTQIA loved ones by expressing their joy and support.  I would also like to remind everyone that marriage is not the be-all-end-all of LGBTQIA rights…and that posting rainbows is not enough.

Let us not allow the SCOTUS victory to eclipse our awareness of some of the other events that have been prominent in the media, in recent weeks.  Let us not forget that we have a long way to go.

Here’s a recap (this all ties together)

Caitlyn Jenner’s coming out represents a victory for Trans women.  She was lauded for her bravery, and rightfully so. Still, she was subjected to many indignities, including questions about her genitals.  We must ask ourselves whether it would be appropriate to ask a cis person such a personal question in casual conversation.  The answer is, unequivocally, no.  So why do we ask trans people such humiliating questions?

It is also important to remember that not all trans women share the same privilege.  Her facial feminization surgery alone cost $70.000.  99.9999999999% of trans women cannot afford this, yet they are ostracized and oppressed for not “passing.”  Trans women are still subjected to the same unrealistic beauty standards that cis women must endure.

Would Caitlyn have been so accepted if her Vanity Fair image looked like a photograph of the average 65 year old woman?  How about if she had bald spots or facial hair?  Probably not.  A trans woman is viewed as successful if she meets our conventional standards of beauty.   I was excited to see a courageous and creative response from the transgender community on Tumbr, when a group trans people posted authentic images of themselves, confident and photoshop-free.   I highly recommend that everyone check it out.  This is what real beauty looks like…and it’s about time we made an unflinchingly critical inquiry into our assumptions

Meanwhile, the incident around Rachel Dolezal reminds us that we still carry the assumption that Trans people are “pretending” to be who they are.  So many people have been saying “If a man can say he is a woman, a white person can say they are black!”  Um, no.

Both gender and race are lived experiences that one understands from early childhood.  Transgender children may experience profound distress when their physical characteristics do not conform to their experience of themselves.  The distress is worsened by the social expectations around them.   There is no documented experience of a white person experiencing such distress because the color of their skin does not conform to their identity.

Black children certainly experience racism very early in life.  Many white people grow up with the assumption that we are allowed to take risks, make mistakes, break the rules and learn from our experiences.  We do not always realize that there is privilege connected with these assumptions.  Our experience is not, and will never be, the same as the lived experience of people of color.  It is not acceptable for us to co-opt an identity that does not rightfully belong to us.

Check out this video by Kat Blaque, who eloquently explains the difference between Caitlyn Jenner and Rachel Dolezal:

 

We cannot neglect issues of race, when engaging in discussion about LGBTQIA rights.  In the wake of the Charleston shooting and numerous other acts of racially motivated violence, we cannot ignore obvious evidence that racism is still a thing.   Trans women of color are dis-proportionally affected by acts of violence, and their pleas for help go unanswered by the police officers who are sworn to serve and protect.

Back to that whole “Marriage” thing…

When we think about “gay marriage”, what is the image that comes to mind?  For many cisgender, heterosexual white people, the image may look a lot like our own image of ourselves.  Are we seeing people of color?  Are we seeing those outside the gender binary?  Are we seeing the trans people who can’t afford the nice wedding that so many of us dream about, who are struggling to feed their children because they face employment discrimination?  When we think about marriage, we need to think about the full experience of the human commitment to love. That may include the courage to commit in the face of a world that does not provide the safety necessary to create a life together, and possibly raise a family.  That is great courage, indeed. How do we honor and celebrate that?

For white, cisgender allies, we can honor that love by continuing to ask ourselves the difficult questions about how we can be better allies.  What can you do, in your community, in your workplace and in your social network, to create a more inclusive environment?

I’ll give you a hint:  it starts by listening to people whose experience may be different from your own, and admitting that you don’t know everything.  It is only through open-hearted listening, humility and personal response-ability that we, as allies, will create the change that still needs to happen.

Touch, Intimacy and Boundaries: Negotiating safety within relationship

WINGS

I have some exciting news.  The next WINGS conference will be held on September 11th and 12th.  If you don’t know about the WINGS foundation, they are an amazing organization that provides peer-led and therapist-facilitated groups for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, and their loved ones.  I have been co-facilitating a group in Aurora since July of 2014.  It has been (and continues to be) one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.

This fall, I’ll be presenting at the conference, with the assistance of my ever-awesome co-facilitator, Masako Suzuki.   I thought long and hard about the subject matter for my talk.  I decided that I wanted to present on something that is not frequently discussed:  touch.

Touch has a multitude of health benefits.  It has been shown to lower blood pressure and support healthy immune function.  It releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone that increases trust and reduces stress.  While modern humans in the US rarely touch each other, our non-human ancestors were much more hands-on in their relationships.  Primates spend 10-20 percent of their day grooming each other.  For many domestic animals, grooming and cuddling is an important part of any social interaction.  Have you ever looked at two cats, curled up together on the couch and felt jealous?  I know I do.  Both of my cats are fixed, of course, so I know it isn’t about sex.  Yet, they have an instinctual wisdom that draws them together, for safety and comfort.  I am often saddened that humans do not have this with each other.

Part of the reason for this is trauma.  For some of us, we have been so injured by inappropriate or violent touch that friendly affection feels threatening.  “Touch ambivalence” is a commonly recognized trauma symptom.  We might crave the sense of security that comes with touch, but when we actually receive touch, we instantly become uncomfortable.

Some trauma survivors have told me that they just don’t like to be touched.  I always respect their boundary and do not challenge their assessment of themselves.  At the same time, they often come to an awareness that this isn’t 100% true, 100% of the time.  Often, they do not like to be touched without warning. They do not like to be touched without permission.  They do not like to be touched unless they initiate touch.  These are all completely acceptable boundaries, and all of us have the right to set them.   We even have the right to say that we want to be touched, and then change our mind two seconds later.  This is an example of trusting our own nervous system, an essential step toward healing.

I decided to give a presentation for survivors who want to have a healthier relationship to touch.  I’ll be providing further details as we get closer to the conference, but here’s a brief description:

Current research on mental health and neurological development indicates that touch is a basic human need.  Unfortunately, those of us who experienced sexual abuse may find touch extremely triggering.  We may be aware of wanting hugs or other forms of affection, but fearful that our boundaries will be violated if anybody touches us.  This workshop will focus how to ask for what we need while empowering our ability to say “no” to what we do NOT need. While physical touch will not be a part of this workshop, we will participate in experiential exercises on setting healthy boundaries.

I’ll also be providing more updates about the conference in general.  We always have a number of skilled presenters, offering workshops geared toward survivors, loved ones and clinicians.  I hope to see you there.

Forgiveness – is it necessary?

I am going to talk about a subject that is sensitive for many people who have experienced trauma:  forgiving one’s abuser.

Many of us hold forgiveness up as an ideal.  Our spiritual tradition may teach us to forgive.  We may have been taught to love our enemies, or turn the other cheek.  For some (but not all) people, forgiveness can be healing.  But what does it mean?

Forgiveness does not mean condoning what happened.  It does not mean that the person in question was not responsible for their actions.  Most importantly, it does not in any way diminish the fact that the abuse was deeply and profoundly harmful.  If we choose to forgive, this does not mean taking away our permission to feel whatever we need to feel about the abuse.  This might include grief or outright rage.   All of these feelings are part of the healing process.   It is important to have compassion for ourselves when those feelings come up.

In time, though, comes the realization that we do not want to be swallowed up in anger and grief.  It saps our energy.  It keeps us from noticing the moments of joy, warmth and humor that show up spontaneously in our lives.  While traumatic experiences can change us, they do not define who we are.  Sometimes, forgiveness means choosing to live our lives on our own terms, rather than letting trauma dominate our existence.   When we take time for self-care, we have more energy to have compassion for others.  This may, eventually, include compassion for our abusers.  We may come to a place where we do not wish them harm, or even wish them healing from whatever suffering led them down the wrong path.

In some cases, this can be a spiritual resource.  Compassion feels good!  If a client has a belief that their God wants them to be compassionate, then compassion can feel like a spiritual experience.  I’m 100% in favor of people having as many healthy spiritual experiences as they want to have.  So, if a client comes to a place where they are able to do that, then I offer my full support.

That said, it is important to remember that not everyone reaches this place…and that’s OK. If we can’t forgive, it does not mean that we are unable to heal.  It also does not mean that we are, in some way, less moral or spiritually enlightened than the person who IS able to forgive.  It can be very empowering to say “I choose not to forgive.”  Sometimes, THIS is the statement that allows us to move past the trauma.  It sets a clear boundary, which we may not have been able to set, in the past.  This can be an important step toward healing, because it acknowledges that we have choices, and are NOT powerless.

If somebody you love is recovering from trauma, it is important not to have an agenda about forgiveness.  They will forgive when and IF they are ready.  The most helpful thing you can do is listen, and remind the person that you love them…whatever their choice may be.

Counseling Alternatively Spiritual People

Spirituality can be one of the most valuable resources that people have, on their healing journey.  Positive effects of religion on mental health have been well documented.  People who attend religious services have been shown to live an average of 7-14 years longer than people who do not.  The benefits of spiritual community have been so well-recognized that Atheists and free-thinkers are finding ways to build that community for themselves.

It is vitally important for a counselor to support their clients’ spirituality, however they may define or express that.  Most therapists will say that they do this, and for the most part, they are sincere.  They can meet challenges, however, when they run into spiritual practices that are unfamiliar for them.   The therapist may give off a “vibe” of being uncomfortable even when they have good intentions.  This can lead to clients feeling guarded about their spirituality, afraid to discuss it even when it is relevant to their mental health.  It can also lead to them terminating therapy prematurely, and feeling uncomfortable with seeking therapy again.

This is an experience often reported by people who identify as Pagan, Wiccan or Earth-based in their spiritual tradition.   The clinical community has taken some steps in the right direction.  Wicca is becoming more accepted as a spiritual path.  I was pleased to see that the Wings Foundation mentions Wicca in their chapter on Spirituality, in the member handbook.   While I would prefer to see some recognition that not all Pagans are Wiccan, the inclusion reflects an understanding that most alternative religions are life-affirming and supportive.  This is contrary to the dangerous stereotypes perpetuated by a small handful of Christians, who were raised to believe that Pagan ritual is ritual abuse.

For a trauma-informed counselor, the term “ritual abuse” brings up nightmarish visions of unimaginable cruelty.  These images can be haunting.  It can lead us to experiencing a sense of protective outrage on our clients’ behalf.  It can also lead us to have some apprehension when clients mention that they are part of a fringe religious group.  Is it a positive support network, or an abusive cult?  Having worked with members of the Pagan community, I can assure you that it is most likely the former.  That said, reports of abusive groups are not unheard of, and I am always deeply saddened to hear about religious leaders that abuse their power.  These occurrences seem not to discriminate based on tradition.   Abusive acts are perpetrated by Protestant ministers or Catholic priests as well.  Abuse by religious leaders is always unconscionable, and counselors need to have awareness of what does (and does not) constitute an abusive situation.

Here are some things to be aware of:  

-Hierarchies:  If the organization has a “high priest” or “high priestess”, what does the client’s relationship to that person look like?   Most high priests or priestesses earn their title by doing a tremendous amount of personal and spiritual work.  They may provide valuable services such as spiritual mentorship, weddings, baby blessings or rights of passage.   In a healthy group structure, the leader will relate to their duties with dedication and humility.

-Money:  Is the group asking for more money than they need, to keep the organization functioning?  There may be member dues or occasional requests for donations.  This covers the cost of ritual space, supplies and printer ink for educational materials. It is also important to remember that some spiritual teachers spend a tremendous amount of time and energy doing their work.   It is reasonable to charge for classes or other professional services that are offered. However, if the organization demands a huge financial sacrifice on the part of members, this is a red flag.

-Sex:  Many Pagan groups honor sexuality as sacred, when it takes place between consenting adults.  This may very well be a part of ritual, for some people.  It should never be a requirement for initiation or membership in a group.

-Secrecy:  If there is a vow of secrecy, there may be a good reason for it.   Some Pagan organizations involve intense personal work, and this work cannot occur without trust between members.  There is also a widely held belief that revealing details of rituals may interfere with the energy of the group.  If a client does not want to tell you about what happens in ritual, you will need to respect that boundary.

In a sense, all therapists take a vow of secrecy, by virtue of beginning our practices.  We know the damage that can be done by violating our client’s confidentiality.  Sometimes, we all need to be selective about what we share with others.  Empower your client’s decision to be selective, even with you.

Transparency:  There should be some disclosure about why major group decisions are made, where the money goes, and how hierarchies are set up.  Group leaders should be approachable, respectful of dissenting opinions and available for questions.  While decision-making power might not always be “equal”, nobody should be treated as powerless or without value.

Relationship to non-group members:  Be cautious about groups that look down upon other religious traditions, discourage members from joining other groups, or negatively impact relationships with those who are not part of the group.  If your client starts to lose relationships with family or friends after joining the group, concern may be warranted.

Concluding thoughts: 

I would like to call upon all counselors to use common sense, and apply basic clinical skills. Rather than evaluating a client’s spiritual practices based on a conventional understanding of religion, notice how the client relates to those practices.  Do they talk about them with a sense of joy or excitement?  How does their practice affect their lives, outside of ritual?  Does it give them a sense of meaning and contentment?  Remember, spiritual paths can be challenging, but any challenges that the client faces should enhance their lives in some way, even if the benefit is not immediately obvious to you.

Any competent therapist knows what trauma looks like.  They know how to evaluate an abusive relationship.  If the client’s ritual group resembles an abusive relationship, or they return from ritual with trauma symptoms, act accordingly.  Unless these symptoms are showing up, then you have nothing to worry about.

Also, above all, remember that your alternatively spiritual clients are human.  They will experience spiritual doubts and existential angst, just like anybody.  For example, they may question whether the Gods exist.  They may question why the Gods did not protect them from the traumas that occurred.  They may get angry with their Gods, and may need to express that in therapy. Sound familiar?  Any therapist who has dealt with grief knows what it is like to hold the space for a client who is angry at God, the Universe, or whatever higher power they have in their lives.  Your job is not to question their beliefs or hold an agenda about how the internal conflict is resolved. Your job is unconditional positive regard. Everything else is just details.