Trauma Work: What it really looks like

Aloe_polyphylla_spiralTrauma work isn’t glamorous.  When therapists start to learn new techniques, we often get very excited about them.  We see our favorite teachers do impressive demos in front of the class, and can’t wait to do the work ourselves.  What we forget is that our day-to-day work rarely resembles the demos.  Demos are done with students who are excited for the opportunity to experience the work of a faculty member who has already impressed them (after all, they’ve invested a lot of money in paying for the class).  For real clients, trust and rapport are not a given.  They must be earned.  They can be easily lost.  If they are lost, they take time to repair, and sometimes the most healing thing we can offer to clients is humility.

In my personal work, I’ve seen several some highly skilled instructors as therapists, after being impressed by their demos.  I found out that even they don’t work with clients the way they work with demo students.  The vehicle for healing isn’t the technique.  It’s the relationship.  If we try to force our techniques before trust is established, we can do more harm than good.

Targeting the trauma material is only a small part of trauma work.  A big part of the work, in my experience, is helping someone get in touch with their sense of agency.  Sometimes this starts by simply listening, and allowing oneself to become fascinated with a client’s world.  People often find themselves identifying with their trauma, and through that restrictive identification, they disconnect from the full experience of who they are.  They forget the subtle nuances of how they engage with the world…their attractions, their aversions, the subtle pleasures that they dismiss because they know they are fleeting.  Yet, it is these momentary flashes of non-sexual, non-addictive pleasures that wake people up.  They create flashes of brilliance, in which the nervous system says “Oh look!  I’m capable of being aware of the world and experiencing something other than suffering!  Maybe there are moments of safety, and I don’t have to be afraid all the time.”

This is a slow process.  When I talk about people being “afraid all the time”, I’m not exaggerating.  This is how some clients actually experience their world.  A huge part of trauma work is meeting them there, while holding the awareness that they don’t have to be afraid forever.  Everyone has internal resources.  Sometimes, though, forcing someone to be aware of something positive in their experience can seem dismissive, if phrased the wrong way.  There IS something positive in their experience, but focusing on what seems non-threatening means letting their guard down.   If they are recovering from a situation where their guard had to constantly be up, why should they trust a feeling of safety?

This is why we must let ourselves be genuinely interested in our clients’ worlds.  It opens us up to sharing in their joy. It reinforces the idea that their joy, comfort and safety matter to us, not in some abstract and theoretical sense, but on a personal level.  This is personal work.  We cannot create a healing relationship if it isn’t a real, human relationship.

The capacity to experience something pleasurable is like a muscle that can atrophy.  When we are recovering from a physical injury, we may need months of physical therapy before our muscles work the way we want them to.  The same is true of psychotherapy. New neural pathways do not get built over night, but we must hold implicit faith in our clients’ ability to heal themselves.  Eventually, they will start to have the same faith in themselves.  When people learn to attune to pleasurable moments, they start to create more of them in their lives.  They start to set boundaries with others, because they attune to their own signals that people are starting to make them uncomfortable.  Relationships improve, and support systems widen.  Eventually, slowly but surely, the therapist becomes a lot less important…which means that therapy is working.

This is the bulk of the work.  Trauma therapy is often a long rambling paragraph of conversations, punctuated by the sessions where the trauma material is targeted directly.  Nobody wants to read a story where every sentence ends with an exclamation point.  The statements lose their meaning, and people become frustrated with the story.

The story is simply about two people, coming together and believing that life is worth living.  We are here to help clients live the life they want to live, no more and no less.  Once we let go of the idea that therapy is “trauma work”, we start to become better as trauma-informed therapists.