We are all traumatized.
That’s not to detract from the people who suffer the far-end of the spectrum, the trauma with a capital T.
But there’s also a broader, more invisible, everyday kind of trauma. It’s the trauma of the thousand small rejections, the trauma of being told that your naked body was shameful, the trauma of being bullied at school. The trauma, as the psychiatrist Mark Epstein calls it, of being alive. I think of it as the trauma of ultimately being unable to control life.
With a small or big T, trauma is life interrupted. We think it “happened” in the past, but it always manifests in the present. It is our current inability to fully meet the present moment because of our reaction to an experience from our past.
In essence, trauma happens anytime we close to the present moment. We have a thousand names for closing: resistance, defenses, justifications, limiting beliefs, fighting reality. It all comes down to one thing: Are you a yes, or are you a no? Are you participating in the flow of life, or are you scrambling for shore?
Why is this more than an interesting idea? Personally, I judge all beliefs and hypotheses not on whether they are ultimately true, but on whether they are ultimately helpful.
The belief that I am traumatized has been hugely helpful to me. It doesn’t make me special or give me an excuse to be broken. Rather, it helps me appreciate the truly epic roots of my resistance to life, and gives me a framework for working with it that is equally deep. It allows me to work with myself at a level far deeper than my conscious mind.
Knowing that I often and routinely close to life at a deep instinctual level out of fear, I can see that applying more force—in the version of extra motivation, coercion, shame, guilt, blame—will only have me close further. When I am deep in the middle of flight-fright-freeze (or please, which I see as also a trauma response), there is no use convincing me that I am being silly, irrational, resistant, or not meeting my conscious goals. I know that. It doesn’t help.
I have to work at the root level of the trauma itself. I have to travel to meet the shadow part of me that is a no—that is still seeking control.
When I work with clients, I have deep respect with the part that wants to close. That is actually where their power is. Without our full attention there, their yes is only half-baked. Effective coaching must go beyond ra-ra goal-setting that only addresses our conscious mind. Coaching, at its best, helps illuminate and then dissolve this root level of resistance so the frozen power can be untapped.
For example, a woman I know who was about to go on an intensive work trip felt resistance around keeping up with her workout while traveling, even though her conscious goal was to stay fit. To move forward, it wasn’t enough to recommit to her desire. She had to listen and acknowledge the stuck part of her that wanted to close before she regained her full yes.
For you on your journey, the next time you feel yourself being resistant, getting detached, feeling like you are behind a wall, feeling alienated or left behind, here are some simple guidelines for working with yourself. And for major areas of blocks or resistance, a coach can keep you moving towards your desires and goals, even when all you want to do is freeze or run away.
Step One: Notice
Notice what is happening. This is the step we often miss, because our rational minds tell us either that (1) nothing is logically wrong and we are making it all up, or (2) it is all the other person’s fault. Begin to develop a relationship with your body so you can tell when you leave it, get tense, or otherwise put up walls. Take responsibility for your own resistance.
Step Two: Let it Be Okay
The key word here is approval. Don’t judge yourself for closing and don’t yell at yourself to open. Slow way down. Something is happening inside of you that wants your attention.
This part requires humility. You are not in charge of the timing of your own process, no matter how fast you would like it to go. But with awareness and active attention, you can avoid letting trauma pull you into quitting or acting out.
Step Three: Tune In and Hear
When we disconnect from the present moment, we disconnect from our bodies. As Peter Levine’s Felt Sense exercise instructs, come back into the body by noticing internal shapes, textures, movements, and other parts of the internal landscape.
Tune into the resistant part of you. Where is it? How does it feel? What does it want you to know? Listen. Ask it: And what else? What else? Listen without trying to fix or solve.
Sometimes it is hard to listen, because you are afraid that if you listen then you’ll agree with your own stories of fear and lack. The key is to practice listening without deciding whether what you hear is true. Your steady attention melts the hard story-shell. Underneath, you will find something tender that wanted your attention, or some pent-up energy that wanted release. It’s not true or false, it was just stuck, pulling you out of connection with the present moment.
Step Four: Open Up to Connection
Connection heals trauma. If you hide your frozen stuck parts in shame and isolation, thinking that you “should” not be so resistant or scared, you are actually reinforcing the trauma pattern. When you let others into these deep frozen spots, you open up to the light of day, approval, and healing.
Tell a friend about what your resistance told you. Laugh and remember it’s okay to be human. And you are not just mailing it in. You are courageous enough to tune in and be vulnerable to your human experience, rather than disconnecting and forcing yourself to suck it up. This is the part where you feel good about showing up as a real, feeling, breathing, alive person.
Step Five: Are You Ready?
Even as you slow down and meet yourself where you are at, a part of you remains ready to go. This part is clear and capable. It’s been there all along, waiting for the rest of you to catch up. So now, ask yourself: are you ready? Can we go ahead? Can we say yes and open again?
Author: Nicole Aimee
Editor: Travis May