Talking About Trauma: Advocating for Healing Through Therapy

Young adult wearing dress and matching summer hat stands on forest path looking back and smilingFor as long as I could remember, public speaking was a part of my life. Since my start as a precocious seven-year-old entering public speaking competitions in 4H, I have cherished the spoken word and the feeling of connecting with an audience. Today, in my career as a trauma and dissociation specialist, my passion for public speaking has not diminished. In fact, my drive to connect with audiences in such a way is relentless.

Throughout my career, I have sought opportunities to connect with my community, my peers, and the world through public speaking engagements. I love the spark, energy, and the light that emanates from an audience of learners moved by what they are learning. It is not only the “process” of public speaking I adore, but the fact that it brings forth inspiration and encouragement to the community, each member having chosen that moment, that day, to discuss and perhaps contemplate what my muse has brought to me, helped me to deliver in that certain setting, in that particular moment.

Recently, I was due to be interviewed as a potential speaker for a well-known internet-based speaking engagement. While waiting for the appointed time, I kept checking my watch with great anticipation, unable to hold back my excitement. I couldn’t fathom that I was actually being interviewed for this engagement, and I was inspired by the possibilities. Perhaps this talk would enable me to bring more awareness to trauma and dissociation. Perhaps I could reach even just one person, one person clamoring to reach out from the depths of those deep and dark places, who could grasp the message of hope, who might realize that things could, in fact, get better. Certainly, I would be lying if I denied that my ego, jumping down with glee, was rallying around how these talks had catapulted numerous speakers into the eye of the public.

But the catch was this: I had forgotten what I was up against. I was actually up against the very thing I like to speak about, teach, and inspire others to discuss. I was up against the very real challenge of stigma, the idea of “not wanting to know, not wanting to realize, not wanting to feel about it.”

I was up against the challenge of talking about trauma and dissociation.

Why Is it Difficult to Talk About Trauma and Dissociation?

The word dissociation has, in many circles, a less-than-positive reputation. It’s often misunderstood. When I say the word “dissociation,” for example, the mind of the general public tends to drift to popular media: SybilThe United States of Tara, and even the recent horror movie, Split. Experience has also shown me that even many psychotherapists often default to oversimplification and a misinterpretation that dissociation is synonymous with DID (dissociative identity disorder), formerly known as multiple personality disorder (MPD), and that dissociation solely refers to this condition. As a result, more “subtle” dissociative processes are often misunderstood, and at best, misdiagnosed. At times, they may be completely overlooked.

The disheartening aspect of this to me, a trauma and dissociation specialist, is that the exploration of dissociation, and its ultimate treatment, is often a very important key in the process of healing from trauma.

While I have written numerous articles about trauma and dissociation, as well as provided numerous trainings on the topic, I am always attempting to find more creative and engaging ways to describe it to those seeking to learn about it. And, while this article is not meant to provide an all-compassing description, knowledge of its basic principles is key to understanding my experience with it. I find this especially helpful with regard to the acknowledgment of what I faced as a potential speaker on a topic it seems people might rather avoid, and the importance of acknowledging my feelings.

Understanding Dissociation

We know children need their parents to survive. Mother Nature also wisely made certain we are wired to engage, attach, and bond, especially with our mother, in order to not only ensure our continued physiological survival, but also the development of our psychological and emotional landscape.

Throughout our childhood, we are in a continuous dance of attunement with our primary caregiver, seeking a sense of security and connection, one that, ideally, provides us with the foundation to be able to maintain healthy relationships into adulthood. This dance of attachment is set to an emotional soundtrack, one by which a child is ever aware of the caregivers’ ability, or inability, to tolerate the emotions the child expresses.

It was as if I had uttered some dirty word, that I was actually suggesting that the need to do our “inner work” was something to be ashamed of, to hide. That it wasn’t okay to say that we should go to therapy.

In a parallel process, the child will typically grow up to shut out any emotions, “negative” and “positive” both, that caregivers do not attune to or are intolerant of. When a child’s emotions are not regulated by the parents, the attempt to self-regulate may lead to a process of compartmentalization and shutting out distress. This process is known as dissociation. As a result of dissociation, a child may eventually become phobic of the internal world in an ill-fated attempt to establish a secure attachment relationship, to make certain they still have a caregiver to even share in that dance of attunement in the first place.

As a result, the child may then be set on a life-long path that is characterized by a diminished capacity for interoception, or a lack of attunement with their internal feelings and internal experience, or the inability to realize and integrate the way they feel. This path, however, can be altered with therapy. The process of dissociation, this diminished capacity for attunement, is certainly treatable. The help of a qualified and compassionate counselor can be helpful to many who have experienced these exact issues.

So, then, I was shocked to discover, as I was being interviewed and participating in discussions about the potential opportunity to speak about this topic, the response to my wanting to talk about what I just described was, “But Sarah, you can’t tell me the message you want to give is that we all need therapy, is it? People just don’t want to hear that.”

I was stunned. It was as if I had uttered some dirty word, that I was actually suggesting that the need to do our “inner work” was something to be ashamed of, to hide. That it wasn’t okay to say that we should go to therapy.

I didn’t hear from them again. And truly, my ego had to realize that while this was initially distressing, in the end, it was okay. In fact, I was very compassionate with myself and glad I had held to my integrity, that I hadn’t changed my message to fit what would have perhaps been something more palatable, more comfortable.  Yes, I was saying that we need to heal our deepest wounds, to explore those deep places that often feel unreachable and dark, but I was also saying that by doing so we can come through to the other side of that dark place into wholeness.

I am passionate about helping people to heal, and truly in awe of the courage and dedication that the people I work with, and you GoodTherapy.org readers, put in to “do the work” of healing the deepest of wounds. Thus, the bottom line of this was that I was sad. Period. I wanted to shed light on the importance of acknowledging our feelings, the “stuff” that perhaps is the hardest to explore and acknowledge.

But instead I realized the message that we all have work to do seemed too much for some people. To some, it wasn’t an appropriate or comfortable message. As an advocate for those who heal from trauma, that just saddens me. And because I know it is okay to acknowledge how I feel, that I can be compassionate with myself about acknowledging that truth, I could realize the sadness, but not be afraid of it.

This in and of itself is what many of the people I see in therapy are working on, this idea that we don’t have to be afraid of the feelings themselves, let alone what causes them.

The experience reminded me that as a society, there is a true need for the healing our deepest wounds, to be willing to address how hard it is to “go inside” and explore our innermost feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and experiences.

Let’s face it, trauma is not just an individual issue or a family issue. It’s a community issue. As those who are healing from complex trauma know all too well, while it is not comfortable to do healing work, it can help us to build compassion within ourselves, which can then be shared with the outside world, beginning with our communities. As a result of our doing this healing work, if we can also start to look at ourselves, our feelings, in a more compassionate way, we can learn that we don’t have to keep judging them, being afraid of them, or banishing them.

Perhaps it is more familiar to stay with the non-realization that we want to stay away from the distressing experiences instead of acknowledging and processing them. If doing our own healing work helps with this, I say let’s be certain to talk about the importance of therapy! It takes a great deal of courage to acknowledge the distress, the hurt from the past, and I encourage each and every one of you reading this to know that the courageous steps that you are taking to heal, to be heard within your own self as well as the outside world, are important ones. I encourage you to view those steps, and the way you feel, without fear or shame.

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