January 26, 2009
Here is a quote from my article “Overcoming Instability Issues and Unsuccessful Memory Work,” posted on January 3, 2009.
“If you cannot speak, in your normal voice, discussing your trauma memories from the safety of the here-and-now while still connected in the present, then don’t even try to address your memories. It is too soon.”
It has come to my attention that I need to expand on these statements.
A. Your Normal Voice
To clarify, speaking “in your normal voice” does not mean to be devoid of all emotion. A dissociated, numb, detached voice is not your “normal voice”. A “normal voice” can and does have plenty of emotion — otherwise, we would all sound like robots.
Pick a safe topic (one not about trauma), but a topic about which you have passionate opinions. For example, what was your opinion about Bush vs. Obama? Did you have a strong preference for which man you wanted to have as the next President? How much emotion was in your voice when you expressed your opinions about the election?
Or, think of your favorite funny movie – one that really makes you laugh and leaves you feeling good for the rest of the day. When you talk about that comedy show, reliving the funny plots to your friend, do you have emotion in your voice?
In each of these situations, most people will have a relatively strong emotional connection to the topic, but they will be able to use their “normal voice” and incorporate a healthy amount of emotion in their speech.
Reaching up to (but not beyond) this level of emotional intensity is my recommendation for early stages of trauma work.
B. Emotional Intensity
I do not recommend that the first steps and stages of addressing memories and trauma be experienced in the extremes of emotional states. To go from blocked, dissociated, amnesiac non-awareness of traumatic material to full-fledged, full-voiced screams and cries is far too big of a jump. That’s a black vs. white approach, and neither extreme is going to be helpful for you.
Of course there are times when more extreme and intense emotion needs to be expressed – that is absolutely true. However, I do not think it is in any survivor’s best interest to start at that level of emotional intensity. Expression of that kind of emotional intensity happens way further down the line in treatment chronology. If you jump there too soon, there will be problems.
Why?? Because of the backlash. If you have no awareness of certain traumas for years of time, and then, within a short amount of time, you get flooded with a tidal wave of emotional information about that trauma, you can bet that there will be struggles with self-injury, self-mutilation, and physical pain as a backlash response to the sudden and excessive emotional pain of remembering.
The strength of your dissociative walls – the years of not knowing about certain traumatic information, emotion, and physical feelings – clearly and without question indicates that there is, and will be for an extended period of time, system conflict about that memory information surfacing.
While some parts will be very relieved at the chance to talk about their trauma, you will also have some insiders upset and angry that the memory surfaced in the first place. Some insiders could be so upset if memories surface or are talked about that they might threaten punishment or harm, or they might forego threats and simply act on their own beliefs and their own feelings. You will have some insiders re-living the physical pain, and others trying to deny the whole shebang. With all the opposing responses going on within your system, you won’t be able to sit with the emotional intensity for very long. An internal war will follow. That’s not very healing. That’s quite traumatizing.
It is much better and safer to approach emotional intensity in graduated steps — to build your tolerance and emotional endurance, and to make sure that there is no internal backlash. While some parts of you might want to scream and shout, there may very likely be someone else inside who will believe that kind of behavior should be punished.
If you don’t have sufficient system cooperation to be expressing such intense emotion, and to maintain your safety in the days following, then it is not safe for you to be pushing for that level of intensity.
C. The Here and Now
When doing trauma work, it is absolutely critical to have a solid connection to the present day, the here and now. All too many dissociated insiders actually think / feel / believe they are still living in the time frame that they are most connected to. Just because you – the adult host — know it is 2009, does NOT mean that your inside parts have that solid awareness. They are more familiar with other time zones. They may fully believe they are still there, in those times, living in those places, near those perpetrators, etc. They will be frightened of ongoing abuse, and will react accordingly.
Check that thoroughly. If for any reason, your insiders still think they are in that traumatic time frame, they will still be too afraid to address the issues in the most effective ways. They will still believe their perpetrators can hear them, or can see them, or will be showing up again at any moment. (Working with internal introjects of external perpetrators is a huge issue, but will be addressed in at a different time.)
As you show the current time frame to your insiders and prove to them that they are living in a new time frame (2009), and that they are living in your current house, that the perpetrators they fear are far far away, you are giving your memory-holding parts the ability to get grounded back to the current day once they begin memory work. This grounding to the current time frame is critical for them to know they are safe.
D. Current Safety
ALL parts must know they are safe enough to talk about their trauma, but this is especially true for child parts. They have to know that it is ok, and that the perpetrator isn’t going to show up and hurt them for talking. They also have to know that the other insiders will not punish them for talking about their memories.
Before starting any memory work with young parts be sure to address the following issues with them:
- Are they still connected to now – 2009? Show this, prove this, in any way that they can.
- Can they still see the room that you are physically in?
- Can they see that you live in this house now?
- Can they see that the house looks different? Can they see how the yard, garage, grounds, barns, etc look different from when the places where you grew up?
- When they are talking about the scary things that you remember, can they come back to being right there, in the current-day place where you are – the place that is far, far away from where those mean people live?
- Can they see your therapist’s office? Do they see the couch there? The pictures / decorations that are there? Do they know that your therapist’s office is also a very very very long way away from where those bad people are?
Reassure all child parts that you can and will keep them safe, both inside and out. If you cannot promise that you will be able to keep them safe from mean insiders and outside perpetrators, then address those issues first, before attempting to make the hurting parts talk about trauma.
Everyone needs solid reassurance about safety BEFORE talking about their trauma.
Kathy Broady LCSW