The “T” and the “S” word
As with many people, change can present opportunities for growth in the shape of the unfamiliar; following a recent move, I decided to design my own website (bear with me). This is a task that was entirely new and outside of my skill set and comfort zone. But, excited by new possibilities, I undertook this task with enthusiasm and a determination to create a piece of work that reflects who I am and how I practice. It is a goal that set this particular reflection in motion.
In an attempt to write from my heart, I wanted to capture the essence of counselling and to present how I practice in a way that engages people. I believe that counselling is about making connection, be it spiritual, emotional, psychological or somatic and I wanted to create a website that would communicate this and resonate with others.
As I typed out my understanding of how counselling can help and my areas of expertise, something very surprising happened... I experienced an apprehension regarding the use of certain words. I felt concern that some people may feel alienated, disconnected, or worse, recoil when reading those words that accurately depict certain life experiences.
Two words caused me to pause, to rethink, to demand closer attention and reflection...
... trauma and shame.
Two impactful and debilitating (sometimes growthful) experiences that many clients have shared with me throughout my practice. They are not new concepts to me and yet here I was, experiencing discomfort voicing them.
One reflection was my concern that some individuals might feel an alienation from their own experiences as they don't necessarily connect with either word. I also reflected on my own experiences of trauma and shame and therefore had to beg the question "was I comfortable and connected with my own experiences?" and "if I cannot voice such words, can I invite and enable others to voice them?".
I recently listened to an interview with Peter Levine (author of Waking The Tiger) and he stated that "there's hardly anyone on the planet that doesn't know the word [trauma] and doesn't relate to it". This statement doesn't fully reflect the experiences of many clients I have worked with. I have worked with individuals from different parts of the world who may know of the word [trauma], yet, as it is not near the edge of their awareness, do not relate to their own and reject the word itself.
There are clients who have diminished their experiences by saying things like "there are worse people off than me", "it's not that bad, it's not as if I was hit" or "it didn't happen to me, I just saw it", who go on to share their subsequent somatic experiences of trauma but refuse the “T” word because it doesn't connect.
For them, trauma is not a somatic experience, but an event that happens to other people, within war or a catastrophic event featured on the news, not within their own lives. Levine does state that trauma can result not just from extra-ordinary, but ordinary events and sharing his definition of trauma may be helpful when inviting clients to reflect on, connect with and acknowledge their internal experiencing instead of recoiling from or distancing themselves from the word itself... "something that overwhelms us, that makes us feel helpless, paralysed, and it's something that happens to our brains and bodies".
When we recognise and acknowledge our trauma and how it has altered our experiences in the present, we can then re-orient ourselves to the world we live in now. But if the counsellor is uncomfortable with the word and/or their own trauma, could they unwittingly communicate that these experiences are not safe to explore? Possibly even shameful?
I recently attended a conference by Christiane Sanderson (author of The Warrior Within) on 'The Web of Shame in the Therapeutic Space' and questions that arose for me were:
"How do I invite or inhibit clients from talking about their shame?"
"Am I comfortable and connected with my own experiences and do I work comfortably with clients and their shame?”
“Have I ever shamed another because of my own shame?"
What emerges for me as a practitioner, is my unwavering belief that I need to know myself as best I can, in order to be solid enough for whatever a client chooses to share or unconsciously reveal of themselves.
This little reflection has reminded me of our responsibility to develop an understanding of trauma and shame, be it within ourselves or our clients, and how it presents in the therapeutic space. It is fundamental to our practice that we understand what goes on for us, what we pause over and feel discomfort with.
I am grateful that by undertaking a task I wouldn't naturally choose to do, I have been able to ask myself some very important questions and challenge myself in a way that will enable me to be more present with clients. I agree with Bessel Van Der Kolk (author of The Body Keeps The Score) when he said that "within this field we are in a constant state of exploration and growth".
It is an exciting time where discussion on trauma and shame are becoming more prevalent and training on trauma-informed practice is more accessible and available. My hope is that by being actively reflective practitioners, we will be open and comfortable when clients communicate their trauma and shame.
I also hope that we can recognise the words that we react to or reject because of our own experiences. Such insight will give us the opportunity to work through our discomfort, enabling us to invite clients to do the same.
About the author
Caroline is a person-centred counsellor and supervisor in private practice in Wilmslow, Cheshire. She works with young adults and adults enabling them to embody and experience a greater sense of well-being and achieve their therapeutic goals.
Caroline also volunteers for a bereavement counselling service, facilitating support groups.
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