The definition of trauma is that some force or person renders another person defenseless and powerless, overwhelming the ability to cope. This can be through either an attack or through neglecting basic emotional and physical needs. Such traumatic overwhelm leaves behind a feeling of vulnerability. Consequently, the first objective in trauma work is to increase a sense of safety and reduce both actual and felt vulnerability. Working experientially with the body itself is quite effective in increasing safety.
Safety and boundaries are learned through a physical experience of connection between others and ourselves. As children, we feel safe when our caregivers meet our basic needs reliably and consistently and when we are both protected and nurtured. We also feel safe when we experience our bodies’ ability to keep us safe. This involves being able to employ the full repertoire of instinctive mammalian defenses, used in a rather predictable order, starting with active defenses and then, if needed, resorting to passive defenses: orienting to danger through the five senses, reaching out or crying for help, fleeing, fighting, freezing, submitting, and completely shutting down or fainting. We feel particularly safe if our bodies have facility with the active defenses: reaching and crying out for help, fleeing and fighting. Being able to move and shout effortlessly gives a sense of prowess. This felt sense of being able to defend ourselves is our birthright as a human mammal. It is also a prerequisite for being able to focus and accomplish daily tasks of living and being able to play and create.
Most people come to psychotherapy having been hurt or traumatized by other people. If one of the very first instinctive defenses for us as human mammals is to cry out and reach for other people, when our supposed protectors hurt us, our bodies have a hard time knowing whether to reach for help or to push them away and run. Our bodies cannot settle on the best defense. When no help comes with a reach or cry, and there is no option of fleeing or fighting, the body uses the passive or last resort defenses: submitting and shutting down, where the body loses integrity and consciousness itself splits off.
As a result, some trauma survivors can have persistent patterns of passivity, collapsing, shutting down, splitting off from the body, and consequently there is a loss of any sense that the body could actively defend itself. Paradoxically, many report feeling safer when in a collapsed, shut down state. The passive defenses are being used even when not needed, and the body seems to have forgotten how to act. If this is forgotten, it can be remembered, because fight and flight is instinctive and never really lost. Reaching out is also instinctive. Our bodies can be reminded of what they already know deep inside, that we can either reach out or we can push away and leave.
The ideal is to be fully embodied. For example, take any proficient sports figure, who is so bodily integrated, so familiar with his or her body, that he or she has an ability to run and tumble in ways that would injure and traumatize the rest of us. It’s impressive, and it shows what is possible. In contrast, the less we actively use our bodies the more vulnerable we are in the world.
Some people may be chronically disembodied, while others would be only under certain situations when feeling stressed or threatened. Unfortunately, some can feel most threatened by other people, and then we as practitioners are both a possible helper and a possible threat, and the body will react accordingly. The good news is that we can go ahead and explicitly pay attention to this and use it right in our sessions. The dilemma is that to notice what the body is doing or not doing we must pay attention to the body, and that in itself feels threatening if someone relies on avoiding and shutting down to achieve a feeling of safety.
So we start small and easy so the body can remember what it knows. There is so much we can play around with just while sitting there with one another. How does the distance feel as we sit together, too close, too far, just right? How does your body let you know that? How do you know when you feel safe or vulnerable? What would make you more comfortable and at ease? Maybe it’s different from time to time. It’s very incremental and unhurried, as we get used to asking. It’s a lot like learning to ask how the relationship is going between you and your client; it’s not something we do socially, so at first it feels odd to ask. But as you develop ease with it, it’s an essential conversation. We’re just including the body in the equation.
This is boundary: knowing what feels ok and what does not, what do I like and what do I dislike, what is mine and what is not mine, and then having the personal power to speak and to act. That’s feeling alive and being secure. We realize that boundaries are not just a cognitive concept but rather an “experience waiting to happen”, as Ron Kurtz, founder of Hakomi, would say. An experience of pushing away what we don’t want, reaching for what we do want, and being successful.
When we see safety through the lens of the body’s experience, we are able to hypothesize what is needed. What does the body want to do? When we and our clients understand what bodies innately do to stay safe, we can collaborate and find out. We can design and practice “little experiments” to find the “missing experience” (Ron Kurtz again).
For example, let’s consider the instinctive bodily response of pushing away something we don’t want near us. We might first explain that the urge to push away is natural and a basic part of the human repertoire. We’re not saying this or that movement is right or wrong, rather that we are safest when each of us has a facility to enact a full range of possible actions. A friendly, open and curious observational stance is essential, for both therapist and client. It’s so common to be told that we’re doing things wrong and in need of correction. That’s not what we’re about. What we are about is finding a sense of internal authority, locating what we want and acting on that. It’s a process of discovery. We encourage noticing the body’s reactions first, and only secondly emotions and thoughts (which yield less new information). By noticing the body’s responses with curiosity, we are practicing somatic mindfulness. As Dan Siegal points out, mindfulness without a belief system is simply focused attention; it’s more powerful and effective than analysis, and uses a different part of the brain. We’re focusing our attention on the body’s urges and sensations.
After this introduction, we can suggest a “little experiment”. What if we offer the client a benign object such as a pillow or a box of tissues, and ask the client if they can pretend they don’t want a pillow or a tissue right now, and then notice the body’s response. Proceed incrementally. For example, ask the client how she or he feels just considering doing this little experiment. Many will feel tension inside just at the prospect. Encourage mindful attention to the tension. Where is it? Is there an urge with it? Let’s say there is a slight pulling in. Perhaps we’ve just discovered a conditioned response: to pull away. That’s one possible response to not wanting something in our space. Let’s say instead there is an urge to take the object even though they don’t want it. Isn’t that curious? We can study that. Can we also find the urge deep inside to push away? Maybe it’s right there, or maybe it takes awhile to find it. Maybe we notice the hand move slightly, a latent desire for the hand to come up in a sign of “no”. We go easily and slowly, because that encourages mindful awareness and new possibilities, without pressure. Again, it’s not about right or wrong, but having a wide repertoire for safety, which in this case would eventually include a full-bodied push away, along with the voice, indicating a coherent message of “no”. There are many, many incremental steps, and the practitioner’s urge is usually to go too far, too fast. Using mindfulness at a slow pace reinforces the gradual development of new possibilities with new neuropathways.
The practitioner’s role is to enhance both actual and felt safety for clients, both in session and out: 1) Explain the basics about how bodies instinctively respond; 2) Be a friendly, non-judgmental observer of the client’s physical responses and proceed incrementally; 3) Collaborate: be a guide who knows the fundamentals, and yet allow the client to lead by locating their own internal authority about what is ok to notice, practice and try at this time. If someone is able to say they don’t want to do something you suggest, notice how that competency feels inside the body. Resistance itself can be a success!