The fallacy of grounding

by | 28 February 2019 | 30 comments

My therapist is on extended leave and so here I am instead, in a strange town, in a strange counselling centre, in a strange room, with a very strange woman. I’ve met her previously: my principle therapist and I came to see her before the start of her break, as a kind of ‘handover’. And, overwhelmed by the agony of the perceived abandonment, and the terror of coping with flashbacks and breakdowns and dissociation and chronic illness without the support of an attachment figure, I reluctantly agreed to see this ‘substitute’.

But she’s not a substitute. She’s a prison guard.

That is the first conclusion I jump to even before our first session starts. But I am being driven by fear of the unknown; fear of attachment; fear of rejection; fear of being shamed. I’m aware, just about, that I’m not being entirely fair.

I drive the hour or so to her counselling centre with a sense of dread and foreboding. I park down the road and fumble incompetently to get a ticket. I can’t decide if I am anxious or hypoglaecemic. I don’t know whether to stride confidently into the building or skulk silently into the waiting room until noticed. I don’t know what the rules are. And I feel twisted up within myself at the terror of getting it wrong. Here I am, an adult, and I can’t deal with normal life, I think to myself, brimming with the kind of self-hatred that is meant to serve as a defence but which only hurts me more.

Through the front door, there is a little reception area, separated off with frosted glass. I stand awkwardly, hovering, incapable of decision. Eventually a woman glances up.

‘Yes?’

I glower at her on the inside. It feels rude and dismissive – she can’t even be bothered to smile, but instead looks annoyed by my presence – and the shame of it sears deep into my bowels.

‘I have a ten o’clock appointment,’ I say, wanting to look through her so that her eye contact won’t hurt. It doesn’t matter – she doesn’t even bother looking back. Am I being oversensitive? Am I misinterpreting everything? Probably I am, but that’s the legacy of trauma. Right now, all I can do is survive. The stress of the newness of this, the perceived threat to my life of abandonment or rejection – outside my window of tolerance, way up high in the amber zone ready for fight or flight – is compromising my ability to relate normally. I can’t help but see everyone and everything as a threat. Breathe, I tell myself, not because I can, but because it’s what my therapist would say to me. I haven’t yet twigged why it’s so important and that it does, actually, help.

‘Take a seat.’

I can just make out a couple of other women at desks in this admin area. I have timed my arrival to be 9.55 am exactly: literally counting down the seconds, and pacing my stride, so that I won’t be a second too early or a second too late. Three minutes to ten feels like I am pushing it: what if my watch is slow? Anything more than five minutes beforehand feels inconveniently early. And I don’t want to be an inconvenience.

Will she come out to me at exactly 10 am, and therefore will we eat into the hour by finding the room? Or will she allow me time to settle into a chair before the clock starts ticking? These things don’t seem to matter to therapists, I think. But they matter to us. Every second counts.

I sit, numb, alert, agitated, removed. Everything and nothing. And I sit. The seconds crawl forwards. My watch registers 10 am. Perhaps she is with another client still. It occurs to me that I didn’t give my name; nor was it requested. I hope, panicked, that I have the right day. Yes, I have the right day. I checked it ten times.

I can’t shake the feeling that I don’t belong here; that I’m not welcome here; that I would be better off dead. This is a recurrent theme, and it will be many years until it begins to shift.

As the clock shuffles past 10 am, one of the women behind the screen stirs. She scrunches her papers together, stands up, and appears from behind the glass. She smiles at me wetly. ‘Shall we go up?’

I hate myself at that moment for resenting the lost time. I am convinced that she will kick me out on the dot, but we haven’t started on the dot. I have driven an hour to get here. I have made childcare arrangements. I have journalled. I have spent most of the night awake, distressed at the thought of coming. I have had three bouts of diarrhoea this morning. And when it comes to it, my therapy hour will run short. Get over it, I try saying to myself, but I feel crushed and ashamed. I’m not even worth a whole hour. And she’s been sitting there all along, shuffling papers. I hate her. But more than that, I hate myself, for overreacting. After all, I don’t have a right to counselling. I don’t have a right to be helped. I should be grateful, I should be thankful, I should be … Stop it. I pull air into my ribs to overcome the urge to not be.

I follow her up through narrow, stale-smelling corridors where the lightbulbs glow a dirty orange. We pass doors with signs on them: ‘Quiet please. Counselling in progress.’ I feel ashamed on behalf of the people inside, that I know why they are there. We lumber up two flights of stairs, each step creaking loudly, and I wonder if I will be able to focus against the background of footsteps on stairs. It’s the worst sound in the world, I think, but I don’t yet know why.

Inside the room, the carpet is threadbare and the walls a filthy cream. A single vase of dusty plastic flowers sits on an IKEA coffee table. An IKEA print on the wall. An IKEA cushion on the chair. That at least is familiar. The woman herself looks as dreary as the room. I feel ashamed to be here, as if the emotional poverty of the setting is a reflection of my worth.

Coats off, sitting down. In a brown chair with a stain on it. With wooden arms like the teachers used to have at school, twenty years ago. It is very upright. I don’t feel I have enough strength in my spine to sit in it. Everything in me collapses down within myself. I just want to huddle up and hide. I really really don’t want to be here.

‘How have you been?’ she says and I become conscious that her dyed-chestnut perm is not dissimilar to my mother’s. She’s a bit older than my main therapist, and plump, like a well-stuffed bean bag. I don’t want to see her as the enemy right now, but that is the feeling overwhelming me. I try to push it back underneath. I need to get this right.

We talk unpleasantries for a few minutes but everything about me is unsettled. I resent her because she’s not my main therapist. I resent her because of her perm. I resent her because of the room. I resent her because we started late. And most of all I resent her because she doesn’t know me.

Of course, she thinks she does. And that’s what bothers me. She thinks she knows me, and she’s patronising with it. I feel the power differential between us distinctly, like she’s the middle-class sorted one, and I’m the feral screw-up. I particularly don’t like the fact that the counselling is free. I feel pitied and patronised. I should be grateful … Yes, but stop it anyway.

We sit in silence for a bit and I realise how pent up I am with negativity, and that I don’t want to be. Get over yourself, I say to myself, unencouragingly. But then I hear it: the wail on the inside. There’s a terror, and a desperate yearning for connection and to be heard. I don’t know what this is. I don’t know who this is, but something that we’re talking about (somehow we’ve strayed onto a family member’s birthday), or maybe just being here, is activating this cry within me, and it’s slicing at me from the inside. It’s like an instinctual need to check out if we exist here. Or if we have to play ‘the game’ and hide.

I start to fall away within myself. Downwards. A long way downwards. I can feel myself falling, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

She’s looking at me sternly when I next become conscious. I don’t know where I’ve been, only that I haven’t been here. My on-leave therapist has recently provided a word for it: ‘dissociating’. I only started therapy six months previously, and I don’t really know what it means. I only know that it’s become routine for me to miss part of my session. And that, apparently, is what has just happened now.

My main therapist is kind about it, empathic. She explains it to me in terms of my mind being overwhelmed, and a kind of shut-off mechanism kicking in to prevent total overload. She suggests that it makes sense, even though she doesn’t really understand it either. Although I feel alarmed and ashamed, she makes me feel less so. She sees it as both a problem, and the solution. She gives me confidence that together we will work to find a way through: to figure out why it’s happening, and to resolve the underlying issues. And there’s no rush.

Or at least there wasn’t. But then she went on leave.

And this therapist is staring at me now with a face that looks like I’ve stolen her purse. I don’t know where I’ve been. I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. But it’s evident that I have done wrong.

‘We won’t be able to work together if you dissociate in the session,’ she says.

I stare blankly back at her. I’m not quite sure why she’s telling me this. I’m not quite sure what she wants me to do about it. I’m not quite sure what the problem is.

So I say nothing but I sink in my chair under the weight of her disapproval. A sticky layer of nausea coats my guts. ‘Okay,’ I say at last, so that the silence doesn’t become offensive.

Inside, I want to cry. Out of nowhere, I feel a wave of pain scalding my innards. I feel totally, irreparably, unacceptable. A long, low wail from within.

‘You need to ground yourself if you feel yourself starting to dissociate,’ she explains.

But I have no idea what she means. I don’t know what ‘grounding’ means. I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know why to do it. And I don’t know how to identify the feeling of starting to dissociate. At this point in my recovery journey, I don’t notice it. It just happens. So what she’s asking of me is, currently, impossible. It’s like asking me to slow my heart rate to 50 beats per second – I just can’t.

My guts freeze over with dread. I don’t know what to say or do. I feel ashamed with the impossibility of being me, and being traumatised.

What I want to say to her – now, years later, after figuring this stuff out through thousands of therapy hours and tens of thousands of hours of studying – is that she’s got it the wrong way around. It’s exactly because I start to dissociate in session that she needs to work with me.

Telling a client that you can’t work with them if they dissociate in sessions is like telling a cancer patient that you can’t work with them while they continue to lose weight. The weight loss is a symptom of the cancer; all the more reason to work with them promptly, to deliver effective treatment as soon as possible. Likewise with dissociative clients, the fact that they ‘dissociate’ in sessions, switch to other parts of the personality, lose contact with present reality, are in denial about their trauma, can’t manage their eating or drinking or drug use, or have a dozen other ‘diagnoses’ and labels – all of this is exactly why you should work with them. You don’t tell them to go and sort themselves out, and then you’ll help them recover once they have done so.

And I want to tell her too that grounding is not the answer. It’s become a buzz-word, devoid of meaning. It has taken on almost mythical status and in many cases is applied as a generic, magical panacea. It’s not. And the way she’s referring to it is as if it’s the answer, rather than merely a stepping stone towards the answer.

The work of trauma recovery involves bringing the front brain online and feeling safe again in the body. Being able to control switching and ‘dissociating’ (by which we mean an altered state of consciousness) is a vital component of that, but is not an end in itself. Developing co-consciousness and collaboration between parts is also important, and it’s true that traumatic memories are only properly metabolised and processed when the front brain is online. But grounding is only one small technique in that entire process: grounding is not the point.

What she really ought to be doing right now is focusing on connection and attunement, on being present with me in a supportive, empathic way. And there is little more disconnecting or misattuning than shaming a client for reactions which are currently outside their conscious control.

The end goal of trauma treatment is for the client to be able to consistently operate in ‘the green zone’, a physiological and emotional state of being where we’re able to both think and feel at the same time, where we’re calm, relaxed and alert, where we feel safe, and where our ‘social engagement system’ is fully operational. Trauma survivors instead spend much of their time either in the hyperaroused state of amber, characterised by fight and flight, or the hypoaroused state of red, characterised by dissociation and freeze. It is thus a defence against danger. The work of recovery from trauma involves a gradual resetting of the body and brain’s default state away from amber and red and more onto green. It takes time. It takes practice. It takes repetition. And it involves far, far more than just ‘grounding’.

Grounding can help us get back in the green zone, but used inappropriately it can spiral us further away from it. Too often grounding is used as a weapon to enforce compliance – ‘stop dissociating’: then it becomes entirely counter-productive. Too often it is used to regulate the therapist’s anxiety and sense of inadequacy, to manage a client who is presenting in unfamiliar ways. Grounding is an effective tool when used appropriately, but only if it’s for the client’s benefit, not for the therapist’s.

The therapist’s false assumption is that switching to another part is a bad thing, and should be stopped: as if by saying no to the symptoms of trauma, we can heal the trauma. But that is merely an attempt at behavioural control – it does nothing to resolve the underlying root cause. And in the case of dissociation, all it does is serve to disrupt the trust and attunement between therapist and client.

But if instead our end goal is the establishment of the green zone as our default state of being, we’re going to have to learn what it feels like to be there. We’ll have to get used to the green zone. It’s a habit we’ll have to develop – and habits take time to grow (and this habit should not be a prerequisite for receiving therapy). We’ll have to know how to move back into green when we’ve been triggered in some way into amber or red. We’ll have to develop an awareness of our physical and emotional states, to know that we’ve drifted out of green, and we’ll have to build a repertoire of skills, of things to do, in the moment, to begin the shift back into green – what is sometimes termed ‘affect regulation’. Sometimes – not always – these interventions include things that we could term ‘grounding’. But true grounding is about coming back into the green zone; it’s not about preventing switching.

And affect regulation is where the therapist is key: to act as a coach, to help to soothe and reassure, to regulate our emotions as a parent does with a baby, until we can learn to regulate them from ourselves; to remain in the green zone themselves and calmly, gently, draw us into their state, by their eye contact and steady tone of voice, by their regular breathing and metronomic heartbeat, through unconscious and non-verbal right brain to right brain communication.

We learn to come back into the green zone through a thousand opportunities in therapy, where we’re triggered out of it and the therapist helps gently soothe us back in. This may be for us in our ‘adult’ part, or for us in our more developmentally younger, distressed or traumatised parts: whoever we are, the therapist can help us learn to down-regulate or up-regulate, down from amber or up from red. Their presence, their ‘with-ness’, is key. By maintaining that human connection, we light up the attachment and relational parts of the brain, which in turn douse the rest of the brain with soothing chemicals, feel-good neurotransmitters. We do it again and again and again, until habits in our brain begin to form. And we do it best when there is a strong connection to another human being, and when our ‘social engagement system’ is fully online.

So switching isn’t a problem, and grounding isn’t the solution. It’s bigger than that, and wider than that. The problem we’re trying to solve is the way that trauma hijacks us, switching us away from daily life mode (the green zone) to danger mode (amber or red) and how little control we have over our physiological and emotional reactions. Grounding techniques can help us to slowly develop more control over these reactions, but they are not the goal in and of themselves: we do not go for therapy in order to merely learn how to be ‘grounded’.

And we can’t be expected to know how to do it when we start therapy either. We can’t even be expected to know how to do it without being shown: so much of what we’re trying to achieve takes place in the primitive, non-verbal, non-conscious parts of our brain, which is impervious to words. We don’t recover from trauma by thinking our way out of it. We have to learn, like a baby, to manage our physical and emotional states from scratch, and we mainly do it through being in a room with someone who is speaking unconsciously through their physical and emotional states to ours.

It’s true that over time we have to learn to bring our front brains fully online, and that controlling our switching makes a huge difference to both our quality of life and to resolution of the trauma. But it’s incorrect to leap from that proposition to the idea that dissociative clients should be prevented from switching in session, and that the goal should be to get them to ‘ground’ to mitigate such behaviour.

It’s much more helpful to think in terms of the overall goal: living in the green zone – and to ask, ‘What will help this person, right here, right now, feel connected to me as a human being (because the green zone is the realm of the ‘social engagement system’)? What will reduce their shame (as shame disconnects us from other people and so shuts us off from the green zone)? What will help to soothe their bodies and brains back into the green zone? What will be a reparative experience for them?’

Dissociative clients will dissociate. We cannot keep telling them that they need to stop doing that before we will work with them. In the early stages, when we’re working primarily on safety and stabilisation, it’s far more productive to go with them in their switches, and to welcome each and every part of them that ‘appears’ or ‘presents’. This is one person, with many parts.

You are not reinforcing the dissociation by talking to parts. But you are reinforcing the dissociation if you shame them: the default response to rejection, abandonment, exclusion or humiliation in a dissociative person is to go into the red zone of dissociation or freeze. Therefore, at the very least in the early stages of therapy, the best thing you can do to promote the green zone and thus recovery is to stay connected to them, wherever they go, however they present, whatever emotion is expressed or altered state of consciousness arises. The social engagement system is activated by human contact: therefore, keep in contact.

Over time, as that connection is established and as together you develop strategies that quickly soothe the client when triggered, you can work on limiting switching so that it becomes more a matter of choice, and planning, and control – rather than replicating the powerlessness of trauma, and being something which causes shame and a sense of a lack of control. But that takes time, and will happen naturally. If we work on resolving the root causes of dissociation – the trauma – then we will not habitually dissociate.

That is what I wish I could have said to her. But of course I couldn’t, because I didn’t know it then.

Instead I sit, stuck, ashamed, and with this wail on the inside that simply will not stop. ‘Okay,’ I say again, because I don’t know what else to say. I need to be a good girl. I need to be allowed to come back.

The following week, I warn myself sternly that ‘dissociating is not allowed’. It happens again, and I don’t understand why. The therapist talks about me ‘maybe not being in the right place at the moment for therapy’ – I decide in the end that this means that she can’t cope with me.

What I don’t understand is why my brain, which should be trying to protect me, instead seems to be sabotaging me: it is causing me to ‘behave badly’ in therapy, which risks curtailing this help that I am offered. But then I suddenly realise it: I don’t feel safe in this therapy. Because I feel perpetually ashamed and inadequate and incapable. I feel like I ought to be someone other than who I am: that I am too mad, too bad, too messed up. And that triggers painful, overwhelming feelings on the inside of me, and clearly there are parts of me who are trying to keep me safe by keeping me away from this therapist. And so, we ‘misbehave’ by ‘dissociating’ during the session.

I don’t go back for a third session.

The curious thing, I reflect, is that my principal therapist was too inexperienced to know the wrong thing to do. She hadn’t heard the ‘switching is bad, grounding is good’ mantra, so didn’t impose it. Instead, she flew by the seat of her pants. She did what was instinctually right, and what hadn’t yet been trained out of her: she offered deep, empathic human connection, regardless of what happened, in every single session. She simply didn’t know enough to get it wrong.

I eagerly awaited her return.

 

A word of explanation

I had therapy mainly between 2006 and 2015. These blog posts are not verbatim accounts of sessions, but rather the client equivalent of ‘case studies’ - amalgamations of various sessions, ‘narratively true’ rather than ‘historically true’. Although often written for stylistic purposes in the present tense, they are very much from a past period of my life. Ideally they should be read within the wider context of other blog posts, articles and my book, to give a more integrated and rounded sense of where I was at, where I’m at now, and the process that took place between those two points. I have been on a journey of recovery, and the difference in me from when I was in therapy (especially at the beginning) to now is testament to the brain’s ability to recover from even the most appalling suffering.

My primary work now is writing, followed closely by training therapists, counsellors and other professionals to support survivors of trauma. Regrettably I cannot provide one-to-one support but our charity framework PODS (Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors) provides a helpline and a range of other services: please go to www.pods-online.org.uk for more information, and https://support.pods-online.org.uk/start-here if you are looking for support.

For training, please see our range of live courses at www.carolynspring.com/live-training, and our online courses at www.carolynspring.com/online-training. We also publish a range of resources to support recovery from trauma, which you can see at www.carolynspring.com/shop. My first book, Recovery is my best revenge, is available to buy at https://www.carolynspring.com/shop/recovery-is-my-best-revenge-paperback/

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30 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this, Carolyn. You’ve expressed my fear and anger and resentment when therapists seem to blame me for needing (not ‘preferring’ or ‘wanting’) empathy and gentleness. I don’t yet know if what I do is dissociation, or whether or not I was even abused … just a lot of blanks and self-blame and self-loathing. But you put my distress into exactly the right words, precisely and unflinchingly, time and again.

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  2. Perfect.

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  3. Thank you. This is written so beautifully and in plain language it is really very helpful. I’m a psychotherapist and have learned so much from your writing. I’m just making a very user friendly window of tolerance visual aid right now based on your Green, amber and red zones, to help explain what clients might be noticing. I think the psychoeducation within Therapy is hugely beneficial in explaining how remarkable the brain’s ability for defence against danger is and thus reducing shame and building a positive meaningful connection. I look forward to your next blog.

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  4. Thank you. My worst ever therapy session (and I never managed to survive many!) was beginning to switch uncontrollably as soon as I entered the room as the therapist had been angry in the last session because I was so afraid of her ( professionals are triggering for me). I was on the floor, helpless, trying not to look at her because every time I did I was triggered by all the little things that tell you the person is a professional and switched and she was looming over me with rage in her face shouting at me to ground and telling me she wouldn’t work with me if I didn’t stay grounded. I have never successfully grounded when there is a professional present even now although very occasionally I can in private.

    I didn’t leave straight away. It took several more nightmarish sessions before I escaped as being raged at and bullied felt natural and it turned her into an abusive attachment figure who I then perversely adored and wanted to please.

    Yes grounding isn’t a magic wand. It’s almost a result of feeling safe rather than the cause till you have learnt any experience of safety. I don’t think you can ground till you have had this experience and it grounds you. So far I have only grounded by accident.

    Thank you for writing. One reason I am scared of professionals is like the one you had their humanness, which is helpful, is trained out of them. If you are training it back in that’s a very good thing! Its a relief to realise I am not a failure at therapy, too.

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    • Thanks T really useful post – I am glad I am not the only one in the world who is triggered by professionals.

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      • Thanks Rosanna. It’s a nightmare isn’t it. I thought I was the only one in the world too so it’s very nice to hear you are too although I’m sad for you! It makes therapy so impossible doesn’t it. And not just therapy as they crop up all over the place don’t they 😟

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  5. Excellent post, thank you, Carolyn.

    I knew this stuff deep down somehow, when I was becoming aware of the extent of my childhood traumas, when I was in permanent red zone. When I saw the people who were not capable of helping me I felt it, felt their lack of safeness for me.

    And whilst my habitual attachment to being ‘the good girl’ was still very powerful, the feral part of me knew what was what. Knew that I had to follow my instincts above all. Trust only those who proved trustworthy, with whom I felt that ability to connect, if even only partially, on a primal level, through my terror.

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  6. Utterly perfect in its descriptions. Brought back my anger and desperation at being in this situation. I can hardly breathe! At the very beginning of my first session, the therapist told me she ‘didn’t think she would be able to help me because I find it hard to stay present’. I did a horrible year with this woman, unable yet again to have the courage to even look at a ‘professional’, only to be told near the end that I ‘can’t be helped and shouldn’t have any more therapy’. Devastating and disgraceful. Oh those descriptions at the beginning-so accurate!

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  7. Beautifully written. Very emotive – I felt anger for you whilst reading this! Angry that vulnerable people are treated in such a way because of the ignorance of others. Some of the positive treatments seem obvious to me. Yet I’m not trained in any way other than self education after adopting a traumatised child. The knowledge given in the blog keeps my empathy sharp.

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  8. You aced it again! Fantastic portrayal of the clients process. I am a therapist and love your work, you speak my therapy!

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  9. Thank you for engaging with your experience in therapy. Your knowledge and writing is very encouraging for me to take on board when working with people.
    I hope you decide to run your course on shame in Birmingham.
    I also look forward to your next blog
    Warmest Regards

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  10. “What I don’t understand is why my brain, which should be trying to protect me, instead seems to be sabotaging me: ”
    This Carolyn, this, I ask myself nearly every day. Searching for the logic, the reason to deny it all is happening or happened.

    Thank you again, for another brilliant blog post.

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    • Not just you Soupsarah. That quote struck home with me too.

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  11. This is outstanding! Not just the raw vulnerability of expression, but the quality of writing that puts me right there inside her as it is happening.

    Vaguely reminds me of an outreach therapist who told me in the second session he did not want to hear anything good about my life, just the bad. He said he did Gestalt therapy and only dealt with my garbage. Next session when I told him I was quitting, he cried and I held him.

    Years later, I read what he said in my clinical record: “therapy resistant.”

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  12. I wish all therapists dealing with dissociative clients came on your training and read your blogs- we might then stand a chance of getting better.
    I was told 5 times yesterday in the hours sessions that I wouldn’t be seen again if I dissociated and then we’ll done at the end for not doing it !!!
    I had to come home and read your blog over again to reassure myself I wasn’t such a waste of space ..
    Please keep writing it’s keeping me going ..

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  13. Liked your article, but from someone who has had traumatic life, I have been let down with councillors advice. Helped myself with my own art therapy and written an art prose book ,

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  14. Thank you for this article ~ I had to meet a new therapist this week…and it was similar to this siiiiigh. But, I remain hopeful. I always mention this page to whomever I’m working with and they look at me like I’ve diagnosed myself with DID from symptoms off the internet…(which is completely not the case) I will stick with the new therapist, as my choices are very limited and see what happens. I cannot always trust my first, second or third impressions of people. I hope the therapeutic world becomes kinder and more accepting of dissociation. In 2010 I attended a two month in patient program for PTSD and the first words I heard from a psychiatrist there were, we don’t acknowledge DID as a valid diagnosis, dissociation is NOT ALLOWED (whaaaaaaaat??) or you will be discharged from the program if this happens. So I kept quiet about it even though it was a major deal for me and another source of shame for who I was. Kindness … just be kind.. if a therapist is not trained specifically to deal with dissociation, they can learn, study, experience it ~ kindness, openness and caring are key.

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  15. Wow! What a powerful blog. I’m glad you didn’t go back.

    One of the things that struck me was you saying that you felt that she/they were rude and then you began to question whether you were too sensitive. I believe we often do this – disregard our initial analysis and then question our gut feeling and turn it around, as something that is wrong with us….

    I could empathise/understand so much of what you have said.

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  16. It sounds as if the therapist who saw you was very ill equipped to deal with trauma and disassociation – from a therapeutic viewpoint what was needed – vital, even – was a person centred approach, congruent, empathic and accepting of your issues ; you were not to blame for your disassociative habits, it was part of your history, your coping mechanism for dealing with your past traumas.
    As a therapist myself, i have worked with several disassociative clients, and yes – this issue can make a therapist feel useless and incompetent, but as a person centred therapist, I have availed myself of training available to enable me to work with disassociative disorders.

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  17. I think you expressed beautifully how a therapist should connect with the client.

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  18. Thank you soo much for sharing this, it has helped me massively and take the pressure off, for not being able to control depersonalising. I practice and practice grounding myself but it still happens and I use to give myself such are hard time that I could’nt control things better. You and PODS have made such a HUGE positive impact on my life! Which in turn has an impact on my son. You help change the quality of people’s lives and such an inspiration! 😘

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  19. You get it. The description of how a client feels when they go to the therapy office, the prep a client does beforehand, the insomnia on the night(s) before, the intelligent reading of every nuance of expression in peoples faces….and yes it’s both intelligent and correct… clients can usually read people very very accurately…bourne of reading the expressions of their abuser(s) and of avoiding potential abusers. The subsequent retraumatisation and outright bullying by either inexperienced or downright malicious so called therapists is both shocking and vile…though disappointingly not unrealistic to expect. This further abuse requires to be rooted out – either by education or by dismissal of those therapists.

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  20. I have been told over the past 6 Years that I cannot have talking therapy because I dissociated in a couple of sessions. I constantly request Talking therapy and it has been consistently refused because of my dissociation. I don’t know how I am to improve with just the grounding I have been taught. As you say it does not change the trauma, so my symptoms persist. I used to work in Social Services and miss my work so much. But I feel powerless and useless. Thank you for your insights it makes me feel at least something other than ‘its all my fault’.

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  21. I really liked and valued this account of your experience at the hands of a therapist who had so little empathy or understanding. I am shocked too by the comments of so many who have been told that they can’t have therapy if they dissociate. I am a psychotherapist and I aim to be as present as I can with client’s experience. I recognise that I have not always been able to be present because my own shame and dissociation have been triggered. In face of what appears as hostility from the client, I have become reactive because of my own wounds and have lost contact. I found reading this account very useful to help me stay within the green zone when meeting apparent hostility or blankness. This I feel strongly will be helpful for clients. Thank you so much.

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  22. Previous therapists have tried to ground me when I have dissociated, I never knew the term but ‘knew’ that I was doing it. They have dragged me mentally back into the room and away from the things I needed to express. Then the resentment set in towards the therapist. But my child forced me to go back and be, in effect, abused again. I have had that dread of being late and being early and will they give me a full session. The anger of having to see someone else and then you have to ‘start again’ and all the previous work flies out of the window. I was quite late to therapy session because of buses being late; the receptionist barked at me “He can’t give you extra time you know!” as if I had contrived my lateness. Thanks for listening.

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  23. Such powerful insightful writing, thank you so much and to all who’ve had such awful treatment from so called therapists, my heart goes out to you. Surely the essence of counselling is with compassion and grace to always work with where the person is, not where the therapist thinks they should be!

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  24. The last paragraph absolutely made me laugh out loud. Because I’ve been working with my first DID person in the last two years (I’m a therapist) and knew NOTHING when we started, thus go a whole lot of things right because I was flying by the seat of my pants rather than relying on book learning! I love your blogs, my friend.

    Reply
  25. Thank you for posting this article, you explain the clients need to want to get well by going to counselling against what her mind is telling her. Then the ‘fill in’, the not good enough councillor who thwarts most peoples efforts, when a counsellor thinks they can work with EVERYTHING, They can’t! They can do harm to clients with addiction and or complex issues without extra specialism training or research . Disassociation can also be the flick between getting near the pain to switching to just chit chat, it can be subtle as well as obvious. Thank you for being brave enough to speak out and keep on keeping on, you’re inspirational.

    Reply
  26. ‘You are not reinforcing the dissociation by talking to parts. But you are reinforcing the dissociation if you shame them: the default response to rejection, abandonment, exclusion or humiliation in a dissociative person is to go into the red zone of dissociation or freeze.’

    And the irony of that is, that in everyday life, school, work wherever, all those responses to child abuse are the norm. It’s like a perpetual storm of avoidance and self defence. You go to a therapist for the opposite. Not more of the same!

    Reply
  27. It’s a really enlightening blog for me, as I am very self blaming and critical in and out of sessions. I am not that long in understanding my dissociative ways but I am so lucky to have a fantastic therapist who believes in me. We’re learning together, and I believe that kindness, caring and patience are key to progress. I’m disociating constantly and I have never had a hint of disapproval, rather the opposite.
    Thanks again.

    Reply

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More from Carolyn…

Forgiveness

‘You just need to forgive.’

I hang my head as shame courses through me again. I wish I hadn’t said anything. I wish I hadn’t asked for help. Because this is where it always lands: that it’s my fault. I’m only traumatised, Irene says, because I haven’t forgiven my abusers. If I would just forgive them, her theory goes, the flashbacks and dissociation would simply melt away.

Should we stop saying ‘commit suicide’?

‘Unfortunately, you’ve undone all the good you’ve done today.’

She was deadly serious and I was utterly perplexed. What was she talking about? I had spent the day delivering my training day ‘Dealing with Distress: Working with Suicide and Self-Harm.’ A tough day, but a good day. A day of hope for how to help people who see no other way through their pain but by taking their own lives. A day of guts-and-bowels emotion.

My recovery from child sexual abuse

It feels a long time ago now, the time when my abuse sat silent within me. It’s been over ten years. Back then, I didn’t understand any of the dynamics of abuse. The things that had happened, the things that had been done to me, the things I had been made to do—they sat silently within me as heavy weights on my soul, fetid non-reminders of my badness, this toxic mush that I thought was me.

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