The fallacy of grounding

by | 28 February 2019 | 33 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.

 

Find the complete article in Carolyn's new book, 'Unshame: healing trauma-based shame through psychotherapy', available now!

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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33 Comments

  1. All I can say to this one is a giant AMEN. I would love to send this to my NHS trust. Maybe I will 😉

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  2. Thank you Carolyn for confirming how I work with clients who dissociate. I tell each one that they are all welcome, and to take care of each parts of themselves. It’s not something I have been taught but somehow I just know it has been the right thing to do.

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  3. I am in the midst of changing to a new therapist, and you literally took my thoughts and wrote them out. Therapy is SCARY for those of us who have experienced trauma. We don’t and can’t trust anyone; so the thought of being told “knock off the dissociating” angers me! So true, we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t dissociate. I love your thoughts on minutes; to the client we watch the clock with anticipation wanting every single SECOND to count. I drive an hour for therapy too, so this def. resonates with me. It wasn’t my choice to change therapists and I resent being there at all. It is not her fault. Yet parts are so hurt and disappointed; how could we ever want to share with another one? And switching. Ha. Being told to ground caused a switch at the last session. Grr.. Then we cried for days because buzz the time is up. Get out. Next client please. I resent the clock and I resent the money exchanged for therapy. Like let’s pay them to listen to us because we are not good enough to just have a friend that could hear or listen to us. Money for truama. Sounds legit…

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  4. 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.

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  5. ‘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!

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  6. 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.

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  7. 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.

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  8. 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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  9. 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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  10. 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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  11. 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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  12. 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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  13. 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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  14. I think you expressed beautifully how a therapist should connect with the client.

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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. 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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  18. 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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  19. 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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  20. 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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  21. “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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  22. 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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  23. 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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  24. 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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  25. 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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  26. 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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  27. 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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  28. 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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  29. Perfect.

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  30. 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.

    Reply

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