Three Quick Quotes and a FREE resource – 7 April 2021

Hi there

I hope you had a good Easter break – after a really busy few weeks for me, it was much needed!

In this week’s email we have:

  • quotes from Judith Lewis Herman, Peter Levine and myself
  • a free psychoeducational resource: the ‘Alphabet of Emotions’ poster PDF
  • my ‘snap of the week’
  • my weekly blog – this week it’s about ‘Words that make us feel seen’.

Please share this email with friends, colleagues and clients and ask them to join our community at www.carolynspring.com/subscribe where they can also get a free copy of our ‘Emotional Resource Guide’. And if you or they have missed any previous emails, there’s a full archive at www.carolynspring.com/three-quick-quotes.

Stay safe!
Carolyn

three quotes

Judith Lewis Herman
Trauma and Recovery

“Observers who have never experienced prolonged terror and who have no understanding of coercive methods of control presume that they would show greater courage and resistance than the victim in similar circumstances. Hence the common tendency to account for the victim’s behaviour by seeking flaws in her personality or moral character. Prisoners of war who succumb to ‘brainwashing’ are often treated as traitors. Hostages who submit to their captors are often publicly excoriated. Sometimes survivors are treated more harshly than those who abused them. In the notorious case of Patricia Hearst, for instance, the hostage was tried for crimes committed under duress and received a longer prison sentence than her captors. Similarly, women who fail to escape from abusive relationships and those who prostitute themselves or betray their children under duress are subjected to extraordinary censure.”

Peter Levine
Waking the Tiger

“All of us have had experiences that lose something in the telling. Shrugging it off, we say, ‘You had to be there.’ Trauma is such an experience. Words can’t accurately convey the anguish that a traumatised person experiences. It has an intensity that defies description. Many traumatised people feel that they live in a personal hell in which no other human could possibly share. While this is not entirely true, elements of this perception are accurate.”

“Being traumatised is a tough gig. Maybe one of the hardest. It’s exhausting, it’s debilitating, it affects every area of your life and it can feel insurmountable.

So it’s difficult to think that recovery is possible, even a little bit of recovery. Maybe it feels impossible to think in terms of significant recovery. And harder still to think in grand, magnificent, skyscaper-type ways about recovery.

But there’s so much more to ‘recovery’ than just neutralising symptoms – handling flashbacks, managing depression or anxiety, reducing uncontrolled switching, avoiding dissociative fugues. In other words, recovery is more than an absence of negative symptoms. There’s a life beyond.”

this week’s free resource

Dan Siegel says we have to ‘name it to tame it’ – meaning that a principal way of managing our emotions and even our distress is to put words to it. He explains that this is because we experience distress mainly in the right hemisphere of our brain, and to calm and soothe it we need to engage the left hemisphere, which is where words are generated. So being able to put our feelings into words is a key way to ‘affect regulate’.

The problem, though, for many of us as trauma survivors is being able to name our feelings in the first place. At the extreme end of our experience is ‘alexithymia’ – a stark inability to put feelings into words. But for everyone, it can be useful to have a few prompts. I’ve been helped enormously by going back to basics and stopping and thinking about what it is that I’m feeling, and having a menu of words to choose from to describe it. So that’s why I developed this poster (also found in our ‘Emotional Resource Guide’) which provides an ‘Alphabet of Emotions’.

As well as these words for starters, a useful exercise can be to develop your own emotional vocabulary. There’s a blank template to help this process available for download here.

The full copy of the ‘Alphabet of Emotions’ is available here as a PDF, and you can also download a print-friendly, low-ink version by clicking here.

MIDWEEK BLOG: ‘WORDS THAT MAKE US FEEL SEEN’

‘Does trauma always involve dissociation?’ someone asked me this week. Good question. But just as my pontificating was about to begin, I slammed on the brakes. I stopped myself, because any response can sound like an edict, a dogma, ‘the gospel according to …’ By answering in scientific or academic terms we can give an answer that closes down curiosity and hems people in rather than opening them up. When we answer a question, does what we say lead to more insight, or actually to less? Does it lead to more understanding, more compassion, more care? Or do our answers whack someone around the head with ‘rightness’? In science and academia, of course, it’s important to break things down into exact, definable terms. Precision of language is important. How can you measure something if you can’t even define it, or agree on what that ‘something’ is? But the problems start when we stray into the experience of real, live people. The more tightly we define our terms, sometimes the greater the scope for missing it – for failing to see the person in front of us, the person who is experiencing this thing that we are trying to define. We can end up feeling that their experience ought to match the definition, rather than the definition explaining, and adding colour and texture to, their experience. The terms ‘trauma’ and ‘dissociation’ are a case in point. They’re not merely or only psychological terms, labels that we can slap onto people, as if people are tins and jars. For sure they are helpful concepts, and it’s always going to be useful to have a shared and common language, an agreed understanding of what we mean by these terms. But the point of a shared and common language is so that we can have a shared and common experience, so that we can more fully empathise with and come alongside one another. If I pronounce, edict-like, the nature of trauma and dissociation, am I increasing the likelihood of a shared experience, or am I decreasing the chances of that? Many of our experiences in early life that we call ‘trauma’ – and which resulted in ‘dissociation’ – were at the hands of human beings who failed to see us, or hear us, or feel us. In recovering from those experiences, it would be a cruel irony, and entirely unproductive, to talk about ‘trauma’ and ‘dissociation’ in such a way that we also feel unseen, unheard and unfelt. The danger with using terms such as ‘trauma’ and ‘dissociation’ is that we think we know what we’re talking about, we think we know what the other person is talking about, and so it may curtail our curiosity. It may stop us really listening to the other person, and seeing what it is that they’re trying to say and why they’re saying it. Instead we can assume that we’ve understood them when maybe we haven’t. So when someone asks me a question such as, ‘Does trauma always involve dissociation?’ of course I’m interested in answering it as an intellectual exercise (my left brain is my comfort zone!) But nowadays I’m also interested in finding the person behind the question. Who is it that has experienced trauma? What does that trauma look like to them? What impact has it had on them? What do they mean by ‘dissociation’ (which above all words surely suffers from ‘multiple meaning disorder’)? What’s the question they’re really asking? What’s their fear? What’s their hope? What’s their shame? I could answer blithely: I could talk about trauma as a neurobiological response where we enter the red zone of helplessness and freeze in response to perceived life-threat, and how dissociation is the phenomenological adjunct to that dorsal vagal response of the autonomic nervous system, mediated by endogenous opioids, and acting as a brake on active defences in order to minimise further harm. But how does that help – really? In so many cases there’s a frightened person asking a confused question about whether what they’re experiencing is normal, what they should do about it, whether they’re at fault, and whether there is hope for recovery. I’m more interested in addressing those questions than rattling off some theoretical spiel. ‘Why are you asking?’ I respond, eventually, with the brakes applied to my left brain. ‘What’s behind the question?’ There is a brief flash of surprise, and then out pours a narrative of fear and shame and confusion, of someone desperately trying to piece the pieces together, to understand their actions and reactions, to find a glimmer of hope in the hopelessness of their symptoms. ‘Tell me what you mean by trauma, and dissociation,’ I say, softly. ‘And tell me what you’re hoping to hear.’ Are the words we’re using, to describe our own experience or to make sense of someone else’s, distracting from human suffering and a bid for connection and support? Or are they tools to be able to come alongside someone in their distress, to really sit with them, and to make them feel heard, and make them feel seen, and make them feel felt?

snapshot of my week

Blue sky, and beautiful blooming forsythia … it’s been a week that speaks of new life. Such a relief after what has felt like the longest winter since the last Ice Age! (Edit to add: Okay, I spoke to soon – the snow has been back!!)

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