23rd May 2020
Welcoming the Tiger! – Working with Trauma in Focusing (for Focusers and Companions)
Being alive means that we will at some point experience trauma – those events that are overwhelming or too much for us to be able to meet and assimilate. Inevitably when we turn our attention inside in Focusing (or other similar methods), what wants attention is what has not been met! and that includes what we could call trauma. The word trauma brings with it all sorts of associations and covers a huge range of human experience. It is in how an event impacts on a persons body and being, rather than the nature of the event itself that defines what we call trauma. For example, It has been eye opening to me to find out that very everyday experiences, such as routine operations, or fevers can leave us experiencing some kind of symptoms or difficulties – even decades later.
My own journey in this started a few years ago, when I found myself overwhelmed and very anxious whilst leading a Focusing workshop where one of the participants fell into a very difficult place relating to their own traumatic past. I knew I was out of my depth. Later on I realised it triggered my own terror! It opened up an avenue of exploration that is still unfolding. As part of this I trained in a method called “Somatic Experiencing” Developed by Dr Peter Levine. Many of you will have come across his work, indeed he draws on Gendlin’s work himself. This article is an attempt to share some of the insights and learnings from my journey with SE and Focusing.
It is aimed at people who practice Focusing and their Focusing partners. It is aimed at those who might stray into this territory accidentally or who want to or feel supported enough to explore it in the safety of a Focusing partnership. It is not meant to be a “how to guide” or a replacement for seeking professional support (from Focusing or beyond) It is a brief exploration of how we might support ourselves and our partners if we touch these places. If you find yourself “out of your depth” then please do seek support, either professionally or from you community of family and friends.
I’d like to explore this through by looking firstly at what the Focuser might do, then at what the companion might do.
Tools for the Focuser
1. Self in Presence and Facilitative Language
I want to start by acknowledging and celebrating the gift of what Ann Weiser Cornell and Barbara McGavin and other teachers call “self-in-presence”. This gentle acknowledgment of everything that comes in Focusing is hugely important. It means that we will respect and listen to anything part of us that does not want to go to places that are scary or too much. It means we will spend time and give empathy to those places and only go deeper when it feels right enough for all of us.This will help to keep us safe, which is a key factor in exploring this material. As part of these we
have the wonderful capacity to “check inside‘. We might sense: is this ok to be with? and really pay attention, listen to and respect what comes.
We have the the sensitive and supportive use of Facilitative language – that so helps us to develop a relationship with what is inside of us. And we have the use of invitational language, as a focuser and a companion.
2. Sensing what feels most safe – inviting a sense of what is most safe.
The word safe has a particular feel to it, it differs from other words like “grounded” and even “ok”. Something in us knows when we feel safe or not, in fact, something very very old in us knows that.This part of our brain and nervous system is millions of years old – How wise is that?
When we find ourselves touching trauma, we might invite our body to show us what safe feels like, or sense it directly in the body. I had a lovely example of this in my own Focusing, when my body gave me the symbol of being in the very bottom of the basement of a very tall building. At the top I could sense something very scary. I had just watched the film “Man on wire” the previous night – a film about an artist who tightrope walks between the twin towers in New York, without a safety net! He dances on them even. Yet in the session, I was at the bottom, as safe as can be, and could sense from there, the danger and strangely enough the beauty of what was happening up above. My body showed me both what felt safe and something profound about what was scary. We might remember what safe feels like, and really take time to feel its qualities in the body.
3. Resources – inner and outer.
I love this concept of resources. It is such a rich vein to explore. If we know we might be exploring something like a trauma place in Focusing, we could take some time (over many sessions even) exploring what are resources. In other words, what in your life, your experience and body right now supports me to feel safe? These can vary hugely. They might come from within, from the practical and simple contact with the floor or chair, or the flow of the breath. Maybe it comes through contact with a symbol. I still draw on a beautiful photo of a shaman I saw in a gallery in New York whilst on the way to the Focusing Summer School. Or it might be outside of us. We might sense the contact with the surroundings or the voice of our companion. Sometimes just the simple opening of our eyes (if they were closed) and looking around the room with our whole head and neck can bring a big relief. This movement is called orienting – and all animals use it: it’s a way of knowing directly where we, and often brings an immediate sense of safety. At this point I want to say that sometimes the language of grounding does not work for some people. For some reason it does not always evoke a sense of safety in the system. One of the biggest resources we have is the sense of safety. kindness and non judgement that we have from our companion, something that, at the time of trauma, was almost definitely not present.
4. Movement in the body
Movement can be a huge resource in this area. It is easy to imagine how the lack of movement might be part of trauma (again imagine the rabbit) Apart from fight or
flight, the other survival response we have is to freeze, it sounds counter intuitive, but again, it is an ancient part of our survival mechanism. For wild animals, freezing might fool the predator into thinking they are dead and also it functions as a final numbing of the senses so our end is not so painful. It is useful at the time of trauma, but in our life afterwards, in post traumatic stress, the body can tend to freeze easily, leaving us more easily overwhelmed and prone to more trauma even. Put simply, the opposite of freeze is movement. If we find ourselves very scared or near something like this. Move your body a little. Feel the legs, move the head and neck. Alternatively, sense for movement that wants to come. These might be spontaneous in nature or micro movements in the body. I am not inviting you to make it happen but to listen if it does. Maybe the body is showing us what wanted to happen (a running or escaping, some kind of fighting) Maybe the body is showing what resource was missing. Maybe some of the energy that was triggered at the time is releasing. Be curious.
5. Symbols and metaphors.
Sometimes the mind cannot encompass the hugeness of experience, this goes for many experiences, not just trauma. The only way we can meet it is through symbols. Our dreams speak to us in this way and if you are used to Focusing, you may well find this one of the main ways your body communicates (but not always and not in everyone) We might invite a symbol for all the we are sensing or that “whole big thing”. Some invitations I find myself returning to are “how does all this feel in my inner landscape” or “if this whole thing was a landscape, what would it be like”? or “how is it to have this something here inside” Each of these evokes a bigger landscape of holding. We might see a ship on a stormy ocean, or a huge boulder in a valley, or a volcano in a mountain range. A symbol like this can hold the largeness of the kinds of experience we meet in trauma in a manageable way.
The other invitation I love is imagining the “somethings” we meet as animals. What kind of animal is this? What mood is it in?, What does it feel? Is it scared or hurt, is it looking for something? For me, the helpful thing about this is that animals do not have any self judgements about their behaviour. Running or attacking, pining or self soothing. All of this is natural and right to them. Evoking an animal might remind us of this quality of self acceptance and animal knowing.
6. My body is scared – meeting big sensations
Something I found useful when meeting trauma was knowing that we might meet big feelings and big sensations. The forces and energies that are motivated in trauma are huge! We may meet somethings that are terrified, or rage-full or feel like they are disintegrating. We might sense that directly in the body and it might be scary. It is good to remember how strong these can be on a physiological level. My SE teacher used to invite us to say “ my body is scared but i am not. I found this really helpful (much like “something in me is scared”) Of course I am not inviting you to go anywhere you do not feel safe but more pointing towards what might happen.
7. Appreciating any movements towards feeling ok, safe
In my own Focusing I can tend to over focus on what feels difficult and uncomfortable. Of course we need to include this in our awareness. The trouble is,
when something is very difficult and big, we can lose sight of the rest of our experience; the well used and apt phrase “rabbit in the headlights” captures this. Our awareness narrows to such a degree that we cannot see or sense anything else. This of course has a survival value! We do not want to be appreciating the flowers by the roadside when a car is hurtling towards us. But when we meet a moment like this again in Focusing, it can be so helpful to notice what in our bodies and experience feels safe or ok, or is moving in that direction. Our bodies are amazing self regulating organisms that have a knowing about where and what would feel safe (even if we did not achieve that at the time). Where in your body do you feel most easy or most strong? Where do you feel most alive? Where does the life flow in you? There is a force of healing in the body that is always there, always looking to keep you alive and well – even in the midst of trauma. I find it hopeful to remember this!
I have noticed that once we have developed some trust inside through regular Focusing, the body can be very responsive to invitations. We might invite for what support might be needed right now? or what might help me be with this? or “what wants to happen right now” or “What was needed or missing?”
As the companion
Just like the Focuser, we have so many valuable tools already. So what I say always comes in addition to those. Again this is about either the times when we find that our Focusing partner has touched a trauma place or that they want to go there with you in a trusted safe partnership
1. Checking in: before and after a session
If we are in a regular partnership, and we are exploring these areas, we might simply check in with each other. Is this ok to go here today? Maybe as a companion you have had a wobbly day and you sense you would find it difficult to be present to your partner. You might share that with your partner. Check you both feel safe.
After the session, you could share if we were ok with what happened.
2. Grounding and centering, Self in presence
You presence as a another human being is a gift to your partner. Together you can travel to the edges of that space we call trauma. You voice, your body, your kindness and non judgemental presence, your ability to be with are all aspects of this gift. As well as this there are times when we may want to really emphasise the qualities of self-in presence. We might really connect with our own resources, the earth, or even your own symbol of presence. All of this can be done without making it explicit. Speaking for myself, when I am listening to someone I often “resonate” with them, feel some sense of the emotion or body sense. When we are companioning someone in more scary places, it can help to “pull back” a bit and sense the resources in yourself more. Be there but add a little more emphasis to the qualities of safety and
ok-ness in you – like balast. The shorthand for all of this might be “Hold presence but don’t merge”.
3. “We” language
When we come across something that needs a lot of support, sometimes I have brought my own support explicitly into the session. Perhaps instead of saying “you might let it know that you are with it” you could say “let it know the we are with it” It makes it explicit that we are on the journey together, and some parts of us really want to know that. As I mentioned earlier, one of the characteristics of trauma is that is happens alone in some way, or no one was available afterwards. Evoking your presence as another kind companion can be so powerful.
4. Trusting the bodies process
We all know as companions that we are not there to fix or solve, or give advice or interpretations. Of course we want to be helpful or supportive. At times when I feel a bit uncertain of what to do or say, I remember the healing qualities of the body, of the whole system. Something inside of them (and you!) knows what to do. As a companion, we can remember to trust that.
These are a few of my learnings on the journey and I hope they have ben useful to you. It is important to say that the whole world of working with Trauma is vast and complicated, rich and hugely challenging. What I say above cannot really convey all of what might be needed or met along your journey. You may need more support and I encourage you to find that, but one truth seems to shine through all of this is that something in us knows! and if we really listen the gifts and healing will come, even from those places of overwhelm and trauma.