I have heard there are a couple schools of thought about therapists and psychologists. Either we are all kooky and crazy or that we have “it” all figured out and are totally zen.
Sure, some outliers may fit those criteria, but most of us are—wait for it—HUMAN and fall somewhere in between.
This means we have real human emotions, real human experiences, real human reactions and responses, and that sometimes we have to navigate those alongside carrying our client’s emotions and experiences too. I hope you don’t find it disappointing that we’re human since it doesn’t take away from our clinical knowledge because any good clinician will know how to effectively manage their own “stuff” so it doesn’t interfere with yours.
Trauma: “Little t” and “big T”
Effectively managing our own life events/traumas/experiences while counseling others isn’t always simple or straightforward. No matter what professional training and education you have. To do so means a lot of practicing what we preach as far as setting boundaries, communicating effectively, practicing mindfulness and gratitude, making room for uncomfortable emotions, living a values-driven life, and processing through and healing from our own trauma and Traumas.
Yes, there are “little t” and “big T” Traumas and we therapists have endured them, as well.
Trauma is defined as “a deeply disturbing event that infringes upon an individual’s sense of control and may reduce their capacity to integrate the situation or circumstances into their current reality. A person does not have to undergo an overtly distressing event for it to affect them.
An accumulation of smaller ‘everyday’ or less pronounced events can still be traumatic but in the small ‘t’ form. Small ‘t’ traumas are events that exceed our capacity to cope and cause a disruption in emotional functioning.”
Whether you’re watching from the sidelines while #MeToo grows in numbers or you’re marching along with the crowd, it’s important to be aware of how truly multifaceted trauma is. People are likely to think about sexual abuse as one of the more obvious “big T” Traumas people suffer while sexual harassment may seem less apparent as far as how it impacts people.
Perhaps that understanding is changing.
Dialogue Shift: A Collective Experience
Since experiences of assault and harassment are now a part of our daily national dialogue, it is largely inescapable for us all. Along with the multitude of people joining the #MeToo movement, there is a movement of its own within that group that is working to expose the predators responsible for the pain and trauma. Collectively, both are tearing down the walls that predators have been hiding behind.
Even those of us humans who are professionally trained to work with (someone else’s) trauma aren’t immune to certain impacts of assault, harassment, and the narrative that follows.
Some people think the word “trigger” and trigger warnings are a bit much, tedious to some consumers, or even sometimes a barrier to the triggered victims who “need to learn to engage rationally with [what] they find difficult, upsetting, or even repulsive.” I don’t disagree, yet those of us who work with people, or are ourselves impacted by particular messaging, can find ourselves caught in this national discourse with a lot of raw emotion.
Revelations of celebrities and people of influence and power taking advantage of others are not new of course, yet there is something about this constant flooding of new names and explicit stories that conjures up vulnerability differently these days.
The cumulative effect of it has simply been exhausting. As it keeps unfolding in every corner of the media, it’s almost as if each story hits closer to home and we’re just bracing ourselves hoping it’s not our favorite musician or actor.
Now, Matt Lauer, who I feel I grew up with since I’ve been a longtime fan of the Today Show. I felt that he was often one of the main voices of the biggest events in my lifetime.
The reckoning of these revelations of horrible offenses with people we respected and admired ignites confusion and sensitivity which can manifest as the inner turmoil and vulnerability with which we’re so familiar. The people in our stories aren’t famous and there may never be what feels like a satisfying public fall from grace, yet it does seem like there’s a thread that is yanked from underneath all perpetrators each time someone is named and exposed.
Writing this article is hard. To this point, I’ve chosen to stay out of the #MeToo conversation publicly. Or, it’s not really that I chose that, but my inner voice was saying it just wasn’t time….yet. It is all so personal and exposing and just didn’t feel quite right somehow. But it also nagged at me that I wasn’t joining in this profoundly brave movement so articulately discussed here.
Since it’s been said the best way out is through, this article feels like a necessary wading for me. There is a stirring inside me related to the heaviness of this moment that is different from the times I’ve chosen to let certain people into my story.
So, this is a public declaration of #MeToo, but with some context and some hopeful traction for what might be next for this movement.
The first several times I saw friends’ posting “#MeToo,” I had a visceral reaction, a sucker punch in my gut. Then, the more friends and strangers I saw posting, my reaction started to turn into what felt like pride: Yes, you go girls! Stand up! And yet underneath both of those reactions was fear and what I identify as lingering shame.
The fear is around what it means as a victim to reveal oneself and everything that comes along with that enormous task. Of course, it is unfair that it’s not more simple for the ones who did nothing wrong, yet unfortunately, that’s not the case. With an admittance like this, it can welcome doubt, judgment, and a strange tipping of the power dynamic yet again for a victim who has likely struggled to find consistent stability and security already.
Professionally, I had a lot of fear for people jumping into this movement without being able to fully consider the implications. Yes, there may be a sense of empowerment in the moment you post it, but are you truly ready for the questions or the ‘knowing’ looks that might follow? There are also likely some people that either knowingly or subconsciously may have posted it to seek validation and community from the people in this movement, yet truly need deeper support that can only come from a trained professional. Sometimes people know their triggers and sometimes the emotional response seemingly comes out of nowhere, therefore the hope is that people have worked to have a secure enough sense of self to navigate the unpredictability.
When traumas go untreated or are ‘kicked up’ and left open, people are more susceptible to experiencing depressive or anxious symptoms, decreased focus and concentration, sleep troubles, social isolation, and more.
I personally noticed that amidst my irritability and purposeful withdrawal from certain social avenues, I was feeling a sense of loneliness despite having stepped into a movement that now includes thousands of people. Enter, shame.
“If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”
Again, the fragility of it all makes it feel like I am sometimes holding my breath.
Coping with Triggers
So how do I cope with the reigniting of some of my own traumatic experiences in the context of it being on the forefront of many conversations? In many ways, like a lot of you.
The sense of community that’s been brought about by this movement does make it that much more normalized and validates what I am feeling. I also do a lot of my own work therapeutically, spiritually, calling up my soul sisters who don’t hesitate to come over and chat over coffee or to text me relevant quotes and articles. I also have been taking a social media break from certain outlets that I found more anxiety-inducing. I can choose when to get my news versus being blindsided.
It has admittedly still been hard and sometimes triggering, but with these efforts of practicing really intentional self-care, I do the best I can to ensure that my heart space remains open. It is of utmost importance to me that I am fully present and engaged with my family and friends, as well as each and every client. Being triggered doesn’t always mean a downward spiral will follow, it is simply something to acknowledge and a reminder to employ my coping skills.
“When traumas go untreated or are ‘kicked up’ and left open, people are more susceptible to experiencing depressive or anxious symptoms, decreased focus and concentration, sleep troubles, social isolation, and more.”
Everyone reacts to trauma in different ways and because it is so individualized, the process can be so fragile. Fear also still sometimes lies in my own fragility and that of others since none of us can truly know the magnitude of this undertaking. We also will not know if there will be any “reward” that results from this movement in revealing that we, too, have been assaulted and/or harassed. We do know, however, that there is power in numbers.
Brene Brown also assures us, as I’ve seen time and time again in my work and have experienced in chosen 1:1 relationships, that if we share our story with someone who is capable of responding with genuine understanding and empathy, shame can’t survive.
That is my deep yearning for this movement: that we can all shed the shame and fear.
And that all of the risk and vulnerability that went into this crusade (that actually started ten years ago!) will amount to a true change in the way women—and all people—are treated and in the relationship we as a society have with sex, intimacy, body image, and power. There has to be a change and an overhaul of the culture everywhere for women, whether you’re walking on a movie set or walking down the street. This hope is the biggest factor that keeps me afloat in what can often feel like a sinking ship. My two daughters and my five nieces must grow up with the expectation they will be treated with respect and that they’ll be safe in their schools and workplaces. They must know clear boundaries and the process to take to advocate for themselves if those boundaries are violated and to feel full permission to do so. It is their (our) basic human right.
“That is my deep yearning for this movement: that we can all shed the shame and fear.”
You’re not alone. Seek support when you notice that it’s harder to trudge along or your mood symptoms are increasing or the inundation of it all is simply too much. This is a tipping point and unlike anything our society has ever experienced.