Lately I’ve been pondering the “double bind” that trauma creates. One of the tragedies of trauma is that it puts us in an untenable position: one must share one’s story, but the story is simply too terrible to tell. I remember one of my college professors once speculating, “Perhaps shame is the mechanism that creates the double bind.” Shame keeps us locked into a tricky place. It makes us afraid to share with others, yet isolating and moving through these issues alone may only serve to make us feel more alone and unworthy -- thus increasing our sense of shame. Without appropriate intervention, shame has the capacity to create a vicious downward spiral.
In our American society that fetishizes strength and independence through John Wayne movies, Marlboro Man posters, and common phrases such as “Pull yourself up by the bootstraps!” and “Go it alone!”, how do we internalize that telling our traumatic story is not an act of weakness, but actually an act of strength? Even further, how do we internalize that we are not to blame for a traumatic act happening in the first place? On some level, we may believe in our own culpability – we should have changed something, we should have done something different. Even if the traumatic event was entirely out of our hands, it is still frightening to admit that we were genuinely powerless in that moment. Perhaps the weight of that powerlessness is simply too much for some of us to bear – we would prefer to believe in our own independence, omnipotence, and strength at all costs -- even if it forces us to believe that we had a hand in our own trauma.
So I wonder, what is the role of the therapist? Certainly a key role would be in challenging the validity of shame. I am curious to know the ways in which my clients may hold themselves accountable for their trauma. Do they think they could have done something different? Do they time travel and play “what if” games with themselves? Do they think, deep down, that they deserved this?
As someone who works somatically, I am also curious to know how shame is perpetuated and held in the body. I have often seen it manifest as rounded shoulders and a collapsed heart, like a turtle retreating into its shell. However, the head is often thrust forward, a constant reminder that one has to stay vigilant and be prepared for an attack. If these physical patterns are unwound, I wonder what kind of grief lurks underneath that armor.
When it all comes down to it, I feel that, as a therapist, a large part of trauma work is the having the capacity to contain grief. Huge, overwhelming, unbelievable grief. Can we simply be with a client when they want to shake their fists and the sky and scream, “WHY?” Can we create a container for the safe expression of grief, as well as simultaneously hold hope for our client to get better? While there are many tools to help one move through trauma - cognitively, emotionally, somatically – I believe that at the baseline, a client must feel our care and hope for them. Softening into the nurturance of a caring therapist may be the counterbalance to the cultural insistence on strength and autonomy, and give us the one of the things that all human beings need – hope.