Then– and now.

Back then, we felt like an adult in a kid’s body. 

Now, we feel like a kid in an adult’s body. 

Back then, we thought we were “special” because the adults sometimes or often treated us like adults. 

Now, we know— that wasn’t the time or the place for us to have been treated like adults. 

Back then we trusted the adults around us— almost all of the adults around us. 

Now, we realize that being an adult doesn’t necessarily make someone trustworthy. 

Back then we assumed that, if something happened to us, we caused it. 

Now, we know— there really are things that happen TO people, that they can’t control, or sometimes even influence. 

Back then we were told that people who share our name and DNA “love” us, by definition. 

Now we know— love is a verb, not a given. 

Back then we figured if our parent didn’t seem interested in or attached to us, it must have been something about US— we must not be interesting or worth attaching to. 

Now we know— there are lots of reasons why humans are or aren’t interested in other humans, or do or don’t attach to them…and those reasons almost never have to do with us. 

Back then we figured there are certain things that “normal” or “competent” humans just know how to do— and if we don’t know how to do them, it must be because we’re abnormal or incompetent. 

Now we know— we can’t do what we weren’t shown how to do, taught how to do, encouraged to do, supported in learning how to do. 

Back then we assumed if we felt bad, it’s because we were bad. Broken. 

Now we know— good people can feel bad. How we feel isn’t a reflection of our worth or virtue. 

Back then we may not have known why our parent was angry all the time— but we strongly suspected it had to do with us. Hell, we might have been TOLD it was because of us. 

Now we know— chronically angry or aggressive people are likely to be chronically angry or aggressive whether or not we’re in their way or life. 

Back then we didn’t know why we were lonely— but we knew that lonely was so lonely, alone. 

Now we know— it’s entirely possible to feel very lonely, even in a crowd of people. Even n a relationship. 

Especially in a relationship. 

Back then we fantasized about someone rescuing us. 

Now we know— we rescue us. 

We rescue ourselves by turning toward that young version of us we carry around n our head and heart. 

We rescue ourselves by seeing that young version of us in ways we weren’t seen. 

We rescue ourselves by holding that young version of ourselves in ways we weren’t held. 

(There are many ways to hold someone. Sometimes it’s possible to be felt very held by someone you’ve never even physically met.) 

We rescue ourselves by refusing to shame or bully ourselves, the way we were shamed and bullied by our abusers. 

We rescue ourselves by being there for ourselves.  

By having our own back. 

By being on our own side. 

By giving ourselves the benefit of the doubt. 

By treating ourselves like someone we love. 

Because love IS a verb— not a given. 

Manipulators gonna manipulate.

Eh, they might misunderstand you. 

Or, worse— they might intentionally misconstrue who you are and what you’re all about. 

They might come at you, telling you you’re someone you’re not, and that you prioritize things you don’t prioritize. 

Trauma survivors get this a lot. Other people trying to tell us who we are. 

And we, being trauma survivors, have real trouble NOT taking it all very seriously— and very personally. 

When we’ve been through trauma, we very often struggle to define who we are. 

All those years when human beings are SUPPOSED to be figuring out who we are and what we’re all about, WE spent just trying to survive. 

Our developmental trajectory got thrown for a loop. 

So we often arrive in adulthood not really knowing who we are— or even feeling like a fraud or an imposter. 

We may not know exactly WHY we feel like a “fake” person— but all we know is, we feel like we’re performing a role, like a character in a play. And we’re constantly afraid other people will see that, and call us out on it. 

There’s a certain type of person who knows this— instinctively, at least— about us, and who tries to use it against us. 

Usually the people who try to exploit our insecurity about who we are are people who wants something from us. 

They want us to do what they want us to do. 

They want us to prioritize their wants, their needs, their viewpoints. 

And they will absolutely f*ck with our heads in order to get what they want. 

There are certain words that many complex trauma survivors find REALLY triggering. 

“Selfish.” “Disloyal.” “Entitled.” 

The people who want what they want might throw those words at you, to get you to respond— because they know, at least instinctively, that complex trauma survivors would rather die (sometimes literally!) than actually BE (or be thought of) as selfish, disloyal, or entitled. 

We associate those words with abusers— rightfully so. 

And survivors will do triple backflips to NOT be like those who abused us. 

We spend large chunks of our lives trying desperately to NOT be those things. 

So when someone comes at us, trying to manipulate us— throwing around words that they know will trigger us— we need to be smart. 

We need to remember that when someone who wants something from us uses that language, they are trying to push our buttons. 

We need to remember that someone SAYING something about us doesn’t make it true. 

We need to remember that we are GOING to feel reactive to those words, and we’re GOING to want to prove the person wrong— and that superficially, the path to “proving them wrong” may seem to be doing what they want us to do. 

Their game is, “prove that you’re not selfish, disloyal, or entitled, by doing what I want you to do.” 

It’s tempting. We really, really, don’t like those words. We really, really don’t want to be like an abuser. 

This type of manipulation is similar to gaslighting. 

In gaslighting, the abuser tries to make you feel crazy. 

In this, the abuser tries to make you feel sh*tty. 

Either way: the tactic has nothing to do with reality. 

It has EVERYTHING to do with an abusive person taking advantage of our identity struggles. 

Do not bite. 

And be ready to reassure the kid version of you, who you carry around in your head and heart: no matter what that person is saying, it’s not true. It’s a trick. It’s a trap. It’s a ruse. 

Easy does it. 

We’re…not ourselves when we’re triggered.

Sometimes we get triggered, and we’re not quite ourselves.

We may LOOK like ourselves. (Or maybe not.) 

But we’re not making decisions from who we are, what we know, what we value. Not in that moment of being triggered. 

Almost everybody reading this has been there. 

The trigger may not be a huge thing. It may not be a thing we think we “should” get triggered by. 

Turns out our nervous system doesn’t really give a sh*t about “should.” 

We get triggered, and we see red. 

Or, maybe we don’t see much of anything at all; maybe through the magic of dissociation, we’re suddenly placidly orbiting the planet Neptune, idly wondering what n the world is going on back on that little third rock from the sun they call Earth. 

Either way: everyone reading this has probably said or done something when triggered, that we weren’t so thrilled about afterward. 

And the b*tch of it is, the people around us assume that what we said or did really represented who we are, what we think, or what we want— because THEY’RE not inside our head. THEY don’t know we were triggered. 

For a subset of people, they don’t even care that we were triggered. They’ll tell us that, triggered, or not, our words and our behavior are our words and our behavior— and we have to accept responsibility for them. 

I don’t necessary disagree with that. Of course we’re always responsible for what we say and do. Though I think questions of true agency and “responsibility” get a little more complicated when trauma responses are in the mix than some people like to admit. 

Whether other people “get” what triggers are or what they do to us is kind of irrelevant. 

If they don’t get it, they don’t get it. We can’t make them get it. I WISH we could “make” anyone understand, well, anything. 

But it’s really important that WE understand that we’re not ourselves when we’re triggered. 

It’s real important that WE not pass judgment on ourselves for what we say or do when we’re triggered. 

And, yes— we can take responsibility without passing judgment. 

Lots of times we get down on ourselves for what we say and do when we’re triggered. 

We’re hard on ourselves. 

We judge ourselves— often harshly. 

We call ourselves “crazy.” 

We ask ourselves who ARE we, even if we behave like THAT? 

I’ll tell you who you are: you’re someone whose nervous system is vulnerable to post traumatic triggers. 

No more; no less. 

Do we act “crazy” sometimes, at least compared to who we are and what we’re all about when we’re in a stable, grounded place? Sure. 

Does that mean that’s “really” who we are? Of course not. 

Don’t judge yourself by what you did when you were desperate, and don’t judge yourself by what you did when you were triggered. 

Trauma reactions in response to triggers are REFLEXES. They’re part of the post traumatic INJURY you sustained. They’re not choices. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but maybe you DIDN’T have a choice in the moment you were triggered. 

But you DO have a choice now— how to talk to yourself about what happened, and what to do next. 

Just do the next right thing. 

“But…you’re so high FUNCTIONING!”

“You must not be struggling TOO much, look at what you’ve accomplished!” 

Trauma survivors get this— a lot. 

“You’re telling me you have this ‘trauma’ thing that makes every day living hell— but you’re still able to do (whatever)? It must not be TOO bad…” 

In our culture we have this bad habit of making assumptions about whether people are being “honest” about their struggles based on what we can observe— from the outside. 

We have this reflexive skepticism when people say “I’m hurt.” 

It’s even worse when they say, “I’m hurt, and I need help.” 

For some reason our cultural inclination is to immediately go into, “Are they exaggerating how much they’re hurting? Are they trying to take advantage in asking for help?” 

This is a particular problem for many complex trauma survivors. 

Trauma survivors often look pretty good— from the outside. 

Many times they’re even “overachievers,” as far as the culture is concerned. 

Many people look at trauma survivors and they see smart, motivated, hard working, detail-oriented people…and that leads them to assume that, whatever that survivor might be struggling with, it must not be TOO bad, right? 

The thing is: many survivors ARE motivated, hard-working, and detail-oriented…for a reason. 

For many complex trauma survivors, striving for “perfection” was a matter of SAFETY growing up. 

Some survivors threw themselves into academic achievement and activities as a way of avoiding or coping with an abusive or neglectful home environment. 

For some survivors, there were painful consequences at home if they DIDN’T bring home a perfect report card. 

Some survivors become “detail-oriented” because the rest of their world seems utterly out of their control. 

Some survivors who experience dissociative splits in their consciousness have a “part” that comes out and deals with the school or the work stuff. Which, to the outside world, may look organized and diligent; but on the inside, it deepens cracks that don’t exist for the hell of it— they exist because the survivor had to compartmentalize their overwhelming feelings and memories SOMEHOW. 

Our cultural standards of “functionality” are poor measures of how trauma survivors are REALLY feeling and functioning. 

But get told often enough that you “must” be fine, because of how you’re performing, and you’ll eventually find yourself in a no win situation.

On the one hand, the world doesn’t like when we say we’re hurt and ask for help— despite the fact that we’re always told to “reach out” if we’re struggling. 

On the other hand, if we NEVER reach out for help, we’re at risk of redlining until we just can’t function at ALL anymore— at which point, surely, somebody will tell us we “should” have reached out. 

Very often our culture fails to really see, really acknowledge, the suffering of trauma survivors, because they just look so darn functional. 

That “functionality” often comes at a price— and is a poor measure of true “functionality” to begin with. 

If we’re not living a life that we don’t fantasize about ending to escape the pain, are we really all that “functional?” 

Many survivors will tell you: you can keep the grades or the promotions or whatever else is being thrown at us to “prove” that we’re obviously not as “hurt” as we’re saying. 

We just want peace inside our head and heart. 

We just wanna love ourselves and have that be an unconflicted, normal state. 

We just wanna feel liked and wanted and in reasonable control of our lives. 

Not grades or degrees or promotions. 

F*ck the “have to’s.” This is YOUR recovery.

There are very few “have  to’s” in trauma recovery. 

Which is good news, because we trauma survivors often don’t do all that well with “have to.” 

Oh, there will be people who will try to convince you there are “have to’s.” 

You’ll get people telling you meaningful trauma recovery takes (x) many months or years in treatment. 

You’ll get people telling you that meaningful trauma recovery MUST include (whatever) type of therapy. 

Sometimes you’ll even get therapists effortfully arguing that “the science” only supports THEIR preferred theory or modality for trauma recovery. 

(“The science” says no such thing, by the way— research suggests that a number of different therapy approaches can be helpful with trauma.)

My experience is that the trauma recovery tools that work best for you, are the trauma recovery tools that work best for you. 

What works for you may or may not align with what works best for another human being. 

The thing is: there’s an entire INDUSTRY of trauma experts and programs that profit of off selling their particular approaches. 

They’ve learned that, from a marketing perspective, it is more profitable to claim that their approach is superior to other trauma treatments— because they’re very aware that a dollar spent at treatment program (Y) is a dollar NOT spent at treatment program (Z). 

But that’s all marketing and industry bullsh*t. That doesn’t have anything to do with YOUR recovery. 

The truth is, most peoples’ recovery involves a combination of tools, skills, and philosophies that we pick up in lots of places— many of which we modify to meet our own needs. 

Don’t get me wrong: if you happen to get all of your trauma recovery tools in one place, that’s awesome. Good for you. 

But the marketing bullsh*t that happens around trauma work (psychotherapy in general, really) can be really destructive to real world recovery. 

We have to remember that even psychotherapy isn’t the end-all, be-all of trauma recovery. 

Therapy is ONE tool in the fight. Some people get more mileage out of the tool of psychotherapy than others. 

I don’t, actually, think all trauma survivors in recovery NEED to be in therapy. 

I think all trauma survivors in recovery NEED to be gathering, adapting, and regularly USING the appropriate skills, tools, and philosophies to keep THEM safe and stable. 

In my book, that’s the only “have to” in trauma recovery. 

Don’t get overwhelmed or discouraged by the hundreds and hundreds of worlds that can come at you when you dip your toe in the world of trauma treatment— including the words I write. 

Meaningful recovery does NOT require you to do it a certain way. 

There are ways that I think tend to be safer and more effective than other ways— but I’ve worked with a teeny, tiny fraction of the trauma survivors in this world. 

(Yes, even though I’ve worked with HUNDREDS of trauma survivors, it’s STILL a teeny, tiny percentage of the MILLIONS of trauma survivors out there— even the hundreds of thousands of survivors likely reading this.) 

The “experts” are gonna say what they’re gonna say. Remember that they’re often just reinforcing their brand— not telling you something important about your recovery journey. 

YOU keep coming back to YOUR struggles and needs TODAY. 

YOU keep track of things that actually work— for YOU. 

YOU keep track of ideas, skills, tools, and philosophies that YOU can modify to your needs. That resonate with YOU. 

All of the bullsh*t manufactured by the trauma treatment industrial complex doesn’t mean a goddamn thing if it doesn’t help YOU make it through the day— or make it through the night. 

Breathe; blink; focus. 

Recovery is about YOU feeling and functioning better in the real world. 

That’s it. 

Trauma responses are CONDITIONED, not “chosen.”

You’re gonna get people telling you that other people can’t “make” us feel anything. 

We’ve all heard the quote “nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.” 

The idea is that no matter what somebody else says to us or how they say it, we’re “choosing” how we feel about it and how we react to it. 

How I wish this was true— that we “choose” everything we feel. 

But we don’t. 

Often our feelings arise reflexively. When we’ve been through trauma, we can get triggered by someone’s tone of voice or the cadence of their speech, and go into a trauma response— and there won’t be any “choice” involved. 

Most often our thoughts don’t arise out of what we’re thinking or how we’re interpreting a situation— as much as some people want to believe that it’s entirely our thoughts that determine our emotional life. 

Rather, our feelings very often raise out of our conditioning. 

When we grow up in abusive or neglectful families, we get conditioned to feel— or not feel— certain things. 

Sometimes we get conditioned to dissociate in response to certain things— and, again, there’s no “choice” involved. Our sympathetic nervous system makes that “choice” for us. 

From our nervous system’s point of view, if it had to wait around for us to think about everything that happens to us or “choose” a response, we’d have been eaten by sabre tooth tigers eons ago. 

Trauma responses are reflexive in response to triggers, much like addictive cravings are reflexive. We don’t “choose” them. 

We can decrease our vulnerability to triggers and decrease the intensity and duration of our trauma responses— but that’s NOT the same as saying we are “choosing” whatever feelings or reactions we’re having. 

Why is this important to talk about? 

Because the “you choose your feelings” shtick comes with an unspoken subtext: “if you’re in pain, you must have chosen it somehow. It’s your fault.” 

Trauma survivors are VERY familiar with this subtext. 

We get a lot of “you’re making yourself miserable.” 

We get a lot of “you have to just (CHOOSE to) let go of the past.” 

We get a lot of “you have to just (CHOOSE to) trust.” 

Over and over again the culture around us treats us as if these enormously painful, life-ruining trauma responses we’re struggling with are, on some level, “chosen” by us. 

Buying into that can deepen the self-blame and self-hate that we already feel. 

It can destroy the already-limited motivation we have to work on changing our patterns of feeling and response. 

Just because we can CHANGE something over time doesn’t mean we CHOSE it to begin with. 

I did not “choose” to be an addict. I can CHANGE my behavior over time, but I can assure you, I did NOT sign up for the original affliction. 

Nobody reading this CHOSE to be traumatized, and nobody reading this CHOSE the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral consequences of trauma. Trauma responses aren’t “choices.” 

We can CHANGE them over time, by getting real about our CONDITIONING. 

Responding to conditioning isn’t making “choices.” We do it without thinking, reflexively, instinctually. 

Trauma CONDITIONS us. In ways we don’t choose. 

Recovery RECONDITIONS us. In ways we DO choose. 

One day at a time. 

Things I learned from “Star Wars.”

You’re not the first or the only one to feel like you’re stranded on a desert planet, far away from the fight that matters.

Some people believe there is a Force in the universe that “surrounds us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together;” you can tap into this Force by paying attention; you can get BETTER at tapping into this Force with practice…and you can use this Force for constructive OR destructive purposes. 

Some people wear masks and armor to protect themselves and keep themselves alive. 

Some people get CONVINCED that we have “destiny” that we cannot escape…and almost always those people are wrong.  

It’s never too late to redeem ourselves.  

Convincing ourselves that we “know” what will DEFINITELY happen in the future can lead us to enormously impulsive or destructive decision making.  

Trauma can twist us into someone we, or the people close to us, can barely recognize. 

No matter how certain we are that we KNOW certain things about how the universe works, the truth is, we only know what we’ve directly experienced— there are ALWAYS things happening outside our worldview.

Everything anyone tells us— including things that trusted mentors or teachers tell us— is from their own point of view. 

The wisest person you know has made mistakes. 

No matter how wise or experienced we become, we WILL lose ourselves sometimes— but it’s never the wrong time to breathe, blink, focus, and bring our focus back to calm, radical acceptance. 

No one’s ever really gone.

Even the bravest warriors get scared. 

You never know what the next act of your life will be. Lifetime scoundrels can become heroes who fall in love with princesses. You are never “stuck” in the identity you once had. 

Debts come due. 

Heroes get discouraged. 

Friends don’t let you die in the cold. 

We risk repeating what we don’t repair. 

Tools are useless and dangerous without skills. 

Philosophy will get you nowhere WITHOUT tools and skills. 

It’s a different ball game returning to where you came from after you’ve done the work to discover who you are and what you’re all about. 

Wherever we’re from, whatever we’ve been through, is not the most important thing about us. 

Often legendary warriors do not look like legendary warriors. Appearances can be deceiving. 

Meet every feeling or instinct with compassion and acceptance. 

It’s never too late. 

It’s never too late. 

It’s never too late. 

When life doesn’t follow The Plan.

I don’t know about you, but my life didn’t follow The Plan. 

You know, The Plan. That plan that “normal” peoples’ lives are supposed to follow. 

The one where you go to school, get a degree, pick a career. 

The one where you date, and in a certain age range, get married. 

That Plan where you have a job that turns into a career, maybe have kids, maybe buy a house. 

I look at people I grew up with, people I went to school with— many of them seem to have followed The Plan. 

But my life didn’t unfold that way. 

I’ve talked about the specifics many times in many places. But the details are less important than the overall point that I didn’t follow The Plan. 

I missed my window. 

A lot of people reading this know exactly what I’m talking about. 

It can feel like life passed us by. 

Like our struggles took us so far off course that The Plan, the one that our parents or our religion or our culture had for us, seems like this insubstantial, hypothetical idea—an idea that never seemed especially real to us, but at this point REALLY doesn’t seem real. 

There is undeniably a part of me that is really sad, and sometimes mad, that I didn’t just follow The Plan. 

That part of me blames me and chastises me for not following The Plan. 

Why couldn’t I just follow The Plan? You know, pick a job. Marry a nice girl. 

My brain will come up with PLENTY of reasons why I couldn’t, or didn’t, follow The Plan— and, surprise, they all revolve around me being terrible. 

Trauma, addiction, depression, and other emotional and behavioral struggles will get in our head and tell us exactly why our life didn’t to To Plan— and, spoiler, those reasons won’t be particularly fair or compassionate to us. 

I’ve been living in recovery for a minute, and helping other people get and stay in recovery is my business— but I still have those thoughts. 

They’re particularly loud when things don’t go well or aren’t happy in my relationships. 

“This wouldn’t be a problem if you’d just sucked it up and followed The Plan.” 

“What’s wrong with you that you couldn’t follow The Plan?” 

“The people you grew up with and went to school with, the ones who followed The Plan— they don’t have this problem.” 

Yup. No matter how long or how stable we are in recovery, we’re gonna hear those voices. 

Here’s the thing: I don’t know what anybody else’s life experience is. 

The people I grew up with or went to school with, the ones who followed The Plan? I don’t know what they do or don’t have to struggle with. 

All I know is my experience. 

Could I have followed The Plan? I don’t know. All I know is, I didn’t. 

I didn’t NOT follow The Plan because I’m terrible, or selfish, or damaged. 

The emotional and behavioral struggles I’ve been through did play a part— but it’s not like I woke up one morning and said, “I’m not following The Plan.” 

I can’t go back in life and follow The Plan. None of us can. 

Whatever else my life could have been, it wasn’t. 

Every decision I’ve ever made has led me right here, writing these words. 

If I’d followed The Plan, would I have the opportunity to write these words? Would I have have the opportunity to do the work I do? 

Maybe, maybe not. 

Doesn’t matter. 

I won’t have the opportunity to find out. 

All we— you and I— have is what we have: this moment, right here, right now. 

We can’t go back in time, Not even a minute. I can’t even go back in time to when I began writing this blog. 

All we can do is go forward. 

Eyes open. 

Breathe; blink; focus.

How long does recovery take, anyway?

You’ll often hear it said that “recovery has no timetable.” 

I understand why people say that, what they mean when they say it. They’re encouraging us to not be impatient with ourselves, to not pressure ourselves, to let our trauma recovery unfold at exactly the rate it has to unfold. 

But at the same time, I find it frustrating. 

It’s true that we can’t force or rush trauma recovery. 

But it’s also true that we live in the real world, with commitments and deadlines and relationships to which we have to be responsive. 

I’ve never thought it was particularly fair to tell the people in our lives that our trauma recovery will just, you know, take the time it takes. 

That leaves even the most patient and invested people in our lives kind of hanging— and I think they deserve more than that for their patience and investment. 

I’m not a fan of trying to slap strict time frames on recovery milestones. 

The truth is that people are so different, our traumas and reactions are so different, our supports and resources are so different, that if “experts” start throwing out generalized time frames, it’s only going to make people feel lousy when they don’t happen to fit into those time frames. 

Here’s what I can tell you about recovery and time:

Thinking of recovery as “I need to get to this milestone” may not be the best way to frame what we’re doing here. 

The point of trauma recovery isn’t so much to get to a place where we are definitively “recovered.” 

To think of recovery that way invites kind of a dichotomy of “recovered” vs. “not yet recovered,” and that’s just not how I think of recovery. 

When I use the language “in recovery,” I mean we’ve chosen recovery as a lifestyle. 

We acknowledge something happened to dramatically impact how we feel and function, our safety and stability; and we have chosen to live our life with an appreciation for how what happened affected us. 

That don’t mean we are forever a “slave” to the trauma. 

It means that as we construct our life going forward, we do so with respect to the damage that was really, actually done. 

Addiction recovery is the same way. To say that we are in “in recovery” from addiction doesn’t imply that we’re progressing toward a place of “recovered;” it means we are constructing our live around the central understanding that we NEED to take into account how the FACT of our addiction affects us. 

Recovery is not a destination; it is a commitment and a lifestyle. 

When you think of it in those terms, the “timeline” question kind of becomes moot. 

How long do we have to wait or work until we are substantively better? The real answer to that is, we are better every single day, if only by teeny, tiny increments. 

One year into recovery tends to be better than one day into recovery. 

One day in recovery tends to be better than one hour in recovery. 

It’s not a matter of asking the people in our lives to wait it out with us; it’s a matter of inviting them to be part of an active, creative process that unfolds every day. 

There’s a reason why “one day at a time” is one of the most famous recovery slogans: because it emphasizes that the only day we REALLY have in recovery is THIS day. This one, right here. 

Those days in the future might never happen. 

Those day sin the past are gone forever. 

But we know we’re here. You, reading this, know that you have today. This minute. 

We don’t have to “wait” for recovery to happen, because it is happening. This minute, this day, one day at a time. 

So, how long does recovery take? 

It takes today. 

That’s what I know. 

When “trauma therapists” aren’t especially trauma informed.

I recently saw someone who represented himself as an experienced trauma therapist say, “avoidance never works” in the treatment of trauma. 

It was in the context of him dismissing a grounding technique as “avoidant”— which it wasn’t. 

He seemed to think that the point of the grounding technique was to distract from or avoid the pain of an emotional flashback (though, in fairness, he didn’t seem to know what an emotional flashback was, either). 

Grounding isn’t about “avoiding” anything— it’s about using environmental cues, starting with our senses, to impress upon our nervous system that we are not “back there, back then,” but rather right here, right now, and relatively safe. 

That notwithstanding, I was surprised that a supposedly experienced trauma therapist would claim that “avoidance never works” (in fact, elsewhere in the conversation, he advised confronting trauma memories “head on”). 

It’s true that if avoidance is ALL we do in trauma recovery, it’s not really recovery. Trauma recovery is actually the literal opposite of avoidance— it’s accepting that we NEED structured trauma recovery; that we WERE abused, neglected, or otherwise traumatized; that we CAN’T just go on like we were. 

But it’s also true that we’re not ready, at every moment or point in our recovery, to confront certain feelings or memories. 

Effective treatment for trauma proceeds in three stages. In the first stage we don’t do ANY trauma “processing” or other exposure-based work; we focus ONLY on safety, stability, and coping skills and tools. 

The reason we don’t f*ck with meeting trauma memories “head on” in Stage One is because we’re usually not stable or safe enough at that point to tolerate that work.

Many people who get into trauma recovery are frustrated to learn that we can’t just jump right into confronting or working through our traumatic memories and feelings— but we first have to develop what I call emotional “cardio” for the fight ahead. 

If you were a professional fighter, and I, as a coach, put you RIGHT in the ring to fight a big, scary opponent, WITHOUT any skill-building or endurance training, you probably wouldn’t have much of a realistic chance to win, would you? 

That’s what Stage One trauma work is: skill-building and emotional cardio. 

In order to DO that skill-building and endurance training that will give you your best chance to succeed when you DO move on to trauma processing in Stage Two, you’d better BELIEVE we’re going to avoid some things. 

Important skills in Stage One trauma work are containment and pacing. “Containment” is all about learning to intentionally, intelligently compartmentalize memories and feelings until we’re ready to deal with them; “pacing” is all about tapping the brake and only dealing with the piece of work you can realistically manage. 

Technically speaking, both of these skills are about “avoiding” certain feelings, memories, and other sensations. They are the opposite of meeting feelings and memories “head on,” as this supposedly “experienced” therapist was advocating (remember, “avoidance never works!”). 

Unfortunately, there really is a subset of therapists who think that exposure and cognitive therapy are the only effective ways to work with trauma. The Veterans Administration famously endorses two treatment protocols, prolonged exposure (PE) and cognitive processing therapy (CPT), in work with traumatized veterans. 

Exposure and cognitive therapy can play a role in trauma recovery. 

But dissociation throws a wrench into both of those modalities. 

You can’t “confront” a feeling or memory if a survivor isn’t there to work through it— if they’ve been triggered and are mentally taking a Parisian vacation while their body remains in your office. 

That’s why we make the distinction between paced, skills-based work in Stage One, when survivors are prone to be overwhelmed, dissociative, and not-infrequently suicidal; and Stage Two, when survivors have acquired sufficient skill, endurance, and stability to actually DO the exposure and processing work that this guy seemed to think you could do at any ol’ time. 

All of which leads me to say: we sometimes hear that it’s not important to be “trauma informed;” that anybody with a mental health degree or license is probably trauma informed, by definition. 

But here was a guy whose literal job was to work with trauma— and he was missing a large, pretty basic piece of the conceptual puzzle. 

We, the trauma treatment and recovery community, have a LONG way to go in helping the culture become meaningfully trauma informed.