Something we need to remember every day is that “basic skills” aren’t considered “basic” because they are easy, simple, or unimportant. 

“Basic skills” are “basic” because they are fundamental. They are skills we need to use every single day. They are the building blocks for any of the more advanced work we want to do in therapy or recovery. 

Effective treatment for trauma— and most other conditions, really— involves there stages: basic skill building and tool-gathering; processing; and life reintegration. Of these, the most important— and often the most difficult and prolonged— stage is the first one: basic skill building and tool gathering. 

Many people in therapy get frustrated when they discover that there is so much emphasis on stage one work. 

They figure they’ve come to therapy to process traumatic memories and shake free of the hold trauma has had over them. It’s a drag to think you’re going to get into treatment to immediately break free of the chains of post traumatic symptomatology, and then be presented with a bunch of work on coping skills and strategies that only seem peripherally related to the trauma processing work you thought you were there to do. 

The thing is: no processing of any kind can occur if you don’t first develop the skills and tools required to handle the feelings and sensations that processing work is inevitably going to stir up. 

Processing work— both trauma processing and any other kind of emotional processing, such as grief work— necessarily entails digging into memories and meanings that are difficult to handle. Sometimes those memories and feelings are so difficult to handle that they’ve been cut off almost entirely from our conscious, present mind, a psychological defense called dissociation. 

If you want to dig into memories, meanings, and feelings that are so difficult, so painful, so threatening that the brain (and sometimes even the body) has found it necessary to dissociate from them, you’re going to need to go in with some skills and tools. 

If you don’t go in with the requisite skills and tools, your brain will literally shut down. You won’t be present enough to do the work. You could go through the motions, but the motions won’t have any meaning or power. 

Without sufficient stage one work— and without continually revisiting the skills and tools developed in stage one work— you’ll be basically sleepwalking through treatment. 

And you’ll have pretty much the same therapeutic results as someone who is sleepwalking through treatment. 

Basic skills and tools are your shields and weapons of choice when you head into battle. And as any successful warrior will tell you: you want to pick those weapons and shields carefully…and know how to use them them very well BEFORE you set foot on the battlefield. 

(I know, I know, I’ve written about how I’m not so much a fan of the “warrior” and “war” metaphors when it comes to describing the therapy and recovery processes, but this time I think it’s more or less applicable. Cut me some slack, here.)

Why do so many people get so frustrated with basic skills? 

It happens all the time with all sorts of patients and clients. They want to recover, but they want to leap right to the processing stage, skipping over what they view to be the drudgery of stage one work. 

(I believe this is one of the reasons why trauma processing therapies such as EMDR and EFT have become so popular in recent decades— they speak directly to processing trauma, instead of developing the on-the-ground strategies and skills necessary to deal with symptoms.)

People don’t like to think of their treatment as a drawn out process in which they’ll have to continually cope with painful symptoms. 

People don’t like to think about recovery as the kind of project where they have to develop psychoemotional “fitness” in order to survive and thrive. 

It’s not their fault. It’s not that anybody is being lazy. 

It’s just that, if you’re given a choice between an approach that says, okay, you need to get in shape over a longer period of time, learn how to use exercise equipment, eat right, endure some pain and discomfort and probably experience some setbacks on the one hand…or an approach that says, you know what, how about we just zap those memories and feelings right now, don’t worry so much about all that “exercise” and “diet” and “conditioning” stuff on the other hand…which would you choose? 

Unfortunately, I’m here to tell you: there are no shortcuts. 

I’m here to tell you: getting emotionally fit isn’t that different from getting physically fit. 

Even with breakthroughs in research and technology, there remain no substitutes for the tools of time and discipline and consistency. 

The need for stage one work isn’t going anywhere. 

Fundamentals will remain fundamental. 

I strongly encourage my patients and clients to embrace the grind of stage one work— for the more we embrace the grind now, the faster and easier stages two and three are going to go. 

Conditioning work pays off…even if it’s a drag in the moment. 


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