Trauma can alter our entire being and the way we view our selves and the world around us. This is not a new concept, and perhaps Ancient Talmudic words illustrate this best: “We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
Many trauma survivors are still stuck in the past, and as a result, they miss out on the present moment and life seems to just pass them by. Whether you are a trauma survivor or not, anyone reading this article can likely recall a recent situation where you wasted a beautiful moment because you were stuck thinking about the unchangeable events of yesterday. Most likely you only needed a little reminder to snap out of it and return to the moment. However, for the trauma survivor, this can be impossible, for being in the moment means being with themselves. It means sitting with all the pain and all the memories they have been trying desperately to avoid.
I have also worked with clients who literally cannot access their insides. They can sit across from me, respond congruently to my questions, discuss their trauma and yet have zero connection to their words. I would ask them what they were feeling, to check in with their body, and they would look at me like I just asked them to solve the most difficult equation known to man. This inability to access their inner-self is not a choice, its hardwired.
Attachment is considered to be the central foundation from which the mind develops (Ainsworth & Bowlby, 1991). However, many of our clients were never given the chance for this foundation to be established. A clinician, whose books you’ll find on many of our shelves at The Refuge, is Dr. Dan Siegel. In this article I do not have the time to explore his numerous attachment styles in depth, however his explanation of avoidant attachment, something we work with a lot, explains beautifully one of the ways this inability to connect is formed.
Our clients with avoidant attachment will describe a childhood where they felt unnoticed and unseen. In this environment, the child will often have the experience that no effort was made to know them because there was no one to know. An internal world, a sense of “self”, or the “see-inside” as he calls it, is never fostered. For them, the external and physical world is all there is (Siegel, 2009). Developing healthy, intimate connections with therapists and group members, let alone peers outside of a therapeutic setting, becomes a struggle.
I once heard Donald Meichenbaum share at a conference that the relationship between client and therapist, that connection, is 5-times more important than ANY other factor in the therapeutic process. However, for most of our clients, connecting can seem impossible. This is why so many of our clients come to the Refuge jaded. They’re jaded by their painful experiences in life and because they do not think therapy will help. They’ll report having been kicked out of, or transferred from other programs. They’ll report seeing countless professionals but never getting better, or that they were labeled as defiant or not ready to make change when the truth is they have been unable to make the connections needed to feel safe.
When you begin to understand how trauma alters the way we see and relate to the world, it becomes obvious why trauma survivors struggle to heal. I love being a part of The Refuge because we don’t give up on a client. We hold space with them long enough to become the mirror that reflects back to them their incredible worth and potential. We may be the first to do so and we may be the ones that foster that “see-inside” so real connection can occur. It takes time.
Many of the people we treat come to us because they feel there is nothing left inside. They have been beaten and broken along their journey and they come to us so we can walk them through the darkness and into the light. Sometimes, we may even have to carry them.
Ainsworth, M. D. S., & Bowlby, J. (1991). An ethological approach to personality development. American Psychologist, 46, 331-341.
Dan Siegel (PsychAlive). (2009). Dr. Dan Siegel on Avoidant Attachment. In Exclusive Interview Series with Dan Siegel.