When I got to graduate school about ten years ago, I knew I wanted to focus on working with clients who’d been impacted by trauma. However, let’s just say I was a little misdirected, and my eyes were only halfway opened. All I was concentrating on was trying to get my teachers to show me that perfect book I thought would be the answer, or that amazing workshop I needed to attend, or that particular conference that I couldn’t miss.
Each of those things are certainly necessary when one is becoming trauma-informed.
What I neglected to see, however, and didn’t fully understand the value of in terms of working with individuals who’d been traumatized, were those other, equally significant elements: authenticity, presence, vulnerability, and the importance of valuing oneself.
Three years ago, I created The Trauma Therapist Podcast on which I interview thought leaders in the fields of trauma, addiction, mindfulness, and yoga. Kathy Steele, Bruce Perry, Gabor Mate, Pat Ogden, and Bessel van der Kolk, among other lesser known, though no less inspiring guests, have all joined me. Over the course of the last few years, during my 280+ interviews, my eyes have flung wide open.
My guests, through their own personal sharings, and insights, have provided myself (and my listeners) with an invaluable education and a veritable list of things to do. And not to do. Yes, it’s a list that I wished I’d had a bit earlier; nevertheless, their words continue to inspire me every day.
These six core principles come from my guests. My only addition is the suggestion that every new trauma worker print this out and carry it in their pocket.
1. I can’t remember the last time I used a technique. For me, it’s all about the relationship. - Kathy Steele.
I’ve interviewed Kathy Steele twice on the podcast. During our most recent conversation I asked her, incredulously, with all of the different modalities out there and for the fact that she’s an internationally renown practitioner and teacher, "What advice would you give to someone just starting out on their trauma-informed journey?" This is what she said:
Yes, I have been doing this for many, many years. The knowledge is in my bones, the interventions are in there. That being said, I can’t remember the last time I used a technique. For me, it’s all about the relationship.
So what does this mean? It certainly doesn’t mean forgoing all of our knowledge about how trauma impacts the brain and body. What it does mean—and it’s something practically every one of my guests has underscored—is that understanding the value of the therapeutic relationship, and then being able to cultivate and honor that, is the foundation to the healing process.
2. We are no different than our clients. - Peter Bernstein, PhD.
As I mentioned above, when I got to graduate school, I was a bit misdirected. Looking back, I think that in addition to seeking the knowledge of how trauma impacts the brain and body, I was also seeking, through that knowledge, to differentiate myself from those clients I would later see.
Yes, it was backward, and I was misdirected (and that’s a separate post). What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was how much the therapeutic relationship relied on the therapist’s ability to bring themselves—(of course, ethically and with respect and boundaries)—into the room with their clients.
We create relationships through witnessing, providing hope, and trust. And those relationships are built upon the foundation of commonality, not distance.
3. Cultivate your own somatic awareness (in addition to selfawareness).
This is crucial for you, as a trauma worker, as you learn to sit with those who’ve been impacted by trauma.
Education about the neurobiology of trauma is mandatory. Many newer trauma workers, however, underestimate the importance of cultivating their own innerwork. I’m talking about developing a practice to hone authenticity, compassion, vulnerability, and presence. These aspects have to be nurtured and doing so demands a conscious, intentional practice (think meditation, supervision, or consultation).
Every one of my guests has talked about an early experience and how, at one time or another, they overlooked this aspect of the work, and how it thus, adversely impacted a relationship with a client.
Cultivating a practice which brings you into familiarity with your body and how it feels, and the multitude of emotions and sensations that arise within the varying contexts of working with trauma clients, is a must. And it requires a weekly, daily practice.
Such a practice will not only serve to increase your own overall equanimity and awareness, it will also go a long way to positively impacting your clients by serving to lay the foundation for the healing relationship.
4. Do. Your. Own. Work.
What does this mean? This phrase (along with others like self-care, and hope ) is tossed around so frequently in this field I believe many forget how significant it truly is.
For me, this means being willing—actually, realizing that one has the unquestioning responsibility—to take the time to explore the hills and valleys of your experience and life, and to be willing to encounter them, look at them them, and learn where and how they will impact and influence you. (read: trigger.)
This might mean finding your own therapist, or working through certain experiences with a supervisor, or through any number of other methods or supports.
Why is this so important? Because who you are will influence how you interact with your clients. And the degree to which you cultivate your self-awareness around this topic will allow you to manage things/emotions/issues when and as such triggers arise.
As Annita B. Jones, PsyD stated on the podcast:
Be aware of whose issues you’re working with, yours or your client’s. If it’s yours, then you’re in the wrong room!
5. Show up, be present, and shut up . - Peter Levine, PhD.
It doesn’t get more straightforward and seemingly simple than these words from Peter Levine.
Show up implies more than walking into the room on time. It implies bringing your full self, which further implies that you’ve taken the time to get your own house in order. (See #4 above).
In other words:
- Are you in the process of doing your own work?
- Have you done the work of exploring your own traumas (be they large or small)?
- Are you aware of your own triggers and biases, and to what degree are you equipped to dance with them when they come to visit?
- Have you explored the question: What’s pulled you to do this work, in the first place?
The invitation to Be Present needs no introduction. Again, a seemingly simple task, though we all know it can be quite challenging. Yet, it’s one’s ability to be a witness to another—one who’s experienced trauma—that oftentimes provides the super-structure for healing to begin.
Shut up , means more than talking less and listening more. It paves the way for trauma workers to be present as their client’s stories unfold, at their client’s pace, and in their client’s time. It means to summon the solidity of the mountain as your mind spins with thoughts of the interventions you can’t wait to use. It means to bear silent witness as your client struggles through own their own journey.
6. Be willing to own who you are, and to understand that who you are will impact how you work with individuals who’ve been impacted by trauma.
It is no secret that many individuals enter the mental health field because they (we!) want to help. We want to relieve pain, and help others heal, and yes, sometimes fix. And each of these reasons is laudable, to a certain degree. However, if you’ve been listening to The Trauma Therapist Podcast , then you know that healing is accomplished by the client, themselves, and at most it is the trauma worker’s role to walk alongside of, to support, and to be the hope in the room. As Thema Bryant Davis says.
As a new trauma worker, it takes a certain amount of restraint to sit in silence when someone is in pain, and to be present as they experience their own path to healing. It takes a certain amount of patience, reserve and belief in the healing process to bear witness as someone’s healing journey unfolds in their own time, and to do so without answering the rush to fix and make better.
To do this, then, requires that one be willing to shine the light on the varied textures of who they are and their own paths that have led them to their present place. This can sometimes be challenging as it may require opening certain doors that have remained shut for some time. The reason for this, though, is to raise one’s level of self-awareness about the fact that these nooks and crannies of one’s life and character will inevitably reveal themselves during the course of working with a client. And then to be ready when this happens.
- What tip from this post did you most appreciate, or had the most relevance to your current therapist experience?