Bonnie Badenoch: Trauma and the Embodied Brain
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Bonnie Badenoch. Bonnie is an in-the-trenches therapist, supervisor, teacher, and author who has spent the last 10 years integrating the discoveries of neuroscience into the art of therapy. She co-founded the nonprofit agency Nurturing the Heart with the Brain in Mind in 2008, and was founder and former executive director of the Center for Hope and Healing for 17 years in Irvine, California. Her work as a therapist has focused on helping trauma survivors and those with significant attachment wounds reshape their neural landscape to support a life of meaning and resilience. She’s the author of several books including Being a Brain-Wise Therapist, and with Sounds True, Bonnie Badenoch has created a new online course called Trauma and the Embodied Brain. This is a course that takes place over eight weeks and is the first module in Sounds True’s Leading Edge of Psychotherapy yearlong training program.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Bonnie and I talked about trauma as a relational experience, and how it arises more from our sense of being alone with pain and fear than from the traumatic event itself. We talked about the research that supports this view, and how being with someone in a nonjudgmental state of presence is critical to the healing of trauma. We also talked about implicit memory, intergenerational trauma, and what it might mean to be a therapeutic presence in the world. Here’s my conversation with Bonnie Badenoch:
Just to begin, Bonnie, I want to thank you for being with us here on Insights at the Edge and thank you for being the lead-off presenter in Sounds True’s Leading Edge of Psychotherapy yearlong training program. Thank you for that.
Bonnie Badenoch: Well, I feel very honored to be asked. Thank you, Tami.
TS: Part of the reason we asked you to be our lead-off hitter, if you will, in our yearlong Leading Edge of Psychotherapy program is because you’re really well-known and well-respected for bringing the discoveries of neuroscience, and particularly the field of interpersonal neurobiology, to the practice of therapy in a very pragmatic way. So right here to begin, if you could let our listeners know a little bit about interpersonal neurobiology and why as a therapist—and how for you as a therapist—it’s impacted your approach to working with people.
BB: I would be very glad to do that. I was fortunate back in 2003 to go to a conference where I heard Dan Siegel speak, and I got goosebumps listening to him. I could hear as he was talking about these core concepts of interpersonal neurobiology that it was really the underpinnings for the work we were doing, mainly with severe trauma at the nonprofit place that we had in Orange County. It really lit me up, and what I was hearing is that there’s a scientifically grounded explanation for how it is that we continue to affect one another’s brains and one another’s way of relating throughout our lives, and how powerful we are with one another. I think that while I had maybe a felt sense of that prior to that, I didn’t have any words for it and I didn’t have any way to actually communicate that with my interns, that it was within the relationships that these neural changes would be happening.
So as I’ve spent many years now with this, that’s what I have found, is that my way of being in the room has changed substantially. I think all of us at times come into the therapeutic encounter with someone with an idea of how we would like to help them—how we would like to help them change how they are. And over the years, what interpersonal neurobiology has done for me is let me know that that is not only way secondary, but may be really unimportant compared to being able to be with the person in a place of nonjudgment and without agenda, and make an open space in which they can come in, and that their system will know what needs to happen next and will guide us—with some help from me, of course—but will guide us down this healing path. So it’s really changed pretty much entirely the way that I’m present with my clients. Much more of an open, listening place, because that’s what creates safety, and without safety, it’s not going to go in deep or as well.
TS: Now, for somebody who has maybe heard of interpersonal neurobiology or it’s new to them, can you give them just a layperson’s introduction?
BB: Sure. I think I can do that. You guide me along the way if there’s something else you’d like to ask or whatever it might be. I think so much of neuroscience focused for such a long time on cognition, and it’s only been lately that we’ve actually looked at the more emotional and interpersonal sides of things. That has led Dan Siegel and Allan Schore and Lou Cozolino, who are kind of like the fathers of interpersonal neurobiology, to begin to talk about what Lou Cozolino calls “the social synapse”. Where two people meet, and where there’s so much that goes on with so many systems in our body that we’re influencing one another. So that brings in then several other people whose work has really supported that view that we are in constant modification of one another—or co-regulation might be the word that would be used if you’re a therapist, but that feeling that we’re shaping one another’s brains all of the time.
I think that as we walk about in our world and we become conscious of that, we can begin to experience how that happens. Like if I walked into your office, Tami, and I come in and I’m feeling bright and cheerful and I see that you have a sad look on your face, very quickly my whole inner being is going to change to come toward you and want to be with you in that place. Or the other way around—if I’m feeling kind of grumpy and you come in and you’re delighted to see me, that’s going to shape my neural firings about that, and change how I feel and how I behave at the same time that it will then also change how you’re feeling. So there’s a moving in a circle, back and forth and around in the relationship, and it’s going on all the time. As we become aware of this, I think that we get really aware as therapists and really just as human beings that we get wounded when we’re with people who can’t be with us, and we heal when there are people who can be with us.
TS: You mentioned something interesting that one of the takeaways for you as a practicing therapist was moving into—I think you used the phrase something like “a state of agenda-less presence” or being open to how the client’s own natural healing process wanted to unfold. What gives you the confidence that there is some natural healing process that wants to unfold versus people just potentially rotting or not moving forward in some positive direction?
BB: Well, I think again, this is a place where some kind of deep study of interpersonal neurobiology and relational neuroscience in general, as we get to study how all of our senses work, how our belly brain—we have a brain actually in our belly—works, and our heart brain, there’s a heart there as well, the skin, how all of these systems have their underlying, inherent health in them, and then we have trauma or painful attachment relationships or whatever it is that’s really hurting us, that the ability of these systems to manifest that is stopped. But when we come into contact with other people, then we find—especially someone who can hold the space for us and we’re able to work with these things that have been painful—that natural health that is contained in all of our systems is right there to manifest again.
So learning about that, and understanding it has been really helpful to embolden me to try it and see if it works. What I know now after doing this for a while is that my goodness, the way that therapy unfolds when I’m present with people, and with a storehouse of knowledge that I can bring to them also, but without an agenda trying to get them to change in a particular way, the therapy goes on and at such a much deeper level. Also, because I’m not interested in speed—the speed of therapy is how fast or slow it needs to go according to the person’s system—but I find that the healing is deeper and much more thorough when they feel safe enough to open their system and begin to listen, us together, to listen to what their system is asking for.
I can give some concrete examples of that even from daily life as we move along here, but I think it was learning about these systems and how much they’re always—like our attachment system is always seeking warmer relationships, our autonomic nervous system is always on the lookout for “who will be with me?” There’s so many ways that our systems stay healthy underneath the weight of the trauma, and the help keeps trying to come forward but it needs a safe, open space to do that.
TS: You mentioned the belly brain and the heart brain, and you talked about the skin. I think a lot of times when people think about their brain, obviously they’re not thinking about their belly brain or the intelligence of the skin. So tell me what you mean when you talk about there being brains in these different parts of our body.
BB: Yes. These are all—we think of, we do think of the brain as being primarily in our skull; we maybe think of—maybe a lot of people have heard about the amygdala is kind of deep in there, looking out for us, being vigilant, and then the wrinkly part on top, the neocortex, is helping us think and make decisions, and maybe have empathy and all that kind of thing. That’s generally what we think of when we say “brain.”
Although I will say, the belly brain has been in the news so much, probably more and more people are realizing that there’s a really vast intelligence down there that’s made up of 100 million neurons. I mean, it’s not a small brain, and it is monitoring for safety all the time—it is looking out for us in terms of being aware both through relationships and through also the food that we present to it, what is safe and not safe, and then helping us figure out how to protect ourselves if it isn’t safe, and how to open ourselves to receive more of good food, more of good relationships when it is safe.
We’re learning about these things, and we’re also having to learn to listen to a new language, because the brain and the body don’t speak in words, they speak in sensations. So it’s a matter of developing through a lot of practice, meditative practice, to tune into these and begin to listen, knowing that at first we may not be able to hear very much because we’re not used to listening to sensation—or maybe we listen to it but we don’t take it seriously and we don’t feel that it has a value to communicate to us. I know that as I sit with my students—and with my clients as well, but we do a lot of practice with the students that come here—of listening, say, to our muscles or listening to the quality of what touch means to us. With practice, over time we begin to hear these voices that speak to us about the truth of how it really is for us. It’s a developmental process.
TS: As I was familiarizing myself, Bonnie, with this program that you’ve created for the Leading Edge of Psychotherapy, Trauma, and the Embodied Brain, I came across this sentence, and it really, really struck me. So I want to unpack it and talk about it with you. Here it is: “Trauma is a relational experience, and arises more from our sense of being alone with pain and fear than from the event itself.” So that bowled me over; that was something I did not know at all, that it arises more from our sense of being alone with the pain and the fear of the experience, more than the event itself. How is it that you’ve come to this conclusion, if we can call it a conclusion—this strong statement?
BB: Well, there’s some research behind it. I mean, I’m not apt to say anything that isn’t backed up by research because otherwise it’s just my personal experience. That might be valuable for me, but maybe not for anybody else. So there is research, and I’ll share a little bit of that, but it’s also, I think, our common experience. Something hurtful or painful happens, and if we’re left alone with it, what happens is it begins to recede into the background, taking with it the tension in our muscles, the tension in our bellies, the rapid heartbeat, and all of these kinds of things, and begins to store them away because they haven’t been held.
If instead when something painful or frightening happens, I have access to my friend, let’s say, and I can say, “This thing really scared me,” and she can listen to me really deeply while I share this, what I notice is that as I share it—and maybe I need to share it a bunch of times—my system gradually begins to settle, and what just happens integrates now through—is integrated into my narrative of the day and all that, and it doesn’t have any of the residual pieces to it, because together we have been with this and it has settled. I feel settled, and I feel my body relax, and then the trauma won’t embed as a trauma. But if I’m stuck with it on my own, and I don’t have that support, it’s a very good chance that it will embed as a trauma, which then can be touched and awakened later on.
TS: I think what this points to is the things that happen to us, that we hang on, those things—the pain and the unbelievable grief and sorrow over a life, that it may not be so much the things as whether or not we had to experience them alone. That’s so important.
BB: It is so important. And “not alone” means something very specific: it means someone who will, without judgment, agenda, or expectation, just be with us while we move through our experience of it. Because if someone comes—I don’t know about you Tami, but if I’m in pain or difficulty and I’m wanting to be heard and what somebody does is try to fix me and tell me what to do, it actually makes it so much worse because the thing I was needing isn’t there and the person I was looking to now is instead using their left hemisphere to try to get me to do something different when that isn’t what my system needed at all. I needed to be held and heard and listened to until I was done.
So it’s just—again, it’s how somebody is with us. It’s making that safe place for someone to be able to move through this however they need to move through it. Maybe I would have tears, maybe I would be angry—who knows what all might come up. But I know that when someone listens to me, I deepen and deepen into the experience until it’s complete. We all need one or two people like that in our lives, where there’s that mutual holding.
TS: Let’s talk a little bit more about that, because I think if I had a magic wand, I would create a lot more people in the world who are able to, with nonjudgmental presence, hold other people’s experience. I’d like to become more of that kind of person myself, too. I mean, I’ve been growing in that direction, I’d like to keep growing in that direction. So my question to you—
BB: I think we’re always growing.
TS: OK, but my question to you is, what do you think helps somebody become that kind of accepting space, if you will, for other people?
BB: I really do think it’s a spiritual and meditative practice, from my viewpoint. We could call it also building a better human being kind of practice, but I think we begin by noticing when judgments come up. Like, say I sit down to do a task and I notice that I have not done it properly, and I hear a voice of judgment come up. Maybe I can then, in that moment—and this is the tricky part, just accept my judging self, begin to open into the possibility that I can welcome my judging self in that moment and just sit with the judgment. And then from there, as the judgment relaxes, go back and sit with the fact that I’m a fallible human being who’s just screwed something up, and just be present to that. So it’s about practicing over and over and over again, opening to what is.
The phrase that gets said a lot around this place, both in training and I do this for myself every morning, especially if I wake up in not a great place, is “Everyone is welcome here, and every state of mind, and every experience that I’m having is welcome here, and I will be with you as best I can.” Then I fall off that train many times every day, then I begin again and come back to, “Yes, everyone is welcome here.” What I notice is that after I’ve criticized myself or whatever it might be—I have some other experience or try to push away a sadness or whatever it is—but as soon as I say, “Everyone is welcome here,” my entire body relaxes. And then I can just be with what’s arising in the moment. I think it’s that practice—and probably reading Rumi’s poem “The Guest House” 50 times every day or something, is the practice, I think, to get there.
TS: In talking about not being alone when something difficult or painful happens to us, you talk about how part of it is that there’s someone who’s there who can be with us in a nonjudgmental way. But you also point in this course you’ve created, Trauma and the Embodied Brain, to a second factor, which is, is our nervous system able to receive this other person? Can we receive even their witnessing presence? I wonder if you can speak to that second piece of not being alone.
BB: Yes. That’s—it is a crucial second piece. One of the people who has most influenced me, along with Ian McGilchrist and Dan Siegel and Lou and those guys, is Steve Porges. His work on the autonomic nervous system and an understanding of what it is to be in what they call ventral-vagal or the social engagement system, and how that can offer people a safe landing place, but that if my nervous system is either so agitated or so withdrawn that I can’t feel the presence of that other person, it’s still like I’m alone.
However, what we know is every single one of us, all the time, our systems are trying to move toward social engagement somewhere underneath there. In other words, we have a preference for that state. So if I am with someone—again, client, child, whoever it might be—and they can’t feel me there, if I can stay in my own social engagement system and my autonomic nervous system is in that settled, open, receptive, nonjudgmental state, eventually they will find their way to me. If however, I kind of fall and I get resonating with them and I become agitated myself, now there’s no safe space to land for either one of us. So it’s about being willing to keep offering that to someone.
You’ll see parents do this—I’ll have a child who is just losing it, and at first they try, they’re holding this child and maybe talking soothingly, and the child can’t even hear them yet because they’re so upset. Now, if the parent then gets angry at that child or tells them to go to their room and don’t come out until you can settle yourself down, that is going to embed a trauma for sure. If instead the parent, in their wisdom, can know that this child is just too elevated to hear right now, and can keep being there in a soothing way with that child, the child will eventually come around. A child is not going to cry and scream forever; the child will find her way or his way back to that parent, and then you’ll see both of their bodies kind of relax into this state of safety together, and then whatever it was that was causing the upset can be talked about, or whatever needs to happen next will happen.
TS: You mention that there’s actually research that supports this idea that trauma is a relational experience that arises more from our sense of being alone with pain and fear than from the event itself. What’s the research that supports this?
BB: The research is so cool because it was one of the things that—it’s one of those pieces that the research that again, gave me goosebumps. It’s like, yes, this is what I’ve been sensing, but this puts it into words and experience. There were some researchers that went to Nepal to see which of the child soldiers from Nepal—and these are kids from 5 to 14 that have guns and go out and become involved in war, young kids 5 to 14 that go out and do this—and what happens when they return home, who gets PTSD and who doesn’t? They were interested to see how it’s possible for some of these kids to be showing very few signs of trauma.
What they discovered—I mean, there’s lots of variations, but the big takeaway from it is that kids that were welcomed back by their parents, by the community, but also by their peers with love and acceptance and often with rituals of reincorporation back into the tribe—these kids not only don’t get PTSD, but they show very, very few signs that they’ve even had a traumatic experience. The kids that go back to tribes where they are rejected, where they are reviled, they’re pretty much cast out, almost all of those kids get PTSD.
So taking that example, what I think about it, it’s who’s with us before, during, and after a time of pain and fear and potential trauma that’s going to make the difference for us. Because I’m also imagining that the kids in the first tribe, in the tribe where they’re welcomed back, there’s probably more secure attachment in that tribe, for them to be able to do that. And they probably, when they were out there, had a little bit more connection with the other kids from their same tribe while they were actually in the war situation, whereas the kids from the other tribe, if they’re rejected when they’re come home, I’m guessing there’s less secure attachment there to begin with and probably less ability to be with one another when they’re in the midst of the terrible stuff.
So the combination of those three things is vital to how we get through traumatic circumstances. We know kids who are securely attached do better with trauma than kids who are insecurely attached. It’s because they have usually a network of people around them to hold them, but they’ve also internalized the experience of being held, so there’s even some holding from the inside. So that research with those kids in Nepal was just really thrilling to me, to see it so clearly.
TS: Let’s say someone’s listening to this and they’re thinking of a traumatic event that happened to them in the past and how in fact they were quite alone during that experience, and that’s part of the reason it’s so traumatic, based on this conversation. But they were—they felt very alone. What do we know about trauma and the embodied brain, and what will help heal that sense of aloneness now about an event that happened a long time ago, where the person felt isolated and didn’t have a support system?
BB: Well, this is where I think for us therapists, it’s so important that we cultivate, again, this nonjudgmental agenda or state. When we are receptive and open and curious, warmly curious about someone—you can probably feel that in your body right now, somewhat, how that is for you Tami, if someone approaches you that way, you know, they’re just interested in you. And there’s a warmth, and there’s no expectation that you’ll be a certain way. That is what brings us into social engagement system, when we’re talking about Porges’s work—that’s what brings us into this place where we can actually connect with one another. So if we instead meet people with an intention to shift them in a certain way, that takes us out of social engagement system, and it isn’t safe.
So the single most important thing for a person seeking healing like that is to find either a good friend or if it’s pretty severe trauma, then a therapist who can actually hold that kind of safe space so that their system is free to become vulnerable and for the experience of the trauma to gradually come into the room where it can be held just like it’s happening all over again now. Because what we know about the felt sense of trauma is it doesn’t age, and when it comes up in us—what we say “triggered,” and I prefer the words “touched” and “awakened” because it seems to be a much more gentle process that happens when we view it that way—but when those experiences come up, it’s just like they’re happening all over again now, so we really have access to that part of our self that was traumatized. That now gets a companion, that now gets someone who can listen and be present with them and support them as they move through the experience.
TS: Bonnie, help me understand more about this social engagement system and how I as a person might know when it’s either offline or online, and I guess more importantly, if it’s offline, what could I do in a situation to help myself be more available to connection?
BB: Well of course the first thing I’m going to say, Tami, is I wouldn’t ever want you to have to find your social engagement system by yourself. When you find somebody you feel connected with within a calm state, they will help your social engagement system come back on. You don’t have to do it by yourself. Our whole society is always trying to figure out, “What do I have to do to get myself to change in a certain way?” And what we know for sure now is, the easiest way to change how we are is to be with someone who is in a state that we want to be in because we’ll resonate with them and they’ll provide the safety, often, for us to find our way back. I didn’t mean that as a criticism at all—
TS: No, I didn’t take it that way. I’m talking to you, Bonnie, and I feel nice and warm and cozy. We’re doing great!
BB: [Laughs.] Well, I feel the same way! Probably the—if it’s OK if I talk a little bit about Steve Porges’s work; I won’t make it very technical, but I think it’s really helpful for us to understand what happens for us.
BB: Steve has this wonderful word called “neuroception.” Unlike perception, where we’re consciously aware of something, neuroception is how our system is constantly searching around in this beautiful, adaptive, wide way to see if we’re safe or not. It happens below the level of conscious awareness. It’s happening all the time—we’re constantly scanning for mainly, “Are you with me?” if we’re with people—we get signals from their faces, from the tone of their voice, from the way their bodies are held, from their eye gaze—we get signals of whether they’re feeling safe, and therefore in social engagement. Then our system will tend to align with that, and we can go toward them.
This is true—especially for me, who’s a big introvert, this is particularly true in a gathering of people I don’t know; I can feel myself scanning for the person that I can see from their face, not consciously, but I’ll feel attracted to somebody, I think because they’re sending the signal that they’re in that social engagement state and then I can maybe go over there and get more comfortable, because I’m not generally that comfortable in groups of people I don’t know.
So my system is looking for a place to land, and it will land there with someone who’s in that state because when we have a neuroception of safety, all of our system aligns with the various things that it brings into being, which again, are soft eyes, a quiet—not necessarily a quiet voice, but there’s a quality of voice because literally our vocal cords get tuned by this strand of the autonomic nervous system so that our voice changes. Our ears are tense in a way that we don’t hear the background noise but instead we can really hear what a person is saying and we’ll feel deeply listened to if someone is listening to us that way. But that only happens when we’re having a neuroception of safety.
That neuroception doesn’t just come from what’s happening on the outside; it also comes from what we’ve got stored away on the inside. So fi we’ve had a lot of trauma and it’s not healed, that is going to make us feel unsafe more of the time than somebody who isn’t carrying that. So our neuroception includes the internal stirrings of old trauma as well as what’s happening in the outside world. But if I feel safe, I will be sending signals out to everyone that can see me and hear me that I’m feeling like it’s safe and we could settle down and connect with one another.
As soon as that sense of safety shifts and I now feel in danger, the first thing my system will do if I feel like there’s something I can do about it, it’s going to shift out of that state and go into what probably most people are familiar with, the word of sympathetic activation. Our hearts beat faster, more energy pours to our muscles, we get ready to fight or flee. We may have a moment of freeze before we know whether to fight or flee, but we’ll have this instinct that we have to protect ourselves, and it changes everything.
The quality of our voice changes, the quality of tension in our face changes, especially in the upper part of our forehead, and all of that becomes quite rigid; our ears change so that we have to, we’re taking in the whole environment of sound to hear where the danger is coming from, so we’re no longer really listening. I bet all of us have had that experience where we’re talking with someone and suddenly we sense they’re not there, and we can just feel abandoned as all get out; often it’s because something went off inside of them and they’ve got a sense of danger, and their ears let go so that they could hear the whole room, and they can’t hear us anymore.
TS: It seems, though, Bonnie, that a lot of times when people feel—I’ll use your word “touched”—by something traumatic, they’re not in a place to go reach out to this warm, well-regulated person. In fact, a lot of times people want to hide, or feel frozen, or feel ashamed. They’re not able to reach out during those times when they really need to the most.
BB: Well, exactly, because that’s just where I was getting to. With sympathetic activation, we’re in a fight or flee; we’re not in a place to reach out. It’s at those moments that we hope that someone who’s in a better state than us, more in a socially engaged and in an available space, will see us and reach out to us, come to us and say, “You look scared,” or “You look—” whatever it might be. But if we are more in our social engagement, we can also read faces better, and we might just go up to somebody and say, “Are you doing OK? I was just wondering.” Just that offer from someone who is not saying it in a critical way but is doing it in a concerned way can help the other person come toward that a little bit and then kind of settle down and be listened to.
But yes, we have all certainly been, and are sometimes, in states where we can’t reach out, and so we may then need to go get help for it later. I know I’ll find myself doing that. Something happens and it really bothers me, and I find myself running away, often to my left hemisphere and getting involved in tasks, and I’ll realize later that I’ve done it, and I’ll call my best friend and say, “Can you listen to me for a little bit? This thing happened and I think it’s really bothering me.” And she will, and then it relaxes me.
TS: I’m curious, Bonnie, for you personally, how this area of trauma work became an area of specialization for you. How and why?
BB: Well, it’s really—I came to therapy later in life, in my mid-forties. I have quite a history, quite a painful, challenging family history that left both my sister and I pretty decimated in a lot of ways growing up, with lots of breakdowns and just really terrible difficulties for a long time. It wasn’t until my early forties that I had a therapist that actually was able to help me with the deeper things that had happened. I’d had lots of help building up my protective side again to ward off all this pain, but nobody who could sit with me in the pain and the terror of what happened when I was little.
So in coming into a relationship with this therapist, I was—at the time, I was a college prof, and I found I was enjoying my time one on one with my students more at that time than I was actually teaching in the classroom. So as I was doing this, I was thinking, “This is what I want to do. This has helped me so much; I want to help other people in this same way.” Other people who have been hurt, because it’s really changing my life, making me more available relationally. In very practical ways—not so many nightmares, not so many ways that I just couldn’t really reach out in the world because I was so frightened all the time.
So it was changing everything in my world, and so I went back to school and got a degree—I’m a marriage and family therapist—and started working. We started an agency, two of us, right out of grad school. We got a supervisor and started an agency, and I think we had a sign over the door that said, “If there’s anybody you won’t see because they’re too hard, send them to us and we’ll see what we can do.” So we had the reputation in Orange County of seeing people with really severe difficulties. Then I trained interns too, to do that, and it’s been extremely rewarding for me. It’s kind of the ripple effect from that first stone that was thrown in the pond by my therapist back in my mid-forties.
TS: One of the areas that I’m particularly interested in, Bonnie, and what you have to say about it, is intergenerational trauma, and trauma that we might sense we’ve inherited from our family line. If somebody has a sense that they’re carrying something like that, but yet it’s not fully formed—meaning I can’t quite tell you exactly what it is, but yet I feel it—how you might help somebody work with that so they can become more clear, actually, about what it is they’re carrying, and then how to resolve it?
BB: I think a lot of people come in—most people probably come in to therapy—maybe this is less true now than it was 10, 15 years ago, but most people back then didn’t come in to therapy because they had a sense that there was some kind of traumatic history in their family. Most people came in because of a problem that they were having right now: I’m having trouble with my boyfriend, I hate my job, I feel terrible about myself—something along those lines; I don’ t like what I look like, whatever it might be.
Then as they would share their history with me, which is always the place I begin with people, is I want to hear a relational history. What were their relationships like along the way? Then together, we can usually begin to sort out that yes, it was really—like somebody will say, “We’re generally really a good family,” and I’ll ask, “Well, so what would happen when you were sad?” And they’d be like, “Oh, we weren’t sad in our family.” And right there, you know that there’s been a whole world of wounds that have been put away because there was no room for them in the family. But it didn’t work that way, or even feel that way on the outside, because other parts were really good.
So we begin to sit, then—we begin to invite that if this child whose sadness was not seen could be with us, we would welcome her here. She is welcome here; she wasn’t welcome in your family of origin, but that child self that’s in you now is welcome here. Certainly, the child will begin to accept that invitation, and then the person knows from firsthand experience what it was that actually happened for them, as they sit and feel in their body what this child’s experience was, and then we see the comfort that they didn’t get when they were—first the welcome and then the comfort—that they didn’t have when they were children. Then just as if their sadness had been held back then, it just begins to integrate and this is no longer held as a traumatic memory of sadness—again, alone; now it’s sadness held and comforted, so it doesn’t have to be kept away in that place where it can’t be touched and awakened any longer.
If the things that hurt us get tucked away in particular parts of our brain so that we don’t experience them all the time, when they’re invited up into the light and held and cared for, then those things don’t have to go back into the dark again and wait, now that there’s a healing that happened. Is that clear?
TS: When you say things that happened that we couldn’t handle, or at the time didn’t have the resources to be able to handle, that they get tucked away in different parts of our brain, tell me what you mean by that. Where are they tucked away? How are they tucked away?
BB: It’s so interesting. This is probably research that’s only a year or two old; they discovered the chemical that when we are overwhelmed by something, meaning we don’t have the resources for it to integrate available to us either within ourselves or someone from the outside, there’s a shift in the chemical secretions that tell the memories where to go. These memories are tucked away generally in our right limbic area, which is that lower part of the brain that’s underneath the neocortex, and in our bodies.
So if at the time of this traumatic experience our muscles tensed and our belly tensed and our heart ached, and all of those kinds of things, that experience, which is called an implicit memory, will be tucked away in our right hemisphere limbic system, and it will wait for the arrival there of someone to help us. But in the meantime, if there’s a similar situation that happens, it can also be touched and awakened so that we experience that pain all over again—without help, that can also happen.
But it’s so interesting that there’s a wisdom in our system that knows that those things have to be tucked away so they’re not available to us all the time, because we couldn’t function. How wise is our system, to be able to do that?
TS: So we’re filled with these implicit memories that have been tucked away, and people probably sense that in their own experience. What is the process that you engage with with someone who comes to you so that those implicit memories start to gently surface?
BB: Well, one of the things to say about implicit memory is that all implicit memory is not dark and painful. Every memory has an implicit layer, so if we’ve had wonderful, warm, nurturing experiences also, those implicit memories are there as well. They’re just not tucked away, they’re available to us. So one of the things we want to do is together discover some areas from implicit memories that we hold that actually can provide for us a kind of a safe place to land inside of ourselves.
I had a man who really couldn’t think of anything, or nothing came to mind about anything positive, so he was able to get in touch with the feeling of his grandfather holding him. So he was able to be feeling this kind of warmth and care that this grandfather had for him. So that became an implicit memory that we could go toward at the end of, say, a particularly hard time of working with trauma, and he could settle there with the grandfather, and me, and feel a settling of his system. So it’s really important that we not think that all implicit memory is going to be hurting and painful for us. A lot of it is also very supportive. We want to bring that in, certainly, as a wonderful resource, a wonderful interpersonal, internalized resource.
But as far as the more painful parts of all of this, what I have found is that again, just as a person begins by sharing their story with me, whatever life story they bring, we notice that there will be a moment that feels like it has a little more energy to it; there is a part that is almost calling to us for attention. We try to—again, without agenda, without expectation—just to be listening and feeling for those places where something’s coming to the surface. Because that person is initiating this then; it’s their system showing us what needs to happen next, which I trust about 100 percent at this point.
So when that part comes closer to the surface, the first thing we would do is just notice where it’s happening in the body. There will always be some correlate in the body, and maybe several places. A person might say, “Every muscle in my body is just tense as can be.” So then we would be listening to the voice in the muscles, and just asking when it might be that the muscles felt just like this at an earlier time in life. At that point, again, only offering the question—anything could happen at that point. It could be that a memory will come up really clearly; it could be that the sensation will turn off entirely because the person isn’t really ready to go there; it could be that it will come up for two seconds and then go away. Again, I have no horse in the race about what happens next, apart from wanting to be as fully attentive to what is happening as I can be, so that I can be present to it when it arrives.
After that part is there, we just follow along with whatever the experience is that’s trying to unfold, with deep listening. I do things like sand trays, and I do art and things like that, and there may come a time in all of this that we want to ask if that part would like another way to express—and again, it comes from that part of them, not from me saying “We should do this,” but just inviting that there are these other ways that we could deal with it as well.
TS: I wanted to ask one question about this total agenda-less approach. Don’t you think you have an agenda, which is to be a healing agent? That the therapy itself generates healing? Wouldn’t you say that’s an agenda, and that therapists have that agenda to heal, to help people heal?
BB: I guess so. Maybe what I think what I mean by “agenda,” though, Tami, is a little different than that. So much of our training is around, “We can do this technique, we can do that technique, we can do this protocol, we can do that protocol, and it will help something.” The other thing that happens is, with evidence-based practice it gets even more restrictive than that. It’s like you have—someone has anxiety, which immediately depersonalizes it because you’re not now talking about a whole person, you’re talking about one emotional experience or one embodied experience, so you’ve now lost the person to begin with. But if a person has anxiety, you do these six things and they should resolve, and if they don’t the person isn’t being cooperative.
So it’s that kind of thing that I’m wanting to stay away from. Certainly I have an intention to be as present in the room as I can be, but to me that’s different than having an agenda for the other person. I don’t have an agenda that they be present in the room as much as they can be; I want them to be as they are. So I’m talking about that—me bringing my agenda to their healing process, as opposed to me bringing all the stuff that I’ve learned about how healing might happen and offering it in a tended sort of way to see, “Does it feel like your insides would like to do a sand tray? Is your inner world calling for the sand?” Or people will come in and say, “I thought about sand trays all the way here; I know that’s where we need to go today.” Because they know I want to hear from them, and not be imposing on them what I think will be useful.
TS: OK. I just have a couple more questions for you, Bonnie. One of the things I’d like to know is, why do you think the topic of trauma has become so popular—something that people are talking so much about, writing books about? Why is it one of the topics of our time, if you will?
BB: Well, I think that we’re becoming more and more aware that everybody gets wounded along the way in life. That we all experience potential traumas, and some of them embed, but it’s not just that there’s a war or someone gets abused a lot as a child. It isn’t something that happens to only the few. I think we’re aware that between the experiences we have in attachment, the way our culture is around us, and just our broadening understanding through neuroscience, through relational neuroscience, I think, of all the effects these things have on us, it’s kind of like we’re all in this together, we’re all dealing with some of this.
So I think it’s becomes urgent to understand it, and also urgent to find ways to support healing from it so that we aren’t—so that we can move forward in our lives with greater joy and greater ability to connect with others, which is really where our joy and meaning comes from.
TS: From a maybe not very generous place, I’ve heard some people say, “God, you know, now people just start talking about their traumas left, right, and center. And anything, even something quite minor, can be put into this category of being a trauma.” I’m curious what you think about that. Does something need to qualify to be called a trauma, or look, if somebody is saying this is a trauma, let’s listen to what they have to say regardless of how minor it might seem?
BB: I think that in the first chapter of my book, there’s a definition of trauma that’s I think different than the way we usually think about it. If we go back to what we were talking about earlier, Tami, about how these memories of pain and fear that aren’t met are sequestered in the right limbic area and in the body, waiting for the time to heal, I would say anything that gets pushed into that area qualifies as being a traumatic experience.
So if a child goes to school and experiences being shamed by her teacher on an everyday basis, and then it’s blown off at home, that’s going to create a little pool of trauma that is going to lead her to expect to be shamed, is going to lead her to feel bad about herself, and it may not show up as anything major in the outside world beyond what we could call low self-esteem and things like that. But it’s nonetheless, it’s a pool of, in this case, shame, which is a kind of combination of pain and fear that is hanging out there and is changing how she sees herself, and who she is going to draw to her.
So if we brought in the definition of trauma to include anything that doesn’t have the resources it needs to integrate, it means we’re probably all having potentially traumatic experiences most days, by that definition. And the reason I like that isn’t because you know, “Oh, how dramatic, now we all get to say we’ve been traumatized,” but it puts us all in the same place of realizing that we all need help and to support one another as we go through life on what is not an easy planet, you know?
TS: I notice I feel a little overwhelmed by that definition—you know, “Another traumatic day! It was a Thursday—another traumatic day!”
BB: Well, but if the definition in our bodies is this trauma is this huge thing that knocks us off completely, yes, it could be overwhelming, but instead it’s seen as those places that are calling out for support, maybe what it does is support us in finding people who can be with us who we can talk to frequently and say, “These are the things that I feel are troubling me. I just noticed I’m holding my belly really tight. Could we just be with my belly?” I have a number of friends who would be very willing to say that to me at this point, that would say, “My belly is really tight. Can we just be kind to my belly for a few minutes and listen?”
So I’ve become more aware that in our bodies, we are carrying a lot, and that we can really help one another be with that, and that it can resolve. I mean, I think that people will say to somebody else, “Well, that was abusive of you,” and I have a little trouble with that, because I don’t see some of the things that are called that as being abusive. What it would be better to say is, “When you said that, I really felt it in my body. I felt my whole body tighten up. Could we try that again?”
I don’t know how it’s going to go when this book goes out, because that’s the definition that’s in there, but I’m sticking to it because I think at least it gives us some clear guidelines of what it is we want to get support for, which is all these things that have been tucked away, and that are then moving us down the road in a particular fashion that is maybe drawing in relationships that don’t feel good. You know, I talked about a child who is shamed a lot but otherwise feels like their world is pretty good in a lot of other ways, and can’t understand why it is that every single person that they feel drawn to, after they know them a little bit, is as critical as can be, and they can’t seem to find anybody that isn’t critical. And because they’re so used to it, it’s what’s familiar, that that’s what gets drawn in and recognized. And who wants to go through life like that?
So if we can—whatever word we want to use for that, these shaping events that are tucked away, it’s really important that we get the support to release that and heal that so that we can have more fulfilling lives with one another. And for the sake of the planet as well. I mean, it gets very broad—we don’t see in a lot of the cultures around the world right now a predominant theme of, “How can we all be together?”
So we’re in some pretty significant trouble on this planet right now, and I think what we’re talking about really speaks to our daily lives. People around me are used to hearing me now say, “How can we be a therapeutic presence in the world, as opposed to being therapists? How do we walk around the world in a way that we’re available to people and listening, and judging less? It’s a time when the conditions around here seem to draw us to judge more harshly and strongly than ever before. How do we not fall into that?”
TS: I think that’s a beautiful note to end on, this idea of being a therapeutic presence in the world. If you were to summarize how you think each of us could do that, what do you think? What would be your one-two-three, if you will, of really embodying being a therapeutic presence in the world?
BB: Well, I think it begins back where we were maybe 20 minutes ago, and that is saying we begin with ourselves, with being kind and receptive to all the different aspects of ourselves—the parts that are angry, the parts that are bitter, the parts that are joyous, equally welcome, and learning to really listen to ourselves with kindness and understanding. When we can do that, it really is much easier to do it for others as well.
Not that we can’t start by practicing with others—just repeating the phrase, “Everyone is welcome here.” So somebody is driving down the street and cuts you off; you think, “Everyone is welcome here,” it can lead more to a sense of asking, “I wonder what’s going on with that guy?” rather than wanting to scream at him. “I wonder what’s going on with him that he’s not able to attend?” So there’s a kind of warmth and a kindness that begins to develop. But it really has to also take root, I think, with us, because then we can practice leaving our judgment with kindness, and holding judgment side by side, then bringing all these other parts in until we feel a much more universal sense of welcoming presence for whatever’s going on in the moment.
I think that with that, we shift into that social engagement system, we walk down the street, people hear our voice, see our eyes, they feel our body posture, and feel something different in their own bodies as a result of being met that way.
I wanted to say one final thing, Tami, on that note. The people whose eyes I see the most, who I feel most connected to, are the homeless people. I’m much more apt to make a real, deep connection with the homeless people on our streets—and we have a lot of them—than I am with other people, with people who are wandering around with iPods in their ears. I don’t suppose anybody has an iPod anymore, but you know what I mean, something that they’re listening to, not looking up, not connecting, rushing, busy going from place to place. Then stopping and making deep connection eye to eye with a person who’s on the streets and they feel met, and I feel met by them, is a deeply healing, therapeutic experience for both of us.
TS: Do you think that’s partially because of the homeless person who is available isn’t rushing around—they’re actually open, potentially? It’s interesting that you would choose homeless people to connect eye to eye with, versus other people walking down the street. Why is that?
BB: Well, I would be happy to connect with other people walking down the street, but they don’t seem very available for it, because their lives are moving on at a very fast clip and there’s so much of that task and behavior kind of thing going on—”How do I get ahead?” and all of this kind of thing. There’s a lot of fear in our society, and that shifts us away from being able to connect.
But I think homeless people’s systems, like all of us, are really hungry for connection, and they don’t have a lot else going on. They’re not rushing, just what you said. They’re available for that. I also think so many people won’t make eye contact, or do all kinds of other evasive things, probably because it hurts them so much they just can’t. But when somebody’s willing to do it, it’s like the most important food. My daughter worked with homeless people, homeless teens on the street, and she has said that to me very many times, that just the validation of their existence and their value is probably more important than the two dollars you give them.
TS: Well, Bonnie, I want to thank you so much for being willing to be our lead-off presenter in Sounds True’s Leading Edge of Psychotherapy online training series. Bonnie teaches an eight-week online class called Trauma and the Embodied Brain: A Heart-Based Training in Relational Neuroscience for Healing Trauma. If you’re interested in more information on that, you can visit SoundsTrue.com and just type in “Leading Edge of Psychotherapy.”
Thanks, Bonnie; I notice I feel quite met and loved, just by talking with you. I have really learned about the value of reaching out and not stewing in a feeling of aloneness when painful things happen. I think that was the big takeaway for me from this conversation. And a very helpful one. Thank you.
BB: Well, thank you. I have been—my connections with Sounds True over the last couple of years felt very much like I had been invited into a family, and that’s meant the world to me, so thank you as well, Tami.
TS: SoundsTrue.com: many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.