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You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Dr. Arielle Schwartz. Arielle is a clinical psychologist, author, internationally sought-out teacher, and a leading voice in the healing of trauma and complex trauma. She offers workshops for therapists on EMDR and somatic therapy, and she maintains a private practice in Boulder, Colorado. She has written a book called The Post‑Traumatic Growth Guidebook, and with Sounds True, Dr. Arielle Schwartz has created a new audio teaching series. It’s called Trauma Recovery: A Mind-Body Approach to Becoming Whole. Speaking with Arielle gave me confidence, confidence that I could be present, turn to whatever painful experiences our dialogue might bring up, and that I could grow and have a heroine’s story. As Arielle teaches, each one of us can turn our life story into a hero’s or heroine’s journey. Take a listen.
Arielle, as a way for our listeners to get to know you a little bit, to start, could you share your own journey, such that you became an expert, someone who focuses on trauma, healing, and post-traumatic growth? How did that become the focus or one of the main areas of focus for your work as a clinical psychologist?
Arielle Schwartz: Sure. So, I think very often we come into the field of psychology, or saying we, those of us that choose to enter into this field, with a kind of combined mission. The combination of our own healing, our own personal journey that brings us to this point, and I think a very collective longing to bring some peace, bring some healing, make this world a better place. Certainly that combination was true for me. In particular, I came into the focus of trauma. Sometimes I think that setting my life’s work around this chose me, and it began probably when I was in utero, right?
It began very young, because I grew up in a family where there was quite a lot of unrest and, starting in my parent’s relationship, starting in the earliest experience of a divorce by the time I was two-and-a-half, that kind of got set in motion at that age. So, I experienced a tremendous amount of early fear in my own system, in my own body and mind, and the unrest that was there continued to unfold throughout much of my childhood. And then at the same time, after my parents got a divorce—my mom’s also a psychologist, so I also grew up exposed to psychotherapy and ideas of talking about your feelings, or processing your life experiences. So, this came in as information of just who I am in the world really early, as a way to try and work through this, and that was true in one of my households.
In my father’s house, that was not the case. We didn’t talk about feelings. We didn’t explore the inner world. So, I kind of had, in a way, a foot in both territories of what is it like to go through life experiences that are not addressed or not acknowledged, are not worked through, and then what is it like to have a ground of safety in a place where you can work through this and talk through this and find a sense of release or integration or resolution.
So, having a foot in both of those territories stayed with me, stayed with me as I went into adolescence, went into college, and stayed with me in both senses. In the sense that I had an aspect of myself that was very disintegrated or dissociated, and a very health-seeking part of myself, an experience of knowing what inner connection to center also felt like, in part because yoga also became a part of my life at a very young age. I was introduced to yoga when I was seven by my stepfather, so I had that felt experience as a reference point as well.
It was through the lens of the body that, actually, the focus on healing trauma really became the catalyst or the next launching point. So, it brought me here to Boulder in the mid-1990s to study somatic psychology, because I wanted a felt experience of the integration, not just in my mind, but as a felt sense of peace. Somatic psychology lends itself so well to the healing of trauma.
TS: Good place to start. Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about is you mentioned that part of you was disintegrated and dissociated. And I’m curious to know more how you know, in your own experience, if there’s part of you that is not there—disintegrated or dissociated. How were you able to recognize that in your own journey as a younger person, and how might somebody even now, as they’re listening say, “You know, I think there’s part of me that disintegrated or dissociated”?
AS: Yeah, beautiful question. The initial feelings that I had were one of feeling disconnected from my body, coming back to the body-centered piece. I felt aspects of being frozen or stuck, primarily as a young child, of feeling like I lost my voice, or my mind would freeze. So, I would go into these experiences where I couldn’t think clearly, and of course you can imagine, we can all imagine or perhaps have some personal reference point of what that feels like, how much shame can come up when you’re sitting around a group of people or even your own family and you don’t have the words. You don’t feel like you can participate, or at a very deep level you don’t feel like you belong. I carried a lot of that very early felt sense of “there’s something wrong with me and I don’t really belong here.”
As I continued to grow up, and a lot of those feelings came with me into high school, but especially when I got into college, it really manifested more as anxiety and depression. So we have these two mental-health anchors that give us a certain label for what feels off inside, but if I were to break that down a little bit more descriptively, I would feel really fluttery, ungrounded, panicky, lots of self-doubt, lots of mental self-criticism in anxious moments. And then I would feel a certain amount of “nothing is going to really make a difference, I can’t really change this.” A quality of helplessness would accompany that.
So, I think that when we’re looking at what are the signs of trauma, I want to kind of back up on that. It can take a lot of different shapes, depending on how your physiology and your nervous system responds to what is. Because I’m such a somatically oriented person, I think that the feelings of being locked down in my own body were the most distressing, and it’s also where I first started to notice the difference of times of integration or times of release.
For example, going to a yoga class—or in college I was invited to go attend a body-mind centering workshop—and in those moments when something would kind of shake loose, or I would have an emotional release, I would arrive at a point where I’m like oh, this feels like home, this feels like me. The other stuff doesn’t really feel like the core of who I really am. So, I could find these reference points.
TS: Now, I want to go into much more trauma—trauma healing, post-traumatic growth—but I want to do something right now, if you will, with me, Arielle, as a gift to our listeners and as a life raft, if you will, for people who are sensitive and are listening to a conversation like this and perhaps find themselves, even already with just the first 10 minutes of our conversation, starting to feel themselves getting anxious or nervous. Because we’re going right into it and we’re talking about trauma. What can they do to—in an embodied way, peaceful, resourced way—listen to this conversation?
AS: What a beautiful question. And it’s so often where we start the whole healing journey from trauma. So, I would invite you, as a listener, to take a moment to really just tune in, to pause and notice what is happening in your own nervous system, with your own breath. How are you sitting, how is your body shaping right now in response to these 10 minutes of conversation? Perhaps noticing if you’re having some of your own connections or memories that are stirring now, even as we continue to speak, and to know that attending to trauma is always a choice.
That’s the place that I always like to start, is that you get to choose when, where, with whom, and even whether you want to turn towards those memories. You might choose to attend to some of that with a lot of compassion throughout this talk, or you might choose to kind of say, not now. I’m going to put this away for now and really just let my intellectual brain take in some information. And know that right time and right place might be in your own therapy, or when you have time to really process. If you’re listening to this driving, right, this is not the time to process trauma, or if you’re about to go home and take care of your kids, or if you have to go to work.
So, we get to really be at choice about when we open up those places, and that it’s a very valid choice—to consciously put it away. The other resource that I’ll offer, just as a kind of loosening resource, is that you get to use your five senses to help you ground throughout this. So, if at any point you do feel a little anxious or a little activated, put your feet on the ground. You can hold something in your hands as you’re listening to this that just gives you a sense of ground or resource. Of course, the beautiful thing about listening to a podcast is you can pause and return so that you can pace your listening as well.
TS: One of the techniques that I know that you work with and teach people has to do with containment—that you can create your own container if you start feeling triggered and you’re not in the place to be working with trauma at that moment. Tell me a little bit more about that, because I thought that was really interesting, how I might create a container to help me.
AS: Yes. So, part of containment is in itself the choice, but within the background and training that I have, which includes EMDR therapy or eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, there is a technique that we use that involves creating an imagined container. And this imagined container can be anything of your making, right? It could be a file cabinet. It can be a box with a lid. It can be … I’ve had people create really beautiful, creative ones, like a hot air balloon that goes up in the air—and it has a little rope so you can bring it back down when you want to attend to what you’ve placed in the basket—or a treasure chest at the bottom of the ocean.
So, you get to be really creative. I remember working with someone once who had a tremendous amount of complex trauma and he said, “Can I use the Grand Canyon?” I said, “Great. Just so long as it has a lid, right?” So, our imaginations are really powerful. When we create an imagined container, you can put any distress inside of it and you can temporarily hold it there. The most important piece about any containment practice is that we make an agreement with your psyche. We make an agreement that says, in right time and right place, I’m going to work with what I’ve placed in there. So, it’s not a forever holding ground or waiting room, but it’s a place that we know that we’re going to return to when we have sufficient support.
TS: And you mentioned someone who had a lot of complex trauma. What’s the difference between trauma and complex trauma?
AS: Yes. So complex trauma and trauma live on a continuum, and sometimes we think of single-incident trauma as the experience of, I have a relatively good life, I had good upbringing, supportive parents, and something happened—a car accident happened, or a fire in our community happened. And that incident has its own stand-alone—kind of has boundaries around it, so that you know when it began, when it ended, who you were before, and what happened to you during it. It makes it, in some ways, a little bit more specific in terms of what you’re going to process or what you’re going to work through in relationship to that event. But complex trauma is when there are repeated, ongoing, chronic degrees of stress that overwhelm the sensory experience, overwhelm your capacity to process it over time. Often [with] complex trauma, part of the complexity is that it’s also relational trauma.
So, we have some experience of feeling betrayed by another or feeling as though we were so deeply misunderstood, or as I was sharing about my own experience, a deep sense of not belonging somewhere. Feeling chronically rejected, chronically neglected, or in some cases ongoing abuse, ongoing transgressions and violations, and it can be relational trauma within a family of origin or it might be relational trauma within your community or society, right? An experience of not belonging because of your race, or your gender identity, or because of your sexual orientation, right? We can go on and on with the reasons why someone might not feel as though they belong, and then on top of it are not protected by community members, or they’re not protected even by their country.
TS: What would you say to someone who is listening who says, “I could name all these different things that happened in my upbringing that I’m aware of, but truth be told, I’m not exactly sure which of all of these unright, not-so-right things created the current level of dissociation and lack of integration I feel. I can’t draw a straight causal line, I don’t quite know, I’m not sure”?
AS: Yes. I think one of the, maybe the hardest questions that we ever face in this process is the why question. Why do I feel this way? And I think sometimes, when we don’t have a clear why, it becomes a reason to discount or dismiss what we’re experiencing. So the counsel that I offer is, let’s not worry so much about what caused it right now, let’s attend to what is. What we do know is that you’re feeling a deep experience of questioning yourself, or you’re stuck in self-doubt, or you are plagued with self-criticism. That’s what we do know. And if we stay with enough curiosity with the symptom, then we start to feel like those lines, those connections start to get drawn, and sometimes it’s like a spiderweb, right? There are so many connections. Well, I felt this way when my mom had this certain look on her face, and then I felt this way in kindergarten when my teacher said such and such, and I felt this way as a teenager when my friends ostracized me. So, we might have multiple times in our life that actually all constellated around that same felt sense. But if we start with the symptom, the symptom will always guide us.
TS: One thing I just want to point out before we move into the whole topic of post-traumatic growth, which is really what I want to focus on, is you mentioned in addition to containment that we can practice grounding and that we can feel our feet on the ground, and feel ourselves right here. In reading your book The Post-Traumatic Growth Guidebook, in the section on grounding, you talked about how grounding is a relational act. I’d never thought of that before, and as somebody, just for my one little confessional tangent here, we’re not going to take a long time, but as somebody who experienced quite a bit of relational trauma in my early upbringing, I’ve been very drawn to grounding practices. I didn’t realize, oh, this act itself is a relational healing act. And I wonder if you can explain that to our listeners, how grounding is a relational healing act.
AS: It feels like such a deep honor to even have you share a little bit of your own history, and also to kind of open up this topic of grounding as relational healing for our listeners. It feels so deep to my heart. Where I’ll start here is that the first relationships that we have are with our primary caregivers, right? It even starts in utero. So, when we think about the experience of grounding into our own bodies, grounding is really about arriving. It’s about being at home in self, and it’s about feeling that it’s safe to be at home in self, because there is a sufficient holding environment for us. That holding environment can be in the womb, that holding environment can be the arms of a caring caregiver, right? And when the experience of the other is one of oh, they feel safe to me, they feel calm, they feel peaceful, they feel strong, they feel protective, they see me, right? These are core needs of our youngest self. Then there is a quality of yielding that happens in the body, and yielding is basically saying, I don’t have to resist gravity. I don’t have to hold myself or protect myself from this holding environment because there’s sufficient safety for me, and therefore I can actually let go of that bracing that can happen.
This bracing, in my work somatically, can happen so very young. It’s a deep intuitive or instinctual knowing as to whether the other, and I’m putting other in quotes here, as to whether the other feels safe enough. Is there capacity within you to hold me? And as a result, I can soften and relax, and not have to effort. I can just be in me.
Really early on, we start to see these role reversals happen, these ways in which you look at this in parent-infant research, when an infant is being raised by a parent who is anxious or depressed, or what I would say unresolved trauma as well, is that the child has to adapt or shape or shape shift themselves to manage the incoming sensory information of the facial expressions or voice tone or body language of the other. In that managing of what’s coming in, there is a split that happens. It’s really subtle, it’s really young, it’s really a split between how do I take care of myself, sustain a self-sense, and maintain my need for this relational world.
So, we’re speaking about it at a subtle level, but when it’s even more explicit of an abusive or a really angry caregiver or a very frightening or fearful other, then the way that we brace ourselves to sustain deep inside—I need to preserve myself, and I need this other for my core survival in the world, right? I need you because to attach is as much a survival need as it is to maybe flee or protect myself, or put up those physiological defenses from whatever feels frightening to me.
So, these are these core ways in which grounding gets sacrificed. The capacity to yield into the body gets sacrificed to be at home within yourself for the relational world. But in its healing form—and this is why I’m such a believer of psychotherapy or any forms of interpersonal healing is that, again, body work or group work, right? When we can feel that reparative experience of another person who is capable now of being present and attuning to us and attuning to themselves, right? Because the relational world is a two-person experience, right? So long as—if I’m speaking of myself for a moment as a psychologist, my job is to take care of me so that I can be present for another. When we feel that safety, we have an opportunity to reclaim that sense of, it’s OK to be me and be in relationship to you.
TS: In the book, you talk about how we can practice grounding exercises relationally with the floor, and I was like, well, that’s a great plan. I like that. With the earth, with nature, so I thought, that’s wonderful. And with another human being, also wonderful. You’re describing it in terms of psychotherapy, but our healing of that relational wound could often possibly come with our intimate partner or someone that we felt we could really yield to, to use your language. But maybe you could talk some about the floor and the earth and then also how we could practice this with an intimate other.
AS: I’d love to. I think that practicing grounding with something like the ground beneath us, literally the floor. Or for me, I’m on my yoga mat every day, right? To practice grounding in something that has a sort of relative predictability, right? Unless you’re living in San Francisco and you don’t know when the next quake is coming, for the most part, the earth provides a relative predictability, that that floor beneath you is not going to move. So, as you soften—this is really all about softening those defenses that resist gravity. So that as we use the breath and allow your weight to settle into, whether you’re seated or laying on your back, but allow your weight to settle down into your hips, into your legs, trusting that the floor is there beneath you, that it’s not going anywhere and that it’s safe now to let go.
Safety is always the tricky word, right? It doesn’t feel safe, right? Because the feeling of “it doesn’t feel safe” is a remnant of the trauma. So, I think what’s so delicate about grounding is that the more that we let go of that defensive positioning in our bodies, the more likely we are to feel the memory of other times when it wasn’t safe. The body is going to open up and it’s going to have stories to tell. So even with a grounding practice, we pace ourselves.
I think this is where nature is such a beautiful intermediary, in a sense, because when we’re taking a walk in nature, we have this way in which we can be beautifully distracted by the sounds of the birds, the beauty of a sunset, the color of the green on the trees, the movement of water. All of these different sensory experiences offer the sensory grounding points, and we don’t have to focus so much on what I would say is the interoceptive world, the internal world of the body and the felt sense. So we can ground through our exteroceptive world, our external senses, and that can feel like a lovely, safe way to come home.
Then the relational grounding, as we speak about whether that’s just being held by another. I think even if you don’t have a partner that offers that relational grounding, receiving something like craniosacral therapy, where your head is being held, where someone has their hand under your low back, right? Where you’re being attuned to those types of relational, touch-based groundings can be so powerful. Of course, it’s going to offer, hopefully, some relational attunement and repair for those memories that might surface of relational times when it wasn’t safe.
TS: All right. Now, I promised our listeners we’re going to move to post-traumatic growth, and as a bridge to that, before we even get into how we’re growing after all of this stuff that happened to us in our early life, this whole notion of recovery, healing, I’d like to understand more, even in this context of what we’re just talking about, relational wounds. Do you ever get to a place where 100 percent it’s done? It’s done. It’s not going to come up again. It’s over. Or is it like no, now I know more about how to work with myself, and I have more go-to moves, and I know when I need to call the craniosacral person or not? Is it more like that? I’d love to know from your experience, Dr. Schwartz.
AS: I’m going to go with either the onion or the artichoke metaphor here, right? The more that we kind of layer off, there’s very often another layer underneath there. And in part because it’s a very, very complex world that we live in. And at this point on the planet I think not only do many, many of us have our own personal traumas but we are also then experiencing the legacy traumas that have been handed to us from generations that have unprocessed traumatic wounds. That could be within your own family, it could be within your culture, and it could certainly just be within the collective experience of how much there has been, how [many] transgressions and how much trauma has occurred on this planet—even, for example, in relationship to the earth itself and our climate.
So, I think that for many, many people, when we start to walk a path of trauma recovery, that later piece—that latter piece that you named of I know myself better. I’m more likely to identify when I’m getting triggered. I’m more likely to turn towards and pull my resources and attend to that with greater efficiency and resiliency and care. That tends to be my experience, both for myself and also for the people that I work with. I think that the more that we normalize, the less that we’re going to go, “Oh no, why did this come up for me? I thought I did all this work on myself, and how come this thought or this feeling or this memory resurfaced?” And I always go, “Oh huh, well. Well, something happened that brought that back to my attention.”
And then we can be curious. I wonder what that’s needing from me now, right? I’m a new person. This wound that I worked with a year ago or five years ago is resurfacing and I now have a new array of resources, and a new way of thinking cognitively, and a new way of being with myself that I can loop back around to that old wound with a new level of wisdom and integration.
This isn’t to say that at some point perhaps we do go, “Huh, that one feels done, great.” But that doesn’t mean that we maybe don’t have more.
TS: Well, and it’s interesting, because as soon as you take us out of this separate-self context and put us in connection with all of history and everything that’s happening on the planet, then suddenly this whole notion of being “done” seems almost irrelevant in a certain kind of way.
AS: So true. I think that in a way, even if we recognize—and this will of course eventually loop us back to post-traumatic growth. But when we recognize that part of that process is very often, when we have found a sense of resolution, even with just one piece of our own traumatic history, it can inspire a deep longing that now that I’m free, I want to free somebody else. I think that as we then relate to another person’s pain, it can also bring up to the surface huh, I had worked on this, but that really touched off something else for me, or that deep sense of compassion and recognition of again, how much has occurred on this planet, invites us into compassion work as trauma work.
TS: OK, how do you define post-traumatic growth for people who aren’t familiar with that term?
AS: Yeah. I think for so long that the field of recognizing what is post-traumatic stress and what is post-traumatic stress disorder kind of turned the lens onto the symptoms and onto the distress, and with great value. I mean, we really needed to attend to that. When we shift the language into post-traumatic growth, it really opens up this recognition that the story doesn’t have to end with the distress or the problem, and that resolution isn’t about going back to what was, right?
So you and I are both here in Boulder, and when we had the fires, right? We’ve had fires in our area, we’ve had floods in our area, one of the questions that often comes back is well, how do I get my life back to what it was before I lost my house, or to what it was before my community burned down? I mean, these are big, deep questions. I think the post-traumatic growth offers in—we’re going to actually change the question to, who are you becoming now, what new insight, what newness is going to emerge from this loss? It’s not about forcing it or trying to stick a positive spin on something, it’s about the deep experience of staying with the pain or the despair or the hopelessness or the grief of the loss, and recognizing that that’s not the end of the story. As we work that and commit ourselves to meaning-making and to being with this, that something can evolve from that.
It’s that evolution of self and that evolution of behavior and identity that’s what we’re looking at as post-traumatic growth. It might be a new spiritual sense of self, it might be a new sense of oh my gosh, I thought that no one really cared, and now I realize all these people came out and they brought me meals, and I have to adjust what I believe about people, right? It can be a lot of different things.
TS: You write in The Post‑Traumatic Growth Guidebook, we adapt to adversity by one, orienting to our strengths, two, attending to our pain, and three, taking charge of the narrative that defines our lives. I wanted to go into each one of these. The first point, we adapt to adversity by orienting to our strengths. I know that one of the ways you’re sometimes referred to is someone who leads with a strength-based or a resilience-based approach. So, what does that mean, to lead with a strength-based approach?
AS: When I first trained to treat trauma, we were trained to do a whole history taking of basically all the things that had gone wrong and all of the symptoms that the person was having. I can promise you, if you do an interview with that lens alone, you end the session feeling pretty bad.
TS: No, I’m already on the floor just reflecting on it, yeah. Yeah.
AS: Totally. Like oh my gosh, that’s the whole story, right? And it feels like it’s the whole story. So, what we do instead is we actually go, tell me what’s working. Tell me how you’ve survived so far. Tell me who’s got your back, who’s in your corner. Who helped you get to here at a point when you felt like you didn’t know if you were going to make it another day? Who gave you the hope to keep going? Who believed in you, right? So we have all of these inquiries that we can begin with that let us know, what are the existing strengths, what are the practices that you already do? When you wake up in the morning and you’re having a tough day, what’s your go-to that helps you get through that tough day?
So we’re gathering what’s already working, and then we can turn toward the symptoms and the memories of difficult events, but they’re not going to fill up the whole lens of awareness.
TS: Interestingly, when you were asking who helped you develop these strengths, I thought of the same two core figures that before I was thinking about created all the relational trauma in my life—you guessed it, that mother and father. So, that’s interesting, that our strengths and the sources of pain could actually come even from the same humans.
AS: It’s very true, and it’s really common that, again, it speaks to the complicated nature of our human relationships, that it’s not all one or the other, right? A single relationship can both be hurtful and damaging but also imbue us with some of the strengths and some of the best resources. But I will add one more piece, which is that when we’re looking for a really good ally, right? Sometimes this work sounds a little shamanic, and I think it is, right? So, it’s OK to use some of the same words here. When we’re looking for a good ally for trauma recovery, it’s best to find an uncomplicated ally to start, right? I think it’s a very mature stance to hold the “both/and” about someone who is both a cause of relational trauma but also imbued you with gifts.
That’s a very mature way of turning towards that relationship. I think, very often, we need to start with as pure of a resource as we can find, and that could be your pet, right? That might be the tree in the backyard that you always went and sat under because you had your safe place there. Then there might be that one teacher in school that noticed that you were sad and took the time to listen to you. Or it might be a therapist in your life, right? So you can find the uncomplicated resource, and then eventually we can build towards that capacity to hold the both/and of the fact that we’re going to love people and we’re going to be hurt by those same people.
TS: Tell me more, Arielle, about how I work with an ally in trauma recovery.
TS: Let’s say somebody was like, “OK, I’m going to pick my pet.” Let’s just say, or it could be something else, but whatever people choose, how do they work with it?
AS: Sure, your pet, your best friend, right? Maybe it is your spouse, maybe it is a grandparent, right? We can get so broad in where we’re looking for these allies. But I think of a few places where I love to bring allies in. One is that when we’re looking at the experience of self-criticism and a really harsh inner voice, that sometimes pulling in that loving, uncomplicated ally in moments of really being hard on yourself, and then just imagining how your dog would look at you. What your dog would feel if it knew how hard you were being towards yourself, right? Or your best friend, or whoever that ally is, right? So that we bring their most compassionate, loving presence in as a placeholder for our own difficulty with self-compassion until we can generate that for ourselves. So, that’s one.
The second is that we can bring in a compassionate ally for specific events that happened, especially, if we go back to these relational traumas, where there was an experience of not being seen, not being protected, not being nurtured, not having wise counsel, right? And we can bring in an ally or sometimes even a whole circle of allies. So, if you imagine a child who is being yelled at by a parent, and we go back to that memory, but this time we bring your allies in. What would that ally do in this situation? They might take the child out of that scene and say, “You know what? You don’t get to talk to her like that.” Or maybe they stand up on behalf of the child and speak up to the parent who is yelling, right? Or maybe they, afterwards, are sitting with and helping the child process what that felt like, because nobody ever did that with them. So, we create repair scenarios with the allies to give the felt sense of what should’ve happened, even if it didn’t happen then.
TS: If I can ask you a personal question, Arielle. What allies do you like to work with in your own process?
AS: Ooh, I like that question. So, I have quite a wide circle, and I love having a pretty broad group of people that I can draw on in different times. So, some of them are quite imaginal. For example, I have a lion. I’m not in my office space, I’m in my home office right now, but I have a picture of this lion, a drawing of this lion in there, and sometimes I imagine that lion sitting next to me on the floor and just being a great protector, right? So, I can pull my imaginal lion in.
I have a memory of a dog that I had when I was a young girl who I loved. I have my grandparents, who were very good and saw me, and very caring. I can even sometimes just imagine not only them coming to me, but me going and sitting in their house, which of course has long been sold and they’re no longer alive, but I can imagine sitting in their house because then I have the combined felt memory of being in a safe place with caring adults. I could go on and on. I have a best friend Katie. So, I have people that I bring in.
TS: Beautiful. OK, I’m going to go back to this quote that I liked so much. We adapt to adversity by orienting to our strengths, you talked about that, attending to our pain, and that’s what I want to talk to you about next. I mean, you’ve talked some about how, first of all, we get to choose when we do it, containment, grounding. But let’s say somebody is listening and they’re like, “OK, we adapt to adversity by attending to our pain. You don’t know how big my pain is. It’s so freaking big, and the idea of attending to it is just, it’s too big.” What would you say to someone who has that response?
AS: Yes. The key word here is pacing. We’re not going to digest all of this at once, it’s just simply too big, so we break it into bite-sized pieces. We do that … I think very often, the feeling is, I’m going to keep this all back behind the dam, but I’m so afraid that if I even let a little bit out, the whole floodgate is going to open up and I’m going to be overwhelmed. So, we really, really break this down and work with just the front-leading distress and then we regroup back to our resources.
So, from a somatic perspective, and I know that you’ve had Peter Levine on this program before, is that you work with pendulation or titration so that we attend to just a little bit of the front edge of the distress, and then we come back and we metabolize that. Titration is a chemistry term, right? You’ve got a little bit of an acid in a base, right? And if you add all of the white vinegar and baking soda together, you get an explosion. If you take a few drops of vinegar and you mix it with the baking soda, it’ll fizzle up and it’ll settle back down, and that’s what we’re attempting to achieve with your nervous system—to create safety through structure. We’re just going to take this one part of the memory and we’re going to let the rest stay in the container. We’re going to make an agreement with the rest of it that in right time and right place we’re going to get to that too. So, we create boundaries around the traumatic material.
TS: That’s really helpful. I bet you’re pretty booked up as a trauma therapist. You seem very, very skillful, very skillful.
AS: Yes, thank you. I think I’m booked till 2030 or something.
TS: Something like that. All right, and then we adapt to adversity by taking charge of the narrative that defines our life. You talked about this idea of meaning-making and how important that is to post-traumatic growth. Give us some ideas of how we make meaning of the really terrible shit that’s happened.
AS: Yes. Well said. First of all, the phrase that I most dislike is “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s bullshit. So, we can curse on here, right? And I think that it’s such a disservice. Really bad things happen, and there’s no reason. But what meaning-making is is not necessarily about looking for some kind of, like some predivined reason that something happened to us. It’s actually about coming into how do you relate to what happened.
I come very often to Viktor Frankl, and his writings after the Holocaust, right? This very deep sense of what happened happened. Sometimes we don’t have an understanding of why it happened, but what we can do is adapt to how has that shaped us. And then, who do I want to be in the world? How do I now continue to shape myself, given that these events happened to me, so that I don’t remain victimized by what happened? Although it’s very tempting to do so, right? Because the victim story—I’m not trying to make it wrong—it’s just basically saying nobody has yet recognized how much this hurt me.
Once that can finally be recognized and validated, and that’s a huge part of it, then we can move beyond that to say OK, this did happen. It impacted me and shaped me in these ways. It was really painful. It’s a really, really sad, painful, big story, and how do I then take responsibility? It’s very existential, right? How do I take responsibility for my life and the way that I am now going to shape it as I move forward?
It’s delicate. It’s delicate because, for example, if you’ve been in an accident and you’ve lost your legs, right? The experience of shaping your life as you move forward is still going to have limitations. It’s still going to limit some possibilities, in some cases, of what you can do, but it’s not going to limit all possibilities. So, there’s very often this dance between being with and accepting what happened and how it’s shaped me, and then with that base of reality. How do I then go, OK—and here is where I do have some capacity to create change or shape my life in a meaningful direction. And now we’re coming back to the word meaning.
So, what is a meaningful direction? What’s purposeful? It’s anything that lights you up, that gives you drive, that gives you a sense of, I’m waking up today and this is how I want to spend my day. This is what I feel like is either my sense of “I’ve got worth” or “my life isn’t for nothing,” right? I’m going to make a difference in this way. I’m important. So, we can start to shape our lives in that direction.
Sometimes that direction is just, literally, how do I take care of myself so that I can not react to my kids, so that I can be loving to the people that I interact with in my day, right? That can be a sufficient meaning. Sometimes it’s, I lost a child, and now I want to create an organization to help other parents who lost a child. It can take so many different forms. Going back to Viktor Frankl, he speaks about meaning-making as having either kind of experiential meaning in the sense that I’m going to climb a fourteener and that gives me meaning, or experiential meaning in the sense of I’m going to raise children and that’s going to give me meaning. Or maybe we get meaning out of creativity, right? I’m going to write a book, or I’m going to build a house. I’m going to create something in the world that gives me a sense of purpose. Then meaning-making can really be about this sense of: who I am is not predetermined by what happened to me, it’s what I do from here.
TS: Now, I want to circle back for a moment. You placed this very interesting emphasis on how we each need to have our pain validated, validated as part of this process, or how that’s so important when our pain is validated that we can move on and move to this next phase of healing and meaning-making. There’s a couple of things I thought around that. One, I was reflecting on how, for the longest time, it was hard for me to validate really deep traumas that other people had, because I just got so freaked out and I couldn’t do it. And I could tell I couldn’t do it. I wish I could, but I couldn’t. I’d love to hear more for all of us who aren’t professional therapists, how we can get better at validating other people when they’re suffering and they’re looking for that from us. How can we not withhold it?
AS: Yeah. So, there’s two things that come to mind. One is that it can generally be easier to validate something when you’re not implicated in it, right? If someone’s saying, “You hurt me.” We all get defensive, or many of us do. It’s much harder to validate our own impact on another person, and I actually want to start there in saying that that, in some ways, is the deepest relational grounding, when we can catch our own tendencies to get defensive or reactive or to deny somebody else’s experience, especially when we’re somehow related to it, right? Related to their experience of hurt. If we can catch where it can trigger shame or it can trigger self-blame or it can trigger self-protection, and if we can slow that process down and say, “Huh, that really hurt you, didn’t it? I really see that.” It may not have been the intention, right? My intention wasn’t to hurt you with what I said, but I really hear that it hurt you, right?
So, some of it is really learning how to be—I think about nonviolent communication and of course I speak about that in the book as well, that there is something so important about those interpersonal exchanges, and learning how to be really good with conflict. And to tell you the truth, our world sucks at it. The models that we get out there in terms of politics, and world leaders, we don’t get a lot of really good negotiated conflict models. Often we didn’t get those modeled in our own families, and so if that’s a practice that you as a listener can commit to, look at things like nonviolent communication. Look at practices that can help you recognize when you’re moving into defensiveness and see if you can get curious about what that is about. So, that’s when you’re implicated, right?
When we’re not implicated, it can generally be easier to validate somebody else’s pain. But even then, sometimes it can trigger us, right? It can trigger us because we don’t want to hear about what they’ve been through, or it touches off memories of our own pain, or we’re just too busy, right? We’ve got all of these ways that we just don’t see each other, we don’t see each other. We ask “How are you?” But we don’t really want to hear the answer.
So, to validate as a skill involves slowing down, involves really being willing to see and recognizing that sometimes we’re not in that place, right? If we’re not able to be present with another person, then they’re suffering. It’s a sign that we need to either have our own suffering attended to or simply be on retreat, right? There is good place for stepping back until we feel resourced enough to enter into the relational world.
TS: OK. What about on the other side for a moment? Someone who has had their trauma and suffering validated ad nauseam but doesn’t seem to be feel satisfied. It’s not enough, I still need to tell another person my story one more time. What’s going on there, and what is it that they’re holding on to or looking for?
AS: Yes, yes. I think that’s a rich question right there. One of the layers to it that I hear is what we can think of as the … It’s a tough term, but I’m going to use it, of the secondary gain of staying attached to the victim story. There is a way in which, if I feel that, to actually let go of that can feel too threatening, because I might lose the access to the other that I’m actually keeping hooked into my story, so that I can keep my story alive, right? So that there is this way in which it becomes this vicious cycle of I’m enlisting someone into a certain codependance with my wound, and as a result I actually don’t have to change my self-identity. So, the third stage of healing is really about letting go and a deep transformation. It’s a grief process and that grief might even be the identity that is hooked in to the trauma story. This is really powerful.
So, there’s the cognitive answer for this question, but I also want to offer a somatic answer to this question, because very often what we get validated is our story or even our emotional response, but what gets missed in the attunement is actually how the body has constellated or shaped itself around the wound, and it’s being held in the tissues, it’s being held in the soma. So, until there has been a new felt sense, and until it’s been worked out at that level of how the nervous system and the physiology is actually shaped and repeating itself as almost a repetition compulsion of the trauma state. We need to get resolution at that level, and then we’ll see more freedom of mind. The question you’re asking is, how do we do that?
TS: Well, if you can answer that, please.
AS: I think that a big part of it is building the courage to go toward the felt sense of the pain. When I say go towards it, I don’t mean simply like sit still and meditate with it on a cushion, but I really mean actually allow yourself to curl in towards it, to shape it, to express it. Let your hands go into fists, let your face contort into the shape of the pain. Let your body curl in, let your whole body actually show what it felt like below the storyline. Then see how your body wants to begin to unwind this, right? If there’s an underlying collapse, how can we reclaim a sense of mobilization and movement in the world? If there’s an underlying freeze, how do we shake this out and let the body begin to release this? So, it’s deep work.
TS: The last point, Arielle, that I wanted to end on is that in writing about post-traumatic growth, you write about how we can each embrace the hero or heroine story for ourselves in our own lives. I’m wondering if you could, for a moment, if you wouldn’t mind, you can have your imaginal lion with you, you can have whomever you want, I’m just joking with you. Tell me the heroine story version of you in this moment. How would you tell that story?
AS: Oh wow. I’m going to pause on that one for a moment. It’s funny, I’m taking a look in my space that I have right now. I have this picture that my daughter drew. So, my daughter is 18 now. I believe she must have drawn this in elementary school, so she might have been 10 or so when she drew this picture, and it’s of herself of the back of a dragon, flying in front of the sun. So, it’s kind of a cool image to have as a reference point for a moment, but there are a few pieces that come to mind as I reflect on your story.
One is that there is absolutely no way that I could have walked this heroine’s journey without the support and those allies, and some of them in real physical form, right? And that the experience, and one of those I tell this story in The Post‑Traumatic Growth Guidebook. One of those earliest allies came as a perfect stranger, came in as a perfect stranger at a vacation resort, at a time when I was 15 and feeling suicidal. And a perfect stranger who was willing to see me came up and had a healing conversation with me and saw me, and told me that I had a life in front of me that was really important to live, and helped me get a sense that there was something much larger in this universe holding me. And that experience of a single healing conversation— and I’m not saying I would’ve ended my life at 15—but it turned my life around. It gave me a sense of, if that is possible from a perfect stranger, what else is possible in this world?
So, that’s one of those early kind of synchronistic moments that launched an experience of a heroine’s journey. The other is that this deep, ongoing returning to the practice. I was sitting with … It’ll come back to me, but I was sitting with a long-term client yesterday, and something like 10 years of working, and she’s done really, really beautiful work and has a history of just tremendous complex trauma. Her continuing to show up for herself and to do the practices—and sometimes it can feel so slow. Like what’s the point of all of this, am I really making progress? And then there is this tipping point that happens. I think that that’s it, is this commitment to coming back again and again, so that there isn’t just one magical moment, there isn’t one session that’s the big magic bullet healing session, right? It’s the ongoing commitment to a daily practice and a regular returning back to those stuck spots again and again.
I have a quote that I love, and maybe I’ll end with this quote, and it comes from the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I don’t know if you ever saw this movie, but the quote in it, and everything is kind of falling apart, including the hotel. Everything is kind of falling apart, but this Indian man in the hotel in the movie kept saying, “Everything will be all right in the end. And if it’s not all right, it’s not yet the end.” And there’s something touching for me about returning to that. If it’s not all right, then it’s needing something else from me. And what is that, what’s that next step?
TS: I’ve been speaking with Dr. Arielle Schwartz. She’s the author of the book The Post‑Traumatic Growth Guidebook, and with Sounds True, Arielle has created a new audio teaching series, it’s called Trauma Recovery: A Mind-Body Approach to Becoming Whole. I have to say, I’ve loved being with you, loved the conversation. Thank you so much.
AS: Thank you.
TS: Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. And if you’re interested, hit the subscribe button in your podcast app, and also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.