Episode Description: When a function of spiritually traumatic environments is to tell us that we are broken and in need of healing, and healing we are told looks one specific way, beginning to piece together a future on the other side of that can feel confusing. What is healing, and what is just a recreation of the stories that hurt us in the first place? In this episode, we discuss healing from complex trauma and what it means to begin to witness ourselves, turning towards the places inside of us that carry wounds. We discuss parts work, Judith Herman’s model of recovery, and hear from Dr. Alison Cook and J.S. Park.
Run time: 1:20:49
Release date: Aug 16, 2023
Dr. Alison Cook
- Website: dralisoncook.com
- Instagram: @dralisoncook
- Podcast: The Best Of You
Brewin, C. R., Andrews, B., & Valentine, J. D. (2000). Meta-analysis of risk factors for posttraumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed adults. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 68(5), 748–766.
Herman, J. L. (1993). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence–from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books: New York, NY
Ozer, E. J., Best, S. R., Lipsey, T. L., & Weiss, D. S. (2003). Predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder and symptoms in adults: A metaanalysis.Psychological Bulletin, 129(1), 52–73.
Rambo,S. (2010). Spirit and Trauma: A theology of Remaining. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky.
Stephens, D. W. (2021). Bearing Witness as Social Action: Religious Ethics and Trauma-Informed Response. Trauma Care, 1(1), 49-63.
Woodhouse, S., Brown, R., & Ayers, S. (2018). A social model of posttraumatic stress disorder: Interpersonal trauma, attachment, group identification, disclosure, social acknowledgement, and negative cognitions. Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology, 2(2), 35-48.
This podcast does not provide medical, counselling, or crisis services. If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, please contact your local emergency services. The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the speakers and do not always represent the views of Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries.
Hi folks, it’s Dr. Hillary McBride here, and I’m so glad that you are joining us for this episode of Holy/Hurt. If you are listening to this podcast for the first time, please head back to the first five episodes. This podcast is meant to be listened to in a continuous manner, like chapters of an audiobook, with this episode building off previous ones. So, if you haven’t done so yet, head back and start from the beginning. Before we jump into today’s episode, just a reminder that this podcast was created for those with lived experience of spiritual trauma in mind. If you have experienced spiritual trauma, I can’t guarantee that all of this will feel easy to listen to, but I can assure you there won’t be a lot of Christian language used, prayers, or scripture. If you’re listening to this and spiritual trauma is a new idea to you, I am so glad that you are here to learn more. When people without firsthand experience of spiritual trauma understand more about it, I believe that we can build communities where we love our neighbors with more skill, wisdom, and compassion.
Okay folks, here we are: episode six. It was eight A.M. on a Thursday morning, and like usual over the last few months, before I would hop on my bus out to the university for a full day of classes, as part of my treatment plan following a car accident, I would see my physiotherapist. We did many things over the course of our work together, but there was one moment in particular I will never forget. It taught me something about healing my injuries that I wanted to weave into my understanding about being human. We were working together with a problem related to my shoulder, and where we were at this point in my treatment was that she was trying to explain to me how the tightness and restricted movement in my left shoulder originally made sense as I was recovering from the trauma to my body of the car accident. My body was curling in around itself—the muscles tight, bracing for impact, anticipating another blow. But now, months down the line, that snow from the accident had long since melted into the ground below and the bulbs began to emerge from the earth, but my arm still seemed to be stuck. My range of motion restricted, and anything I did to rotate it, extend my arm further than I was used to, created a searing sensation in my arm and shoulder that made my chest tight. It felt like the squealing microphone feedback sound. We had been working to loosen the tissues in a number of ways, but it seemed, again, like my body was still stuck back there in what happened, and in the strategies to protect myself in the aftermath. Physiotherapists listening to this, pardon my likely wildly untechnical and inaccurate retelling of the story that highlights simply how I experienced it.
So here we were. And the time had come in one of our eight A.M. appointments where she looked at me, and explained again what was likely happening, and then told me that she was going to support my shoulder to move. Again, still with the steady eye contact, she let me know that it would hurt, but that she would not damage me, she would be with me, and the pain of the motion would actually be part of my healing, even if it felt otherwise. We took a deep breath, and with one of her hands on my arm, and the other holding my hand, she manipulated my arm and shoulder in a few brief, swift, but gentle motions that could likely be described more technically in other ways, but felt through my body like lightning striking, slicing a tree that it hit right down the middle. Lovingly, and with a trustworthy sureness, she pulled my body from the rigid, stuck, defensive pattern it was in. The searing continued for some time, as if my body was screaming “This is not safe. Last time we were here, we were this free, we got injured, and we’re not ready to move like we used to—we’ve forgotten how.” I continued to rehearse these movements on my own, but some of the old stuckness would creep back in, so when I would arrive again for another treatment, she would continue to remind my body of the other ways of moving that I had forgotten were even possible. She seemed more sure of the goodness of my body and my ability to heal than I was. Seeing her sureness and feeling her competence—the safety of our connection—allowed me to tolerate the discomfort that came from undoing the ways I learned to protect myself. Together, she reminded me that my system knew how to heal under the right conditions, with the right support, and that sometimes there is aching, pain, and the discomfort of stretching, but, especially with her by my side, this pain could be different than that of the original injury. When I think of healing—if I was to picture what it looks like, ideally—I imagine the sick days I had as a child where I would park myself in front of the TV to watch hours of movies and drink ginger ale, with a hot water bottle tucked against my belly. The picture is of rest, ease, passive allowing, stillness, and parental nurturance. Sometimes healing is gentle—the slow allowing of our systems to rest, clearing our schedule, making intentional time for ease and compassion, and receiving the care we so desperately need. I think that healing could look more like this than many of us believe. We sometimes throw the same disregulated energy of proving and striving at our therapeutic or health care treatment that got us hurt in the first place. It could transform our systems, our day-to-day quality of life, our ability to live lives of depth and connection, if our healing was a process that was attuned, gentle, and marked by rest.
What I see in my work with my patients, and what has been true of my own healing journey, is that often there is something uncomfortable, bordering on painful—at the least stretching—that characterizes our healing. It is the grief of realizing how much time we spent believing things that hurt us. It is feeling the anger we were never allowed to feel that still registers in our bodies as off-limits and untrustworthy. It is the slow wading through our past to uncover just how deep the story goes. It is the visceral fury at the systems that bred all of this hurt, and the enormous uncomfortable sadness that we, too, likely perpetuated some harm. It is the searing ache of allowing in nurturance from another person after having been without, the fear of what will happen when we let all parts of us be seen, and the excruciating unrest and awkward fumbling of slowly trying to trust ourselves again, while simultaneously expecting that doing so will get us punished or smited. It is trying something old, but in a different way; it is trying something new, and feeling that bumbling sloppiness of realizing that we never quite arrive, but that we do need to keep discovering—and actually, that uncomfortable sensation of the foreignness, that, too, is part of our growth. It is the raw vulnerability of letting the painful places be witnessed, letting the wound be tended to. I tell you all of this because we are bringing this conversation into the territory on healing and recovery. I really want the process of healing to feel good, like we’re all curled up on the couch watching Muppet Treasure Island under a blanket for as long as it takes. And the end goal is ultimately that we are more fully ourselves, less constricted, more able to experience pleasure, be available for life and a relationship, and whatever is happening right now. Better able to trust our goodness and the ease and safety of being in the present moment when the moment we are in is actually safe. The end goal is taking in the love that is actually coming to us, and knowing how to calm ourselves down when we feel agitated, but also knowing how to allow our feelings to be there without inhibiting or defending against them. It is building systems that make our bodies well and remembering that our wellbeing is tied up in our neighbours’, speaking up when something isn’t right, and knowing that our feelings can be listened to and learned from. And while I want all of that, on the road to all of that is often some discomfort, something new, facing something old, or feeling a feeling that was suppressed in the past. Healing is sometimes looking at the thing we feel too afraid to look at, and other times getting what we didn’t get back then when we really needed it. Still other times, it’s getting to feel the feelings about all of that, but it’s often doing what we need to do so that we can appreciate our defenses for what they did, experience integration of the parts of us that had to go away, set our defenses down, and experience ourselves as a mind and body that is good, valuable, worthy of love, in the present, and in right relationship with what’s around us. If trauma fragments and fractures, healing is the process through which what was artificially separated becomes woven back together, rendering the system connected and intact. Where there was disconnection, it means connection—and powerlessness, agency. Where there was fear, it means the presence of love. When what is to come was riddled by terror, it is a future so mysteriously hopeful that we can be fully present in the now. Healing is often a journey we take to become more integrated, or whole, putting back together what was fragmented. And in the case of spiritual trauma, healing is often the journey to remember that we were always whole, right from the beginning, despite what we were told otherwise.
My name is Dr. Hillary McBride, and this is Holy/Hurt: A Podcast about Spiritual Trauma and Healing.
Before we get into more of the practicalities of healing from spiritual trauma, I want to spend some time contextualizing the conversation about healing and recovery. This is important when one of the specifically insidious and wounding mechanisms of spiritual trauma occurs through convincing you of your brokenness, and the need for healing in a specific way. I want to be thoughtful about how to acknowledge where the hurt is and what caused it and provide some ideas on how to take steps towards healing, but I want to try to do so without replicating the idea that you are a broken person and there is only one way to be restored. If we were to time travel back to when I was living in my most evangelical life, and you were to stop me and ask me what it meant to witness, what witnessing was, and why it’s so important to the healing of our world, I would have probably thought this was a miracle that you were asking and would have launched into showing you exactly what I thought it was you were talking about by telling you a certain number of things. Should you have redirected me to your actual question, I would have told you that I thought witnessing was going into the broken world that was depraved and telling them of the good news. Without getting into the details of what I thought that meant, what I believed the good news was, specifically, witnessing I thought was more of an act, it was the form of telling, the spreading, somehow me passing this information on that could change someone’s life, both now and in the future—and it was my imperative to do so. It was something we were to offer to someone. Or depending on who you asked and what it felt like, something we subjected them to. Either way, it was important, it was my responsibility, and it was something I was meant to offer my fellow humans to mend their brokenness.
The details are for another time, but in short, I haven’t thought about witnessing at all, or like that, in some time. Until, in preparation for this project I picked up a book by Shelly Rambo called Spirit and Trauma. I was immediately captivated by what I often sense in trauma work, but what I have seen or felt was missing in both academic and the spiritual contexts that I often bridge with my work. It’s a sense from the writing that there is a place for intellect, spirit, body, and context to all exist in a conversation, layered with past, present, and future—holding the tension of grief and hope, life and death. All of those have to have a voice in the conversation about trauma, and it’s my sense that when any of these elements are missing, the conversation lacks complexity—it’s missing something about how to capture all of what it means to be human, and everything about what trauma is really like for a person to live through. Rambo’s description of trauma sounds so much like what we have already described in earlier episodes: “Trauma is described as an encounter with death. This encounter is not, however, a literal death, but a way of describing a radical event or events that shatter all that one knows about the world and all the familiar ways of operating within it. A basic disconnection occurs from what one knows to be true and safe in the world.” This is followed by her redirecting the Church’s simultaneous neglect of trauma and spiritual bypassing over it by suggesting that any hasty jump towards life after death neglects the very middle space of what it is like to live in the in between of surviving trauma, with the not yet integrated experiences of trauma living inside the body. This middle space, of when there is hurt, wounding, and trauma, is specifically where healing work in the Church needs to take place. Healing can’t be the glossing over of pain to pronounce that nothing needs to hurt any more—and signal, as many of us likely felt, that there is something wrong with you if you are still hurt, anxious, afraid, sad, ill, or whatever. But as Rambo states healing work “cannot just be about what goes away, but also about how we are with what stays, how we remain with what remains.”
To me, this sounds like exactly what I tell my patients, and what I have learned from my own therapeutic work as a client, and what continues to be most difficult in the journey of healing for so many of us. We have defined healing as something going away. It has to be gone forever. What real healing would be—when not bypassing in any way that makes us think that things are better, but has us ignoring them in some cosmic game of denial—what we really need is the ability to be with whatever is hurting, to turn towards where the injuries are, and patiently, with courage and clarity, love them, as they are. The wounds we carry, wide open, telling the story for as long as they need to about how much pain we endured, and what caused that pain. While many people with spiritual trauma leave the religious contexts which were responsible for the pain, they take with them the bypassing mechanisms—the urgency, the skip over the hurt and get right to the redemption strategies they learned so long ago. What I’m suggesting, is that the healing of spiritual trauma, whether inside the Church or outside of the Church, whether caused by our families, or institutions, or systems, or a single person—what is more indicative of healing than if the injury is gone or not, is how we can learn to be with it. Ultimately, this requires us to be in relationship with the parts of ourselves that we might otherwise want to make go away. Being in relationship with something asks us to welcome it, which is so different from the kind of banishing that we might have been taught was essential for us to prove our healing had happened. If trauma is about fragmentation, then healing is about connection.
For me, this has meant embodying the very principles I learned from the teachings of Jesus, who was known for hanging out with all the marginalized folks and people who had been socially devalued by the elite religious. This seems to show us that the way forward is to be in relationship with anything, anyone, any part of us that has been sent away—and I’m suggesting that healing means we do this both socially, and on the inside in our own interior landscape. This might mean instead of hating the anxiety we still feel when thinking about that experience we had in that community group, we imagine turning towards the anxiety and asking it to tell us its story, believing it has something to tell us that is important and can be welcomed into our understanding of ourselves. In this way, healing occurs through the process of relationship. So, I’ll say it again: if trauma is about fragmentation, then healing is about connection. While I mean this about what is happening inside of us, I also mean this to be about what happens in our communities. Here is where we get into the idea of witnessing and the importance of reimagining what that word means for our process of healing and restoration. Instead of being about talking at someone, or passing on information about what we deem as good news, what if we restored the word witness to mean the process of seeing—of really seeing. I mean this not in just an observational way where we objectively plan to report what happened to someone else, as in the case of the courts, but rather the kind of true encountering and seeing of someone that Jewish philosopher Martin Buber talks about when describing the sacredness of the I-Thou encounter, where the other person is not an object to analyze, use, or fix, but is a life to be related to, rehumanized, experienced fully in the now for who they are, as they are. This kind of witnessing demands that we really see where the pain is, and that we don’t look away from it when we see it. It demands that we don’t minimize, explain it away, pray away, or pretend that it was never there. As Shelly Rambo suggests in her book, to really witness, we must enter into the heart of someone suffering. While we might want to turn the other way or shy away from doing so, or we might want a formula for how to actually make this work, either of those would turn the other person into an object, and might be a way for us to manage our own discomfort about the process when there is no straightforward or clear path. A word that we like to use in therapy is holding space. It means not running away, not jumping into fix, but remaining—eyes open, heart open, to see what has been unbearable, to be with. This kind of witnessing is what our wounds need: not a superficial glossing over of the things we were told were wrong with us, but the encounter of another to look at the places of pain with eyes of love. This requires a see-er, someone with a loving gaze who bears witness, who undoes the aloneness of the injuries we sustained. And it asks the person who holds the pain to allow it to be seen, to take the courageous act of showing the injury, and to feel the risk inherent in that, the risk that what happened that wounded us in the first place, could happen again as we show someone the very site of the injury.
Although there are many ways of getting it, what I’m suggesting is that the healing of trauma cannot happen without the presence of connection. It requires an integration of me within myself, and me and you, and all of us together—and pretty quickly as we take that line of thinking as far as it will go, we will see that just like all the layers of fragmentation parallel one another, all the layers of connection parallel each other, too. The disconnection inside of me is so closely connected to disconnection between us, between me and the earth, my group and your group. But, when we work to restore one of them, we can borrow from whatever has worked to mend one form of relationship and extend it to the next. When I bear witness to myself and my own inner experiences, it makes it easier to look at your pain as you tell the truth about it without me turning away from you. This makes me want to look at what I do to all other living beings and systems, really see the impact of that. And what I find is that it’s harder to use the earth when I’ve recovered from being used. And when I see what is inside of me that is hard to look at and love it anyway, it makes it easier for me to love that same thing in you. It is then I can love my neighbour as myself, and love myself as my neighbour. It’s not in the way that I once thought, but it makes me think that witnessing is, after all, connected to the healing of the world.
You might remember from a past episode, Dr. Alison Cook. Here she is again talking to us about healing.
What does it take to heal the wounds that we have? Especially when they come from such an unconscious, early, deep, implicit place.
21:48 Interview with Dr. Alison Cook
Yeah. I think number one is awareness. Always, always, always awareness of—oh my goodness, we tend to want to fix it. We want to get intellectual, you know, tell ourselves what’s true. But that doesn’t get to the wound. So, always, always is that awareness of, huh, I don’t have that experience. I might not know what love really feels like. I might not know what it feels like to be seen, to be held. You know, I don’t know that. And there’s grief involved in that. But I think step one is just that acknowledgment, and to move toward that curiosity. Oh my goodness, it’s not my fault. It’s just something I don’t have an experience of. And so we try to remove the shame out of it. Right, because a lot of time shame gets in here. And just okay, here we go. You know, and then that’s the beginning. So then there’s a healing process, as with any trauma. But number one is that acknowledgment, that awareness. We have to begin to, then, notice and honour the cues—to your work Hillary, you do such a beautiful job of, I’ve done a lot of work with the emotional side, you do a lot of work with the body—but what are the cues my body is telling me? What are the cues my emotions are telling me? When I’m with this person or in this space, whether it’s a church or a faith community, or with a parent, where I was taught this was love, but boy my body does not experience this as love, right? Or, oh my emotions are telling me I feel unsafe. Noticing, honouring, validating. You know, again there’s just this peeling back the onion like, okay that’s interesting. That curiosity, you know so that’s the pre-work and then beginning to notice—I always talk to my clients about where do you feel safe? What does make you feel alive? What does bring you joy, love, a sense of presence?
23:47 Alison Cook
And they’re always surprised at what that looks like. Sometimes it’s so different than what they thought it should look like. You know, it might have been a grandparent. It might have been a random friend who didn’t even share a faith system, you know, but just someone where they were like, I don’t know I just felt safe with that person. Okay great, so your body understands, your soul got a glimpse there so let’s talk about that. Let’s move toward that, you know so this is kind of how I—you know, there’s so much to this. But you know and then lastly, I would say as folks are ready, and want to, we can begin to disentangle some of the messages on a more cognitive level about what God is like, or what love means, or what kindness is. You know, we can begin to disentangle some of what we were shown, from what we want to believe to be true, what we actually believe to be true, and then rebuild spiritual practices around, you know, around what we’ve now taught ourselves through those experiences—those new experiences of what safety actually feels like inside our bodies, inside our souls. I think of Jesus’ words about causing the little ones to stumble, and just how precious those young ones inside of us—you know, we all have these prior versions of ourselves inside of us—and how precious those young parts of us are. And if the language of Jesus, the language of God, you know, is still for many people, you know it’s been misused and mishandled. And so sometimes that language is even re-traumatizing. But those young ones are precious, and they’re worth pursuing, and worth hearing their story, bearing witness to the pain, and recreating those safe connections, those safe experiences. It’s so amazing to me that our bodies are actually, our souls are actually designed to heal in the context of loving compassion. It’s a beautiful thing. I know in your work as well we get to be privy to that. And it’s amazing. It is indeed holy ground. It is beautiful and it can be a process, but I’ve seen it so many times. And so just to encourage people not to give up hope.
I wonder if that’s one of the pieces that’s often missing when we experience trauma in a spiritual way, that we haven’t been shown that there is actually something inside of us that knows how to heal. Like, kind of—the idea of being completely broken or completely defective, flawed, wired for death, wired for destruction. And the way that that makes us mistrust ourselves, that way that keeps, fragments us from ourselves and gives us the sense that our true nature is one that is evil, or bad instead of one that has the capacity to grow and heal. And is hope embodied, always.
26:38 Alison Cook
That’s right. And all you have to do is, I’m always amazed. I had a medical crisis two years ago, but anything from a major one to, you know, I get a papercut on my finger, and I’m like wow my body knows what to do. My body knows how to send the right aspects of itself. You know I don’t know the medical terms, but you know it knows how to send the right clotting mechanisms to heal that cut. And our souls are no different, you know, in the context we need. And sometimes, sometimes when there’s a deep gash, we have to go to the emergency room and we need a surgeon to get in there and delicately bring those tissues back together. It’s the same with our soul: some wounds to the soul, with a little bit of care and a little bit of a Band-Aid, we can heal on our own. And some wounds to the soul require deep surgery, deep tissue surgery. But either way, that soul is wired and designed with a bent toward healing.
Before we get into more of the process around inner witnessing, or holding a witness inside of ourselves, I want to talk more about what really being seen means, and how, scientifically speaking, it’s connected to the healing of our trauma. As you might not be surprised to know, in our historically cognitive and individualistic Eurocentric worldview in westernized cultures, we produce a method of understanding the person, a person’s pain, and that person’s healing, that centres (no surprises here) a singular person. This is my call out to my profession, which I love and is also one very tiny slice of the personal pie, and has historically taken these very androcentric, white, disembodied, pathologizing, and colonial perspectives of the person, and filtered our understanding of trauma and recovery through those specific lenses. So what happens is when we come to understand trauma—and even more specifically post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, and the research literature around it—we see the innovative and emerging ideas centering again the idea of the individual. Their thoughts, their nervous system, their experiences and memories, and neglecting the importance of what we have been talking about here, the social context of our pain and our healing. Following some very important publications in the late 2000s, more theories about social models of post-traumatic stress disorder start to emerge. Those theories led to testing and more empirically valid ideas about how trauma and its healing is connected to what is happening in our social contexts begin to emerge. Again, based on the ideas we are mentioning here, it might not surprise you to know that how we are witnessed in our experiences, or how we are not witnessed in our experiences, has an important impact on the way our painful experiences turn into trauma that lives unfinished and active in our bodies. But something very different can begin to take place, if we get the sense from how we are held in our communities and relationships, that the people around us believe that the awful things really did happen, but that they’re now over. This might all sound familiar if you remember the conversation we had early on in the podcast about post-traumatic factors.
In 2018, an important paper was published by Woodhouse, Brown, and Ayers, titled “A social model of posttraumatic stress disorder: interpersonal trauma, attachment, group identification, disclosure, social acknowledgment, and negative cognitions.” Even before this paper was published, a series of meta-analyses published in 2000 and 2003 revealed that lack of social support is one of the strongest predictors of how severe a person’s trauma symptoms are. The opposite is also true: consistent and high levels of social support shape a person’s experience of mental and physical health. The uncontested research finding is that how people around us respond to our trauma, what they say and do when we experience trauma, has a dramatic impact on our wellbeing. It directly impacts our resilience to stress and the psychobiological symptoms that follow the trauma. Here are just a few other things to know about the social responses that dictate our trauma healing: First, any trauma that we perceive as being caused by another person—as opposed to an event like an earthquake—is shown to result in more severe and long-lasting trauma responses. This doesn’t show up in the research, but my assumption is that in a religion that is inherently relational, this idea of a “person” includes our understanding of a personal God, especially if we have been told that the God is responsible for everything that happens, and can be stopped if God wants it to. The interpersonal piece is connected to the second point: there are huge benefits to disclosing our traumas if we are able to, but when the trauma is interpersonal in nature, it makes it hard for us to trust other people and believe that we can share our pain with them, especially if we have adopted the belief that we are somehow to blame. If we are able to share our trauma with someone and they blame us, that actually adds to the experience of the trauma, creating another injury of its own. You can imagine how complicated this gets if we are courageous enough to tell our community that trauma has occurred in our church, or with a leader, or at the hands of a community member, or with a community group—and then we are either blamed, told it didn’t happen, or actually told that it was good, and right, and part of the journey to be made holy.
Third, remember the pre-traumatic factors we talked about a while ago? Our attachment style, or the template of connection we learned in our earliest caregiving relationships, impacts how likely we are to share or not to share with others. If our early attachments were unhealthy, we are less likely to feel like we belong in a social group and may not have as many people to tell about our painful experiences. Or we might be so desperate for the belonging that we never got growing up that we’ll do whatever we can to belong, even if it means denying our trauma, going along with it, or dismissing our own reactions when we feel minimized by others. Fourth, when we have a social place we can turn to where we can be courageous to talk about our traumas and can be believed and supported, this not only manages and softens the response our bodies have to the trauma, but also boosts our mental and physical health. So you can imagine in a faith or family context where we experienced a spiritual trauma and confronting that forced us to leave the group that was also the place we thought we belonged, we now not only have the trauma but we’re actually lacking the social net that supports us to process the trauma. This in itself is a wound. And, it seems, one of the insidious issues of when religious systems are closed and prohibit people from building connections outside of the religious community, then where do they turn when there are injuries? Fifth, it isn’t just important to have people to turn to when we have pain, but how severe our trauma symptoms are depends on how heard and supported we feel by them when we tell them what happened. If someone comes to share with you about their trauma, the questions we want to be asking are: how do I help them feel understood? How do I acknowledge what happened? In short, do they feel accepted, believed, and emotionally cared for by me? A person’s ability to answer yes to these questions can change whether they are likely to get a PTSD diagnosis or not following a trauma. And, as you know, not everyone with trauma will receive a PTSD diagnosis—both because of barriers to diagnosis and also because of limited diagnostic criteria. So, diagnostic criteria aside, what is important to identify is that social support and acknowledgment drastically improve a person’s quality of life for a number of reasons. Extrapolating this to the context of spiritual trauma, many people will not get the social support they need—and worse will likely be blamed, ignored, or misunderstood. While this can often happen inside the religious group, we’re not safe from it happening outside of religious contexts either. People unfamiliar with the patterns of control, manipulation, coercion, and power exercised in systems causing spiritual trauma, might also be confused about how a person could stay in a spiritual context that was causing this much harm. They might wonder how they could stay for so long and how they still have faith at all. Well-meaning friends, family members, or therapists, especially with their own unexamined spiritual trauma or confusion about spiritual trauma, might not know how to say, “I believe you,” and “it wasn’t your fault,” or “of course you stayed, you were told this was your family and you would suffer for eternity if you didn’t do what they asked.” These wounds are real, and lasting—and they can heal, but it is harder for that to happen when the wounds are invisible to those without the eyes to see them.
Now, more from J.S. Park.
36:00 Interview with J.S. Park
How did you heal? How are you healing?
36:17 J.S. Park
Well, just as bad theology and bad leaders are sort of the origination of spiritual trauma, I think healing theology and guides who come alongside, and cheer you on and root for you, and reflect the goodness of God—that’s a healing way forward. And people who are in the work of dismantling and undoing that systemic abuse, they’re also so much a part of feeling secure and knowing that there are people who are not just alongside you, but in those systems and around those systems doing the work to undo it. And I think the kind of theology that for me is healing, is when it’s—I don’t know another word for this besides fuzzy. When it’s not so certain, when there’s an ambiguity around it, there’s the ability to ask questions and the ability to say this is not going to resolve. There’s no spiritual bowtie to this. There is no eschatology to this. I am in pain. This illness is hurting me. I am mad at God and there is no landing pad for me. Not everything is going to resolve. This storm is not going to pass. You know, theology that is okay in itself to say that—and if you look in the Psalms, if you look at the wrestling of Judaism, if you look at the sorrow and anguish of the Korean concept of Han—there is so much freedom and movement in being able to freely express all the pain and all the hurt that the world can bring upon us. And so, I think there’s the trauma that the world is going to put upon us that happens to us, that is dealt to us by abusers and interruptions in life and disasters. And then there’s that secondary layer of spiritual trauma, sort of the narrative that we write around the trauma that happens. And I think that spiritual trauma, the way to heal through that is to know that thing that happened, it wasn’t my fault. And it’s not because God hates me. And that thing that happened, it’s not because I somehow attracted it to myself or that somehow, I was quote unquote, “asking for it.” And it’s not some sort of moral retribution at some cosmic level, but rather things can happen. Evil exists, unfortunately. Evil systems, very much often that are unintentional and just built on apathy, can cause trauma. But the spiritual narrative around that, about it not being my fault, it not making me lesser, it not shaping my moral identity and value. That’s such an important thing to learn and to unlearn the ideas of cause and effect of supernatural imposition of the order of, this happened therefore it must mean this. How do I undo that certainty and leave it to ambiguity, and then be okay with that ambiguity? I guess the only concluding thought is if I can put one word around the healing: expansiveness.
Expansiveness, say more about that.
39:07 J.S. Park
In my chaplain residency, which was a year long program after the six-month internship, I lost my faith for a season. And I lost my faith because I was seeing so much suffering. And my theology that I had was not enough to hold me through it. And thank God for my supervisor. She sat me down, drew a box and said this is your faith right now. And then she drew another box that had a broken edge. And she said, so here was your faith, now here is your faith with this broken edge. And then she kind of drew a third box, but, like, sort of not a box. She said this is where you may end up, you know this expanded open box. We don’t know where you’re going to land, but this is where it’s going to be. And it’ll keep changing. And what she gave me was room and expansiveness to grow. And I think what spiritual trauma does is it gets us stuck in an unliberated place where we feel like the box that we have is the only faith we’re allowed to keep, and it keeps us imprisoned. Thank God for my supervisor who was such a guide through that process of being able to say, it’s okay that your faith is broken. But what you’re going to see on the other end, it may be no faith at all, it may be something completely different that you weren’t expecting. But whatever that is, feel free to have that room to grow into it. And I think for those experiencing spiritual trauma, it’s like their whole lives, they may have been told—and my whole life I was told—this is the way that God works. God fits in this box and you cannot go outside that box. But once we’re given permission, once we’re given the grace and the love and the kindness and compassion, to ask questions and to look at suffering and then to say, you know what my box isn’t working for this. My box isn’t working for the hurt that I’m experiencing. My box isn’t working for this illness, for my divorce. It’s not working for my parenting. It’s not working for my fight against systemic injustices. This box—I’m having to keep it maintained and it’s keeping me in prison. But my supervisor gave me that permission to say it’s okay that you feel this way. And on the other end, wherever you land, I’m going to be with you. It’s expansiveness that I needed to grow.
And that sounds like—I mean that last little piece—it sounds like the supervisor’s permission and narrative of expansion was important and supported by—and I’m here with you, and this is not cutting off connection from me, and I’ll be with you wherever you land. Because I imagine for so many people who feel like the box is too, it’s too rigid, that they stay holding on to whatever is hurting them and rigid because it feels like it’s going to cost them belonging and connection and
acceptance and attachment and all of the things that we actually need to thrive and flourish. But she said, and this is my therapist self speaking, she said it’s not going to cost you connection with me, like, we’re still good. And in that way kind of represents the unconditional love of God. You can be—your box can look however it looks, including this unformed, unstructured container that will emerge. And you still have, you still have safety with me. You still have affection from me.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think unfortunately church leaders use that sort of—you have to keep the box or you’re outside of God’s goodness, outside of God’s grace. And that felt very—that box felt very familiar to me. And I had to learn that familiarity is not the same thing as safety. And what my supervisor gave me, just like you said, was that safety to be able to say to me, even though you’re feeling this way, there’s nothing that’s going to separate me from you.
The experience of being witnessed, as it turns out, is foundational to our ability to heal. We are relational. Our pain needs to be held tenderly as we speak truthfully about it. And whether we tell the story or not, or the people around us know what to do with that information or not, we all deserve spaces where we are felt, known, and trust that we are believed, even if we choose not to share. While in the conversation about trauma it is essential to centre the experience of the person who has lived the trauma, the conversation about social responses and witnessing highlights the need for us to explore how we build relationships and communities where those of us bearing witness can do so lovingly, skillfully, and without ourselves feeling overwhelmed. Often, when we are overwhelmed, and don’t ourselves know how to hold what we’re witnessing, our temptation is to shut the other person down, or take too much on ourselves, as if it’s our responsibility to fix. This moves us out of witnessing into solving or saving. And, ironically, doing so creates a power dynamic, making the person with the trauma an “it” again—a problem to be solved so we can resolve our distress. Do not let the language be confusing. The witnessing I am talking about is the opposite of spiritual bypassing. It means to be with the reality of what has happened and really, really see it. Witnessing in this way demands that we slow down, it asks of us to be present, to notice our own reactions, to be aware of our boundaries, and know when and how to say to someone with authenticity, “I believe you. That should have never happened. How are you doing now?” It also asks us to be aware of and capable of letting others know when information is outside of our capacity to tolerate, perhaps by saying “This is so important, and I want you to get the care you need to help your body know that what happened really is over. And I’m not able to do that in the way you deserve, but I do want to help you find someone that can help you with that.” More often than not, to witness just means that when someone is vulnerable enough to share, we actually respond with care. We feel first and then say, “I’m so glad you’re telling me,” or “That’s awful. I believe you that it happened, but it shouldn’t have happened.” Or still, ‘“ don’t understand all of that, but I want to, and I’m going to learn more so that I can support you in ways that help you.” I think that saying these things would be easier if we practiced them regularly and heard them ourselves. Think back to our conversation on family of origin and attachment. If we shared our pain with people in our family and they minimized it or brushed it off, we won’t necessarily have the body memory of having our feelings validated. That makes it harder for us to know how to validate others. But learning how to do that as the witness is our job to help us build a culture where people can heal.
You might also be catching on to this, being able to create a dynamic where we slow down, really see one another in the tender places, and make space for people to be in their process of healing without rushing or fixing it, and simply being able to look one another in the eye means: we put our phones down, we look for the people on the outsides of the community, we build relationships, we take risks ourselves to be vulnerable, and we do our own work to explore what gets in the way of doing all of that. That is easier said than done when we exist in bigger systems that keep us busy, and numb, avoiding, focused on our devices, overscheduled, or overworking to survive in increasingly expensive cities. It’s a lot to try to build healthy connections when we have so much working against us. But, I have this feeling inside, like relationship, like the I-Thou encounter that happens when we’re witnessing and being witnessed, is powerful enough that it can slowly upset the systems that have come to dehumanize us, that we then use to dehumanize others. To see and be seen is rehumanizing. It interrupts the systems that make us into objects; it brings us back to life. I want to recognize that there are barriers to doing this, but, that doing this also begins the slow untangling of what we’re caught in that makes it hard to do this. And that even if we are doing things that require our time, energy, attention, and focus, and don’t leave wide open space for us to have deep conversations that stretch for hours into the night, we can look at the person with tears in their eyes and say, “I can see the pain. I can see it and it matters, even if I can’t take it from you.”
In his paper entitled, “Bearing Witness as Social Action,” Darryl Stephens says that bearing witness is a spiritually significant form of action that we can take as communities in response to trauma. Although I’m not in the field of religious studies or a theologian, I understand his description of bearing witness through the lens of immanence and social justice. To be present to one another in moments of pain is to be to one another the face of love, to be a fleshy breathing sweaty with socks on spirit of interconnectedness, looking into the eyes of a person who is hurting and saying with our attention and presence that the Holy is right here and cares about you. While that’s my own lens—and it may feel activating to hear that if language around sacred or holy or theology or spirituality at all doesn’t fit for you or feels too painful—I might say it this way: to see one another like this is an actualization of the ideal, a bringing into the here and now the qualities of goodness that we might have been told are only out there, or a fantasy, or not for us. It is a way of restoring the quality of with-ness, or right relationship, that repairs the fractures in our relational systems, our ecosystems. When our religious systems, especially those that are perpetuating trauma, are good at slowly shoving to the outskirts the people who carry the wounds, who don’t comply, who can’t seem to perform on the moral and behavioural tightrope artificially set out in front of them, what we actually need are systems that surround one another at the broken places. This means not only refusing to ignore the pain, but allowing it to inform the way that people around it respond, love, support, and intervene. I have learned through working with folks who have trauma how to love better, how to be more present, how to let go of my agenda and timeline. They have taught me what safety is. It is my own experience of trauma and healing that showed me what we deserve, and how painful it is to not get it from those around us. I believe that trauma, and the traumatized, not only carry resilience inside of them, but have a powerful and prophetic message for our systems about what does not work and the way forward for healing. Their bodies are not only in pain in a way that deserves to be witnessed for them, but their pain deserves to be witnessed because it teaches us. The rest of us, anyone who is watching, listening, lucky enough to get close to these places of injury. The people with trauma are saying with their pain what does not work, and what needs to change. I believe that no matter where the pain is, it is a sign of an unhealthy system when a person who deserves to be listened to and has something to offer is shoved out, ignored, or silenced. The social nature of trauma healing works both ways. When a person has trauma and can be held in community they are better for it, but we cannot pass over the other important truth: we are all better for it. Our own fragmenting becomes undone, the pain in our communal bodies, healed. What we may not have been taught in our families, or churches, or schools, or workplaces, or marriages, or friendships, but what we need to know to collectively heal, is that turning towards the nervous systems of those who have been hurt is a medicine for our bigger systems. We are the ones who also get to heal when we get to see the truth about the pain of our kin.
While I’m talking here about witnessing, or bearing witness, I’m wanting to be clear that telling our stories and the truth about what we have been through is a continuum. There are multiple layers of sharing, and when we are best able to be in connection is when the person sharing and the person witnessing are matched and consenting in their level of capacity and disclosure. That means when we are the person with the trauma, it’s important that we ask the person who we want to tell our story to if they have the mental, emotional, and spiritual space to hear what we have to say, respecting their boundary as they identify it. When we are the person holding space, we also are reflective of what we are capable of—what skills we have, what our energy levels are, and what we might be able to freely offer to the other person, while deciding the limits on what we might be able to hear them say. Telling the truth can include naming in thorough detail to a qualified professional the events and experiences that created the trauma. But, more often than that, telling the truth can be as simple as saying, “I’ve experienced a kind of spiritual wounding that leaves me feeling afraid all the time, and I’m coming to terms with how deep that wounding goes. I think I’m realizing it was a form of trauma, and calling it such has me feeling embarrassed, afraid, angry, and sometimes lonely.”
As a trauma expert, in the first session I often inform people coming to see me for therapy, that telling the story isn’t actually something we get to right away. Telling the details of a story can very easily lead to reliving them as we talk about what happened. Having boundaries on what we share can actually be part of the healing itself, especially given the boundary violations that often occur in spiritual environments, where people are expected to share intimate details about their lives without any relational safety, social container, confidentiality, or assurances about the manner in which they will be responded to or supported following their disclosures. The practice of letting ourselves be seen can be challenging, especially if we haven’t been believed in the past, or we’re afraid of judgement. This fear often has to do with our early experiences of growing up. So we might ask a person if they have the capacity to listen, both as a way of honoring them, but also gauging if they are a person we can trust with our vulnerability. We might also realize that sharing only a part of what has happened—a kind of high-level share, or letting a person know we’re hurting, or some rough details without much else—can actually be harder than saying nothing, or saying it all. As I’ve alluded to, bearing witness to one another is easier when we have felt someone do that for us, when we’ve had the practice of doing that for ourselves. The skills of attuning or presencing are transferable. This leads us to the work of inner witnessing. I want to talk about it a little bit now, but I also want to let you know two things, more skills related to this are coming in the next episode, and, this is a practice that we need to work on over time. There is no expectation on my end that you hear this and then all of a sudden you’re an expert at it. I want to relieve you of the expectation, too. If we were told that the inner critic was the voice of God, it can take a long time to really believe that inner nurturer exists, can be trusted, and is actually our own voice. So think of this as a door I am opening, that you are invited to walk through over and over again, all on your own time.
Witnessing ourselves might sound strange unless you remember that we talk to ourselves all the time. We criticize ourselves, judge ourselves, laugh at ourselves, negotiate internally, we have inner conflict. One part of us is relieved to leave the party and the other part of us wants to stay and doesn’t want to miss out. The idea of multiple parts of us comes in large part from the Internal Family Systems therapy, and actually highlights the way that most of us think and talk anyway. Carol Gilligan, and the women of the Stone Center, also started talking about this in the 1980s, as a feminist and intersectional way of thinking about our inner worlds. They saw that our inner worlds were more like a choir than a solo. We are more like a band than a concert pianist playing on their own. When the band is playing the same song, or the choir is singing in harmony, and is our unique song to sing in the world, that sounds and feels good. But, more often than not, the different voices in the choir are singing different songs. One is singing the song that we were taught to sing growing up in our family, one is singing a song our culture wants us to sing, and one is humming the melody of that old boyfriend, or the gym coach; one part is belting the song that is sung by the person in the room with the most power, and another person inside is humming along with the song of resistance. Still another is singing the song of fear from that time we felt really hurt and alone. All of that, each of those parts and voices is happening inside of you a lot of the time. But in there, in the midst of all those other voices and songs, is a part of you that knows how to witness. That is the part of you that comes out when you feel like the very best version of yourself: strong and patient, loving and wise, clear and communicative, courageous and resilient. Even if that part feels pushed to the back of the choir practice, or like it was shoved out of the entire building by one of the other parts a long time ago, I know this to be true: it exists and cannot be destroyed—even and especially if you have survived trauma. And especially if you were in an environment where you were told it never existed to begin with. This wisest, most you-est you is there; it is yours, and can never ever be destroyed. In my language, this is the divine spark in you. Tt’s in all of us, written into our DNA. It is aliveness both in us and it is us, right here, in our bodies, in our breathing lungs, right now. And if this language doesn’t work for you, think of this as your core self, the valuable aliveness, the spirit inside of you that is born into each of us as humans. This is the self, the self that shows up when someone you love is hurting and you want to reach towards them to make it better, the self that has the idea to do something kind for someone else, and wants to try again at something hard because you know there might be a chance it could be different this time.
Imagine the chorus of voices singing inside of you for a moment. When I picture this inside, sometimes it’s like the basement of a heritage building—tea and baked goods set out on a table in the corner to make it feel homey, like someone put thought into this, there was intention and caring. Wherever they are, even if the room is filled with loud parts, allow yourself to know that the core self, the witness, is always in that room. You might even be able to imagine that the self who is looking at the room, seeing all the other parts of you in the choir or the band, that that one who is looking is actually the core self, or the witness. In this situation, you would see through the sea and chaos of noise and notice which part of you in that room carries the trauma, the pain of what has happened. And maybe if the other parts of you would allow you to get through and sit next to the one who has the most pain, you might say “I want to know your story.” Or maybe, “I want to want to know your story, and I’m sorry that you have been here all along hurting and I haven’t been able to find you. That wasn’t what you deserved.” I could go on, and there will be an opportunity for us to do more of that in the future. But for now I really want you to get the sense of three things:
- One: Trauma asks for a witness as part of its healing.
- Two: We can be the witness to others, and we actually deserve a witness ourselves.
- And three: Sometimes the witness is us, for us, inside of ourselves. And that counts just as much as any other kind of witness.
We’ll talk more about the mechanics of healing trauma in the next episode, but before then I want to make sure we don’t miss some really big picture theories. You might remember we mention Dr. Judith Herman, psychiatrist and influential voice in the field of trauma studies, because of her work to help us see and validate the kinds of trauma that are complex, and don’t fit into the categories of the single incident, or psychological wounds resulting from combat. She’s proposed three stages for healing that can guide our understanding of the path forward in recovery. The first stage, according to Herman, is safety. This means building a healing relationship, addressing safety in the here and now, and making intolerable feelings bearable through connection with others. In the world of spiritual trauma, sometimes this means getting out of the environment or relationship that actually caused the trauma, or getting away from anything that even reminds the person’s body of the trauma, to help that person know in body and mind that they are not currently in danger. Sometimes this means getting away for a season, sometimes it’s forever. It’s not always possible to get away from every reminder or every trigger from a trauma, but the body does need to know that, for the most part, what happened is over. We need to have space to heal from it without the wounds being reopened constantly or without more wounds being created. In the process of therapy, this can actually be the longest and most difficult phase, especially when a person has learned others can’t be trusted, therapy is dangerous, and psychology is too worldly—or when a person supposed to be a healer or a leader was the one doing the hurting or the shaming. Often, relationship is at the centre of creating a felt sense of ease, and the tool in the relationship is the authentic empathy of the person doing the witnessing or caring. Empathy, when therapeutic, is real—it is a person actually caring about another person and using skill to create an environment which supports and centres the other person’s experience. Or in the words of Dr. Carl Rogers: empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience in the world as if you were that person, without ever losing the as if sense.
Although Herman’s first stage is about safety, and the place we start when doing therapy with trauma of any kind, Darryl Stephens highlights something that comes even before that: the necessity to overcome the barriers that keep a person away from the work in the first place. Again, when a religious context has forbidden therapy, or an abuser has blamed a person so severely for what happened that they don’t believe there is any hope for them to feel differently, and still, when sharing one’s inner world has been so dangerous that someone believes others can’t be trusted, simply getting to the place of creating safety means some barriers have already been circumnavigated. A person has already done something risky in the direction of their own healing. When talking about the complex and interpersonal nature of spiritual trauma, this can’t be understated. Herman’s second stage is about reconstructing the narrative, reprocessing memories of the trauma, and allowing for grief about what happened. Grief can occur when our bodies actually believe that we are outside of the trauma enough to see it with fresh eyes. Instead of feeling like it’s still happening, we can look at it, believe it happened, and know that it is over. It is often then that we can finally begin to feel the agony and pain that it happened at all. That can seem kind of counterintuitive, because we might think that when we’re safe, that we feel relief. But, especially in situations of trauma that are tangled in layers and systems and relationships and beliefs, we are so caught in the swirl of the trauma and what we sustained that it’s often impossible to see it clearly. We only know that we feel horrible, or afraid, or that something has to change. It’s when we can feel safety that we can finally look back on the memories of what happened and see them as others see them, with the eyes of someone who survived and got through. Sometimes this involves the active work of processing using trauma therapies like EMDR, or somatic experiencing, accelerated experiential dynamic psychotherapy (or AEDP for short), Internal Family Systems therapy (or IFS for short), psychedelic psychotherapy, and specific models like psychedelic somatic interactional psychotherapy (or PSIP for short), or anything that teaches us skills, specifically trauma memory re-writing, or group re-enactment—anything really that allows us to help our nervous system to get an update to the present and correct what should have been corrected a very long time ago. Sometimes, it’s when we are reprocessing that we have to dig into our skills and resources developed in phase one and the sense of needing safety happens concurrently with phase two. As we process, the grief can come as we realize what we went through. Hear this clearly: when working with trauma, grief is part of our healing. Often, being able to grieve is actually the healing. It doesn’t feel that way, because when we have been subject to pain, we can’t fathom that any kind of pain is part of the restoration of self. But I want to make a distinction here: grief is not violence; grief is not powerlessness or victimization. When healing trauma, grief is seeing what happened with clear eyes and responding to ourselves the way we deserved to be witnessed all along.
Herman’s third stage is about reconnection and restoration, and reintegration of the self that was lost due to trauma, and a reintegration of the trauma into the narrative of our self. This means that we have, in some ways, come to terms with the trauma, and we look forward, asking what is next, envisioning a future outside of what happened to us in the past. We can do this when we felt safe in the present and safe enough to look back on what happened and see that it’s over. Then the future can begin to appear. This is a form of reconnection. And this reconnection is meant to extend beyond us, to explore reconnection with others, and their futures, and their relationships. It may even mean allowing what happened to us to incite a kind of meaning and purpose that propels us into the world. I imagine this is why so many people who have been hurt by a particular issue mentor others facing that challenge, or become a therapist working with the population, or donate money to that cause. This brings to mind a conversation I had with a friend, Kurt a few years ago. He leads a beautiful and hopeful faith community in Portland that has honest, insightful, and emotionally healthy conversations about faith, and doubt, community. And one night over ice cream he said back to me, “So are you saying that you love your mental illness because it allowed you to be here?” Or something to that effect. He was trying to help me get clear on what I thought about my own three phase journey of healing and integration. I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to say, and his words held up a mirror to help me see what I was hinting at—what I was trying to say. This is tricky for me to talk about, because I don’t quite know how to put into language what I’m trying to say now, but that conversation with Kurt got me thinking about it all those years ago. I love my life. I love my present and my future, and so much of that has to do with being able to be with other people in the way that I experienced when I was in the most painful places in my journey. I believe it comes from also having looked at my past, and learning to love it, too. Not necessarily endorsing, per se, or wanting the specific areas of pain I endured to be experienced by anyone else, but rather being able to look at it—specifically to look at my younger self, with love, with open-hearted understanding that the present that I am so grateful for is connected to a past. I can’t just edit out the parts of my past that I don’t like and assume that it makes me the same person I am today. I want to flirt with saying that I kind of needed the pain, in a way, to allow me to be me here—but there are parts of that statement that feel untrue or dangerous if said to or about anyone else. So I really feel hesitant to say them at all. But it’s almost like from this vantage point in my life, I can see that the pain itself inside of me wasn’t the problem. It was the way my body was telling the truth about the world, about the things that had happened to me, and about what I needed, but never got. Seeing it this way allowed me to change my relationship to pain in a way that made it more tolerable to be with. Ultimately I think that that’s part of what helps me heal—what helps all of us heal. The learning how to be with it. It was like the pain was a kind of breaking open. Sometimes if I’m bold, I might say that pain can be the voice like a prophet—that when I learned not to turn away from it but turn towards it, to be with, it allowed it to be transformed into a baby being born inside of me that looks a lot like vision and feels a lot like love. I don’t believe that we need pain to grow. I believe love and discomfort and difference can help us get there, too. I also don’t believe that we’re fundamentally broken or in need of saving to become who we were supposed to be or to become good. But I do wonder if part of what makes spiritual trauma so difficult, so intractable in its healing, is not that the wounds are there, but that we don’t really know how to be with them individually or culturally. It seems that often, when pain happens, we’re left alone with it—or it’s covered up, or we feel the shame that it exists at all and we want to disappear in a way that means the pain can’t get the witnessing that it needs. In the wise words of Bayo Akomolafe, “What if the ways we respond to the crisis are part of the crisis?”
My mentor and colleague, Saj Razvi, recently said to me in trauma therapy training that trauma responses end—that the thing that the body is designed to do to help us get out of danger, that process has an end, it will not go on forever. But what has no ending is the kinds of strategies we use to manage our trauma responses that work just enough to give us a tiny bit of relief, but never actually resolve the trauma. They never actually mend the injury. I wonder what would happen if we actually knew how to be with the pain of the trauma instead of trying to manage it away. If we knew that it wouldn’t kill us to feel the feelings that were supposed to happen when we got hurt so deeply, and knew that on the other side we would still exist and would know something about ourselves and the world and how to be in it, and how to help others be in it. This is the potential that exists for all of us, and if that feels far away right now, try it on this way, it’s one of the many options in the infinite options in the universe of how things could go. The ability to look back on what happened and make meaning of it, the ability to love the younger versions of ourselves who endured so much, is something available to us all, even if the circumstances in the present are not any different. If that feels too hard right now, maybe what is available is that we hold the possibility that even though we might not be able to do that now, there is someone out there who believes that a younger version of us was doing the best that they could, and they want to turn towards who we were, even if only to let us know that they have been there, too, and they know the aloneness of that pain. And if that was true—that on the other side of processing the trauma, and because of and through the processing of that trauma, and really bearing witness to it and feeling the grief of it all, that this capacity to endure, and remain, and to feel ourselves again revealed itself—just imagine what that would invite us to do. My sense is that if we could do that in our cultures, that we would soften the urge to turn away from our pain, that we would look with the eyes of one who really sees, bearing witness to the pain, but seeing that it changes us all in the process.
About nine pages into her book Shelly Rambo says this: “Attempting to map the experiences of trauma comes from my conviction that our lives are inextricably bound together. Given what we know about the historical dimensions of trauma, no one remains untouched by overwhelming violence. Trauma becomes not simply a detour on the map of faith, but rather a significant reworking of the entire map.” When speaking to those who have spiritual trauma, hear this: your healing gets to look the way that you need it to look. Instead of prescribing how your healing looks, the conditions that create safety for your nervous system are unique to your story, your body, your healing journey. This might mean leaving the context, relationship, community, or religion where the harm happened. Finding safety, re-narrating your past, allowing for the grief of what happened to clean out space inside of you that hopes for something new—that will happen when you are able to begin to name the reality of what the trauma was and have it be witnessed, because indeed it deserves to be witnessed. Until that happens, hear me say this: I believe that what happened to you made you feel the way that it did, and that as much as your pain deserves to be witnessed, your body deserves to be at rest. Now, to the institutions, the systems, the communities, the leaders responsible for the trauma, and the people who benefitted from them: we need to listen to the voices and stories of the traumatized. Doing this is essential for helping us to understand more about what is hurting people, and to actually do the very thing we’re called to do in the world—to bear witness and bring with that attention the gentle touch of love. Doing this, we learn from the wake of trauma about the places in theology, and practices, and communities that have been missing as people whose stories of truth and pain have been really hard for us to look at, especially when they ask us to change. Witnessing is fundamentally different than spiritually bypassing. This means that for these systems to see the wounds they have caused and look at them as if the people they have wounded really do have something important to say about what has gone awry. When the map of a spiritual community causes damage to the people its claiming to love, it demands to be reworked.
I want to end this episode with a practice around witnessing that I alluded to above. Allow yourself to adjust your posture, perhaps resting into your chair. You might take a few breaths or plant your feet on the ground. Maybe allowing your gaze to soften onto something a few feet in front of you or allowing your eyes to close altogether. Bring to mind the image of someone you love. See the contours of their face—you might even hear their laugh or see their smile. And notice how you feel towards them. Notice what comes up inside of you, what wells or surfaces, or what hangs out in the background as you picture their face or as you think about them. And as you’re seeing them and thinking about them and feeling whatever you’re feeling towards them, imagine that you could see a place in their heart that holds their pain. As if they could pull back their ribcage and you could see deep inside the place where an injury lives. In this situation, you don’t know what the injury is from, but you can see it. Imagine what you might say to it, to them. Maybe: I’m going to stay right here with you while it hurts. Or, I love you. I’m so sorry that you’re in pain. Maybe you imagine saying show me where else it hurts. Or that you say, I can see the injury and I believe you. It really is this awful. Or maybe a phrase of your own. Now imagine for a moment that instead of them, this person in front of your awareness is actually you—or the part of you that holds your pain. And if you’re able to, try saying these things again to them, only as much as you can tolerate. And if one of the phrases that I mentioned above doesn’t feel like it fits, you might be able to say I want to be able to say those things. And I’m going to work on it so that I can come back for you and really offer you the care you deserve. If that’s tricky, you might imagine instead of yourself looking at this part of you that’s in pain, that somebody else could be looking at the part of you that’s in pain. A person who you can imagine could be a loving, patient, and gentle witness. If you can’t think of someone that comes to mind, you’re welcome to imagine that it’s me there, looking at this place of pain inside of you. If there was a part of this exercise that felt particularly meaningful, try to make a note of it and come back to it later. In the next episode we’ll be talking more about healing and recovery, and I am so looking forward to it. Thanks so much for joining us today.
The Holy/Hurt podcast was written and recorded by me, Dr. Hillary McBride. Executive producer: Leslie Roberts. Sound editors: Bradley Danyluk and Micaela Peragallo. Music and scoring by Jon Guerra adapted from the album Ordinary Ways. Strings performed by Valerie Guerra. The logo and art was made by Courtney Searcy. This episodes guests are J.S. Park and Alison Cook. The podcast was made possible by Sanctuary Mental Health Ministries. Sanctuary equips the Church to support mental health and wellbeing. They provide free resources that meaningfully engage the topics of faith and mental health. The content is developed in collaboration with mental health professionals, theologians, and people with lived experience of mental health challenges. These resources prepare communities of faith around the world to raise awareness, reduce stigma, support mental health, and promote mental wellbeing. To learn more and access these resources, please visit sanctuarymentalhealth.org