Alice in Wonderland said things were getting “curious-er and curious-er after she headed Down the Rabbit Hole. Why do I refer to that story and what does it mean here? Alice found herself grappling with the problems associated with “an entry into the unknown, the disorientating or the mentally deranging.” (Thank you, Wikipedia!) You might agree that diving into feelings seems quite the same as Alice’s Rabbit Hole.
Many people who find themselves in a therapist’s office will discover that therapists often hold the belief that exploring emotions related to events that occurred in the past is the doorway to growth, healing and well-being. Unfortunately, some therapists don’t also understand the concept of balancing the exploration of feelings with education/support in the direction of knowing what to do about or with those feelings. As a supervisor of new therapists, I often have the opportunity to assist new clinicians in understanding this concept of balance.
A rookie therapist, for example, might ask a traumatized child: “When is the last time you felt [fill in the blank with the therapist’s “pet” feeling]. This approach isn’t necessarily helpful without the correct therapeutic context for that particular child. Does a child need to be able to identify when he or she last felt sad, angry, afraid in order to understand and get through trauma? Not necessarily. When a child is active, enjoys sports and is competitive, maybe it is enough for the child to pay attention to how they feel before kicking a soccer ball around with his or her therapist and notice if after kicking the ball around they feel better. Is it easier to refrain from talking back afterward? Is it easier to sit still afterward? Maybe, it’s not the emotive, but the pragmatic that works for a particular child.
The same is true for grown-ups. Try asking someone you know who is a self-proclaimed “gym rat” what they do to alleviate stress and deal with difficult emotions.
Often, victims of trauma are guided to the edge of the rabbit hole with the promise of “healing” after the “release of feelings.” Sometimes, this works. Often, it doesn’t. Knowing when to release feelings for the sake of release and when to do something with the feelings is a learning process. It is individual and must be tailored to individual needs and differences.
When I’ve worked with people who are looking for relief from daily reminders of the trauma they have survived, I tell them that I don’t care about the details of the trauma. I don’t want to listen to them tell the trauma story again – just for the sake of the telling. For most people, knowing this brings a great deal of relief.
Here’s what we do instead of digging deep into feelings that are old, traumatic and capable of re-creating the trauma experience over and over again.
- We focus on feelings that lead to unwanted behaviors in the here-and-now.
- When those problematic behaviors keep coming up, we look deeper to see where they started. (E.g. Do you go to any cost to keep others from getting mad at you? Does that cause you to say “yes” when it would be better for you to say “no”? This is when a deeper exploration is warranted.)
- When an unwanted behavior is not the direct target of attention, we focus instead on creating a set of behaviors that brings joy, empowerment, pleasure, personal fulfillment and happiness.
- Sometimes those behaviors “push” against unresolved feelings that can then be the focus of therapeutic attention. Once the underlying/motivating feelings are understood and addressed, the new behaviors are easier to maintain.
Where does that leave digging deep just to do it? We leave it out. If you are an artist and use your emotions to create, creation from a place of trauma should be cathartic, healing and lead to growth. If digging deep only leads to more sensations of being traumatized, feelings of overwhelm, less insight, more anger and more exhaustion, you are likely spinning your wheels in an activity that spends too much energy without sufficient returns.
Let me share an example of how this works. About a week before I went into my cardiac ablation surgery, I intended to live as balanced, relaxed and calm as possible. I believed that this would support a successful outcome for my procedure. However, as I intentionally slowed myself down I experienced an intense internal pressure not to slow down. The pressure directed me toward what has been a life-long pattern for me: not allowing myself to rest until I had exhausted myself and run into the proverbial wall. Then, exhausted, permission to slow down would be granted. But the permission was granted only long enough to muster enough energy to run myself ragged again.
In intentionally slowing myself down, my body clearly showed me that slowing down was breaking the rules. What’s more . . . when I stopped and listened, my body reminded me of exactly why it was important to keep running and when that pattern began in my life.
This information freed me to make the choice that was best for me. I didn’t need to dig. I didn’t need to tell anyone about the trauma. All I needed to do was “bump into it” while I was making choices that were healthy for me, listen to the message my body was giving me and make a healthy choice based on my current situation rather than on past realities. That’s how it works when we allow our incredible bodies, minds and souls to lead our healing process.
So, are you obsessed with going down the rabbit hole? Is your therapist obsessed with taking you there? Are you on a search for the mysterious secret that will allow you to release your pain? I would say this: only go down the rabbit hole if it benefits you. Don’t dive deep. Give yourself permission to let go. To find things that feel good to you. To say “no” to going down the rabbit hole when the rabbit hole doesn’t offer you any obvious promise.
Finding the right balance is necessary for what I believe is essential for the body to be able to guide you toward health. Click here to listen to Tamara discuss how you can use your body and your feelings purposefully to heal your soul.
Even if the rabbit hole does bring you promise, it’s useful, beneficial and even healthy to take a break when your body tells you that enough is enough.
What kind of therapist can effectively assist you with overcoming trauma in a meaningful way? That’s a great question. The short answer is that there are effective, research-based methods of doing therapy which are proven to be effective in healing trauma. For the longer answer, watch for my upcoming post on Effective Therapies for Treating PTSD.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2016 All Rights Reserved. Any use of this article without Tamara’s express written permission is prohibited. For more of Tamara’s work, please visit www.2btru2you.com. For a listing of podcast episodes, please visit www.2btru2you.solutions. Tamara’s podcast can also be found on iTunes.