The Healthy Self is a dynamic entity, holding the capacity for self-regulation, autonomy, and our connection with ourselves. Its resources can be expanded through therapeutically facilitated integration of the cut-off trauma parts, and the consequent reduction of the survival self.
However, throughout life we need to train ourselves to use the Healthy Self well, and to add to the resources it carries. This might involve abdominal breathing exercises, meditation, being out in nature, listening to music, having enough time to ‘be’ with ourselves and enjoy what that brings. This is about how we structure time and activity.
The Healthy Self is about the present; the trauma parts are about the past, and the survival self is facing both the past and the future but isn’t in the present moment.
Thoughts about how to develop healthy resources were stimulated by two events I participated in during August. One was a 5-day online retreat, the other was a one-day conference on ‘Facing Mortal Threat’. I recognise that we all take something different from the same event, but the things I took away included:
Values or Virtues for living in the present and therefore from the healthy self:
We need to know what is important to us, not our parents, not those we want to impress, but to our being able to live a life from a Healthy Self-perspective. I have always struggled when people talk about values, as so often what are listed don’t seem to me to be values. The word used in both these events was virtues, which I could connect with. What virtues do I want to develop in myself which build up the capacity within my Healthy Self?
Some suggestions that I resonated with were:
Those of you who are familiar with Insight Mindfulness or Buddhism will recognise these.
Healthy Self action
We also need the capacity to act, it isn’t just about calming our system. But it is acting from the Healthy Self. On the ‘facing mortal threat’ conference, and one of the speakers used a term I hadn’t heard before, ‘toxic feminine’, which as a feminist I took exception to. I think he was referring to a potential danger in only focusing on calming (which I assume he was associating with the feminine) when we also need to act to use our autonomous agency. This might be in relation to our life or in relation to what is happening in our society. I took this on as an important resource within the Healthy Self.
Slowing down so the Healthy Self can breathe
The acceleration of life was also discussed; everything is speeding up. I think we need to slow things down for the Healthy Self to breathe. Not into a sort of slumber, but to step out of the acceleration that is all around us and into which we are drawn. Covid-19 preventative measures have enabled this for some. Society is full of survival strategies to keep at bay the trauma feelings also present within us all.
Survival Thinking Patterns
During the retreat I also noticed how my thinking patterns were survival strategies. The planner, administrator, imaginator, and story teller were all busy when I was trying to sit and ‘be’. These thinking functions all have their value, but often they are about trying to control the future or reassure myself about the past; they are not about the now. And of course, part of my career was built on these thinking functions, leading large international projects or consultancy assignments. It is not that in themselves they are survival strategies, it is the use they get put to. They can crowd out the Healthy Self, shout it down almost. To develop my connection with my Healthy Self, enabling these to rest would be valuable.
I encourage us all to explore whatever ‘virtues’ are relevant to us or whatever resourcing and deepening our Healthy Self fits best for us. What you decide on will be different from my selections. I think this helps us in our coaching, and whatever professional practice we are in. It helps diminish the extent and potential damage of our survival strategies.
Julia Vaughan Smith
Racial perpetration leaves the same trauma response as other forms of trauma and is as easily triggered, especially as there is racism embedded in our societies. I am noticing many more people are talking about racial trauma, and that it is coming into a wider collective awareness outside those communities for whom it is a common experience. Deliberate exclusion of any ‘group’ is perpetration and can feel life threatening especially for a child who may be bewildered about what is happening. TV images of perpetration and exclusion reinforce these personal experiences. Those affected have of course known and lived this. It’s the rest of us who may not have looked closely enough or listened well enough.
It reminds me a bit of when sexual abuse of children first came into the collective consciousness as being damaging; the children affected had always known and suffered the damage of course but this wasn’t recognised. Those understanding the impact for the first time were shocked and perhaps felt guilty for going along with the societal blindness. Sexual abuse sufferers were also afraid to speak out because of this denial held in society and its institutions, so they remained silent. The same can be true for those affected by racial perpetration, they have kept silent in wider forums; how could they trust how it would be received?
The difference between sexual abuse and racial abuse is that with the former, while listening to personal stories I could often differentiate myself from the perpetrator, who was often male. We should remember though, that mothers and other women do sexually abuse children. With racial abuse, listening to the suffering in those that carry that trauma, I am more like the perpetrators, being a white woman, and indeed carry a societally complicit responsibility regarding the perpetration.
As coaches we need to be able to hear clearly what is being said to us. We need to be able to make it a safe environment and to be open to all that may need to be shared by the client. This requires us to be aware of our own blindness, denial or discomfort and not to project them onto the client, whatever biography they share..
Thomas Huebl (https://thomashuebl.com) talks of three levels of trauma:
The recognition of transgenerational trauma means that we understand that ‘it didn’t start with us’ other than in very exceptional circumstances. Our grandparents’ trauma, and external conditions, affected how they parented our parents, and they in turn carried their trauma in their parenting of us. This trauma will have resulted from the wide range of possible causal factors, including, racial abuse. These causal factors include how our parents, or those parenting us, relate to us, from conception onwards, within the external conditions they are experiencing. The child might take in aspects of hypervigilance and survival responses they experience in their parents.
There is some emerging epigenetic evidence in mice about how the DNA is changed by the trauma response in one generation. If the trauma response is somehow encoded into the DNA, as is being suggested but as yet unproven, then we inherit that. The genetic coding sets up a sensitivity to environmental conditions. If the conditions we experience replicate that, the trauma response will activate. The implication is that some have already been ‘primed’ to be sensitised to their environment. This is still ours to do the work on, to understand our trauma response and that while it is linked directly to our own experience, it is also linked to one or both of our parents.
Collective Trauma is a relatively recent concept. We live in a traumatising and traumatised society. That is, that society holds the perpetrations, the fragmentation of trauma, and the survival defences against the trauma parts embedded within societal ‘norms’ and institutions. We take these in as part of our societal conditioning and exposure. We are all affected by these dynamics. Racism including anti-semitism is part of this collective trauma and affects all of us in different ways, depending on which race we are; for example, do we know these perpetrations directly or are we carrying denial, illusion and avoidance, or are we numb or frozen to it as part of our traumatised response? How are our institutions complicit in this collective traumatisation? How are we?
Those who perpetrate on others also stimulate the trauma response within themselves. They too become more split, cut off, frozen, numb and utilise a range of survival strategies, the strongest of which are denial and justification, together with the perpetrator:victim dynamics. These are held in society structures and attitudes. There was a personal account on Twitter yesterday, by a barrister, who was repeatedly challenged by the court officials as she made her way to the court room she was to be in. She was talked to as if she was the defendant, the cleaner, and a relative of a defendant but all seemed to be blind to the fact she was a barrister because of her skin colour. This I am sure, is repeated in all kinds of settings, every day.
The thinking is that doing our own work is an essential part of contributing to the healing of collective trauma. This means owning our own perpetration on others, taking responsibility for our part in the continuing collective trauma, or trauma within individuals. We are then more open to the reality of the world and the shared/unshared experience. A good reflective question to ask ourselves is “in what ways am I part of this?” in relation to specific events. We need to sit with the question and allow things to emerge, and meet them without self-attack, but to face up to our truth.
Perhaps the best way to deal with all this is as a person, not just as a coach. To be a more effective coach we need to invest in our own inner development, alongside any other education and training. If we do our own work we are more aware of our contribution to the continuation to collective or systemic trauma.
As coaches, we can be aware of this whole field of racial trauma in our work and continue to expand our awareness, through our education, reading and listening. We need to be mindful of parts of us that are numb or frozen to particular issues, or are in denial or become dissociated should an issue arise.
Jules Vaughan Smith