In my most recent blog post, I charted some of the course of moving into and then out of the victim role as an essential and healthy process for dealing with trauma. I wrote this in part due to a conversation I had with a few therapy colleagues at a conference about trauma and healing. I had asked them, “when can we as therapists know when a victim of trauma has healed from their trauma?” The answer I received was less than satisfactory (to me). One therapist responded, “We can know a client has healed from trauma when they tell us they have healed.” The other therapists at the table liked this response, and agreed wholeheartedly. Like I said, I wasn’t satisfied. While this is certainly something I’d like to believe is true—that I don’t really have to participate in the decision about when someone has “healed” from their trauma (or for that matter any serious emotional issue), and can leave it to the client to decide—I am also concerned that doing so could be harmful to the client if they aren’t seeing things I am seeing and they are inaccurately perceiving their own state of healing as being further along than it really is (e.g. denial of an incomplete healing process to avoid further emotional turmoil or responsibility for change). Premature completion of the healing process could also deprive the client of the very services they sought when they came to see me: professional help in identifying when and how they can truly come to terms (heal) with whatever emotional issue brought them to therapy.
Despite my concerns about a client not seeing aspects of their own unresolved issues, I also want my clients to be fully in control of their investment in the therapy process. They can quit anytime they want. They can decide, regardless of what I might think, that they have sufficiently healed and have the necessary tools to address their emotional issues without further assistance from me. This happens regularly, and I applaud clients who make this decision, hoping only that, if they discover down the road they have more work to do to completely heal, they will contact me or another therapist to resume therapy.
Looking at both sides of this equation, then, the question is, how can both the client and I accurately identify when the client has healed sufficiently from their emotional issues (trauma, grief, depression, or really any difficult life transition) to no longer need my help? I believe there are two telltale signs that answer this question (in most but not all cases):
- The client can hold memories of the events leading to their emotional issues without becoming overwhelmed with the emotional impact of the events (I’ll explain this in more detail below); and
- The client has at least partially achieved a state of what some call “radical acceptance” or what I prefer to call a state of “grace” about the events and people involved in the situation giving rise to the emotional issues that brought them to therapy.
The first telltale sign of healing from serious emotional issues, including trauma, loss, and difficult transitions, happens when a client can recall the events leading to the emotional issues without in that moment of recollection going back to the way they felt when the events initially occurred. To use more clinical terms, the level of “emotional reactivity” a client feels in the present to the past event is significantly reduced or eliminated. So, when I work with clients who have suffered some kind of trauma, they can have clear memories of at least some of the traumatic events without feeling the trauma all over again.
This is often a slow painstaking process that cannot be rushed. Rushing this process, especially with trauma, can actually make the trauma worse because forcing or encouraging someone to have distinct memories of traumatic events before they are ready, strong enough, before they feel safe enough to do so in their current status and circumstances, can lead to retraumatization. When this occurs, the client suffers even more harm from the initial trauma, because they go through a secondary trauma by having these memories before they are ready. This is part of the reason I put in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter, two chapters on the importance of safety in therapy.
My first ethical principle, more important than any other, is “do no harm.” In order to apply this with clients who have suffered trauma, I do what I can to ensure that our discussions avoid retraumatizing the clients, so they do not suffer more harm than they already have from experiencing the trauma in the first place. Examples of re-experiencing the trauma as trauma can include childhood memories that cause the person having the memory to feel like they are once again the child they were, with the accompanying sense of powerlessness, fear, sense of doom, terror, and hopelessness to avoid the traumatic situation. You can probably imagine there is little benefit, and potentially great harm, to a person who experiences this “reliving” the childhood experience. Part of what makes healing possible is for the person to see themselves as they are now, not lose sight of that, so when they do have memories of traumatic events, they are able to put distance between themselves as they are now and how they were then. Now they have power, they have choices, strengths, resources, relationships, support and cognitive and emotional capacities they didn’t have then, when the traumatic events occurred.
Rushing the process of eliminating emotional reactivity to past events can also lead to a false sense of healing, which can occur when the client ends up resorting to denial, dissociation or some other form of repression. Ideally, if real and relatively complete healing has occurred, the client will be able to be both open to whatever emotions might come up for them while having the memories of the events, but without feeling those events in the same way they felt those events when they originally occurred. I can at any time conjure up memories of the abuse I suffered at the hands of my father when I was a child, feel sad for the child version of myself for having been subjected to that abuse, but without that memory changing my current mood state or overidentifying with myself as a child so I get lost in the memory and the feelings I had when I was a child. I have been able to do this only after years of therapy and then more years of continuing self-reflection and proactive growth around my own issues.
Let’s now move on to explain the second telltale sign of real healing from trauma and other difficult emotional issues. In an article in Psychology Today, this is the definition of “radical acceptance:” “Radical Acceptance means completely and totally accepting something from the depths of your soul, with your heart and your mind. You stop fighting reality. When you stop fighting you suffer less.” Acceptance of what has happened to you that caused your current emotional difficulties is certainly part of the healing process. Often, this kind of acceptance is enough. In the case of loss, especially when that loss is the result of being wronged in some way, this is not enough, and this is where “grace” comes in. When I think of grace, I mostly think about what might be the greatest statement of grace ever made (to my knowledge anyway). It is from the New Testament, when Jesus was on the cross and the bible says he looked down at the people celebrating his utterly cruel, unfair, and senseless execution by crucifixion, “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Amazing level of grace.
Grace occurs when we allow ourselves to let go of our feelings of anger, resentment, bitterness, vitriol, which are all based on negative judgments about someone else. Grace is more than just letting go, though, because with grace, we are letting go of negative judgments even though those judgments accurately describe the person about whom the judgments are made. In other words, we allow ourselves to let go of these negative feelings and judgments even when the person deserves to have these negative feelings and judgments directed at them. We do it for us, for our peace of mind, so we can move on. We do not do it for them, but we do it, we obtain grace, by accepting completely that the other person is who they are, and there can be no changing that, and we can hope that they might change, or stop doing what they did.
A common example of this kind of grace, as a goal to healing, is with a therapy client going through a divorce, in which it seems accurate to say that person other than my client made decisions that were the most obvious and immediate reasons for the divorce. Maybe they had or continue to have an affair, which destroyed the marriage. Maybe they have an addiction issue that brings harm to the marriage, to themselves, to the entire family, and they refuse to stop their addictive behavior and the only way to reduce the harm to the rest of the family is for my client to end the marriage and isolate the addictive person from the children and from themselves. I have on many occasions watched clients go through the very difficult, yet entirely possible and beneficial process of transitioning from deserved anger and confusion, to acceptance that the marriage needs to end, to an acceptance that the other person either will or will not make the changes necessary to improve their own situation, while my client does what he or she can to improve theirs, without letting the other person keep them in a pattern of entangled resentment, self-doubt, anger, and anxiety, all of which is useless and harmful. They have come to a place of acceptance that looks a lot like: “father, forgive (him or her), for (he or she) knows what they do.” And they have then come to a place of real healing from the divorce and all the problems that initiated it.
I have one last point to make about grace and healing before ending this blog post. Grace does not necessarily mean the same thing as forgiveness, although sometimes they can go together. Grace means: I accept that you are how you are and can let go of my internal negative feelings about you, even though I cannot accept what you did, or think it was okay. Forgiveness means: I am willing to let go of what you did and accept you fully, as if it never happened. You can achieve a state of grace, even without forgiveness. If you care to learn more about forgiveness and letting go, I have explained in much greater detail my thoughts on forgiveness in two chapters in my book, Firewalking on Jupiter.
If a person is able to accept, embrace, move through, and move past the events that led to their emotional issues, no matter how difficult or long that process has become, so that they can remember those events without emotional reactivity and with grace, they will have achieved a post-victim status. This status does not mean they should forget about the events that made them a victim in the first place. It just means they will be able to see themselves as having the power and capacity to chart their own course now, rather than allowing the victimizing events create their choices for them. Post-victim status will allow a victim to discontinue blaming anyone else for their circumstances, so they can take full responsibility and have the freedom to make their own choices, despite the real harm they have suffered.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.