Davia was a NWFL Affiliate who specialized in working with children and adolescents from a psychoanalytic perspective and was based in Bellingham. Davia tended to use a Jungian approach often utilizing art and image-based methods including dream work with her clients, young and old. We chatted with her here about different ways to process feelings.
How do you work with kids when they don’t have language for what they are feeling?
I find in the case of working with kids who have limited language for what they are feeling, taking things to an imaginal realm helps. If you ask a kid to tell or draw you a story, their feelings will be in there, with more space for complexity (the feeling has a specific face, perhaps character, in a specific context that wouldn’t be able to surface if we stuck to the literal). If I do have to ask about things directly, I’ll have more body-based inquiries. “How did your tummy feel when mom said….” etc.
Talk to us about the importance of letting kids feel the breadth of their emotions.
When kids (and adults!) can experience the full breadth of emotions, they are less likely to narrow in on one emotion or thought in repetition. An example would be lumping entire experiences into only sadness or anger, or distraction from feelings that can’t be related to at all which can look like hyperactivity, forgetfulness, compulsion and fear. If one can learn to value that full range of feeling, the default assessments won’t rule the roost!
Talk to us about this idea of trauma ‘hiding’ when the brain isn’t able to compute what is happening.
I think of trauma as another word for an experience we don’t have capacity to fully feel. Often trauma is worked with by a person in ways that aren’t exactly recognized as thoughts or feelings. It falls outside of a thinkable or recognizable realm by definition, but it isn’t lost. It goes somewhere.
Does trauma always look like one huge event? Could you give us an example of a ‘smaller’ trauma?
In this way, smaller traumas happen all the time. Any time your mind has to attempt to put something off in order to continue because it doesn’t know how to experience it, that’s trauma.
So, everyone experiences trauma. Trauma is built into human development. Our mind grows to a point where it doesn’t recognize itself and gets organized using the tools available – largely other people’s example.
Talk about validating emotions like anger, especially in the context of domestic violence.
We learn what certain emotions feel like by seeing them on another’s face, and learn what to do about them through others’ actions too. So, if someone has only seen violent anger, connecting with their genuine feeling and affect could be difficult, but necessary work. It would be really important for such a person to find a safe place to experience strong emotion and get familiar with how it feels to them particularly.
In my work with children especially, though certainly with adults as well, I will meet folks who deny experiencing anger if they’ve seen it predominately violently, or will recognize it as something else (sadness, depression, anxiety). Another might only feel/express anger paired with violence towards themself or others. Or perhaps the anger will be severed and pop up in some psychosomatic way. Because anger is an important part of the emotional spectrum, it’s important to learn to experience it with all of its colors, not only the stunted expression.
Can you talk about your work around images, dreams and sensory experiences?
I work with folk’s dreams and images and sensory experiences because those images and sensory feelings seem to hold units of psychic content, made by the particular mind. It’s like I could talk about anger with a client all day, where they’ve seen it before in their family and all that. But if we’re not getting to the particular mind’s images and specific containers of anger, it’s still gonna be pretty superficial work. In this way, my clinical mind is pretty Jungian. I use other methods and borrow modalities but I can’t un-see the archetypal stuff.
Tell us about how you as a counselor experience someone’s “felt” presence.
A “felt sense” of folks is important here too. How they sit, how they present, what it feels like to be with them gives me a referential point to start that work. The images and feelings that get transferred to me can have enormous psychic content for my client, and we are learning together what it means to tend to them.
Do you have a theory of change?
Change looks like learning to be a companion to oneself. That contains all the buzzword-concepts like containment, self-soothing, self care, mindfulness and all that but I see those things as for the sake of the psychic content having a place to live and be welcomed in order to work itself out. Like, complexes can’t be eradicated…but they can be given some space to breathe, and to open/loosen some of those associations, so a person has some creativity, they aren’t at the mercy of the associated compulsions any longer.
Are there any resources you would like to share with our audience?
Audre Lorde – she’s rooted in identifying cultural containers of psychic content (particularly in regard to racism and sexism) and teasing out those complex-hubs. I’m so grateful for her work. Check out “Sister Outsider.”
I also return to Bell Hooks a lot. I like memoir as a genre because it’s like I’m watching someone working poetically with their experience, using that inner companion. It’s helpful to me clinically. Check out “Teaching to Transgress.”
Julie DeBoer is a NWFL affiliate therapist who specializes in trauma, abuse, and food and body issues. She has a background in eating disorder treatment, and she is passionate about helping clients develop new ways of relating to themselves and their bodies.
Tell us about the work you do with clients around food and body issues.
Most of my clients have strained relationships with their bodies and struggle to varying degrees to accept, love, and nourish their bodies. They experience their bodies as places of pain and shame rather than safety and comfort, and many have learned to fight against their bodies rather than allying with them. For the population I work with, this often involves disordered eating and exercise patterns. Many of my clients have become both fixated on their bodies and simultaneously highly estranged from them. They have learned to resist or override their physical needs and cues rather than listening and attending to them. My desire is to help my clients restore a sense of belonging in their own bodies. In that way, I really see my work as a therapist as the slow and gentle process of bringing people back home to themselves.
Can you speak to the idea of the body as home?
From the time we are born until we die, our bodies carry us through the world, and they are really our only constant. Our other physical houses are temporary and transient, but we never leave our bodies. Our bodies contain us–physically, spiritually, and emotionally–and are meant to be places of safety and comfort. If “home” is a place where we are known and loved and cared for and free to be ourselves, I believe that our own bodies are meant to be the place we experience that most fully.
So what happens when that home (the body) is unsafe?
All too often, our bodies endure harm and violence, and for survivors of these experiences, the body can feel extremely unsafe. For a survivor of trauma, the body is a place of immense vulnerability and betrayal, and many have the experience of feeling trapped in their bodies rather than being at home there. To live in the body is terrifying, and yet, there is no way to escape. So people who have suffered harm often develop ways of psychologically leaving their bodies by disconnecting and dissociating, because staying feels unbearable.I believe that so often, patterns of addiction and disordered eating and self-harm are ways that people struggle with the reality of living in a body that feels unsafe.
Talk about helping people identify and understand patterns that have been informed by trauma
In my experience, helping people identify the links between trauma and current behavioral patterns is often so essential to the healing process. When people can begin to understand why their body has responded in the ways that it has and how it has been wired to protect them, they can begin to develop a sense of empathy, gratitude, and ultimately trust for their bodies.
How might trauma affect a person’s experience with their own body
Trauma is, by definition, an experience that overwhelms our system and exceeds our capacity to process it in the moment. Our bodies have an ingenious way of helping us survive these experiences by creating a split between our mind and body and essentially allow our minds to leave while our bodies endure the traumatic experience. For many, this split continues long after the traumatic event is over and leads survivors to fundamentally distrust their bodies. They experienced their body as powerless during the traumatic event and may feel that their body has betrayed them. Many trauma survivors hold conscious or unconscious resentment toward their body for responding as it did. It’s also important to recognize that when we feel powerless, we often respond by doubling down on controlling behaviors to try to increase a sense of power, and this frequently plays out in body-based processes such as eating disorders.
When you combine all of these factors, the unfortunate reality is that trauma sets survivors up in an almost uncanny way to have highly contentious relationships with their bodies.
How might feeling anger be terrifying for a trauma survivor?
To be connected with anger is to be connected with a sense of power. I believe that most trauma survivors experience immense ambivalence regarding their own power. For some, anger can become a means of trying to protect themselves and compensate for the experience of powerlessness. For others, feeling anger may increase their experience of feeling out of control, and they put their anger on lockdown. Particularly for survivors of abuse or domestic violence, anger can feel quite dangerous and actually expose them to greater harm, so they learn to bury it at all costs. Even long after the threat has passed, anger can feel terrifying and difficult to access. I think learning to engage anger and connect with power can be an immensely important component of the healing process for survivors of trauma, but it is often a long and very difficult process.
Talk about befriending or reconciling with your body
Our bodies are created for survival. They are wired in all kinds of intricate and incredible ways to keep us alive, and when we can begin to understand how our bodies have been working our entire lives to keep us safe, we can start to trust them and ally with them rather than fighting against them.
Tell us about the mindfulness part of your work
I use mindfulness and body awareness practices frequently in my work, especially with clients seeking help with food and body issues. Our bodies are constantly giving us data about ourselves and the world around us, and every time we pause and choose to listen to these physical sensations and cues, it is a way of telling our bodies, “I trust you.” When we practice mindfulness, we are returning home to our bodies, even if only for a moment. Mindfulness does not magically take away the fear or anxiety that we hold in our bodies, but through repetition it slowly increases our capacity to feel safe there.
For many of your clients, there is also a faith component to trauma work. What does someone do with the question, “If God is good and loves me, how did this happen,” or “Where was God when…?
Part of the crisis of trauma is meaninglessness. Trauma is suffering with no explanation or purpose, and for many survivors, this raises questions about God. Part of the healing work of trauma is meaning-making and finding ways to integrate the traumatic experience into their belief system. Many of my clients of faith have found meaning in experiencing God as a co-sufferer. Elie Weisel is a Holocaust survivor who writes about the horrific experience of watching the execution of a Jewish child. He writes, “Behind me, I heard a man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where [God] is? This is where–hanging here from this gallows.’” For many of my clients, this sense of God suffering with them has brought a profound sense of comfort and meaning.
Do you have any resources you would like to share with us?
Food Psych podcast by Christy Harrison
“I’m Taking My Body Back” TED Talk by Rupi Kaur
Night, by Elie Weisel
The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van der Kolk
To get in touch with Julie please call 206-880-3430 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Bent Meyer is an affiliate therapist at Northwest Family Life.
We spoke to him about non-verbal memory, the reactiveness that comes from that place, and how someone might integrate their non-verbal system with their cognitive one.
Talk to us about the non-verbal cues generated in our brains.
Non-verbal cues are evoked by data that come though our input senses (eyes, ears, touch, smell, etc.). It only takes 30 milliseconds for the data to find a pattern match within structures like the limbic system and hypothalamus. The pattern matching comes from previous life experience that was taken in through our senses and recorded in the non-verbal memory system to be accessed later in life.
Once a pattern match is found messaging is sent to various parts of our body to activate glands, muscles, capillaries and such to prepare for action related to what is being perceived. It takes an additional 300 to 500 milliseconds for words to be formed within our rational mind.
What kind of reactiveness comes out of non-verbal memory?
The consequence is we are already in action mode before rational consideration (executive function) can be made to evaluate whether our perception is valid or not.The limbic system is intrinsically designed and sensitive to keeping one alive and out of unpleasantness. Thus, it is biased to be particularly attuned to the negative.This provides some clarity to why defensiveness is most people’s default response when feeling shame and powerlessness.
If non-verbal memory is activating our body 10 times before we can think about it, how can people make a bridge between reacting and evaluating a situation first?
It starts with open curiosity, a felt posture of leaning into and observing without categorizing something as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The task is not to obliterate our defenses but to regulate them so that they are not super aroused in situations that are benign. When we can bring awareness to the sensations in the body, asking questions about what stimulated this reaction, we can look at the patterns of thinking and behavior that are evoked. The next part is to tolerate the feelings without acting. It is holding long enough to do a reality check, slowing down to let executive function come on line.
Why is it important to be able to put words to what one is experiencing?
The benefit of integrating words with non-verbal cues is the ability to get out what is locked up inside the body without having to act it out. It is a way to not be alone. Words provide a means for others to join in our joy, pain and confusion. Words also integrate abstraction with subjective knowing and slow down reactiveness.
Can you explain a transactional way of relating in relationships?
In our culture we have been taught the values of cause and effect evaluation. It is a default in our communication with others. “I feel this way because you did _______!” I call this transactional. It externalizes the reason I feel what I feel. Each of us is responsible for how we each read and manage our internal cue and arousal. When awareness and responsibility are active, blame shifting is greatly reduced. When two people read well the full bandwidth of verbal and non-verbal communication, both from the other and from ones own interpretive cues, there can be openness to collaborate.
Can you elaborate on thinking in categories of mutuality, rather than of power differentials?
Power differential is useful in hierarchical structures, like business or military organizations, were specific purpose and time sensitive goals must be executed. But, in intimate relationships it is rarely useful.
When it exists in intimate relationships, the one with power is often on an intellectual island, relying only on their own wit. The partner is subject in a role that often is functional, but often not prized as a source of importance. For such a partner, silence is often safest. In order for the subject to have influence, manipulation, or their own power bid, must be employed. It this context, the dynamic becomes one of winning or losing. The relationship is transactional. Inter mutual dependence is unknown within these couples.
And in a scenario of mutuality?
Close intimate relationships that employ mutuality have a fluidity about them. There is an admiration and respect for the mind and abilities of the other. There is simultaneously a real knowing of one’s own current ability to contribute. I say current, because there is also an assurance that my capacity to know and be is likely improved tomorrow. It is an interdependence that collaboratively wrestles, debates, researches, and brings forward disparate resources to formulate what each could or would not do alone.
Can you speak to the process of integrating our cognitive system with our non-verbal one and thus gaining more executive / cognitive control?
The process of integrating our subjective known world and our verbal system is through awareness first, then using descriptive language. At first this might be as simple as a child who says say “Owee” and points to their ear. Obviously, later in life our descriptive language grows to where we can use metaphors to describe inner experience, for example, “I feel like I can’t breathe” to describe terror felt in social settings.
When language is not integrated with non-verbal knowing we are trapped within our skin. The only choice we have to get it out of us is to action it out. Language conventions provide the way for our inner experience, world and thoughts to be joined by others instead of trapped inside us.
Integration is the function of connecting wiring between disparate parts of the brain with enough redundancy to make the communication fuller and speedier. It is to deepen and widen knowing.
You say for most people, in the same way that “different” is often uncomfortable, so is changing our non-verbal experience system. Can you talk about pushing through this discomfort?
If you have played golf, you will likely remember the first time someone showed you how to correctly grip the handle of a club. It like felt odd, and you might have retreated to a hold that felt more comfortable to you. But the joy felt in the increasing performance from your swing made the transition to a new hold possible.
Change involves the POSIBILITY of something different. It is being curious. There is a playful leaning into possibility. What is under that rock on the beach?
I wonder what will happen if I _______? It is a given, that you will not know unless you try, and in the trying, failure is tolerably measure, yet a little on the risky side.
Change occurs with repetition and with increased complexity. This means deepening tolerance while widening variability of experience. This means the tendencies to demand fixed sequences, recipes, and time allocations must be loosened. One must teach the experience system that there are more experiences that are not dangerous, heavy, exhausting, and unpleasant, but rather surprisingly enjoyable.
Connect with Bent here