Tyler Ziebarth on Trauma and Our Innate Desire for Growth
Tyler Ziebarth is a Northwest Family Life affiliate therapist who often works around issues of trauma, addiction, anxiety, and toxic beliefs.
Talk to us about humanity’s innate drive to grow.
This is a deep belief that I hold about people: that we all have an innate drive towards growth and development. Our natural movement is towards wholeness and “largeness”, that is, occupying a larger sense of who we are and our worth as individuals. Carl Jung once said, “We all walk around in shoes far too small for us”. By that I think he meant that the roles we play and the scripts we have been given by family and society are not large enough to contain the beauty and potential each of possess at our core.
So many problems arise when that movement towards our largeness is stifled in some way. This can occur either from things that happen to us (trauma, abuse, etc), or things that should have happened but didn’t (empathy, validation and attunement from caregivers). But no matter what happened (or didn’t happen) to us in our lives, it does not negate or destroy that inherent summons to grow and expand.
In fact, sometimes the “stuckness” we feel in our lives is our soul’s way of alerting us to places where growth and largeness are being stifled. If we have ears to hear and a sense of curiosity toward our symptoms, they may actually have much to teach us about what we need in our lives to become more fully who we were intended to be.
How might someone’s relationship to food or sex reflect how they relate to the world?
Sex and food have much in common. Both have a lot to do with longing and desire, the hunger for connection with self and others, and an appreciation of the body and its capacity for sensual pleasures. Sex and food are both ways we bring our bodies pleasure, a sense of comfort, nurturance, and care. How we relate to sex and food reveals much about how we are in relationships with others as well.
If you think about it, food was also one of the first ways we learned to soothe intolerable internal sensations. We felt the pang of hunger as an infant, and our mothers responded by feeding us. It was also in these moments of feeding that we were simultaneously being relationally satiated, having the experience of our caregiver attuned to our hunger for both food and relationship. No wonder sex (longing for relationship) and food become emotionally charged issues later in our lives.
It makes sense that if we have not developed internal resources for coping with stress, or the unpredictability of life, that we return to these early forms of self-regulation, often with extreme and unhealthy consequences. So though food and sex can offer us ways to bring our bodies pleasure and a sense of comfort, they can also become areas that bring contempt, condemnation and pain when we do not have other means of soothing our hearts.
Why might one want to develop the ability to tolerate anxiety?
For better or worse, anxiety always goes hand and hand with growth. The ability to tolerate anxiety is a prerequisite to growth. The hard truth is that the extent that we avoid and escape feeling anxiety is the extent that we also sacrifice our growth and development. Anxiety is uncomfortable, especially for those who have experienced any sort of trauma in their lives. But, as is the case with most of our anxiety-avoidance strategies , they hinder us moving forward in our lives. As the old adage goes, “what we resist persists,” and I would add, grows bigger and scarier.
Healing requires tremendous courage to face the monsters of our past and grow in our capacity to tolerate these states of anxiety. We learn how to attend, befriend and regulate our anxiety, rather than letting it rule our lives by constantly avoiding it or becoming overwhelmed by it. This is where working with a therapist can be helpful in offering the support, attunement and containment, often required to step into these places.
Talk to us about dysregulation.
Dysregulation is a form of losing your emotional balance. This is what happens when we get over the top stressed and our nervous system goes into overdrive. At this point our bodies are flooded with stress hormones and we lose access to the thinking part of our brain. For some this emotional hijacking can feel like you are drowning in your emotions. Or, for some it feels like going into “shut down mode” and they experience an absence of feeling, or numbness.
Either response hinders our ability to think straight and respond to the situation with the necessary flexibility and wisdom required to navigate the complexities of life and relationships. When our nervous system is going haywire, we naturally turn to anything that will help calm us down and rebalance us. This is where potential problems arise. If we have not developed the internal resources necessary to bring our systems back to a state of goodness and calm, we will inevitably outsource this job to a number of external things and/or behaviors (food, sex, tv, over-work) with potential negative consequences.
How might extreme trauma require a witness to stand beside someone as they work through overwhelming states?
The overwhelming states that trauma survivors talk about are sometimes called “body memories”. It is well documented that traumatic memories are often held in the body and experienced by survivors as overwhelming physical sensations. When the memory remains unprocessed, the body acts as if the trauma is “happening now” rather than something that “happened then”.
In other words, even though the thinking part of our brain knows the trauma happened a long time ago in the past, when a reminder of the past triggers us in the present, our thinking brain shuts down and our bodies act as if the trauma is happening all over again. At this point the person’s body is completely hijacked by terrifying physical sensations similar to what they experienced in the past. It is as if that young part of them who experienced those terrifying experiences back then is still very much alive in the present. The body, and subsequently those younger parts of us, get tagged as the source of terrifying sensations and are avoided at all costs.
Part of the work for trauma survivors is to reconnect with those young traumatized parts of the self and offer the care, attunement and containment they originally needed back then. Those younger parts need someone older, stronger and wiser to see how bad things were back then, and offer the appropriate care and protection that was missing. I often tell my clients that those panicked, triggered parts of us need to know that “someone gets it”, in order for those parts to move forward and heal. The therapist may be the initial witness to the client’s story, but over time the client becomes empowered to become that witness for their younger selves.
Tell us a little bit about different parts of the self, especially the younger parts and how they grow.
The writer Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I am still every age that I have been”. I love that because I think it speaks to the reality that we are not a single “self”, but all are made up of many parts of self. I think we all intuitively feel this, and it is especially evident when you hear people say things like, “part of me wants to do this, but another part wants that…”. The Pixar movie “Inside Out” is another great example of this theory of multiple selves. How many of us can recall feeling younger than we are at certain times of frustration or disappointment, or when we visit our childhood homes during the holidays? The path of growth and maturity requires that we learn to attend to and work with these younger parts of ourselves when they get activated.
This is especially necessary for those who have experienced significant trauma in their lives. When a traumatic event happens (or repeatedly happens) to a child, the experience is “too much” to process, but the child has no choice but to try and carry on with their lives as best they can. This requires the ability to “forget” what happened. This is accomplished by storing the memories and sensations of the event in a different part of our brain so that we can carry on with the task of daily life. It is as if we offload those memories to one part of the self and then exile them to “the basement”, in order for us to move on. This is a brilliant strategy and we must be grateful that our brains come equipped with this feature because otherwise we would be paralyzed and unable to move forward after a traumatic event. This compartmentalization strategy, however, does have consequences. Those exiled and neglected parts still bear the burdens of the past, and may become easily triggered by present day events.
These confusing symptoms are often what bring trauma survivors into therapy in the first place, and it becomes helpful to start viewing the symptoms as communications from younger parts of us that are not doing well and therefore flooding us with their emotions. The task of therapy is to begin learning how to attend to these young parts of the self and offer them the care and nurturance they need in order to heal.
Could you talk a little about post traumatic growth?
This is a somewhat newer area of research that is coming about, and it is quite interesting. My understanding at least is that this is the idea that some people claim positive psychological changes due to facing adversity and challenges in their lives. It is the idea that while traumatic events and adversity are never desired or welcomed, these challenging experiences nonetheless hold the opportunity for people to experience new growth, inner strength/resiliency, and aspects of the self previously undiscovered. Many people report a radical shift in perspective about their lives and the nature of life itself after working through their traumatic past. Rather than seeing themselves as victims in a tragic life story, they begin to see themselves as survivors capable of overcoming the worst that life has thrown at them.
I find this a helpful paradigm shift. In our day and age it is sometimes easy to forget that we humans are incredibly resilient creatures capable of overcoming tremendous hardship. This is especially important to remember for those trauma survivors who hold toxic beliefs about themselves as “weak”, “defective” or “ruined”. My only worry about this idea is that people will use it to cover over or dismiss the reality of their abuse, and may avoid the necessary journey into grief that must accompany trauma treatment.
Do you often encounter people holding toxic believes about themselves?
This is probably the most common issue that I encounter as a therapist, but especially for those clients who have experienced any sort of trauma. These toxic beliefs about our self as “disgusting”, “defective”, “unlovable”, etc. are the voice of shame. I would describe the experience of shame as like being in a trance. When you are in this trance, your mind, body and soul come under attack and become weighed down by accusations that you are inadequate, broken and beyond repair. It is a terribly painful state to inhabit, and equally difficult to shake yourself out of.
Shame also sets us up for self-contempt, which is like an internal civil war between parts of our self. This war often goes unnoticed because of how subtle it can be. Freedom requires tuning into the ways we attack our more vulnerable parts, and instead work to offer those parts care rather than contempt.
Talk about choosing curiosity over contempt.
This may be somewhat of an overstatement, but sometimes I think this is a majority of what I help clients with: choosing curiosity over contempt. So many of us come into therapy looking to “get rid of”, “eliminate” or “control” problematic symptoms. This makes sense, of course. After all, who wants to continue living with depression, panic attacks, or compulsive behaviors of any kind?
However, I believe we have to first become curious about what our symptoms may be trying to tell us. Symptoms are like signposts pointing us to the wound, and subsequently, towards healing. If we listen to our symptoms rather than trying to frantically get rid of them, they will have much to tell us about what those parts of us need in order to heal. Often though, repeated unsuccessful attempts to manage or control un-welcomed symptoms leads to increasing hatred of those parts of us. This contempt further separates and internally divides us.
Rather, the way forward is to learn to increasingly bring curiosity and the intention to nurture those young, exiled parts in us that are crying out for help. This is the only way I’ve found that actually brings a sense of wholeness and healing.
You can connect with Tyler here