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 email@example.com
Yvette is a NWFL affiliate therapist specializing in trauma and abuse. Her clients often include women who are recovering from psychological, emotional, sexual, spiritual, and physical abuse.
One of the areas you specialize in is recovery from narcissistic abuse. Can you tell us what that means?
Narcissistic abuse is a particular form of psychological abuse committed by someone who has high narcissistic traits. Those who have suffered narcissistic abuse often struggle to feel they own their own mind from the cycles of manipulation, gas-lighting, and interpersonal exploitation that have conditioned them to focus on the needs of their abuser instead of their own. This often makes survivors feel crazy, when in reality, they are far from it. My work with survivors is to provide them a safe space to begin to feel and untangle all that has been manipulated in their relationship with a narcissistic person so they can begin to trust their gut, which has often been denied in the cycle of abuse.
How might one’s intuition become injured?
This is where gas-lighting comes into play. Gas-lighting is when an abuser intentionally makes you distrust your perception of reality and question your sanity. And there are many subtle ways this happens. Over time, as this continues, victims lose a sense of grounding and dismiss what their gut is telling them. In this, their intuition becomes stifled, or injured. It doesn’t register danger, threat, or violence the same way as those who have not experienced abuse. What is important to point out, is that while our intuition can be injured, it can also be healed. Learning to listen to our gut, trust what it is telling us, and then act on it, are ways we feed and strengthen our intuition.
Talk to us about those ruminating thoughts that survivors of abuse often suffer from.
There is much to say about the dynamic of rumination. On one level, rumination is a distraction from the terror and grief of facing the reality that the person who is supposed to cherish and love us the most is not. Worse yet, they are actually harming us. When a survivor ruminates, they are trying to make meaning, and usually land in a place of self-blame or self-annihilation. This is a conditioned response to abuse and what keeps a victim stuck in the cycle of abuse. What needs to be said, is that at some point in life (likely childhood), it served as a means of survival. To blame ourselves and work harder is often easier than facing the wrath and terror of calling the abuser out. And in childhood, calling out abuse is often not an option. In my experience, what is usually under rumination is a sense of fear, panic, or dread. And it can be so hard-wired in us that rumination is often well underway before we are even aware it is occurring. But this too, can heal over time. Once we feel safe, we can learn to observe rumination in ourselves, be curious about what it serves, extend compassion, and then begin to imagine new ways to direct that energy.
Can you speak to the chemical addiction in the brain that happens with abuse?
When abuse occurs, there is a heightened sense of arousal, meaning our bodies are very alert. This requires certain neurochemicals to dump in our body. These chemicals are a cocktail of stress chemicals, as well as bonding chemicals, and the rise and fall of these chemicals leave us in a state that needs soothing. They are very powerful and cause intense cravings to reconnect with the abuser. This is why it is often hard for victims to leave. Getting out of an abusive relationship is like giving up a drug. Initially, everything in the survivor’s body and brain will feel compelled to go back to the abuser. That’s why it is important for survivors to understand how their biology is affecting their cycle of abuse. The antidote for this addiction is sustained healthy connection, which is why safe friends, support groups, and therapy are important for survivors to heal. To understand more about the neurochemical process, read this article.
Do you find that women in abusive situations are usually very competent?
Absolutely. Especially when it comes to narcissistic abuse. By definition, a narcissistic lacks a sense of self, so they prey on competent partners to help fill the void they cannot acknowledge in themselves. Women in abusive relationships are often insightful, empathetic, attuned, intelligent, self-reflective, and hard-working. In the beginning of abusive relationships, abusers will praise their victims for these strengths, but over time, they begin to envy and resent them, and that is when the psychological abuse begins.
Tell us about your theory of change.
Gregory Bateson said, “Things are what they are because of the way they relate to other things.” This is true not only for nature, but for humans. We are what we are because of the people, places, cultures, and ideologies we have related to. To me, this speaks of Trinitarian theology and a model for relationship. We are meant to be connected, yet individuated, and the field of neuroscience has confirmed this: we are open loop systems designed for attachment. To change, we need a safe and healthy relationship where we can explore all that has contributed to shape us as people. As a trauma and abuse therapist who uses interpersonal and narrative therapy, I believe the stories of our lives are held in the body. If you think about it, the only “thing” that has been with us in every moment of our life is our body. In order to change, we have to listen and engage how stories are held in it. When we do this with safe others, we are given opportunities for reparative experiences that heal and move us along in our healing journeys.
Can you talk about how survivors often learn to live in their brain because it’s not safe in their body?
When our primary attachment figure who is supposed to love us, harms us instead, it feels too scary to live in the body. This is a coping mechanism. Like rumination, it protects us from feeling the terror of abuse and neglect. Often, it was learned first in childhood. In therapy one of the main goals is to create safety so we can begin to be curious and feel what our bodies hold. This is also how we begin to repair and nourish our intuition.
What does internalized trauma look like?
To me, internalized trauma is more of a sound than a look. Meaning, there are scripts we say over and over again to ourselves that are accusatory, dismissive, harsh, unloving, dogmatic, etc. They are the sentences that are usually behind the sentences we first hear ourselves say internally. When we listen closely, we realize these scripts serve the narratives of those who benefitted from our abuse. And, in my opinion, that’s the worst part of trauma: we learn to become complicit in abuse against ourselves. It’s what evil wants. As a therapist, that’s what I get to disrupt, and I can’t think of a higher calling.
Talk to us about what you call survival mode vs. creation mode when it comes to abuse survivors.
It may sound obvious, but survivors know how to survive. It’s what they do. When in an abusive relationship, survivors are living in survival mode. When confronted with choice, it is an easy decision: go with whatever helps you survive and mitigate further harm. But when a survivor has moved out of an abusive relationship and threat is no longer present, choice is no longer based on survival, but on creation. There is freedom to choose and create. And to many survivors, that can be terrifying. It can be hard to trust it is possible to move forward freely, and without abusive relational consequences. Plus, it can expose ways we never got to develop certain abilities or capacities. And that can bring up grief. Survivors need a lot of support and celebration in this phase. It is a time of individuating and deepening in our sense of self. It also feeds and strengthens our intuition. It can be both exhilarating and scary at first, and that is completely normal.
Would you give us that quote you love by Dorothy Allison?
“Throughout my life somebody has always tried to set the boundaries of who and what I will be allowed to be. What is common to these boundary lines is that their most destructive power lies in what I can be persuaded to do to myself – the walls of fear, shame, and guilt I can be encouraged to build in my own mind.”
Yvette recommends Healing From Hidden Abuse, by Shannon Thomas, LCSW as a straightforward and easy read for those dealing with psychological abuse.
Yvette has offices in Seattle and Kirkland. To get in touch with her, please visit www.WhisperingTreeTheapy.com, or call (239) 410-7084.