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