How Can I be Helpful? Reflecting on the Messages from FITS 2017

Posted by Brad Reedy, Ph.D., Owner & Clinical Director of Evoke Therapy Programs on April 28, 2017

Evoke Brad Headshot 3 of 3I have spent this week reflecting on the messages from the 2017 Forum for Innovative Treatment Solutions’ [FITS] Keynote Speakers. Dr. Nim Tottenham shared her research on attachment and the impact on brain circuitry. Dr. Gabor Maté followed with an illuminating message about how fractured attachments are at the root of many mental health and addictive disorders. Dr. Maté challenged the audience, sharing observations from his practice and life, suggesting that the only important variable we ought to study is the stress (trauma) on our clients—genetics taking a back seat or maybe being kicked out of the car altogether in the pursuit of understanding that the root cause of addiction and mental health is the events in a person’s life and the pain and turmoil where they originate. Addiction, he explained, is not the problem. It is the addict’s attempted solution to the problem. Lastly, Dr. Jami Gill reviewed attachment theory and encouraged therapists by suggesting that we have the capacity to repair attachment trauma by providing a safe container (or context) for others. That safe context, she explained, was the mind of the therapist, consultant, friend, or parent, and their capacity to listen and really hear the one with the attachment trauma.

Don’t fix your clients. Find them. And then being found, they will heal.

But in order to do that you must develop the capacity to see and hold others’ pain. This tolerance is born out of the understanding that this resonance, this capacity to contain (hold the client in your mind without anxiety) will have reparative and rebounding effects. However, this capacity is neither common nor has it been modeled for many of us. Thus, we will need to repair our own attachment fractures through this same process. Our clients’ attachment injuries will show up in their stories and their symptoms. Our own attachment trauma will trigger an impulse in us to solve the issue. We imagine this urge comes from a place of love or concern. But in reality, it arises out of a limitation that originated in our own attachment history. You haven’t tolerance for their pain because you were not tolerated in this same way. You became a therapist, an educational consultant, a helper from this desire to help and you imagined you would spend your life healing people. You may get frustrated or dismayed when a client’s resistance makes it difficult or even impossible for you to help. You were given a plethora of terms and labels to describe this resistance and besides offering you shorthand for a classification system making it possible to communicate the patterns of the symptoms you observe; these concepts gave you comfort and provided you distance from the client.

The problem is out there, in them. It is not in me.

Coming to terms with how we might be playing out our own attachment trauma in the therapy (or parenting) we provide is unbearable, but this exploration is necessary in order to provide others with a healing experience. The brain can rebound. It can heal. It can be rewired, but for this to happen, it must experience something different than what was experienced in the original context. And the only way to provide such healing is in a therapeutic context with an empathic Other. Dr. Carl Jung explained, “Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of others.”

And this knowledge can only be known if someone else is willing or able to hear it. When we are able to see it, we will recognize it in others. Moral development is encouraged by this process; teaching children how to feel (i.e., allowing them to feel without fear of dreaded rejection) is how we teach empathy. When you feel pain, you recognized it in others. We will find ways not to give advice or solutions. We will find ways not to answer questions with expert advice. We will find ways to reflect back the stories we hear in ways that make sense and make the client feel welcome.

We will learn to hold on to our theories lightly, because we will not be coming from a place where we need to feel adequate. We will already know we are okay.

The sense of adequacy will come from having shown up with all our warts and symptoms and having had the greatest joy of being received. [1]

We learn to honor defenses. The defense is there for a reason. Becoming frustrated with it or exhausted by it is evidence of our limited capacity. Pulling down someone’s defenses before they are ready will only result in them refortifying it against such threats. “Both cruel people and inadequate therapists are famous for a desire to destroy defenses without considering the consequences.” [2]

With increased ability to observe brain functioning, we have the science. We know what happens to the wiring of a child when the attachment is impaired. Our assertion of the importance of attachment on higher level functioning is beyond conjecture. We can see it in the images from Functional M.R.I’s. So why does this simple idea of how holding a safe non-judgmental space for someone to heal and rewire the brain get ignored or at least take a back-seat to so many techniques and theoretical models? It might be because we have never known such a process ourselves or that exploring our own attachment history is uncomfortable or even terrifying. Many of the messages in our context suggested that such an exploration was off-limits and to embark on this dive into our psyche would trigger dreaded rejection and abandonment. We have so little experience with someone who could sit with us in our stupidity, ridiculousness, badness and disease and simply hold us. The result is that we are unable to sit, just sit, with others long enough and deeply enough to see them. We know that the brain is plastic and we know we can create reparative experiences, but it is not short-term work. Yet, any experience we provide others can be something they carry with them. Adequate therapy or therapeutic supervision is the only way I know how to develop the capacity to provide this quality of care for those that we serve and those that we love. [3]

From my book, The Journey of the Heroic Parent, I share my own evolution as a young therapist.

When I signed up to be a therapist, I thought it was my job to make people happy. I was good at listening, offering insight, and presenting my unique perspective to family and friends. I was good at solving problems. I thought these skills served me in being a “healer.” Not only was the notion that I was going to fix what others couldn’t fix in themselves self-centered and arrogant, it was diametrically off course. Like many of us who enlist in the business of helping people, I was ready to solve the world’s problems and rescue people from their pain with my unique gifts. Then I went to school.

Life happened. And I went to therapy.

I realized that my job was not to make people happy but to help people feel…[4]

Further, in my book I share the story from another therapist. She described a client she had seen several years ago who grew up on a farm in rural Germany on the bank of a river. Throughout her analysis, she would speak about her early childhood and the present day, changing from one context to the other without clarification. One session, during one of these stories, it wasn’t clear whether the story was from the present day or from her childhood. The therapist realized she didn’t need to ask. Somehow, she just knew: “I knew she was talking about the distant past because I could smell the river near her childhood home.” Deep listening means that we gently hold the child in our minds and allow for all of him to be present.

May we have such an experience of being found. May we also have the ability to provide such a gift to those we encounter, no matter the context. And where this kind of grace is present, shame cannot survive and healing is inevitable.

[2] Seeing in Intimacy and Psychotherapy, J.D. Gill
[3] Psychology versus Therapy: Implications for the Practice and Supervision of Therapy in Residential Treatment and Wilderness Therapy Programs, Reedy & Taggart-Reedy
[4] The Journey of the Heroic Parent, Reedy.


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