Disassociation and Relational Healing
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People in the helping professions we all want to become more competent and effective in our interactions with clients. Many of us came into this work to add meaning to our lives and the lives of others. Then through our training and subsequent work we came to see that this whole process of healing is not so easy to conceptualize. While we are showing up with our clients a lot is happening within them and within ourselves. At times it is hard to know what is theirs and what is ours, and where our experiences overlap. I have come to experience the profound healing of stepping into a space of dropping technique and relating openly and honestly with my clients. A space where I name my own feelings of dissociation, confusion, body sensations, emotions, and invite the client to feel me in the room with them. Not as an observer but as a person impacted and moved by them and their various parts, especially the dissociated parts.
The responses to this type of relational work are often provocative. The response can be anything from: clients telling me that I’m not allowed to share with them what happens for me, or them expecting me be the expert fixing them, to deep shifts in the wounds of developmental trauma. These shifts occur because of the novel experience produced by fully entering into the relationship in the here and now with my client, my dissociative parts, and their dissociative parts.
Before having my own experience around relational work, I was told that we should be very careful in how we share ourselves with our clients. I learned there should be detachment from the client’s process, and that our internal experiences should be shared with our supervisor as countertransference to be worked through. Yet, at the same time there were discussions about the powerful nature of working with the relationship between client and therapist as it presents in the here and now. The message I heard was, “Ok this relational work is sketchy to navigate, but it could be the most healing relationship this person could experience thus far in their life.” So I began to wonder how and why should we do this.
Philip Bromberg speaks to this paradox in his book “The Shadow of the Tsunami.” He essentially states that through the client/therapist relationship, and the collisions of their respective self-states (often dissociative states), a powerful process occurs that co-creates the conditions necessary for the growth of the relational mind (Bromberg, 2009). The client up until that time has found ways, often most powerfully through dissociation, to deal with the developmental trauma that occurred during their childhood.
I often illustrate how developmental trauma is formed by describing the process as such: as a child you were having an emotional experience that was overwhelming to you, maybe fear, sadness, anger, terror, confusion, and your ability to handle it at your age was impossible. What you needed was a caregiver to be attuned to your emotional state and enter into the energetic field of the emotion with you. Not to fix, but to share in the experience and accompany you as the emotion passed through. If that caregiver was emotionally unavailable, absent, frightened of your emotions, or the one who created the overwhelming experience then you, as a child, had very few options. Most nervous systems, and they are designed this way, will opt to cut away the self-state having the overwhelming experience rather than risking a complete annihilation of the entire sense of self. When infants and children experience this amputation of a self-state they often develop the ability to dissociate as a means of surviving, which is what we evolved to do.
Bromberg goes on to state that the therapeutic relationship is not a vehicle to get rid of our past, but a way to live together in its shadow. As a result, little by little, the shadow shrinks and the client’s natural capacity grows to feel trust, and “joy in ‘the nearness of you’ and a stability that will continue” (Bromberg, 2009).
What I have experienced and continue to experience is the profound healing that can take place through here and now self-state disclosure by the therapist. This is not about sitting around in normal consciousness and chatting about our favorite flavors of ice cream. It’s about dropping into the realm of dissociated parts, developmental trauma, and systemic beliefs together as a way to reintegrate the shattered parts of self many clients come in with.
The key word, and point of this relational work, is “together.” As therapist and client we venture into these places together, and this "together" can only happen if the therapist is willing to exit the role of observer and become participant. We use our own experience in the present moment of the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that arise for us in the relational field with our client. This is self-disclosure in one of its most pure forms, and one of the most impactful.
The art of therapy is to walk the line of knowing what disclosure is the greatest benefit to the relationship. This takes a lot of mindfulness, introspection, and skill, and a willingness to totally mess up! Because what the client does not need is a prefect therapist. Perfect people do not exist, but what do exist are people who are willing to connect, mess up, and then repair. Allowing yourself and your client to experience that together is healing for both parties. And it might be the first relationship in their lives where that connection, break, and repair cycle happens. This is one way people heal from developmental trauma.
We all need this, therapist and client alike. We all need to have these journeys into the scary places with someone else not as observers but as participants. And one note about those of you who are thinking about getting overwhelmed by journeying with your client; I have experienced far less overwhelm when I consciously enter into this material together as co-travelers. Without this consciousness and the ability to name what’s happening in the present moment we are, both client and therapist, asleep and replaying dynamics that have been happening for decades. Bromberg speaks of this process succinctly as, “stumbling along and hanging in.” I often think of those words in session when I feel the apprehension of not knowing what is going to happen next, and as a result my desire to control the process arises. Then incredibly, I have the inspiration to tell my client what I am experiencing and off we go towards that connection that transforms and heals.
Karolina Walsh is a relational and body-centered psychotherapist in private practice located in Boulder, CO.
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