Vulnerability is emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty and it fuels our daily lives.

But what happens when emotional risk, exposure and uncertainty are the very things that hamper our daily lives?

For the person who has encountered trauma, the sense of safety in the world is lost. So that person no longer feels safe. When you do not feel safe, you are not able to be vulnerable. Any risk or uncertainty is going to cause an unmanageable feeling of danger. It is important that the person with a trauma past first learn how to feel safe before allowing vulnerability into their life.

This is where a qualified trauma therapist is helpful.

Dépaysement

This French word has no English translation. It describes the feeling of not being in your home country. Many people apply this word to the feeling of being travellers in another country. The feeling of not being home. Of being in another country. Of being surrounded by people from that country and the unfamiliarity of that. Of being in a place where the people possibly speak a different language. Of things looking different. It is a scary feeling, but also exciting and novel. Your senses are fully attentive to your experience. You feel nervous. You feel apprehensive. But you are somewhere novel and exotic and that is exciting. Those alert senses and the excitement of the exotic make you feel alive.
Your senses are alert to help you navigate this different and strange place. Where do you need to go? Is it safe here? You may have heard of pickpockets or muggers in this place. How do you keep yourself safe? How do you detect danger? Your body is on full alert. The adrenalin is pumping. But the experience can be quite exhilarating. The feeling of mastery when you work out how to order a cup of coffee, when you find your way across town, when you buy food in the local supermarket.
Now imagine you have arrived in this place to take up residence. Imagine that no matter how long you stay you are still the foreigner. You are still identified by others as the foreigner. They know it every time you open your mouth. So you become hesitant to open your mouth and shatter the illusion you hope you have created that you belong here. You hesitate to answer the phone because you are not confident at being able to communicate in this new language.
You may obviously not be a local. You may have a different skin colour. You may hold yourself differently and react to things differently. Your style of clothing may not be that of the locals. Even if you wear the clothes you see others wear, you will put the outfit together differently, or hold yourself differently. Dépaysement still exists in your feelings. You may be more familiar with the situation but there is that knowledge that you don’t belong here. That when you open your mouth it will be obvious. No matter how hard you try to learn the language, your accent will give you away. You will always have that sense of not belonging. Your culture will be different.
After some time living in another country you will begin to observe the culture. Research has found people react differently to living in a different culture. Some embrace it and totally reject their old culture. They are often described as ‘going native’. Others will refuse to accept anything of the new culture and will stick rigidly to the old culture. Most sit in the middle. All will, for the first time in their lives, see their home culture more objectively. Instead of being that automatic way to be, they will realise it is not the automatic way to be for people in the new country. Over time people question their own culture. Those who take the middle ground will often adopt aspects of the new culture and reject some aspects of the old culture.
Through all this dépaysement is the feeling you most often experience.
Now imagine you return to live in your old culture. It has been some time and you have changed. When you return to the old culture it has changed too. You cannot slip what you once had back on and expect it to fit. Now you are in another culture and that sense of dépaysement again hits. But you are in your home country and that is not supposed to happen! It is disorienting, frightening. You long for the seeming familiarity of the country you just left. This new country, the one that should have felt like a comfortable old shirt, feels as strange and unfamiliar as the country you just left once felt. The person you became in that other country struggles for acceptance back home. The skills people recognised you had there are not appreciated here.
This is the life of the expat returning home, the repatriate (repat). It is a struggle to fit back in. There is a lot of pain, grief and loss. So much of the familiar has gone. It is like you don’t belong anywhere anymore. When I returned to Australia after 8 years away I found it hard adjusting to life back in Australia. There was the initial excitement, common to all expat postings. The novel and new is exciting. That excitement sustains you for a few months, despite all the logistical difficulties you may be encountering. But then reality sets in and you hit rock bottom. If you have moved back to the same area you may find your old friends no longer fit as well as they did. You have changed, and so have they, but in different directions. You may find yourself constantly talking about your old life overseas. This is your only reference point. Others may not appreciate that. They may think you are big noting yourself. Your experiences may be outside the realm of their understanding.
When I moved back to Australia I moved to a different state. There was no one familiar. I wasn’t worried, I had so much confidence that I would be able to find new friends. I was so used to having to do that and did not find it hard. But now it was a nightmare. People in their busy suburban lives were not interested in making new friends. I joined so many activities to meet people but found the people there had little in common with me. I found it hard to get a job. Being away for 8 years meant I effectively had no work history, despite all I had achieved while living overseas. My previous career was closed off to me because I had been away from it too long. At one stage I became really depressed. Everything was so overwhelming. I had lost my friends, who were all overseas, and my career, and no-one would give me a chance at a job. Eventually I found a job as a shop assistant in a large store. The staff were treated badly, which did not help my state of mind. Eventually I took the scary step of going back to university to gain new qualifications. It took a long time to establish friendships (my university cohort was where I finally found like-minded people who were interested in making new friends). It took a long time to learn to accept the new Australian culture. I still don’t totally like it, but thanks to my now two degrees and a lot of study I have been able to put this new culture into perspective and learn to find the like-minded people I feel comfortable with.
I still miss my life overseas. There were wonderful things I did there that I have not been able to do in Australia. I still love Australia. It is a difficult act of balancing what I had, have, lost and gained. Dépaysement is a beautiful descriptive word to summarise my feelings as an expat in a foreign country and as a repat in a strange new Australia.
Dépaysement can be a different experience depending on your circumstances. I chose the expat life and I chose to return to Australia. But if you are displaced due to war or oppression, then dépaysement will be clouded by the traumatic nature of your displacement and the journey to find a host country willing to take you. There will also be great loss at what you had in your home country, what you unwillingly had to give up and what you cannot recover. Then there will be the difficulties of trying to establish yourself here and find work. Life will often seem a lot harder in your new country. Rather than the headiness of the challenge of fitting in, there will be the fear of how you are going to survive.
A migrant will have willingly chosen to move here, and there will be great hopes of a new life to come, but this will be tinged with the memory of what has been left behind. And there will be the inevitable heady honeymoon period, followed by the thump of reality and wondering if you made the right decision.
If you are experiencing the strangeness of returning to your home country, or coming here as a foreigner, or just moving states or areas and finding it all different and difficult, I can help. If you would like help, please contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

Waldeinsamkeit – The feeling of being alone in the woods.

Waldeinsamkeit is a German word that is not translatable into English. It describes the feeling of being alone in the woods. Many who speak English would consider that to mean scared, worried, or happy. Depending on your view of the world, being in the woods alone can either be a blessing or a curse.

Waldeinsamkeit is used as though it is a physical place. It is a little like the English phrase of the feeling of being at one with the universe. Solitude, meditation and contemplation may be aspects of Waldeinsamkeit. But none of those things accurately explain the word.

Earlier I mentioned that the word could be viewed as a blessing or a curse, depending on your world view. Some may find the idea of being alone in the woods as being quite frightening. But in the German usage it is seen as being positive. It evokes the sense of a calm, contemplative atmosphere in a beautiful setting. If you are a person who views the idea of a solitary walk in a forest, then you would view it as a blessing. Many people use a walk in a forest as a way to clear their minds. In the forest there is a connection with nature and a comfort in that connection. There is a sense that in the solitude of the beautiful, peaceful forest a person can get lost in their own thoughts.

If you have experienced trauma in your past, getting lost in your own thoughts, having nothing to distract you from your own body and feelings, can be frightening.

For someone who is grieving, that solitude that allows such introspection can seem overwhelming as thoughts of your loss are encountered.

Being in your own thoughts, having an awareness of your own body, can be really hard. It can cause a person to want to escape. Escape can be busyness. It can be alcohol. It can be avoiding reminders of past events and people. This avoidance of feelings has a disabling effect on your ability to function well in life. It results in difficulties coping well with life.

If you are affected in this way, counselling by a trained trauma counsellor (in the case of trauma) or trained grief counsellor (in the case of grief) can help you regain your ability to live life fully. I am qualified in both areas and am passionate about helping people be able to take control of their lives again.

If you would like experience Waldeinsamkeit as a blessing, contact me on 0409396608 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au to arrange an appointment.

When emotions threaten to overwhelm, always think of your feet on the ground

One of the first things I do with someone who comes to see me about their trauma is ensure they know how to ‘put their feet on the ground’.

I will teach people to find a safe place they can go in their mind when things start to become overwhelming. That safe place is usually a happy memory of somewhere where the person felt safe.

But what happens if the person becomes overwhelmed before I can teach them a safe place?

This is where other grounding techniques are used.

One technique is to draw attention to the person’s feet. I may ask “what size shoes do you wear?”

That may seem a strange question to ask, but it stops the person thinking the overwhelming thoughts long enough to answer the question. Another impact of that question is that, while the overwhelming thoughts relate to childhood, the size of a person’s shoe relates to adulthood. This is a strong message to that person that they are an adult. Therefore what they are feeling is in the past. Makes a big difference.

So thinking of your feet on the ground is not such a silly thing to do. It is in fact a very helpful thing to do.

What do you say to someone who has lost a baby

People experience a lot of difficulty around how to talk to a person who has lost a baby. I use the word person here, because fathers experience the pain of miscarriage or stillbirth as well as mothers.

In my experience there are people who ignore the lost baby. This was demonstrated strongly recently when I saw a friend who had experienced a miscarriage. I told her I was sorry about the miscarriage and I was so sad for that little life lost. Before she could respond to me, one of the other people present cut in and shut down the conversation. A short while later the other person took me to one side and told me I was uncaring and insensitive for mentioning the miscarriage. I was shocked. Later I asked my friend if I had hurt her with my words. Her response was that it meant a lot to her to have her miscarriage acknowledged. To have someone acknowledge her pain. To have someone acknowledge the existence of that precious little baby. What had hurt her was the person who shut the conversation down.

People refuse to talk about the death of a baby for many reasons.

One is that they feel uncomfortable talking about it. In our society death is hidden away in hospitals and rarely discussed. Death of a baby is even more uncomfortable. Many minimise what a couple who have experienced miscarriage are going through. After all, the baby wasn’t a person yet, was it! As the mother of four children I felt each one of those babies was a person, my child, from the moment I knew I was pregnant. To lose one of those precious little lives at any time in the pregnancy was a terrifying thought. As a nurse I nursed many women who had lost their baby before or at full term. It doesn’t matter when it happens, it is devastating.

Another reason people won’t talk about the death of a baby is a misguided belief that “one doesn’t talk about such things”. I remember when my mother died and I had to see my friends again. My friends were all saying sorry. That was hard to be reminded of her death, but it was comforting to know they cared and acknowledged her life. One friend avoided the subject. That really hurt. I felt as though my pain was not valid. Imagine how a woman who has lost her baby feels if that is how she is treated? It is hard enough to lose a baby early in pregnancy when people may not even know you are pregnant. But to have that precious life ignored and minimised by not talking about it is even harder. Some women want it kept quiet, and that must be respected, but other women want the comfort, support and validation from other people that this little life mattered, their hurt matters and they don’t have to grieve alone.

I was once in a position where a woman I saw occasionally was pregnant. I saw her just before the baby was born then didn’t see her for some months. When I next saw her, I congratulated her on the birth of her baby, which I knew by then would have been born. She told me her baby had died shortly after birth. I was mortified. No one spoke about her or her baby so I didn’t know her baby had died. I apologised for the hurt my words caused and told her how sorry I was. She talked for some time about how hard it was and then said she was glad we had talked because not many people wanted to know how she was feeling and the lack of discussion about what had happened to her was like some shameful secret. She was grateful that at least one person was prepared to speak openly about her baby and express compassion for her as she grieved.

After the death of a baby so many people offer platitudes like “it was for the best” or “you can have another one”. They are not comforting. They hurt and minimise what the parent is experiencing. Those platitudes are offered all the way along pregnancy from the first trimester miscarriage to the still born baby. All hurt terribly.

I have always considered myself blessed because I had four healthy pregnancies with four live births. I have never had to experience the devastation of miscarriage or stillbirth. But that blessing has always made me so aware of how devastating the death of one of those babies would have been. I am sure I am not alone in caring deeply for other women whose pregnancies end in miscarriage or stillbirth. It is also important to consider the needs of the father as well. He is also grieving. So many men are told to support their partner, as if they have no feelings about this. But they hurt too.

If you care, then you can best support the mother and father in the death of their baby by saying how sorry you are and being willing to listen if they want to talk. Acknowledge the baby. If it was given a name, then use it. You don’t have to solve anything. There is no need for platitudes. You just need to listen and care. That is what a grieving parent needs and wants.

Vulnerability is the most accurate measure of courage

In western societies there is a belief that to be tough, to show courage, you have to be “strong”. It is believed that to be strong you have to hide your emotions and not be upset about things.

But this belief is a lie.

The truth is that the strongest and most courageous people are those who are prepared to show vulnerability. If you can have the strength and courage to acknowledge that you are upset, or angry, or not sure what to do, then you can attend to those emotions and move on. Failing to acknowledge those things causes them to be trapped inside you and never dealt with. But they do not go away. They stay there until they become too much and you fall apart.

Whether it is dealing with the grief of loss, or the aftermath of trauma, being vulnerable is the best way for you to heal.

Being vulnerable involves acknowledging the emotions you feel.

Being vulnerable involves admitting you need help and reaching out to others for help.

Being vulnerable involves seeking the help of a counsellor when you need it.

When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, you will discover the truth of vulnerability as the most accurate measure of courage and strength.

We cannot heal what we cannot feel – trauma memories

“We can’t heal what we can’t feel.”

This quote comes from John Bradshaw. He specialises in inner child work and he writes some interesting things. I use aspects of his approach, but not all of it. When I decided to write a blog on this quote, I hesitated. I am not sure I agree with it, not completely. Let me explain.

For most people, they never stop ‘feeling’ their trauma. Trauma memories are stored in the body and the body does not lie. When I say the memory is stored in the body, I am referring to the sensations you felt during the trauma. For example, you may have been in a dangerous situation and felt your heart racing, your chest feeling tight and the feeling that your stomach was falling. You may have felt a sense of great danger and felt very agitated. That is the memory you will recall, often when something that triggers the original memory happens. You won’t know why you are feeling that way. You will just know you have that feeling.

It is true that we often do not understand what we feel is a trauma memory. Often people with trauma histories block the sensations in the body so they cannot feel them. For this reason a lot of people spend all their time in their heads and feeling anything in the body is taboo.

This is where you cannot heal what you cannot feel comes in. We need to resolve the memories stored in our bodies. They cause us to react to events in ways we are not happy about. They cause us to feel pain, to become ill, to be rendered immobile. They cause us to feel scared, or angry, or agitated or panicky when we don’t understand why. They even cause us to feel shame. If we cannot allow ourselves to feel what our bodies have stored and to allow access to them then we cannot heal them. If we don’t heal those memories they will not go away and we cannot repress them. So if we want to stop feeling them, we need to heal them.

That type of feeling is essential to feel. Of course, that feeling should only be addressed in therapy after your counsellor has spent time teaching you how to be safe accessing those body memories.

Accessing body memories is something you need to do under safe conditions. What you don’t need to do is remember what those memories are about. If you have forgotten the event, or only have flashes of memory about it there is a good reason your brain did not record the information in a way you can access. If you want to remember the memory and can, and you are in a safe place to do that, then you can do that. But it is not necessary to ‘remember’ the events. It is enough to visit and heal what your body has remembered without all the details.

Remember it is essential to be in a safe place to access those body memories. The experiences they record were terrifying and traumatising and accessing those memories will bring those feelings back. It is essential you do this work with a properly trained counsellor who knows what they are doing. Ask the counsellor you wish to visit what their qualifications are. When people ask me I don’t detail every training course I have attended, I have been to so many I could go on for hours. What I do is tell the person is that I have a Bachelor and Masters degree in Counselling. This which means I have counselling qualifications that qualify me to counsel people, but that does not qualify me to work with trauma. (Likewise a Psychology Degree or a Social Work Degree does not qualify someone to work with trauma). I then tell the person I have attended Blue Knot Foundation training in working with trauma and working with their trauma guidelines. I have also attended training with internationally renowned trauma specialists and I may tell the person the types of training, if that is information they are seeking. This is the information you need to hear from your counsellor to know they are qualified to work with trauma without harming you. Be very careful to choose the right counsellor. An unqualified person could be dangerous for you.

We cannot heal what we cannot feel

When you are grieving for someone or something it is tempting to distract yourself from the pain you are feeling. Unfortunately, life has the unfortunate habit of not stopping because things are bad for you. So, to manage, you push the feelings aside and keep going. But is this healthy?

Pushing the feelings aside is fine for some of the time. You do need to attend to daily life. That said, you do need to allow yourself time as well to sit with the pain and the other feelings associated with your loss. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the feelings, you cannot ‘heal’.

What is healing? Healing is not forgetting. Healing is learning to live with the pain and other feelings of what you have lost. There will always be pain there, but with healing the pain will be more manageable. There will be more acceptance of the pain and of what you have lost. Acceptance does not mean you are happy with what has happened. It just means you are able to accept what has happened and accept the feelings around it.

Allowing yourself to feel your feelings, especially at first when everything is so raw, is not an easy thing to do. You may find sitting with your feelings involves crying, feeling unable to do anything, isolating yourself or feeling isolated. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself bad days. Just remember to attend to your essential needs during that time. Give yourself permission to not feel okay. Give yourself permission to take time out. You have a duty to look after yourself. Obviously if you are caring for others, such as your children, you do need to attend to their needs. But once that is done be okay with attending to your needs. As a family you need to share your feelings with each other. As a parent you need to allow space to share your feelings that you can’t share with your children. You may find it helpful to see a counsellor to give you time for yourself to be able to talk, feel and fall apart in a safe space. You can also send your children for counselling, that be helpful for them to talk to someone who is more objective so can’t be upset by what they say.

If you are caring for others, then you need to be there for them too. Remember it is not possible to care for another person, if you don’t care for yourself. So attending to your needs is important.

Remember it is okay to have feelings of grief and loss. Don’t forget it takes a long time before those feelings becomes less raw. Be mindful of the fact that those feelings will not lose their rawness if you don’t allow yourself to feel them. Don’t be afraid to seek assistance from a grief counsellor.

When I listen to my life story I realise how resilient I am to have survived what I went through. And I know that, no matter what life sends my way, I will survive.

For many adults who have survived childhood trauma, there is a sense of powerlessness. After all, a child has no power over the adults in her life. That means the abused child has no power over the adults who are abusing her. Hence the sense of powerlessness.

Another thing many such adults feel is shame. From the child’s perspective, adults are right. And often the abusive adult will tell the child that the child is wrong. It is the child’s fault they are being abused. If you are so bad, and so wrong, then you will feel shame. The shamed person is powerless. So powerlessness and shame are constant companions in the life of the adult survivor of childhood trauma.

In all this feeling of powerless and shame one thing is overlooked. To have survived an abusive childhood takes great strength. To have survived a childhood where there were no adults to step up and give you the support you needed is amazing. It took great strength to achieve that. And it took a great ability to ‘roll with the punches’. That of course is resilience. Great strength involves resilience. So if you could survive your childhood and still be able to function fairly normally, you are strong and resilient. That strength and resilience is what has brought you this far in life and will bring you further. That strength and resilience will allow you to seek counselling and be able to work to heal what needs to be healed and change what needs to be changed so that you may live a more plentiful life.

Many survivors have never shared their story with anyone. They have never given their story voice. Telling your story to someone who understands trauma allows your experience to be acknowledged. That validation is important. Also, telling your story allows you to collect your thoughts, and hearing it allows you to often make connections you did not realise existed and also hear more objectively about what happened.

When seeking a counsellor, it is important to choose a trauma informed and trained counsellor. There is a lot of misunderstanding about trauma, what its effects are like and how to work with it. Misunderstandings exist in the general community but also, sadly, amongst mental health professionals without trauma training. A therapist who does not understand trauma will cause harm, not help you.

I have extensive training in trauma work and I have a passion to help people heal as well as a deep respect for those who have survived. If you would like me to assist you in your healing journey please contact me on 0409 396 60 or nan@plentifullifecounselling.com.au.

Face the wave head on. If you try to avoid it and approach it sideways it will turn over your boat.

Wise words if you are on a boat. But they also apply to the difficulties we face in life. When we are dealing with difficult emotions it is often tempting to avoid facing them head on. It hurts too much. But the emotions keep coming. They don’t go away because we don’t want to deal with them. It is like being on a boat. Those waves exist. They can’t be avoided. All we can do is go over them in the safest way we can. That is head on.
If the waves we encounter are emotions and difficult feelings, we can try to ignore them and suppress them. We can try to distract ourselves with activity or alcohol or anything else that seems to hide the pain. But those actions do not remove the pain. They are like the boat approaching the wave sideways. We are more likely to capsize if we try to ignore and suppress our difficult feelings.
Dealing with the pain of loss is hard enough. Trying to avoid those emotions is harder still.
You may be used to suppressing the emotions. That may have been the way you were taught to attend to grief. You may not know how to approach the wave head on.
This is where counselling can help. Seeing an experienced grief counsellor can help you to learn to face your pain head on, learn how to sit with it and be okay. It is always possible to learn how to face that wave head on.