It’s quite a special week. There was a confluence of timing in my recent interview with Gabor Maté and the release of his film The Wisdom of Trauma. If you haven’t seen this film, it’s well worth watching. I sat on the couch with my wife last night and we held each other as we watched this incredibly touching and important movie that chronicles the life and the work of Gabor Maté.
There is a throughline involving inmates working through their emotional pain. It is quite impactful and there are a number of powerful sequences as these inmates are asked to step forward every time that they recognize within themselves some measure of adverse childhood experience. The adverse childhood experience study or ACES was a large-scale longitudinal study that was done in California and it looked at the correlation between early adverse experiences in children, such as physical or emotional abuse, poverty, isolation, and hardships, and challenges later in life. The compassion throughout the film is at times overwhelming, especially when you have men (and in this case it was men) talking about having committed murder and opening up about the horrors that they experienced as children.
I want to take some time today to zero in on what I believe to be at the heart of a paradigmatic shift that has taken place not only in psychology but in the ways that we view ourselves and our actions in society in general.
There have been so many recent examples of men and women losing their jobs because of the violent and aggressive ways that they treat their employees and their colleagues. In many parts of the world, these ways of working and dealing with our emotions have simply become unacceptable. And this, of course, is a hugely positive shift. The more that people do not have to go to work and suffer sexual violence, harassment, and bullying, the better it obviously is for everybody.
These examples also represent a significant development in our sensitivity towards our emotional lives and those of others. One example that I often think about in my mind is the woman that ends up at the hospital realizing that she is miscarrying and she receives medical treatment. Recently, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in an interview, there was a discussion on the kinds of psychological and emotional support that people, especially women, might need in these circumstances. It dawned on me that if we went back 10, 20 years, I’m not so sure that those kinds of considerations would have been as front of mind as they are now in the ways that alarm bells are being rung to make sure that we are covering off that aspect of our experience. And of course we see this across all levels of society, whether it’s corporations that are developing mental health policies for their employees, schools that are putting into place zero tolerance for bullying, parents taking parenting workshops and learning how to deal with their emotions going to therapy.
I always think about the old idea of the farm where you decide to have 10 kids or more mostly so that you have more labour. Can you imagine the farmer, going to bed, knowing he has to wake up at four or five in the morning to milk the cows or go out into the fields, and grabbing a book on parenting to make sure that he doesn’t wake up his kids too early so they don’t suffer undue hardship? In this sense, we’re living in a completely different age.
If there’s one thing that is clear (and this is true even when we think about the kinds of help that we can now get), historically, especially when psychotherapy first came into being, it was harsher. It was more masculine. What Maté points out in the film The Wisdom of Trauma and, frankly, the way that theory has developed in psychotherapy, has kept in line with the other changes in society that I am referring to. These have led to a more benevolent understanding of suffering, more of a focus on the automatic nature of our defenses, and I think an awakening that nothing will come from further punishing the human being for the ways that they have had to learn to survive.
Each of us, when we are young, develops quite unconsciously a paradigm to face the world.
There’s an author who I would love to interview one day: Donald Kalsched, an American psychologist who wrote a couple of important books. One of them is called The Inner World of Trauma. His second book is called Trauma and the Soul. He really runs with the idea that if we are hurt too early, if we are affected by unbearable, overwhelming loss, harsh punishment, or unsafe and hostile environments, the innocent part of us that comes into the world ready to be loved, also ready to be disappointed but disappointed in a way that a child can understand and be held around, needs to be protected by vehement, powerful, archetypal forces. The loss there is that that innocent part of us never really learns what it is like to be let down in a good enough way.
Carl Jung in a footnote in The Red Book says that around the age of 35 we start to confront our mortality. When these early ways that we try to confront life start to show cracks we get tired of ourselves. If we have not had the grace to have spaces with others that love us to reflect on why we got to where we are, it is overwhelming. It might be the first time that people even feel anxiety. This is something I hear a lot in my practice, especially lately: “I was never an anxious person. It was better before when I didn’t cry.”
When you walk by a dam and you see that it is protecting a city from flooding, perhaps the dam took years and thousands of hours of labor to create, I don’t know that somebody walks by and curses it or wonders why it’s there. It’s obvious why it’s there because if it wasn’t there, a city, a town would flood and people might die. When we realize that in our lives we had to build dams so strong to hold back our pain so we do not go insane, so we do not walk around in the first half of our lives flooded with horrific emotion, why is it that when all of a sudden the dam starts to crack and we see signs of ourselves, do we so often turn, look back, and say, “What the hell was I doing?”
Why not? Why not think about all the ways that we came into the world, all of the dams that we had to build around parts of us that simply couldn’t come into the light when we were younger for whatever reason? Why not value and honor all the labor that went into building a psychic skin, a way to meet other people? Yes, sometimes we realized that that psychic skin was thick and impenetrable and maybe it kept others out, maybe it kept us from ourselves. But can you imagine life having not found some way to build a dam around those emotions? How would one get through school, maybe get a job, maybe leave home, and have some container?
In those moments when someone’s either shutting down or some wound has been touched and there’s just this automatic recollection of the pain, we all act out. But then begins the process of learning about it. That’s the work. And I think if I’m understanding anything at all about the shift that’s taking place, it’s that it has to begin from a place of compassion.
Gabor will have interviewed a great musician and singer, Sia, by the time this comes out and I was tickled when I heard this. I couldn’t wait to listen in because if you know Sia’s music, she goes right to the heart of how debilitating shame is and the kind of light encouraged that we need towards ourselves to pull ourselves out of how annihilating this can be. I was able to watch the interview with Sia and it didn’t disappoint. What an incredible conversation to witness.
At one point, Gabor lists all the ways that Sia’s life fulfills the desires of so many: fame, money, creativity, the most videos in the billion views club on YouTube of any female artist alive. And yet there she is talking about how debilitating the early emotional neglect she felt as a child remains in her life. She also opened up and acknowledged that covering her face with a wig in performances was in large part to hide her “ugliness from the world.”
The power of these conversations is not necessarily what they promise for the future. I wish for humanity’s sake that there is some major revelation that alleviates us of these incredible challenges to our emotional and psychological well-being. However, for me, the power of that interview was the interview itself, the butterflies that I felt watching someone I admire bear their soul, the hope it gives me to see people connect, and the grace I felt seeing Maté talking to Sia from exactly the same place I had spoken to him the week before.
What a lovely time I had as I recorded last week’s podcast slowing down and collecting my thoughts about my recent interview with Maté and sharing with you some of my observations about how to sit with our pain and remain emotionally and psychologically flexible. If you want to learn more about this, check out Episode 009: Society’s Emotional Awakening: The Shifting Grounds of Psychotherapy and Our Self Images.