Archive for the ‘DBT’ Category

Recently, I attended a training on trauma and I heard the same old/ same old stuff.  I was practically yawning.  Then I noticed a new idea that really felt crucial to my understanding of trauma.  Essentially, a common definition of trauma was presented:  Trauma occurs when an event overwhelms a person’s ability to cope.  The greater the level of trauma experienced the more coping, or control, that is needed.  I sat up straighter and listened harder when I heard the word “control”.  I had never thought to link coping to a need for control.  When trauma happens often control has been taken away from the survivor.  It makes sense she or he would seek greater empowerment or control following a traumatic event, especially one in which they were helpless in the moment.

Many survivors of trauma cope—during and after the trauma itself—by finding ways to be in control again.  Please note that I’m talking about being in control of Self here, not controlling others.  They often control either by dissociating (pretending they are somewhere else in their heads when abuse is happening, for example) or by insisting on getting their way in the non-trauma part of their lives.  Maybe it’s no surprise that many anorexics are trauma survivors clinging to being able to control the one thing that is truly theirs to control—their bodies (it’s truly an effort to feel in control about their lives, though, ironically it’s destructive to their safety).  The correlation between “coping” and “control” was immediately intriguing for me since it married two ideas that come up a lot in trauma counseling work.

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Being self-controlling is potentially a strategy to stave off being hurt, disappointed, re-traumatized.  Trauma survivors who live their lives with a controlled grip on everything are doing it to possibly keep the anticipated new trauma out.  Psychology has a term for this; “proactive coping” – coping with the aim of heading off a future stressor.  Makes sense. 

But, when does this way of coping using control go too far? 

I have worked with trauma survivors who describe, usually in a light-bulb moment , the realization that their over-control of the world around them is actually robbing them of the ability to build relationships, trust others, let others in emotionally or allow themselves to take calculated risks of vulnerability (being willing to fall in love has to involve the flip-side of being willing to be potentially hurt).  The control was needed in the then-and-there but is now backfiring in the here-and-now of the person’s life.  Sigh.  Thank you coping strategy, you were very helpful.  Now I need you to stop.

Many survivors of trauma have experienced violations of safety, betrayals of trust, feelings of helplessness/ absence of control, often at the hands of an abusive parent or partner who abused their power over them.  It makes sense that  allowing someone else to be “in control” or letting go of being “so controlling” would be difficult given a history of being hurt by those close enough to do such damage.  Years after a trauma, many survivors often feel completely terrified to let go of controlling things and really trust another human being or even a higher power such as god.  It can feel impossible to put faith in someone else that their needs will get met—it can feel like taking a huge risk of getting hurt again.  It’s scary to risk the possibility that needs could go unmet after finally trusting.  And I guess the point is not that it’s silly to not trust when it’s totally safe out there—no—there is likely some amount of risk or “danger” that you could get hurt on some level (even emotionally).  The point is not to convince the Self it is safe when it isn’t.  What counts is to get to the point where it’s ok for things to not be 100% safe, to learn to take a risk, to trust when conditions are optimal, to trust yourself that you could handle it even if it isn’t safe. 

Trauma survivors I’ve worked with in counseling have told me that they get exhausted of doing it all, controlling it all, all by themselves.  And that it gets lonely in that artificial “ivory tower” of control, looking down at others insisting “it really is better this way”; to be independent and separate and safe.  The thing is, this idea that things can be completely controlled is a false.  No matter how controlled someone is, a new trauma could still occur.  There are no guarantees.  Not everything can be controlled, no matter how hard you try.  Thus, “being in control” is an illusion but one that people cling to in order to survive.

I see learning to let go of controlling-coping ways as utilizing the skill we discuss so much here on this site, the skill of tolerating ambiguity.  It is indeed rational on many levels for survivors of trauma to be active in staving off future trauma by being rigid and controlled when it comes to possibly trusting others (this smacks of risk-aversion we’ve talked about before here).  Yet it can rob survivors of a vibrant, lush, in-the-moment experience of life.  This reminds me of the dialectic between Change versus Acceptance that’s discussed so much in DBT.  Without acceptance (letting go) you cannot have change (peace, growth, freedom from trauma).  It’s ironic:  by holding so tightly to control, many men and women continue to be controlled by trauma from the past.  It holds them back in the present.  For those who want to risk coming down from the ivory tower of complete safety, learning to sit with the ambiguity of what could happen—learning to befriend the unknown—could be a door to taking a few risks and possibly leading to greater personal freedom and growth. 

There’s a lot more we could talk about relating to this topic in regards to spirituality, faith, abundant-thinking versus scarcity-thinking.  Maybe we will go exploring these ideas a little deeper real soon.

I ran across this idea this week.  Let’s end on this bit of food for thought:

The Unknown + Trust = Exhileration

The Unknown + Doubt = Dread

current music faves:  katy perry, sufjan stevens, abba

current show faves:  the killing, mad men, happy endings

breakfast today:  toast with nutella and sliced bananas, chocolate milk

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“Magic can be defined as the art and practice of changing consciousness at will.” ~Starhawk

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How do you change your consciousness?  Learning to sit with ambiguity may be one doorway to doing so.  Perhaps that’s why I’m so drawn to writing about it so much.  There are many ways of shifting one’s mindset, attitude, focus or consciousness:  practical, psychologically-based ways, spiritual ways and disciplined ways.  There are, of course, unhealthy ways consciousness can be changed that are quite rampant in our culture as well, though I would not recommend them (examples would be:  escapism, drugs, alcohol, hoarding, obsession, compulsion, shopaholism, etc.)

The times I find I most need to change my consciousness (and I wish I could always do it “at will”!) are times when I am feeling and thinking darkly and starkly about life or about myself.  When I can only see things in black and white and I keep focusing in on the negative.  We all have moments when we feel so down it seems impossible to ever be “up” again.  I have a friend that calls this “being fatalistic”.  Breaking out of it can be very challenging (I know at least, for me it has been).

I find breaking out of fatalistic, undesirable funks takes willpower and creativity.  I tend to examine what I am exactly doing at that moment (sitting on the couch for several hours, not exercising for weeks, not reaching out to a support network of friends, emotional eating, whatever) and I ask myself what would be something different I could do than I am doing right now.  I often get out pen and paper to make myself SEE my options.  And then I do whatever works.  For me, sometimes it’s just getting up and moving if I had been stationary.  Or committing to that yoga class tomorrow morning.  Or stopping with the eating and writing instead (ahem, facing my emotions).  In DBT, this strategy is known as “opposite action” and it can be helpful in getting one unstuck.  Sometimes we just need some intentional momentum to get us going in a new direction (especially if we didn’t like the old direction).

Sometimes we want or need to change our consciousness or thoughts because they are not really helpful or accurate.  Redirecting our brains to reassess the accuracy of the statements we tell ourselves can help us be discerning thinkers and not be overly harsh or critical towards ourselves.  We all tend to engage in cognitive distortions (examples found here).  Knowing when we are making cognitive distortion errors and correcting them in our own minds is part of the secret of changing consciousness at will and for the better.  One of the most common cognitive distortions is Black and White Thinking.  Solution?  See the grey.  Sit with ambiguity!

current music faves:  the national, adele

current show faves:  new girl, happy endings, prime suspect

breakfast today:  bagel with sausage, cheese and spicy sauce (again!)

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 “And the day came when the pain of remaining tight in the bud was greater than the risk it took to open”. ~Anais Nin

I have been interested in understanding how human creativity “works” for years and I have put that interest into action by painting, writing, and being an all-around crafty gal, as of late.

I’ve also been working my way through Jeanne Carbonettie’s book, Making Pearls:  Living the Creative Life, for the better part of 2+ years (!).  I finally finished the book by, well, reaching the end, but also by completing my last art project associated with the book (which we will get into shortly).

The premise of Ms. Carbonetti’s book is that creativity is cyclical in nature and that it often helps to recognize where we are in the cycle at any given moment and… honor it.  She lays out the creative cycle as one mirroring the process of oysters making pearls:

  • Waiting – When instinct tells the oyster the time is right, it cements itself to something stationary and waits.  It waits for noursihment to come to it. 
  • Opening – Then the oyster decidedly opens, taking in water and all sorts of things as it filters out what it wants and doesn’t want.
  • Closing – When it is ready to “digest” its food, it closes its two shells.  It is now that some grain of sand lodges within the shells and the oyster works to integrate it by secreting its mother of pearl lining around it.
  • Holding – As the oyster holds this pearl-to-be, the object rolls around freely within the closed space, which is what allows it to take on its characteristic round-shape.
  • Releasing – Now comes the time of releasing the pearl from the shell.
  • Emptying – Releasing always leads to emptying, everything goes! 
  • Sitting – There is then nothing left to do but sit.  The cycle is complete; the pearl is beautiful.

Ms. Carbonetti notes that “we are always in the cycle of pearl-making, forming out of the stuff of our lives something beautiful and meaningful”.  She presents projects at the end of each chapter that prompt the reader to engage with the ideas inherent in each stage of the creative process by creating a 7″ square of watercolor paper  per phase (Waiting, Opening, etc.).  Each stage is uniquely associated with a color that is meant to symbolize the energy of that part of the process. 

Without further ado, here are my humble conceptualizations of what I resonated with when it came to each phase of the creative, pearl-making process:


As an artist, waiting is associated with the life-blood and root of creative ideas, contemplative thought, embracing uncertainty, groundedness in “just being”, the allure of possibility and anticipation of the unknown.

OPENING (Orange)

Opening, in the artistic sense, is considered the “womb of ideas” phase; associated with listening for and connecting with what you are feeling, noticing, intuiting… and going with the flow of what you find. 

CLOSING (Yellow)

The process of closing for an artist is associated with tapping into quiet power, having patience as the aha! moment of sand sneaks on into the oyster’s shell.  This is the part of the process that welcomes having a sacred space to incubate.  Commitment to the artistic idea completes this phase.


Holding is a phase associated with growth and nurturance.  Affirmation and acceptance are key here as new ideas come up and are welcomed, not judged and scared away.  There is a compassionate gaze eminating from the artist here.

Releasing is associated with expressing one’s truth, raising one’s voice, coming to terms with all that our creation is, and what it isn’t, and giving it to the world anyway.  It is what it is and we surrender it, facing the truth of the moment.


Emptying is associated with insight and wisdom.  This comes from finally stepping back from what has been created and seeing the bigger picture.  This is the phase in which energy is finally withdrawn, this is the final let-go; the artist stops fiddling with the painting and let’s it be a finished work.


Sitting is associated with having faith in what has been created and finding peace at the end of the process.  It is about trusting what has been created and just being now that the cycle is complete. 

Along the way, this proposed process of creativity touches on many of the ideas already espoused here at Soft Animal Wisdom.  I see the DBT-ness (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) inherent in the Waiting, Opening and Holding phases.  I see the importance of generally sitting with ambiguity in the Waiting and Opening phases.  There also seems to be an overall vibe throughout the book that values mindfulness, compassion and being in the present moment… all Buddhist ideals.  I would definitely argue that much of the creative process exists as a liminal space where one has not yet created something and yet is also on the cusp of having created something. 

I have enjoyed the process of creating the squares for each phase and, in turn, enjoyed making the latest pearl that is today’s post… now back to Waiting, I suppose!

current music faves:  tori a. (obsessed right now)

current show faves:  dexter (season 6), breaking bad (season 4)

breakfast today:  veggie crepe from chicago creperie crepes-a-latte, toasted marshmellow latte 

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Carl G. Jung’s work often centered around the very idea of unifying opposites that we find in the lotus.

Namely, Jung draws our attention to the many polarities within the Self:  masculine-feminine, light-dark, conscious-unconscious, spirit-nature, positive-negative.  Jung also explored the polarities found in mythologies of the world, identifying universal archetypes that are often opposites (example:  The Hero vs. The Trickster).  Jung asserts that a big part of the individuation process is becoming aware of the polarities and opposites within oneself and working to unify or balance them.

Jung goes on to posit that these opposite aspects of self are archetypal in nature and even these qualities of self have light and shadow aspects and so can easily be out of balance.  Jung calls for people to acknowledge these opposites within Self and work towards reconciling them.  The balance of feminine and masculine of which Jung speaks are, of course, distinct and different from gender roles or biological sex.

So how does one go about integrating the polarities of Self that Jung refers to??  I think part of that answer lies in a more modern psychologist, Marsha Linehan, the founder of DBT or Dialectical Behavior Therapy.  In order to effect lasting change, Ms. Linehan suggests we must begin to think dialectically.  Dialectical thinking is all about balancing, or sitting with, opposites; in this case, the opposites of change versus acceptance.


We must accept what is; accept ourselves without judgment.  Freedom from suffering requires we accept rather than resist reality.  If we have a wish to integrate opposites, to change was is to what will be, we have to want that change as well as accept what currently is.  Just as we have to learn to see the lotus as a whole plant and not just the blossom or roots; we have to learn to see the self as a whole being, not just full of all positive with no shadow side, or all feminine with no masculine.

What Jung is asking us to do is to first accept shadow and light that exist within ourselves and then learn to integrate them as best we can.  I believe integration requires the kind of dialectical thinking presented in Linehan’s model.  The lotus is a great symbolic reminder of the polarities in ourselves and how we must learn to grapple with them.

current music faves:  the kills, the ting tings, tori amos (as always)

current show faves:  how i met your mother, grey’s anatomy, breaking bad

breakfast today:  fiber one honey cluster cereal, turkey sausage with syrup on top, hot apple cider

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