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Week 7, Session 2: Reviewing our journey together and looking at the future

Hello everyone! And welcome to our very final session, whenever and wherever you are reading this. Take a moment to be proud of yourself: for making it through the sessions and for showing up for yourself. The work and trust you have put into this process is inspiring. 

Before we get into the goals for the session, as always let’s go over our grounding exercise and fun question. Our last ones! So if you can, please join in. 

**Today’s first grounding exercise will be…
**Stop and take a moment to listen. Just listen. What do you hear? Birds chirping? Cars outside? Maybe it’s really quiet where you are and all you can hear is your own breath or your heart beating. Notice and name what sounds you can hear nearby. Start with the closest or loudest sounds. Gradually move your awareness of sounds outward, so you are focusing on what you can hear in the distance. 

Fun question: What was your favourite game as a child?

So, to today’s content. 

The goals for this session are:

  • Reviewing what we’ve learned over this course
  • Setting some goals and plans for the future
  • Saying goodbye

So, we’re here at the last session of the course. Can you believe it? Well done for making it through these sessions; it’s an incredible effort to commit like you have, so make sure you recognise and value that about yourself. 

For this final session, we’re just going to review what we’ve done so far in the course, as a last point of reflection. And to do this, let’s review what we’ve learned by means of a quotation. We’ll use this quote as a reflection of how far we’ve come, and as a lens for analyzing what we’ve learned.

This quotation comes from clinician and trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk, and his book on trauma recovery The Body Keeps the Score. It’s important to note that van der Kolk was fired from his own research institute for bullying and harassment. But the work that his research team has produced has been educating and empowering survivors across the globe, so we want to highlight that empowerment and self-knowledge that survivors have gained while still holding him accountable to his personal actions.

In the book, van der Kolk speaks on recovery: “The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self. This means feeling free to know what you know and to feel what you feel without becoming overwhelmed, enraged, ashamed, or collapsed. For most people this involves: 

  1. finding a way to become calm and focused, 
  2. learning to maintain that calm in response to images, thoughts, sounds, or physical sensations that remind you of the past, 
  3. finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you, 
  4. not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.”

With these first two points, van der Kolk talks about becoming calm and focused, including when we’re faced with memories and physical sensations which remind us of our trauma. We’ve looked at different tools for this calm and presence along the way: we addressed therapies that you might consider using if you would find that helpful, but also home techniques for helping ourselves feel calm and present. These are our tools for resilience that addressed our body’s needs: sleep, getting outside, exercising, eating well. These tools are to allow us to bring our body out of constantly experiencing a version of the fear response we discussed, those 3Fs: fight, fight, and freeze. With practice and with time, we restore the balance between our two nervous systems, and allow our body to experience rest. 

The tools that are effective for us will depend on the nature of our trauma. In the second week, we learned about how early adverse experiences can not only be traumatic, but influence our future reactions to stress and trauma, when we learned about ACEs. Or, these traumas may even be situations we’re still dealing with - racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism - some of those traumas through oppression that we also learned about in Week 2. Unfortunately, as part of our recovery we can’t snap away these oppressions - although engaging with collective action and activism may help us find purpose, which was one of our tools for resilience. So, our recovery from these traumas may look different to how we recover from traumatic experiences that are more fully part of our past. But the same principles still uphold - finding the sense of peace that a traumatic experience denies us. Engaging with community in meaningful ways, and allowing ourselves to trust other people who we feel are trustworthy - other survivors, perhaps, or just trusted loved ones who can meet our needs with empathy.

In his third point of the quotation, van der Kolk addresses ‘finding a way to be fully alive in the present and engaged with the people around you’. 

To be present: how important. This means not caught in the anguish of our past traumas, nor worrying excessively about potential future dangers, like the fear response we just mentioned. Our tools for resilience come in allowing us to not just survive - bearing the weight of each individual moment as it comes - but to thrive: to be well and at peace. 

The second part of our presence is the ability to be ‘engaged with the people around you’. This is why we talked about connection as a tool for resilience, and placing ourselves in environments and with people who we could trust, and who could help us build up whatever trust we lost in others and in ourselves in that traumatic experience. As we discussed, you may not have these people in your life right now: that’s okay. Trust your gut. But also trust yourself to find others you can rely on. Whether you share your trauma with them or not, they will make your burden lighter. We love this line from a poem by Della Hicks-Wilson: ‘Darling, you feel heavy because you are so full of truth. Open your mouth more, let the truth exist somewhere other than inside your body’. 

So these are our resilience tools - rekindling the trust and love we have for our body, mind, environment. Having tools to look after our bodies, and to really listen to them instead of tuning out our bodily sensations for fear of remembering our body as it was when it was traumatised. Having insight to understand our experiences, and being with people and in an environment where we can share ourselves and our experiences, if we want to. For our recovery, we need to address all three of these kinds of needs, and recognise the ways in which these relationships are inter-linked. Through these tools we can achieve what van der Kolk means when he says ‘re-establishing ownership’ of our body and our mind. 

This last aspect of recovery: ‘not having to keep secrets from yourself, including secrets about the ways that you have managed to survive.’ What are these secrets? That is something you know best. You might have been reminded of some of these secrets when we talked about our coping mechanisms; while we work on building healthier coping mechanisms, we must face those coping mechanisms which helped us manage stress and provided relief, but also did not serve our needs. They helped us to escape, as opposed to helping us stay. And they may have made us feel shame - shame about the parts of ourselves that we could not control, and the times when those parts took over. 

But remember we introduced you to those parts of ourselves, our Internal Family: the exile, the firefighter, and the manager. We do not banish any of these three relatives; we allow them to speak without being judged, and we listen to what we have to say. In doing so, we are able to see those parts of ourselves that need love, that are vulnerable. And we thank the parts of ourselves that tried to protect us from our vulnerability when we did not feel that we could face it. But now we can. And we can face that vulnerability with love, not shame. As social researcher Brene Brown says in another one of our favourite quotes: ‘shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot survive empathy’. 

Our trauma reactions may be another source of our shame, one of our other secrets. Trauma reactions - we learned about PTSD and CPTSD, as reactions to short-term or to long-term inescapable traumas. We may feel ashamed because we feel these reactions are a sign of weakness, or because we are worried that someone else will notice. And if someone sees our trauma reaction, we feel they may also be able to see our traumatic experience; we may feel exposed, like they can see through us to the person we were in that moment or experience of trauma. This is our shame - that to be known by another will elicit disgust, or humiliation, or rejection. 

But here is the importance of connection - finding and spending time with people who can show us the empathy we deserve, whether we choose to share our trauma with them or not. As we’ve learned, these trauma reactions are our body and mind looking after us. And we have managed to survive - that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is a triumph, not a ‘dirty secret’. Now, with agency and hope by our side, we can love ourselves: the person we were during trauma, the person we are, the person we will be in the wonderful future we are willing into existence. And we can forgive ourselves for ways we have been unkind to ourselves - these need not be a secret, but a reminder that we need and deserve love. Every part of ourselves. 

Finally, we return to the first line of the quotation. ‘The challenge of recovery is to reestablish ownership of your body and your mind — of your self’. So in addition to our body and our mind, as we just discussed, van der Kolk addresses the need to re-create ownership of our ‘self’. After trauma, our sense of self may become confused - who are we, besides our trauma? While we can think of our Internal Family as separate parts, we are still a whole person: how can I be the same person who experienced trauma, but at the same time also become a person capable of hope, brightness, and love? The fear of being known not only by others, but to ourselves: the shame that we just addressed.  

One of our greatest tools in this journey to finding our self is our narratives, our storylines that we built last session. On these timelines you placed your life events, where your journey has taken you both geographically and emotional. You may want to include your trauma, to integrate this experience into the tapestry of your life, or not, because you would rather focus on your other experiences: it’s up to you. 

But through these timelines, we build a sense of self that is known and held fully by ourselves. A sense of self that is proactive not just reactive, a life that we feel that we live not just in response to trauma, but a full life. Through these timelines we can also let go of these secrets and this shame. We see a full life, and a full self; trauma is a part of this timeline, but more so resilience. The self that carried us through our darkest moments is the exact same self that is capable of light and love, that can carry hope for building a brighter future. This is the nature of resilience: the muscle that struggles with holding back the darkness is the same muscle that pulls love close in tender embrace. 

So, after all this, how will we use our muscle of resilience? Where does our journey lead, what is next on our timeline? 

To finish today’s session, please have your storylines with you, so go and get them if you need to! And we also asked you last time to have a new piece of paper at hand. So what we will do today to finish the course, is add this piece of paper to your storyline and draw the continuation. Think about some personal projects and plans for the future. They might be small. They might be short term. Or they might be big, ambitious plans. Your call. You can write them on a post-it note and stick them into the future part of your storyline to have some guidance to where you want to go. You can keep your storylines close so you can continue filling it as time goes by.

And now finally, it's time to say goodbye. We know finishing these sessions might be hard, or scary, or exciting, or a load of other emotions. Give yourself time to feel those feelings as they come up; it’s natural, and nothing to be ashamed of. 

But also, think of this end like a new beginning. You have grown so much with this course, and we know that you will continue to grow that muscle of resilience, as you work on the dreams and goals you’ve just put on your timeline. And hopefully, you feel that you understand certain parts of yourself better now, and are ready to apply this knowledge to daily life. You have made so many investments to your journey of resilience along this journey, including just by showing up, so that is something to be very proud of. Your resilience is glimmering in the light of your new knowledge and understanding; take a moment to bask in its glow. Celebrate the ‘wonderful you’ that you are now seeing. 

And take your time to process everything we’ve talked about and don’t be hard on yourself if these things continue to feel difficult. Remember that healing does not have an expiration date. 

The homework for this week is… just keep working on your timeline! Add what you want to do in the future, and keep drafting the timeline so that it’s something precious for you to keep. This timeline can be a cherished reminder of all the work you’ve put in here, and how far you’ve come in your recovery.
Remember, this is an investment in your own journey to recovery. Give yourself the best chance to build resilience. You can do this. And you are not alone.

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